Friday, March 26, 2010

Film Friday: Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)

Jesus Christ Superstar is one of those strange movies that grows on you. When I first saw it, late, late, late one night, I thought it stank. I didn’t like the music. I didn’t like the actors. I thought the whole thing was done on the cheap. But I gave it a second chance, and before it was over, I was hooked. It's now become one of my favorite musicals.

** spoiler alert **

Directed by Norman Jewison, Jesus Christ Superstar is the big screen adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical of the same name, which is a musical based on the crucifixion of Jesus. Sounds like a hoot, right? Well, it gets worse. Jewison decided to go with minimal sets, minimal costumes, and unknown actors. Thus, the sets are little more than ruins and the costumes look like the casual clothes the actors wore to the first rehearsal. Moreover, where props are added, Jewison uses modern props, e.g. machine guns. Also, the soundtrack mixes some of Webber’s “kitschiest” bits with 1970s rock. What could possibly go wrong?

Interestingly, it is these choices that make the film. The minimal sets turn out to be a genius stroke. By giving us only hints of how these familiar buildings looked, Jewison lets the filmgoer fill in the details with their own views of how these places must have looked. This brings the viewer in and produces sets that are much more personal than if a team of workers constructed phony facades. Moreover, because the landscapes are spectacular -- it was filmed in Israel -- you spend the entire film lost in the impressive scenery, which easily takes you back 2000 years.

The music turns out to be a brilliant choice too. Whereas most musicals repeat one sound over and over, and which rarely lends itself to song that will work outside the musical, Superstar's use of rock music gives these songs a life beyond the film. Moreover, the choice of rock music lends the film a seriousness which the traditional vaudeville-like music of musicals can’t touch. When you have a guy pounding away at a piano stretching out his “A’s” (as in “raaaag time baaaaaaaand”) you just can’t deal with serious themes. But Superstar's songs are serious and philosophical, sometimes just plain beautiful. My personal favorite is “Could We Start Again Please,” which builds amazingly, though the most famous is “I Don't Know How To Love Him,” sung by Yvonne Elliman, who plays Mary Magdalene and went on to sing the hit “If I Can’t Have You” from Saturday Night Fever.

The story itself is quite good, though it upsets some people. Indeed, when Superstar came out, it was highly controversial, though its success has tempered the criticism today. At the time, some Jews claimed some of the lyrics were anti-Semitic. Catholics and Protestants were upset that Jesus was portrayed as possibly being interested in sex, though this is only hinted at, that Judas was portrayed too sympathetically, that Judas asserts that Jesus is just a man, and some considered it blasphemous that Jesus wasn’t shown being resurrected. Some also objected to having Jesus and the gang portrayed by dirty hippies, and that Judas was played by a black actor. Oh well.

If you require Biblical stories to be humorless, with one-dimensional characters, then this movie is not for you.

The lyrics are witty and clever, often with interesting bits of humor thrown in. The actors are excellent, though it takes a while to realize how perfect they truly are for the roles. Ted Neely, who plays Jesus, is infinitely better than “Thorazine Jesus” played by Willem Defoe. This Jesus has passion and he doesn’t confuse “meek” with “Holy.” Elliman plays a wonderfully conflicted Mary Magdalene, who loves Jesus, but doubts her ability to be worthy of him. And Judas. . . what can you say about Judas?

Many of the detractors hate this version of Judas. They claim he’s too sympathetic -- they apparently want the Snidely Whiplash version who foams at the mouth from start to finish. But Carl Anderson gives us a complex Judas, who presents both a believable betrayal and a believable contrition. Anderson begins by accusing Jesus of having lost his way. He sees Jesus as a man who is drunk with all the adulation, and who has deluded himself into believing he’s God. This allows Judas to fall under the spell of the Priests who tell him that they want to stop Jesus for the good of the Jews. But the moment he betrays Jesus, Anderson really turns up the volume, giving us an amazing guilt-ridden tantrum, followed by hopelessness personified, and finally suicide. In the end, Judas re-appears in the cleverest number ever to feature a tasseled white jumpsuit.

There is real emotion behind these actors. Their dancing is excellent, and their singing, which at first seems strange as it is an unusual style for musicals, really makes the movie stand out. In fact, I’ve heard other, more famous singers take on these rolls (there have been several versions of the soundtrack released and at least one remake), and those actors added a level of gloss that felt fake and made the roles less real. . . less emotional.

What the critics miss about Jesus Christ Superstar is that the movie approaches its subject matter with incredible care and a real love. Jesus is tested, but regains his faith. Those who have faith in him are rewarded. Those who have betrayed him suffer their own damnation. Yet, each of the characters is treated fairly, good guy or bad, and the actors play them with full belief in them as real people, not as props to hit certain plot points. Finally, the ending is so jarring that it does a good job of imparting the anguish with which the real story ends.

So if you haven’t see this movie, I highly recommend it, and Easter is a great time for it. If you saw it once and didn’t like it, give it a second try.

Finally, I mention the remake. Don’t watch it. They use the setting of a London street gang, and it’s highly politically correct. Moreover, the songs all have a nasty edge, particular the King Herod part, and the characters seem much more one-dimensional and, often, hateful.

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Friday, March 19, 2010

The Problems Of Action Heroes

Next week, we’ll get back to specific movies. This week, let’s talk about another problem modern movies face. This problem is associated with action heroes. Action heroes change with the times, and these days they’ve run into a wall. Between conflicting moral codes and the problems of “adrenaline addiction,” there isn’t much left for an action hero to do.

Action heroes have been around since Odysseus took his band of merry pirates to Troy for the Friday night fights. At that point, a hero was a man who was mortal, but also the offspring of a god. And action stories were about the exploits of these heroes, as they overcame challenges that were beyond mortal men. This set the ground work for much that followed.

Indeed, even today, action heroes need to be able to do things that regular humans can’t. It is the rare hero who doesn’t quickly demonstrate some far-above-average skill -- no matter how much the movie facially tries to sell the hero as “just a regular person” when the story begins. Moreover, action stories tend to be epic in nature as the hero goes through a series of successively more difficult challenges. And it is within these requirements that action heroes suddenly find themselves in a bit of a jam.

The reason humans suffer from addiction is the competing demands of two hard-wired behavioral responses within the human being. First, we seek pleasure. Pleasure sets off all kinds of chemical reactions that make us want more. That’s nature’s way of telling you to do something. If it feels good to eat something tasty, then do it. And if it doesn’t give you any pleasure, like that none-too-succulent rock you’re sucking on or the banana you’re trying to jam in your ear, then don’t bother doing that again. In this way, nature steers us toward the things we should be doing.

Secondly, humans have a coping mechanism that takes the emotional edge off our experiences. This lets us cope with trauma and loss, as it softens their sting over time. It also lets us put up with horrible conditions, like prison camps, as we grow accustomed to them. Without this, our suicide rate would probably be extremely high. Unfortunately, this dulling mechanism also dulls pleasure. Thus, we soon find that the things that brought us pleasure aren’t as pleasurable as they once were. That means we need more than before, to achieve the same high. This is true of everything that delivers pleasure, from foods to drugs to the adrenaline we derive from watching action heroes blow things up, engage in fights, and narrowly escape death. Action heroes basically make us adrenaline junkies.

As junkies, the more we get, the more we will need the next time just to recreate the same thrill. That means that each successive action movie must have bigger explosions, more frenetic fights and bigger stakes to keep us entertained. If an action hero simply did what the last guy did, we would be bored. And this creates a problem. How do you keep upping the ante to keep generating that adrenaline rush? Bigger explosions? Ok, so a car bomb turns into a huge car bomb turns into a semi-trailer bomb, turns into a city-wide nuclear bomb turns into. . . hmm. Ok, maybe we increase the shock level. The bad guy goes from being some dude to being some corporate lackey to a corporate president to a senator to the president to. . . shoot, not again.

Do you see the problem? As each film ups the ante, we slowly run out of room to keep upping the ante. As it is, the bad guys these days need to sit at the highest levels of power (always the most powerful person in the film), they need to plan to destroy the country or the world, and they need to set off explosions that bring down landmarks. Nothing lesser will do. But this doesn’t leave us any room to keep going up either. There just isn’t much “more” left.

That’s why a movie like Ronin was so refreshing. Unlike most action movies that traffic in bigger-is-better, Ronin went for realism. And in the process, it brought a whole new form of adrenaline rush because the action actually felt real, something you hadn’t really see before on the screen. But even there, how far can you go with realism before people get bored again?

This catch 22 is slowly killing action movies.

But there’s another problem too, and it deals with action movies falling into a very boring formula. And that formula derives, of all things, from the contradictory human moral code to which we subscribe.

On the one hand, humans love revenge. Forget the turn the other cheek stuff, we are all for an eye for an eye and bringing a gun to a knife fight. But on the other hand, we find it morally repugnant that someone would kill without a reason or that they would kill someone once they’ve been disarmed and defeated.

How does Hollywood reconcile this? Well, it’s found two mechanisms. Let’s call the first one drone slaying. To satisfy the audience’s blood lust without running afoul of the audience’s revulsion at unjustified killing, Hollywood has learned to take the humans out of the film. Now, the hero can slay an army of robots or orcs or zombies, and the audience doesn’t think twice. (Even in war movies, it is rare that we see the faces of the uniformed drones that get gunned down en mass by the hero.) Since the audience doesn’t see these as human, the moral code doesn’t kick in. Thus, the hero can kill all the drones they want -- which, not coincidentally, also gives the hero his (or her) bona fides as a hero, because they’ve shown themselves to possess skills that far exceed the helpless humans around them. But sadly, because these are drones, the hero’s actions still ring hollow.

Thus, the hero must kill a couple of “faced” humans. This bring us to the second mechanism. Hollywood has learned to manufacturer ways that the good guy can still kill the bad guy without running afoul of the moral code. Indeed, the two primary rules on this code are: (1) never kill without reason and (2) never kill anyone who has been beaten. So Hollywood always starts the movie by giving us a clichéd, easy to understand reason why the hero must act -- and forget doing the right thing, we want easy. . . they've got my daughter!. . . they're going to blow up the city! Gone is Clint Eastwood’s anti-hero in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly who killed for money, and in his place are a series of heroes who need to suffer a proportional loss or threat of immediate proportional loss before they can kill the bad guy. Moreover, have you noticed how many movies end with the good guy defeating the bad guy, but not killing him -- because you can’t kill someone who has been defeated and is now helpless -- only to turn his back as the bad guy picks up a random gun, thereby allowing the good guy to turn around and blast him? This manufactured ending satisfies the audience’s blood lust, without making them feel morally uncomfortable about their choices. That’s kind of sad.

Indeed, this cliché changes the nature of the hero. The hero goes from taking command of the world around them to becoming a victim of chance. In other words, they no longer make their own destiny, they need to wait for the bad guy to make it for them. It’s like Lucas re-editing Star Wars to make Greedo shoot first. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. In one lousy edit, Lucas has changed Han Solo’s character dramatically. Gone is the rogue and in his place is the victim who acted in self defense. Yuck. Well, that’s exactly what Hollywood has done to the action hero generally.

Thus, the modern action hero faces a series of problems. Everything that can be blown up has been blown up, and there’s no higher authority that can be a criminal that isn’t already being used in movies today. Further, the action hero now needs to waste most of the movie picking on drones until he (or she) is ready to fight a highly choreographed main fight to end the movie in a morally acceptable way that still results in a dead bad guy. What a lousy time to be a hero.

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Friday, March 12, 2010

The Problem of Sequels

We all know that sequels are rarely as good as the original. But there is a more serious problem with sequels than just crappy writing. Indeed, there is something inherently problematic in the concept of sequels itself that not only can doom them from the start, but can also harm the original.

Hang with me here. Humans are creatures of logic and emotion. In the real world, logic is superior. Logic gives us reasoning. It allows us to build the world around us. Without logic, there would be no science, no math, and no order. It is only through logic that we can categorize and reason, that we develop patterns of thought, formulas, order and structure. Emotions simply cannot do these things because they are subjective, they vary from person to person and situation to situation. They lack structure, consistency and reliability. Thus, a society based more on emotions than on logic will be an unjust society and a failure.

But story telling is different. In story telling, logic plays only a limited role. It plays the part of the gatekeeper, informing us whether or not the events presented in the story are sufficiently likely that we can suspend our disbelief and accept the story as real enough that we may judge it on its merits. And what are the merits by which we judge a story? We judge a story on the basis of whether or not we "like" it -- which is an emotional decision, not a logical decision. . . you do not "like" an equation, it is simply true or false, but, at the same time, whether a story is true or false does not affect whether or not we like it.

What this means is that story telling is all about emotional manipulation. And since our emotional responses are hardwired, we tend to react similarly to certain emotional triggers. Knowing this allows good story tellers to create emotions, heighten emotions or even suppress emotions. Talented story tellers know how to play these triggers like a musical instrument to achieve the desired result.

What does this have to do with sequels? Consider this. . . movie makers follow a series of well known patterns to create the emotional highs and lows they want. The greater the high or low created, the greater the movie.

To maximize the highs and lows, filmmakers use two age-old tricks. First, they paint the challenge faced by the protagonist as nearly impossible. The reason is simple, the greater the challenge, the more likely the chance of failure, the higher the emotional high achieved when the protagonist succeeds. Thus, you will never see a film about a man planning to cross the street, but you will see a film about a man aiming to climb the highest peak in the world. Unless the challenge is extreme enough, the emotional content for the audience is simply not sufficient.

Secondly, nothing heightens an emotion more than being exposed to the counter emotion moments before the pay off. Think of it this way, a mountain looks a whole lot more impressive if someone digs out a valley before it -- just like you appear taller to someone standing in a ditch. It’s the same thing with emotions. The closer the hero comes to failure, the sweeter (emotionally speaking) the moment when success arrives.

That’s why couples in romantic movies always dislike each other before they fall in love, and why the audience is made to believe they can never be brought together right before they are joined. By giving the audience a negative emotion first, the positive emotion appears to be all the greater.

It’s the same thing in action movies. Ever wonder why the hero needs to appear to lose right before he wins? Because it makes his victory feel all the greater. The scientist in the drama must be brought to the point of giving up before he has his break through. The bad guy must have his moment of perceived triumph right before he’s defeated. The nerds must lose their frat house right before the moment of comedic revenge. In each instance, the film maker is putting you at the top of a mountain or the bottom of a valley before showing you the rise or fall about to come.

Indeed, when a successful film finally wraps up and the story ends, the audience should be brought to an emotional climax that is literally the highest or lowest emotional point of the film.

So what does this have to do with sequels? Sequels are made because the audience was so emotionally moved by the prior film that they want to experience the ride again. They want to relive the highs and lows that befell these characters. And therein lies the problem.

If the ending of the last film was truly the highest point, then the filmmakers must find a way to take that away so the audience can be brought emotionally low again before being lifted up once more -- otherwise the highs will feel flat, or worse, they'll feel like lows compared to where the character had been. What’s worse, the audience wants to repeat the exact type of action that happened the first time, i.e. the audience wants to see the lovers fall in love again, the band of heroes have to join up once more, and the every-man hero who never did anything in his life before must again rise up and meet the impossible challenge.

That’s why the characters who were in never-ending love at the end of Romancing the Stone needed to fall out of love to start Jewel of the Nile, why the Ghostbusters had to lose their business and be spread to the four winds to start Ghostbusters II, and why Ellen Ripley in Alien had to face a bigger challenge for which she was not prepared, but into which she could grow.

But there are two inherent problems with this. First, by undoing the ending of the original, sequels start on a poor footing. Right out of the gates, you’ve killed the never-ending love, and broken up the inseparable team. And how do you make the world’s biggest alien killer back into Joe-nobody? Moreover, when you do this, you change the nature of the characters. Before the lovers merely suffered from romantic mistakes, now we know they might not really get along as well as we thought. Suddenly, those four friends who clung together through thick and thin don’t seem as devoted as they once did? And do we really think Ripley can’t handle this current crisis. . . even though we never would have picked her to survive the first movie?

Also, why should the audience trust that your resolution will be any more real this time? How do we know the lovers won’t break up again the moment the credits stop? If you lied to us before, there is no reason to think that you might not be lying now.

Secondly, the film maker probably told the audience that the crisis in the first film was the biggest crisis of all time. So how are we now supposed to believe something even more challenging has come up? How fake does it feel to hear everyone warn us about the K-10 in the original as if that was the be-all, end-all only to now discover the K-11 standing right next to it. (FYI, you can’t just repeat the original challenge because the audience knows that your character can overcome that. So you must step up the challenge.)

Alien provides a classic example of this problem. In Alien we were told the alien was the most horrific creature in the universe. But Ripley overcame it. Thus, to raise the challenge level, she must now face something worse than “the worst creature ever.” To solve this, they made her face hundreds of aliens. But to make this work, they had to reduce the murderous potency of the creature itself or all the humans would have been wiped out in the first five minutes of the film. Yet, in so doing, the director has now told us that the first alien wasn’t as tough as it seemed. That diminishes her achievement. It would be like learning in Empire Strikes Back that Darth Vader was the sissy brother of Darth Super Vader.

That’s the problem with sequels. To recreate the emotional rollercoaster of the original, most need to begin by diminishing the highs and lows of the original ride. Not only does this leave you with a bad taste in your mouth right out of the gates, but it calls into question the reliability of what we are told about the highs and lows this time around. Moreover, it often requires tainting the characters in ways that make them less likeable or less potent.

That’s why most of the best sequels either avoid trying to repeat the first movie, or they are actually longer story arcs disguised as sequels. Take for example, Empire Strikes Back which doesn’t diminish Star Wars because it doesn’t try to downplay or undo what happened in Star Wars, it just builds on it by adding the next stage of a long struggle.

So if you’re a filmmaker and you’re looking at making a sequel, consider this advice. Do no harm.


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Friday, March 5, 2010

Twisted Hollywood

Let’s talk about movie twists. At the end of the 1980s, a friend of mine told me I had to see the movie Black Widow. You probably don’t remember it, if you ever heard of it in the first place. The reason I remember this movie has less to do with the film itself than the trend it started. This movie seemed to begin the era of the twist, an era that has served the movie going public very poorly. These days, there's hardly a movie that doesn’t promise a twist.

Now don’t get me wrong, twists are great things. They have always been a feature of storytelling, and if done correctly, can take an otherwise excellent movie and raise it to a whole new level. Indeed, some of my favorite movies involve dramatic twists: The Matrix, The Sixth Sense, The Usual Suspects, Fight Club, and even The Caine Mutiny.

But few movie twists are of this caliber. Unfortunately, inserting a twist has become one of the biggest crutches for hack screen writers. By adding something “unexpected” to the movie, these pathetic scribblers convince a few gullible souls that they have in fact been watching a decent movie, when the reality is sadly different.

Indeed, most of what passes for twists these days are simply random information jammed into movies, near their ends, to give the director another car chase or an easy wrap up for a problem the unskilled writer didn’t know how else to resolve. It is not surprising either that these things have quickly become clichéd.

How many times have you watched a movie lately where the hero seems to solve the mystery and defeat the bad guy, only to discover that the hero’s boss/life-long friend/girlfriend/partner is the “true bad guy.” And how many times has this made sense? Gee, I never suspected that my ten year cop partner, who I see every waking moment of our working days, was really running the syndicate that controls the city’s underworld. Who knew? Or what about the young hero who finds meaning in the wise words of a janitor, who just happens to be the boy’s long lost father? Princess falls for a commoner? Don’t worry, he just doesn’t know yet that he’s really prince. Need a cause for some disaster? Maybe we brought this on ourselves? Hey, what’s that kid next door playing with? Why, that’s the missing piece of the very ancient weapon we need to defeat this here monster! Yee haw! If you’ve written any of these clichés, then you suck and you should go back to your day job. . . milking cats.

Unfortunately, Hollywood marketing departments have learned that inserting any surprising information near the end of the film (in its proper formulaic place of course) will generate a buzz -- whether it makes sense or not. Indeed, many a times I found myself reaching for my cell phone determined to find out the location of the nearest gun shop and the writer’s home address after seeing such a “twist,” only to hear some slack-jawed moron walk by saying: “I really didn’t see that coming. What a great film. You smell perty.” And I just wanted to scream at said moron: “Senator, you’re a [expletive deleted]!!”

A good movie twist needs to derive from a combination of factors, each of which must be present.

First, you need a well written movie regardless of the twist. Each of the movies identified above was a strong movie even without the twist. If you’re relying on the twist to save your movie, then you’re doing it wrong. Similarly, if you find yourself racing the story along just to get to the twist, then you’re doing it backwards. The twist needs to come naturally out of the story, the story should not be a crutch to support the twist.

Secondly, the twist needs to be deeply entwined with the story. If it’s just an add on to give your story a surprise, then you should give up writing and follow your true calling instead. . . marketing. Here are some examples of add ons that I see all the time: If the twist can happen to any of the characters, as if the writer threw darts to decide which team member will betray the others, then the twist is an add on. If the twist isn’t related to the themes of the film, then it’s an add on. If the writer can’t really explain why the twist is needed in the story without just citing the plot that follows the twist, then it’s an add on. In other words, if you’re asked why you included the twist, and your explanation is something like: “if we don’t expose the real bad guy, then the audience won’t know about the real bad guy” then it’s time to leave the writing to others.

Third, a twist must be foreshadowed. This is the hardest aspect of getting a good twist, but it’s also the most important. This is difficult because “foreshadow” doesn’t just mean you make a few passing references to the twist as the movie meanders along. But you can’t give it away either. A twist should be surprising, but it also needs to seem like it was always there for the viewer if they would have just stopped to think about it. Indeed, twists that have done this successfully are the ones that make you want to rewatch the movie for the clues that you missed the first time. The best way to tell if a twist is gratuitous is if the foreshadowing is forced. . . does it seem jammed into the story, or does it flow naturally from the story as it progresses.

Finally, the best twists need to change the meaning of the entire movie, not just drive the plot in a different direction. Each of the movies identified above does that. Consider The Caine Mutiny where you suddenly find yourself changing sides after the twist is revealed and you realize that you misinterpreted each of Queeg’s actions. Or consider the scene in Fight Club in the kitchen, after Helena Bonham Carter has slept with Durden, where you are convinced that Carter is a nasty, hateful woman, until after the twist, when you realize that she’s actually trying to be nice but Norton is the one who is acting insanely. Consider The Sixth Sense where a horror story turns into a touching relationship film, as you realize what Osment is doing for Willis. Or consider The Usual Suspects, which I need to review, where you suddenly learn that nothing you’ve seen over the prior two hours is true and every motivation you attributed to the characters was false. Those are well done twists, because they give you a new take on everything you just watched and let you see the movie again from an entirely new perspective.

If a movie can achieve each of these four factors, then it likely includes an excellent twist that will make a good movie even better. If it doesn’t achieve one of these factors, then you’ve probably got cat milker masquerading as a writer.

Come on Hollywood, it’s not that hard to do this right.

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