Superfriend Patrick and I used to watch MST3K a little obsessively and to this day quote lines from awful movies like “Manos, the Hands of Fate” to each other. So I’m a wee bit excited.
But I’m also scared, because Patrick and I once tried to film our own episode, with his family’s camcorder set up in front of their downstairs television—our only problem was that we were 13 or 14 and had no idea what old movies at the video store were actually bad enough to make fun of. We searched and searched the drama and classics aisle. Then we finally we saw it! Some stupid movie where two characters spend the entire film stuck together on a jalopy of a boat making its way down the Ulanga river. A missionary and a drunk boat captain. Something about fighting Germans.
But we couldn’t pull it off. As hard as we tried, we just stunk at making fun of movies.
Then we got to school on Monday. We told our better-informed friend Jon how we tried and failed. We told him we tried to use MST3K’s humor on some movie called “The African Queen”.
“‘The African Queen‘ ?” Jon asked. “You realize that’s pretty much a classic? Bogart? Hepburn? Like, four or five Oscar nominations?”
So, yeah, I haven’t watched that damn movie to this day, 14 years later. And Patrick and I didn’t try do replicate MST3K again.
But I’m definitely going next Saturday to see Hodgson and Beaulieu!
I’m going to be the jerk who doesn’t jump on the Heath Ledger bandwagon.
There’s a simple reason: for a movie touted as the one that gets contemporary comics’ depth, the Joker is a flat character. He is a nihilist. He’s a terrorist without an ideology.
Story-wise, it’s a decent conceit. How does Batman defeat, or at least outsmart, an enemy for whom chaos is an end in itself? But for an character, this nihilism flattened the Joker.
It even made his repeated attempts to tell the story of abuse at his father’s hand a throwaway, as if there was a conversation during the writing of the script where someone said, “The audience is going to want to know why the Joker is the way he is, why he likes knives, etcetera. We need to add some backstory, maybe just a line to head off that critique.” [Edit: My friend Jason, far more attentive to detail and better versed in comics than I, points out that the Joker provides multiple biographies, none of which would be considered true. So by definition it can't be a throwaway. My apologies.]
The late Ledger is getting rave reviews for his performance, but it doesn’t nearly approach the menace of a character with actual motives, with weaknesses to exploit, with obsessions beyond blowing things up. The Joker is a whack job. A petit Goebbels. He’s an entertaining villain, yes, and he’s fun to watch as the bad guy, but he’s too pure a villain. This isn’t what we’ve come to expect anymore in this genre—comics characters were invented when people still believed in unadulterated evil, but we’re past that, we live in a time when the phrase “the axis of evil” sounds pedantic.
The simple way to put it: the Joker is no Hannibal Lecter. He’s not a character as much as a plot device.
Director Richard Linklater’s trippy adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s story “A Scanner Darkly” debuted Friday, after many delays, many doubts about the animation-from-live-action process, and many pessimistic articles about both. Critics claimed Dick’s near-future story of addiction and duplicity (both personal and corporate) couldn’t even be rendered on film.
Fortunately, the director, his crew, and his cast—Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Winona Ryder, Woody Harrelson—haven’t reason to worry. They’ve produced an amazing product, the first narratively successful reimagining of the medium since Jurassic Park introduced the public at large to CGI.
Rotoscoping, a “tracing” process Linklater used to animate his actors, allows filmmakers to capture, in motion, a level of physical detail not quite available to animators otherwise.
Much film technology has changed in the last two decades. But little has changed in how directors using that technology tell their stories in pictures. Shots from The Matrix were hailed as technological achievements, and they were—yet, narratively, they contributed little, nothing more than eye-candy. Despite the power of computer-aided filmmaking, since that technology’s introduction, visual storytelling still hasn’t been revolutionized, neither with the immediate impact of Citizen Kane nor with the slowly blossoming influence of John Ford’s The Searchers. In fact, cinematographic advancement in the last twenty years has largely come in the form of reaction to the power of computers: handheld cameras gave Saving Private Ryan its terrifying presence, and a camera strapped to Sean Gullette captured his character Max’s instability in the film Pi.
Linklater, whose previous credits include Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, and The School of Rock, has provided in A Scanner Darkly our contemporary visual-narrative breakthrough. And he did it with an old—but previously too-overwhelming-to-accomplish—trick: rotoscoping.
Rotoscoping, a “tracing” process Linklater used to animate his actors, allows filmmakers to capture, in motion, a level of physical detail not quite available to animators otherwise. Even stick figures can take on an astonishing level of motion-naturalism, like in this rotoscoping of a soccer player:
Now see what rotoscoping can do in a feature film like A Scanner Darkly:
But the scale and centrality of rotoscoping in A Scanner Darkly is unprecedented—and it’s utterly essential to the story. An example: the Dick short story tells of “scramble suits” worn by the police that display sections (hair, half a face, a chest) of a million different people to disguise officers’ identities (you can see a scramble suit in the trailer above). Theoretically this could have been accomplished with CGI—but it never could have captured the drug-induced fissure in visual perception as Linklater’s rotoscoped suits do. But, moreover, the animation of real actors, objects, and backgrounds gets a viewer to question what it is really real and what is rotoscoped. It’s subtle. It’s frustrating as a viewer. And it communicates perfectly the characters’ states of mind.
Much is made in film literature of contemporaries from different media borrowing from one another. European surrealist painters, for example, traded much with their surrealist friends in film, resulting in classics like L’Age d’Or with Salvador Dali. Yet what is more significant is how filmmakers will use old artistic solutions to address new problems. Linklater has a relationship with the Cubists of a century ago. The filmmaking problem for A Scanner Darkly: How does one film a science-fiction story that asks you to doubt reality, not in a whole-hog Matrix way but in a nagging, sometimes-certain, sometimes bewildered way, the way associated with drug addiction? How does one capture the feeling of not knowing whether you’re in too deep or not deep enough? It’s a description of the problems faced by Cubists, which they solved much the same way as Linklater. They all succeeded in using a two-dimensional medium not to mimic the three-dimensional world but to layer sets of three-dimensional worlds, even some that don’t go well together at all.
It’s too early to say if the rotoscoping of A Scanner Darkly will find a home in other films; few screenplays would be well suited. However, Linklater’s movie has accomplished what a hundred cool movies from The Matrix to The Incredibles weren’t able to: using new technology to tell stories in a brand new way.
What is it with maverick directors and superhero movies? Tim Burton started it. He’d had back-to-back sleeper hits (Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice) when he signed on to direct the original Batman. Bryan Singer made the fun and inventive film The Usual Suspects, then went on to direct X-Men, X2 and now Superman Returns. Sam Raimi worked his way up from genre flicks to his dark masterpiece, A Simple Plan—then took the reigns of the Spider-Man franchise. Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream) is working on an adaptation of the Japanese graphic novel Lone Wolf and Cub (and for a long time was attached to an adaptation of Alan Moore’s Watchmen). Continue reading
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has been around. It started out as a BBC radio comedy series written by Douglas Adams. Adams then wrote the radio plays into a series of novels, which were in turn made into a short-lived television series, a very early computer game, and now, the crown jewel: a movie, the last great frontier for selling out.
I’ve read at least the first three novels, but it was years ago and I don’t remember very much about them, so forgive me for not being the diehard HHGTTG fan that, say, my Caltech-alumnus girlfriend is, or for that matter, anyone who went to one of the major left-brain universities. I’ve seen Adams-scripted episodes of Doctor Who more recently than I’ve encountered any of his Guide work (I’m going to refer to it as Guide, because the actual title is too long to write, and because Hitchhiker’s contains that annoying hyphen and I always have to think twice about whether there are two H’s in the middle, and because HHGTTG is also hard to remember). Continue reading
By those who have heard his album Grace, there is an almost unanimous awe and deeply held affection. In the 90′s, when everything was about brooding, addiction, and the climate in Seattle, Buckley was in New York and Memphis (and touring around the world in between) playing music so emotionally complex, so ineffable but inviting, that first-time listeners—today—still feel a need to mourn his early death. Continue reading