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

Tuesday (3/19/13) 12:30am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  John Carter
TV:  Downton Abbey [series one]
Books:  <none>

John Carter
This is Disney's film adaptation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel A Princess of Mars, noted for being the biggest flop of 2012.

And... well, it's not *terrible*.  That's the thing about these huge, studio-wrecking disasters like Heaven's Gate or Ishtar: they're not awful movies.  They're financial catastrophes, sure, but they're financial catastrophes because massive amounts of money have gone into it, usually through a troubled development project requiring scads of writers and directors.  So you'll be able to find *something* decent in the resulting muck.

And so, John Carter sat in front of my eyes for two hours, and then it was over, and then I got on with my life.

Instead, it's... inoffensive.  Innocuous.  It feels like it was test-marketed and studio-noted and re-written, and re-written, and re-written until it was buffed smooth, and you had one hundred and twenty minutes of "sci-fi-movie product".  It feels like it was designed to be nobody's favorite thing.  It feels like some syndicated, shot-in-New-Zealand adventure-show episode, given two hours and countless millions of dollars to try stretching out to a larger story.

I mean, Jesus, just look at the title.  This is an adaptation of A Princess of Mars, right?  That's a *gorgeous* title.  My gut instinct says that, if you have the title A Princess of Mars, you only change that title to something else (*anything* else) because, deep down, you hate money, and you hate things that are awesome.  But it's likely that Disney has decided (through careful, scientific test-marketing) that movies named after chicks don't sell to four-quadrant audiences[1][2]

So, okay, you name it after a dude.  Fine.  But why would you not call it John Carter of Mars?  Isn't Mars awesome?  And if you're afraid of scaring off your audience with something that sounds too sci-fi-y or too pulp-y... well, maybe, just maybe, you shouldn't be adapting Edgar Rice Burroughs, right?

This tentative, bland, apologizing-for-the-material quality permeates the whole production.  There's the plot, for example.  Burroughs wrote plots that were simple and straightforward.  So if you adapt a Burroughs novel, you should have a movie whose plot is simple and straightforward.  But... no.  Somewhere along the line, they decided that simple plots like "pursue the Lost Ark" or "save the Princess from the bad guys" aren't cool.  And so they drag in other plotlines from other books, they expand it out to include an unnecessary framing story (with Edgar Rice Burroughs as a character!), they weave in lots of mysterious world-controlling... eh, I'm weary talking about it.[3]  They make the plot insufferably busy, because apparently that's what's normal for a tentpole action flick these days[4], and they get something that's less Edgar Rice Burroughs and more "generic action product".

And the weird part is, they beef up the amount of stuff that happens, but they do little to nothing to give it any resonance.  With modern genre work, there's always a difference between what it's about and what it's *really* about.  Pulp stories didn't really have that.  And I would have thought if they wanted to give a modern twist to the story from A Princess of Mars, they'd go that route -- make the story actually matter beyond the plot moves -- instead of just adding more plot moves.

And they cast a bland lead.  I hate writing that.  I love Taylor Kitsch's work on Friday Night Lights, to the point that I'm saving its final season, like a fine wine, for a special occasion that really merits it.  I wanted, so badly, for Mr. Kitsch to nail this role.  But the bottom line is, in television -- especially in good television -- the writers quickly learn how to write around an actor's limitations.  Riggins has a moment of bonding with his teammates?  Great!  Riggins has an awkward, halting conversation with a love interest about feelings he doesn't quite understand?  Perfect!  Riggins gives a rousing speech to rally people to victory?  Um... nah, let's not do that.

Because they don't *need* to.  In an ensemble drama, you can write things so that it never needs to happen.[5]

But a movie -- and especially a tentpole action movie -- is a much different beast than an ensemble drama.  If you're the lead in a sci-fi blockbuster... well, most sci-fi blockbusters are, deep down (and setting aside fascinating oddballs like Inception), all the same.  And so, to be the lead in one, you need to have a certain skillset.  And there's really no way around that.  You have to be able to do wry humor and bare-chested action -- Mr. Kitsch has that down.  But you also have to play a convincing leader.  You also have to play straight-up, unironic romance.  You have to be able to play wonder, and hope, and friendship.  And so, John Carter was like that colored paper that you chew to see where you haven't been brushing -- it shows up the strengths that the FNL writers cannily wrote to, and it shows up the weaknesses as well.

I don't know if there's really much else to say about this.  There are tons and tons and tons and tons of CGI, and it's good CGI, but after the first half-hour or so, you're longing for the lived-in feeling practicals of Star Wars.  (Even a Muppet would be acceptable.)  The secondary characters are usually nonentities.  It was adorable, for example, watching the movie struggle to tell us Dejah Thoris is a genius.  "See?  She invented a beam thing!  And John keeps calling her 'Professor'!  See?  Genius!" -- while she *does* absolutely nothing that makes her look smart.[6]  You expect a movie like this to have secondary characters who have just one single strong trait.  You don't expect a movie like this to fail even at that.

I keep harping on the weaknesses of this movie.  I don't mean to say it's an awful movie.  It's not awful.  It's not unwatchable.  It's certainly not offensive.  But we live in a media landscape where, among space stories, there's... there's Star Wars.  There's Cowboy Bebop.  There's Solaris.  There are space stories that matter, stories that are funny, stories that are beautiful and ambitious and daring.

There's just no reason to waste your time on something that's only okay.

Downton Abbey [series one]
This is the ITV series about the aristocrats and servants at a country estate, in a period when the English aristocracy begins to fall into decline.

I enjoy this show, but I'm a bit surprised that it's become such a cultural event.  Really?  This British show?  Not Misfits?  Not Peep Show?  Not QI?  This, Downton Abbey, is the British import that's popular enough stateside to merit a Sesame Street parody?


Or maybe not so odd.  The show shares a lot of DNA with, of all things, Mad Men -- in this show, as with that one, we see an old world with strict rules face threats from new-fangled things like women's rights.  But the two shows deal with this theme very differently.  Look no further than the opening credits of each show: Mad Men focuses on one man, and shows us his world literally falling to pieces; Downton Abbey, instead, focuses on the building (no characters), and the everyday things that go on there.  The first show focuses on this process of dissolution, and how this tide of change slams into one man and sweeps him away.  Downton Abbey is about the setting, the place, and, while the oncoming future is always a threat, it's more about how this solid-looking building, this stable world, *resists* that change.

It's a bit less exciting, and a lot less risky, than Mad Men's reckless world-shifting, but the "world facing change" trope is still a worthwhile theme to take on.  It ensures that the show is *about* something.  And the broad focus means that the show can do the Gosford Park thing[7] where we see a wide variety of characters, and part of the fun is in watching their machinations all entangle and get in each other's way.

And setting the show in such a socially-restrictive environment means that it's very easy for characters to have dark, un-confessable secrets.  This means that you can have scenes where nothing is happening, and it's still tense and engaging because, at any moment, *someone might reveal something*.[8]  Any plot can quickly set up a half-dozen of these secrets, and an episode can usually reach satisfying closure when a good character confesses one of these secrets.

And it is fascinating, seeing how they depict this social milieu where so much is left unsaid, or said obliquely.  The editing helps tremendously.  The Dowager Countess says something that could be taken as merely informative, and then the editor helpfully holds on Edith's troubled reaction for a beat, and we know, oh, that was actually a dig against Edith.  It has this wonderful effect of making us feel smarter than we are -- like we picked out the hidden meaning of a line, even though it was the editor clearly delineating it for us.  If the scene were just a steady master shot of the whole dinner party, I'd have no idea to even watch for Edith's reaction, let alone actually see it.

The plots are surprisingly striaghtforward.  The villainous characters -- Thomas, Mrs. O'Brien -- are appropriately black-hatted, and they serve as prime movers for a lot of stories.  Fellowes frequently goes to the "Thomas and Mrs. O'Brien hatch an Evil Plot" well.  And this is a show where the offers in the first few scenes serve as a clock: oh, we haven't done anything with the dropsy patient yet; the episode can't end 'til that's attended to.

There's also something I'd like to call "reversion logic".  This is my pet term for when you predict the *end* of an episode by determining which plot moves would revert this world to the way it was at the *start* of the episode.  Oh, a duke has come to possibly court Mary?  Well, if Mary and the duke got together, that would change the show, so I guess they'll find a way to make him uninterested in Mary.  Oh, Mr. Bates is threatening to leave?  Well, I guess they'll give Robert an excuse to keep him.  You quickly start trying to figure out how Mr. Fellowes will hit the 'reset' button this time around.

On the one hand, it's definitely well-made: the costume and set design is amazing, the acting is spot-on across the board, the sympathetic characters are engaging, and the plots are appropriately tense.  But it's very safe and traditional: the plots are simple, sturdy, soap-opera tropes; the serialization is very forgiving to casual viewers; the good guys are good[9] and the bad guys are bad, with nary a hint of moral ambiguity.

Oh.  Okay, then, maybe it's *not* a surprise that it's become massively popular.

For next time:  continuing to listen to the audiobook of Dark Force Rising.  Not sure what I'll watch next, though -- maybe the House of Cards remake?

[1] Quick, name some movies that have ladies' names in the title.  Take your time, if you need to.  Do you have any titles that aren't just classic chick flicks?  I've got only Thelma and Louise and Tootsie and Carrie, and the fact that the latest of these is from 1991 should tell you something.[1b]
[1b] ... among other things, that I'm kind of ignorant about movies.
[2] Note that this is why
Tangled was called Tangled and not Rapunzel.
[3] Seriously, does anybody go to a story about saving a space princess in space so that they can see byzantine, Wire-esque plot complexity?
[4] See the Pirates of the Caribbean films.
[5] ... and on Friday Night Lights, having anybody other than Kyle Chandler giving the big rousing speech is sheer lunacy.
[6] For a wonderful example of how to make genre characters come across as brilliant because of how they *act*, look no further than Timothy Zahn's "Thrawn trilogy".
[7] ... another Julian Fellowes script.
[8] You can see this in Mad Men, too, say with any scene involving Salvatore.
[9] Robert Crawley (Lord Grantham) is almost preternaturally virtuous.  You could argue that this character *has* to be flawless -- otherwise, you-the-audience start asking uncomfortable questions about how just (or rather, *unjust*) this aristocratic world really is, which would distract you pretty thoroughly from the stories that Mr. Fellowes wants to tell.

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Date:Tuesday (3/19/13) 10:25am
Weird. I think the things I liked about John Carter were the things that made it feel weird to you. Specifically, the tone and pacing of certain parts - especially the framing story, and the pre-Mars stuff with the Cavalry guys and whatnot - really seemed like they totally nailed the feel of the older Disney films like Treasure Island or 20k Leagues Under the Sea or Swiss Family Robinson. And I didn't mind the added complexity, not having read the originals, and the characterization and world-building that they did felt pretty solid to me. You're right, though, not the best movie in the world, but still a pretty darn good one, for me. The marketing and stuff, though, spot on. It almost felt like they were hedging their bets, kind of pretending that they knew that there could be sequels to come, but knowing in their black little hearts that it would never happen, and pulling everything back into the film they were making. Ah, well.
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