Friday, January 29, 2016


seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens

In 1970, Professor Masahiro Mori, an expert in the field of robotics, theorized that as robots start to look more like humans, they'll become easier to empathize with. If one were to chart this progression on a graph, in which the x-axis represents human likeness and the y-axis equals familiarity, the points on the graph would form an ascending line. At a certain point, however, as the theory goes, a robot can look too human, and empathy quickly changes to revulsion. On the graph, there would be a dramatic descent in the line. When a robot's resemblance is no longer in sync with that of a human's, the line re-ascends. Eight years later, this concept was given the name "uncanny valley."

In animation, as technology has improved, especially with computers, the quest for making the perfect-looking human has escalated. Every year, movies and video games continue to push the boundaries when it comes to making more lifelike humans. In recent years, performance-capture technology has produced animated human characters of varying quality in films like The Polar Express, A Christmas Carol, and Beowulf.

Stop-motion animation is different. This is something I've talked about here before: somehow, at least for me, the most photo-realistic computer animation doesn't make me feel its "realness" more than stop-motion, probably because even the most photo-realistic computer animation still amounts to nothing more than illusions, phantasms. Stop-motion uses real materials that are manipulated in real space, not on a computer screen - and seeing real objects appear to move that don't normally move can be very unsettling, especially when you're looking at objects made to look as much like humans as possible.

This brings us to Anomalisa. The first time I saw the poster (that is, in real life and not on a computer screen), I was fooled into thinking it was a live-action movie, but then, I wasn't looking very closely. If I had, I would've noticed the seams running along the eye-line, across the bridge of the nose and up and down the sides of the face of David Thewlis' character Michael. Every "claymation" puppet in the film is like this, and as I watched it, I thought at first that perhaps it was a necessity in order to better animate the face. All I knew of this movie was what I saw in the trailer when I went to see Room

Without those seams, the characters look quite realistic - and maybe that's why they're there in the first place: to avoid the uncanny valley effect. (Once again, I'm writing this without having read about the movie, except for the one piece I happened to read last week, so my impressions will be fresher.) Even with those seams, they looked real enough, to a degree I don't think I've ever seen in a claymation picture before. I kept thinking the eyes, which people usually say are the dead giveaway as to whether animation looks real or not, must be CGI - and maybe they are. I'm not sure. The way light reflected off of them, plus the way they moved, couldn't be stop-motion like everything else, could it?

And then there's the puppet sex. I knew Anomalisa would have it, and I also knew that it wouldn't be treated like a joke, like in Team America, but I was utterly unprepared to see how far directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson were gonna go with it until I saw it unfold. (Spoiler alert: they go ALL THE WAY with it.) I found watching that scene unsettling. Part of it was the uncanny valley effect, but part of it was also the level of intimacy at work. It doesn't play like a sex scene in a typical Hollywood movie; there's uncertainty, shyness and a few false starts, yet I have to admit, as a scene, it worked.

So I guess now's a good time to talk about the story. Thewlis' character Michael is a corporate executive whose specialty is customer service (he wrote a book about it), and he has flown into Cincinnati to give a lecture before a group of retail/customer service employees, including Jennifer Jason Leigh's Lisa. Michael, a married man with a kid, looks up an old flame, but their conversation quickly turns sour. He gets depressed over roads not taken until he meets Lisa, with whom he has a pretty passionate one-night stand. Things look different the morning after, though, in more ways than one.

The film doesn't play out quite this simply. Every other character besides Michael and Lisa, looks similar, men and women both, and are all voiced by the same actor, Tom Noonan. This irritated me at first, until I understood why: it was meant to make Lisa stand out that much more. One thing Michael adores about Lisa when he first meets her is her voice, which is supplied by Leigh and not Noonan. Ironically, Lisa, while a nice girl, is not that extraordinary. She's introverted, almost painfully so; going about in the shadow of her more vivacious friend. She also has a scar on her temple that she hides with her hair and she's quite self-conscious about it. And then there are Michael's disturbing dreams...

Look closely at the faces of everyone surrounding Michael.

On a meta level, one can understand how even someone like Lisa can stand out in a world where everyone else literally looks and sounds similar. For Michael, she shines like a beacon in the dark, and he's ready to leave his wife and son for her, but then something changes. I won't reveal it here, partly to avoid spoilers, partly because it's difficult to describe. It's where the movie lost me.

Michael struck me as a dude going through a mid-life crisis, who needed Lisa to feel young again. She already idolized him, having read his book and come to hear him speak. She's not as demanding as his wife; in fact, she's practically putty in his hands. I wasn't completely convinced that what he felt was love, though we're meant to believe otherwise. I suspect the change that takes place might be as much his fault as anything else's. A conversation I heard in the bathroom afterwards would seem to confirm that, though I'm not sure.

Anomalisa isn't bad - the animation alone makes this a must-see - but given all the breathless raves for it, I expected something spectacular, and that's not what I ended up with. This is without a doubt one of those "see it again" movies, because there's clearly much more going on than meets the eye, and I'd be willing to do so. It just irks me that so many other people "got it" the first time and I didn't. Oh well.

P.S. If you're in the New York area, the Museum of the Moving Image currently has an Anomalisa exhibit running through next month.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Room (2015)

Room (2015)
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens

When I spent a little over a year in Columbus, Ohio, I lived in a tiny apartment in a rundown neighborhood with my friend Max. I must have met him sometime in the late 90s, when I was self-publishing comics and touring all over the country. Dude's a self-taught cartoonist.

I can't give you a sense of how small our place was based on words alone. It's not like I cared enough to try and measure it for myself, so you'll have to take my word for it when I say it was barely big enough for one person, much less two. There was a kitchen, a living room, a room that Max had been using for storage but most people, I suppose, would've used for a bedroom (he didn't even own a bed; I don't know why) and a bathroom, which was the only place one could get any privacy. All the other rooms led into each other, without any doors, so in a way, it was almost like living in a single room.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The File on Thelma Jordon

The Remembering Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon is exactly what it says on the tin, hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. For a complete list of participating blogs, visit the link at the host site.

The File on Thelma Jordon (AKA Thelma Jordon)
YouTube viewing

It took me awhile to really get into The File on Thelma Jordon. For one thing, I was expecting a noir and it started out as a romance - and with a drunk man who was not that great looking to begin with. I would've thought Barbara Stanwyck had had better taste! In a nutshell, Stany's the prime suspect in a murder case, and her lover, Wendell Corey as an assistant district attorney, is the one who must prosecute her. The two of them also appear together in The Furies, from the same year, 1950.

She meets Corey under false pretenses, where he leads her to believe he's the DA when he's not. He's drunk out of his mind and tries to hit on her (he's married), even going so far as to chase her out of the building and to her car. But when he kisses her, wouldn't you know it, she kinda likes it a little. 

Stany's not riffing on Phyllis Dietrichson here; in her opening scene, she comes across as a fairly normal woman, so why she would find Corey anything but repulsive is beyond me. Still, once he sobers up the next day, he's not as bad, so I guess I could buy her giving him a second chance. Maybe.

I would've skipped the courtship between the two and started the film on the night of the murder, because that's when things start to get interesting. Corey thinks he can protect Stany, even when it comes time for the trial, but there's something he doesn't know that turns out to make all the difference in the world.

Stany's Thelma doesn't come across as your typical femme fatale anti-heroine at first. We slowly get hints that she may not be as innocent as she seems, but she doesn't quite come across as the type to commit murder, either. In movies like The Strange Love of Martha Ivers or Crime of Passion, we see her ambition, her willingness to manipulate her men into doing her bidding, but here it's the reverse. It's Corey who's pushing her to do this and that at every turn, especially on the night of the murder. I guess I'm just not used to seeing her in that kind of role.

I wish we could've seen more of this dog.

Thelma isn't bad overall, but it doesn't quite compare with those other Stany movies I mentioned. I liked Corey better in The Furies, where the creepiness of his character works for him. I didn't completely buy him as a leading man, and certainly not as one worthy of Stany.

All my Stany posts (so far!)
Baby Face
Night Nurse/Ladies They Talk About
Golden Boy
Sorry, Wrong Number
The Big Valley
Stella Dallas
The Lady Eve/Forty Guns
Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman (book review)
Banjo on My Knee/Remember the Night
Double Indemnity
Dynasty/The Colbys
My Reputation
The Furies
So Big!

Friday, January 15, 2016

Five ways to tell a SF/F story without a bad guy

Yes, I'm gonna bitch about The Force Awakens again, but only to make a bigger point. One of the biggest disappointments of the film for me was Adam Driver's character, Kylo Ren. As a villain, he didn't seem imposing and powerful enough to carry the film the way Darth Vader originally did in A New Hope, and because he came across like a third-rate Vader clone, his shtick felt old. (Just as an aside: Jen from my writing group agreed with me that TFA was a ripoff of A New Hope. She was pretty pleased that someone else thought the same thing as her!)

Did TFA even need a Big Bad? I realize this is Star Wars, and to not anticipate villains of some sort is probably the height of naivete, but one of my original hopes for this movie was for it to somehow distinguish itself from other modern genre movies, now that Star Wars is no longer the franchise everyone else looks to for innovation. Going without a central villain, even if only for one movie, could have shook up expectations in a big way, and could have even reexamined the way the Star Wars universe is perceived.

I reckon that most of the time now, sci-fi/fantasy movies are expected to have a primary antagonist of some sort. If it's a great, memorable villain, like Lord Voldemort or Agent Smith or Saruman, even better, but I'd like to see more mainstream films that buck this trend. Here are five kinds of general story tropes that can work perfectly fine without a bad guy, along with five examples of same.

- The rescue. It's often part of a typical genre movie, but rarely does it encompass the entire plot, and we don't have to look far for an example: last year's "musical comedy" (really, Golden Globes? Really?) The Martian

A rescue story may seem anti-climactic to a certain extent - who goes into one expecting the rescue attempt to fail? - but it's the "how" that's the exciting part: how the hero stays alive, how to extract him based on certain limitations and constraints. Bonus points if there's a time limit.

Part of the appeal of The Martian was seeing how Matt Damon survives, all alone, on Mars. It's a situation none of us could ever picture ourselves in, and yet the ingenuity and positive attitude of Damon's character made us want to watch him, to find out how much longer he could meet each new challenge and hold out until help arrived.

- The discovery. Discovering alien life would be a natural way to use this trope in genre movies, and Contact is a good example. One could argue that this movie has bad guys, but Tom Skerritt acts as more of a rival to Jodie Foster than an outright bad guy, and James Woods only appears for a small part of the movie.

A discovery movie challenges preconceived ideas about man and our place in the universe. We always thought things were x; now they're y. How do we deal with that? Contact provides answers by showing us the ground-level implications of the new fact of alien life, especially from a religious angle. Were aliens created in God's image too, and is that thought sacrilegious?

- The journey. From The Wizard of Oz to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, journeys, or quests, tend to have powerful antagonists that have a profound impact on the plot, but there are exceptions, and I would argue that The NeverEnding Story is one. The wolf Gmork is as helpless to prevent the destruction of Fantasia as anyone else, and while he presents a great challenge to be overcome, he doesn't factor into the story's climax the way a Big Bad like, say, the Wicked Witch of the West does. He's a villain, but not the villain.

I don't think I need to quote Joseph Campbell to get you to understand the appeal of a story with a journey. NES raises the stakes by having Atreyu's journey function as a story-within-a-story, and Bastian, the real-world child who's the film's true protagonist, travels with Atreyu in a literal sense as well as a metaphorical one, as we discover towards the climax. It's a mind-bender of a movie which works on more than one level.

- The search. In this case, I don't mean searching for someone to be rescued, but a search for anyone or anything vital to the plot. All three stories in Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain involve searches of one kind or another, without a prime antagonist.

The search could involve going on a journey, or a discovery could be made during the search (none of these story types are mutually exclusive to each other), but the point is that somebody needs to find something or someone, or else.

The Tree of Life of legend links all three tales in The Fountain. Hugh Jackman, as three characters across three time periods, looks for it, uses it to find a cure for his dying wife, and takes it with him to search for a new home in space. Maybe you liked the way Aronofsky pulled it off, maybe you didn't (assuming you even saw it). Personally, I liked it.

- The romance. A love story of some kind is often supplemental to a genre adventure of some sort, but rarely is it the raison d'etre. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is an excellent case study, in which the sci-fi elements support an unusual romance.

The nice thing about a SF/F romance is that it's not reliant on alien settings or different time periods. In fact, telling such a story in the "real world," or something very close to it, has the potential to attract a bigger audience, one which might not normally watch a genre movie.

In Sunshine, Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet have their memories of each other erased by a business that specializes in this practice, yet in Carrey's case, he can't quite let go of his memories of Winslet. It's a bittersweet love story that speaks to the experiences of anyone who has loved and lost, and the sci-fi elements make it stand out from the vast majority of romances that have explored similar territory.


"Nothing ever ends."

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Oscar 2015: The nominees

For Best Picture:

The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant

The rest.

Last year, as you know, was devoted to classic movies around these parts, and as part of my immersion into this field (though, in hindsight, I doubt this was all that necessary), I chose to sit out the Oscar race. As a result, many more movies flew under my radar this year than usual. 

So seeing this year's Best Picture nominees comes as a pretty big surprise for once. I knew Bridge of Spies and The Martian would probably get in, but certain movies that seemed like sure things on paper, like Steve Jobs or Joy, didn't make it in - and what do we have instead? Three small indie movies, two - TWO! - sci-fi movies, and what I'm assuming is a horror film - but more on that in a second.

I think we're finally seeing a switch from traditional "Oscar bait" movies. If so, then it's about time. I'm seeing a whole lot of new names amongst the major categories, and the absence of other names - Spielberg and Scott and Zemeckis and Boyle from directing, Hanks and Bullock and Smith from acting, and Tarantino and Sorkin from the screenplay fields - is telling.

I'm very happy for Brooklyn going all the way. I figured Carol would be the one to get the Best Pic nod instead, but at least Blanchett and Mara both got nominated. One thing I failed to mention about 45 Years was the acting, which was quite good, so seeing Charlotte Rampling's name up there is also gratifying. Sly Stallone for Supporting Actor? I know he just won the Golden Globe, so I suppose anything's possible. The Force Awakens getting an editing nod? Interesting. Didn't see that coming. Ditto for Ex Machina and Straight Outta Compton for Original Screenplay. Pretty good year for SF, in fact. I am disappointed that Inside Out didn't have enough juice for Best Pic. I really thought it had a chance there.

Okay. About The Revenant. Yesterday, I was convinced I would not see this movie. I had absolutely no interest in seeing Leonardo DiCaprio get raped by a bear, and frankly, I couldn't understand why anyone would make a movie like this, based on what I've read, which, I admit, isn't that much.

Leo looks like a sure thing for Best Actor at this point, and if so, then good for him. He's certainly deserved it for a very long time, and I think it's fantastic that he continues to take chances with his roles. He's no longer the pretty boy from Titanic; he's become this generation's greatest actor. Plus, Alejandro Inarritu directing back-to-back Best Pic winners would be an amazing feat.

I just don't know if I wanna see this movie. Call me a wuss if you want.

Anybody wanna try convincing me?

2014 nominees
2013 nominees
2012 nominees
2011 nominees
2010 nominees

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

45 Years

45 Years
seen @ Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, New York

Seeing 45 Years was kind of a spur-of-the-moment decision. All the movies I had wanted to see at the time (Joy, The Hateful Eight, Concussion) had gotten mediocre reviews, and I was kind of itching to see something new after coming off a year of blogging about old movies. I had noticed that this flick had gotten incredible reviews - one compared it favorably with Mike Leigh's Another Year, which I liked a lot - and Vija was planning to see it as part of our movie club, so I figured why not.

I can't say I know a great deal about Charlotte Rampling. I know she was an actress from the 60s and 70s that had been in some art house stuff, like The Night Porter. I recall seeing her name pop up in more recent indie movies. I don't know how big she is in relation to other British actresses like Vanessa Redgrave or Judi Dench or Maggie Smith.

Rampling and Tom Courtenay are a married couple about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary with a big party. A week before the party, though, he receives new information about a long-dead lover of his from his youth, and it gets him thinking about her again - maybe a bit too much, to Rampling's way of thinking. Tension starts to settle between the couple, but then she makes a discovery about her hubby's old flame that really turns the screws.

If it sounds like I'm having a hard time mustering enthusiasm for this film, it's because I am. First of all, the comparison to Another Year isn't entirely accurate because in that one, the conflict was external to the starring couple, whereas here it's totally internal. Plus, 45 Years is more serious. (I forget in what context the comparison was made.)

I dunno, maybe I just didn't have the patience for such a talky movie this time. Normally, I can deal with talkiness if it's in service to an interesting story, but I couldn't get into this one. I don't even think it's a bad movie; it just didn't do anything for me. I didn't understand why Rampling didn't act on the discovery she makes at the halfway point. While I believe Courtenay did still love his wife, he tended to be mostly cranky toward her and maybe even a little senile. Well, except for when they try to have sex. (You don't see anything.) 

The reviews make this movie out as this great romantic love story, but I didn't quite buy it. Another Year had romance. I totally believed the relationship between Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen, and while I knew it wasn't all rosy, I felt more invested in it and them. Even a movie like Amour, depressing as that was, had more palpable emotion for me. Maybe I need to watch 45 Years again. It's subtler than those other two movies, that's for sure, but I don't feel the need to do so.

I saw it with Vija, Franz and Lynn, and I don't think any of us were bowled over by the movie. I think Lynn might've liked it the most, but she had to leave early afterwards so I couldn't find out for sure. Franz outright hated it, and the virulence of his displeasure - leavened as it was with his usual eccentric humor - made it feel strange to be more or less in alignment with him, if not total agreement. On the plus side, at least this movie cost less than Brooklyn.

Monday, January 11, 2016


seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens

There's a scene in the movie Carol where Rooney Mara's character questions whether it's possible for her to love another woman despite not having any homosexual inclinations. She feels herself falling for Cate Blanchett's Carol, and though she doesn't completely understand it, she's willing to go along with the feeling. She leads a pretty normal life. There's a dude who's got the hots for her; even wants to marry her. So why can't she seal the deal with him? What makes Carol different?

Director Todd Haynes, to his credit, doesn't try to give a definitive answer other than this: sometimes you just can't help loving who you love. It could be a married person. It could be someone much older or younger. It could be someone of the same sex. Doesn't matter. Whether you can follow through on that feeling, well, that's something separate - and of course, it depends on whether the other person feels the same way about you.

I didn't expect to get as caught up emotionally by Carol as I was; I had thought this to be similar to Haynes' Far From Heaven, which was also set in the 50s, but the two are nothing alike. The latter is clearly meant to evoke a vintage filmmaking style, in both looks and in the storyline. Carol is much less melodramatic. I don't think it's a spoiler to reveal that Blanchett and Mara's relationship is consummated eventually - and boy, is it ever! - but it comes at a point where you know it has to happen, where it would be wrong if it never happened. That's powerful stuff.

Could I fall for a dude - out of the blue, with no warning? I've thought about what it would be like to be gay. I've even joked about it. The truth is, though, for that to have any chance of happening, the dude would have to be one in a million at the very least. Even then, would I have the courage of acting on those feelings? I strongly suspect not - and maybe that's a failing of mine. I dunno.

Human sexuality has been redefined and redefined again so much within my lifetime - and yes, there are those who would say that none of what we're seeing now is anything new - and I have to admit, to someone like me, it's a little scary. I don't entirely understand why certain people have certain tendencies. I try to keep an open mind about it all, I really do, but it's not easy. The notion of sexuality being fluid goes against many of the things I had grown up believing.

And yet you do kinda buy it after seeing the characters in Carol. Mara falling for Blanchett makes sense and it doesn't at the same time, but you wanna believe in it, you wanna believe that one could be capable of pursuing feelings that go against what one considers the norm. Maybe it is... and maybe some of us will get to experience that once in our lives before we die. But I suspect most of us won't.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Where will you leave Jimmy Stewart? pt. 2: The modern era

One of the very first posts from the Switch last year was inspired by a theory put forth by screenwriter William Goldman that for certain classic movie stars, the big ones especially, we each have one role and one moment of theirs in which we "leave" them in our minds. The choice depends on when we first saw them, whether early or later in their careers, and on how big an impact that role left on us. It's an interesting theory, and I was pleased to see that some people agreed with it when I passed it on.

Goldman hesitated to apply this theory to modern actors - i.e., living ones - because there's always the possibility that they could give a performance that would be better than the one you leave in your mind. Still, I'll risk it by using older actors. Why not?

This may seem like an unusual choice, but not if you know me. First of all, Crimson Tide is one of those macho action movies that appeals to me from time to time. It's basically The Caine Mutiny on a submarine, not that I could've made that comparison back when I first saw the film. But it's this scene in particular where I knew for sure that I would leave him in my mind, where some lowly comics nerd ensign gets schooled by him - and when he says the Kirby Silver Surfer is the only true Silver Surfer, you know it's the final word on the subject! (Supposedly, this scene was written by an uncredited Quentin Tarantino.) It's such an incongruous moment in a dramatic thriller, but it's memorable, and in hindsight, it was one of the last times in mainstream pop culture where a comics reference could still feel like an inside joke. So even though he has made much better movies, this is where I leave him.

Some would leave her with Bill Murray, possessed by a supernatural spirit, big 80s hair and all, but in my mind, this is the only choice. What's so remarkable about her is she can make a movie as kick-ass as this, then turn around and make a sober drama like Gorillas in the Midst or Death and the Maiden, or a silly, lovable comedy like Dave or Galaxy QuestAliens was a movie that played on cable a lot when I was a kid, so that's one reason why her performance here is so indelible in my mind, but over time, I also realized she doesn't sacrifice her femininity in this role. In retrospect, that's a minor miracle. So yeah, she stays in that room, rifle in hand, with little Newt and the Xenomorph queen, quietly staring her down, daring her to make a move.

I don't think I ever mentioned this before, but when I went to an advance screening of The Big Year, an otherwise forgettable movie, I saw him outside the screening room. I wanted to talk to him. I wanted to say something smart and insightful, something other than hey, y'know, thanks for all the laughs you've provided me over the years; you're one of my all-time favorite comedians. At the time, though, I thought well, he probably gets that sort of thing constantly. Plus, he didn't look like he was in the best of moods. I really regret not talking to him now, but what can you do? Anyway, Three Amigos was another cable staple from my teen years, so if you ever see me bust out singing "My Little Buttercup" for no particular reason, you'll know why. I'll leave him surrounded by all those banditos.

I really hope she doesn't give up comedy altogether now that she's a Serious Ack-Tor. She has a real gift for humor - less in the Carol Burnett/Madeline Kahn/Lily Tomlin vein and more like Golden Age actresses such as Jean Arthur or Carole Lombard, where the humor informs the roles she plays, regardless of genre. She is so adorable in Demolition Man, a guilty pleasure movie perhaps, but eminently re-watchable and so much damn fun. I'll leave her singing commercial jingles in her police car.

Not many actors are lucky enough to own an iconic role that embodies the fantasies and dreams of a generation. He has two - and this is the one that spoke to me more. I've talked about the memories associated with Temple of Doom. I can't say why I wasn't traumatized by all the hearts getting ripped out of chests and the spiders and the chilled monkey brains like all the horrified parents of the day thought us kids should have been. I just wasn't. I was grossed out, of course, but that was what was cool about it, in a way. Ask any kid under twelve. They'll understand. So leaving him here is a no-brainer for me, stuck on that bridge with the bad guys closing in... and of course, with the gratuitous profanity.

Feel free to add your own contributions.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Alternative Factor: Axanar and the nature of fan fiction

For decades, Paramount and CBS have tolerated and even encouraged fans of the Star Trek franchise to use their imagination at will, but on Tuesday the entertainment companies went to their battle stations and launched a legal missile at a production company touting the first independent Star Trek film.
Axanar, the subject of a lawsuit filed on Friday in California federoriginal, is no ordinary Star Trek film. The forthcoming feature film (preceded by a short film) is the source of more than $1 million in crowdfunding on Kickstarter and Indiegogo. The producers, led by Alec Peters, aim to make a studio-quality film. As the pitch to investors put it, "While some may call it a 'fan film' as we are not licensed by CBS, Axanar has professionals working in front and behind the camera, with a fully-professional crew — many of whom have worked on Star Trek itself — who ensure Axanar will be the quality of Star Trek that all fans want to see."
Paramount and CBS see a violation of their intellectual property.
I didn't expect to begin my year-long series about the Star Trek legacy quite so suddenly, but ever since this story broke over the Christmas/New Year's period, I've been following it pretty closely, so I wanna address it right off the bat.

Axanar executive producer and star Alec Peters
Last month, after the announcement of a new Star Trek series planned for 2017, I wrote that the surge in higher-quality fan films has lessened the need for Trek fans to rely on corporate parents CBS and Paramount, particularly when the quality of Trek material they've offered in recent years has been questionable at best. I also stated, though I should have emphasized, that none of these fan films can profit from their work, since they don't hold the rights to Trek. CBS/Paramount has suffered them to live as long as they adhere to that basic tenet, but now, it looks like things have changed.

When I first saw the donor-enticing "proof of concept" short, Prelude to Axanar, I thought it was the most exciting thing to happen to the world of Trek in at least a decade. (Seriously, even if you're not a fan, take a look at the video while you still can.) By taking a small, yet established piece of Trek canon and building an original film around it, with production values comparable with any current Hollywood genre film, executive producer Alec Peters and his team had set a new standard for what fan films can be.

That said, while the news of CBS/Paramount's lawsuit against Axanar Productions is sad, not to mention a horrible way to usher in the 50th anniversary of the franchise, the things I've been reading since make me believe that this case may have merit after all, and is not, as many Trekkies suspect, just a means for the parent company to cut off any threats to the upcoming film Star Trek Beyond and the new series. Still, that's not what I want to talk about at this time.

The 1997 Star Wars parody Troops received worldwide
recognition and praise, even from LucasFilm.
I wanna address fan fiction and art in general: creative endeavors based on pre-established intellectual property. (I'm grouping fan films in with fan fiction for the purposes of this discussion.) As we've talked about here before, it was fan-made stories and art that helped keep Trek alive in the years since its cancellation in 1969 and the first feature film a decade later. Indeed, modern fandom in general owes a debt to the work Trekkies spawned during this period.

I can understand why fans create these kinds of stories: a love of the original creative work and a desire to apply one's imagination towards adding to the canon, even if only in an unofficial capacity. If a work lasts long enough, sometimes the quality fluctuates, and then fanfic is made in an attempt to "course-correct," to erase any perceived mistakes in the canon. Mostly, though, it's made for fun.

I'm no stranger to fanfic. Years ago, I wrote a fanfic inspired by a Fantastic Four story that I wanted to eventually pitch to Marvel Comics as a limited series. (It was like Axanar in the sense that it didn't actually star the principal characters from the original source material, in this case, the FF.) Life happened, priorities changed, and I never pitched my story, but I liked it enough to change the names and turn it into an original work. I still have it, both on my computer and in my Dropbox file. I may do something with it someday, but I'm in no rush. My point is, I understand the compulsion to want to make fanfic.

The 2004 mock trailer Grayson re-imagined Robin
as a Batman-level badass.
Is it a waste of time to write a story or make a film based on someone else's IP - something you can't financially profit from? The legality issue is a separate one, and has been discussed at length. (Coincidental aside: I'm currently reading the Harvard Lampoon's Bored of the Rings, a Christmas present from my pal Bibi, and as you can guess from the title, it's a Lord of the Rings parody, written by fans.)

I think the answer depends on your goals. If it's something you only wanna share with your family and friends, that's one thing. If it's a means to a long-term financial goal of some sort, I might question your methods, at the very least. Either way, love should be a driving factor, whether it's love for the medium you choose to work in or love of the original property you're working from. Without that, I suspect, your audience will recognize your work as hollow.

In my old comics column, I would advocate to my readers that if they didn't like the way their favorite corporate-owned comic was going, they should try making their own comics, though I always emphasized creating something new. I never recommended fanfic as an option. If I were to be honest, it probably wouldn't be something I'd suggest now, either, especially since I'm pursuing original fiction on a more regular basis.

A recent animated 20th anniversary Rocketeer short
received lots of attention.
And yet, I don't necessarily think it was wrong for any of the recent Trek fan films to have gotten off the ground. I think they were trying to fill, if not an outright void, then at least a dearth of Trek programming as the result of parent corporations who weren't promoting the franchise as well as they could have, and who were being overtaken in the marketplace by newer IPs that were and are Catching Fire with the younger generation.

As a Trekkie, I was drawn to Axanar and Star Trek Continues and Starship Farragut and even Renegades (until I actually saw that one) because the product being turned out by CBS/Paramount was less satisfying to me, and there was less of it being made. If amateurs could do the job better, my attitude was and is, why not? Yeah, the people behind these fan films could've done something original instead, but that's not what they chose because they're Trekkies too. Besides, if they had - and here we reach a Hard Truth of the marketplace - would their audiences have been as big? Relatively speaking.

Like I said, love needs to be a vital part of the equation when creating fanfic or fan films. Therefore, if someone wants to indulge in it, I try not to judge if it's done for the right reasons, and with the knowledge that they're playing with someone else's toys - which the owners can take away at any time.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The One Year Switch Postgame Show

There was a time when I had wanted to change WSW into a classic film blog. I had been a member of The LAMB for awhile, and I was still getting to know some of the other bloggers, which wasn't easy, given the size of the group even then. (It's much bigger now.) I don't recall the exact point when I began to favor the company of the classic film bloggers, but once I did, I can't deny the influence they had on me. I liked learning about old movies, and I liked the fact that many of them - the ones who are part of CMBA, at least - were and are so close-knit.

The piece on Jean Arthur was one of the
most popular ones of the year.
Switching to all-classics, all the time seemed like an extreme measure, though, since I didn't start off that way, so after some thought, I came up with this compromise instead: to try it for a year and to see how I liked it. I think it's been time well spent. I did my best to immerse myself in the Old Hollywood era (with some concessions to the 70s and 80s), while at the same time, I attempted new ways to write about them, no matter how silly or unconventional, because there's no point in doing this if I can't have some fun every once in awhile.

That said, now that I've reached the end, I gotta say that as illuminating and challenging as this past year has been, I'm glad it's over. In the halftime report, I talked about how dedicated the classic film bloggers are to this era of film history, how devoted they are to it and how deeply it's ingrained into their lives, and that's great. I love the old stuff too; I wouldn't have participated in this experiment if I didn't, and old movies will always have a place here at WSW.

At the same time, I believe it's necessary to compare the past to the present, side by side, to understand both of them better. I say this with all due respect to the friends I've made among the classic film bloggers, who do such a superlative job week in and week out of documenting those golden oldies, but there came a point last year during my experiment where writing about the old stuff felt incomplete.

Analyzing one scene of Double Indemnity
was a great challenge.
Yes, I talked about the new stuff too, in a more abbreviated form, but that wasn't as satisfying. There were times when I wanted to say more about certain new movies - and while I realize there are no rules to this except those I set up for myself, I was trying to emulate, to a certain degree, the bloggers whom I look to as inspirations, almost all of whom don't even write about the new stuff.

Bottom line: I don't feel comfortable sticking to the oldies. Certain bloggers grew up with them all their lives, regardless of age, and simply have a passion for them. Others are as much in love with the Old Hollywood era in general - the fashion, the history, the memorabilia - as the movies themselves. Those conditions don't apply to me. I first became a cinephile through learning about classic film in college, true, and as a video store clerk for over seven years, I explored the studio era much further, but it was the 90s indie film movement that I identify with more, and it helped shape my film tastes to this day. Writing about movies doesn't feel right without the modern ones, the big studio extravaganzas as well as the indies. 

The Cinematic World Tour didn't fly so well, especially
the post for The Young Girls of Rochefort.
So that's why the Switch is temporary. In fact, I'm going to put the oldies on hiatus for the next couple of months, to regain a sense of equilibrium, you could say - with one exception: there's a Barbara Stanwyck blogathon coming up this month, and I certainly can't stay away from that!

I think the Switch went well overall. Naturally, there are things I regret not doing. I think I spent a little too much time on mainstream American studio movies. I had wanted to dive into some fringe material, real left-of-center, psychotronic cult stuff, though I kinda came close during my classic horror month in October. Also, I would've liked to have done a little more with Westerns and musicals. So now I know what to aim for this year.

Some of my more experimental posts worked and some didn't. The profiles weren't that different from the regular posts, but they're the ones I'm most proud of now. I'm glad I met my goal of 24, though there were times when I came close to missing that mark. I knew from the start that I didn't want to write only about movies; I wanted to write about the people who made them as well, so this was an integral part of my plan from day one. I tried to be as diverse as possible with regard to race, gender, occupation and level of popularity.

I had to initially post the Spartacus piece without images
when my computer needed repair.
I'm still amazed at the turnout for the CinemaScope Blogathon. One last time, I gotta say thanks to everyone who participated, and to ClassicBecky for being my partner. This year's blogathon will happen later in the year, because the person who I'm hoping to partner up with has travel plans and plans for other blogathons.

As for why there was no December banner, well, when I got my computer repaired, I also got a software upgrade, and while my Photoshop program is still on my laptop and is unchanged, I don't quite know how to open it. See, I originally got it from my old roommate and he walked me through it, but now... well, it's hard to explain.

So that's the end of The One Year Switch. Hope you found it somewhat entertaining. This year, as I've already mentioned, is the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, and once each month I'll talk about its influence beyond the shows and movies, in other movies and in other media as well. September will be "30 Days of Trek," in which I'll talk about the people, characters and episodes that made Trek great. This month, we've got the Stany blogathon coming up, plus the Oscar nominations as well, so stick around. Lotta good stuff on the horizon.