Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The sadness of the "Green Lantern" movie

Making movies is hard.

This is obviously not a newsflash for anyone remotely conscious, but it's important to remember, as William Goldman put it so aptly, no one ever sets out to make a bad movie. (Even Uwe Boll thinks he's doing something good.) Like a well-written villain, bad movies are the product of what appear to be, from the inside, good intentions. In the case of "Green Lantern" those good intentions are obvious, which makes the failure of the film to achieve its goals a sadness.

Look, I was in the film and television business for (gasp) almost thirty years, and while I was certainly party to several projects that went down in flames and ended up being truly awful, I can honestly say that for the most part, everyone involved in almost every project wanted to do something good and tried their best to accomplish that goal. But here's the problem: when you're inside looking out, it's really really hard to see that what you're doing isn't as good as you think it is.

It's human nature to equate hard work and maximum effort with positive results -- and people making movies work very very hard, at maximum effort. Unfortunately, as anyone who has ever spent time in a gym knows, hard work and maximum effort don't always produce the results you expect. In my thirties I worked out a lot, hoping to build up my shoulders and get that Charles Atlas body I knew the ladies liked, but even though I became pretty damn strong, my genetic makeup was basically ectomorphic not mesomorphic -- so, no big shoulders for me.

In the same way, sometimes a movie is so fatally flawed at the conceptual level that no amount of talent and effort can change the final result. "Green Lantern" is flawed in that way -- not the concept of Green Lantern, as such, or even the world of the Corps, or Hal Jordan as a character. What is flawed in "Green Lantern" is the concept of the movie itself. By attempting to introduce the mythology of Green Lantern before and during the introduction of Green Lantern as a character, the film gives the viewer too much information to process during what should be an emotional journey. The filmmakers were so taken with the mythological backstory of the Lantern that they forgot it's a backstory and put it in the foreground, instead of putting Hal Jordan in the foreground, and making the story about him.

This was made clear to me the other night when I finally got around to watching the extended cut of the film. In truth the extended cut isn't really that much better than the theatrical cut, but it does do one thing the theatrical cut failed to do: it put Hal Jordan at the center of the story, at least for the first half hour. Then it all flies to pieces, just as the theatrical cut does, with information dump after information dump, an emotionally dead-end villain (who is eliminated before the climactic battle), characters who aren't fully developed but who we're clearly supposed to care about, and a life-and-death Cosmic Stakes Battle that's resolved by not much effort at all in a "Why didn't almost anybody else think of that?" deus ex machina that's embarrassingly pitiful.

I swear to you, though, the people involved with making "Green Lantern" undoubtedly thought they were making a really fine film.

In the mid-1980s I had the opportunity to work on a number of animated TV shows during the toy industry-sponsored syndicated cartoon era. Without exception these were shows motivated into existence for one purpose: to sell toys. And, without exception, the talented writers who'd been hired to develop these toy-based properties into cartoon series would write extensive series "bibles" that sometimes ran over a hundred pages, with enormously well-worked-out back stories about alien wars and strange robot-races and trans-dimensional dinosaurs. Also, without exception, each of these toy show bibles began with the same assertion:

"This is a character based series."

No, it was a toy-based series, but in order to motivate themselves to do good work, the writers and artists involved had to convince themselves that they were, actually, doing good work. And so they closed their eyes to the reality, embraced the contradictions, and sold themselves a myth that allowed them to put in the hard work and long hours any film or TV project demands.

It's how you survive in the business. And it's why bad movies get made. And it's why when a movie is bad, it's a sadness. Because the people involved tried so hard to make it something it was never going to be.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Book Review: "The Score" by Richard Stark (Donald Westlake)

The first time I encountered Parker, he was almost extinct.
This was in the early 1970s, near the end of Parker's original run of novels. I picked up "Plunder Squad" in hardcover, which in hindsight was not the best introduction to the series. For one thing, it was longer than the average Parker novel. For another, by the time of "Plunder Squad" Parker's self-identification as a loner and a renegade was becoming a thinly-disguised self-delusion. I don't mean to say that Parker wasn't a renegade (by society's standards he clearly was and remains an outsider), but his deeply-held belief in his own self-sufficiency was clearly at odds with the network of allies and, yeah, friends, who peopled "Plunder Squad" and the "final" book in the series, "Butcher's Moon." Parker, in these later early-70s novels, thought he was one kind of man, but in reality, was a very different man altogether.
That's why I say that when I first encountered him, Parker was almost extinct.
Donald Westlake, Parker's creator (as Richard Stark) obviously felt the same way. As happens with writers who devote considerable time and attention to writing a series character, Westlake, I believe, had come to see Parker as a more fully dimensional being than his original creation. In spite of Parker's expressed determination in the early novels (like "The Score") to remain rootless and unattached, Parker had in fact developed roots and attachments. The fact that Parker apparently refused to see and accept this truth about himself made him an intriguing, multi-layered protagonist, but it also must have made it harder for Stark/Westlake to write him with conviction. The Parker of the early novels saw the world simply, but the Parker of the later (1970s) novels lived in a more complicated moral universe. For Westlake, the contradictions must have become too great to overcome. (Contemplating those contradictions undoubtedly gave rise to Westlake's second greatest criminal creation, the hapless John Dortmunder.)
Anyway, back to "The Score."
As an early Parker novel, "The Score" manages to walk the line between Parker's uncomplicated world view and the more complex reality created by the intersection of conflicting human motivations. The set-up is simple: a group of criminals plan and execute the looting of an entire town. It's really the ultimate heist. And it works as planned, without a single technical foul-up. As always in the best crime stories, the fly in the ointment comes from the human factor, and here, we see a hint of the contradictions the later Parker novels (like "Plunder Squad") would express. The heist is almost thwarted by one of the planner's "personal motives." For Parker the professional, "personal motives" are an incomprehensible and potentially deadly distraction from the work at hand. What makes this ironic and foreshadows the end of the original series of Parker novels, in 1974, is that the first time we encounter Parker, in "The Hunter," Parker himself is driven by extremely personal motives, despite his grim self-identification as an untouched and untouchable professional.
Like Ian Fleming's Bond novels, the Parker novels are really separate chapters in the story of a character's evolution from believing himself to be one kind of man, to understanding himself to be another kind of man entirely. In Bond's case that realization led to existential despair. Where it leads for Parker is for you to discover. If you can't begin at the beginning with "The Hunter," "The Score" is as good a place as any to start looking.