Saturday, February 21, 2015

Brief Oscar things

Light pollution was actually a concern back in the day.

Sean Witzke’s article on Grantland Thursday about Steven Spielberg was interesting to me for a couple of reasons. First off, I knew that I would agree with his summation of Spielberg within the first couple paragraphs. I’m betting that there are a lot of film fans out there who wished that the early Spielberg- innovative (even by mishap; see Jaws), energetic, a storyteller seemingly suffused with boyish enthusiasm –had never become the later Spielberg- safe, straightforward, an entertainer constantly aware of his impact on middle America. The interesting thing about him is that both versions made money, hand over fist. Money is frequently the dividing line between the auteurs and the stars. I know many writers who are convinced that it’s more important to be original in one’s methods even though said methods will never sell, rather than become successful. It’s the living definition of trying not to “sell out.” Spielberg never had to sell out because even when he was trying new things, they almost always turned into massive successes.

Not that Jaws
Jaws is the pristine example in that it wasn’t intended to be anything other than a summer shocker film, at which it succeeded, but it also ushered in the era of the “summer blockbuster” upon which the major studios are now utterly dependent. In that way, the ‘auteur’ actually worked against the very label that Witzke (and others) apply to him. If you couldn’t make a (ahem) splash with a wide audience, then your road as a major film director/producer/whathaveyou became far more difficult as we progressed into the 80s. But blockbusters are very rarely innovative and almost always are far more about entertainment than story. Witzke suggests that E.T. and Poltergeist are two sides of the same Spielberg coin and I don’t dispute that. But what really stuck out to me was where Witzke pointed out that Spielberg’s habit of releasing two films alongside each other and his subsequent domination of that summer of 1982 did swamp two other films that were story-driven and forward-thinking: Blade Runner and The Thing, both of which I’ve written about before (or their directos, at least.)

If only you could see what he's seen with your eyes
Now, certainly there are other factors involved in that scenario. Blade Runner was released with the studio’s cut, which detracted from a great deal of the thoughtfulness behind the picture and Scott’s careful focus on the visuals. The Thing suffered from being a horror film; a genre even more disdained than superheroes until the last decade. But, of course, Poltergeist was nominally a horror film and that was a smash. I don’t deny that my own biases are at work here, since I’ve mentioned before that I’m a fan of both Scott and Carpenter’s early work and I still consider the director’s cut of Blade Runner to be the finest science fiction film ever made and The Thing to be among the best horror films ever made. But that little note in a well-written analysis managed to highlight the overall point: spectacle over story rules the day and it’s unfortunate that Spielberg has, in large part, given himself up to it.

Oscar stuff-

This year, I’m in the unfortunate position of not being able to comment reasonably on most of the award slate because I didn’t see around half of the films in question. Foxcatcher, Whiplash, Grand Budapest Hotel, Wild, Still Alice, Selma, Theory of Everything, etc., etc. Just haven’t gotten to them. Now, some of those are because of simple disinterest. I have zero compulsion to see American Sniper, despite my appreciation for Bradley Cooper. One more example of America’s military fetish is a sure recipe for a nap from me. Likewise, The Imitation Game strikes me as kind of a re-hashing of many Masterpiece Theatre-like films before it. It’s The King’s Speech, except with Turing/Cumberbatch in the place of George/Firth. But many of the rest have simply been casualties of time. I’m a Wes Anderson fan. I’m a J.K. Simmons fan. I’m definitely going to see both GBH and Whiplash at some point. I just haven’t gotten there. All of that said, it was kind of reassuring to know that I’d seen the two massive frontrunners: Boyhood and Birdman, but had also seen two that were largely overlooked, Nightcrawler and Inherent Vice, probably because they remain outside the parameters of what are normally considered “Oscar-worthy.” Does being an auteur now even remove you from the realm of “serious film”? In that respect, it’s open to question whether looking down the Oscar list or watching the ceremony is even useful anymore, given the accessibility of the Web and my changing tastes in what qualifies as “good” (read: interesting; I liked The King’s Speech. I just don’t think I need to see it again.) Simple entertainment still doesn’t win out. I can watch enough self-congratulatory exercises on C-SPAN.

That said, there are a couple interesting notes to append to some of them. Whiplash, for example, has had a ton of coverage based on the amount of time it has spent in the public eye (first seen at Sundance in late 2013.) But it was this opinion, again on Grantland, by a former music student that really caught my eye. Concepcion is a fan of the film, even though he immediately dismisses its central premise: that of a ridiculously savage music teacher driving his charges to succeed. Concepcion's assertion, that most music teachers wouldn't even bother to expend the energy on someone that needed to be driven, is really interesting. The idea that real musicians need to have something to say (even after a 10-minute solo) should be central to the concept, but it rarely is, especially when so many popular acts are entirely constructed by studios, in that the music is written and composed for them, so that they "only" have to perform it while their image is built as a "musician" or singer. It's interesting how far we've come, with the roots of rock music so firmly embedded in jazz, that rock performers can be so removed from the people in jazz that were genuinely idolized as geniuses because they could say something different over lengthy periods and were often encouraged to do so or even challenged to do so by the bandleader.

But... but... history!

But those are the choices you have to make, distinct from reality, to tell a story. It's not ridiculous to think that there could be a music teacher who finds it useful to essentially assault his students to push them toward greatness. That's a trope of Western storytelling in the first place. However, it's also conceivable that depictions of historical figures could be somewhat different than many would like to think. The flap over Selma's portrayal of Lyndon Johnson is one such instance. I was pretty amazed that so many people were writhing in anguish over how he was shown as a political opportunist, rather than a dedicated champion of civil rights. What histories have these people been reading? LBJ was a champion politician. That's how he got to be vice president! He knew exactly what public image meant and the ramifications of same. This is the man who stated: "We've just lost the South for a generation." when he signed the Civil Rights Act. Why anyone would be concerned that he was shown weighing the effects of his various actions and those of Martin Luther King is completely beyond me. The fact that Selma fell under a cloud because of it could be just one more example of "Not all whites!" or it could be because the film just didn't measure up. I guess I'll be better able to say when I see it. I do know that I won't really give a shit if LBJ is shown as the calculating politician that he was.

In the end, I have no predictions. I thought both Boyhood and Birdman were excellent films and either could win the Oscar for best film, although given a do-or-die choice, I'd probably pick Birdman, simply because it left me thinking about more than Boyhood did. But that's the opinion of someone who can't stand to be "just" entertained most of the time.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

It's not on my back

 12 Monkeys began its first season on SyFy last Friday. Like many people, my first reaction when I heard the announcement of a TV series was: “Why the hell would they do that? The story’s over and there's not much more to say.” But in the worlds of time travel and Hollywood, there's always something else to say, even if no one cares to hear it. My next thoughts were: “How are they going to duplicate Terry Gilliam’s offbeat style which was one of the real selling points of the film? And how are they going to even come close to the performances of Bruce Willis (one of the best of his career) and Brad Pitt (the one that convinced me he could act and earned him his first serious critical appraisal), which were two more real points in the film’s favor?” The short answer is: They’re not. The long answer is: SyFy, like much of Hollywood, is hoping to attract viewers with a franchise (even though a 20-year-old standalone film only somewhat registers in that classification) and then keep them with solid writing and acting. Did they do so? In my case, not really.

 The first problem is the visuals. Films obviously have much larger budgets than TV series (at least to start they do) and so can create and shape their worlds in vastly superior ways. Gilliam’s film, like many of his other efforts (Brazil, Time Bandits) was gritty, dirty, shadowy. It made you uncertain about what was real and what wasn’t. It left you searching the screen for clues and answers and still fascinated even if you didn't find them. It made the mundane menacing, as it would be to someone traveling through time on what seemed to be a hopeless mission. But even with all that uncertainty, it felt like real people lived there. The technology used for that time travel was the most obvious aspect of that feel. The steampunk brass and protrusions were in full evidence and it was clear that humanity and this technological wizardry were confined to dark and dirty spaces because we could never see the time machine or really ascertain how it functioned, but we knew that it was unstable. It was presented that way with all of the wobbling bits and jarring performance as James Cole plunged into the chronal stream.

The TV show has none of that. In the couple shots we saw of the machine and Cole, it’s spotless. It could have just rolled off of the nearest Star Trek set as a stand-in for one of the Enterprise’s dilithium containment tubes. Furthermore, there’s nothing around the machine to indicate that it’s anything other than a film set. It’s in a largely featureless room, without people and without indication that anyone or anything has ever been there other than Aaron Standford, who plays Cole, and a camera crew. The same problem exists for the rest of the episode. Cassandra Railly’s (Amanda Schull) hotel room is just a spot to shoot a scene, despite her having waited there for who knows how many days and then waited while Cole recovered from his wound. The lengthy interrogation of Cole takes place in what looks like a converted garage. Cole’s first disappearance takes place in the cleanest alley of any American city yet known. The only place that has some degree of visual character is the house where they meet Leland Goines, which simply apes a similar scene in the film as Cole desperately tries to find the progenitor of the world-destroying virus. There’s nothing eye-catching in the episode that leads one to think: “Hey. I wonder if that were a clue to this story or the background of it! I’d like to see that again.”

And TV...
 Likewise, both Standford and Schull, while not bad at their jobs, certainly don’t sell their roles. Willis as Cole was determined and borderline maniacal, but he was also completely confused because he was in an environment that he remembered but had left behind 30+ years ago, past who knows how many drugs and the strain of the time shift. That’s an interesting character and Willis played it to the hilt. Standford acts like he just walked on to the set from downtown Toronto… because he did. He’s completely in control and cagey at all the proper moments. There’s nothing to indicate that he’s any different from any of the NSA agents who hold him prisoner, despite being stupid enough to let his personal aggression threaten the security of the mission he’s supposedly so committed to. Part of the film’s appeal is its uncertainty. We’re pretty sure about Willis’ Cole’s mental state but we’re as lost as he is in trying to solve the big mystery (the virus) or the small one (if he’s actually sane.) There is no doubt in Standford’s Cole. He’s completely linear and, thus, completely uninteresting. Similarly, Schull doesn’t even approach the doubting desperation of Madeline Stowe in the film, who keeps spouting rationalizations even as the impossible occurs right in front of her. Schull goes along with the story because it’s the story, not because her character believes it. And, seriously: Cassandra Railly? Really? Nothing reeks so much of SyFy’s  Sharknado  cheapness than dropping in little sops to Greek myth as some kind of nod to the audience that a) knows the myth or b) remembers the reference to Cassandra from the film or c) somehow doesn’t think that this is their lowbrow attempt to let the audience know that they’re in on the story.

Because, in essence, the first episode played out like we were in on the story, right? It’s a franchise. The only reason we’re watching is because we’ve seen the film. The show doesn’t have to spend any time questioning the reality of what Cole is seeing. We know he’s sane because we’ve already seen this. In that case, why are we watching it again? Oh, I see. It’s to introduce all of the random viewers who haven’t seen a film from 20 years ago but are still somehow SyFy Channel watchers. They must be a crowd of… what? 20? Maybe 25? In that case, boy, did they get screwed because they got the 45-minute National Geographic version of a genuinely interesting story.  They don’t get any of the bad in-episode references like Cassandra, but they do get a canned pilot that doesn’t even set up interesting questions about time travel (the central premise of the show, albeit not the film) other than: “Why is this happening?” I can ask the same question about the weather and get a response that might be more interesting.

Time travel, yo.
 But there’s a key in those last two sentences. The central premise of the show is time travel, which means that what we’re likely looking at is a modern, slightly-darker version of Quantum Leap except without any of the historical trappings that made that show successful. We won’t get to see Scott Bakula try to deal with the rage, frustration, and danger of living through the Watts riots. Instead, we’ll see Standford bulldogging his way toward the final answer: the solution to the virus. But that doesn’t make for good TV. Either we’ll be chasing time travel red herrings every week (“This week: How do James and Cassandra deal with the fact that Goines dropped his key to the bioweapons vault in a building that later burned down?!!”)  or we’ll be stalling as they attempt to keep from solving the virus issue in order to not end the series. It’s like The Fugitive. What happens when he finally finds the one-armed man? Well, it’s either a great movie or the end of your series, so you’d better start stalling and make some wicked subplots to carry you.

And, granted, this could all be a case of pilot episode necessities. You have to lay your groundwork before your story can really roll forward. Fine. But, in the name of that bloody weather, HOOK ME! Give me something, anything, to say: “That was cool and I’m coming back to see what this person does next.” The pristine example of this in modern TV is the first episode of Breaking Bad, where Walter White is driving a runaway RV down a desert road in his tighty whities and a gasmask with two corpses rolling around in the back. Holy shit! I’ve seen it twice and I want to watch that again more than I want to see the next episode of 12 Monkeys. It doesn’t even have to be that explosive.  Again, the selling point to the film was the mystery. You sat and watched because you weren’t quite sure what was going on but it was interesting. This first episode was laid out in a fashion in which you couldn’t miss what was going on, which made it largely uninteresting and certainly not compelling enough to turn on again.

All of that said, I may give the second episode one more shot because I could be wrong (Grantland thinks I’m wrong.) It wasn’t the unmitigated tire fire that was Constantine, but that’s like saying you’d rather watch 12 Monkeys instead of C-SPAN during budget deliberations. Yes, I’ve done that. There may be no greater combination of boredom, abject despair, and astonishment at the idiots appointed as our “representatives.” Now that I think of it, I’ve got this great idea that involves time travel, the US Congress, and nerve gas… Meanwhile, 12 Monkeys is currently just another example of why TV is bad for your eyes.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

How much is too much?

Birdman, the film, raises some interesting questions, which is one of the highest aspirations for any work of art, in my opinion. One of those questions, however, is whether the film is best appreciated for its significant technical merits (acting, direction, cinematography) or for its unusual and nicely layered story. The former are almost beyond reproach, although one can question the necessity for a couple of the visual allegories, like the fiery atmospheric reentry that both opens and closes the film. But questioning that usage is something that becomes central to the other questions both within the film and about it. Fair warning: There are a couple major spoilers below, so keep that in mind if you haven't seen the film yet.

A few years ago on the board we coined an abbreviation for movies, people, events, whatever that were clearly trying to say or do something and making it so obvious that the original meaning of whatever they/it were trying to express was lost. We called it TTH, for Trying Too Hard. People proffered all kinds of examples and mine was: "Most Woody Allen films, post-Annie Hall." The implication was that Allen had been Trying Too Hard to be 'Woody Allen' with most of his films, even when neither the screenplay nor the story lived up to what was the level of his acknowledged classics. I think there's room to question whether that's the case for Birdman because the film is so clearly trying to deliver a message and using the story as a vehicle for that message, as opposed to simply telling the story and letting that message be absorbed by the audience. In that sense, is Birdman trying too hard? At what point does delivering your message become condescension to your audience? Or are some people simply attuned (or hyper-sensitive) to that method while the majority aren't?

There are a couple of obvious tropes (washed up/typecast actor trying to come back by doing something different; actor having ruined the rest of his life in pursuit of something not quite defined) in the story that are made more interesting by their real-life parallels to Keaton's own career. Once he accepted the Batman films under Tim Burton, he never really managed anything else of real note in the following decades and he had been a pretty marketable talent at that point who had done the standard family films (Mr. Mom) but had also taken on other roles (Beetlejuice) that no one really expected that he could handle and had done well with them. In the film, Riggan Thompson is in similar circumstances and we're frequently given insight into his supposed genuine superpowers as allegory for what he's truly capable of and a continuing nod to the spectre of what is constantly hanging over him (or behind him) wherever he goes.

This parallel to the real world (the struggle to define that being a constant theme in Ed Norton's character, Mike Shiner) is highlighted a few more times when Thompson and his best friend/lawyer, Jake (the excellent Zach Galifinakis) argue over whom should be starring opposite Riggan when their initial choice fails. They mention Jeremy Renner, Oscar nominee, except that he's an Avenger. Riggan rolls his eyes at the TV that shows Robert Downey, Jr. in full Iron Man glory. The point is made that these are capable actors of considerable critical acclaim who are now doing exactly what Riggan did earlier in his life but whom are still receiving accolades, whereas Riggan is not. Given that Marvel Studios has something of a chokehold on Hollywood, the fact that lines are being drawn within Hollywood between films like Birdman and The Avengers makes the lines drawn in this film between "movies/celebrity" and "theater/actors" that much more stark.

But that stark line is also a possible example of hitting your audience over the head with the message, such that you're not telling a story and letting them absorb the message that it carries, but are instead delivering a message, regardless of what happens to the story. So, you're in the writers' room and you're hashing out your screenplay. At what point do you decide that you know the audience is going to "get it"? Do they need to be hit over the head with the message that Riggan is capable of these amazing things and even the hard-bitten theater critic will be won over? The coda, which was the hospital scene post-shooting, was trying to convey that the dream was still alive and that, finally, someone else was beginning to share it with Riggan. Did it need to be that hopeful or would the entire film up to that point have been sufficient, even if the film ended in the hospital with the news that Riggan was dead and not simply wearing the real, medical world version of the mask that has both marked and dogged his career for 20 years? Was that hopeful moment a "Hollywood ending" that gave (presumably) the majority of the public what they would want, ensuring that they went away enjoying the film and that they "got it"? Or could you have avoided the formulaic approach for which movies are often so derided and gone full Death of a Salesman and not been entirely sure that, firstly, the film would succeed and, secondly, people would walk away with the understanding that the goal had still been achieved and the dream was still there?

Most creative people want to expose their work to the widest possible audience. This is the appreciation factor that drives many to do what they do. Some, like Mike, are simply driven. They'll labor away in relative obscurity, convinced that their effort is pure because they're not making the compromises on behalf of the audience (whether needed or not.) But most want as many people as possible to experience their art. This is why a band like Rage Against the Machine was willing to work with a division of the corporate behemoth, Sony. They wanted people to hear their music and absorb the message that it carried. Same thing here, both within the story and without, I think. Riggan initially wanted to be in front of as large an audience as possible (and the money didn't hurt, either.) So he became, in the words of movie critic, Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), a "celebrity" instead of an actor. The story tells us that he still had talent. It had just been swamped by the demands of the public for more explosions. By the same token, the writers of Birdman had to take into consideration that same audience. Do they stick to the seemingly tragic progression that ends with their central figure giving everything (i.e. his life) for his art or do they avoid that path and leave the audience with something closer to what they're likely expecting and which the majority will doubtlessly appreciate more? Do you entice your audience or do you condescend to them? Is it condescending to them in trying to make sure that they "get it"?

I confess to being a little disappointed in the coda in that respect. I thought the message of the film was plain and had been well delivered up to that point and the fact that Riggan could have died on-stage, while it may be something of a trope unto itself (i.e. break a leg; give everything), would have been a decent resolution to what was a farce about creation, acting, film, and life. The fact that he lived doesn't make it any less an excellent farce, but I felt it detracted slightly from what remains a great film. Riggan's daughter, Sam (Emma Stone in an uneven but still solid performance) could have realized what he had become even if she was standing over his corpse. They wouldn't have been able to continue with the essential mystery of his powers (Was it him flying or was it just a cab ride?) and that may have been another consideration in the final product. The fact that Sam talked more than once about things like Twitter and Youtube being "real power" and which Riggan eventually fully engaged, even unwittingly, with his unexpected tour through Times Square, wouldn't have been necessarily diminished by her later awareness of just what his real powers were. That said, this ending was probably the easier method of conveying that for writers, actors, and audience.

On the technical side, I thought director Alejandro González Iñárritu did a fantastic job in showing what is essentially a play on film. The "one long shot" technique was especially well done in some of the scene transitions that would have been a cut in most films but instead were presented to the audience as an opportunity for them to realize that time had passed without it being explicitly mentioned, as often happens on stage. The first appearance of Mike was a sterling example of this. Clearly, he wasn't just hanging around when Riggan had told Lesley (the always excellent Naomi Watts) to get him, but as the camera follows Riggan from backstage to THE stage, Mike appears. They kept that up through about 2/3 of the film and I was disappointed when they did finally succumb to regular time transitions by having us look up at the buildings as the sky changed colors so that it was obvious that things were moving ahead. It's a tough technique to sustain and they did a good job of it up to that point. Likewise, keeping Riggan's powers just on the edge of believability and maintaining almost constant close-ups for what was a very personal story was the right approach.

Keaton was excellent, even if he remains Michael Keaton, with his trademark hesitation and double-takes in almost every role. Norton, sticking to the "art imitating life" theme, gave us a character who resembles what Hollywood rumor has been about him for many years (difficult to work with, more intensely committed than those around him.) Despite that, he didn't steal scenes from Keaton or Watts or Stone. The cast seems to have found the right touch with each other and that always improves the final outcome. There were a couple weak spots on initial reaction and both of them had to do with the romantic attachments in the film. When Lesley is ranting about Mike to Laura (Andrea Riseborough) until Laura finally kisses her, my first thought was: "Wait. Titillation here?" But then I came to realize that they were perpetuating the trial of the actor theme in that Lesley, like all actors and most humans, just wanted to be loved ("Why do I have no self-respect?" "Oh, honey. You're an actor."), something of which Mike was largely incapable. Of course, in wanting to be loved, you want to be in front of bigger and bigger audiences. Thus, Birdman, losing touch with your art in the name of being loved or mistaking love for admiration, etc. Laura just ended up giving her what they both wanted. By the same token, I was a little put off by Sam and Mike's similar interaction, in that Sam also wanted the love that was absent from her father and Mike was trying to figure out how to love when off the stage, but it felt a little too convenient for the story at that point. By the same token, having done a few plays (way back in the day...), I can confirm that you do develop more intense interactions and relationships over a short period of time, as in most creative ventures (and politics), and the fact that people end up falling together off-stage isn't unbelievable in any sense. At those particular moments, it just felt like the timing was off, perhaps because the overall story was so personally focused around Riggan and he wasn't finding that love that was being offered. One of the most detestable aspects of modern filmmaking is the concept of a "love interest". Neither of these situations was that, but I initially reacted as if they were.

I guess the question at that point is one of truth: Which are real emotions and which aren't (which is a constant acting struggle in the first place)? Did I have that reaction because some of the acting taking place was borderline melodramatic? I don't think it was a fault of the performers or the director, but I wonder if, in their zeal to show a play on film, they were caught in the essential conflict of the two media. The stage requires emoting. You need to blow up those emotions into something that will reach the back of the room because the audience will often not be able to read the expressions on your face and need to feel what you're feeling unless you just want to be shouting all the time. That doesn't translate as well on film because the camera can be right there, with your expressive face filling all 22x52 feet of the screen in front of us. You don't need to emote as much, but you can get caught up in doing so, especially if half of your film is showing you attempting to perform on stage, where it's needed. It's a tricky balance and I think most of the people involved (veterans all) pulled it off.

But that brings us back to our original question: How much is too much? When are you Trying Too Hard to deliver your message? In the end, I think you could nitpick the film about that essential quandary and you could complain that wrapping things up in a (relatively) neat bow detracts from what the film was trying to say (i.e. it's too Hollywood.) My overriding cynicism has me thinking in that fashion, but the film was simply too good and too smart to consider it cripplingly flawed, in my opinion. Be as disdainful as you like about tropes (and I will if you won't) but I think the basic premise of the film as farce precludes a lot of the second-guessing about how much more tragic and serious it could have been. In its earnestness, I think it earns a pass on the TTH estimation, mostly because it dared to tackle a number of very basic questions and arrived at a number of very good answers, most of which the audience has to be left to itself to decide, which is the best ending to any creative work.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

If all you have is the past, then everything is shiny

Bentley Library
That's a picture of the University of Michigan football team in 1901. That was the first year of Fielding Yost's lengthy tenure at Michigan. They finished 11-0, outscoring their opponents 550-0, inaugurating the title "Point-a-minute" that Yost's teams would carry for the next four seasons. They were recognized as national champions by a number of different committees or foundations that took the role of doing that kind of thing both then and in later years. That's all wonderful and glorious, but it's also 113 years ago when the game was very different.

Bentley Library
That's a picture of the University of Michigan football team in 1964. They went 9-1 that season, losing only to Purdue, 21-20, and they won the Big 10 title and beat Oregon State in the Rose Bowl, 34-7. They didn't win a national title, but they were the best team of a very fallow period for Michigan football and the best one under Bump Elliott, whom everyone agreed was a very nice guy. That, too, is wonderful and glorious, but it's also 50 years ago when the game was very different.

Bentley Library
That's a picture of the University of Michigan football team in 1997. They went 12-0 that season, winning the Big 10 title, the Rose Bowl, and the national title according to everyone but the USA Today Coaches' Poll, who awarded it to Nebraska. That team also had the 1997 Heisman Trophy winner, Charles Woodson, who won the award as the only primarily defensive player in its history. All of that is wonderful and glorious, but it's also 17 years ago when the game was, yes, very different.

Michigan has a wonderful history in the game of football but, in today's Tautology Lesson, that is exactly what it is: history. It has relevance to the modern game only in that people continue to pine for it as an example of how they think things should be if the world were "right", but wishing the world were what you'd like it to be is why they call it "dreaming" and this here's reality.

Sporting News
Brady Hoke, by all accounts, is a very nice guy and clearly loves the program. Brady Hoke is also stuck in the past and all the wonder and glory that comes with it. He was hired with a career sub-.500 record; hardly the record you would expect for a program the adherents of which like to stress is the all-time winningest (based on total wins at the moment, since we surrendered the percentage basis to Notre Dame when we lost to Kansas State in last year's Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.) Hoke revels in the history of Michigan, even after appalling losses like last night's 26-10 drubbing by Utah at Michigan Stadium. Watch yesterday's post-game press conference. He mentions telling the team that the 1998 team lost to ND and Syracuse and still rebounded to tie for the conference title (Wisconsin, however, went to the Rose Bowl on tiebreakers and Michigan ended up in the Citrus Bowl.) He also mentions Woody Hankins made a great play in the 1996 OSU game. 16 years ago. 18 years ago. It's all in the past. That's where the glory was. None of it has anything to do with the modern game.

The modern game is one where the spread punt formation actually limits the opponent's ability to gain yardage on punt returns. It's a modern approach and the vast majority of college teams use it because it allows them to send more gunners down the field and contain the return guy. Hoke, OTOH, uses the old pro-style formation, which doesn't. That seems to be a rather galling tactical flaw in the first place but it's compounded by Hoke's preferred offensive approach, which is ball-control, power running... and field position. If you're giving the other team an additional 10-15 yards per return, you're surrendering field position.

Rampaging across Twitter from Utah fans
Of course, if you only have 10 men on the field for the punt that Utah returned for a touchdown yesterday, then you have more problems than formation issues...

In that press conference, Hoke talks about how "all our goals are still out there." Those "goals" he's talking about are the conference title and the Rose Bowl. I don't think I need to remind anyone about how wretched the B1G is as a conference at this point and how unlikely that conference title will matter to anyone, mostly because it hasn't mattered to anyone in a very long time. Everyone has talked national title for the past 25 years, if not longer. The last Michigan team that is heralded as genuinely great is that 1997 group above, because they won a national title. The next most recent team mentioned is the 2006 team, which played in a #1 vs #2 matchup with Ohio State that had implications for the national title. The conference title was a complete afterthought, even to former Hoke superior, Lloyd Carr, who thought that his team deserved a shot at the title game even after the narrow loss to OSU. The conference title hasn't mattered to anyone in a long time but it matters to people living in the past when college football was more regional. Those are the glory days: the Ten-Year War between Bo and Woody for the title to the most prestigious conference in the land and the secondary hope of catching the pollsters' eye and maybe getting the not-as-important, voted-upon national title. That latter thing is now the only thing. We even have a playoff to decide it, which the B1G champion will not have access to and Michigan can't even dream of.

It's not wrong to dream. It's not wrong to have goals. It is wrong to not have a plan to deal with the modern game and find a way to actually achieve those goals, instead of just stating them as platitudes. Hoke's ideal image of Michigan football is planted firmly somewhere in the 70s which, like the punting scheme, is oddly contradictory, given that Michigan was mostly an option team (i.e. running quarterback) in the 70s and the current offense is predicated on doing anything but that. Despite having a mobile QB, there were no designed quarterback runs yesterday. Despite Utah loading the box with 8 men and daring Michigan to run, Michigan rarely tried to stretch the field. Again, this is borderline solipsism, where attempting to impose one's belief on a reality that won't cooperate seems to be the only way for this coach to function. Certainly he needs more time than most in order to carry through on his beliefs, since Michigan is the second-slowest offense in the nation. In both losses this season, even while down by double digits, Michigan still took 35 seconds to run almost every play. There is no urgency there because the past is always with us and will always be glorious, no matter what happens now. But the facts say that Michigan hasn't even been in the red zone in two games against real competition. The facts say that Michigan is among the leaders in the nation in turnovers and tackles for loss, just like last year. Facts get in the way of dreams and belief. If you squint really hard, you can imagine there were 100,000 fans in the stadium yesterday, too.
I was talking with Brian Cook of MGOBLOG yesterday and we were mulling over Hoke's almost-inevitable replacement at the end of this year. He suggested Scott Frost, the offensive coordinator for Pac-12 powerhouse, Oregon. As some of you may know, Oregon's offense frequently keeps it in the conversation as a candidate for a national title (i.e. relevant to the modern game.) As some of you may remember, Scott Frost was the quarterback for that aforementioned Nebraska team who campaigned long and loud to get Nebraska a share of that national title. When I brought his name up on the board today, there was one immediate visceral response rejecting the idea because of college football "tribalism" and the actions of not just Frost but his apparently voluble mother, who wrote to Michigan magazines after the Nebraska win in the 2005 Alamo Bowl.

But that stuff is in the past, just like the glory, and it deserves as much credence as that glory does right now. The attachment to "tribalism", notably the "Michigan Man" misnomer, is an enormous part of why Michigan is in the trouble that it is. I loved Bo, too. But Bo is dead and most of his direct descendants in the coaching world have long since left it. Michigan doesn't need a link to the past. It needs one to the future. I don't know if Frost is the right coach. I just know that Hoke isn't and neither is anyone who thinks like him at this point. If all we rely upon to move forward is what we had before, we're not Michigan any longer. We're Minnesota, last relevant to the college game in 1960 and that was 54 years ago, when the game was very different.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

What it meant

One of my earliest memories is of reading a comic. We were at one of those highly-regulated and organized suburban vacation spots called Camp Dearborn. It's actually owned by the city of Dearborn, MI but is 35 miles away in Milford, MI. I have no idea why. They had canvas-roofed cabins that you could rent, a small lake, a swimming pool, a golf course, hayrides, and the whole nine yards. Very Midwest; very "get away for a weekend"-type thing, and that's exactly what I remember us doing. I was four years old and I was sitting in one of the cabins reading an issue of Man-Thing, Marvel's answer to DC's Swamp Thing (in fact, the same writer had worked on both as many of them drifted back and forth between the Big Two in those years) and another example of Marvel's return to horror comics after its neutering of the Comics Code a couple years earlier. We had been sharing a couple of the cabins with another family we knew and I was in the "boys' cabin" and had a small pile of comics with me. My vague memory says that most of them were mine, but I knew that one of the older boys had a few with him, as well. They had decided to leave before us at that point or were perhaps just running home for a while (the camp at the time was only about an hour from our home) and he burst into the cabin, grabbed a bunch of the comics, including the one in my hand, and ran out. I don't remember which issue it was and I don't remember being particularly outraged that I'd been interrupted and perhaps even had something stolen from me. I just remember that the images of that comic stayed with me and turned into an almost lifelong obsession.

I met someone recently and dropped a Stan Lee reference. We'd been texting about being enchanted and it turned into an exchange of synonyms: beguiled, befuddled, bamboozled, bemused. She mentioned that she liked the alliteration and I said I couldn't help it. I'd read too many Stan Lee comics as a kid. Lee frequently titled his columns "Bullpen Bulletins" or "Stan's Soapbox" or was fond of referring to the readers in ways like "the fightin', ferocious, fantabulous fans of fun!!" Any quick look at many of his early characters (J. Jonah Jameson, Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Peter Parker) demonstrates that this was a regular habit of his. My new friend mentioned that she wasn't really a fan (fightin' or otherwise) but she was fascinated(!) by people that were and what they got out of comics or why they enjoyed them. That, of course, got me to thinkin'...

Alliteration fer reals. No one has ever really determined why he has to wear pants, either.

I think most kids are into superheroes to one degree or another. One only has to look at Marvel's film success over the past decade to see some of that. I don't remember what my particular attachment became early on and what led me to collect over 30,000 of them in the intervening years. I do remember that I was far more interested in the stories themselves than the accompanying artwork. I wanted to know why Cyclone had kidnapped J. Jonah Jameson in Amazing Spider-Man #143 and why Mary Jane Watson seemed to be having a really hard time in her relationship with Peter Parker (my own parents were getting divorced around this same time.) Furthermore, I really wanted to know why Mary Jane ended that issue by uttering the phrase "Far freakin' out." which was the same exclamation that Green Arrow used at the end of an issue of Justice League of America! (Drifting writers again.) That's not to say that I wasn't interested in the accompanying art. I remember picking up my first copy of magazines like Heavy Metal (the American version of the French Métal Hurlant) or Marvel's own Epic Illustrated and being engrossed in the painting of artists like Mœbius, Richard Corben, and Jim Starlin. Both Marvel and DC would also later venture into more daring artistic approaches with people like Dave McKean and I would remain a fan of the moody approach of Matt Wagner and many, many others. But it was really always the stories that hooked me and what had led people to create them...

Beta Ray Bill, FTW!

... which is kind of funny in one respect because I'm a ferocious critic of story and when you look back at many of the comics that I loved at the time they were produced, like the above issue of Thor, produced by Walt Simonson who has long been considered the best writer/artist to ever helm the book, the pace and dialogue are awful. There are long stretches of clunky exposition or explanations of what's going on in the establishment shot (which can be a regular cityscape) or re-statements of who Thor is and why he is. Editor-in-chief of the time, Jim Shooter, always said that you have to have a continuing story to retain regular readers but that every issue is always someone's first read, so the story couldn't be so dense that they wouldn't be able to get into it. That philosophy is blatantly obvious in reading those old series and makes them kind of painful to get through. That approach was standard in TV for much of its history, as well, and it's only comparatively recently that it has changed such that trying to drop into the middle of things like Breaking Bad would have been difficult for new viewers and it's by far the better experience to watch from the beginning. The way to tell good stories is to let characters grow and develop, especially if they're character-driven stories like almost all superhero comics. You can't have that growth or development if you have to keep explaining what's going on to the new readers. Thankfully, the emergence of limited series in the 80s enabled many writers to escape that Minosian circuit and other series developed with that principle firmly in mind, such as Sandman.

Not a Sandman cover, but one of my favorite McKean images

But the mention of Sandman is important here because it led to the most significant shift in comics since the Code destroyed EC. While the book has always been written by Neil Gaiman and he had a definite path in mind for it, since it was in the DC Universe he had to play along with the superheroes in his backyard for the first year of its publication, although he tried hard to skirt them as much as possible. Once Karen Berger finally convinced DC to let her take books like Sandman and Swamp Thing into their own imprint, Vertigo, they were finally free from the thing that has held back comics in many ways for the past half-century: superheroes.

Don't get me wrong: I love superheroes. I grew up with them. I've read tens of thousands of stories about them. The nostalgic pull is strong whenever someone brings up stuff like Iron Man under David Michelinie or Amazing Spider-Man under Roger Stern in the 80s. I think the Wild Cards series of anthologies, edited and contributed to by George R. R. Martin, are brilliant. But, as with any genre, there are limits to what can be done with them. Despite my history, I haven't read a superhero comic with any regularity since the early 90s. I can't. The stuff bores me to tears because in many ways it's still following the Jim Shooter model. My friend, Curtis, who is the owner of the local shop in Ann Arbor, Vault of Midnight, tried to sell me on a new version of Iron Fist a few years ago and I devoured the first six-issue collection which was about the character coming to grips with his past and the spirituality surrounding the strange city of K'un Lun and what it meant for him to hold the power that he acquired. I was like: "Yeah. This is the shit!" It was thoughtful, but retained enough touches to Chinese mythology and 60s-era kung fu films to have just a bit of camp to lighten it at the right points. Plus, having practiced martial arts for many years, I was on the same page with the concept of trying to express oneself physically and conform to the art as laid down by those before you. I was totally geeked. And then I picked up issue #7... and it was Villain-of-the-month again. Bzzzt! Thank you for playing! Lovely parting gifts, etc.

Gothic #1 by me and Kevin Leen, cover by Guy Davis

When we started the studio in the early 90s, it was with the same idea that so many other comics companies have begun: do it differently and better than the big guys. Almost by default, that meant no superheroes. If you wanted superheroes, you knew where to go. Dark Horse didn't do them (except for one brief excursion around that time that I actually kind of enjoyed) because they wanted to avoid competing directly with Marvel and DC and they frequently stated that they thought the concept was more than played out. Image started around that time with the very brash and public announcement that they were going to do things differently from the Big Two. What they produced at the time was utterly similar and essentially the same stuff that all of them had been doing for Marvel with different names. Alan Moore and Frank Miller had shown what superheroes could be taken to in the mid-80s and that limit had pretty much been set. Trying to keep going after that wasn't interesting to me nor was it to many readers who really wanted to read good stories. Fifth Panel Comics produced creator-owned material, though, so amongst our early producers were people that did their hero-of-the-moment stuff but they soon gave up and left. The small core that remained continued with the idea that the medium could only really be advanced with good stories that had little to do with bright costumes and stopping bank robbers or alien invasions.

I read very few comics these days and the closest I come to superheroes is Kurt Busiek's Astro City, which is essentially Busiek using the world he'd created as a kid to convey stories about the human condition. The facade is "superhero" but the stories are very human. Otherwise, ironically, I actually read a lot of Image output as they decided somewhere along the way that most of their stuff was played out, as well. Most of the original creators had moved on and they've attracted a stable of artists and writers that produce good stuff from many different genres, like Greg Rucka's Lazarus. But I still have a deep attachment to the medium as I tend to think of stories in a cinematic fashion (comics being far closer to film than prose.) When I pitched the idea of Coding Time to Ghostwoods, I did so with the idea of a film called The Machinist firmly in mind and I wrote it in that fashion. I could see the panel transitions in my head. I still have a ton of stories for Fifth Panel that never saw the light of day (or the black of night) and I'd still like to see them published somewhere. My friend, Margot, suggested to me a few years back that I try to convert them to prose. It's something I considered a few times but always abandoned because, again, of the chasm between the two media. There are tricks that you can perform with comics that are very difficult, if not impossible, with prose. When you can let the artwork tell one half of the story and can tell a conjoined but disparate story at the same time via captions, that's a technique that's not feasible in prose and that wouldn't be easy to do in film, either. But comics can make it happen because your reader proceeds at his pace, not the film's which gives more time for reflection and understanding. If you have eye-catching art to go with it, so much the better.

So, yeah. That (and so many, many more details) is what I get from comics/what they mean to me/why they still hang over me even though my connection to them is fairly tenuous these days. My creative outlook is shaped by them and always will be. I analyze plot and story of films through the glass of comics in many ways (noting that Snowpiercer worked well as a comic but not very well as a film, for example.) I think it's a powerful medium that doesn't get a lot of the respect that it deserves because it's tied to the shadow of the cape and cowl, despite the billions earned by Marvel's increasingly Bay-like films, which are still regularly trivialized as "summer blockbusters" from an artistic standpoint and deservedly so in most cases. But there are still gems to find. I'd like to think that one or two of them are still in my head.