Monthly Archives: March 2009

Battlestar Galactica is dead; long live Battlestar Galactica

Mild spoiler alerts for the BSG finale, for those of you who care about such things.

After the final episode of Battlestar Galactica, (watched just this week — thanks, Hulu.com!) I turned to my wife and said, “That was almost anticlimactic.” No blaze of glory, no triumphant punctuation, no surprising twist. (Really, at this point, the notion of the “ancient astronaut” does not qualify as a plot twist.)

But the more I thought about it, it didn’t need to be impactful or surprising, it just needed to be perfect. I believe this series ended exactly the way it had to, with neither bang nor whimper, but with a soft sigh and a nod and rolled-up sleeves. No one gets exactly what he wants, not unless living among Lucy and the australopithecines is your idea of a good time. But if you’re on the run across all creation, having lost 99% of your species and, after losing about half of what’s left of that, you wash up on tribal, early human Earth, I suppose you’d better count yourself lucky.

And while I’m not positive 40,000 people would go quietly into a night of technology-free hardship (as our weary star-trotters do in the final minutes), I’m happy to believe, for the sake of all the characters I care about in the BSG universe, that this is exactly what they did, what they had to do. Again, that may not be splashy or uplifting, but it’s satisfying in the way that regular life is satisfying. “I got somewhere that’s better than where I was. I didn’t screw up. I did good.”

That’s kind of a messy, imperfect ending — which is, indeed, what makes it neat and perfect for this series. The Vancouver Sun thought this added up to “a new standard for bad endings,” but I just don’t see it. (The Sun‘s reviewer would have preferred to see everyone die in the big shootout at the midpoint of the finale. Wow, is hopelessness really so in vogue these days?)

What surprises me and makes me scratch my head the most is the reliance on divinity as a plot device. It’s one thing to, as BSG regularly did, inject your story with prophecy — that’s always a good plank to trot your story upon, nice and spooky and tantalizing — but the hand of God, or Gods (or It, as one character-in-the-know says toward the end) is really taking a leap isn’t it? Angels, apparently, have been characters of this show all along, in the form of invisible Six and Gaius. And then there’s Starbuck: Angel? Miracle? Reincarnated Cylon hybrid ghost? I’d sniff and dismiss her as deus ex machina … but in a show inherently about both deus and machina, I’d say it’s probably to be expected.

BSG got quite a “buy” from me in its earliest days. It impressed me with the depth of its characters, its struggles with morality and humanity, and its primal, man-on-the-run tension. Like any meaningful relationship, once you make a big buy-in, you’re in it for the long haul, through thick and thin. Where this finale felt a tad thin, I’m happy to pat in on the back and say, “You did good. You entertained me for a long time. You’ve certainly given me more than I gave you, so go ahead — ask a mild indulgence or two of me. I’m just in the mood to grant it.”

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In Bruges

I keep a running list of movies I’d wished I’d written. Not just movies I like — I mean, I’d love to say I’d written “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or “Brazil” or “Empire Strikes Back,” but those are not writer’s movies. (Though, in a future post, I shall defend the original “Pirates of the Caribbean” as a brilliant piece of writing.)

It’s currently a short list, a list of little movies about lives and relationships, and they shine with brilliant dialog. “Being John Malkovich” is wonderfully weird and smart — I can’t believe someone actually turned that into a movie, and I wish it had been me. (I’m not sure I could ever out-weird Charlie Kaufman, though.) “Little Miss Sunshine” is a perfect egg filled with yolks like Steve Carell, Alan Arkin, and Paul Dano’s flawless Dwayne, the mute Air Force wannabe. In small movies like these, every word carries its weight, delivering some new insight into character, and furthering plot only enough to give us new viewing angles into the main players’ minds. Big movies have big action, but small movies have big characters.

So the other night we watched “In Bruges,” the first feature for writer-director Martin McDonagh. This movie came and went on the periphery of my vision, leaving only a few vague memories of positive reviews. I was unclear on it: Comedy? Gangster movie? Art film? Eurotrash?

It’s all of ’em in one, a great glowing candle of a movie.

I can’t believe the tightrope it walks without falling into any category, without once teetering over into cliche or dumpy genre tropes. (Well, one trope: the warm-hearted hitman. But it’s played so deftly, you don’t even realize that’s the trope you’re feasting on.)

In fact, it adds one more genre to its mix: “Rick Steves Europe Through the Back Door” travelogue. Not since “The Third Man” has a city been such an effective cast member in a film. After “Third Man” I felt like I had been to post-war Vienna, just as “In Bruges” transports you to the Belgian title city. The city is more than a background for a chase sequence or a nice skyline for a romantic dinner. Instead, it’s a key player, as two on-the-lam hitmen try to fight restlessness and boredom by touring and debating the merits of this boring little burg.

Three of our stars meet before the bloody finale: Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Finnes and the Bruges bell tower.

Three of our stars meet before the bloody finale: Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Finnes and the Bruges bell tower.

Zingy dialog delivered with hot-cold humor and gravitas by Colin Ferrell and Brendan Gleeson. Beautiful cinematography that advances the story rather than just pretties it up. Tense gangster action. Characters teetering on the verge of self-destruction. And a story-within-a-story, as the “jumped-up Eurotrash ripoff” movie being shot in Bruges comes to resemble the Hell of a Hieronymous Bosch painting our main players debate on a museum tour early in the film.

It’s brilliant stuff, and here’s why it’s a writer’s movie:

1. Dialog that’s full of humor even if may not look funny on the page.

Thug: I can’t see! I can’t see!

Hitman: Course you can’t fucking see, I just shot a blank in your fucking eyes!

Typed out like that, this does not look like a joke. But McDonagh has a firm hand on what this scene should feel like, and by the time it makes it onto film, Colin Ferrell’s casual dismissal of the thug’s misery makes for a nervous, tension-relieving belly laugh.

2. Dialog that may appear crude or off-putting, but which the writer can tell is roguish and darkly comic and true.

Hitman: One gay beer for my gay friend, one normal beer for me because I am normal.

Crime boss: An Uzi? I’m not from South Central Los Angeles. I didn’t come here to shoot twenty black 10-year-olds in a drive-by. I want a normal gun for a normal person.

3. Memorable exchanges about small things that actually pull back the curtains on big things.

Crime boss: So he’s having a really nice time?

Hitman: Well, I’m having a really nice time. I’m not sure if it’s really his cup of tea.

Crime boss: …what?

Hitman: You know, I’m not sure it’s really his thing.

Crime boss: What do you mean it’s not really his thing? What’s that supposed to mean? It’s not really his thing — what the fuck is that supposed to mean?

Hitman: Nothing, Harry.

Crime boss: It’s a fairy tale fucking town, isn’t it? How’s a fairy tale town not somebody’s fucking thing? How can all those canals and bridges and cobbled streets and churches and all of that beautiful fairy tale fucking stuff, how can that not be somebody’s fucking thing, eh?

Hitman: Well, what I meant to say was —

Crime boss: Is the swan still there?

Hitman: Yeah, but —

Crime boss: How can a fucking swan not fucking be somebody’s fucking thing, eh? How can that be?

4. Comic use of dirty words. Ibid.

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Shove over, Alan Moore…

Look what dropped last week at my local comix retailer? Why, it’s “Edgar & Ellen: Graphic Novelty,” an inexpensive and gifty collection of comics starring some intellectual property I know all too well.

To be shelved next to "Maus" and "Dark Knight Returns."

To be shelved next to "Maus" and "Dark Knight Returns."

I was lead editor on this project back in my Star Farm days, and even got to write a few short pieces for the book. It’s loaded with brilliant writing from my amigos Kathryn Achenbach, Patrick van Slee and Matthew Jent. It couldn’t look more beautifuller thanks to pretty pretty pictures from the likes of Dave Crosland, Renaissance man Troy Cummings, Jose Garibaldi, Jade, Peter Bergting, Eisner-nominated Jacob Chabot and, of course, E&E co-creator Rick Carton.

Flipping through it now, it’s clear my major contribution here — a six-page short called “Glob’s Glums” — was an amusing idea poorly executed. To be sure, it’s wonderfully illustrated by comix (and comic) genius Dave Crosland, who did his level best with too much dialog and description from me. I thought I knew what amateurish script writing was, so it’s pretty humbling to observe my own work trying too hard, cramming in too much. Dave gets props for selling as many jokes as he could in the space he had left after I was done.

Of my own work, I am actually most proud of a throwaway gag we did for a back page, a spoof of the old novelty ads of the Silver Age of comics.

The Helter Smelter Novelty Co.

The Helter Smelter Novelty Co.

Re-reading it made me laugh out loud several times. I had my favorite gag that I contributed…

Always be wary of Johnny Too-Tough.

…but I had forgotten this entry from Kat Achenbach, and I bleated an obnoxious laugh when I saw it again:

Also: The moon landing? Fake.

I’m proud of being affiliated with the work of some really smart guys. Mssrs. van Slee and Chabot bring home a winner with a down-the-rabbit-hole sequence for Miles, E&E’s silliest character:

"Miles Beyond" by Patrick van Slee and Jacob Chabot

"Miles Beyond" by Patrick van Slee and Jacob Chabot

And funny, funny Matty Jent delivered an brilliant script for “Pirates of the Water Park,” which worked almost perfectly from the first panel on. My 8-year-old son just now burst out in snorts of glee with this panel of Edgar line-jumping at a lengthy waterslide queue:

"Pirates of the Water Park" by Matthew Jent and Peter Bergting

"Pirates of the Water Park" by Matthew Jent and Peter Bergting

Pick up a copy, won’t you? It’s an 8-smacker steal from fiscally minded Simon & Schuster!

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Things that make me absurdly happy.

pinkhulk

Pink Incredible Hulk crayon!

Because his pants don’t always have to be purple.

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Write, Rabbit, Write

Shortly before John Updike passed away, my father-in-law clipped an interview with him that appeared in the AARP magazine (Nov.-Dec. 2008). In it, Updike described the particular challenges of peaking early —of, essentially, competing against his younger self for sales and positive reviews.

He also gently pokes fun at himself and his “diminishing neurons” that come with age, and he wrote something that really rang true with me:

With ominous frequency, I can’t think of the right word. I know there is a word; I can visualize the exact shape it occupies in the jigsaw puzzle of the English language. But the word itself, with its precise edges and unique tint of meaning, hangs on the misty rim of consciousness.

Ironic that a paragraph about the difficulty of writing in old age should be so beautiful. More ominous still, for me, is that I see myself in that desription, and I’m about half his age when he wrote this.

Better get busy.

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Glass dreams

Been thinking a lot about Watchmen this week. A few scenes really stuck with me, and I replay them in my head, which is always a sign of how much I enjoyed the show. The one that sticks with me most is the origin story of Dr. Manhattan.

"The superman exists..."

"The superman exists..."

Amazing pairing of image and music. Not surprisingly, when Zack Snyder needed a piece of music to soar beneath a montage about the birth of a god, he turned to Phillip Glass. The music in that clip is “Pruitt Igoe” from Glass’ 1982 documentary Koyaanisqatsi. My old chum Gary Anaple turned me on to this movie in high school, just as I was beginning to appreciate art-house style.

And Koyaanisqatsi got me. For starters, the movie’s message — juxtaposing nature and man’s footprint upon it — provides a nice, comfortable outrage for a high schooler to engage in. (“Civilization is just as savage as, uh, savagery!”) For seconders, that soundtrack… oh man, that Phillip Glass soundtrack! I had never imagined anything like minimalistic music before, and what Glass delivered in Koyaanisqatsi was an ice cream sundae of sound.

In years since, I’ve heard lots of criticism of minimalism and of Phillip Glass in particular (heck, Gary and I even drove to Columbus, Ohio, for Glass in concert; “Music in Twelve Parts” was one long, tough evening of entertainment in a slowly emptying auditorium), but when Glass uses his powers for good, not evil, it’s magic in a measure of repeated music. “Pruitt Igoe” is uplifting, hair-raising, awe-inspiring. Most certainly godmusic.

That's not where I put my can lighting...I had almost forgotten that the soundtrack of “The Truman Show” (1998), was co-composed by Glass, and he repurposed another of his tunes to perfect affect. Jim Carrey, restrained admirably as Truman, is just coming to the realization that something phony is going on with his life; he walks aimlessly, spinning through a revolving door, looking askance at everything in the world around him as if for the first time. The music that accompanied this needed to be of a dawning realization, of coming out of a deep and dreamy sleep. So Glass chose his “Anthem” from Powaqqatsi (which could just as easily be called Koyaanisqatsi 2: The Bleakening). The tune builds slowly and tensely, until its repetitions reach a triumphant peak that, transcribed to human emotion, would be called amazement, or possibly enlightment. A perfect movie pairing.

Of course, Glass isn’t for everyone. Take the knock-knock joke from 2007’s “Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts.”

Knock-knock.

Who’s there?

Knock-knock.

Who’s there?

Knock-knock.

Who’s there?

Knock-knock.

Who’s there?

Knock-knock.

Who’s there?

Knock-knock.

Who’s there?

Philip Glass.

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Literature loves a list

Noticed something funny while reading (or having read to me) Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Jonathan Safran Foer employs (among many, many other offbeat stylizations) lists from time to time as his narrator chronicles things that happen to him, odd observances, or other amusing bric-a-brac that illuminates the quirks of his characters.

I was intrigued by how the list functioned in the story. Here’s one: Nine-year-old Oskar is listening to Mr. A.R. Black recount his long life, full of references he doesn’t understand.

He had reported almost every war of the twentieth century, like the Spanish Civil War, and the genocide in East Timor, and bad stuff that happened in Africa. I hadn’t heard of any of them, so I tried to remember them so I could Google them when I got home. The list in my head was getting incredibly long: Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, powdering her nose, Churchill, Mustang convertible, Walter Cronkite, necking, the Bay of Pigs, LP, Datsun, Kent State, lard, Ayatollah Khomeini, Polaroid, apartheid, drive-in, favela, Trotsky, the Berlin Wall, Tito, Gone with the Wind, Frank Lloyd Wright, hula hoop, Technicolor, the Spanish Civil War, Grace Kelly, East Timor, slide rule, a bunch of places in Africa whose names I tried to remember but had already forgotten.

What’s engaging to me about the list (aside from its great delivery when read by Jeff Woodruff, as I’ve previously posted), is the reader’s subconscious desire to imagine the conversation that would have threaded all these topics together. It tells a lengthy story all by itself, simply by omitting nearly every article of speech but a handful of nouns.

Here’s another: Oskar’s homemade business card:

OSKAR SCHELL

INVENTOR, JEWELRY DESIGNER, JEWELRY FABRICATOR, AMATEUR ENTOMOLOGIST, FRANCOPHILE, VEGAN, ORIGAMIST, PACIFIST, PERCUSSIONIST, AMATEUR ASTRONOMER, COMPUTER CONSULTANT, AMATEUR ARCHAEOLOGIST, COLLECTOR OF: rare coins, butterflies that died natural deaths, miniature cacti, Beatles memorabilia, semiprecious stones, and other things

This occurs on page 99, so Foer can’t be accused of taking a cheap shortcut for conveying the personality of his protagonist — Oskar has had plenty of time to display most of those traits by now. Instead, I see this list as an aptly timed, alternate glimpse into the character: how he sees himself.

It reminded me of another amusing list I recalled from Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age, and had dog-eared years ago. Stephenson was describing the Design Works, a campus of nanotechnology engineers. Using his loaded-for-bear vocabulary and his obsession for the motes of detail, Stephenson devotes an entire page to a fresco on the ceiling of the main hall depicting the nano engineers as heroes of the age.

Why a whole page?I can’t imagine — perhaps to illustrate the rarity and importance of a decision to make “hard art” (when it would have been easier to make the fresco a billboard-sized TV screen); or perhaps it’s a shorthand to show how this society regards itself. I suspect it’s a third possibility: It was just too damn much fun to cut.

And when Stephenson is having fun, we ALL are. The whole description is like a free day at a water park, but here’s just the final paragraph:

The corners of the fresco were occupied with miscellaneous busywork; in the upper left, Feynman and Drexler and Merkle, Chen and Singh, and Finkle-McGraw reposed on a numinous buckyball, some of them reading books and some pointing toward the work-in-progress in a manner that implied constructive criticism… On the left were the spirits of generations past who had shown up too early to enjoy the benefits of nanotechnology and (not explicitly shown, but somewhat ghoulishly implied) croaked from obsolete causes such as cancer, scurvy, boiler explosions, derailments, drive-by-shootings, pogroms, blitzkriegs, mine shaft collapses, ethnic cleansing, meltdowns, running with scissors, eating Drano, heating a cold house with charcoal briquets, and being gored by oxen.

Yeah. That was pretty much just for yucks.

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