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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Tuesday (5/27/08) 1:44pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

[Oh dear god my brain hurts.  This is the last time I miss a week of Media Updates....]

Movies:  In the Realms of the Unreal, The Animation Show, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull [spoilers], Black Snake Moan [spoilers]
TV:  Friday Night Lights (2x04-2x08) [spoilers], LOST (4x11-4x12) [spoilers], Battlestar Galactica (4x08-4x09) [spoilers]
Books:  Where's My Jetpack? [audiobook], The Merchant of Venice (Arden, 2nd ed.), Improvising Better, How to Improvise a Full-Length Play

In the Realms of the Unreal
Sometimes netflix just slips my mind for a while, and a movie I don't particularly want to see percolates to the top of the queue.[1]  So it was with In the Realms of the Unreal, the PBS documentary about Henry Darger, the possibly-schizophrenic janitor who kept to himself, attended Mass daily, and filled his tiny apartment with a 15,145-page fantasy novel (plus illustrations) that was only discovered after his death.

In retrospect, I have to wonder why I even enqueued this movie in the first place.

For starters, I'm not as gung-ho about "outsider art" -- that is, art created by self-taught, often insane individuals outside of the artistic community -- as most people.  Yes, I grant that these self-taught artists find their own creative methods and their own solutions to the problems posed by their particular form.  The problem is, those methods and solutions typically just flat-out suck -- and moreover, they're the same lousy methods and solutions employed by all the other self-taught types, so it's not even uniquely sucky.

If you want to create something unique and compelling, ignorance doesn't help.</provocative>

Honestly, it feels like the endpoint of some endless game of hipster poker:  "I don't like these conventional artists.  I only attend showings of unconventional artists."  "Unconventional artists?  Ha!  Those are far too conventional.  I only enjoy avante-garde artists."  "Oh yeah?  Well *I* only attend gallery showings where all the works are created by insane-asylum inmates! who use fingerpaint!"  And all the other hipsters are duly impressed by what such an idiosyncratic taste must imply about someone.

So I'm watching a documentary about a bad book.

It doesn't help that it's such an unimpressive documentary.

I've seen far too many documentaries lately where I've felt like I could just shut off the video feed and I'd get just as much out of it.  Okay, you've got a slide show of blurry photographs and an occasional sequence of stock footage.  Oh, and now I can watch as this interview subject stares blankly at the camera while speaking.  Yippee.

Granted, this documentary makes a noble effort by turning some of Darger's watercolors into cheesy, Flash-like animations.  But again, I'm not impressed by the artworks themselves, so the novelty of making them fly around the screen wears off quickly.  I also have to grant that seeing Darger's proclivity for drawing little naked girls with penises does make an impression that audio alone can't convey -- but I don't know if it's an impression I really wanted in the first place.

Frankly, on this documentary, I could go one step further:  you could take out the video feed and just replace the audio of a transcript of what was said, and I'd be just fine with that.  I could blow through all the interview footage, voiceover narration, and quotes of Darger's execrable prose in maybe ten or fifteen minutes.  Hell, I probably could have read the wikipedia entry and breezed on with my life.

I think I enqueued this because I loved the nobility of working on a great creative project in complete obscurity.  Yet what I took away from this is that artists who receive no constructive feedback rarely get good.

The Animation Show
I actually watched this a couple of weeks back -- this is the annual animated-shorts program put together by indie animation greats Don Hertzfeldt[2] and Mike Judge.

Most of the shorts were very short indeed -- they reminded me of the old comedy maxim, "Get in, ha-ha-ha, get out."  And I appreciated that.  It's surprising (given how time-consuming every frame of animation can be) that animated shorts often run on too long.  Even one of the special Animation-Show commissions towards the end of the program, "This Way Up", got a little meandery as it tried to sustain a lengthy storyline.  Is it too much to expect an animator to know their way around storytelling?  Stick to the point!  Don't wear out your welcome!  C'mon, it ain't rocket science!

But I am complaining about a problem that almost none of the shorts had.  Even the ones I hated -- hello, "Yompi the Crotch-Biting Sloup" -- didn't go any longer than they had to.  And the only completely sloppy one -- that would be "Angry Unpaid Hooker", which missed its ending twice by my count -- stayed funny through to the end.

I think Matthew Walker deserves special mention here.  He creates animated shorts that sound a little like old Dr. Katz episodes -- the dialog is unassuming, unforced, and full of perfect, casual details.

But it certainly doesn't *look* like Squigglevision (tm).  Instead, the art feels like the dialog -- it doesn't draw attention to itself but is full of perfect little details, like the scene where the boyfriend scoots to one end of a couch and the irked girlfriend pointedly sits on a nearby armchair instead.  Hell, I don't see character moments like that in *films*, let alone cartoons.

I shall keep an eye on this fellow.  You can see his work here, in the "work" section.

Side note:  I also recommend this animated riff on the poem "Forgetfulness".

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull [spoilers]
'"It was fun, but it was not good."

That was my executive summary of the movie on twitter.  I can pick out a zillion things wrong with how this movie is put together -- and we'll get to that in a moment -- but even I'm not stony-hearted enough to resist the charm of seeing a new Indiana Jones movie.  Yes, it's true:  play the theme music, show the silhouette of the fedora, and send the little red line dotting from city to city, and I will surely be afflicted with warm fuzzies.

I mean, I love this genre.  I love giant, crazy, serialized adventures.  I love watching characters traipse off to exotic locations.  And honestly, I think the movie format is tailor-made for simple, straightforward, action-packed stories.[3]  When they announced the title, while everyone around me rolled their eyes and sniffed at it incredulously, I was *excited*.  Dude!  It's a crystal skull!  It's like, mysterious and stuff!  And there's a kingdom involved!  Hell, yeah!

So of course I'm going to be happy watching that movie.

And as an aside, of course I'm going to be happy seeing Marion Ravenwood again.  I still think that dropping Karen Allen from the Indy sequels was a stupid, stupid mistake.  Yes, I know.  James Bond has a different babe in every film.  But I think that's perpetuated a goddamn myth, a myth on the level of the Moonlighting myth.[4]

Your action-movie hero doesn't need a new love interest in every film.  No, he doesn't.  NO, HE DOESN'T.  Oh yeah?  (1) Did Han Solo bang a new girl in every Star Wars movie?  No.  (2) Han Solo > James Bond.  (3) QED.  Yeah, you can sit down now.

Okay, that's enough gratuitous baiting of James Bond fans for now.

On a more serious note:  action movies are damn difficult, in that they don't give you much time to lay out your characters.  Any character development you do takes *away* time that can be spent on Thrilling Heroics.  And the audience showed up for Thrilling Heroics, dammit.  So when you do a sequel, re-use every damn character you can.  It's a no-brainer -- you hit the ground running with these known characters, and you have that much more momentum in your script. 

This is such a well-known issue in TV shows that it has its own term of art:  pilot episodes suffer from "pilot disease", where they have to establish all their characters and barely have time for the story, whereas later episodes are free to fire on all pistons.  Yet movie franchises seem terrified of 'getting the old gang back together'.

I admit, part of this is that I'm utterly swoony over Karen Allen in Raiders (more so now than when I watched the movie ~ten years ago, which is odd).  And part of it is my animosity towards Kate Capshaw's performance in Temple of Doom.  *shudder*

But the bottom line is, I feel cheated.  I feel like there were good stories to tell about Indy and Marion having further adventures, and we the audience were denied them.  Fanfic writers of the world:  you are in a position to right this wrong.  We need those stories of the Indyverse, right after Raiders but still before the couple's canonical breakup.  You need to put down your half-finished rhymed-couplet love poems about the emo vampires from The Twilight Saga and write about some goddamned quests for some goddamned mythical artifacts.

And remember:  you can include badass Raiders Marcus Brody instead of lame comic-relief Crusade Marcus Brody.

C'mon.  Do it for Denholm Eliot.

I fear I've gotten sidetracked here.

So, an executive summary of what we've covered so far:  fedora good, crystal skull good, Marion good.

Let's move on to the carping about what was wrong.

First, an open message to anybody writing an action melodrama.  Look at your script.  Make a list of all the events that happen in that script.

Now I want you to *remove half of them.*

I swear to god, if I see one more action movie with four plotlines and a bloaty, 160-minute running time, I will throw things at the screen.  Movies are excruciatingly difficult to write[5], but deep down an action movie is really simple.  Twenty minutes in, the movie asks one question.  An hour later, we know the answer.  "Who will get the Ark of the Covenant?  The Nazis or Indy?"  Several face-meltings later, we find out which.  Simple.

And there's no shame in simplicity.  Simple is actually much, much harder to write.  And simplicty helps an action movie tremendously -- we know what's going on, we don't have to think too hard about sorting out what plot convolutions are in play, and we can focus on enjoying the audacious set pieces and wisecracking dialog.

In broad strokes, this movie gets it right.  It's got a question:  "Who will get the Crystal Skull?  The Russians or Indy?"  That's good.  But the flick is weighed down with "and also"s.  Yes, it's about the skull... and also it's about being reunited with his old flame and his estranged son; and also it's about being blacklisted by his own government at the height of the red scare; and also it's about being betrayed by his new archaeologist compadre; and also it's about dealing with the madness of his old friend Oxley.  These "and also"s aren't well integrated into the plot.  They feel extraneous and tacked on.

And they generate a giant pile of plot, where an action melodrama only wants just enough plot to keep it going.

Now, I hear you at this point:  "Peter, I can't possibly remove half of my plot points!  They are all precious little unique snowflakes and they are *perfect*!"

It's okay.  I can help.  Step one:  get rid of the plot twist.  You know, the bit where you try to pull the rug out from under us and tell us, oh wait, this story was completely different from what we thought all along!

For god's sake, you're not M. Night Shyamalan, and if you're writing an action melodrama, you don't want to crib from that particular auteur, anyway.  Think back to Raiders -- we find out in act one what the game is (Indy vs. Nazis for the Ark) -- and it never changes the rules.  It plays out that game for the whole running time.

Why is this a good thing?  'cos we can concentrate on the story.  We don't have to spend time *explaining* why things were different all along.  We don't have the chance to confuse the audience in a "Wait, *what's* going on?" kind of way.  The movie isn't about "Everything you know is wrong!", it's about "How is Indy going to get out of *this* scrape?!", and avoiding cutesy plot twists lets us focus on the latter.

And not only that, but these sorts of rugpulls are devilishly hard to write.  Yes, they make it look easy on LOST.  But it's not easy.  In fact, the two major twists in Crystal Skull fall neatly into two of the pitfalls that these sorts of plot developments are prone to.  The first one, when we find out Mac is working for the Russians, fails because it involves a character we don't care about.  Oh, he's been betrayed by... um, this person who had five lines.  Now we'll spend a page of exposition explaining why this matters.  Sure.

Then the other twist, that Mutt is Indy's son, fails because it's so broadly telegraphed.  Seriously, is there any audience member that didn't see this twist coming before the first *frame* of the film spooled?  And is there any audience member that wasn't bored silly as the penny finally (slowly) dropped?

So:  cut the twists.  That's not what your action melodrama is about.

I can go on about smaller problems with the plot, which are myriad.  They never set the ground rules for what the skull is or does.  In Raiders, we know exactly what it is and what it does the whole way through -- that one drawing in the tattered bible explains it all, down to why Indy closes his eyes at the end.  In Crystal Skull, the hot Russian explodes because... why, exactly?

Similarly, we never know what's up with Oxley's madness, which seems to come and go at the plot's convenience.  I don't know what's up with the natives who appear out of nowhere to defend the various sites.  I'm still not 100% sure what kind of plot convolutions got Mutt involved in the story; I just sniff and say it was neither simple nor clear.

And the worst bit is not just that it was unclear.  Confusing bits of plot logistics would have been fine by me, and there may be sensible explanations for all of them.  The worst bit is that they wound up putting in static mounds of exposition to try to *make* it clear.  I think there was a good paragraph or two explaining why Mutt was there, and later why it was all a Soviet trick, and all of that turned into Charlie-Brown-teacher talk in my ears.  That is anathema to an action flick.

And can we all agree that CGI, when it's obviously CGI, sucks ass?  Why, in the name of all that is holy, did we have a *CGI* creature pop out of the molehill in the first shot?  Is it that hard to shoot footage of an animal?

I think the happiest moment in the film for me was just *after* the CGI mole went away (for the time being), and we saw that 50s-era car racing the army convoy.  For that one moment, it looked like a real world, and a real world that could go on forever, beyond the frame in all directions.  Maybe that's what I want the most from an adventure movie like this, but it only takes one single computer-generated monkey to ruin it for me.

Black Snake Moan [spoilers]
After watching the big, messy Indiana Jones movie, it was a relief to watch something simple and clear.

Black Snake Moan has two leads, and the movie asks a simple question about each of them.  Will Lazarus get over his failed marriage?  Will Rae get over her nymphomania?  It spends act one setting down the problems each of them has, and then collides them together at the end of act one.  Aha -- now it's about whether Laz can save Rae, and in so doing, feel like he's saving himself.  Then act two raises the stakes and makes the story seem like it will turn out one way or another.  It keeps paying off elements introduced in act one:  the boy whom Laz promised a pile of butter beans, the boyfriend off to the National Guard, the offhand reference to Laz's musical background.  Then they create a giant crisis (Ronnie comes home and nearly kills them both) and resolve the questions (yes, everybody will be alright).

Movie structure is frustrating, because the better it's done, the more effortless it appears.

My only quibble with the structure is that the movie creates such deep-seated problems, especially for Rae.  Nobody gets over a history of childhood sexual abuse in a few weeks.  Granted, Rae isn't "all better" by the end of the story, but she's found the strength to deal with it -- and even that hasty progress required a lot of suspension of disbelief on my part.

Honestly, this hints at one of my biggest problems with film as a format -- people just don't change that much in short spans of time.  Yet many movies typically compress a fundamental character arc into something under a month.  It always feels like a lie to me, and it feels like a place where serialized dramas, which can let a character grow and change over years that *feel* like years, have a bit of an edge.

But back to this particular movie.

I love Craig Brewer's sense of place.  Both Black Snake Moan and Hustle & Flow are set in Memphis, Tennessee.  They were both filmed in Memphis, Tennessee.  And they both *feel* like Memphis, Tennessee.[6]  So much of it is just little details:  the right trees; the oppressive, sticky heat; the chirp of insects; the ramshackle, lived-in buildings.  I've said this before, and I'll say it again:  location shooting is a great, great thing.  It breaks the bland monotony of product that comes from anonymous Hollywood sound stages.  It gives a film[7] a *world* to live in.

So:  when I am king, any filmmaker who wants to depict the contemporary American south has to watch films by either Craig Brewer or David Gordon Green.  No exceptions.

Finally, I honestly don't know what to make of the film's take on women.  This movie is obviously exploitation.  It's about a nymphomaniac who's barely clothed through almost the whole movie.  And hell, its main hook is that it's about a young white girl who gets chained up by Samuel L. Jackson.  It feels like that alone could set back women's rights some number of years.

But the more I think of it, the more lost I get.  I mean, it wears its exploitation on its sleeve.  It never flashes a caption that says "Y HALO THAR THIS IS EXPLOITATION", but it almost gets there.  Does this make it better than a film that objectifies its female lead more insidiously?  And then there's the plot details -- you could argue that Rae was a danger to herself and *needed* to be chained up just then.  But does that really 'take the curse off' it in any meaningful way?

It's interesting to think about, but I fear I must leave this discussion to wiser heads who know more about this sort of analysis.

Friday Night Lights (2x05-2x08) [spoilers]
Season two, disc two contains four episodes:  "Let's Get It On", "How Did I Get Here", "Pantherama!", and "Seeing Other People".

A while back, racingpenguins, as part of her Psychology Grad Student Extraordinaire duties, ran an IQ test on me.  (Results:  smart, but not off-the-charts freaky-smart.  *sigh*)  One section of the test was a quick storytelling exercise:  you're given a set of cards with pictures on them and you're told to arrange them so that they tell a story.  Once you have them arranged right (kid pitches a baseball; other kid hits the baseball; baseball crashes through a window) you start on another, and so on.

Why am I bringing this up?  Well, I think it's a good way to explain something subtle that's going wrong in season two.  Yes, I know, there are unsubtle things going wrong in "the Telenovela season" -- mainly, the show goes off on flamboyant plot arcs which are dead wrong for the show's tone -- but we've been over that already.  This subtle thing I'm about to talk about might be more interesting.

Say you have a whole season of your show laid out on these cards.  And now you have one new card, representing another arc you'd like to squeeze in.  Where shall you put it?

Let's say you poke around, and you discover you could place it before *any* of the existing cards.  If it's before A, or B, or C, it doesn't matter -- the overall picture seems to work okay.

This implies a serious problem with your new arc:  it's an arc without consequences.  If the arc had a lasting impact on the characters, then you'd say, "Well, maybe A could go after it, but definitely not C." (or something like that).

But similarly, if you could place it *after* any one of those existing cards, you've got a similar problem, but it's one that's harder to put into words.  The arc has to come from somewhere -- it has to flow from the previous events.

The immediate counterargument:  "But stuff happens out of nowhere in real life!"  So I have to qualify this statement:  it's not necessarily about the surface facts.  It's not that you saw all the plot elements in play before (although I'd argue that it's *better* if you did).

It has to do with emotional arcs:  is this the next thing to happen naturally on someone's emotional journey?  If they're getting more and more bitter, is this an event that will make them even more bitter? or if they've hit rock bottom, is this the arc that will turn them around?  It has to mean something in terms of where the characters have gone so far.

And if that seems artificial -- "But real life doesn't have neat emotional arcs!" -- well, welcome to the fabulous world of fake, fake fiction.

And I think this is really my problem with these ridiculous season-two plot clunkers.  It's not just that it's melodrama.  Season one had melodrama.  The pilot episode had Jason Street get his spine broken, for god's sake.  But look at that plot development:  there was a *reason* for it to sit in that spot.  Jason Street was on top of the world -- the town loved him, he was the star quarterback, the hot cheerleader was his girlfriend -- but how much of that was just because he could play?  How much of that was just because everything was always going well for him?

The accident on the field comes *after* that setup, and explores that natural question.

But look at the melodrama in season two.  Landry kills a guy?  How were we set up for that?  More specifically, how is that the thing that should happen to Landry right then and there?  Landry is the most noticeable example, but I could say the same thing about Street's trip to Mexico, or Riggins moving in with the meth dealer, or even Julie flirting with her teacher. 

They don't feel like part of the character arc.  They feel dreamed up by writers straining to think of something 'exciting'.  And this, I would argue, is the problem -- even more than any tonal problems.  This is why it doesn't feel like a story; it just feels like a bunch of stuff that's happening.

And the bittersweet thing is knowing that they can still dig their way out of it.  The dialog is still beautiful.  The acting is still spot-on.  The characters are still sharp.  Everyone is doing yeoman's work while the plot arbitrarily yaws this way and that.  If they can just get the damn season arc to make sense, everything else on this show can snap back into place.

So close, yet so far.

Side note:  I'm irritated by how easily people like Landry and Santiago get onto the team these days.  I appreciated the team more when it was made up of students who'd worked at football their whole lives -- it made the games feel more consequential, and it made it more credible that they might get to state.  Now it feels like any secondary character can waltz in, pick up a pigskin for the first time, and get on one of the best football teams in Texas.  Does that make any sense?

LOST (4x11-4x12) [spoilers]
It's been sort of an arbitrary decision to review these episodes two at a time.  I watched season three two episodes at a time at the Drafthouse, so I kept reviewing them pairwise even though I watched most of season four online.

Sometimes I luck out with this method; sometimes the two episodes show an interesting contrast that makes the review kind of write itself.  For instance, "The Shape of Things to Come" and "Something Nice Back Home" neatly demonstrated what I like and don't like about the show.

This time, "Cabin Fever" and "There's No Place Like Home, Part 1" contrast in a more subtle but equally interesting way.  They both fill in a lot of gaps in the 'story mosaic' with lots of disjointed answers.  But I liked "There's No Place Like Home, Part 1" a lot more than I liked "Cabin Fever".

Why is that?

Mainly it's because "Cabin Fever" gave me information *without* putting it into scenes I cared about.  The flashback scenes were all like this -- the writers were telling me, "Ooh!  Isn't this intriguing!" while the scenes did absolutely nothing for me emotionally.  I didn't care about the conflict between Locke's mother and grandmother.  I didn't care about whether teen-angst!Locke would go to science camp.  I didn't care about... whatever conflict there was in that scene with Abaddon.  ("You should go on an Australian walkabout."  "Oh.  Okay."  Ooh!  Ooh!  How will *that* turn out?!)

The current-day scenes give us more info-dumps.  There's a dream sequence.  Mercenaries I've never met get into fights I don't understand.  And on and on, no doubt laying pipe for the season finale.  The only scene I really cared about was the silent scene between Ben and Hurley.  There's a lot to be said for stepping back and letting a couple of well-realized characters just *be*.  I know it was quite a relief in this episode, after the characters had fought their way through so much plot churn.

No doubt this is what happens when your season gets shortened (and your season arc compressed) by a strike.

But the first hour of the finale -- ah, that did right what "Cabin Fever" did wrong.  Let's start with the reunions.  That's the scene I wanted to see since season two:  the castaways get home *with two seasons still to go*.  They blew a lot of their emotional capital on these scenes:  Hurley sees his parents again[8]; Sayid reunites with Nadia; Sun finally tells off her dad -- and oh my, did *that* get a round of applause at the Drafthouse. :)

I think this makes sense structurally, too.  At this point in the show, we want that little glimmer of happiness before everything absolutely goes to hell.  And that short scene where we see 5/6 of the O6 at Hurley's birthday party, having a pleasant time?  That's exactly the warm fuzzies I want to feel before everything collapses in disaster and misery.

The current-day scenes also had the correct emotional heft.  Will Sawyer try to save Hurley?  Who gets to leave on the Zodiac?  Will the freighter blow up?  These are questions I really care about, unlike the vague stakes throughout "Cabin Fever".  I'm also happy to see the writers twigging to how funny Michael Emerson and Jorge Garcia are together, and using that pairing for a little levity.

Sooo... how will it end?

I'll garble my guesses with the awesome, frightening power of rot13:

My guess about 'moving the island' is gung gurl'yy jvaq hc zbivat vg culfvpnyyl gb gur nepgvp -- guvf jbhyq rkcynva jul ora vf va n tvnag cnexn ng gur fgneg bs gur funcr bs guvatf gb pbzr, naq jul gur cebqhpref ersre gb gur f4-raqvat gjvfg nf gur *sebmra* qbaxrl jurry.

Oh, and I read a casual fan suggestion for a mind-bending plot development:  jung vs ora trgf fubg qrnq ng gur bepuvq, naq jr fhqqrayl ernyvmr gung nyy bs uvf synfu-sbejneqf zhfg unir orra gvzr-geniryyvat sebz rcvfbqrf jr'ir nyernql frra!

The more I think about that, the more I like it -- concise, dramatic, and utterly bewildering.

In any case, I think we're in for a very good finale.  They've been diligently moving a dozen or so pieces into place, and funneled half the central cast into the Orchid station.  Between the mercenaries, the C4-laden freighter, and the certainty that the O6 did something truly horrible, I am sure the last two hours of the finale won't hurt for action.

Onward to the end!

Battlestar Galactica (4x08-4x09) [spoilers]
The latest episodes I saw at the Drafthouse were "Faith" and "Guess What's Coming to Dinner?"  Unfortunately, this was almost two weeks prior to my writing this, so I won't be able to come up with much to say about the episodes.  Offhand, all I can remember is the end of the second episode, which had one of the best episode-closing lines I've ever seen.  ("JUMP!"  Wait, wha -- oh. crap.)

Looking back over the wikipedia entries, I see that "Faith" arranged a few pieces into place for subsequent episodes -- Gaeta gets shot; they find Leoben's basestar and recover it; the basestar's hybrid provides more cutesy riddles -- but the A-story takes a step back to explore the president's attitude towards religion.  Yes, I was a bit bored by the standalone story, especially because it focussed on a guest star.  It also didn't help that the story had no clear stakes or objectives -- it kept collapsing into 'two ladies discussing religion for a while', which isn't quite a story.

At the same time, I can't fault the writers for wanting to give us a bit of variety.  The show has been heavily plot-plot-plot the last few episodes, so it makes sense to take a bit of a breather.

In any case, I was more excited by "Guess What's Coming to Dinner?", which (despite the jokey title) kicked the story forward again, and used all the pieces on the table to generate exciting plot developments and dire consequences.  The very start of the episode does this perfectly -- they've spent tons of plot churn on getting the Demetrius teamed up with the damaged Basestar, and the opening scenes neatly pays it off with the perfect 'what could go wrong?' scenario:  the basestar jumps, the Demetrius doesn't, and everything goes horribly wrong.  And they're using the four 'secret Cylons' to great effect -- I loved having two of them in on the plan to identify the final five by reactivating a Number Three model, with Tigh desperately trying to scuttle the plan without drawing suspicion to himself.

That last scene got me thinking about how writers use secrets in drama.  It seems like there are two kinds of secrets:  (1) the characters have information that they withhold from the audience, and (2) the characters have information that they withhold from each other.  I feel like a lot of TV shows rely too heavily on (1) -- vide LOST, where lots of characters seem to know *everything* about the show's universe and keep it resolutely to themselves -- wherease this scene was a clear case of (2).  The audience knows *more* than most of the characters:  we know who these four sleeper Cylons are, but the only person who found them out is dead.

I think with stories based on (1), the best you can do is make guesses about what the secret is.  The problem is, you almost never have enough information to unravel the mystery, so the process never goes anywhere.  You keep watching just to get the damned answer, with mounting frustration as the writers keep not revealing it.  It may be that with (2), the audience can make better guesses about how things might turn out, so we're more capable of feeling dread, or surprise, or hope.  We feel more engaged in the story, instead of standing back and analyzing it on message boards.

Also, I was happy to see the writers raising the stakes on the visions of the opera house.  Figuring out these visiosn has been a major plot arc on the show, but my reaction to it has always been a shrugging, "Oh.  That's odd."  If I were in the characters' shoes, I might feel no particular compulsion to figure out what it was all about.  So I'm glad that they've ratcheted up the tension on that storyline by giving Hera the creepy collection of Six-drawings and the J-Horror-worthy "Bye-bye!" to Athena.  Okay, now that it's about losing the kid in a very literal sense, I can get on-board with getting to the bottom of the visions.

Aaaand that's pretty much all I've got.  That's what I get for waiting too long to write reviews.

Where's My Jetpack? by Daniel Wilson [audiobook]
"We are not living in a techno-Utopia.  Not yet.  Now is the time to stop wishing, to stand up, and to shout, 'Where the hell is my jetpack?'"

That excerpt -- from the end of this book's introduction -- neatly captures both the content and the tone of Daniel Wilson's Where's My Jetpack?  The book's subtitle is "A guide to the amazing science-fiction future that never arrived," and it serves as a catalog of flying cars, underwater hotels, mind-reading hats, and other sci-fi doodads -- mostly from Golden-Age science fiction -- that never quite materialized.  There is absolutely no practical use for any of this information.  Now I know there exists one underwater hotel somewhere off the coast of Florida; no doubt this has displaced some datum that's actually useful out of my head.

But still, it's fun to hear the author spin tales about possible space elevators or theoretical ray guns.  And the book's tone -- one of self-righteous indignation that these amazing and absolutely necessary contraptions don't exist -- makes the whole thing very entertaining.  And at three hours forty minutes, it was a fairly quick 'read'.

The Merchant of Venice (Arden, 2nd ed.)
"Did you guys know that The Merchant of Venice is supposed to be a comedy?"
"Yeah -- because anti-Semitism is hi-larious."

This was a backstage conversation at Much Ado this past week, and it pretty much summarizes my response to the play.

I dunno.  Maybe it's different in performance, but just reading Merchant, I can't imagine the play really working.  Shylock so dominates the play that the whole piece feels off-balance.  Portia vanquishes Shylock in IV:i, and there's still a whole act yet to go, and it's... what?  Ring-stealing?


By that point in the play, I've completely forgotten about the bland love story that serves as the engine for the whole play.  In the shadow of Shylock and Portia, most of the rest of the cast feels like so many interchangeable Venetian noblemen, and I frankly never cared if Interchangeable Nobleman #1 succeeded in winning Portia or not.

Now, I'm sure a talented cast and director can make it work.  For instance, you can say that the play is really about the homoerotic subtext of the friendship between Bassanio and Antonio, and then the ring ploy is really about breaking their allegiance to each other and reinforcing their allegiance to their new wives, and... god, that seems like a lot of work.  And you can work really hard to make sure that Bassanio feels different from Gratanio feels different from Lorenzo.  And you can keep the Jessica/Lorenzo love story from feeling like a little lost subplot that was thrown in to pad the running time.

Okay, now I'm just wandering off into pointless snark.  My point is, with diligent effort you can make the unwieldy story feel like it's all of a piece.  But even then, you don't get around the problem that to an audience, this is a play about Shylock in everything but fundamental structure.  It's a great story about Shylock, and I got annoyed that Shakespeare kept switching the channel away from it.

The Arden second edition feels about the same as most of their other second editions.  There was a very dry (but mercifully short) introduction that mostly concerned itself with conjectures about when the play was written and what kind of source materials its compositors used.  And as usual, it provided a cornucopia of footnotes to explain all the peculiar words, phrases, and Ovid references.

Improvising Better by Jimmy Carrane and Liz Allen
This is a very slim volume -- 80 pages total -- with some twenty-six short chapters.  Basically, it's twenty-six reminders of things you should be doing as an improvisor, things that seem like common sense.  Don't gag at the expense of a scene.  When improvising, don't forget to act.  Don't act like a jackass to the rest of your troupe.  The authors give you all the simple bits of advice that every improvisor at some point receives, but they're neatly collected together in one place.

They include exercises for many of the chapters, although not for the later chapters, which are mostly about how you behave offstage as you go on your 'improv journey' or whatever you want to call it.  Some of the exercises are interesting, but mostly the book is useful for just reminding you of the things you should be doing. 

How to Improvise a Full-Length Play by Kenn Adams
First off, apthorpe wrote a review of this book here which covers the book in more detail than I do.

What interested me about this book was how absolutely rigid it was in proscribing how to improvise long form.  In places it gets down to numbers:  "between thirty and forty minutes in, you should be doing such-and-such".  It should come as no surprise that I appreciate this sort of pedagogy much more than the Jedi-like Johnstonian advice about long-form, which usually boils down to "trust your instincts and clear your mind of fear".  In my opinion, a play is a very artificial construct, and whereas most people have a strong instinct for spotting something that feels 'off' in a play, very few people have an instinct for *generating* something that would feel 'right'.

So I'm all for 'longform with training wheels'.  Give me a structure to play my scenes in, and let me get used to that.  Let me practice with it, learn how it feels to tell a story that actually works, and *develop* those storytelling instincts.  (Again, I just don't think that everyone has a natural instinct for telling stories.)  Then down the road, if I decide that that's too limiting, I'm fine with breaking the form and generating something more organic.  But frankly, how many times do I watch something and think, "Oh, dear, this plot structure is far too traditional."?

Because the book presents a very detailed structure, there's a lot of material to take in.  Adams eventually has something like a 15-point story outline to work within, and the descriptions are full of Arbitrary Capitalized Phrases that describe particular story points or larger sections.  In retrospect, I should have read it slower.  There were also a ton of exercises -- I imagine it would take a troupe about six months to really work through all of the material.

The improv section:
For the next class, I'm supposed to watch scenes and determine as quickly as possible who each scene is about.

(Apparently, for the previous class, I was supposed to watch scenes and determine as quickly as possible *what* each scene was about.  I completely failed to do that.)

So far this week, I've completely failed to do my protagonist-identification homework.  Fortunately, I get six more days to work on that.

In any case, I'd like to continue spotting story elements and formats that I've never seen in improv.  But... meh.  I wave a little white flag now, and plead exhaustion.  Next week I'll have a nice list of "things I haven't seen in improv".

For next time:  possibly an equally-gargantuan mega-post, with more Friday Night Lights, more LOST, and more Battlestar Galactica.  I'm starting in on The Taming of the Shrew and also an audiobook about teh sex; I may or may not review that, depending on whether sharing my thoughts about it would constitute TMI or not.

Classical-music-listening continues.  Just finished up Beethoven's Diabelli Variations at work.

[1] See also:  this week's The 70s Dimension, a DVD comprising two hours of 70s-era commercials.  I gamely put up with 10 minutes of it before returning it, unwatched.

[2] My spoon is too big!

[3] Sure, you can shoehorn a byzantine domestic drama into an hour-and-a-half of footage, but it always feels a little like a square peg wedged into a round hole.

[4] This would be the myth that "getting the two leads together kills your show."  Never mind that when they did this on Moonlighting, they *also* fired the showrunner.  I talk about this more here (in the "panel #4" section).

[5] Side note:  unless you're Diabolo Cody, in which case you can write screenplays with infuriating ease.

[6] I admit, I'm only guessing here.  My experience with the area is with growing up one state over, in Kentucky.

[7] ... or a TV show -- see The Wire and Friday Night Lights for effective examples of location shooting in television.

[8] My favorite moment of the whole episode:  Hurley sees that Sayid's alone, and introduces him to Mr. and Mrs. Reyes.  *sniffle*  When I grow up, I want to be like Hugo.

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Date:Tuesday (5/27/08) 2:54pm
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Date:Tuesday (5/27/08) 3:48pm
Exactly -- those are not questions your audience should ever be asking....
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Date:Tuesday (5/27/08) 5:55pm
I am mixed about the new Indy. I want to see it again.

I think the main thing it suffered from was over-explanation of the supernatural elements, which I think you mentioned. I think if their crazy premise (which, really, is no crazier than the Ark of the Covenant destroying people or the Holy Grail healing people) needed that much explanation to get the audience to be on board, they should have just found a new mcguffin. I kinda felt that Marion was just used for the one scene, and then discarded, which was disappointing. I also thought for sure that John Hurt was going to play Abner Ravenwood, Indy's mentor and Marion's father, and I was a little disappointed that he was used for just a one-film type character.

I wish I could see Marcus on screen again with Indy, but alas, Denholm Elliot passed on 15 years ago or so.

As for How To Improvise a Full-Length Play, I think I commented on Bob's LJ about it. I agree that the rigid structure he uses feels stifling. But if you just accept that and push it aside, the rest of the book has some great insights. You might want to check out the book he references in the introduction. I think it's called Playwriting-How to Write for the Theater. It's got some good story insight.

Story, story, story. Devour it when you're offstage and it'll slowly come to you on stage.
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Date:Wednesday (5/28/08) 8:24am
I think the main thing it suffered from was over-explanation of the supernatural elements, which I think you mentioned.

I don't know if I'd call that "the main problem," although that might just be semantics. I saw lots & lots of problems of equal weight that collectively made the script not quite work.

In any case, I definitely agree that if they'd picked a more straightforward McGuffin (or established simpler rules for the one they did pick), a lot of dreary/confusing exposition in Act II would have *poof* disappeared.

I kinda felt that Marion was just used for the one scene, and then discarded, which was disappointing.


I also thought for sure that John Hurt was going to play Abner Ravenwood, Indy's mentor and Marion's father, and I was a little disappointed that he was used for just a one-film type character.

You're right, that would have been a much better move on their part.

One thing I'm starting to notice with this movie is that, if you're adding a movie to an established universe/franchise, there are two ways to reference the earlier works. You can take a moment to coyly allude to some established fact -- say, the brief shot of the Ark in the warehouse or the conversation about Pancho Villa. But it's better to dig deeper, and explore the big, unexplored questions in that universe -- questions like "Who exactly *was* Abner Ravenwood?"

And yes, this movie did lots of the former and (IMHO) none of the latter.

I wish I could see Marcus on screen again with Indy, but alas, Denholm Elliot passed on 15 years ago or so.

~ true ~
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Date:Wednesday (5/28/08) 8:25am
As for How To Improvise a Full-Length Play, I think I commented on Bob's LJ about it.

Hmm -- I don't see a comment on Bob's review post....

I agree that the rigid structure he uses feels stifling.

Hmm. I actually didn't mean to imply I found it stifling. To the contrary, I like the idea of working in a format where all the plot-arc logistics are set in place, so I can focus on keeping all the other plates spinning.

You might want to check out the book he references in the introduction. I think it's called Playwriting-How to Write for the Theater. It's got some good story insight.

Thanks for the recommendation -- looks like Amazon has it.

Story, story, story. Devour it when you're offstage and it'll slowly come to you on stage.

~ heartening to hear ~
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Date:Saturday (8/2/08) 5:19pm

Just wanted to say

Tahnks for posting
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