Film & Television Reviews

Film & TV criticism and reviews.

Holmes Away From Holmes: How Downey’s Sherlock Is Not Doyle’s

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There’s No Case Like Holmes

In full disclosure, I have been an obsessed Sherlock Holmes fan for over 30 years, and in addition to my many traditional and annotated editions of the stories, I also collect Sherlock Holmes memorabilia of all varieties, as well as a very large collection of over 75 Sherlock Holmes movies and television shows, all featuring dozens of different actors portraying Holmes. So it’s kinda my thing…

Past Holmes: Sherlock on Stage, Television, & Screen

Having said that, I think any fan of Sherlock Holmes will tell you that 95% of all portrayals on stage, television, and film over the last 128 years have been resounding failures! Having been depicted on screen 254 times, Guinness World Records announced that Sherlock Holmes had been awarded a world record for the most portrayed literary human character in film & TV. He even beat out Hamlet! Since his creation in 1887, Sherlock Holmes has been played by over 75 actors including Sir Christopher Lee, Charlton Heston, Peter O’Toole, Christopher Plummer, Peter Cook, Roger Moore, John Cleese, Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey Jr. As it turns out, Sherlock Holmes is an elusive and confounding character to play. He’s so mercurial and frighteningly intelligent, most actors are either intimidated by him and fail or are brash and overconfident and fail. For most fans there are only three actors that are worthy of praise:

  1. Basil Rathbone — Starred in a series of 14 films released between 1939 and 1946. Although Rathbone could be aloof, he also had a strong sense of duty and was a consummate gentleman. He was probably the most spry and active Holmes, and undoubtedly the most conventionally nice.
  2. Jeremy Brett — Considered by most people to be the best portrayal of Sherlock Holmes ever. He is so devastatingly good, and so true to the stories. He looks like the Paget drawings from the Strand, and effortlessly embodied the great detective. Brett played the fictional detective in four Granada TV series from 1984 to 1994 in all 41 episodes.
  3. Benedict Cumberbatch — Stars on the hit BBC tv show, Sherlock, an updated series set in modern day London, with stories inspired by the books, but then twisted and updated. Still, the show is remarkably true to the spirit of the Doyle stories. Cumberbatch is brilliant as the misanthropic, Spectrum–Savant, and socially awkward Holmes.

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Great Expectations: Holmes Is Where My Heart Is 

So….when Sherlock Holmes (2009) was announced, there was no Sherlock yet, nor was there Elementary. Needless to say, it had been a long dry spell without any Holmes, which no Holmes fan should have to endure. (careful what you wish for) The last Jeremy Brett show had aired 15 years prior. When I heard about the movie, I was legitimately excited. First, I had always enjoyed the movies of Guy Ritchie. I thought they were hip, edgy, postmodern, and gritty. I clearly didn’t really think this one through. In retrospect, they couldn’t have chosen a worse director than Ritchie. For some reason, I did not anticipate Ritchie’s obvious indifference to the source material and singular focus on unrelenting action. But more on that later. Secondly, I am a huge fan of Jude Law, and thought he might anchor the film nicely, with his quiet and sober presence. I considered that he might be a smart and clever companion, not the tired and dull-witted Watson we’ve seen so often. Finally, I was thrilled at the casting of Robert Downey Jr. Ever since I saw him in 1992’s Chaplin, I have been smitten with the actor, and closely followed his progress, through all his drug and legal problems. His Chaplin was staggeringly good. Incredible. I loved his work in numerous films since then, particularly Iron Man. What I liked about the choice, was Downey Jr. has range and the ability to escape into a role, like he did in Chaplin. He’s also a considerably intelligent man, and I thought this would help him connect with the genius of Holmes. Finally, I thought maybe their shared drug addiction history might bind the two together even more. Once again, I completely misread and failed to recognize the actor Downey Jr. has become, in recent years. He’s not so much disappearing into roles anymore, but the roles are disappearing into him. This was a grave miscalculation on my part.

Firstly, I want to say that as action films, the two Sherlock Holmes movies are really quite decent, and are easy to watch and be entertained. However, as a faithful portrayal of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and the film’s ability to capture the spirit of the books, the movies fail in nearly every conceivable way. Here’s why:

Lotta Action, Little Deduction

Downey Jr. played Holmes as a scrappy street fighter whose default reflex was to rely on his fists nearly more than his wits. In the canon, Holmes is described as sinewy and wiry, “an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman”, and there are several references in the canon to Holmes employing the first two of these skills. He is trained in Baritsu (Bartitsu), an eclectic martial art and self-defense method originally developed in England during the late Victorian Era. Keeping all this in mind, one of Holmes’ greatest strengths was his ability to outwit, outmaneuver, and anticipate his opponent’s moves, and typically avoid brawls altogether. In the few instances of physical violence, Holmes is swift and economical in delivery. Guy Ritchie’s stylized use of the camera to dissect Holmes’ foes for weak spots was viscerally thrilling, but in reality, it was a sensational modern gimmick that bore little resemblance to Conan Doyle’s creation. Violence is the last option, not the first. The movies are full of over-the-top action sequences and gratuitous explosions. There’s hardly any deduction going on amidst all the bombs and bullets flying. The original canon was NOTHING like that!

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Downey’s Charm Trumps Sherlock’s Mind

Earlier I stated that I thought RDJ was an intelligent man, and I stand by that assertion, but for some reason, Downey Jr. decided to abandon his natural born intellect, and play Holmes as an intellectual lightweight, who relied very heavily on his wit, charm, and mischievous inquisitiveness, rather than probing deductive mind. In other words, RDJ fell back on his own personality strengths. You must have noticed by now that this is RDJ’s bag of tricks. In all his films over the last decade or so, Downey Jr. has used these sneaky traits brilliantly. As Tony Stark in the Iron Man and Avengers films, these personality traits worked perfectly for a tech genius smartass like Stark. If only he had brought Stark’s intellect with him to Holmes, and left the levity behind. That’s not to say Holmes is dour and humorless, but it’s certainly not his default. Downey’s Holmes was a very light and playful take on the character, and it was often difficult to take him seriously. He didn’t possess the gravitas and devastating intellect that a true genius possesses. He was simply not convincing as an unrivaled master of criminal deduction. At the end of the day, the Holmes of the stories may hold his own at fisticuffs, but with the exception of Moriarty, there is no other mind in London, and perhaps in the whole world, that rivals his powers of observation and native deductive reasoning. In short, Holmes may possess charm and wit when he needs it, but his locus and singular defining trait is inarguably his mind. Robert Downey Jr. barely convinced me he had one.

Although I almost always like Downey Jr’s acting in other films, he often relies too heavily on his charm and rascally wit. He is a rogue. Holmes is not. If Downey Jr. had properly prepared for the role, he would have immersed himself in the things that make Holmes tick: identifying 140 cigarette and cigar brands by their ash alone, disguises and deception, chemistry, regional soil samples, the use of dogs for tracking, mixing a seven percent solution of cocaine and heroin, and all the other forensic tools of the period. Holmes stored nothing in his mind that wasn’t useful for solving crimes. In fact, Watson discovered early on that Holmes had no idea the Earth revolved around the sun. It simply didn’t warrant his attention. Holmes without a case was always a delicate tinderbox. Downey Jr. needed to burn more with a singleminded determination to unravel riddles, almost at any cost. This instinct was rarely altruistic or moralistic, but always driven by a mind made for puzzles.

In essence, had he relied less on his innate Downey charm and more on cultivating an impregnable computational mind, he would have gone a long way towards depicting Sherlock as written.

Violating the Honor & Good Name of Irene Adler

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I don’t feel like there’s even enough space on a page to devote to how viscerally angry I was at the inclusion and depiction of Irene Adler in these films. There was absolutely no reason to write her into the script. They could have left her simmering as “The Woman” now only a picture locked away in Holmes’ drawer. His taciturn and woeful longing stand vigil to her memory, and Adler is more powerful as an idea…a memory from Holmes’ past. She will always be the woman who duped and outsmarted him, and such a thing rarely happens, and from a woman no less! Whether it’s deep love or professional admiration, it doesn’t matter. We know that Irene Adler is off limits, and locked away from view. Apparently, Guy Ritchie and company didn’t read a single story, or worse, decided to egregiously violate the sanctity of the original books. No one in their right mind would have Adler as some sort of action star buddy with simmering sexual tension and practically a laugh track behind their oh-so-clever banter. We get it. She’s a firecracker, and a formidable frenemy for Holmes. Except she’s not. Firstly, I cannot stand Rachel McAdams as an actress, so that colored my first impression. Part of that opinion comes from the assessment that she sort of looks like a rat, and speaks in high and tedious little girl’s voice. In short, I couldn’t take her seriously selling makeup at Macy’s, much less as Holmes’ intellectual equal and capable sparring partner. She was mousy and ineffectual, and I am still livid that they called her Irene Adler. They could have just made up another character, but they didn’t. Instead, they desecrate a beloved character from the canon.

Strengths of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes Films

Although there isn’t much to like about these films if you’re a true Sherlock Holmes fan, there are a few things they do have going for them. As I have said before, the action sequences are very well choreographed and directed. The action is very engaging, and worth watching for.

Secondly, the relationship between Holmes and Watson is very strong. I would not be surprised to learn that Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law are quite close, because they have a very easy and comfortable chemistry on screen. They are very comfortable joking and teasing each other, and it is obvious these two actor, and by extension, characters, like each other. I don’t necessarily think Holmes would act as silly and mischievous with Watson as Downey Jr. does, but putting that aside, the two are very easy to watch. Given the fact that I did not enjoy RDJ’s portrayal of Holmes, I cannot help but wonder if Jude Law might have been a better choice for the role. He is such an excellent actor, and he has the intellect and more quiet and focused demeanor. It’s interesting to think about how things might have been.

Finally, the second movie, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is in many ways, superior to the first film. This is partly due to the fact that it has top-notch performances by three of my favorite actors. One fine performance was delivered by Stephen Fry, in the role of Mycroft Holmes. Fry not only looks the part, but was convincing as Holmes’ older and purportedly smarter brother. Of course, with a Holmes as dumbed down as Downey played him, even Kim Kardashian could have beat him at Chess The next great performance was by one of my favorites actresses today, Swedish actress Noomi Rapace, known for the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo movies. Finally, as disappointed as most Sherlock Holmes fans probably were with the casting and performance of Downey Jr. as Holmes, they should have been delighted with the exquisite performance of the inimitable Jared Harris as Holmes’ iconic arch-nemesis, James Moriarty. I thought he delivered a tour-de-force performance, and really saved an otherwise disappointing film.

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The Final Problem

In conclusion, as disappointed I was with his interpretation of Holmes, I’m not convinced Robert Downey Jr. wasn’t right for the role. He’s an incredibly gifted actor, and with the right discipline and guidance, he could have endowed the character with less action and jokes, and more cold calculating deduction. A little Downey goes a long way. If he could have dug deep, and pulled out the acting chops he used in Chaplin, he could have created a stunning Holmes. But I suspect no one has kicked Downey Jr’s ass in a long time, and he’s been allowed to skate by on his good looks and roguish charm. In this case, I lay the blame almost exclusively at the feet of director Guy Ritchie. He gave Downey Jr. free reign, and evidently didn’t have the vision or understanding of the source material to help RDJ shape the character more finely and faithfully. I cannot help but think the reason for this was he simply was not a devoted fan of Sherlock Holmes, and perhaps didn’t know what he wanted Holmes to be, other than in possession of Downey’s own irresistible charm. Ritchie was not the right choice to direct a period Victorian film about the beloved character of Sherlock Holmes. However, he was the right choice for an action-packed steam-punk movie about a wise-cracking amateur detective, his trusty sidekick, and a tough and sassy female love interest that was called anything but Sherlock Holmes. Where we could have used a director like Kenneth Brannagh, we instead got Michael Bay. Ugh.

What great performances were accomplished with few words?

Answer by Jon Ferreira:

Sir Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter The Silence of the Lambs (1991) . — Hopkins won the Best Actor Oscar using fewer words than any other actor in the history of the Academy Awards. But when he spoke, you listened!

Marlon Brandon as Vito Corleone in The Godfather (1972) — The notoriously taciturn Brando probably comes in second to Hopkins delivering his Oscar winning performance with minimal words and screen time.

Paul Newman as Lucas “Luke” Jackson in Cool Hand Luke (1967)  — Paul Newman’s Best Actor-nominated Luke may be cool, but Newman simmers in the heat of the chain gang, where it’s actually George Kennedy that does most of the talking in this film (he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar)

Tom Hardy as Max Rockatansky in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) — Although time will tell if this is worth considering one of the great performance, at least for the time being, Hardy delivers a truly underrated performance in what will go down as the least number of lines ever delivered by a leading character (despite the title role, he arguably isn’t the protagonist though!)

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave (2013) — Ejiofor’s Oscar-nominated performance simmers, as he delivers a subtle and understated performance as a free man wronged, and sold into slavery. Although Norhup is articulate and speaks eloquently, we also see him do a lot of listening throughout the film.

Jim Caviezel (Private Witt) and Cast of The Thin Red Line (1998) — It can be said that there is no protagonist in this deeply philosophical film, in keeping with the tradition of most of Terrence Malick’s beautifully photographed contemplative films. There’s very little talking, but much in the way of evocative visuals and stunning cinematography. When characters do speak, it is like poetry, and their words are deep and profound.

Daniel Day Lewis as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood (2007)  — Lewis won the Best Actor Oscar for playing the misanthropic and taciturn oil tycoon. Famously, the whole opening sequence of the movie is over fifteen minutes of absolutely no dialogue, as we meet Daniel, a man of few words, but one consumed by money and an unhealthy drive to find oil.

Klaus Kinski as Brian Sweeney ‘Fitzcarraldo’ Fitzgerald in Fitzcarraldo (1982) — Fitzcarraldo is a mad genius, who loves to listen to opera as he oversees the indigenous natives as they do the unthinkable — lift a 320-ton steamship over a steep and intimidating hill. Kinski doesn’t say much (unlike his last turn in Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God). This understated performance is about one man’s quiet vision,

Boris Karloff as The Monster in Frankenstein (1931) — Although question why I would list a monster that can barely speak, this monster actually does have some lines. Furthermore, Karloff delivers a brilliant performance, managing to successfully capture the angry and scary side of the monster, while also the gentle, delicate, subtle, and poignant soul of the creature. Hands down, this is one of the most brilliant portrayals of one of Hollywood’s maligned and misunderstood movie monsters, and heads and shoulders above every other actor’s portrayal of this popular character.

Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in Alien (1979) — Even before she lost her whole crew, Ripley didn’t say much. This woman of few words is all about surviving, and killing the fearsome alien preying on her and her crew. Weaver delivers a brave and tough as nails performance, truly proving to Hollywood that a woman can not only carry a movie herself, but do so while playing an action hero

Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men (2007) — Anton is frightening perhaps because he does say so little. Bardem creates an unnerving and nightmare-inducing taciturn monster, worthy of the Best Supporting Actor Oscar he earned.

What great performances were accomplished with few words?

Who’s better: Tarantino or the Coen Brothers?

Answer by Jon Ferreira:

Who’s Better: the Coen Brothers or Tarantino?
The Coen Brothers, without question…

Tarantino’s Distinct Style & Strengths

Tarantino has a definite style, there can be no question. But I would argue his style is predominantly referential, derivative, and securely rooted in films of the ’70s. Tarantino is more straightforward in his filmmaking, paying direct tribute to the ’60s and ’70s directors (and genres) that formed and shaped him as a young director. His films all seen to have a neo-’70s Disco era blaxploitation film motif, with period music, period costuming, and a production quality that has that gritty ’70s feel. He liberally uses music, slow-motion, and stylized dramatic action and the kind of movie violence found in the Dirty Harry films to tell the sordid tales of grungy and morally questionable characters. His dialogue is highly stylized (who talks like that? Royale with Cheese…) and quite clever. Tarantino has the power to wow you with much more style than substance. You’ll have a good ride, but you might be left hungry afterwards. In the last decade, Tarantino has begun to direct revisionist revenge dramas, set in past historical periods, but featuring characters who are still unmistakably Tarantno creations. This postmodern displacement allows traditionally victimized and oppressed cultures to exact revenge on their oppressors. The two films are Inglorious Basterds, which tells the tale of an elite Jewish squad of commandos who attempt to assassinate Hitler during World War II. Django Unchained tells the story of a wrathful slave who teams up with a German mercenary to kill as many slaveholders and masters as they can. Both are ultraviolet and quite stylized. Both are quite good.

The Unparalleled Coen Artistry

On the other hand, the Coen Brothers have an unrivaled and penetrating style, that has undoubtedly been influenced by the films of Chaplin/Keaton, film noir, 1930s screwball comedy, avant-garde theatre (Samuel Beckett, Edward Albee, Ionesco), 1950s TV Comedy (Sid Caesar, Jack Benny),  Blake Edwards, The Marx Brothers, etc. The Coen Brothers have many influences, and pay several subtle homages, but there’s nothing derivative about their work: it is a unique and unmistakable vision. The Coen Brothers are straight up auteurs, and devastatingly effective storytellers.

Strange Visions: The Off Kilter World of the Coen’s
Their movies are vast landscapes of peculiarity, filled with odd and eccentric characters who don’t  belong anywhere else but in their surreal landscape. There is a vague feeling of dread. Like an existential omelet, which everyone seems to be eating. Dialogue is sparse, but so incredibly effective. Characters speak with their own distinct voices, not sexy witticisms made up by the director and screenwriter, as is the case with Tarantino. In a Tarantino film, you get the vague sense that every character has the voice of Tarantino himself, and all speak using a sort of smart and sarcastic, referential dialogue. Conversely, the Coen Brothers’ dialogue is unquestionably motivated by the character, is unique to their peculiar personalities, and no one else in the film could speak as they do.

Coen films often involve a crazy sequence of events, predicated upon mistaken identity, duplicity, deception, greed, revenge, or just plain, good natured agreeability (The Dude abides…). Perhaps no other filmmaker besides Wes Anderson, creates a canvas of such end of the road Godot-like limbos (Fargo, No Country for Old Men, ’70s era bowling alley), and populates it with such colorful characters (The Dude, Jesus, Anton Chigurh, Jerry Lundegaard, Tom Reagan, Barton Fink, Pete Hogwallop).

Coen Brothers films are so expertly paced. They never hurry perfection, but know how to methodically unravel a riddle, and let the audience come along with them for the ride. The locations are evocative, the accents pitch perfect, the costumes indicative of time and character, the music so deliciously underscoring the film (think of that Fargo musical motif, as Fran makes the long drive down that highway for the umpteenth time. The music swells.). And think of the acting. People have won a handful of Oscars for this work. These characters are so fastidiously drawn, you can’t even tell they’re acting. Their actions and words are completely and utterly motivated by character.

The world of the Coen Brothers is a quirky, dimly lit waiting room to who knows where? The kind of place where the bathrooms have those awful loops of fabric you’re expected to pull down, and wipe your hands where everyone has that’s come before you. The place is filled with a disproportionately high number of weird and eccentric characters. It’s like Darwin’s waiting room in most Coen films. Yet somehow, it’s easy to fall in love with these odd characters (who didn’t shed a tear when Donny died?)

That 70s Show
Tarantino is an incredibly gifted filmmaker, who makes unforgettable films filled with really ‘cool’ people who always say the most edgy and clever things. The action is intense and the sex appeal of every character is palpable. He tells a great story, and transports you to a time that feels unmistakably ’70s, yet undoubtedly modern and fresh. Tarantino is one of our most visionary directors, and expertly overwhelms us with style. Often though, this comes at the expense of substance.

Making the Strange Familiar and the Familiar Strange
The Coen Brothers are on an entirely different level as filmmakers. These are artists, who create entirely cohesively conceived worlds that look so familiar, yet are so oddball, and a place where everyone is that crazy uncle we all have. The films are always darkly comic, and exist in a haze of existential malaise. This is art. These are auteurs. There is no mistaking a Picasso. The Coen Brothers have the bizarre and surreal vision of directors Terry Gilliam and David Lynch, but their films often have well constructed plots, clever sequences, and sharp and witty dialogue. Unlike the darker and more avant garde work of Lynch or Gilliam, the Coen Brothers are firmly rooted in their ’30s screwball comedy roots, in the style of classic directors like Preston Sturges or Howard Hawks. Theirs is a an unparalleled vision, like no other in Hollywood. Their films are quirky and silly, while also dark and menacing. The Coen Brothers have produced and directed some of the greatest films in the modern era. Tarantino is great, but the Coen’s are two of the greatest!

Who’s better: Tarantino or the Coen Brothers?

Apocalypse of the Heart: How ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ Finds Beauty in the Bosom of the Beast

**Contains Some Mild & Vague Spoilers**

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Introduction

In full disclosure, I should probably tell you upfront that I loved this film, unequivocally, and cannot sing its praises enough. However, rest assured that in this review, I will not blindly or vaguely worship at its altar, nor insist you see the film without a reasoned argument why. I had a very visceral and cerebral responses to this film, but not only did I enjoy the storytelling and artistry, I am just as thrilled about what kind of impact and importance a film like this can/will have on the Hollywood landscape. In general, I enthusiastically endorse this film and encourage you all to see it, and here’s why…

The Story

One of the most striking things about Mad Max: Fury Road is the simplicity of the story. Although, I should probably clarify that by saying, “…the deceptive simplicity of the story.” There’s actually a lot more going on than meets the eye. The story begins sometime following a nuclear war, where a good majority of earth’s population died in an instant, and since then, the world has become a desert wasteland and civilization has collapsed. Global warming or other contributing factors have left a dry planet, with little to no resources and fossil fuels left. Max (Tom Hardy), a survivor, is captured by the War Boys, led by the tyrannical Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), and taken to Joe’s Citadel. Designated a universal blood donor, Max is imprisoned and used as a “blood bag” for the sick War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult). Meanwhile, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) drives her armoured war rig to collect gasoline. When Furiosa drives off-route, Joe realizes that his five wives—women selected for breeding—are gone. Joe leads his army in pursuit of Furiosa, calling on the aid of nearby Gas Town and the Bullet Farm.

Nux joins the army with Max strapped to his car to continue supplying blood. A battle ensues between the rig and Joe’s forces. Furiosa drives into a sand storm, evading her pursuers, except Nux, who attempts to sacrifice himself to destroy the rig. Max escapes and restrains Nux, but the car is destroyed. After the storm, Max sees Furiosa repairing her rig with the wives: Angharad, Capable, Cheedo, Toast, and the Dag. Max steals the rig, but its kill switch disables the truck. Max reluctantly agrees to let Furiosa and the wives accompany him and Nux returns to Joe.

I will essentially stop there, so as not to give anything else away, but it’s such a seemingly thin and predictable plot, it wouldn’t really matter anyway. Max accompanies Furiosa and the young wives through various biker gang territory, and at times, must contend with rogue gangs, and Joe and the War Boys, still in hot pursuit. Needlesstosay, this movie has few moments of contemplative down time. There is almost continuous action through the entire film. According to the film’s director, George Miller, the film’s storyboard was made even before the screenplay. The reason behind that was because Miller envisioned the film as a continuous chase, with little dialogue and focusing on the visuals. The storyboard was made with the collaboration of five artists and had about 3,500 panels. Anyway, Max and the women are continually fighting off marauders, in one of the most impressive chase scenes and multi-vehicle action sequences ever made. Perhaps one of the most impressive facts about the movie is that over 80% of the effects seen in the film are real practical effects, stunts, make-up and sets. CGI was used sparingly mainly to enhance the Namibian landscape, remove stunt rigging and for Charlize Theron’s left hand which in the film is a prosthetic arm.

What you should know is that Furiosa is not blindly driving into the desert, but heading for a special destination…the place she was born, and lived as a young child until she was kidnapped and brought to the Citadel. A daughter of Mary Jabassa, she is one of the Vuvalini of Many Mothers. Her initiating Mother was Katie (or K.T.) Concannon. Her clan was Swaddle Dog. She was kidnapped at least 7000 days (around 20 years) from The Green Place before meeting the Vuvalini again. Presumably she was attacked and kidnapped along with her mother by Immortan Joe. Her mother died three days after the abduction. Understandably, her memory is hazy and vague, but she has fond memories of the place she calls ‘The Green Place.’ You can imagine that in a barren wasteland, where everything is the dull color of sand, the sight of color and vegetation must be like spotting an oasis across the hot sand. You only hope it’s not a mirage. Once she, Max, and the brides arrive, she is happy to find the women of her clan again, but they have grave news. Furiosa is distraught to learn that the swampland they passed through earlier in the rig was actually the Green Place, now inhospitable. The group agrees to ride motorbikes across the immense salt flats in the hope of finding somewhere to live. Max chooses to stay behind, but after seeing visions of his dead daughter, he persuades them to return to the Citadel, which has ample water and greenery that Joe keeps for himself, and trap Joe and his army in the bikers’ canyon.

As I said, there is very little downtime, and after a brief stop in the valley she mistook for the Green Place, she and the crew depart, in the hopes they can defeat Joe, and take back the Citadel. Remember, I warned you: there is not much to this plot. They just came through a harrowing trip down “Fury Road” to find sanctuary, and now they are rebuffed, and must turn back again and face almost certain death. It’s important to remember that these people live deplorable lives as slaves, blood banks, and breeding incubators for producing more loyal and savage warriors. Max has lost his wife and child, several years before, and is only going through the motions of living, when really he is fundamentally dead inside. These people have nothing to lose, and so their rash and inadvisable decisions don’t seem quite as dire as they would if it was you and me making them. Perhaps I failed to mention, but by this time, the faithful War Boy Nux has become enchanted with one of Joe’s brides, and has slowly come over to their side.

The group begins the journey back to the Citadel. They are attacked by Joe and Furiosa is gravely wounded. Without going into detail, another whole chase sequence ensues, and there are many thrilling moments. The battle does not look good for Max and Furiosa, but luck turns their way, while people switch cars and trucks, and fights take place in and outside moving vehicles, Through a series of events, Max, Furiosa, and the wives are able to escape in Joe’s car. Max transfuses his blood to Furiosa to help her survive her injuries.

(WARNING: ENDING SPOILER) Back at the Citadel, Joe’s citizens are surprisingly overjoyed at the sight of Joe’s corpse. Furiosa and the wives are raised up on a lift by the child War Boys, and shortly thereafter, the water Joe had withheld from his poor and destitute castoffs was finally released down upon the overjoyed and thirsty masses. As she is symbolically raised up, Max stays behind and on the ground. He and Furiosa share a glance before Max disappears into the crowd.

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Meaning Without Words

Although almost unanimously praised by critics and audiences alike, there have been criticisms of the movie’s ostensibly flimsy plot and stingy character development. People were troubled by watching two hours of nearly non-stop action, with little in the way of plot development to guide them along. As much as we tell ourselves we love action movies, we still want to see dialogue and familiar humans forming realistic relationships on screen. We love the action and CGI of The Avengers, but that movie wouldn’t be half as good without the squabbling and one-upsmanship between Tony Stark and Cap, or the budding romance between Bruce/ Hulk and Black Widow. One of the refreshing plot points in The Avengers: Age of Ultron was actually being introduced to Hawkeye’s wife and kids, and seeing how normal and domestic a life he had outside The Avengers. We want to see our characters talk, share jokes, rib each other, profess love, brag, and all the other things us humans do. It makes their heroic acts of bravery and feats of strength look even more impressive, knowing that their like you and me without the cape.

Mad Max: Fury Road was never going to be that kind of film, heavy with exposition and rich in florid narrative. But I would argue that the plot is deceptively simple. There is far more happening than meets the eye, and what comes out of the mouth. Tom Hardy’s nearly dead eyes are the mirror that reflect the ghosts of his dead wife and young child, the last casualties of this post-apocalyptic hell that he actually cared about. His face is a rough hewn stone, at first cold and war-weary, but throughout the course of the film, his countenance changes and becomes slowly more expressive and invested in those around him. The looks between him and Furiosa tell a thousand stories, all more interesting than the last. They speak volumes of text, that would fill a thousand pages in a script. They don’t need words. They have both lost so much, and their broken and calloused bodies speak for them. Think of the actors in this film as grizzled and sedated silent film stars, like Chaplin’s mournful Little Tramp. Except unlike those stars of a bygone era, Miller purposefully robbed these characters of their voices, perhaps left speechless in the face of near utter annihilation. Remember, over two-thirds of the planet was decimated and wiped out by nuclear war, some in an instant, and some unlucky enough to linger on and die a slow death. In the years since this tragedy, all these people have known is death and barbarism. What are they even living for anymore? Those that survived are merely empty shells, desensitized to their own grotesque savagery. This is no longer a society governed by etiquette, values, laws, religion, science, the written word, language or even speech. This is a world where brute force and animal savagery are the currency they swap. This is Darwinian Barbarism, and survival of the cruelist. The strongest live to fight another day and take their place atop the highest ground, and the weak are made corpses or made slaves, and there is no in between. There is no value for human life. This is the apocalypse, and whatever strides we once made as a civilization are now erased, and mankind has been shaken to its core, and undergone de-evolution, returning once again to our primitive natures. Language is an ornamentation in a world of brute force, and this story would have been disingenuous and broken its own rules of the world had it pursued verbosity and a more robust dialogue.

A Singular Vision

The brilliance of the world Miller creates is that this story had to be writ large, but not told by conventional means. He actually chose form over content, and the form and structure of the narrative are far more important than the words they use. He catered his delivery of the story to what this post-apocalyptic world called for. He was devastatingly precise and consistent with the rules of this world, and he rarely broke them. This is a story that doesn’t look like much on a page. Apparently, it didn’t look like much to some of the actors and crew, out in the Namibian desert, as they battled intense heat and tedious scene setups and carefully choreographed action sequences. In a Cannes press conference for the movie, Tom Hardy apologized to George Miller for the reportedly complicated relationship between the star and the director during filming. He stated: “There was no way, I mean, I have to apologize to you because I got frustrated. There was no way George could have explained what he could see in the sand when we were out there. Because of the due diligence that was required to make everything safe and so simple, what I saw was a relentless barrage of complexities, simplified for this fairly linear story. I knew he was brilliant, but I didn’t know how brilliant until I saw it. So, my first reaction was ‘Oh my god, I owe George an apology for being so myopic.'” The brilliant visionary director, George Miller, had all the pieces in his head, but the cast and crew could perhaps only catch glimpses of the big picture he was creating. Needless to say, this film is a piece of art, and could not have been told by conventional means.

Who’s Story Is It?

This is a tricky question to ask, because an argument can be made for both Furiosa and Max. Miller has created a reluctant anti-hero in Max, who we naturally assume is our protagonist, since he is the title character. It’s not any use to compare the amount of lines each character has. Furiosa has significantly more lines than Max. This isn’t Hamlet. We can’t identify the protagonist based on their verbiage. In evaluating a Protagonist, it’s important to look at a few key elements. What character initiates the first step towards moving the action of the story forward? They would be responsible for launching what’s called the inciting incident. We could look at the beginning of the film, and hastily say it is Max because he is the first person we see, and he is trying to escape from the War Boys. He clearly has an objective (to escape and not get caught) and he clearly kickstarts the action by trying to outrun them. The problem is, on closer inspection, this action doesn’t really hold up, because it doesn’t have a great objective and a thu-line that connects with each subsequent action in the film. His escape from the War Boys is not going to be the story we see over the next two hours. Sure, it’s a peripheral and tangential subplot, but this story is greater than that.

So we must turn our attention to Furiosa. Whereas Max’s purpose and direction in the beginning was cloudy and vague (escape! where?), hers was always single-mindedly to escape her prison, save the tyrannical Immortan Joe’s five wives from their grim fate of breeding new War Boys, and find her way back to the idyllic Green Place, from her childhood. This movie could be considered some kind of a Dantesque or Kafkaesque road trip, since the main action of the movie was driving that rig to the Green Place in pursuit of a better life. That IS a superobjective, and Furiosa (and crew) faced lethal obstacles along the way, just as any protagonist must, and her character used a variety of tactics to achieve her goal, from recruiting Max and Nux, to flirtation to bribery to trust to eliciting pity to every form of violence, cunning, and deception she could. Hers is a very traditional character arc, as she initiated the action (veering off course while driving the rig), hiding the wives (part of the superobjective: get them to safety), and pursue the goal relentlessly, at grave personal risk to herself. Her goal was to return to her birthplace, the mythic promised land of her youth. It might as well be the story of Moses and Exodus. She is on a mission, and every other subplot in the movie pale in comparison to her imperative. When she arrives at Green Place, she is understandably distraught, but she solicits help and listens to Max’s plan to return to the Citadel. This is insanity. They just came from there. THOSE ARE HIGH STAKES, in a movie already filled with deadly decisions. She has nothing to lose, and everything to gain. This is her Manifest Destiny. I can’t come to any other conclusion than to declare that Charlize Theron is the indisputable protagonist of this movie. Throughout the film, Max has made half-decisions, and been relatively rudderless. He resisted their feminine wiles at first, but he slowly was melted by time and their earnest thirst for freedom. He succumbs to their humanity, and decides he has some unwritten obligation to help them. In this regard, Max becomes a strong candidate for protagonist, because he has a very steep trajectory, from hardened widow and emotional zombie to risking his life and allowing himself to feel again — no matter how minor. But we can’t escape the fact that Max is mostly acted upon, and his decisions are offshoots of Furiosa’s. He becomes her de facto body guard and confidant, and they share an unspoken connection throughout. In that regard, Max actually plays the archetypal friend role, like Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, who goes so far as to fight and die in proxy for Romeo. Max makes Furiosa a better woman, and empowers her to achieve her ultimate objective: find HOME. Not only that, he literally saves her life, by giving her a blood transfusion, symbolically giving her his lifeblood, and ensuring she lives to transplant the idea of Green Place back to the Citadel, and bring new life where there hasn’t been for years. “Home” therefore, is wherever Furiosa brings it. Not accidentally, the very first thing she does when she returns to the Citadel, and goes up on the lift is to share the water, and a torrent of water pours down on the poor wretched souls beneath. This symbolic gesture of watering her garden and providing  lifeblood of her own is not lost on me, and it goes a long way towards hinting at what kind of leader she’ll be. In a movie of heat and intense flame, she baptizes the desperate with water, a metaphorical absolution and promise of good things to come. The plot may read as that simple on the page, but it’s what’s in between the lines, and all the compelling artistic choices Miller made elsewhere in the film, which gives it depth and meaning. This is more than a screenplay and well-ploted story, and it’s certainly not an examples of realism, this is a moving painting, a performance piece, a steam-punk/S&M/metal fashion and art design, breathtaking cinematography, incredibly believable real special effects and fight sequences, expressive make-up design, a commentary on global warming and our inclination towards self-destruction, and a character study in body language, non-verbal communication, and the broken signals we send when we ourselves are broken, and can barely speak for ourselves. It is a study of endurance, and having the courage to take one more breath, and fight another day in the face of unthinkable cruelty and savagery. In the final assessment, what is it that makes these people go on? That shred of humanity left inside each of them, and the ability to sometimes recognize it in others. That connection….the human condition….is what makes all of us get out of bed and face our own uncertain days.

Mad Max: Fury Road is such a visually sumptuous movie with a sophisticated concept and stunning artistry, and should remind us all that an action film can be both a high-octane thrill ride AND a smart and creative work of art. Furthermore, truly visionary films like this remind us that a blockbuster movie can come in the shape of art, and can earn money at the box office. As artists and film goers, we need to stand behind brave and daring films like this, and insist that this isn’t the exception, but can be the rule. This film deserves to be seen by everyone, and is accessible enough to satisfy both the pure action movie fan and those with more cerebral and sophisticated tastes. All films should aspire to such high standards. 

 

When making a movie from a book, why do they leave some/most of the book out of the movie?

Answer by Jon Ferreira:

Overview
Writing a screenplay or a play from source material like a book or even real life requires a significant amount of editing and cutting material. As opposed to a novel, screenwriters just don’t have the page length to explore characters’ extensive backgrounds, elaborate settings — nor do they have the luxury to include a cast of thousands (or hundreds – or less) all of whom have a penchant for endless verbosity. There just isn’t the time in a two-hour film. Here are some of changes screenwriters make and why:

Characters
Books typically have way too many characters since the novel is typically trying to capture the reality of life. Real life has 7 billion people on the planet, and the average person meets 12-50,000 people in the course of their life. Although you really only need 3 characters to write a traditional story most fiction books average at least 20-80 characters. Some books by Tolkien, Martin, Dickens, and Tolstoy, sometimes include casts of hundreds. Because a book has narrative that can take its time, and spend time on each of these characters, there’s no reason not to write that many. In Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude the story spans six generations, and in each generation, the men of the Buendía line are named José Arcadio or Aureliano and the women are named Úrsula, Amaranta, or Remedios. There are dozens of characters, and it is confusing enough to follow the relationships on paper where there are names and it’s written in front of you. Try putting that complex family tree on screen where characters aren’t wearing name tags, and it becomes confusing quickly. People watch movies and tv to escape and to watch something they can follow. Nobody wants to be confused and lost for a whole movie.

Cutting Characters
Consider the show Game of Thrones. In the books, George RR Martin writes an extremely dense story, with a complex plot of interconnecting characters –kings, queens, knights, servants, clergy, dragons, etc. Each character belongs to a different House, like House Stark, and you are told what knights are loyal to House Stark, what commoners are, etc. You learn the whole history of that one house, and all the ancestors. Each have their own names and histories. There are dozens of houses! Martin introduces characters he may never bring back, JUST to fill out his world realistically and create a fantasy atmosphere. Tolkien did it too with the Lord of the Rings series. Of course, the average book is about 1000 pages. The average screenplay is about 100. And much of those pages describe action, not dialogue. Martin’s books simply have too many characters. The show, as it is, can sometimes be hard to follow. And they cut out hundreds and hundreds of characters.

It simply would be too confusing to include every character in a book. They would have to walk on and walk off if they weren’t the main characters, because there’d be no time for them to speak. We wouldn’t get to know them. Additionally, it costs a lot to cast a film of hundreds.

Compounding Characters
Sometimes we need the information or action that a particular character has or does. Perhaps we need the same from another similar character. Instead of including both, a screenwriter will conflate the characters into one character and take one of their names. This is a way to keep some of the plot but cut many of the characters.

Inventing Characters
Sometimes it is necessary to invent characters, in order to play off the main characters. For instance, maybe in the book, the character thinks to himself about what he’s going to do. That wouldn’t work in a movie, since most films try and stay away from overusing voice over. It simply lacks action, and can be boring. Instead, maybe they invent a confidante role, who is the best friend whom the protagonist tells all his inner feelings to. Maybe the story needs another villain or a funny character to lighten the mood. Characters are certain archetypes — the mother, the fool, the lover, the soldier, etc. Screenwriters sometimes need to add a certain type to get the movie working.

Streamlining Action
Often the plot of a book unfolds over several hundred pages, allowing for dozens, even hundreds of scenes, each with their own plot point. If we consider the length of a script, it’s necessary to cut MOST of those scenes. There’s no way a movie could try to show hundreds of different things that happen. Each scene would have to be about 20 seconds long. The writer must choose the scenes which advance the story the most, and are vital to making the story arc make sense. The scenes should fall into the general structure of a play/screenplay…inciting action, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement. Scenes that slow the story down are cut, however good they may be in the book. The pacing and movement of the plot are everything in a movie. That means action over verbose talking and deep exploration. Think of it like a movie is the cliff notes of a book. It just covers the surface of the major plot points and no more. Good movies use powerful imagery, color, costumes, sound, lighting, and cinematography to tell a story as much — if not more — than the words. In film, a picture is worth a thousand pages.

Voice
A book series like The Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) has at least a hundred different characters leading chapters, where the narrative is from their point of view. We hear them speak, and hear their thoughts as well. In a movie, typically a screenwriter will choose a clear protagonist, and we will see the world of the film from his point of view. If there’s voice over, it will be his. We will see action and character only through his eyes. This isn’t always the case. In Game of Thrones the show, the story will show that character’s scenes, and they are sort of the protagonist of those scenes, but I couldn’t tell you who was supposed to be the protagonist of the entire show.

Budget Concerns
By its very nature, a book has the ability to describe ANYTHING. Things that don’t even exist in the natural world. Things that have not been invented yet. Explosions that are epic and battles between gods that shake Heaven and Earth. Up until recently, movies haven’t been able to show all of those kinds of things, and action as realistically as real life. There were only models, and fake sets, and budgets were only so big. A movie like Lord of the Rings — as close to its description in the book — could not have been made even 20-30 years ago. Now, with CGI, seemingly anything is possible. But that’s not always true. Some things that are called for can’t be done with CGI, and other things are just too expensive. If a movie can’t afford all the stuff from the books, they pick and choose, and do what they can.

Show, Don’t Tell: Adding Action
On the flip side of the budget concerns, is the frequency of Hollywood to ADD action, to make a film more exciting. The recent Sherlock Holmes movies don’t resemble the books at all, because they have made Holmes into a big action star, and have filled the movie with fights and explosions. This happens in nearly every adaptation, in order to make the stories more interesting. Books have pages of monologues and inner thoughts, and those are boring on screen. The general rule is show, don’t tell. Don’t have characters talking endlessly, when you can visually show it. Action is much more physical and visceral than in books. The audience would rather see action, and sometimes that means making it up.

Character Complexity
Not only are dozens/hundreds of characters cut out of a film, the characters that are left, are not nearly as interesting as they may be in the books. In a book, there’s a whole lot of text about the inner life of a character — what he’s thinking, feeling, planning, etc. This kind of thing ends up being boring on screen. That means characters aren’t as complex and deep as they are in a book. We don’t know them psychologically as well as we do in the novels. However, since we can see them, we know them physically much more. Ever wonder why Hollywood is so obsessed with skin-deep beauty, and books tend to be more cerebral? It’s the very nature of how they are made.

Locations
In books, the action of the story can take place in dozens, if not hundreds of different locations — both indoor and outdoor. On top of a mountain and deep under the ocean. CGI technology has helped with green screens able to project almost any location, but sometimes it just is no substitute for the real place. Movies may not have it in their budgets to go on location or CGI it in. The other consideration is that sometimes the book will have to be cut so that two scenes that weren’t next to each other in the book, are in the film, and may need to be in closer proximity — the dining room and the bedroom in the country estate, as opposed to the dining room in the estate and a table at the restaurant. Locations are streamlined, for continuity sake.

Rearranging Order
Sometimes a book simply isn’t written in a way that makes narrative sense in a movie. Perhaps it’s told out of sequence. Perhaps the climax happens to early in the book. Maybe characters are introduced too late. Movie scripts generally have a formula which they stick to — Act I, Act II, Act III — and each has important elements that are supposed to happen during them. Books don’t follow such logic. They tend to be more stream of consciousness, meander more, are verbose, take pages to describe something or someone, and completely mess with traditional narrative and plot development. Books are from many genres, and writers are sometimes experimental and avant garde. Despite being the newer art form, in many ways, film is much more traditional and formulaic. To some extent, screenwriters have to be merciless, and cut and arrange as they feel it serves the film.

Tweaking Time
Often for the sake of telling a story that may have begun as a 1000 page book, in less than two hours, a screenplay will have to collapse time, and tighten scenes into a logical and more reasonable narrative. This is one of the major complaints about movie adaptations. They often compact time, so that something that happened over the course of 10 years, happens in just nine months. The time it takes to get certain places may be shrunk as well. Famously, in Star Trek, even using their space age warp technology, the starships should take years to go the distances they go in just days in one episode. Of course we don’t want to watch a ship’s entire voyage. In ASOIAF, we’ll see a voyage take weeks or months. On the show, in one scene they’re in Point A, and in the next scene, they’ve already arrived at Point B. Time is compacted. For the sake of keeping things interesting, movies and television always compact or lengthen time, depending what the script needs.

Capturing the Spirit
Ideally, a film will keep as much of the story, and cut as little as possible. Realistically, a movie is a very different medium, with different demands and characteristics. A screenwriter must necessarily cut, rearrange, conflate characters, cut characters, change locations, change the date and setting, or whatever else needs to be done, in order to serve the film. NOT the story. The FILM. A movie is a new work of art interpreted by filmmakers, and based on another medium’s work of art. They can never be identical reflections of each other. However, they can be complimentary works of art, that resonate off each other. They both have value and strengths the other doesn’t. A film is a visual art form, and will always value aesthetic over language. Images are its language. The most important thing a screenplay can do is capture the spirit and tone of a book, and if not every plot point, the major ones needed to resemble the original story. It’s about honoring the writer and trying to maintain the integrity of the book, while making it uniquely a film.

When making a movie from a book, why do they leave some/most of the book out of the movie?

Do you believe the quality of movies is decreasing because producers choose profit over art?

The Birth of Hollywood: Reel Profits

You’re working under the false assumption that studios were once in the business of making art and now they’re in the business of making profit. That’s not the case at all. Hollywood was founded by very shrewd businessmen who had the vision to recognize the opportunity to build an emerging industry from the ground up. They took a big risk, setting up shop in the California desert and constructing a community built around a business with no guarantee of success. Men like Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, Carl Laemmle, Jesse L. Lasky, Harry Cohn, Jack Warner, and Adolph Zukor built Hollywood, and nearly right from the start, the studios codified a system to most cheaply and efficiently produce movies and put out the most product in the shortest amount of time. They were factories and this model was inspired by Henry Ford’s innovative assembly line method of building automobiles. These businessmen were most concerned with profit, and they built studios like machines, with a film passing down a virtual conveyer belt, from department to department, each adding and shaping the film io conform to studio standards. Artistic considerations were a nice added bonus, but always an afterthought, when assessing a film’s cost and marketability. The films had to make a profit, and the easiest way to do so was to rigidly adopt a recipe with proven success and the ability to be reproduced ad infinitum.

The Studio Assembly Line

All films started with writers, and the studios had a stable of its own writers –some of them famous fiction writers, who no doubt added quality and esteem to a script. In those days, Hollywood ransacked all of literature for story ideas, and were far less reverential with adherence to the source material than we are today. Great works of literature were rewritten and edited to fit into the studio formula, and to make the films more exciting for an audience. Writers also wrote original screenplays, which tended to be more artistically viable. Even still, the writers were rolling off pages in what might be considered a film nursery. These writers churned out scripts to be produced, from the small low cost B-movie to the grand epic costume drama. The studio business model was then, and still is, to pour considerable money into large and lavish productions (what we would call a blockbuster today), practically sparing no expense, and providing directors with a wide array of resources and some artistic latitude. This function of this model is to produce a large budget film, which would be heavily marketed and be a huge commercial success, filling the coffers, and not only funding the next large picture, but providing the revenue to fund all of the small B-pictures, which no one film is expected to bring in huge profit, but since there are many small films, with small budgets and few stars, they can stagger their releases, and always have revenue coming in, and altogether, the films made a profit. The big guy funds the little guy, and both bring in money in different ways. Again, the films vary in quality, and many of the B-films are poor;y produced, made on the cheap, and shot very rapidly.

It’s important to point out that the studios weren’t any less greedy back then, but arguably better at choosing their talent. Although many of the writers were hacks who dashed off tired old scripts one after the other, However, there were also quality writers who produced great scripts that seemed to find their way into the hands of quality directors.

Like today, successful directors were allowed more creative freedom, such as John Ford and Howard Hawkes. However, for the most part, both men managed to direct artistically pleasing pictures, while staying within the confines of the system. Ford was more difficult to contain, but his films were quite popular and he wielded more power. Frank Capra was the quintessential studio director, and his films were often simple and straightforward, formulaic, and sentimental, while championing the everyman and scoring high with audiences. Nearly all of these films were produced with deadlines and budgets capped and enforced. Many of these directors were under contract, and shot an agreed upon number of guaranteed films per year. They were studio men, and they knew the system, and most worked within its perameters. These men captured lightening in a bottle. The 1930s and ’40s paired some marvelous scripts with talented directors. In addition to the men above, there was George Cukor, Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean, Preston Sturges, and William Wyler, to name a few. This Golden Age of cinema was spoiled by riches, and some of the greatest artists in the profession belonged to this age. Many of the films these directors helmed managed to work from solid scripts, and were directed artistically and responsibly, while also conforming with the studio expectations and model of success. The bottom line was always profit, but the studios recognized that a work could be artistic and high quality AND be marketable and lucrative. If this happily aligned, than the studio was satisfied. Ultimately though, profit was their motive. Most of these directors were not editing their own work, and the studio was still crafting the films to their rigid standards. Somehow the acting and directing were good enough to withstand the handiwork of others. High quality movies made it through, and it may seem they were more plentiful, but the poor quality and shabbily constructed films were numerous and aren’t in our sight. Profit was king, and if art emerged too, than that was just icing on the cake.

All’s Well That Ends Welles: The Rebuke of a Rebel’s Career
If profit was supreme, and artistry tolerated, Orson Welles was filmmaking’s grand martyr, sacrificed at the altar of profit and punished for not playing by the studio’s rules. Learning to play by the rules was a hard lesson for a genius and innovative visionary like Orson Welles to accept, and he spent his life feuding with studio heads, It didn’t start out that way. Welles had been a wunderkind prodigy of the stage and radio back east, and Hollywood aggressively courted him and signed him to direct his first feature with RKO. Because of Hollywood’s efforts to woo him from the theaters of New York, he received an almost unprecedented amount of creative control from RKO Studios in his first contract. He was free to choose the cast as well as to write, direct, produce, edit, and act in the film he created. Citizen Kane was Orson’s first Hollywood film, and in the years since, has come to be generally considered the best film ever made. It still tops the AFI 100 Best Films list. Not bad for a first time filmmaker. Despite only being his first picture, this would end up being the last one Orson had complete artistic control over. Although it was nominated for 9 Academy Awards, it only won one Oscar, for Best Writing (Original Screenplay) for Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz. The film was seen as being based on the life and career of William Randolph Hearst, the famous newspaper tycoon, and he did his best to prevent its release, which hindered its immediate commercial success. Almost instantly, the film was universally praised for its brilliance, sophistication and innovation and it has since justified its production costs many times over. Unfortunately, the film was not an immediate commercial success, and the studio was burned by its failure. Welles’ budget has been $500,000—a significant amount for an unproven filmmaker, and an amount that Welles managed to exceed by nearly $200,000. From then on, Welles was damaged goods, and not to be trusted. They would never give him complete artistic control again.

Welles’ second feature film, The Magnificent Ambersons, was unacceptable to studio execs, and was taken away from Welles, only to be savagely cut, reordered, and edited to their liking. Welles hardly recognized the film they released. Over the course of the next four decades, Welles alternated between clashing and reconciling with studio heads, and continued to direct commercial projects of uneven quality and economic flops. He also was eager to accept lucrative acting roles, in order to raise money to ultimately finance his own films. He had many in development. Few came to fruition though. Welles’ genius was rebuked by a system that refused to cede artistry to proven commercial success, and films they could market. The world was undoubtedly robbed of more masterpieces like Kane. Welles was a mercurial artist, filled with pride and arrogance, and undoubtedly difficult to control. However, he was appallingly treated by a studio system that cared more about profit, and producing films that all had the same look and aestheyic, and were hastily made for as little as possible, and pieced together and vetted, before being released to the public. An artist like Welles couldn’t bear to have a slew of other peoples’ fingerprints all over his work, and he fought the system from within, and met with resistance the rest of his life.

Fall of the Golden Age & Rise of the Auteur Director: Gritty Realism of the 1970s

Welles was one of the first auteur directors, with sometimes unlimited creative control. He would usher in a new generation of directors, who became the sole crafter of the work, and visionary lead artist. Some of these men included Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, and Terrenc Malick. The ’70s were a vibrant era for cinema, and perhaps the most permissive. In the wake of the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam and Watergate, and the collapse of the Golden Age of film and big studio pictures, the ’70s told intimate, gritty, violent, sexy, and socially minded films filled with method actors like DeNiro, Pacino, Hoffman, and Caan. The movies were sometimes self-indulgent, but also engaging and artistically vigorous. The studios seemed to take the decade off, as the hippy baby boomers ran the studios, and created movies with characters that looked like them, and topical issues of the day. The films of the ’70s are the most risky, interesting, provocative, artistic, and ostensibly, the least marketable films Hollywood has ever produced. They were not glamorous, but somehow succeeded at the box office.

The Birth of the Modern Blockbuster

As the ’70s drew to an end, one film would single-handedly return Hollywood to its senses, and bring back profit margins and the pursuit of hitting box office gold. When Stephen Spielberg released Jaws, no one knew what they had on their hands. The film met with rave reviews and became a cultural sensation, scaring an entire generation from getting in the water. The film was such a huge box office success, it cemented Spielberg as an A-list director, spawned a franchise of sequels, and most importantly, ushered in a new era of filmmaking…the summer blockbuster. Just two years later, the George Lucas brainchild, Star Wars, would add a new spin on the science fiction genre and breaking all box office records, taking in obscene amounts of money and convincing the studios that this blockbuster model was a solid and profitable one. Lucas and Spielberg would go on to strike gold at the box office — Lucas with his Star Wars franchise and Spielberg with an almost improbable run of beloved hit movies. From the late ’70s on, the blockbuster has been a perennial hit and fixture on the Hollywood horizon. Studios still pour massive amounts of money into making these films, and they almost always managed to make all the money back and a handsome profit. With the recent release and considerable success of Avengers 2: Age of Ultron, it is obvious to see Hollywood is sticking to its reliable model.

Bottom Line is Top Priority: Hollywood’s Picks Profit Over Progress

Apart from the late ’60s and throughout the ’70s when the industry was abandoning the old classic film style and embracing gritty realism and method acting, and thus focusing less on profit, Hollywood film studios have always led with profit first, and attending to the bottom line. If they hired well (and they did), blessedly had more access to better talent (especially directors), and guided their crew to work fast and efficiently and according to a formula that worked, they would often be rewarded with a film that was both profitable and high quality art. That still happens today, but perhaps less frequently. None the less, studios have always been consumed by profit, they just went through periods where the artists managed to mask it in artistry better. Orson Welles is proof that studios chose to violate artistry for the sake of profit, and always viewed the film as their property, with the right to change whatever they wanted, so long as it make the film more marketable and successful. Welles fought desperately for the sake of art and the right to shape his own work, but was ultimately a casualty in the battle to elevate art over profit.

Do you believe the quality of movies is decreasing because producers aim for what will bring the most revenue instead of what will make a…

What benefits could come from major movie studios merging together in the distant future?

Answer by Jon Ferreira:

During Hollywood’s Golden Age there were eight Hollywood studios commonly regarded as the “majors”. They were Fox Film Corporation (later 20th Century-Fox), Loew’s Incorporated (owner of America’s largest theater circuit and parent company to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), Paramount Pictures, RKO Radio Pictures, Warner Bros, Universal Pictures, Columbia Pictures, and United Artists.

In 1948, the studio system was challenged under the anti-trust laws and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, who ruled that studios were in violation of federal anti-trust laws, and were ordered to divest in the distribution and exhibition of films across the country. The landmark case ended such monopolies, thereby hastening the end of the powerful studio system. By 1954, with television competing for audience and the last of the theater chains severed from studio control, the historic era of the studio system was over. If there was ever a time the studios needed to merge, it was then. If there was ever a worse time to merge is was also then, as studios were skittish after losing the anti-trust suit.

After a couple of fat decades reaping huge profits in home entertainment, the majors now face dwindling revenue, due to a shrinking DVD/Blu-Ray market and the ubiquity of pirated material on the Internet. Furthermore, film is in decline, as society has greater access to diverse platforms and technologies.

Currently, we have six major film studios left, referred to as the ‘Big Six.’ They include Paramount, Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, Columbia, Universal, and Disney Studios. Over the last few decades, the studios have harnessed much of their former power and prestige, not through controlling distribution, but through mergers and acquisitions by large multinational mixed-asset media conglomerates, with diverse interests such as cable companies, television stations, publishing, film production, home media platforms, electronics, video games, internet/network services, and various other areas. For example, Paramount Studios is owned by Viacom, Warner Brothers is a subsidiary of Time Warner, 20th Century Fox is a subsidiary of 21st Century Fox and former subsidiary of News Corporation,  Columbia is a subsidiary of Sony, Universal is owned by Comcast’s subsidiary NBC Universal, Walt Disney Pictures remains under the large umbrella of the Walt Disney Company.

The studios show no interest in merging, but it’s more likely their parent companies will. Recently, Comcast spent $336 million over the past year-plus on its failed attempt to acquire Time Warner Cable. That would have collapsed Warner Brothers and Universal into the same company, but I seriously doubt they would merge into one company (Universal-Time Warner?), but rather stay separate entities in the same way Lucasfilm, Marvel Studios, Pixar, and Walt Disney Animation Studios are all subsidiaries of Walt Disney Pictures, itself a holding of the Walt Disney Company.

Having said all that, movie studios, much like the music industry, is losing its grip on the market, and hemorrhaging profit in the digital age. There may come a time when film studios have no other choice but merge. The advantages from such a merger are numerous:

  • A shared library of movie titles, means they could offer better packaged home entertainment under just one label
  • The rights to certain characters and franchises would be more fluid, and characters from one franchise could more easily show up in another related franchise (for example, the recent difficult negotiation over the character of Quicksilver between The Avengers franchise from Marvel Animation [owned by Disney] and the popular X-Men franchise at Fox Studios. Marvel Studios president of production Kevin Feige has admitted: “There are only a handful of characters that occupy that middle ground. Iron Man is not going to show up over there [at Fox] and Magneto is not going to show up over here [at Marvel]. But there are a few gray points even after many years of negotiations … and that only happens with a character like Quicksilver, who has been a part of the X-Men, the son of Magneto in those comics, but also a primary Avenger.” A merger between studios holding opposing rights to the same characters would benefit fans, who long to see their favorite super hero show up in a different context. It’s getting better, but there’s still far to go
  • The sharing of studio equipment, personnel, space, talent, and resources would benefit everyone, forming a veritable super team, with the best in their fields and the best of each studio collaborating together. A Warner Brothers merger with Disney would give WB access to Pixar, and films could see old work in new ways
  • All films would benefit from shared advertising budgets and resources, allowing blockbusters to still get top billing and saturated promotion, but also having money and access to twice as many partners, in order to promote smaller, and more independent features and documentaries
  • Under a larger umbrella, studios could offer more boutique production companies (like HBO, Castle Rock, New Line, etc.) that could have individual mandates and missions, specializing in documentaries, art house cinema, historical films, etc.
  • Each studio would now have access to the other parent company’s stock portfolio and holdings, allowing them to diversify, and possibly get back into movie theater distribution, establish relationships with cable companies to produce new work, access to new facilities and equipment owned by the other company, and ability to release content in new ways and on platforms owned and manufactured be new parent company
  • Have access to greater music libraries for significantly less cost. (for example, a merger with Sony or Columbia would be beneficial to other studios without a music division)
  • Cut costs by eliminating redundancies, lower costs of production with more resources, have a more diverse portfolio of products and investment, control every aspect of pre-production, production, post-production, advertising and promotion, cinema distribution, television tie-ins, international export and distribution, and home entertainment packaging and multi-platform applications

What benefits could come from major movie studios merging together in the distant future?

Why do we feel differently about behaviors in real life than when we see them reproduced in fiction?

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                      “The play’s the thing. Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”

                                                         ~ William Shakespeare, “Hamlet”, Act 2 scene 2

I can offer no studies or scholarly articles on parables or fiction that parallels real events producing catharsis (as Aristotle would say) intermingled with guilt and horror in viewers who committed similar deeds.

It’s interesting that by the point in the play where Hamlet has the players stage the play, he has only the word of a ghost who is rather suspect claiming to be his father and asking his son to commit regicide and exact revenge on his uncle. Hamlet doesn’t even have circumstantial evidence of a murder, but he does have the very hastily tasteless marriage of his uncle to his mother. But we have no backstory on Claudius, and can’t reasonably assume that a provocative play depicting the events of his cruel deed will compel him to explode in rage, guilt, and horror. Yet, somehow Hamlet suspects he will. He infers in the quote above that he will catch the conscience of Claudius, but we don’t quite know if it is rage at being lulled into a false sense of safety watching a play, only to be confronted by an accusation he was unprepared to address. Or was he embarrassed in front of his court? If we decide Hamlet is prescient about the King;s reaction, than it is indeed guilt he will f

Hamlet

When we commit an act or deed — whether in kindness or in malice — we are understandably focused on the task at hand, and have a limited vision of what the precise implications of what our actions might be. That is why murder suspects — at least in the U.S. — are tried on different counts for premeditated and involuntary manslaughter, among other charges. While in the midst of our actions, we aren’t necessarily outside of ourselves, looking at the events as they unfold. We have tunnel vision, and both see what we want to see, and only see what we can reasonably see. For it stands to reason, if we could see more, we’d likely not want to, and may in fact be thwarted from our purpose. We are the protagonist of our own stories, and like an actor in a play, have super-objective we must accomplish, and must pursue them at any cost, using various tactics to achieve our goal. Actors can only see what the character sees, and not what the other characters or the audience witnesses.

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When both Claudius and King David watch and listen to a story hauntingly similar to their own, they cannot look away. They are now spectators of their own murderous past. And as we in the audience do, they are confronted by the heinous nature of their deeds, precisely because they must see the story from every side, as if it were Kurosawa’s Rashōmon, where multiple eye witness accounts describe the same incident from many different perspectives. They are forced to spread empathy and understanding around. A well made play or other narrative work allows us to see the action from multiple viewpoints, and empathize with several different characters at once. If Claudius was forced to witness the murder he committed of his brother, he would have been forced to see an actor portray a happy and healthy King Hamlet, carefree and unaware of the horror that was about to befall him. Claudius likely saw little of this during the act, and for good reason. It’s hard to murder an innocent person, especially when vulnerable. We see proof of this later in the play, when Hamlet resists killing Claudius while he prays. He reasons that it’s because he doesn’t want Claudius sent to Heaven–struck down in the midst of prayer–but it’s more than that, and we know it. Hamlet is not a murderer. The thought of viciously taking a life so mercilessly revolts the otherwise pacifistic and cerebral Prince.

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Claudius, like David, must see their victim from the victim’s perspective, and reconcile the justice in taking a life so cruelly and unfairly. They witness the injustice of their acts. Not like when they were committing them, and could only seethe with the rage and sense of righteous cause at what they felt compelled and justified in doing. Now, they could see the other side of the coin. Furthermore, they had to view the bloody act. It’s almost worse to see violence and bloodshed on stage because it has that suggestion of verisimilitude, yet it’s always stylized to some degree. It looks like a gruesome and macabre dance played out on stage, and that sheen of artistry makes it all the more sick and reviling. While it was being done in real life, it was hurried and lasted only a few blurry seconds. In fiction, it is drawn out and magnified, for all to experience the full impact of the deed. For a murderer, it must feel like an eternity to sit and watch undoubtedly the worse thing they’ve ever done in their life play out in front of them. Time stands still, and it’s like being sentenced to some kind of Promethean loop of sin, forced to relive the horror over and over for time eternal.

Once the murder has been committed, the viewer must witness the aftermath of his deed. He must view the lifeless body and contemplate the injustice of taking a life. But he must also see the grief and dismay that the death — any death — has on a family, a community, a kingdom. He took a husband, a father, his own brother, a king, and above all, another human life. And he saw it all played out in front of him.

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Fiction and art are not real life. They take real life, and project it through the lens of imagination and the artists point of view. What we end up with is always a mimetic, stylized, contextualized, topical, and slightly exaggerated point of view on a topic or incident, with all the requisite moralizing, intellectualizing, and rationalizing. Even a documentary is not real life. It is a perspective and always has a point of view. A murderer or guilty person being forced to witness their actions is perhaps the surest way to induce guilt and dismay at what they have done. On one episode of Star Trek: Voyager, they show an alternative method of punishment that involves implanting a chip in a prisoner’s brain which then goes off at the precise time they killed their victim, and forces them to witness themselves committing the murder every single day for the rest of their lives. Can you imagine?

Perhaps seeing yourself and your actions portrayed in an art medium offers more context, humanizes the victims, and shows the aftermath of the deed much more than the actual committing it, and only then can a perpetrator feel the true impact of their crime.

Why do we feel differently about behaviors in real life than when we see them reproduced in fiction?

Louis C.K. and the Jewish Comedy Tradition

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I came across this fascinating article sparsely titled Non-Jews Telling Jokes, after reading about Louis C,K,’s next project — a feature film, which he’ll write, act, and direct, as he does so effectively on his show. I couldn’t help but think of Woody Allen, who also famously acts, writes, and directs his own projects. Furthermore, both men’s work has New York embedded in its very DNA, even though Louis is originally from Boston. Interestingly, C.K.retains much of the vulgar rough-and-tumble spirit of Beantown, but has nonetheless fully assimilated himself into the style and sensibilities of his adopted home of New York. So much so, it’s easy to forget he isn’t from there.

But what does a New York comic look like? Like Louis C.K. That nebbish and self-deprecating observational style humor that traces its roots back centuries, but more recently grew out of the lower East Side immigrant Jewish population, and characterized by sardonically irreverent wit, and influenced by colorful storytelling, Yiddish Theatre, Vaudeville, Borscht Belt comedy acts, old school roasts, and a rich — yet challenging — history of migration, persecution, guilt, skepticism, heritage, tradition, perseverance, and survival. But at the very core of all that hardship and heartbreak, is the one thing the Jewish people never surrendered: their laughter.

The only problem is, Louis C.K. isn’t actually Jewish. But he must be! His whole sensibility screams Jewish humor. As it turns out, he’s an honorary “schlemiel” — the Yiddish word for a stupid, awkward, or unlucky person. Louis so effortlessly slipped into the skin of a New Yorker, he even managed to pass and fool nearly all of us — including many Jews, who just took him to be a part of the tribe. Yet C.K. has always been honest about his upbringing, and never intentionally mimicked the style of his Jewish peers. As it turns out, the reason America has always had a love affair with Jewish humor is because it was clever, unthreatening, self-deprecating, and most of all — deeply human — with all its failure and awkward clumsiness. Louis C.K. is doesn’t have to be Jewish to be a ‘schlemiel’ — just a goofy and unlucky everyman that we can all see ourselves in. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, Jewish comedians are being paid tribute in spades. (but as one might expect from a schlemiel, getting none of the cash or the credit! Oy vey!)

Which is better and why: Star Wars or Star Trek?

Answer by Jon Ferreira:

The Pros and Cons of Star Wars
Although I was exposed to Star Wars first, as I grew older and more discriminating, Star Trek offered me more substance and what I needed as a more mature adult. I agree with what many have said about Star Wars being very black and white, pitting good against evil, and filled with common archetypes. Lucas drew heavily on Japanese film and culture, and the mythology of Joseph Campbell. His movies are epic, and rightfully called space operas. They have a very overblown, deeply felt, dramatic tone to them, and are very operatic in style.

When all is said and done, I can’t help feeling that Star Wars really is a franchise aimed at young people, and the young at heart. The action is exciting, relatively easy to follow, and filled with all kinds of colorful costumes, freaky alien makeup, thrilling sound effects, and exquisitely detailed models and/or CGI. There are few deep philosophical questions, and Lucas doesn’t ask much of us. It’s thrilling, in the way that Stephen Spielberg movies are thrilling, and it’s not surprising that the two are friends and borrow liberally from each other. Just as Spielberg provides all the excitement of hunting a giant shark or being chased by a Velociraptor, Lucas provides us with captivating excitement, while spending less time filling in the deeper inner life of the characters. The emotional investment of the characters is bifurcated, with deep allegiances to good (the rebels/Republic) and bad (The Galactic Empire). Luke dresses in white at the beginning, and Darth Vader is in black. Every design choice in the films reinforce this dialectic, and make it abundantly clear who is who, so you never have to question who the bad guy is. The emotions soar in isolated scenes, but the feelings are relatively simple and unrefined. There is little philosophical musing or deep cerebral action happening throughout the franchise. There’s little nuance here. That’s not Star Wars. It’s exactly what it says it is, and you know exactly what you’re getting. I still love it, but more in a nostalgic way, summoning my boyhood infatuation with the films. When I want something more filling, I turn elsewhere.

The Virtue of Star Trek
Star Trek, on the other hand, started right out of the gate as something new and provocative. It didn’t take long to notice that this Sci-Fi series was going to be something drastically different than anything that had come before. This was no Lost in Space or Forbidden Planet.  In truth, Gene Roddenberry drafted a proposal for the science fiction series that he publicly marketed as a Western in outer space. He called it a so-called “Wagon Train to the Stars” — taking the name directly from the popular Western TV series. In that show, settlers explored the frontier in peace, but encountered hostility along the way. Their strong moral code allowed them to solve disagreements and meet new people and civilizations. Sound familiar? He privately told friends that he also was modeling it on Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, intending each episode to act on two levels: as a suspenseful adventure story and as a morality tale.

Within the first few episodes, the show set itself apart from its peers, and offered a thoughtful reflection of 20th Century problems and unenlightened prejudices, while comfortably distancing itself in the future. Up until that point, much Science Fiction had been cheesy, shlocky, campy, and silly in its portrayal of the future. The genre had become waded in technology and ridiculous depictions of space gadgetry. Of course, Star Trek had its own technobabble and gadgets, but they were never ostentatious or showy. They were functional and utilitarian, and built on technology we already had. Or at least could envision. The show told deeply inquisitive stories, and offered a Universe like our own, except better. And all of this was already apparent by the fifth episode!

Although Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS) isn’t my favorite series, it set the bar high. The first significant thing it had going for it was its multicultural cast, including three Jewish actors (Shatner, Nimoy, Koenig) playing bridge officers. Even though the show never acknowledged the ethnicity of its actors, the casting was a symbolic nod to what kind of show this would be. Secondly, there was an actor playing an accented Scotsman, an actor playing an accented Russian, a Japanese man, and a black female communications officer who spoke Swahili. This was one of the first instances of a black female in a lead role. This kind of diversity was almost unheard of in network television at the time, and all throughout the series, Roddenberry gave substantial roles to minorities.

This universe was set three hundred years in the future, after the third world war and the eugenics war. Humanity was peaceful, and had rid itself of greed, capitalism, the need for currency, and war. Starfleet Academy is where the future’s recruits to Starfleet’s officer corps will be trained. It was created in the year 2161, when the United Federation of Planets was founded. By the time Kirk is captaining the Enterprise, Starfleet and the Federation are roughly a hundred years old. Exploration is out of its infancy stage, but still wild and not totally regulated. Needless to say, Kirk and his crew have a LOT of latitude.

The Soul of Star Trek
Perhaps the soul of the show can be found directly in the guiding principle of the Federation and Starfleet Academy. It’s a moral code, by which the explorers live by. The Prime Directive, also known as Starfleet General Order 1 or the Non-Interference Directive, was the embodiment of one of Starfleet’s most important ethical principles: noninterference with other cultures and civilizations. At its core was the philosophical concept that covered personnel should refrain from interfering in the natural, unassisted, development of societies, even if such interference was well-intentioned. The Prime Directive was viewed as so fundamental to Starfleet that officers swore to uphold the Prime Directive, even at the cost of their own life or the lives of their crew. A premise such as this was profoundly unique to Star Trek, and revolutionary for the era. Roddenberry clearly had Native American genocide, African slavery and Civil Rights, and other Colonial interference and subjugations in mind when he crafted such a directive. Over the fifty years prior to the show, Colonial governments were being overthrown, and countries were gaining their independence and autonomy from various imperial states. The devastation left in the wake of colonial imperialism can still be deeply felt in nations across Africa, Asia, South America, and elsewhere. Roddenberry deeply believed in a future free of unnecessary meddling or interference.

Star Trek: The Original Series
There were just three short seasons before being cancelled, by my land, what a magnificent run. Granted, the production values were god awful, and the acting was almost as bad. By today’s standards, the show is often laughable, with flimsy sets and unimaginative multi-colored food morsels (they didn’t even have room in the budget for prop food). However, those three seasons produced some of the most iconic scripts, with some of the most profound and philosophical ideas ever put forth on television. Although sometimes the dialogue was laughable and contrived, the stories in those early years were really innovative, and simply good science fiction. The Enemy Within is a nice riff on Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, and asks us to examine the evil within us all. It explores where our assertive and aggressive sides come from, and acknowledges that we must invariably draw on our reptilian self-preservationist savage from time to time. It’s not pretty to look at that side of ourselves. Dagger of the Mind raises questions about crime and punishment and the ethics of certain methods of rehabilitation. It might be even more relevant today, with our bursting, eroding prisons. The Conscience of the King is a great premise, with a former tyrant and mass butcher hiding within a Shakespeare troupe as an actor. He might as well have been Eichman or Mengele. Return of the Archons is the inspiration for the recent Purge movies. One night a year, people go crazy and kill, for the sake of peace and calm in society the rest of the time. Yet, like today, the exploited and exploiters aligned with the have and have-nots, and it becomes clear who’s being purged. In Space Seed, we are introduced to the inimitable Khan, one of the greatest characters in the Trek universe. and introduced to a superhuman man and product of the Eugenics Wars, a shameful and destructive period in Earth’s late 20th Century. The genetically engineered Khan is a reminder of Hitler’s own obsession with breeding a master Aryan race. The episode City on the Edge of Forever, was artfully scribed by the famous Science Fiction writer, Harlan Ellison. This episode is so unlike the others, and has a special grace and elegance to it. We see Kirk genuinely fall for a woman, and ultimately have to let her die in order to not pollute the temporal timeline. This was really the first Trek to introduce the idea that our interference could change the course of time. This would later be known as the Temporal Prime Directive. This Gateway of Forever construct was used later in TNG, when Picard had to step through, and ended up on a Romulan ship. Although cancelled after just three short years, Star Trek set the tone for the rest of the series, and set the bar high for future generations. It was the face that launched a franchise, and is quite honestly, the series by which all others are measured.

I’m currently on my fourth viewing of all six series (including The Animated Series), and every time I go back to TOS, I’m a little skeptical, knowing it’s a bit cheesy, and hard to watch at times. However, there are at least TWO things that TOS got right. The first thing is the scripts. Those stories were strong enough to carry the show, no matter what happened. They were bona fide works of science fiction, and as good as anything in the genre. Secondly, the relationship between Kirk, Spock, and Bones was so solid and so affectionate, you could tell those three men really liked each other. They had such a short hand, a familiarity, and lighthearted chemistry. You would have thought they’d been acting together for over 20 years. That trifecta relationship was really what the show rested on. Had Jeffery Hunter stayed with the show, I don’t think it would have been nearly as successful. Despite his absurd (but lovable) over-the-top and blustery acting, Shatner brought a charming energy, which permeated through the whole cast.

Star Trek: The Next Generation
Although the film franchise was launched in 1979 — roughly a decade after the first series went off the air — it took nearly 20 years for another Star Trek show to hit the airways. That show was the much beloved Star Trek: The Next Generation. Think of it. What big shoes to fill. In that 20 years, a revolution had formed — a groundswell of fiercely loyal fans devoted to what…three short seasons of a cheaply produced science fiction show from the late ’60s! By then, Star Trek Conventions were popping up all over the world, and the fan base was deep and committed. I myself attend Conventions every summer! We all know Star Trek was much more than a cheap science fiction show. It was a movement. It was the thinking man’s science fiction, and a font for how we approach the universe, ourselves, and each other. It was social commentary. It was brawn and brains. Action and exploration. TNG was great, and did a remarkable job filling those shoes. It was different and new enough to be fresh and above reproach, yet still recognizable as in the Trekkie universe, upholding all of the same ideals and asking us even more nuanced questions. The first couple seasons were rough (embarrassingly bad quality writing that was at best prosaic and contrived, and at worst, creepily sexist and racist), but it showed marked improvement after that. The major improvements upon the original were a significantly higher budget and convincing production values, and more importantly, an arguably better cast — acting wise. That’s not to say the iconic cast from TOS was horrible — because they weren’t — but they were generally a bit cheesy and overblown, allowing us to love them for the charm of their personalities over their innate acting ability. TNG had a legitimate stable of trained actors, led by the inimitable Shakespearean stage actor, Patrick Stewart. He set the tone for the whole show. His serious demeanor and commanding presence leant the show gravitas, and we instantly knew we were in capable hands. Probably the next best actor was Brent Spiner, in a remarkable turn as Data, the android who so desperately longs to be human. His earnest and inquisitive, while often unintentionally funny, demeanor stand as not only the levity of the show, but ironically its heart. The tin man provides the heart and soul of the ship and crew, nay, its very mission. The rest of the cast varies in talent (and in annoyance factor — I’m looking at you Deanna and Lwaxana Troi…Beverly and Wesley Crusher!) But for the most part, the cast was competent and effective. Sadly, my final assessment is that although it has some of the best episodes Star Trek has ever produced (Chain of Command, Ship in a Bottle, Darmok, The Measure of a Man, Relics, to name a few) and perhaps the two best characters — Picard and Data — the show’s writing was uneven and inconsistent, making it sometimes fall short of the mark. The show is excellent, but it would take one more incarnation to really master the formula.

Deep Space Nine Captures Lightening in a Bottle
As the various series matured,  Star Trek tackled more philosophical ideas, and challenged its viewers to think more deeply. In my humble opinion, Deep Space Nine (DS9) stands as the pinnacle in Star Trek accomplishment. I know many people disparage it because it takes place on a space station, and not a starship, thus defying the mission of the show. That’s bullshit. The show has by far, the most accomplished cast of actors, each playing really unique characters. including one Bajoran, a shapeshifter, a Ferengi, and later a Klingon. Add in two terrific Cardassians, and Lissipian barfly named Morn (an anagram spoof on Cheers‘ Norm) and you have the most talented cast of all. Sure, TNG had Picard and Data, but it also had Troi, Crusher and Yar. DS9 cast is terrific across the board. There simply is no offensively bad actor on the show.

In terms of scripts, I would venture to say that few science fiction scripts in the history of episodic television have rivaled DS9 at its best. The scripts are so well articulated, and so intricately plotted, that character arcs are well developed and extended perfectly over the course of the seven year run. Dialogue is elegant and intelligent, and the plots are interesting and engaging. DS9 at its best perfectly mastered the balance and elegance of a solid Star Trek episodes. The episode would be both cerebral and moral, ask questions the audience had to answer, and still provide plenty of action to keep you engaged.  TOS and TNG might have some stellar episodes throughout, but DS9 wins for most consistent quality. And most evenly and impressively acted by every cast member.

I only need name a few transformative DS9 episodes to make my point. Far Beyond the Stars envisions the events of Deep Space Nine as the creation of Benny Russell, a struggling science-fiction writer living in 1950s New York City who dreams of an escape from the racism and social tumult that surrounds him. He also looks exactly like Ben Sisko, giving the rest of the cast a chance to ditch their makeup and prosthetics to appear as his friends, co-workers and tormentors. This episode may be low on production costs, but it extraordinarily high on concept. In The Visitor it’s hard to escape a viewing without sobbing uncontrollably. This episode gets to the soul of what Star Trek is ultimately supposed to be about: the human condition. After the unexpected death of his father, Jake spends a lifetime figuring out how the boy that he was can be reunited with the dad that he so desperately needed. At its core, Star Trek is not about technobabble or sci-fi, and this episode perfectly captures that. It is a story about love, loss and self-sacrifice that is so powerful that it transcends the genre and devastates by its sheer beauty. In Duet a Cardassian man arrives on the station suffering from an illness that he could only have contracted at a Bajoran labor camp during the Occupation. While in custody, he boastfully claims to be the head of the labor camp, responsible for countless Bajoran deaths. Major Kira (a deeply bitter and resentful Bajoran) leads an investigation to determine whether he is actually a notorious war criminal. The show explores mercy, redemption, forgiveness, guilt, and the insidious effect of hatred and vengeance. It is one of the most powerful hours you’ll ever spend in front of a television.

Star Trek or Star Wars?
As much as I enjoy the Star Wars films, they are blockbuster candy. They’re exciting and thrilling, and are undeniably fun. At the same time, they are also really sweet and fill me up for a time, but they’re not high in nutrition. Whereas, Star Trek rejuvenates me each time I return to the well. I am inspired by its lofty ideals and Roddenberry’s hope for a better tomorrow. The movies and shows are intellectually engaging, morally inquisitive, and challenge me each time I watch. Star Trek pushes us to reexamine our world, and to go boldly go where no one has gone before. If Star Wars is my youthful idealism, Star Trek is my cautious optimism, tempered by time and experience. That sustains me.

Which is better and why: Star Wars or Star Trek?