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

Monday (7/25/11) 8:46am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

[Good Christ, I've been away from Media Updates for a while.  Reviews may be a bit shorter than usual, just because it's been weeks and weeks since I saw/read some of these.]

Movies:  Super 8
TV:  Archer [1x01-1x08], Beverly Hills, 90210 [season one]
Books: Effective Communication Skills [audiocourse], The Assertiveness Workbook, Schulz and Peanuts, The Making of Indiana Jones

Super 8
This is the Spielberg homage about a group of young filmmakers who stumble on a military conspiracy.

I don't often make it out to the movies these days, and when I do, I find myself wondering if I even *like* movies any more.  I've gotten so used to the rhythms of television -- introduce characters in a pilot, deepen them over several seasons, and let episodic stories play out against larger, slow-moving arcs -- that when I watch a movie, everything feels rushed.  They only get these characters and this world sketched in *just* in time to blast through act three and roll the closing credits.

On top of that, there's the feeling that I've already watched most of the basic blockbuster-movie types.  Yes, I can watch another cop thriller, but I'll feel some of that wearied patience as I watch the plot jump through the next hoop, and the next one, and the next, carefully working through the structure that every such movie has to do.  Okay, we're three beats away from act three.  And hey, there's the reveal of the bad guy, right on time.  Yawn.

All of this is a very roundabout way of saying that, as I watched Super 8, I couldn't help but imagine a TV show about teenage filmmakers in the late 70s.  No crazy chase scenes, no explosions, no monsters in the woods -- just some earnest kids and some clunky video equipment.  Often I felt much more interested in that hypothetical creation than in what I was watching onscreen.

Sure, the alien-invasion story was competent, and made for thrilling special effects, but it felt intrusive, and... ordinary.  I've seen aliens invading a city before.  Hell, I've seen many aspects of this particular alien before, as it's a pastiche of the monster from J. J. Abrams' biggest TV hit, LOST, and the monster from his found-footage alien-invasion flick, Cloverfield.

But I *haven't* seen a tween patiently applying makeup to the girl of his dreams just before he and his friends shoot the next scene in their zombie picture.  That's specific, and it's different, and it's a small and relatable moment.  The giant action scenes feel more like demo reels, and the best I can do is assess them for competence.

That said, I appreciate what director J. J. Abrams is going for here; it's almost like he's trying to pretend he's uncovered a kid-friendly action movie that Speilberg made back in the early 80s but never managed to release.  Behold, everything old is new again, and Spielberg's aesthetic of long takes, kid's-eye-view shots, and bright, warm washes of light makes a sharp contrast to the current state of overcut, over-slick action movies that spend their running time desperately trying to look cool, leaving little time to accomplish anything else.  And it's fun to watch Michael Giacchino work in nods to various Spielberg pictures without ever *quite* quoting them in his score.[1]  I'd quibble that the movie didn't have the best handle on the period -- the pop songs they chose were pretty obvious, and the dialog hit some anachronistic sour notes[2] -- but it was *distinctive*, and distinctive goes a long way.

That said, in the end, Super 8 was just a movie.  It couldn't kick back and enjoy this world and these characters -- it had to hurry along, hit all its action-movie beats in the alien-invasion plotline, and speed the hero's emotional arc to a rushed conclusion.

And with that, I go back to watching television.

Archer [1x01-1x08]
This is Cartoon Network's animated take on James Bond -- one that cuts out all the actual spy action, and focuses purely on petty office politics at headquarters.

This one will be tough to write about, both because I haven't watched it in weeks, and because it's hard to say much about it beyond "it's funny."  The plots are tightly constructed, usually with several storylines neatly weaving together at the end.  Meanwhile, it steadily builds out the world of ISIS, and their enemies, and their HR policies.

I suppose it actually shares a bit in common with Arrested Development (including the casting of Jessica Walter), only without that FOX show's dizzying density.  In Archer, the jokes come at a reasonable pace, and there aren't always three other jokes going on in the background of the shot.

But the jokes work, the send-up of spying is amusing, and I'll be happy to get back to the rest of the first season, one of these days.

Beverly Hills, 90210 [season one]
This is Aaron Spelling's early-90s teen soap about a Minneapolis family that moves out to rich-and-debauched Beverly Hills.  I'm planning to watch at least the first few seasons as research for gnap! Theater's upcoming production of improvised 90210.


Television was very, very different twenty years ago.  From the first frame of the first episode, you know that everything's different.  The aspect ratio is 4:3, instead of the current widescreen.  Everything looks to be shot on video.  The standing sets look very generic -- without the cheap but lived-in detail of modern shows that shot on location (Friday Night Lights, The Wire) or the splashy expense of crazily-budgeted soundstage-based shows (LOST, the CSIs).

And then you see a scene start, and you realize that everything was much, much slower in 1991.  This is a tendency that affected both movies and television -- go back decade after decade, and both TV shows and movies get slower- and slower-paced.  Oddly, this had a salutary effect on films, which got a chance to breathe and include genuine character moments instead of breathlessly galloping to the next plot point.

But the slowness was bad for television.

While older movies fill in the slow spots with intriguing details, older TV shows just fill in the slow sections with filler.  Whereas current shows might use one establishing shot for a new scene -- with the dialog already audible over the shot -- 90210 hangs back with several shots ("here's one part of the school!"  "here's another part of the school!" "here's yet another part of the school!") soundtracked with mood music before even starting the scene.[3]

This 'pointless slowness' infects the rest of the show, too.  Characters rarely make an important point once.  Instead, they make their point once, get a response of, "Wait, what are you telling me?"  Then they repeat their point.  Then they're asked for clarification again.  Then they repeat themselves a third time.  Meanwhile, you're thinking that a character on a modern show would just say what they meant first thing -- or they might even say it obliquely.  On Friday Night Lights, they'd probably dispense with dialog entirely and imply the whole concept with a single look.

They're also very slow about making changes to the show itself.  One of the real joys of watching Community, for example, was the meta-story -- you weren't just watching these students try to pass Spanish, you were watching Dan Harmon experiment, restlessly and relentlessly, to find the show's voice and figure out how to improve it.  Every show is re-jiggering itself to make certainelements work better.

Instead, we see 90210 saddled with Scott Scanlon, a character they have no use for and no idea what to do with, but they wait a full year and a half to get rid of the guy.  And moreover, they never actively try different things to make that character useful -- instead, they keep lumbering along, doing the same thing in episode x+1 that they did in episode x.

I was about to qualify this with "none of this is to say the show is bad," but then I realized:  no, at least at this point in the series' history, and by any objective measure, this show *is* bad.  The jokes are painful, the moralizing is simplistic, the fashions are frightening, and the storylines are as predictable as ancient vaudeville routines.  There are so many sources of badness in these episodes that the slowness I describe doesn't get a chance to contribute.

But now I really will qualify myself:  yes, it's bad, but it's still fun.  It's so committed to its particular form of badness that you can't help but feel some affection for it, even for these early episodes.  They'll never tire of baggy clothes in eye-searing colors, or of serious speeches about the consequences of (*gasp*) drinking, or of witticisms that are really just repeating the last sentence you heard and tweaking it slightly.  Between that consistency, the clearly-delineated central cast, and the way they're convinced they're making the coolest show ever, you can't help but like it.

That said, I shudder to think that there were days where this is pretty much all that television was.

Effective Communication Skills by Dalton Kehoe [audiocourse]
I decided to try out another audiocourse from The Teaching Company, but this one was mostly a dud. 

It feels like this audiocourse has a specific target customer, and that target customer is a businessman who has said, "Excuse me, I'm a giant douche.  And somehow, for some inscrutable reason, my being a giant douche is getting in the way of my important business proceedings.  Whatever shall I do?"

The first half of the audiocourse covers some basic psychology.  Ostensibly this forms the groundwork for the more practically-geared later chapters, but frankly I could have skipped most of this introductory material without losing much.  Then, when they get to actually giving you advice, most of that advice is specific to 'how to have difficult conversations at work'.  And most of the instructions are along the lines of 'don't be a giant douche'.

That's not to say it was completely useless.  There were some bits that were worth holding onto, like the repeated instructions to *slow down* in a difficult conversation, and stick to saying things that are actually, provably true (e.g. "I am annoyed" versus "you are annoying").  But most of the audiocourse felt like simple common sense, so listening to it was kind of a waste of time.

The Assertiveness Workbook by Randy J. Paterson
This book is pretty much what it says on the tin:  some instructions about how to be more assertive, accompanying a long series of exercises designed to get you in that habit.  I'm lazy and I fear assertiveness, so I didn't do the exercises, but I did read the book.

Much of it repeated material from the Effective Communication Skills audiocourse.  Like the audiocourse, it felt like it was split into two halves:  the first half covered basic psychological principles -- mostly delineating the differences between aggressive, passive-aggressive, passive, and assertive modalities -- and the second half was about how you migrate from the first three forms of communication to the assertive one.

Honestly, not much of the book stuck with me.  (This is what I get for skipping the exercises.)  One useful bit I remember is they talk about that classic "how to give criticism" advice:  say something nice, then give your criticism, then say something else nice.  The common wisdom is that the listener hears mostly complients, so they feel good about themselves even though they've been criticized.

But that technique has a more subtle and interesting advantage.  When you give criticism, it's usually something specific you want your audience to fix.  If the bike is malfunctioning, you want to tell somebody "the brake cable broke" and not "the bike is broken".  The same principle applies to, say, an employee who's doing something wrong:  it's "file the TPS reports on time", not "you are a bad employee".  The problem is, your listener often broadens a specific (useful) criticism to a broader (useless) meaning.

So when you 'sandwich' a criticism between compliments, not only do you add a few pebbles to the "complimentary" side of the balances, but every compliment *limits the scope* of the criticism.  It's not that you're a bad employee, it's not that you aren't motivated, it's not that you aren't finishing projects on time, it's *just* those damn TPS forms.

I have only vague memories of the rest of it.  Yes, there's the usual advice to not be an über-aggro jerkwad, and not to passively go along with everything you're told.  But I didn't do the exercises, so none of it stuck.

Schulz and Peanuts by David Michaelis
This is biographer David Michaelis's massive and authoritative work about Charles M. Schultz, the cartoonist behind Peanuts, which is possibly the most popular and critically-renowned comic strip of all time.

The thought of analyzing Peanuts is kind of strange to me.  Peanuts was always just around, in the newspapers, on TV movies, in stacks of hand-me-down trade paperbacks around the house.  Asking what Peanuts is like is like asking how air smells.

To some extent, that's what this book is about.  It looks at the simple line art that Schultz used, and explained just how difficult it was for him to develop that visual vocabulary.  Snoopy's doghouse alone went through several iterations before Schultz hit upon the simple side-view that, among other things, let Snoopy sleep on *top* of the house in a way that should be physically impossible.  And lots of cartoonists (including, say, Matt Groening) have mentioned how devilishly difficult the characters are to draw.  Yes, it's just a few lines, but they have to be the right lines.  Get the ovoid of Charlie Brown's head just a little bit off, and he looks like he has some kind of grisly birth defect.

It was also interesting to read about how different Peanuts was from any comic that had come before it.  Most strips before Peanuts (and, I suppose, most strips since) are more about 'side-splitting punch lines' than 'existential melancholy'.  Beetle Bailey doesn't look up at the stars and wonder about his place in the universe.  Garfield doesn't wonder aloud if anybody will ever like him.  And when Peanuts came along, many cartoonists were just confused:  why was he hitting the jokes so softly?  Where were the adults?  And why was everything so... sad?

I was surprised to learn how much of Schultz's own life wound up in the comics.  Bits of dialog from those closest to him wound up spoken by various kids in the gang.  Schultz's house burned down -- Snoopy's doghouse burned down.  And when Schultz began an affair, Snoopy met a beguiling girl-puppy at the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm.

Honestly, I was mostly interested in the narrative of Schultz's life.  It mirrored my own in some unsettling ways, especially in the undemonstrative family life in his earliest years, and the childhood spent in quiet diligence.  I identified with the crippling lack of confidence.  I envied his near-monomaniacal focus on cartooning; it gave his life a sense of direction that mine has never had.

And it was very sad to read about his final years.  It got me thinking that maybe old age and death is a sort of 'final exam'.  At the end, you face the biggest challenge life can throw at you:  can you make peace with the fact that, at the end, you will decay and die.  I suppose some people have dealt with their issues, and can face the end with dignity.  Schultz, for all his material and artistic success, retreated into his old neuroses:  nobody loves me enough; no, my successes aren't *real* successes; none of this really matters anyway.  And that's the way he took his leave.

The Making of Indiana Jones by J. W. Rinzler and Laurent Bouzereau
This is the LucasFilm authorized volume about the making of all four Indiana Jones movies, including that fourth one that true fans don't acknowledge the existence of.

I liked this book.  Most of the time, when I hear about the making of a film, it's dull and vague.  Sometimes it's some carefully-managed piece of teaser material -- some meticulously-timed poster, say -- that then gets analyzed to death by Ain't-It-Cool users with names like 'DARTH_BADAZZ'.  Sometimes it's some godawfully cheesy press-kit matériel, with carefully chosen effects shots and an announcer fawning over the OMG BIG STARS involved in the project.  Sometimes it's an appearance on a press tour or a talk show, where the movie star stays carefully on-message:  the cast is great; the director is great; the script is great.

This book was not like that.  Instead, it went into meticulous, obsessive detail about the production process.  Yes, there were lots of cool, glossy production photos spacing out the text, but the book itself wasn't above getting into the gritty details of, say, the contract-signings juts before Raiders started shooting.  I don't care that people think Spielberg is oh-so-wonderful or oh-so-visionary -- I want information about how the movie was made.

And I mainly wanted this information so I could piece together how Raiders went so right, the next two films went sort-of right, and the fourth one went so badly, badly wrong.

As far as I can tell, there's one big difference between how they wrote the first one and how they wrote the second two:  Raiders was a movie that kept getting smaller; the next two were movies that kept getting bigger.

Before Raiders, Lucas and Spielberg and Kasdan had a multi-day story conference where they generated massive piles of material for this "archaeological adventure serial" idea that Lucas had been kicking around.  And honestly? they ended up with way too much material.

So they took a good, hard look at Raiders, and they started deleting stuff.  The mine-car chase sequence was a little weak, so it could go away.  And did they really need to make Indy a professor, a relic-hunter, *and* a millionaire-playboy type?  No, that just overcomplicated things.  And really, did they need to add material where they implied that Dr. Jones was banging one of his students?  That was just morally icky and unnecessary to the plot.[4]

So you were left with (1) a storyline that used the best action sequences from that huge pile of available material, and (2) a storyline without anything superfluous.  If there was a chase sequence that you didn't absolutely need to get the story where it needed to go, then it was removed in the first draft, or the second draft, or the third draft, or on-set, or in the editing bay.  It's an incredibly lean film.

When they came back for the sequels, the creative process worked differently -- it was much more a process of accretion.  They had a pile of old material they'd thrown out from those initial story meetings (say, the mine-car chase sequence), and they started chaining those together into something that would work.  And though there are some great sequences in there, neither movie feels like it was boiled down to its bare essentials.  There are scenes that could go away.  There are beats that they don't need.

Actually, I'm oversimplifying things -- another big surprise to me was how much improv went into Raiders.  For example, that 'second drinking contest' in the tent, between Marion and Belloq?  That was invented on the day of shooting between the two actors.  In the original script, we introduce Marion with the Tibetan drinking contest... and never bring back Miss Ravenwood's cast-iron liver for the rest of the film.

This shocked me, because, while I've seen many improvised scenes that were funny, tons of improv scenes that were surreal, and some improv scenes that were poignant or exciting... it's far less often that I see an improv scene that feels inevitable -- where the scene clicks into place, and you think, "Well, duh.  That was the only scene that could have fit into the story.  It's really the only way they could pay off what they've introduced so far."

And this got me to thinking about improv in films, and specifically, how in this case they *needed* the really strong script to work from to come up with that brilliant improv.  They needed those characters to be well-written to begin with -- Marion so pretty, manipulative, and tough-as-nails; Belloq so egotistical, cosmopolitan, and dangerous.  They needed that strong, memorable offer of the drinking contest so that they could call it back.  They needed the life-or-death stakes from the script to give the scene its tension.

This is not to slam improv, but to compare the improv done here -- where I wouldn't have guessed in a million years that the scene was improvised -- to the improv in some more slightly- and inelegantly-written scripts.  For instance, I love Judd Apatow to death -- in my book, you make Freaks and Geeks, you get a pass for life -- but I would never think, "Oh, that 'you know how I know you're gay?' joke felt *inevitable*."  Instead, it's one casually-improvised bit of banter, essentially fungible with hundreds of other possibilities.

And if you start with a *bad* script, lord help you.  Improv can't fix a bad script.  If the characters aren't there, and the offers aren't there, and the story isn't there, the best you can reasonably hope is that some talented improvisors can add a few jokes.  But as Joss Whedon is fond of saying, "If you don't have the story, no amount of jokes will save you."

But if you set up a dashing-but-easily-flummoxed archaeology professor, then on the day when you're shooting the lecture scene, you might have a bright AD suggest, "What if one of the students has written 'LOVE YOU' on her eyelids?"

(Side note:  it occurs to me that I need to watch some Mike Leigh films.  He starts his films with just a basic premise, and then develops them through improvisation with his actors.)

As for the awful fourth movie, it's hard to figure out what went wrong with it.  At this point, the book gets into the vague, nicey-nice blather one associates with Electronic Press Kits.  They just can't say enough nice things about each other, about the film, about the history of the franchise.  Some compliments seem to hint at problems -- "Oh, Harrison Ford isn't too old for this!  See, he's doing a bunch of his own stunts!" -- or at least to assurances they desperately want to make to the audience, or maybe to themselves.

Generally, though, it looks like with the fourth one, it was the same process of accretion, but it was much more random.  They started with some ideas Lucas wanted to have in the script:  crystal skulls; giant ants; even that damned refrigerator.  Frank Darabont came on, introduced Marion Ravenwood into the script, and moved on.  Other screenwriters slapped on new elements as they yanked out other ones.  And what they had left in the end was a hodgepodge that wasn't really *about* anything.

And it still had that damned refrigerator.


For next time:  I'm moving onto season three of Beverly Hills, 90210 and continuing to listen to the audiobook The Omnivore's Dilemma(No, I don't like The Omnivore's Dilemma as much as you do; it's a fun piece of agitprop, but its reasoning is often shoddy, IMHO.)  I'm also reading Zoo City -- that's a novel from Lauren Beuekes, one of the major writers in South Africa's burgeoning, hey-wait-where-did-that-come-from? science-fiction scene.

[1] I sense that this is what it would be like, improvising in the style of Speilberg with Brockman providing accompaniment.[1b]

[1b] Side note:  why don't audiences ever suggest Spielberg when we ask for a filmmaker, dammit?  Hmph.

[2] Off the top of my head, I'm not sure anybody said "longest day ever" in '79 -- I felt like "<blah>est <blah> ever" only really got linguistic traction from the Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons much later on.  And I don't recall "What the fuck?" sounding anything like normal English 'til maybe the mid-90s?  Maybe I'm wrong about both of these, but they both felt jarringly modern and out-of-place.

[3] I swear, the first time the pilot shows us West Beverly High, it gives us a full five minutes of establishing shots.

[4] They even *shot* some of that material before deciding that, no, maybe it'd be best left on the cutting-room floor.

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Date:Tuesday (7/26/11) 12:50pm
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[User Picture]
Date:Tuesday (7/26/11) 1:32pm
"While my opinion of books vs. movies as a medium is the opposite of yours most of the time [...]"

Did you mean "tv vs. movies"?
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[User Picture]
Date:Monday (8/1/11) 6:06pm
It's interesting that you say "On Friday Night Lights, they'd probably dispense with dialog entirely and imply the whole concept with a single look." Which made me think of Shaun the Sheep, where there is NO dialog in the entire run. I'm not sure if that's unique or not, but they make it work, after you watch enough episodes you just stop thinking about it.
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[User Picture]
Date:Tuesday (8/2/11) 7:38am
Well, there's plenty of animation that's completely silent.  Often if something is *totally* dialog-free, it forces the stories to be simple and clear -- no bad thing, in my opinion.
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