Monthly Archives: March 2013

Nets wreck writing

I’m not a fan of the CSI series of shows. There’s a lot of reasons: Most of the cops don’t look like cops, the over-stylized visuals that make me wonder if I’m watching a drama or the new Kelly Clarkson video, bad guys that I have figured out before the opening credits are done, etc.

But I do love my guilty pleasures and am willing to put up with some of that … if the people who run the show don’t assume I’m a moron. And the folks who run CSI? They clearly think I’m stupid. Like “I’ve just spent three days on a bus sitting between Sarah Palin and Ted Nugent and now I can barely spell my own name” stupid.

Way back in one of the early seasons of the original CSI when I had a brief flirtation with the show, George and Warrick are in a lab together. The one is trying to lift prints off of an unusual surface or that in some way have been degraded, so he has to use a slightly altered technique. Interesting, right? Here’s the problem: The one lifting the prints explains what he’s doing to the other forensic expert like he’s giving a junior high biology lesson. It was that bad. I’m actually supposed to believe that two professional forensic experts, both of whom have at least bachelor’s (and maybe master’s) degrees and a few years of experience each, need a basic explanation of how to lift a fingerprint with a technique I, a guy with only an English degree and one semester of college bio under my belt, can easily understand even before said explanation is complete?

I suppose I can’t completely blame the writers and producers of CSI. They understand that a good portion of America, unlike me, didn’t pay attention in high school. Plus, CSI is looking for a global market, so not only are you trying to break it down for less-educated Americans, as a writer you are forced to break it down so simply that someone who didn’t get the greatest education in Kuala Lumpur, Johannesburg or Saint Petersburg is going to be able to understand the translation.

I can live with bad shows being bad shows. When shows I like get stoopid, it bums me out. Take Fringe. A lot of complex, theoretical science is effectively broken down and modeled by Walter for the non-geniuses around him. It’s done in an entertaining, interesting way each time. It’s a writing coup: Simplification, not dumbing down, of some pretty complex theories and scientific laws. However, every once in a while, even in a show that trusts its viewers to the extent Fringe must, the program does get a little simple. But in odd ways. For example, say Broyles walks up to an unnamed FBI agent and asks, “Have we begun the testing for the sub-thermal radioactive quantum bugaboo?” The unnamed FBI agent will shake his/her head, because he/she can’t say anything because then he/she would collect a bigger check. Then Broyles responds, “Well, when you get the results from the sub-thermal radioactive quantum bugaboo, tell me immediately.” What was the point of that? It doesn’t really enlighten the viewer in any way, it doesn’t further the story. Any normal human being would have just said, “Let me know when you get the results.” And Broyles should’ve, too, in a perfect TV world.

What’s great is that it’s no longer 1982. Since the networks aren’t getting it right, there are plenty of other options for good screen drama. Once again, I reference The Walking Dead, specifically the latest episode “This Sorrowful Life.” Glenn decides to propose to Maggie. On a network show, this would’ve involved some great conceit, an over-the-top display of affection, or endless speechifying by one or both parties involved in the engagement. But The Walking Dead gets it right. Glenn takes the ring out of his pocket, never showing it to Maggie, just pressing it in the palm of her hand. She says yes, and they kiss. Simple, elegant, beautiful. Glenn and Maggie know they love each other. Neither has the time or energy for speeches or showiness. They nearly died for each other just weeks before, so they do not doubt each other’s commitment to this relationship. The moment is about relief and re-connection, true love, nothing to cheapen the moment. The brief encounter stays true to the characters and the show.

And there’s no explanations or dumbing down. None necessary, none offered. Thankfully.

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The psycho you love to hate

He's so good at being bad ... well, at least in "Silence of the Lambs."

He’s so good at being bad … well, at least in “Silence of the Lambs.”

My two memories of seeing Silence of the Lambs way back in 1991:

First is the scene where Clarice Starling helps with an autopsy of one of “Buffalo Bill’s” victims. As the autopsy moves forward, the crew realizes that something has been jammed down the dead woman’s throat. Slowly, the pathologist reaches into the woman’s throat with tweezers … And at that point, the elderly woman sitting next to me in the packed theater whispered to her friend, “If that’s a penis, I’m going to throw up.” My pal and me – in the midst of a very quiet and tense moment – burst out laughing.

The second thing I recall is watching Clarice in the basement with James “Buffalo Bill” Gumm, trying to find the depraved killer in the dark. The entire time Clarice is in the basement, I kept waiting for Lecter to appear. I really expected him to be pulling the strings of Gumm, just like he was everyone else he came in contact with. I wasn’t disappointed by the ending, but I was a bit surprised that Gumm was Lecter’s diversion, not his compatriot.

That’s the hallmark of a good villain: Even when Lecter is not on screen, his presence hovers over the action, the viewer anticipating his return, waiting to see what he will try next. Really, Lecter is on screen for about 1/5th of the movie, maybe less. Yet everything that happens is because Lecter wants it to. Lecter wants to escape, so he takes advantage of the carelessness of a pre-eminent mental health practitioner as well as overconfident police. Lecter wants the FBI’s eyes elsewhere while he escapes, so he sets them on the hunt for media star Buffalo Bill. Lecter wants companionship, so he begins a series of tete-a-tetes with young Starling, almost positioning himself as a mentor.

What Lecter wants, he gets. It’s really that simple. Simple except the man spends most of the movie locked in a cage in a basement of a high-security mental health facility. Nothing is done by force. Everything Lecter gets is through manipulation and fear. Reading people, understanding what motivates them, feeding them what they desire until Lecter has them positioned where he wants them. For all of the fear and dread that permeates Silence of the Lambs, there’s very little on-screen violence. It’s all autopsy photos and conversations, mutterings and memories of grim times. No one seems to want to talk aloud about Lecter, for fear the boogeyman will make them his next meal.

It’s a testament to not giving people what they want. Lecter isn’t like his movie monster contemporaries of the late 1980s-early 1990s such as Jason Vorhees, Michael Myers, Freddy Kreuger, Pinhead, etc. He is not about elaborate kills and an enormous body count. It’s the potential of Lecter’s destructive abilities that keep you riveted, knowing at some point that the cobra will quit hypnotically dancing back and forth and lung, fangs bared, ready to bite, pierce, destroy, feed.

Well, at least that’s what you get with the Hannibal Lecter of the Silence of the Lambs. The Hannibal Lecter of Hannibal, the sequel, is Jason, Michael, Pinhead and Freddy. Where Silence of the Lambs is a quiet night home with your wife, Hannibal is a night out with your wife … at the Super Bowl. Hannibal is about the elaborate kills, the blood, the body count. No restraint is shown. It’s steeped in stylization and indulgence, not realism and suspense. There is no tension. We know as soon as we meet pederast Mason Verger, crooked Italian cop Renaldo Pazzi and FBI douche Paul Krendler that they are expendable, sausage for Lecter’s grinder. The hogs, the brain eating, the Christian symbolism and family karma of the Pazzi kill … Lecter may as well have been wearing a hockey mask and a glove with knives attached. It’s not helped by the performance of Hopkins, either. He sleepwalks through Hannibal, emoting nothing but boredom. The eyes, the unmatched fierceness of his gaze is long gone.

Less, in this case, is clearly so much more. I can sum it up with a quick comparison. In Hannibal, for no apparent reason, Lecter seems to be in love (or his version of it, at any rate) with Clarice. He caresses her, kisses her, strokes her. But neither Lecter’s advances nor Starling’s attempts to stop them have any meat to them. It feels forced, unnatural, unbelievable.

Cut to Silence of the Lambs, the scene where Hannibal and Starling meet for the last time. The conversation is intense, and as Starling is being led out of the building by police, Hannibal yells for her. Clarice breaks away, running to Lecter’s cage. He hands her some of his drawings, and – oh so gently – Lecter runs his finger along the side of Clarice’s hand. That soft touch has more intimacy, more desire for connection, more realness than can be found in the entirety of Hannibal.

Less is more. Repeat.

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Ellis and Hemingway, tellers of manly tales

Sometimes, you don’t want to put a book down, while on the other hand dreading the eventual conclusion because the story just has you so damn hooked. Yes, Warren Ellis’ Gun Machine, I’m looking at you.

The short review is this: Imagine CSI (and CSI Miami, CSI New York, CSI Denver, CSI Terre Haute, CSI NCIS THEGOODWIFE, etc.) didn’t suck.

I know, it’s hard to get past the way-too-stylish-for-cops clothes and hair, the over-lit outdoor shots and moody indoor lighting, the fact that the dialogue seems to have been written by a junior-high dropout nursing a 700-mg-a-day Thorazine habit, and realize that police procedurals work because the science of crime, evidence and death is fascinating and many times odd. Part of the brilliance of Gun Machine is that Ellis captures the interesting points of fact-finding without being bogged down by the heavier aspects of the science or resorting to talking down to the reader as if they are a two-year-old, a lobotomized howler monkey or a U.S. congressman.

The other part of the brilliance is the heavy, numbing noir world in which Gun Machine is set. While N.Y. Detective John Tallow drives, he eschews music or talk radio for the police band. Over the course of the novel, the reader begins to roll with him to the beat of  reported rapes, murders and mindless violence that the city’s residents wreak upon each other. The image that has stuck with me since I finished Gun Machine is that of Tallow sitting in the basement of One Police Plaza, in a room covered floor-to-ceiling with photographs of patterns made of guns – big guns, small guns, new guns, damn-near ancient guns – the smell of tobacco faint in the air and the omnipresent pressure to fail or disappear (or at the very least go fuck off for the rest of his life ) pushing down on his shoulders. The final chapters of this book even got my heart racing a bit. I’m a huge fan of Transmetropolitan (comic series) and Freakangels (online comic series), and I liked Ellis’ first novel, Crooked Little Vein. (Most people probably know him from Red, his graphic novel about retired CIA agents that was turned in to a 2010 film starring Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman and Hellen Mirren.) But he hit it out of the park on this one. Gun Machine is a novel I’m looking forward to reading again.

Sometimes, you can’t help but put a book down, hoping it will end just so you can return it to the library. That’s what happened to me during my time with Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Hemingway does a terrific job – too well in fact – of mimicking the “hurry up and wait” military life. It was mind numbing. To be fair, it was also a busy time for me, so it made it harder to sit down and get into it, but Hemingway certainly didn’t make it easy. I had no such problem with the last 270 pages, when the isolation recedes and the war starts to close in on Robert Jordan and his band of Spanish rebels. It took me more than a month to finish the first half of the book, less than a week to finish the rest.

The set-up is just too slow. Many of the rebels kind of run together when it comes to personalities and roles, and the romance with Jordan and “Rabbit” seems forced and childish, especially when compared to the affair of Frederic and Catherine in A Farewell to Arms. It’s B action flick bad, like a studio exec said to Hemingway, “We need romance so we can get a hot piece of ass in the picture, sell it to teenage boys.” I think the set-up and romance might have worked better spliced into flashbacks. In media res would have been a better way to handle this story, throwing readers into the action and then looking back to see how Jordan, Rabbit, Pablo and the rest ended up where they did.

What I thought may have been Hemingway’s greatest accomplishment, to give some credit to the set-up, was the character Pablo. When Robert Jordan arrives at the rebel camp, Pablo is the undisputed – if often drunken – leader. His fall from that position and subsequent reveal of him as a pure opportunist was easily the most interesting subplot that surrounded the attack of a key bridge.

I also like the end. Jordan completes his mission, blowing the bridge, but is fatally wounded in the escape. He orders his compatriots to leave him behind, armed, so that he can hopefully slow any pursuit. For Whom the Bell Tolls ends with the image of the dying Jordan, his gun trained on a Fascist officer, preparing to drop the unknowing soldier. An American’s final gasp against the tide of authoritarianism.

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The perfect moment

Carl's trip with Pa and Michonne illustrates how much things have changed with our plucky little gang of survivors.

Carl’s trip with Pa and Michonne illustrates how much things have changed with our plucky little gang of survivors.

Kudos to the minds behind The Walking Dead. After a meandering second season (particularly the first half), Season 3 has really upped the stakes and forced the gang to deal with some truly unpleasant realities: the death of Lori, the threat of the Governor and his followers, the reality that survival gets harder with each passing day, the fact that they will all rise when they die, etc.

But I thought Sunday’s episode – “Clear” – perfectly illustrated how the group has changed, particularly Rick. At the open of the episode, Rick, Michonne and Carl are driving, scavenging. They pass a lone human on the highway, who yells and pleads for them to take him along. Michonne, without blinking, drives straight pass. She is soon forced off the road because of accident debris blocking it, and the car is stuck. Rick and Carl get out to find some items to help give the vehicle traction. Michonne gets the vehicle out of the mud, and just before Rick gets back in the car, he sees the loner running up the road toward them, yelling for help. But Rick doesn’t acknowledge him, getting in the car and resuming the trip.

At the end of the episode, after Rick has met up with his old friend Morgan and learned of he and his son Duane’s fate, the trio head back the way they came from. As they pull out of town, Rick notice’s the body of the loner and his pack lying beside the road. Another one bites the dust in post-Apocalyptic America. Then, the camera focused on the pack, Michonne reverses the car and steers back to the pack. Someone scoops it up, throws it in the car, and they are once again on their way.

A brilliant piece of writing by Scott Gimple. That simple act of putting the car in reverse to retrieve the bag summed up the way our gang of heroes has changed. In the first and even possibly second season, Rick likely would have picked up the loner, tried to make him one of the gang. If the loner had died even before coming close, Rick might have buried the man and posted a simple wooden cross, maybe said a few words. But here, there is no emotion, sadness, regret, feeling of any sort. There is only survival. The loner is dead and gone. What he has left may help the gang. The gang takes what he has left. Hope, fear, anger, none of it matters. Emotion has been sublimated by cold pragmatism, the hard, true vision of what needs to happen for survival. That, in the end, is all there is.

Man, I can’t wait for next week.

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