Vaster, pussycat

A favorite saying among many of the folks I know is that “the web is vast.” Whenever we find a discursive answer to an obscure question in two seconds flat, or a dimly remembered ad jingle from childhood, or a mint-in-box Steve Austin with bionic eye, we say it: “The web is vast.” Yet sometimes it’s not vast enough, in surprising ways.

Take, for instance, my post of 22 August, in which I described remembering different lyrics to a Gilbert and Sullivan tune than the ones I found in the libretto online:

A perfectly sensible alternate lyric, but apparently manufactured out of thin air by my brain, as near as I can tell (viz., via Google search). I understand how misheard lyrics can become engraved in one’s memory, but this is a different kind of error altogether. How on earth could I have made it?

Since writing that, I recollected another difference between the version I remember from twenty-odd years ago, and the version I’ve watched, read, and listened to lately with my kids. In the song, “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General,” General Stanley “now” sings,

In fact when I know what is meant by mamelon and ravelin
When I can tell at sight a Mauser rifle from a javelin

…but I remember “chassepot rifle” instead of “Mauser rifle.” Twenty-odd years ago, “chassepot” sent me to the dictionary. To date it’s the one and only context in which I’ve seen that word. Having just now confirmed its existence and its meaning, I am certain I cannot be confusing my memory of that word with any other possible source. Furthermore, I’ve found other online mentions of “chassepot” in Pirates of Penzance. And yet there’s no trace of it in the written or recorded versions I’ve been enjoying lately.

Which leads me to the disturbing conclusion that there is an alternate version of the libretto of which the Internet has almost no record whatever — a version I must have seen in my high school or college library and have now all but forgotten, save for these tiny differences. If I were to track down that version now I’m sure I would find my “no hint at all reveal” lyric in it. But the point is I can’t track it down online.

A cautionary tale for armchair researchers everywhere.

The Star Wars remake project, part 1

In high school in the early 1980’s, I once got into a debate with a teacher as to which was the better movie, Star Wars or 2001: A Space Odyssey. I of course was a total Star Wars fanboy, deaf to the teacher’s arguments in favor of 2001. I believe the gist of my own argument was, “Star Wars is the top-grossing movie of all time and 2001 is incomprehensible; you’re obviously wrong (you hippie).”

Now that I’m a recovering Star Wars nerd — and have also long since developed the sophistication to comprehend 2001 — I can easily see how 2001 is in many ways the better film, although in some important ways the two aren’t really comparable.

Despite George Lucas’s later claims to the contrary — to wit, that he was designing a mythic archetypal saga — Star Wars was meant first and last to be popcorny escapism. Of course it succeeded wildly, not least of all because of the pop-culture doldrums of the mid-1970’s, and changed the whole movie business, to the extent that rich storytelling and character development became scarce for a long while, sacrificed to spectacle and bombast. It took years for significant amounts of grownup content to return to movie (and TV) screens.

All of which has been said before, but perhaps this is new: the idea to remake Star Wars as a good movie by today’s standards. That means crackling dialogue, emotional beats, character arcs, and even topical relevance.

Topical relevance? You bet. The story of Star Wars is the story of a once-enlightened republic gone corrupt, then brought to its knees by a small, ill-equipped band of guerrilla fighters. Any resemblance to the United States vs. Iraq, Israel vs. Hezbollah, etc. may originally have been incidental but now screams “allegory.” That the heroes of the story are the allegorical equivalent of terrorists (so-called by the superpower; in story and in life they call themselves freedom fighters) will give the remake a slightly subversive agenda. That’s a bonus. Our job will be to make this allegory clear without allowing it to overpower the story.

I say “our job” because I am inviting public participation via the comment feature of this blog. In this installment I am laying out what I consider to be the requirements of the remake. In part 2 I will describe some of the problems with the existing Star Wars that I hope to address in the remake, such as an over-reliance on coincidence and Luke’s passivity. Part 3 will present the backstory. Part 4 will propose character arcs. Part 5 will introduce a story outline, and later parts will develop key scenes. Each post will incorporate any feedback I get from the earlier ones. Maybe one day we’ll actually film the thing. More likely this effort will be squashed like a bug under the legal thumb of Lucasarts. Even more likely is that I’ll lose interest, but we’ll see. Well begun is half done.

Now for the record, let’s take a look at the core of the original movie — those elements we need to keep in order to qualify as a remake and not a ripoff:

A beautiful princess, nominally a functionary of the corrupt government but secretly a rebel spy, obtains some key intelligence. Expecting capture, she entrusts it to an unlikely emissary who is able to escape unsuspected. The emissary is instructed to seek a former military ally but is intercepted by a bored farmboy with dreams of adventure. When he learns a beautiful princess is in peril his desire to leave his dreary home intensifies, but not until (a) he hooks up with the military man and (b) the government destroys his home in a search for the emissary is he moved to act. They seek to convey the emissary (and his intelligence) to officials of the rebellion, but are waylaid into an opportunity to rescue the princess, which they do after many adventures. Finally the intelligence is delivered to the rebellion, which uses it to score an important military victory.

With some modifications, I think this is a fine framework to start from, and Luke is still a good choice for a main character, though we can make him better.

Notice that everyone’s favorite character, Han Solo, is missing. He is not integral to the plot when formulated this way. (Ben Kenobi could have had his own spaceship and not needed to hire a pilot.) I do still expect to need the character — I’ll explain why in a future post — and integrating him into the story better than before is one of the problems with the existing Star Wars that I’ll discuss in the next installment.

Kiss this guy

My kids’ current obsession-to-the-exclusion-of-all-else is The Pirates of Penzance, specifically the Kevin Kline/Linda Ronstadt version of 1983.

As a parent, this is about as unobjectionable as it comes. It’s not Barney, it’s not Teletubbies, it’s not Power Rangers, and heaven knows I’d had enough of dinosaurs and Thomas the Tank Engine. I had regretted indulging their interest in pirates some weeks ago by showing them Pirates of the Caribbean, whose violence is a little much for preschoolers. The Pirates of Penzance has proven to be the perfect tonic for that slight parenting misjudgment. And few things are cuter than a two-year-old and a four-year-old tromping around the house with plastic cutlasses bellowing tunefully, “I am a pirate king!”

I was a pretty big fan of this film myself around the time it came out (to the chagrin of my friend Andrew, an avid Gilbert and Sullivan aficionado [and my mentor in G+S appreciation] who was a D’Oyly Carte purist offended by Joe Papp’s popularizing alterations). So it was with eagerness that I awaited the arrival of my tape of the movie from Amazon.

Upon watching the film, I discovered that my memory of a part of the music turned out to be strangely deficient. One famous song begins,

With cat-like tread
Upon our prey we steal
In silence dread
Our cautious way we feel

But here’s how I remembered it:

With cat-like tread
Upon our prey we steal
In silence dread
No hint at all reveal

A perfectly sensible alternate lyric, but apparently manufactured out of thin air by my brain, as near as I can tell (viz., via Google search). I understand how misheard lyrics can become engraved in one’s memory, but this is a different kind of error altogether. How on earth could I have made it?

The end of Superman

Everyone rolls their eyes at the end of Superman The Movie (1978), but I don’t think many people see past the ridiculous implausibility of spinning the earth backwards. The problems with Superman go far beyond that artless device.

As you probably know, at the end of Superman, Superman is so overwhelmed with grief at the death of Lois Lane that he is moved to fly around and around the earth at impossible speeds, causing the earth to reverse the direction of its rotation and thereby reversing the flow of time. All of the damage wrought in California by Lex Luthor’s nuclear missile is undone and Lois Lane is resurrected. When Superman is satisfied, he does a 180 and flies around and around the earth in the other direction, reversing its rotation once more so that time can flow forward.

Now, the obvious criticisms go like this: Superman clearly exceeds the speed of light, which is impossible; something the size of a man, even exceeding the speed of light, couldn’t appreciably alter the earth’s motion simply by swooping around and around it for several seconds; and altering the speed or direction of the earth’s rotation, far from affecting the flow of time, would wreak tremendous havoc as oceans slosh out of their basins, etc.

The whole sequence is so laughably ludicrous that it’s understandable if most people look no further for flaws.

But we’re talking about a man who can fly, see through solid objects, and lift the continental shelf over his head. Those things are impossible. It’s hardly sporting to suspend disbelief for those things and not for the others. So let’s grant Superman the ability to reverse time by flying around the earth. There are still big problems with the events in the latter part of the movie.

  • When Lex Luthor explains his plan to Superman, he says one nuclear missile is targeted for New Jersey and one for California. “Even you, with your great speed, could not stop both of them.” And it turns out Luthor’s right — Superman fails to stop one from hitting California because he’s busy chasing the other one. But just a few minutes later he can circumnavigate the entire globe multiple times in less than a second, so why didn’t he pour it on earlier? He knew the stakes. Was he slacking?
  • In choosing to reverse time, Superman expressly contravenes Jor-El’s stern admonition: “It is forbidden for you to interfere in human history.” In storytelling terms, making the choice to disobey this clear edict needs to have dire consequences, both for Superman (because it’s his father he’s disobeying) and for humanity (because its history is being interfered with). But there aren’t any repercussions at all. Quite the opposite. So why does Jor-El intone his warning so gravely? Why mustn’t Superman interfere with human history? Is Jor-El all wet?
  • When time is flowing in reverse, the many calamities caused by Lex Luthor’s missile rewind: the bursting dam unbursts; the San Andreas fault heals itself; etc. All the rescues that Superman performed must also rewind — the school bus dangling over the edge of the Golden Gate bridge, the train about to derail, etc. But in order for those to rewind, Superman has to be present — and he’s not! He’s busy swooping around the world.
  • After reversing time and then restoring time, what prevents the exact same calamitous events from unfolding once more?
  • At the very end, Superman deposits Lex Luthor and Otis within the walls of a penitentiary. On what legal grounds can they be held? By reversing time, Superman undid the crime we witnessed. No one but Superman has any memory of what happened.
  • Having discovered the efficacy of reversing time, Superman is morally obliged to reuse the technique whenever he fails to prevent a disaster, such as when the Kryptonian outlaws devastate Metropolis in Superman II. But he doesn’t.

I could never have put these observations into words when I was 12 and first saw Superman, but I was vaguely aware of these problems all the same. That awareness chafed. I understand how bad scripts get written. The thing I don’t get is how I overlooked these flaws so readily, because at age 12 I was a huge fan of the film.

From Russia With Love^H^H^H^HLike

Speaking of James Bond, I found “The British Censorship of From Russia With Love” extremely interesting. It’s about the cuts made to the racier parts of that film, and for its time it was apparently quite racy indeed. Here’s my favorite:

The use of “Was I” in “Was I as exciting as all those Western girls?” has been changed to “Am I?” The past tense implies that the couple have had sex, while the present tense implies that Bond just finds her attractive.

And while we’re on the subject of From Russia With Love, I might as well mention my theory that the role of Blofeld in that movie was played by Sean Connery. His face is never seen and he’s listed as “?” in the credits. His voice has a thick, phony accent. When the film came out in 1963 it might not have been possible to ID that voice, but from a modern perspective it does sound rather like someone doing an exaggerated aging-Sean-Connery impression. And I think the duality of playing both the hero and the villain would have been irresistible to both Connery and to the producers. Why else hide Blofeld’s face? Why else conceal the actor’s identity in the credits? I would not be surprised if this very theory had currency among Bond fans at the time of the film’s release, but of course there are no Internet archives from that era for me to google.

I stated this theory on Usenet in the 80’s sometime and it was debunked; and the IMDb has Eric Pohlmann listed as the voice of Blofeld. But I like my theory much better. Listen closely the next time you see the movie and tell me I’m not onto something.

Iconoclasm

Ken Jennings’ blog topic for today is iconoclasm, which put me in mind of an essay I had on my old website about James Bond, now resurrected for your reading pleasure.


I’m a James Bond fan who hates nearly all the James Bond movies.No, I don’t mean to say that I’m a fan of Ian Fleming’s written adventures instead; I’ve only ever read one (Goldfinger, and it was just OK). I mean that the promise of the first two movies — Dr. No and especially From Russia With Love — was squandered in every movie thereafter.In the beginning, the James Bond series was for grownups; now it’s for kids. Sure, there always were exciting action sequences and nifty gadgets, but they were by no means the focus of the movies. The focus was James Bond’s worldly bachelor, gentleman-adventurer lifestyle. A story, possibly apocryphal, is told of casting the role of James Bond for Dr. No. Sean Connery auditioned for the producers, Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli, giving an adequate but unremarkable reading. A few minutes later, one of the producers glanced out the window to see Sean Connery walking away down the street “striding like a panther,” and that’s when they knew they had their man. This story underscores that the original emphasis in the movie series was simply on Bond’s manliness, aspired to by millions of the burgeoning Playboy generation.

In From Russia With Love (which had a plausible and somewhat sophisticated story that actually centered on authentic-seeming espionage, the only one of its kind in the whole series), the familiar James Bond musical theme swells as Bond simply arrives at the airport in Istanbul looking for his contact, then again as he checks into his hotel. That’s because those are the minutiae of the lifestyle, which is what audiences came to see. In modern James Bond movies, that music is reserved for the dozens of credibility-defying stunts that the screenwriter has contrived, performed with vanilla action-hero aplomb by a generic Bond who isn’t really a character at all, and certainly has nothing that can be called a lifestyle.

By the time of Goldfinger, the third movie, the series had begun to descend into self-parody. The easily identifiable components of the first two movies — girls, martinis, guns, explosions, gadgets, saying “Bond, James Bond” — became ingredients in a formula that lacked the one truly essential element: savoir faire.