Saturday, May 19, 2012

16655--Motivation is for Method Actors

Remember "Romancing the Stone"?  When I first watched it years ago, I remember another writer friend of mine saying that he wished Michael Douglas' character (Jack Colton) could've had some heroic theme music.  I thought about that for a moment and pointed out that he didn't need it because he wasn't really a hero.  Kathleen Turner's character (Joan Wilder) wanted him to be, but what she got was the realistic version of an adventurous man who was nowhere near the romanticized hero she wanted.  He was self-centered and money-motivated.  That was the point of the situation.  They both had to be shaken up a bit.  He had to polish his act and rise to challenges that weren't in his selfish "best interest".  She had to get her head out of the clouds and learn to not measure a real man by an idealized standard.

In realms of adventure, fantasy, thrillers and certainly superheroes, heroes and heroines are often cast as "larger than life" figures.  As such, their motivations are best not subjected to overanalysis by mortal kind.

In basic terms, the hero is a fool saddled with self-destructive impulses who's managed to channel them in a socially acceptable manner.  Don't get me wrong, I love a hero and I know lots of us do.  We respect and revere heroes.  We crave them so much that we seek them out.  Still, the actions of heroes run contrary to the instinct for survival and genetic preservation that we're supposed come with as factory-standard equipment.  To run into a burning building while others are running out isn't considered the hallmark of sanity.  Likewise, neither is facing down a hail of bullets or standing ground against overwhelming opposition.  Putting one's own life at risk for the sake of a single other life is not a logical trade (especially one who is weaker and of less obvious worth to the community gene pool), but try telling that to a hero.  As far as an audience goes, individuals will usually feel that heroes belong somewhere on a spectrum between being celebrated or being medicated.

To look at heroic exploits through the lens of realism distorts the remarkable into appearing ridiculous in the eyes of the mundane observer.  Without the suspension of disbelief, heroism is readily mocked.  A man dressed as a bat becomes a misguided socialite with psychological issues in need of therapy.  An altruistic alien superhuman is reduced to an overzealous, boy scout in silly tights.  James Bond would just seem like an overdressed maverick mysoginist making his colleagues feel inadequate even while sitting in the waiting room for the therapy session following Bruce Wayne's.  Peel away at too many layers of your superman, dig too deep beneath the surface, and you'll leave yourself with just a man.  Who really wants a naked Santa standing in the living room explaining himself?  Nobody, that's who.  (Now, let's all try to purge that particular image.) 

Readers aren't seeking pure realism now anymore than they did in the days when the "tall tale" reigned.  Scrutiny of the motivation behind great deeds reduces them to forms of mere human behavior.  Audiences are already faced with realism and its trappings every waking moment.  It surrounds them.  When they seek out the extraordinary, giving them less is a disappointment.  If they could live the deeds of heroes on their own, they wouldn't be immersing themselves in movies, comics and novels.  Don't berate them for seeking the fantastic.  Give them something fantastic.

What's your favorite form of escapist, fantastic entertainment?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

16653--And On the Third Day...

What is that magical delight, with it's incredibly dense, complex and ancient genetic code?  It is a unique creation under the sun, still unduplicated by man's puny sciences.  It is wondrous ambrosia.  Am I gushing?  Maybe a little.  It deserves it, though.  Of course, I'm talking about Theobroma Cacao.  Chocolate.  The blessed gift that is the food of the gods (it says so right in the name). Theobroma cacao Fruit Linne.jpg  While the Mayans were dreaming up their plot to sell everyone else on the 2012 gag, the Aztecs were enjoying the seeds from paradise, eating the fruit (which they believed brought their prophet universal wisdom and knowledge), using the beans for money and also grinding them to make a nutritious, bitter beverage.  Oh, what wondrous bounty from the gods.  Cortez liked the hot drink so much that he packed boatloads of the beans to send back to Spain. 
   Now the Aztecs made their drink from cocoa beans that were grilled, crushed, mixed with maize (your people may call it corn) flour, chili pepper vanilla and hot water.  It was described as bitter yet satisfying.  Yum.  Speaking of satisfying, Montezuma would have copious amounts before servicing his women for the night.  Did I mention, food of the gods?  Anyway, bitter and satisfying wasn't the ticket for Spain.  Cortez introduced it hot, sweet and mixed with cinnamon and vanilla.  They loved it so much it became a state secret.  This meant that the French had to steal it.  It was worth the effort, of course.  After all, it was chocolate.

In 1657, chocolate shops began opening and by 1660 there were chocolate houses (like coffee houses) in several European capitals specializing in the drink.  The high import costs made it an exotic treat for the wealthy.  Even with the addition of milk in 1700, it wasn't until the 1850s that the tariffs were lowered to a penny a pound on the beans and the delicious drink's popularity became ridiculously widespread.  Still, I can't help but smile at the thought of sitting in a stylish chocolate house having a nosh and a server coming by the table with a chocolate pot offering to top off my cup.  Should this reality ever come back in vogue, all servers be on notice that you needn't ask.  Go ahead and warm that up for me.  

Sure, it's had it's detractors, but also legions of advocates from many walks of life.  Cardinals, doctors, peasants, socialites and writers have all sung its praises.  It continues to be eaten alone, included in other foods and used to coat other foods.  Why?  Because chocolate makes life better, of course.  It should come as no surprise that all the very best holidays feature...                                 

Well, you know.

Chocolate invigorates the weary.  Chocolate brings smiles to the sad and euphoria to the heartbroken.  It's loaded with flavor, nutrients and ancient wisdom (like how to appreciate both the bitter and the sweet as well as how smoothly the two combine).

What has brown done for you?

Sunday, May 6, 2012

16642--Forgetting Why They Called the Meeting

 I can't be the only one who sees that Hollywood's entertainment industry bears a disturbing similarity to the smiling meteorologist on a TV news show.  If you don't see it, here's what I'm thinking: grand predictions and promises are made on a daily basis and, despite repeated failures to deliver, people continue to listen attentively the next day as though some golden wisdom were suddenly going to spew forth.

This time out, I want to focus my rant-viewer on adaptations from the realm of comic books.  These endeavors, putting the adventures of iconic heroes onto TV and movie screens have created a spotty history that we have been glad to see improve tremendously in recent years.  One of the stickiest points of translating things from print to video has always been to make the costumed characters look great.  Let's face it, you're largely talking about dressing adults in tight, colorful clothing, sometimes with capes, and presenting them as imposing figures of awe.  Whether hero or villain, you don't want the character to look ridiculous.  Oddly, what looks good on the comic page doesn't always work when brought to life.

 I've always felt the heroes have had the better history of looking good on-screen.  Villains seem to have a harder battle with not looking silly.  Superman has been given a great deal of screen time, portrayed by several different actors, and looks like he belongs right where he is in his red, blue and yellow next to all of the mundane normal people.  He has been confronted mostly, though, by ordinarily garbed antagonists with elaborate schemes rather than classic supervillains.  The few who have dressed for the occasion have probably had about a 50:50 success-vs-fail ratio on looking cool.  Batman's show from the 60s did a little better in the looks department, probably because a lot of the sets and colors were made to look like they belonged in a comic book.  On top of that, many of Batman's opposition sports dressy attire (Egghead, Penguin, Joker, etc.) rather than specialized costuming.  The Riddler likes to surprise, so sometimes he's in a suit and tie and sometimes a body stocking, but he looks believable either way.

S9dvdart.jpg Smallville, to digress back to Superman for a moment, kept their characters in civvies until the later seasons.  In fact, the producers made a big deal about staying away from even the Man of Steel's classic costume because they felt it was no longer something that a modern audience could relate to seeing.  I've seen it most of my life and I never get tired of it.  I was glad when they got those producers out and started suspensefully building toward Clark's growing up to not just wear the colors but to earn the inspirational mantle of a role model and icon.  I suppose the original team's attitude is part of what bothers me in Hollywood.  They didn't even realize that they'd lost sight of why they were doing the show in the first place.

Whether it's a new superhero who's managed to gain a lot of popularity or one of the older ones (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain America), the character is the reason the work is happening.  More accurately, I suppose I could say it's the money-making potential of the character, but it's still that costumed figure that's the reason for everyone being on set and not whichever director or producer happens to be attached to the project.  To me, that says that audience eyes are going to be watching to see those four-color action figures brought to life not to see what Director X's ego looks like when presenting his special vision of the superhero who's going to have top billing no matter who else gets attached to the project.  Check the ego at the door.

Why are the movie X-Men wearing black leather and making fun of their source parentage's colorful wardrobes?  I guess somebody thought black leather would look cooler than the distinctive costumes the characters usually wear.  Why are all of The Avengers romping about in their new movie in their classic garb except for Hawkeye?  I actually had someone tell me they thought the character seemed really cool, but they didn't know his name.  Maybe they'd have known him if he dressed like a superhero.  Apparently, some Hollywood people didn't feel comfortable letting Hawkeye show off his fabulousness while decked out in the purple he's been wearing for decades.  I heard that one concept preceding "Superman Returns" (which went through a ridiculous rotation of cast, directors and writers before the job got done) included dressing Superman in black and having his chest shield unleash flying blades.  That affront to costuming and characterization was courtesy of Tim Burton and is far better off having never been produced.  Of course, he also got paid millions of dollars for doing no work because he's Tim Burton, so what does that do for his ego? 

When it's all wrapped, though, I'm interested in seeing the heroes we know and love, not what whichever replaceable director thought about the character.  These characters are supposed to be distinctive and iconic.  They're supposed to be brave and bold.  That means they shouldn't be embarrassed to go out in public in their capes and tights.  They should already know that they look cool without resorting to black leather to appeal to another demographic.  The song says, "You don't tug on Superman's cape," not Clark's jacket.  Batman's suit doesn't need nipples.  Our heroes need to look good and give us stirring adventures where they act like heroes and battle daunting opposition.  So long as they do that, we'll watch them happily all day without a second thought about the behind-the-scenes crew.

 Don't take me wrong: I don't want to discount good work behind-the-scenes.  I would be delighted, however, if people would stop letting their egos runaway with their good sense.  In Marvel's movie-verse, we've been presented with a Black Widow who's an undercover espionage agent who gets thrown into working with superheroes.  Sounds like her comic-counterpart.  I'm happy.  Clint Barton, however, has been presented as a security guard who can use a bow and arrow and disregard orders when he feels like it and still keep his job...and ends up working with superheroes.  This guy's not bold enough to wear even a little purple?  That one's not thrilling me so much.

Go back to "The Greatest American Hero", adapting a genre character to TV rather than an actual comic character, but a decent effort all the same.  In this, they exploited the "silly tights and cape" aspect by putting the hero in the superhero suit and letting him feel openly ridiculous about the look.  He had no choice, though, since he got his powers from the suit.  They were pretty good powers, too.  For that, I think I'd get past feeling silly.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

16638--There's No Doubt if You Spell it Out

What can I say about crafting a new world that hasn't already been said?  Well, a lot.  It's a new world, so it's literal undiscovered country to everyone else. 

Now, what I've been wondering is how to introduce other people to the elements of an unfamiliar reality.  Do you walk new readers into the shallow end or throw them in the deep and let them sink or swim?  My opinion is that if you want to get your tale across and make it inviting, then you need to be a great host.  That means giving your new guests a little guided tour before cutting them loose on their own.  When you do that, some people are going to swim like champs.  Some may dog paddle.  Some may drown.  That's just the way of things.  

An example of experiencing the "figure it out for yourself" approach takes me all the way back to Sunday School.  There's this popular parable about the hidden talents.  Apparently, a master gave his three servants each a talent.  After a time, one was able to use his talent and show the master how he had turned it into ten.  The second servant had likewise been very diligent and had made his single talent into five.  The last servant, however, had hidden his talent and was proud to show how he'd kept it safe.  For his timidness, the final servant was chided for he had made nothing more of his single talent.  In some tellings he had buried it and in others it had been hidden under a bushel basket, which my young and uninformed mind equated with the expression of hiding one's light under a bushel.  Ah, so this was a metaphorical parable about hiding one's talents versus letting them shine and developing the gifts one had been given.

No.  If they'd told us at the time, we could've solidified in our minds way back then that the "talent" wasn't the one we were familiar with.  Instead, it was an ancient form of money with which we had no acquaintance.  The whole story was about saving versus investing and risk management.  Left to find out for ourselves, it took longer to learn what they were talking about and certainly puts a different spin on the lesson and the book.

In a similar bit of non-guidance, I read about how Saul of Tarses was stricken blind when he saw a divine vision of Jesus.  Sucked for him, but it turned him from being a persecutor of Christians to being an evangelist.  From then on, he walked about from city to city spreading the word and writing letters.  Wow, very impressive.  I tried to imagine what it must've been like for the poor guy (Paul, then) walking around blind to do his job.  It was years before I realized he'd gotten his sight back.  Oh, he got it back?  Well, it hadn't said and no one had told us.  We were just supposed to assume or somehow know this amongst all the other miracles and wonders that he'd only been stricken with temporary blindness?  I mean, I had figured, the Lord strikes you blind then you say struck.  If the writer wanted us to know differently, he should've said so.  Throw us a bone, huh? We were just kids.  Would that have been too much to ask?

Remember "Mission: Impossible"?  Of course you do.  You're reading this on the internet so you obviously don't live under a rock.  Anyway, the missions start the same way: blah blah blah should you choose to accept.  Then, "As always, if any of your team are captured or killed, the secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions."  Pretty simple, sure.  I always pictured a secretary (y'know, like Moneypenny) taking a call and telling some foreign caller, "No, we don't know anything about him."

One day, the light bulb came on Bombeta de Llum.JPG and I realized they were talking about the Secretary of State.  Again, they never said, but knowing what was intended changes the way you view the story.  Not to ruin any surprises, but I don't think it was ever confirmed (said aloud) that the IMF's wandering adventurers/meddlers were agents of the CIA until the first Tom Cruise movie.  Those TV folks used to try to play it safe, so if they stepped on any toes, at least they retained plausible deniability.  There's a lesson from the intelligence community's unwritten handbook.

Now, if you want to play with that murky ambiguousness to perhaps surprise your readers later, go for it.  Enjoy.  On the other hand, if you don't want to risk your story being received in a manner wholly different from what you were planning, be clear and don't be afraid to do a little hand-holding until your readers are familiar with the new terrain and walking on their own.  Without that you take the even greater risk of disrupting the suspension of disbelief your reader was enjoying or fostering complete alienation. 

Who wants that?

Nobody, that's who.