Monthly Archives: October 2005

October 28, 2005

Humor research half-dream

A couple nights ago while I was falling asleep I had a vision of a humor research experiment in progress. A large audience was in a theater, watching a comedy movie. Each member of the audience was being videotaped by a camera mounted to the back of the seat in front of him/her. Someone was going to go through each tape later and for every “laugh point” in the movie, make a note of whether the person either 1) laughed with open mouth, 2) laughed with closed mouth, 3) smiled or the like, 4) did nothing, or 5) made a demonstration of displeasure. Then all this data was going to be analyzed by computer, looking for jokes that divided the audience in similar ways, or individuals who divided the jokes in similar ways, etc., and finding the degrees of correlation between such things. From this they would (I dreamed) come up with a set of 7 or 8 basic variables that defined the space on to which humor could be mapped. Then they’d come up with a sense-of-humor profile for each individual in terms of those variables. Then they’d correlate the profiles with survey questions that each person would have filled out…and would thereby be able to quantify and/or discredit assumptions like “slapstick is blue-collar humor.”

In the light of day this seems to me, unlike most things I think of when I’m falling asleep, perfectly reasonable – to the point that I imagine it, or something like it, must actually have been done at some point. The demographic bit at the end would certainly be valuable to the entertainment industry – more than Nielsen-type ratings, which don’t differentiate between enjoyment and compulsive/pleasureless viewing, which I imagine accounts for a good chunk of the US entertainment market. The suits might say that they don’t really care about the difference, but obviously they should.

So anyway, if anyone can find me a link to the results of this experiment, I’d appreciate it. All I could find was this statistical sense-of-humor analyzer, which, after forcing me to rate what must have been 40 or 50 jokes, finally admitted defeat and told me that it could find NO jokes in its database to recommend to me. I think it was right about that.

This is much more impressive at a similar task. But if you want to stump it, you will, so go easy. I always feel proud of it when it does anything right. Just now I was thrilled that it got “catalog” right on question 17. Catalog!

October 21, 2005

Distraught Waltz

I made up the following little piece several weeks ago while doing some boring work, considered posting it here, and then decided it wasn’t worth it. Just now I remembered it and realized that my quality-control decision went against the spirit of this whole undertaking. So here it is. I don’t think this exactly qualifies for the “iggly” category; it’s more like a character sketch of a person whose emotions are a little bit out of their control.

I have these ideas about writing mostly-traditional simple pieces with approximately characteristic form and material, but making each element idiosyncratic enough that the pieces feel like they have a dramatic/narrative quality, even in a short span. But that’s never quite how they sound. I can make myself hear them that way, but when I just relax into them, they don’t convince me. The skipping-record thing in this piece, for example, strikes me as really unacceptably stupid about half of the time. The rest of the time it comes off the way I intended… but I want better odds than that from MYSELF.

There is a basic principle with composing music: you hear music MUCH faster than you write it, so to make something convincing in listener time, you have to think like an animator and work in slow-motion land. This is true for other arts, too. I have learned to do this for small effects but not for structure – my brain doesn’t feel big enough to hold the mass of a whole sonata form, for example, when it stretches out like an aircraft-carrier as I zoom in to actually write a few bars of it. So I frequently end up making the mistake of miscalculating the dramatic scale and putting things too close to each other to be meaningful. Or else overshooting when I try to let things breathe. I think both mistakes have been made in the course of this tiny piece.

To write to a long form properly, you have to build outlines and skeletons first, so that you don’t need to be holding on to all of it at once when you blow it up to scale. But writing (music or words) to fit an outline is an entirely different experience, to me, from writing whatever the material seems to demand; it’s like a packing puzzle or an engineering problem. I can imagine myself getting so good at that kind of puzzle that I can solve it in my sleep, but I can’t imagine integrating that puzzle-solving skill with the creative functions I already have, which seem to require absolute freedom from outside constraints in order to produce anything convincing.

This problem is a form of a general problem that I have. I and everyone else; it’s a basic human problem. The problem is that given any kind of terms or guidelines, one tends to perceive them as constraining so long as they feel externally imposed (the negative connotation of “imposition” is a reflection of this). To work well within guidelines, one has to identify with them – they must be internal rather than external. This is a problem, in fact, with learning any new thing – until you believe something, you are inclined not to believe it, simply because it is external, it is not yours.* To deal with this problem we have rational persuasion, a mechanism for converting the external into the internal. I need an artistic analogue of persuasion – a mechanism to help me recognize formal outlines, for example, as my own beliefs, rather than as constraints. Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s any simple answer. If you leave something on the floor intentionally, and then trip over it later by mistake, it is essentially impossible not to be angry at your past self. Similarly, I cannot help but feel that I am struggling against troublesome restrictions when I try to write within a structure of my own design, so long as the “I” who designed it is a past self, external to the present. Hence the need to always been designing on all scales in the present… hence the aircraft-carrier problem.

Without further ado:

Absolutely raw score with none of the important markings
How it’s supposed to sound, except worse

* Then again, this may not be true for everyone. Maybe personalities can be divided into two classes: incredulous and credulous. It seems to me that philosophy works differently for the two types. As an incredule (one of the incredulim), I of course cannot imagine leading the life of a credule – all that email to forward! – but I do envy them their creative fluency.

October 20, 2005

The Aristocrats (2005)

directed by Paul Provenza

A movie where a lot of different comedians tell the same joke is a good idea – seeing people trying to make entertainment work is always interesting. Seeing multiple attempts at the same material, in parallel, can call both the craft and value of art into focus and can offer a chance to really appreciate the skill and effort of each artist. I still think a great movie could be made that would just be a simple document of many different actors performing the same short scene, as in an audition. Whenever I’ve found myself as one of the people “behind the table” at acting auditions where everyone reads the same scene, I end up feeling that I’ve watched a fascinating study of the scene itself and of the individual actors – and through them, of big issues like art and human nature as a whole. Really.

The Aristocrats, at least in theory, had the potential to offer that sort of insight, and some of the reviews I read suggested that it would. (A.O. Scott, attempting to demonstrate that he had seen beyond the veneer of potty-humor, called it several silly things including “one of the most original and rigorous pieces of criticism in any medium I have encountered in quite some time.”) But it fails. This is not to say that it is not amusing and/or worth seeing (it’s a bit long and fairly monotonous, but I generally enjoyed myself), just to say that despite its pretentions of being a window onto wider issues, it actually offers little insight into comedy or comedians, or even, ultimately, into the particular joke that it’s all about.

The movie is doomed to fail, really, by the choice of material. The joke (Guy goes into a talent agent to pitch his family’s act, says, “[elaborate pitch for surreal stage routine so repellent that it shocks those listening to the joke],” talent agent says “and what do you call yourselves?,” guy says, “The Aristocrats.”) is not a true joke, and is thus unsuitable for this documentary’s purposes.

Yes, it has a punchline, but the punchline is only funny in that it defies expectations – specifically, the expectations that are held for the JOKE, rather than for the situation. It is only a meta-joke*, a joke that toys with audiences grown accustomed to standard joke formats. This seems like a blatantly obvious thing to point out, but several people in the film talk about how the point of the joke is that the name of the act is so absurdly misguided and quaint after all the vulgarity, and some of the comedians who tell the joke seem really to believe this.** They are wrong. The humor is in fact that the joke-teller has gone to such indefensibly offensive ends for this shaggy-dog punchline. It’s just anti-icing on the cake that the punchline is, in an incredibly faint way, identifiable as a garden-variety “high/low joke.”

On a related note, I have long felt that it is a significant cultural error to have made “Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side!” our all-purpose archetypal “joke,” since it’s only funny because it’s an ill-formed joke – i.e. it has a question and answer but the content is unfunny. Watching this movie I felt like the same mistake was being made – the movie was all about comedy and yet had this un-joke at its center.

The movie recognizes that the joke is all about shocking the audience, but the shock is only in response to the fact that the joke-teller is being so tasteless as to think it is acceptable to tell this joke. Certainly nobody is shocked that the man in the act eats his own poop or whatever; we’ve already written off his reality as being ridiculous***. Since the humor, therefore, results from the dynamic between the comedian and his audience, it is a joke that can hardly work out of context (the context is, as acknowledged in the film, the only reason that Gilbert Gottfried’s much-praised telling of the joke at the Hugh Hefner roast was so apt and successful), a joke that can hardly work in a staged performance situation (such things are meant to be told one-on-one, like scary stories), a joke that really can’t work in a movie (where the performers are nowhere near their audiences in space or time), and a joke that absolutely cannot work more than once, no matter how different the telling. All we can enjoy about seeing different people play with the joke is see what their imagination does to fill a space where there is no viable comedy goal, nothing left to accomplish. We see comedians falling back on their generic tricks, on their other material, because they have been asked to tell a non-joke to people who already know that it’s a waste of their time.

Alternately, we see less lazy comedians giving their best shot to writing new material “inspired by” the original non-joke, which has the potential to be an interesting exercise in its own way, I suppose, but I didn’t think any of the results were all that great. Sarah Silverman’s “I was an Aristocrat” routine, which gets singled out for praise in many reviews I’ve read, seemed to me like just an application of a typical deadpan formula (perhaps one of semi-recent vintage, but I’ve certainly seen it many times before). The movie also features applications of useful inversion formulas, anti-climax formulas, etc. Could have been interesting if they’d broken that down.

Anyway, the comedians in the movie are generally smart about all this stuff, and there is a fair amount of acknowledgement that a singularly unenlightening subject has been chosen for the movie. The implication of the filmmaking, though, is that the filmmakers, by perversely choosing the “wrong” joke, have actually gotten at something revealing. But every time one of the subjects said, “Why’d you have to pick this joke? This is a terrible joke and I don’t think it’s very interesting,” I tended to agree with them. The fact that the excessive gross-out riff is an undeniable element of American humor – pathetic, childish, and generally unfunny, but valuable in its way, as such – is something I’ve known since elementary school recess, and this movie didn’t add depth or breadth to that knowledge.

At the very least, given the concept and the interviewees, there was a fascinating movie that could have been made about the art, craft, and philosophy of humor, and these filmmakers willingly threw away that opportunity. What they actually made is just a good-natured, long, repetitive montage of occasionally-funny dead-baby-joke “jamming.” Seems like a waste. Still worth seeing though, for all the famous people joking around informally. I enjoyed the movie, I would say, in the same way I enjoy all behind-the-scenes footage.

Oh, also, I know this was a zero-budget casual movie, but of the few actual cinematographic choices involved, several struck me as dumb. Why did they shoot some people with two newsroom-style perpendicular cameras and have them look into both? That was awful.

* Wikipedia currently has separate but overlapping articles on Anti-humor, Meta-joke, and (soon to be deleted) Non-joke.

** Paul Reiser, in particular, makes a game effort to make the joke work as a joke about the extreme misguidedness of the eager Aristocrat. I respected him for trying – at least he, unlike most of the comedians in the movie, was trying to actually sell the joke – but there’s just no way. It’s like trying to sell the idea that, no, there really is something kind of funny (and sad!) about this dog not actually being as shaggy as everyone says, after all that…

*** Which is why comedians in the movie get laughs talking about how in reality, the man with the act would have been jailed and the talent agent would certainly have tried to prevent the horrible act from happening – it’s all absurd, because of course these stick figures have never come anywhere near reality, where they could do anything actually offensive. It’s only the comedian drawing the stick figures who can be held responsible for their actions.

October 18, 2005

SpaceCamp (1986)

directed by Harry Winer
screenplay by W.W. Wicket (pseud. for Clifford Green) and Casey T. Mitchell
after a story by Patrick Bailey and Larry B. Williams

When SpaceCamp came out in 1986, my mother suggested that we go see it, but I refused. Later, when it was available on video, she suggested that we rent it, but I again refused. I remember telling her why: because I already knew what was going to happen. Kids were going to accidentally get sent into space and then come back. I didn’t need to see that. Her response was that maybe it would be exciting to see how they managed to get back. But I knew that it wouldn’t.

I was correct. It is now 19 years later and I have seen SpaceCamp and can report to the world that it is indeed not worth seeing.

Beth has a story about SpaceCamp that I have been given permission to tell here. She really liked SpaceCamp, as a kid, and rented the video repeatedly. One day she saw that the local newspaper’s TV schedule listed SpaceCamp as a two-star movie. Disturbed, she asked her mother how it was possible that the newspaper only gave it two stars. Her mother replied that it was probably because newspapers cared about things like lighting and sound quality. Good answer.

The laziness of the screenplay is severe. No thought seems to have been given to the question of making the characters appealing rather than annoying. Nor does any of the attempted character interest (or humor) make any sense; it’s all just copied out of the mid-80s “a-bunch-of-kids” playbook. Kate Capshaw’s character, ostensibly the authority figure, follows exactly the same cues, which is an actual error in hack-work. Frequent and extended references to Star Wars are, as with Kevin Smith, a good indicator of complete creative bankruptcy.

That one of the screenwriters chose to duck out under a pseudonym suggests that either a) It wasn’t this bad the way he wrote it, or b) he was only getting a paycheck – the story-writers had already doomed this to trash. Frankly, it’s hard for me to imagine that the fault is actually the director’s (or the actors’) – though it is indeed poorly directed and acted. And edited.

I wish I had known in advance that Leaf Phoenix and Joaquin Phoenix are the same person.

The movie is both a Happy-Meal-cutout version of NASA (staffed by clueless technicians and a crazy talking robot!) and a thoroughly branded advertisement for the real NASA, which doesn’t sit well. I assume that the crucial negligence and rocket booster malfunction were even less delightful to audiences in 1986. The movie plays like one of those embarrassing promotional or instructional videos that add “Hey, Joe, what’s that you’ve got there?” characters and dialogue to what would otherwise be dry content… except that the movie consists only of those characters, and the real NASA has been driven entirely offscreen. But the movie maintains that same sense of having been created by enthusiastic businessmen who possess only a distracted amateur’s understanding of what will be entertaining. Occasional footage of the real shuttle, taken from different film stock and poorly integrated, serves to remind us of the extremely remote connection to reality that is nonetheless the only reason that the movie exists.

The movie does contain, however, a sequence in which a kid floats off helplessly into the void. It’s not very well written or shot, but it doesn’t matter – that’s a death that kids actually fantasize nervously about, and there it is being played out on the screen. I’m not going to say it redeemed the movie, but it was certainly a high point.

Music was once again by Mr. John Williams, in his trademark 80s-patriotism mode. It was no “NBC News Theme,” but it was certainly professional, which put it so far beyond the rest of the production that I was almost embarrassed for it. “Don’t get so heroic!” I wanted to tell the music, “that’s obviously a model and nobody cares anyway!”

This is actually a real mistake made by a lot of movie music – wherein the music attains a level of sweep and impact to which the movie cannot rise. I think a lot of directors, and perhaps composers, think that they can redeem weak-blooded filmmaking with strong music, but it never works that way. At least not for me. Music’s best bet is to match the level of the visual and thereby endorse it, rather than be caught leaving it in the dust as it goes on to greater things; that looks bad for everyone. I think John Williams frequently makes the mistake of thinking that he can save movies from themselves – when there is a dramatic gap in the movie, he tries to fill it. I recently listened to some of his Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone music independent of the film, and was surprised to find that I thought it was pretty apt and well done – because during the movie, I had thought it was noisy and uninspired. I think that I was actually responding to the movie’s being unbearably flat and dead – and so was he, by writing a lot of music meant to convey things that the image didn’t (like fun and excitement, for example). Unfortunately, in the context of a movie, that generally doesn’t work, and the independent value of the music gets lost – it just sounds like it’s watching some other movie or is insensitive to this one. The image always precedes, no matter how crappy.

On the other hand, in this case, the composer’s characteristically awkward comments about the film on the score LP suggest that he was indeed watching some other movie. Maybe John Williams’ problem is that he genuinely isn’t sensitive enough to movie-quality:

In the creation of SpaceCamp, Director Harry Winer and Executive Producer Leonard Goldberg have given us a marvelous movie! The film succeeds as pure entertainment while simultaneously succeeding on several other levels… I feel honored to have been asked to compose this score, and I feel particularly proud of my association with SpaceCamp and its creators.

The ellipsis elides some patriotic effusions about the space program. How embarrassing!

I think I’ve used the word “embarrassing” five or six times in talking about this movie.* I have no regrets there.

* Depending on how you count: two, three, or four times.

October 17, 2005

Jurassic Park (1993)

directed by Steven Spielberg
screenplay by Michael Crichton and David Koepp
after the novel by Michael Crichton (1990)

I grew up thinking of Steven Spielberg as one of the basic brands. I didn’t just like his movies; he was, like Disney, a cultural axiom. I still find it hard to wrap my mind around the extreme foreignness of people my age who were brought up to have reservations (or worse) about the old Disney properties. On the other hand, I never felt any particular loyalty to Warner Brothers cartoons, though I enjoyed watching them, and childhoods that embraced those as being culturally fundamental strike me as similarly alien. There must be a name in marketing for that kind of acceptance, acceptance that goes beyond mere critical opinion to being part of one’s cultural cosmology. In fact, it can be quite independent of opinion: as a kid I never really thought “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” was any good, but I watched it anyway because it was, for want of a better word, undeniable.

Anyway, Steven Spielberg was undeniable in my childhood, and furthermore, I actually liked watching our video copies of E.T., Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Duel, and, eventually, Raiders of the Lost Ark. But at the time that I was reaching the age of general movie-readiness at 11 or 12, the Spielberg brand had gotten weirdly sidetracked by stuff like Always and Hook, and when Jurassic Park was announced, there was a sense that this was my first chance to be present for the unveiling of one of these momentous things. For all intents and purposes, those other movies had come out before my time, alive though I may have been. I guess there must also have been some sort of unprecedented all-around hype for the release, since my grandmother felt compelled to come out of moviegoing retirement, for the one and only time, to accompany us to see this dinosaur action movie, of all things.

Upon returning from this historic occasion there was the sense, in my family, that it had been both thrilling and fun and, simultaneously, all-around not very good. I remember feeling, during the opening scenes, the grown-up-flavored disappointment of recognizing that despite the brand, the dinosaurs, and the hype, “Steven Spielberg” had made something was not, in fact, undeniable.

Huge swaths of this movie are eminently deniable; most of the non-special-effects time is, to one degree or another, clunky and unconvincing. Spielberg has a very strong sense of pacing and of visual storytelling, but in his movies of the past 15 years, he has done a frustratingly uneven job of actually delivering screenplays, line-for-line, to the audience. In Jurassic Park, it frequently seems like he made production design choices for each scene as a whole and storyboard-style choices for the shot compositions, but didn’t have any particular strategy for conveying the actual individual lines and stage directions in the script. As a result, a lot of sequences play as annoyingly artificial – almost condescendingly so – because the writing, never quite integrated into the filmmaking, hangs apart from it in a dumb, transparent way.

For example, an early scene, wherein Sam Neill describes death by velociraptor to intimidate an annoying kid, falls completely flat. It’s downright embarrassing. But despite what it might seem, the scene as written is reasonable enough, and watching it again, I think that Sam and, yes, that unpleasantly cast kid each do a perfectly serviceable job. So why does the scene feel like such garbage? I blame Spielberg. He shoots it like he knows that it’s cute (“when you see that claw, I want you to bug your eyes out, okay?”) but doesn’t expect us to really care about what’s being said, only the overall gist of the intimidation – the actual dialogue gets hung out to dry. The audience (and the director) are just waiting it out so we can get a cheap punchline when the kid whimpers at the end, defeated. Spielberg sells the broader cliché and deals with the specifics impatiently, and as a result, the specifics end up seeming like a charmless burden on the scene, an inefficient and annoying way of accomplishing something that, as Spielberg sees it, is fundamentally crude and simple.

Put another way, in actors’ terms: Spielberg doesn’t help try to “find the truth” in the scene as written – he approaches the scene in terms of its function, and lets the actors worry about making what they’re doing seem likely. But since he’s using his camera to sell something else, they don’t really stand a chance.

This happens again and again. In the awed moment of seeing the dinosaurs for the first time, Neill’s character tosses off a whole bunch of “scientist” dialogue, like “We could tear up the rule book on cold-bloodedness. It doesn’t apply.” The scene tries to swallow this up because it doesn’t really want him to be having this kind of reaction in the midst of all that awe – but he says it all the same, and we in the audience squirm and think, “That’s so lame that he’s saying that! This script is so dumb!” Or the scenes at headquarters, with Wayne Knight spouting tech talk and Samuel L. Jackson sucking absurdly on a cigarette. Koepp and Crichton put this stuff in the script to be heard, but Spielberg decides to shoot it like it’s just background noise, and it ends up seeming gratingly phony. He should either have shot to the dialogue and made a slightly more Crichton-esque movie, or have said, “sorry guys, but I’m cutting this script down to a little comic book dialogue and that’s it, because that’s all I want this movie to be.” The “Mr. DNA” cartoon as technical explanation seems exactly on the level that Spielberg was willing to care about, whereas the “frog DNA somehow made it possible for the dinosaurs to reproduce” thing is obviously way over the sci-fi head of this basically scienceless monster movie, and should have been excised completely, rather than being pared down to a worthless nub.

In retrospect, I think this sort of problem was the reason that Amistad was so unpleasant and ineffective. It’s not so much that it was sanctimonious – it was that it used the specifics of the script as a mere means of getting at the big clichés. Spielberg does his best work when he actually cares about getting the details across, when he thinks that what is happening in a given line or in a given moment could, in and of itself, be interesting to the audience. I think this is probably how he managed to make something worthy out of Schindler’s List – because he was unable to fall back on seeing any given event as being just a mechanism for creating some larger effect; he had to address each point as though it mattered. He certainly has the skill to do something strong with anything that matters to him.

In Jurassic Park, clearly what matters to him is the action sequences. The bit with the tyrannosaurus and the minivans is far and away the best thing in the movie, and holds up well. The bit with the kids being stalked around the kitchen by velociraptors is also pretty satisfying. The scenes where people are talking to each other are as boring to us as they must have been to Steven.

Let me however mention that despite Spielberg’s apparent disinterest, Bob Peck manages to eke some appeal out of the absolutely bone-thin non-character of Muldoon. I also feel warmly toward him because he was the lead in the excellent Jim Henson short The Soldier and Death.*

I ended up watching this again recently because I suddenly found myself with the opportunity to study the actual orchestral score to John Williams’ incidental music – something one generally cannot do. More on that later. I didn’t have a very clear memory of it, apart from the two main themes, which on first viewing, I remember, seemed overblown and unappealing, as though John Williams were making a clumsy attempt to sound like himself. (There’s also a very short motive signifying dino-danger – comparable to the “Jaws” motive in function, really – which is fairly effective though it’s never quite isolated clearly enough for the audience to really “learn” it.) Now, with benefit of the score, I can say that the two big melodies** are indeed rather weak as tunes, though thinking of them as solutions to specific expressive film-scoring problems has given me slightly more respect for them. I think that’s my review of the music as a whole – it doesn’t really add up to anything musically satisfying or even particularly coherent, but every problem posed by the movie is solved cleverly, expertly. Watching the movie with the score in hand makes it that much clearer to me just how many problems there are to solve in a movie like this. In a little interview I found online, the composer says

Jurassic Park has a 95-minute score. It pumps away all the time. It’s a rugged, noisy effort – a massive job of symphonic cartooning. You have to match the rhythmic gyrations of the dinosaurs and create these kind of funny ballets.

Like the man says, it’s a huge heap of disjointed cartoon music that plays as a very literal accompaniment to almost every shot. I suspect that my criticism of the directing might apply here as well; the best scene in the movie is unscored, and it seems like maybe the whole thing would have been scarier and more involving if the music had taken a less balletic, more dramatic approach, playing the content rather than the kinetics. But that’s obviously not how Spielberg saw it or wanted it. The movie as a whole is a ballet of cars falling down trees and dinosaurs jumping through ceiling panels – a ballet where half the time, people aren’t dancing much, and are instead reading lines out of a Michael Crichton novel. Oh well. We all managed to sit through it; it may be lame but it’s all perfectly cheery and inoffensive. There’s hardly anything left in the movie that makes me cringe. Hook will take me longer, I’m afraid. Amistad isn’t going to happen.

* Not to be confused with this.

** An acquaintance in college offered, for the climax of the hymn-like theme, the lyrics “We are dinosaurs, we are dinosaurs, we like to-o roar” and for the heroic main theme, the lyrics “We’re so amazing; we are made from DNA.” These are funny.

October 14, 2005

Carrie (1976)

directed by Brian De Palma
screenplay by Lawrence D. Cohen
after the novel by Stephen King (1974)

I’ve got a backlog of nearly a month’s movie-watching to address. Luckily, a lot of it was pretty trashy stuff, so I’m hoping to zip through it quickly.

Carrie is pretty trashy stuff. Actually, the word I want to use is “sleazy.” This is the word that has come to mind for every Brian De Palma movie I have seen. Granted, I’ve only seen a few, and they didn’t include Scarface or The Untouchables, his “good” movies. But having seen The Fury (1978) and Snake Eyes (1998) to completion, and, on TV, most of Body Double (1984), Mission to Mars (2000) and Femme Fatale (2002), and some of Mission: Impossible (1996)… and now, of course, Carrie… I can say with some confidence that the man’s oeuvre is, on average, totally sleazy.

Or wait, is it “trashy” after all? What is the difference between sleaze and trash? To me, “trash” is something that aims shamefully low because it doesn’t care, or doesn’t know any better, whereas “sleaze” is something that aims shamefully low because its value system is actually inverted. Someone is sleazy if he does something low knowingly, and likes it. Sleazy movies are the ones that proudly say “some fuddy-duddies out there might think that it’s not right for us to put this in a movie – well, sorry, grandma, ’cause that’s the way it is!” The archetypal example would be onscreen nudity that the filmmakers dare you to write off as prurient, which is, in fact, blatantly prurient. That’s the first shot of Carrie, and the rest of the movie lives up to it nicely.

People who defend Brian De Palma will say that in his movies he “plays” with exploitation, “refers” to it, and that part of that “play” is dipping down into it a bit, which, yes, is a little bit sleazy, but knowingly so. That’s some pretty darn generous benefit-of-the-doubt. When I watched The Fury, a real live proponent of De Palma was present, and afterwards said that the movie had clearly been intended as a parody-criticism of action movies. When asked about John Cassavetes COMPLETELY EXPLODING INTO GORE at the very end of the movie, he said that it had obviously been a joke because it had been so outrageously tasteless. “Come on,” he said, “he showed it from six different angles. That’s not moviemaking, and of course De Palma knows that. There’s no other explanation.” But I think there is: sleaze.

My main thought while watching Carrie was that the flamboyant “Hitchcock Rulez!!” visual style managed to render trash out of the images themselves. You can call it “over-the-top” if you want, but that suggests someone who has taken good aim and gone too far in an otherwise reasonable direction. Whereas I didn’t feel like this movie took particularly good aim to begin with. The odd compositions and split screens and excessive camera movement didn’t seem like they were motivated by any kind of respectable impulse – they were directorial quirks that didn’t serve the material – something that could never be said of Hitchcock. The movie just seemed like a collection of seriously junky details that the filmmakers happened to think were cool. The story as filmed, which is pretty sparse to begin with, just felt like an excuse to show a girl get blood poured all over her. Stephen King obviously had some sexual repression/awakening/coming-of-age schlock in mind when he wrote it, and De Palma was certainly happy to put that stuff in the movie, film-school style, but it seemed extremely clear what his real interest was.

Umberto Eco has a little essay where he says that pornographic films are characterized by the need to waste our time with incredibly boring stuff, so as to set off and heighten the porn itself. He sums up: “If you are in a movie theater, and the time it takes the protagonists to go from A to B is longer than what you would like it to be, then it means the film is a porno.” I would add the more obvious reason that pornography is full of mindless tedium: filmmakers know they need a certain amount of material to create the sense of involvement that comes from a full-length form – this goes for romance novels too – and because they really don’t care that much, they do it in the laziest possible way. This movie felt like porn – a lot of time-killing and then something sleazy. Or trashy.

And it sounded like porn, too – a really astoundingly bad score by Pino Donaggio.

That the high school in the movie is called “Bates High School” is a good indication of both De Palma’s self-indulgence and level of sophistication.

I intended going to talk about the specifics of the movie, and also about apocalyptic endings in general, but I seem to have spent most of my time here complaining that Brian De Palma is sleazy and/or trashy. Hey, did you know he had a daughter named Lolita with James Cameron’s ex-wife? Seriously.

I still want to see Scarface.

Given that I still have SpaceCamp to write about, I think this has been plenty.

Oh but of course first: the pre-movie book covers. From left to right: first edition, first paperback edition, crazy first UK edition.

October 4, 2005

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997)

by J.K. Rowling

Published in the U.S. as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. This well-publicized name change goes without comment a lot of the time, as though it makes perfect sense that the American public would prefer Sorcerer’s Stone to Philosopher’s Stone. I find it slightly upsetting. Was the problem that Americans were deemed less likely than Brits to be familiar with the medieval notion of the “philosopher’s stone” – a magical substance that could convert lead to gold, and possibly also do any other magic you wanted – and would thus miss out on the meaning of the title? That this is the reason for the change seems unlikely, since Rowling’s “philosopher’s stone” is not, in fact, the lead-to-gold type of philosopher’s stone – it’s some other thing she made up, using a borrowed old name. Her use of the phrase “philosopher’s stone” does not depend on any kind of knowledge of what “philosopher’s stone” means (in fact, knowing what it really means may ultimately confuse the reader) – it only requires a reader to understand that the philosopher’s stone is something of mysterious significance, and yes, possibly magical. It seems to me that the Some Character and the Thing I’ve Never Heard Of construction just about conveys this information in and of itself.

No, it’s much more likely that the title was changed because someone at Scholastic Books thought, “I’m worried that Americans will hear that word ‘philosopher’ and instinctively balk, because before they even try to figure out what kind of book it is, their ‘no fun’ alarm will go off. Americans have much more sensitive ‘no fun’ alarms than you Brits (do you even know what fun is, egghead?), and we are incredibly averse to the very word ‘philosophy,’ regardless of context.” And this bothers me. Not because I think that the US market isn’t anti-intellectual, but because this change seems overeager to cater to that tendency in a case where I really doubt it would have been an issue. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone sounds plenty magical to me. It’s not like the book was called Harry Potter and Math.

As with my comment on The Haunting (of Hill House), I’m not saying that publishers should put editorial integrity above sales! I’m saying that regarding title changes, the attitude of “this might not matter, but hell, just in case people are really really stupid, we might as well dumb it down,” is insufficient integrity. Someone show me the marketing data to prove me wrong and I’ll gladly retract this.

That was long but my comments are going to be short.

This was my second time through this book, which I first read very quickly several years ago with the sole intention of “culturally catching up.” This time, I already knew what was going to happen and was, additionally, reading aloud, which is slow going (at least by comparison to the “CHUG! CHUG! CHUG!” speed at which one is inclined to read a book like this), so I was forced to actually stop and take a look around at Ms. Rowling’s handiwork.

After my first read, my mildly anti-hype review to friends was something like “okay, it was fun enough, but so are the Roald Dahl books this reminded me of – there are tons of cute, competent kids’ books out there, and sure, this is one.” I mostly stand by that assessment, though now, at this slow pace (and with several sequels worth of perspective in hand) it was clearer to me that Rowling does not write with much force or consistency, and is actually far outclassed by Roald Dahl and many others.

There are several distinct levels on which fiction needs to work: 1. It must create a reality of events, characters, etc., 2. It must tell a story about them, 3. It must deliver that story dramatically, and 4. It must be constructed out of actual prose. Fiction writers can put their emphasis in any of those strata. The works that satisfy me most are generally those that show off in 2 and 3 and just put something sturdy in 1 and 4. Harry Potter books are mostly about 1, take a calculated practical approach to 3, and are downright lazy about 2 and 4. Rowling’s “plot,” certainly in this first book, is little more than the gradual revealing of her various level 1 inventions. The reader is pretty much invited to ignore the prose, not worry about any storyline, and go straight for the cozy Halloween party goodies – pumpkin juice, chocolate frogs, secret passages, and of course THE WIZARD VERSION OF EVERYTHING, which is a game that can never run out of steam (‘That’s wizard cheese,’ said Ron, ‘made from real wizard cows! It’s like normal cheese except magic!'”). Then, when it turns out that deliberately hidden among the goodies were a few “hints” at a secret, the book feels tight and complete. Good device.

Of course, as the series wears on, J.K. comes up against the problem that if you don’t tell real stories and just make up stuff, it’s hard to carve out a coherent long-form plotline. In the later books she seems to spend a lot of time working out inconsistencies between her various made up stuffs – or tries to extract interest from their interactions (Always a nerdy direction to go – sometimes it starts to feel like just this side of “Who would win in a fight? Dumbledore or Captain Picard?”).

This first book, though, seemed more clear on its intention: to be a book about the pleasures of imagining a wonderful place rather than to be any kind of serious epic. The opening scenes that establish the Harry Potter “backstory” are handled casually, almost distractedly. It doesn’t seem like J.K. thinks any of us are really going to care about this “Voldemort” business she made up, and why should we? It just serves as a device to give sufficient resonance to the main idea of the book, about wizard cheese etc. The initial character-interest setup, where Harry lives under Cinderellian conditions, is familiar and boring, and more importantly, isn’t really in keeping with the comfortably-everyday-except-for-all-the-magic tone of what follows. Rowling doesn’t really hit her modest stride until the kids get on the train for school and start eating candy.

And how clever and cute is her wizard world? Moderately clever, moderately cute. She comes up with semi-viable rules for her wizard sport, and she follows her wizardification project past boring junk like “wizard chess” (the pieces fight? big deal) to somewhat less predictable territory, like wizard back-to-school shopping and wizard detention. That we all, as non-wizards, are in fact “muggles,” – that’s definitely cute. “You-Know-Who” – that’s stupid. I would give her about a 65% success rate on the “cute or stupid?” front.

After reading this the first time, I wrote a little musical “Theme for a Harry Potter Movie” for fun – it was essentially a slightly John Williamsed takeoff on “The Sorceror’s Apprentice” – a skipping, Disney-style whimsical/magical sort of thing. When the actual Harry Potter movie came out, and the actual John Williams took a shot at this assignment, I was dismayed at the spooky music box approach that he took. There’s nothing spooky-music-box about this jelly bean of a book; it’s only in retrospect that Rowling has decided to take her franchise to would-be epic places. The (awful) movie had a better idea of what it had to aim at in the long run (whereas J.K. didn’t have any reason to believe she’d be writing any sequels, when she finished this one, is my understanding), so I suppose I can understand the thinking behind the ominous musical approach.

Hypothetically I’m scheduled to read through all six of the books on the read-aloud plan, so this will probably do for now.

But I do want to call attention to this: just now I was looking for details on the title change, and ended up at what is apparently one of the premier Harry Potter fan sites online, The Harry Potter Lexicon. The site includes an “open letter” to J.K. Rowling, asking her to answer various extremely non-essential questions about the first names and ages of minor characters, etc. Apparently, she has been not unwilling to do this sort of thing. Anyway, the site editor asks her at one point whether a Harry Potter timeline included as an extra on one of the movie DVDs was taken from a timeline that he had speculatively assembled and posted on his site. It sounds like it was. And why not? So then the amusing part, wherein he complains about the mind-boggling problem posed when his fan-created database is used as the source for “official” materials:

But like I said, this is not just an important question for me. It’s an important question for everyone. Think about it. If they did get the timeline from the Lexicon and if Rowling never really gave it a careful look-over, then we can’t treat it as canon. If, however, they used Rowling’s notes as the source, then we CAN treat it as canon. I mean, honestly, how can I call something canon if I’M THE SOURCE?! I need to know if I am.

“How can I call something canon if I’M THE SOURCE” indeed! I know that feeling well. The desire to believe in a canon, to hang out next to it, to number all its drawers and build a steel outline around it and polish the corners until they gleam – this is exactly the desire to NOT be responsible for its content. It’s just like the desire to believe in a higher power – nobody wants to hear that man created the idea of God because it ruins the idea of God by putting it in the same sentence as responsibility. Nobody wants to hear that aesthetic value is culturally relative, that morals are constructed, or any of that other post-modern stuff, but despite what people will say, I don’t think it’s because they really believe otherwise – it’s because their whole relationship with those things is predicated on NOT being responsible for them. Once you realize that not only is J.K. Rowling making it up, but that in fact everyone is making it up and YOUR hands are dirty too, the satisfaction goes out of the enterprise. Nobody wants to uphold a “canon” that’s actually just a bunch of mostly-agreed-upon more-true-than-nots – people want shining, numbered truth that they can’t touch! This is a fundamental human impulse and explains not only why there are so many damn fan databases on the internet, but also why the “intelligent design” debate has managed to grab hold recently: “science” that people just revise as they go isn’t real truth; real truth comes direct from J.K. Rowling and is the only thing that can be called canon, precisely and exclusively because WE ARE NOT THE SOURCE, thank God.

The philosophical answer, in all seriousness, would seem to be that it is in fact possible to know that we ARE THE SOURCE for many things but that we must also take them seriously – that we must be both trusting and skeptical at the same time; that, just as the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, the price of authority is eternal self-doubt. (Or, as one is more likely to feel it, the up-side of eternal self-doubt is the power of authority). The Harry Potter Lexicon fellow ought to take a deep breath, admit that there is no Harry Potter timeline more canonical than his own, acknowledge the power that this places on his shoulders and then, like Spider Man, handle it with great responsibility. And well might we, the human race, all do the same.

But obviously we won’t.

Oops, that was supposed to be the end, but parting thought here about how wikipedia manages, through clean design and thorough self-archiving, to be both absolutely anti-“canon” and at the same time seem even more authoritative than any “mere” consistent source. This perhaps reflects an increasing general sophistication of the culture in dealing with the idea of truth – I know that people who use the word “blogosphere” would like to think so – but I think it’s probably just because the layout is so much more inviting than any free online non-wiki alternative. The unknowability of absolute truth is just a bonus.

But you don’t have to take my word for it!*

* Get it?