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October 23, 2012 / tietze

Review: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Burt Shevelove, Larry Gelbart and Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum has been revived for what promises to be a successful Melbourne season at Her Majesty’s Theatre. In the throes of a brief preview season, it is already exuding the confidence required of mounting a fifty-year-old self-referential farce. Geoffrey Rush, here exploring the era’s Broadway flavour a near decade after tackling its British comedy totem in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, headlines as Pseudolus, narrator and participant in this stage classic. But there is a roughness around the edges that does not always go out of its way to suit the tone, and the (notably male) authors’ attempts at drawing on archetypes may not find favour in the midst of a media landscape railing against accusations of misogyny at the highest levels.

Shevelove and Gelbart’s Book is decidedly of two halves: a fairly expository comedy of manners, in which the Imperial Roman setting and conventional woo-her-to-win-her plot are established, followed by a rapid farce that threatens to tackle existing narrative complications with still more narrative complications. The second act, shorter and punchier, is the clear winner, and the first would have benefited from its virtues, particularly as such farcical elements as a preposterously heaped-up cliffhanger were already creeping in ahead of intermission. Happily, all the elements of farce pay off very well, and set-ups are carefully prepared for later use.

More interesting is the tone of the piece. While advertising itself in the opening number as “Something familiar/Something peculiar/Something for everyone/A comedy tonight!”, Funny Thing sets out to parody classical comedies by using its narrator, Pseudolus (Rush), as a knowing link between players and audience. These characters are familiar with the conventions they play out, and they want us to know it.

This presumably is why all the characters function as archetypes, if not stereotypes. While this decision is suited to the nature of the play, it does not benefit characterisation, nor does it particularly favour the female roles. At least Pseudolus and Hysterium – the other principal slave character – are imbued with substance and complexity. But the women are vapid Helens, objectified Venuses (cue ‘The House of Marcus Lycus’, a number introducing the employees of that house of ill repute, along with their carnal virtues) or voluptuous matrons. Not that the actresses – Magda Szubanski (as Domina), Christie Whelan (Philia) and five others who go uncredited on the production’s official site – live down to their parts. Indeed, they arguably out-perform the men. All but two are required to be stunningly gorgeous, all must act, all must sing, all must dance and one must even contort. Never has so little of grace or substance been given on the page that was so transformed into a shade of magnificence on the stage.

Szubanski probably fares best – and the audience’s response to her all-too-limited appearances supports this view – by taking a part that could have been written for Joan Sims and imbuing it with persistent dignity. Hers is an excellent performance as the ghastly matriarch Domina, working with little to occasionally steal the show. Shane Bourne fares well also, despite playing a stock middle-aged lecher in the form of Domina’s cowering husband Senex, because this is territory in which he can clearly mine an extensive repertoire of lads’ gags, pulled faces and knowing winks.

Miles Gloriosus, a centurion as extravagant as his surname, is played by Adam Murphy like a young, fit version of Brian Blessed (complete with booming voice), and convinces in another one-dimensional role, that of the ultimate narcissist. Murphy plays it sincerely, if comically, and the character type itself will always be a magnet for laughs. Young lover Hero is a wet fish, but Hugh Sheridan handles the part with enough dignity that the audience feels for his emotional plight. That he falls for a complete bimbo, Philia, doesn’t appear to trouble anyone, and indeed Christie Whelan’s performance quickly rises beyond Philia’s ditziness to imbue the character with a degree of sympathy.

Kudos to Gerry Connolly for his turn as brothel keeper Marcus Lycus: given little to work with, he has taken to impersonating Charles Laughton, but the impression is often so slight that something of an original foil to Pseudolus is miraculously constructed.

Though Rush gives a standout performance that fully exploits the extensive material afforded the part and which demonstrates a subtle but clear awareness of Frankie Howerd’s costumed stand-up act on Up Pompeii – a more suitable choice for his brand of physical and verbal comedy than Zero Mostel of Harold S Prince’s original Broadway production and Richard’s Lester’s 1966 film – the real accolades ought to go to Mitchell Butel as Hysterium. Reminiscent of Alan Cumming in his turn, Butel works with what is probably the most complex part in the play – he goes from antagonist to ally to apologist to effete drag act – and absolutely shines.

Production and costume design are equally terrific, both the work of the immensely talented Gabriela Tylesova. The set consists of three houses, constructed along expressionist lines and decorated to resemble Gerald Scarfe cartoons, capturing the knowing flavour of the text. Costumes are sufficiently authentic while suited to the needs of the production. The various ladies of the night – Tintinabula, Vibrata, Panacea and the Geminae – looked appropriately sexy, so much so that eagle eyes were needed from the Dress Circle to determine that they were all clad in body stockings and not thoroughly indecent. Centurion outfits were especially good, even though it’s unlikely any of them would in reality have been quite as navy blue as that of Gloriosus.

Director Simon Phillips’ staging is effective, and well matched with the design and lighting. ‘The House of Marcus Lycus’, for instance, ends with Lycus surrounded by his ladies in the shape of a love heart, a pinkish hue cast over the stage while he shines at the heart of this heart beneath a white spot. Elsewhere, blocking is lively, and the proscenium arch design of the stage is not enough to inhibit the cast from making clever use of footlights and even the aisles.

What few gaffes surfaced were dealt with very amusingly, though it’s concerning to see so much corpsing, especially from Bourne and Szubanski, at a preview performance. Magda’s recovery after a Spoonerism by staying in character, referring to a plot point as a saving grace and then taunting the audience for applauding was inspired. Later, Bourne recovered a fallen prop backstage and returned in the midst of a crucial bit of blocking, shielding his face in the hope of playing along, but the incident failed to score a laugh because almost nobody had seen him come or go. With a self-referential tone, the fluffs did not feel out of place, especially as the text was given a few brief updates to include local references. However, the elephant trampling reference should perhaps, given recent events, have been cut in the name of good taste.

As a modern staging of a politically archaic comedy, A Funny Thing succeeds. While it is arch, this is an asset. Where it stumbles is in painting its characters too thinly – especially the largely objectified women – and in wading for too long through some insipid musical numbers in the (over)long first act. Performances range from very good to excellent, and the production itself is very well handled. Several of the songs are memorable: the reprise of ‘Comedy Tonight’ had people humming in the foyer. This is an assured production despite the weaknesses of the text, and a little polish should see the discreet corpsing disappear. Overall, it represents a fun night (or matinee afternoon) out.

Should you catch a performance of the current season of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, I would be interested to hear your thoughts. Have the funnier fluffs been retained? Were new ones handled wittily? Has the level of polish increased with the benefit of subsequent performances? Please leave your feedback below.

October 7, 2012 / tietze

Travels/Travails

International Flight
I wake up and I sense immediately where I am. There’s no real disorientation, despite the fact that I’m all but upright, packaged tight like last night’s dinner.

(‘Last night’? What’s that again?)

The in-flight entertainment package interface – in plain English, TV screen the minuteness of which hasn’t been seen in a conventional living room this side of the 1950s – glows, burns into my eyes. When did that come on? I probably leaned on the control again.

But I’m here, and I know where ‘here’ is. Instantly. I know because the circumstances that surround me are like nothing I’ve ever known before.

I’m still on the plane.

Where are my legs? I can feel them, there’s no doubt of that, but they can’t possibly be where they seem to be; there’s just not enough room.

(People are taller these days? Pah! Let’s keep pretending you can all pile comfortably into a Cessna.)

Then I remember. I’m right at the front. Not of the plane, you understand. Would I be this uncomfortable were that the case? I’m in economy, but at the front of economy. Not that being in the front row guarantees a hell of a lot. You’re supposed to get marginally more leg room if you cheat it, and I suppose you do. If you duck your feet under the curtain keeping you from the privacy of the cabin crew. If you’re prepared to hope desperately not to kick the flight attendants as you go.

Still feels awful, though. Still feels as though your knees have lost all flexibility – or never had any to begin with – and are cemented at a fixed angle.

The mathematician in me wants to transform the scenario into a triangle, calculate the relevant dimensions. My shins become the hypotenuse.

Except the numbers won’t add up. That hypotenuse, at that angle. Whoever sussed to trigonometric ratios in those ancient days would hate me about now. Where’s the necessary floor space to make the sums work?

In business class, I strongly suspect.

But that light – it’s worse. The ambient light has been dropped to almost nothing. My overhead lamp went off before I even made this pathetic attempt to fall asleep.

No, it’s the screen. Seven diagonal inches of electronic evil. This source of torture, like the tactics of an in-flight inquisition. The one whose remote control has been stupidly designed to sit, buttons facing upwards, in the arm rest.

I dim it, but as I drift again towards this cruel approximation of slumber that keeps me demanding a parachute and a conveniently depressurised door regardless of which ocean I’m thirty thousand feet above, my forearm comes to rest the only place it can.

And I discover experimentally the inverse proportion between my level of consciousness and the screen’s brightness.

This is not an intellectual pursuit my mathematical mind sought.

*****

The Night of the Party
Finding solace in the queasiness of a well-lubricated all-nighter isn’t an easy thing to do. I strove instead for the measured calm of a taxi, empty but for myself and its driver. Despite his erratic driving and even more erratic grasp of English, the latter of which he was bent on confirming with every exhalation, this plan of mine worked, in its own peculiar way.

The wheels spun along the asphalt in a precise counterpoint to my head, and the hazy white noise making its way at the lowest possible volume out of the car’s speakers was, if nothing else, more constant that the doof-doof that seemed to drown out all chance of conversation at the party.

Makes me wonder why I stayed so long, actually. I tend to prefer a decent chat to the spasmodic gyrations of a forgotten generation of soporific, drug-addled types scrambling desperately to collectively recapture their youth.

We’re all getting old; I’m just man enough to admit it.

The one exchange that crawled along the carapace of my memory was indicative of the depths of intellectual sophistication to which most patrons of the event had willingly succumbed.

‘Is that marijuana?’ an inquiring mind had posited.

I had proceeded to extract the flaming wand of papered dried leaves from the caress of my drying lips and humour the man by scrutinising it intently. ‘No,’ I’d offered by way of a rejoinder, ‘it’s menthol.’

The driver rounded a bend with such vigour that it lurched my conscious mind back to the present, and a reminder of the queasiness that too much alcohol digesting in the company of careless motorised conveyance can invite. ‘Just about here?’ he enquired of me, showering the cab’s dashboard with saliva as he struggled to enunciate the haitch.

I studied the manic view out the window. ‘Yes, thankyou,’ I just about breathed.

Money changed hands and I was as near to home as my stomach bid me go in that taxi. The walk would do me good, surely, the crisp night air shrill enough to deprive me of the insistent bass line that still threatened to steal my sanity.

Next time, I quietly considered, just go down the pub.

September 23, 2012 / tietze

Blogging with a Broken Modem

September 9, 2012 / tietze

There’s Nothing Wrong With This Picture (Part 2)

The concluding part of a critical annotation of Patrick Goldstein’s July 22nd 2012 LA Times piece “The Big Picture: A message too ‘Dark’ for all?”

Our own domestic debate mirrored a larger one in the culture. [Check as one might, one is unlikely to find vigourous and extensive national or even international debate on the violent influence of billboards – at least not beyond Goldstein’s article.] It’s one thing to see images of violence and brutality in our movies [Where they are properly contextualised within the framework of a narrative, and shielded from younger viewers by rigourous film classification codes]; it’s another thing to be subjected to them through a massive onslaught of ubiquitous movie advertising. [Agreed; however, no images of actual violence or brutality are depicted in the billboard to which Goldstein refers, nor in any other graphic artwork for the film. The Dark Knight Rises is part of a mainstream comic book franchise and its makers are therefore targeting it at an adolescent audience. Any advertising material produced would adhere rigidly to the codes of practice relevant to advertising to such an audience, lest Warner Bros and DC Comics succumb to the ire of various authorities for breaching those codes of practice – and possibly a few laws. Legally, there is nothing irresponsible about the material that has been created, and it is difficult to find anything modern American society would find reprehensible about a photograph of a superhero and some police officers facing down an unruly mob of criminals led by a masked thug – provided the good guys inevitably win, which they always do in such films. Even less problematical, given the United States Constitution’s second amendment, should be the depiction of several (unconcealed) automatic firearms in the hands of any of those characters.] That’s what troubles me the most about the Aurora killings: the possibility that the accused killer’s violent fantasies had somehow been inflamed not by the movie but by the unsettling advertising images surrounding it. [Given the abject lack of anything even approaching circumstantial evidence to support such a frankly preposterous view – that a picture of a superhero and supervillain leading opposing forces into gunplay on the streets of what already appears to be a war zone might influence a lone gunman into shooting up a cinema full of patrons – it is a pity Goldstein has not elected to keep what is troubling him to himself.]

After all, if the gunman was looking for a mass of people, he could just as easily have gone to a crowded baseball game or a pop concert. [Dressed as a character from a Batman film and carrying unconcealed automatic weapons?] Instead, he was drawn to a screening of Dark Knight Rises. [Anticipated as the most popular cinema release of the year, part of a genre that encourages midnight screenings and costume play. Additionally, cinema auditoriums are not especially known for being crowded with security officers, whereas (American) sport and concert venues are. They are also darkened spaces, and it would have been reasonable to expect this one to be made little lighter by the projection of the sequel to a pair of darkly photographed films. Why not a pop concert or a baseball game? Because Holmes would have been caught within minutes of entering the place, assuming he’d been allowed to enter at all.] Like John Wilkes Booth before him, who shot Abraham Lincoln during a performance of a popular play of the day, the theater offered him a stage. [Under the circumstances, this is something of a tasteless pun, and it continues to deviate from Goldstein’s indictment of advertising billboards.] He was also drawn to a film that portrays the world threatened by lawless marauders. [In which those marauders are overcome on every occasion by the complex but victorious forces of law and order. Not that Holmes would have known, since – as Goldstein himself has already observed at the outset – he could not have seen the film prior to the commission of his crime.]

Right now, nothing burns as bright as Dark Knight. [Particularly when journalists endeavour to squeeze every last column inch out of its association with a horrible crime.] But it is two things at once: a giant fireball of mass marketing as well as a disturbing, dystopian vision of our culture. That makes it a powerful magnet, both for passionate fans and sometimes, for crazed nutcases. [The former aspect certainly does, for reasons that should have been obvious even to Goldstein: Holmes chose a target he knew would be full of people. The film’s anticipated popularity ensured this much at least. However, to suggest its dark view of “our culture” (an odd description, given the film clearly functions in a parallel version of America) is responsible for such an act to be committed at its premiere ignores the fact that no popular “dystopian” film has attracted such an event prior to this one. And there have been a few, not least the first two instalments in the Dark Knight trilogy.] As Slate’s Dana Stevens wrote: “I’m not suggesting that the young men of America are being brainwashed by Christopher Nolan into going on Bane-style killing sprees… But James Holmes didn’t burst into a screening of Happy Feet Two.” [Happy Feet 2 wouldn’t have drawn the same kind of audience. Holmes, an adult in a military-style disguise, would have been unbelievably conspicuous at a Happy Feet 2 screening. Most importantly, Happy Feet 2 premiered in November 2011; the massacre occurred in July 2012. A piece of advice to Dana Stevens: if you wish to make a glib remark, at least make one that can’t be demolished by three seconds of online research. And one for Patrick Goldstein: don’t quote hollow claims if you wish to be taken seriously – particularly those that are making a point discrete from your own.]

It was telling that within 24 hours of the tragedy, everyone was viewing the events through the prism of their own beliefs. [In what way is this unique to these particular events? Everyone views everything “through the prism of their own beliefs” – it is impossible to completely avoid such contamination. It is perhaps more pertinent to Goldstein’s point, assuming he here has one, to ask what this was “telling” of. Perhaps the professional requirement of a journalist to explore a story from all sides; if nothing else, this paragraph functions as (barely adequate) tokenism towards such an end.] From the left, filmmaker Michael Moore was saying that the killings would cause historians to “conclude that we were a violent nation,” while on the right, Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert was wondering: “With all those people in the theater, was there nobody that was carrying a gun that could have stopped this guy?” [Moore’s opinion is all too aware of the prism through which history is viewed, that it is dependent upon a surviving documentary record, and he appropriately assumes the blanket coverage of this and similar events will lead to the plausible conclusion he gives. Gohmert’s remark is ludicrous even by Fox News Channel standards and probably functions to create a point of comparison by which Goldstein’s attack on poster art begins to look rational.]

This, of course, has happened before. [What has? A cinema massacre? Coverage of a large-scale crime leading spectators to interpret it through their pre-existing world views? A journalist blaming a violent crime on movie posters? The question is asked in all sincerity as Goldstein never elaborates.] In 1981, Taxi Driver became embroiled in controversy when John Hinckley Jr. tried to assassinate then-President Ronald Reagan after becoming obsessed with the film, whose character Travis Bickle attempts to kill a presidential candidate. [Actually, he became obsessed with Jodie Foster after seeing her in it, and committed the crime to attract her attention. Which Goldstein might have concluded for himself had he read the sub-heading “Obsession with Jodie Foster” immediately above the sentence he has cribbed from Wikipedia and paraphrased. Or, for that matter, any of the text following that opening sentence, in which it is reaffirmed that Hinckley’s obsession was with Foster herself, and that his initial thoughts were of aircraft hijacking and attempted suicide before he latched on to the idea of an assassination attempt. Also significant to the argument that life imitates art is the knowledge that Bickle was partly inspired by Arthur Bremer, who committed a similar crime in real life.] In Hinckley’s case, he was affected by the movie. [In ways far more complex than Goldstein is prepared to concede. He was also affected by the media’s depiction of Lee Harvey Oswald, whom he saw as a role model, so should reportage of factual events also be blamed for the commission of crimes?] With the Colorado gunman, the inspiration may well have come from the powerful gravitational pull of a mammoth Hollywood Big Event. [More likely it came from the knowledge that such an event would draw a sizeable audience in a suitable setting.]

In almost any big city today, it’s nearly impossible to avoid being exposed to the wall-to-wall advertising for a global behemoth such as Dark Knight. [When a film costs in the region of $250 million to produce, it is little wonder that its producers will wish to market it to the fullest.] The result is almost Orwellian — nearly everywhere you look, your gaze meets the stern glare of Batman and his nemesis, their eyes full of menace. [The poster art Goldstein so comprehensively fixates on must be truly all-pervasive where he lives. A Google search of images following the search string “dark knight rises billboard” brings up close to 1.5 million hits, but comparatively few of the top several hundred are of Goldstein’s pick. What they do demonstrate is the broad variety of poster designs created to promote the film; could it genuinely be that these others have all been relegated to the status of also-ran in favour of the street stand-off billboard? Then again, perhaps the billboard in question is one that has escaped the pervasive gaze of the internet, since Goldstein’s description, “their eyes full of menace”, can hardly be applied to a long shot of a Batman whose eyes are obscured by his mask and a Bane whose one visible eye appears to be full of pride for the army he has amassed.] On TV, the film’s ads are chock full of thunderous collisions and mass brawls. [Yes, but is there any imitable gunplay in them? The TV coverage of 9/11 was “full of thunderous collisions”, but the only person it successfully inspired to take up arms was President Bush. And the film’s TV spots are not its billboards; Goldstein should choose a scapegoat and stick to it.]

Talk about life imitating art. [Goldstein has, repeatedly, but rarely with any impunity.] Days before the film’s release, the movie review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes had to suspend user comments on reviews of Dark Knight after readers made derogatory and threatening remarks about the critics who wrote them. [This is called trolling. Happens all the time in online forums, especially (but not exclusively) where genre movie fans congregate. It is so old and unremarkable a phenomenon that it has been parodied in cinema at least as early as Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001).] Incensed fans heaped abuse on one critic, Marshal Fine, saying he should “die in a fire”. [Which might be even remotely relevant had Holmes immolated his victims. That he shot them suggests that life is here definitely not imitating art, nor is it imitating the incendiary opinions of internet users.] Rotten Tomatoes’ editor said it was the first time the site had suspended user comments, explaining that “it just got to be too much hate”. [Must be the movie, then. Couldn’t be, maybe, coincidence? Or the fact of The Dark Knight Rises representing a highly anticipated cinema event likely to inspire the views of countless energised movie and comic book fans alike?]

It isn’t Nolan’s fault that he made a film that inspires such a fire-breathing response. [True. It is the fault of (often immature) people who feel secure behind a veil of online anonymity and press “send” before calming down and thinking things through.] Powerful art often provokes an equally potent reaction. [Really? Then will Goldstein please be so good as to direct us to any aggressive trolling or flame wars forming part of online discussions of, for instance, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas?] But while Nolan has full control over the images in the story he tells, it is less clear, in an era of carpet bombing-style marketing, whether anyone has any real control over how those images are digested by unhinged people out in the world. [If this is the case, what actual controls does Goldstein recommend? Any at all? Or is this entire story nothing more than a couple of thousand words of empty rhetoric?]

I’ve always believed that artists should have the right to explore whatever territory they want, no matter how dark or discordant. But the public has rights too. [One of them, in the United States at any rate, is to a free press. Which makes the promotional art about which Goldstein complains as comprehensively protected as the ill-researched excuse for journalism that his article sadly is.] We’ve always heard that if you don’t like what you see on your TV, you can turn it off. But today’s gargantuan Hollywood marketing campaigns are so all-pervasive that we can’t close our eyes and blink away the images.

It’s time studio marketers exercised self-restraint, especially with a film that packs as visceral a punch as Dark Knight. [They do. Again, there are certain specific codes of practice to which they must – and do – adhere.] It may be easier than ever to reach every eyeball in the country, but advertising images, like the powers of a superhero, can end up being used for good or evil. [Or for advertising.] Maybe in the wake of the Aurora tragedy, when it comes to promoting a movie, it’s time to think long and hard about what kind of message is being sent. [I suspect Goldstein will be a lone wolf crying in an empty night on this matter.]

*****

Goldstein’s article is not alone in carrying a torch for the airing of opinions in the guise of a sane rallying cry for appropriate action, but in his focus on conventional billboard art that is a world away from anything remotely incendiary it is certainly one of the clearest cut in its tasteless and insensitive inappropriateness. Oh, for rational, informed debate that sets aside coincidence, tangential links and gut reactions in favour of research, research, research.

But then that requires effort.

September 2, 2012 / tietze

There’s Nothing Wrong With This Picture (Part 1)

At the risk of enduring howls of “Too soon!” or “How could you?”, I’m not sure Patrick Goldstein’s July 22nd 2012 LA Times piece “The Big Picture: A message too ‘Dark’ for all?” can afford to pass without comment. Riding on the back of the Aurora, Colorado cinema massacre and the subsequent (temporary) pulling of the trailer for Gangster Squad, Goldstein’s piece appears to be the product of a journalist firmly of the belief that reopening the age-old debate on violent cinema’s alleged contribution to societal violence is only the first step in a demonising direction that has long been the preserve of the British red tops. For some reason he has opted to play a hand all too familiar after countless violent tragedies on British shores: that of making spurious and frankly nonsensical attacks on an over-liberalised entertainment industry. The trouble is, whereas Michael Robert Ryan’s 1987 killing spree in Hungerford could be (and was) blamed on such films as the Rambo series, Aurora suspect James Holmes patently hadn’t seen the film that may or may not have influenced him as he was too busy actually perpetrating his crime as it played.

Goldstein’s solution? Blame the poster instead.

Following is a critical annotation of Goldstein’s article. It is here reproduced solely for the purposes of scholarly analysis, and no copyright infringement is intended. Annotations are presented in [bracketed boldface].

*****

Just hours before 12 people died and dozens were wounded in the Dark Knight Rises movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colo., I was at a screening of Gangster Squad, an upcoming Warner Bros. film about a war between 1949-era L.A. cops and the gangster Mickey Cohen. One of the bloodiest scenes in the film featured a scrum of gangsters nonchalantly shooting up a movie theater, causing a panic as they killed scores of innocent filmgoers. [Had Goldstein followed the story elements revealed in the trailer, he would know that these “gangsters” were actually a team of police detectives operating temporarily outside the law under special order. In other words, they are a squad designed to deal with gangsters such as Mickey Cohen (played in the film by Sean Penn) and not a squad of gangsters themselves. This misinterpretation of the patently obvious is, regrettably, a trend Goldstein develops throughout his article.]

The studio has already cut the scene from the film’s trailer [Doubtless out of a sense of ‘good taste’ and ‘respect for the victims of this tragedy’, as the phrases usually go, and not from any fear that the act as depicted might be in any way imitative. The trailer continues to run uninterrupted on Australian cinema screens and does not especially prompt thoughts of what transpired in Aurora, though largely because it depicts a squad of dapper 1940s gents in pinstripe suits and fedoras strafing a cinema with bullets ejected from tommy guns. And also because they initially fire through the cinema screen, traipsing through shredded silver fabric before getting anywhere near the spectators they are firing upon. (From the clips it’s not even clear at whom these heroes of the film are actually shooting. Perhaps they have a single criminal target in mind and attack him with pinpoint precision.) In short, what this has in common with the events in Aurora are the venue (a cinema auditorium) and the use of firearms on those present] and may edit it out of the movie, due in September. But when I first heard the news about the Aurora killings, it was like waking up from a bad dream where life had imitated art — or was it the other way around? [Because Holmes had doubtless also attended a press screening of Gangster Squad, which Goldstein himself admits has yet to be released to the general public. No, “the other way around” is the safer bet, particularly as Gangster Squad is inspired by true events.]

It’s just one of the many puzzling questions behind the Aurora tragedy [In a single vague clause, Goldstein here imbues the issue with qualities of confusion that patently do not exist, muddying any sensible debate that might arise from the circumstances of the crime], which are [sic] being called the largest mass shooting in U.S. history. [By whom? Are these (uncited) sources working from hard statistics? Is there a point to this titbit of unverified information, or is Goldstein merely serving to attach a bloated sense of awe to the proceedings?] Even though the killing suspect, James Holmes, had not seen Dark Knight Rises, he was clearly somehow attracted to its hypnotic spell. [This kind of spurious, unverifiable, quasi-supernatural hyperbole had, it seemed to this observer, died as tabloid reportage of such crimes as the James Bulger murder finally settled down. It reeks of a person scrambling to draw links between an event and the details of its geographic location, of a hack journalist (or scare-mongering politician, or crusading ‘family values’ right wing zealot, take your pick) autonomically lurching towards a piece of cinema as the target of his blame but suddenly realising there’s an enormous logical hole in doing so, before opting for the film’s “hypnotic spell” (??) as a last resort. Drawing conclusions on autopilot benefits nobody.] Police say he wore a gas mask during his shooting spree that obscured his face, not unlike the ventilator mask worn by the villain in the film. [If Goldstein’s only source on this point is a verbal police report, how can he know it is “not unlike” Bane’s mask? For all we know it could be very unlike that piece of costume – particularly as even Goldstein happily describes them as two different types of mask, and even more particularly as Bane’s facial adornment only barely resembles any sort of gas mask known to history.] He told police that he was the Joker, the character played by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. [A useful claim to keep up one’s sleeve for when it comes to sentencing: even this Batman series has explored the possible ramifications of ‘copping an insanity plea’, the implication being that Christopher Nolan’s version of the Joker was one such criminal.] He also allegedly [Amazingly, in a culture of journalism so circumspect in the face of potential libel litigation, this is the only time Goldstein uses the word “alleged” or its variants in his entire piece; unfortunately, it makes a mishmash of his meaning, implying that of all the facts everyone is so sure of the only one that remains uncertain is the whereabouts of the victims during the commission of the crime] picked as his victims fans so eager to see Dark Knight Rises that they’d stayed up past midnight for the first local screening. [Understandable, given that he committed his crime at the local midnight premiere of the film. One must wonder, though, if Goldstein is so eager to draw connections between Holmes’ actions and the Dark Knight trilogy that he is aware he is here including the victims of the crime in the plot. After all, how does their enthusiasm for the series in any way reaffirm the films’ influence on his actions?]

The killings represent a huge blow to the entertainment industry, which, like it or not, finds itself linked to a tragedy. [Albeit less tenuously the more that news media outlets and lobbyists of various stripes keep pushing the link.] As news of the massacre spread, it felt [To whom?] as if just as many people were loudly decrying violence in movies as were pushing for limitations on people’s easy access to guns. [An easy assertion to make, particularly as its existence as nothing more than an impression on Goldstein’s part conveniently denies it the need to be supported by any sort of statistical evidence. It is speculative, emotive and ultimately distorting in its inclusion.]

The Dark Knight Rises debate hit close to home. In the last week, there’s been a lively debate in my own family [Ah, so it hit close to Goldstein’s home. From the general we go, to the absurdly specific] over the hundreds of billboards around town that depict Batman staring down his masked villain, Bane. [What, one is forced to wonder, initiated such a discussion? The event was the mass murder, the topics of discussion have hitherto been film violence and gun control, so from whence has arisen the matter of promotional billboards?] My wife found the image profoundly disturbing [It has been difficult for this non-American to pin down the image in question, presumably repeated on all of these “hundreds of billboards around town”, but the likeliest match is reproduced at the top of this page. Assuming this is the correct depiction of Goldstein’s grammatically suspect “Batman staring down his masked villain, Bane”, one wonders what is so “profoundly disturbing” about the imagery that hasn’t been seen in countless war films or in news reports of real-life violent uprisings. There may be guns galore – and consequent violent intent on the part of the characters – but no violent action or graphic carnage are visible], saying it was all too reminiscent of the creepy hockey-masked killer in the Friday the 13th horror series. [A publicity still of character Jason Vorhees in said attire is reproduced below, alongside an image of Bane from the DC comics he originally appeared in. Though a superficial resemblance exists between Vorhees and the DC Bane (both are full-face masks featuring splashes of red and white), the mask Tom Hardy wears in The Dark Knight Rises in no way resembles that worn by the Friday the 13th villain. Of course, even if it did, so what? Did images of the masked Vorhees in (to date) ten of the Friday the 13th films incite cinema massacres? Should ice hockey (from where the mask originates) be banned in case it scares journalists’ wives? Goldstein appears to be clutching not so much at straws as at the histrionics of his nearest and dearest, and in an effort to indict nothing less than a promotional still for a fiction film.] Her complaints fell on deaf ears. [Evidently not, if they’ve made the LA Times.] “Come on, Mom, it just looks like a gas mask,” my son said. [Indicating he no more knows what a gas mask looks like than his mother does a hockey mask.] “Don’t be such a wuss.” [This is a telling remark, if one that is about to be twisted beyond recognition for Goldstein’s purposes. If a child finds the image of Bane’s mask inoffensive, no problem exists. If that child’s mother finds it “profoundly disturbing” – though one cannot but question the veracity of the adverb – this is regrettable but hardly relevant to a discussion of the psychological motives behind a mass murder. (Particularly one committed by a perpetrator who was at the time costumed as a completely different character.) Or does Goldstein truly expect his readers to infer that if children were less desensitised to such images and more “profoundly disturbed” by them they might question the gun-toting maniac in the cinema? Let us then ban all costume play, all toy guns… Or, better still, real guns, which are the actual offensive weapons in question. Because toning down a bunch of movie billboards isn’t going to stop people from dressing up as fictional characters at premieres, it isn’t going to automatically make bystanders alert to their possible (if unlikely) psychopathic intent, and it most definitely will not keep said psychopaths from going on killing sprees. Eliminate the costumes and they will find another way. Eliminate the billboards and you’re not even addressing the trappings of the crime, let alone the crime itself.]

Continued next week.

August 19, 2012 / tietze

Wassup With McCoy? (Part 2)

Instead, what we got was untrained, undisciplined writing that was sometimes just plain horrible. Not in a worn, dull, plodding sense as in the past – the creakiness of certain late ‘70s scripts clearly shows in Douglas Adams’ attempts to spruce them up with Cambridge humour and in Christopher H Bidmead’s desperate top-to-tail rewriting of so much work – but it is poorly structured and very indicative of an extremely inexperienced writing team. Consequently, character motivation has a tendency to be variable at times, ‘good pictures’ or exciting incident overrides logical decision-making (for that quasi-2000AD ‘cool’ factor, natch), character comes out of plot instead of vice versa (e.g. the Doctor allowing Belasz to take the coin in “Dragonfire” when he protects Ace – a figure equally unknown to him – from the same fate), and entire serials emerge as little more than strings of set pieces.

This last one needs its own paragraph. “Silver Nemesis”. Same basic story as “Remembrance of the Daleks”: the Doctor has some weapon handy from his past and arrives on 20th century Earth to deploy it on an old enemy, with genocidal results. Eventually. This just about passes for okay in “Remembrance” for a couple of reasons. One, the Doctor is up against a formidable couple of enemies in the Emperor Dalek/Davros and the Black Dalek, so events do actually take him by surprise and he is forced to improvise. Two, Ben Aaronovitch had a workable three-act story and used every scene to tell it. Spin forward to “Nemesis” and the opposite is true. The Cybermen are presented more anemically than ever before, so much so that (in a startling example of poor research) the very touch of gold is enough to send them into catalepsy. Lady Peinforte and De Flores are no more impressive as villains, the former a raving nutter who spends most of the proceedings wandering around on the periphery while the latter is there to offer exposition and a ready supply of soldiers for action scenes. Yet Peinforte is best suited to this mess as she does precisely what the Doctor and the writer do: sit it out until the grand finale. In the meanwhile, the sorry excuse for a narrative plods along from irrelevant set piece to irrelevant set piece, killing time and viewers’ brain cells. But the worst sin is yet to come. Other than doing a bit of jiggery-pokery on the Nemesis statue that he could presumably have performed before he sent it into its orbit – you know, the one in which it’s been returning to Earth every 25 years for three-and-a-half centuries and causing incalculable if mathematically questionable strife – the Doctor contributed nothing by his presence. The three villainous parties would inevitably have wiped each other out until the last man standing had all three bits of the statue, at which point he (or she, or it) too would have been obliterated by the Doctor’s callous booby trap. And it’s a lucky thing too that it was the Cybermen, else his little validium bomb might have been directly responsible for the killing of some humans, and of course that wouldn’t do at all.

The writing is also indicative of a new team not just interested in paying no more than lip service to past stories but actively seeking to subvert what little common ground could be gathered from all the slight shifts in format over the preceding decades. In short, they had a dramatic template but took only its trappings and opted instead to build their own dramatic template. That this sometimes produced excellent stories is inarguable, but it’s less easy to call some of them Doctor Who. I think there’s a very fundamental difference between “wanderer explores worlds and rights the wrongs he discovers” and “wanderer anticipates wrongs on worlds and completes the tail end of various prearranged strategies before our eyes”. It is also, as I have already noted, less engaging dramatically as there are no real obstacles for the protagonist to overcome, no external conflicts he must deal with that he doesn’t already know the outcome to. Perhaps if any of this – you know, the revolutions, the genocides, the talking of sentient, intelligent beings into committing suicide – had created an internal, moral conflict in the Doctor, or in his companion as she witnesses his deeds, then I’d have applauded Cartmel’s efforts. Probably not in my youth, as to do so would be to question my own understanding of the consequences of the Doctor’s moral code, but such a strategy would have embraced all that Doctor Who stood for and imbued it with a maturity born of questioning the consequences of one’s actions. It would have necessitated making the programme more adult in tone, but I wonder how much a show about a guy who plots to commit genocide on a monthly basis can be considered a kids’ show anyway.

Instead, characterisation made necessarily thinner to mask the moral ambiguities introduced by the stories’ structural complexity was the order of the day. Which means either the writers weren’t aware of the moral vacuum their ideas were inevitably leading to or else they didn’t care. That Cartmel blamed fans’ dislike of his run of the show on inappropriate lighting (in a 1994 TSV interview) is suggestive of the latter, as it tells us that he thought the writing was just fine and that mood and visual imagery are king.

As for season twenty-four, it stinks, but so do most of seasons seventeen, twenty, twenty-one and probably a couple of others, and I don’t mind so much. It’s a blip in the production process, and it was a turbulent time. All I know is, by the end of “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy” episode one I stopped watching. At the age of eleven I grant you, but I stopped, having been devoted to the programme through its umpteen Australian 1980s repeats since about the age of three. I’d been slow to get into JNT material in the past, preferring the repeats of ‘70s episodes (which were hardly repeats to me anyway), but I think it’s safe to say I enjoyed everything up to “Remembrance of the Daleks”. And I must have come back for “Silver Nemesis” (which ran after “Greatest Show” in Australia), but only because it had Cybermen in it.

Took me until the ‘90s video era to see season twenty-six, though. Which disappoints me, because I love most of it. But it’s still not Doctor Who.

August 12, 2012 / tietze

Wassup With McCoy? (Part 1)

An expanded version of a Facebook dialogue exploring the tail end of original-run Doctor Who.

The question: As an aside, do you have any insight as to why there is a percentage of Who fandom that absolutely despises the McCoy era? I understand the sense of betrayal with “Time and the Rani”, I guess, but the other seasons more than redeem McCoy for me. I’ve never understood the vitriol. Any thoughts? (I’m not saying you hate him by the way.)

The response: I’ve gleaned an impression from a relatively recent re-reading of a swath of DWB back issues. It seems to be a combination of Sylvester McCoy’s acting abilities (or arguable lack thereof) and the construction of the Doctor character as master manipulator with a wholly different moral approach to his predecessors (barring very occasional exceptions). At the time, a heavier focus on the companion and more complex storytelling were also blamed, though I’d suggest these are today considered par for the course.

While I may not agree with the level of vitriol, I can understand where it’s coming from, and more conservative fans would definitely have been in for a shock at the time. By the same token, I think I can understand McCoy apologists. I know some for whom that was their first exposure to Doctor Who, so they had nothing to compare it against. For me, having grown up watching a hero with certain fundamental attitudes, it was a bit of a shock (to say the least) to see those utterly subverted all of a sudden. (More on that later.)

For my part – and I don’t loath the period per se – here are the issues. McCoy tended to put in an inappropriate or unconvincing performance most of the time, cruising a sort of breathless middle ground that rarely achieved quiet subtlety at one end and lacked a truly commanding presence at the other. I wouldn’t go as far as one DWB commentator who didn’t even like the way he breathed, but his bellowed “There will be no battle here” in “Battlefield” smacks of an actor fighting beyond his acting means, as if to say, “I’m small of stature and I can’t do imposing, so I’ll just shout a bit.”

The development of Ace was overdone to the point of transforming her into a damaged soap character, almost every serial (especially in the final season) introducing some new bit of tragic back story to try and ‘explain’ her. I take some issue with Sophie Aldred’s performance as well – and here I seem to stand in a tiny minority – which wasn’t sufficiently mature to cope with such an (at times) immature character as Ace. Not that such writing as the “Boom!” scene in “Battlefield”, for example, particularly helped her cause. Ace’s propensity for violence and a naive willingness to follow the Doctor led to one very interesting development: a willingness to take part in the Doctor’s manipulative ‘games’, to be involved in his world-changing strategies. (Take, for example, her desire to upturn Terra Alpha from the very beginning of “The Happiness Patrol”, or the fact of their arrival in “Ghost Light” as an “initiative test” taken by Ace.) That this transformed itself into an excuse for McCoy’s Doctor to exorcise the demons of her past one at a time in a string of stories – “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy”, “Ghost Light” (so much for the initiative test!), “The Curse of Fenric” – is perhaps the greatest wasted opportunity in character growth this period demonstrated. After a couple of seasons’ worth of watching Ace’s back story increase exponentially, when this suddenly and sharply relates to the present narrative in “Ghost Light” and “The Curse of Fenric” in particular there is no satisfactory examination of her relationship with the Doctor, of the blind trust she’s regarded him with until now. No longer the master manipulator of whole species and planets, he is the master manipulator of Ace herself, in ways that plainly scar her, but it’s all hunky dory as long as she can go for a swim or reaffirm her awareness that she fire-bombed a house at age thirteen. I know there were plans to write Ace out had the programme gone to another season, but equally I know they in no way involved Ace finally growing up by questioning her loyalty to the Doctor or his to her.

The Doctor’s moral shift at this time – from carefree traveller with a heart of gold to man on a mission – was essentially inconsistent and certainly far less appealing to me as the worldview of a hero character. Inevitably this reflected on the writing in ways that tend to be unavoidable under the circumstances and which signpost Cartmel’s and others’ comic book influences fairly clearly. Comic stories were getting a lot cleverer throughout the ‘80s, particularly on the British scene, and the protagonist-as-master-manipulator format is one ideal for a bunch of relatively inexperienced writers to show off how clever they think they are. What this format makes little allowance for is a protagonist who can be caught by surprise, who can learn alongside the audience. Who can himself grow in some small way over the course of a story.

All – or some – of which might have been overcome by stronger storytellers. We need to remember just how inexperienced Cartmel’s writers were: for several, this was their first or second TV commission, for others still their first paid writing work. Even Cartmel had no professional material under his belt. I understand producer John Nathan-Turner’s desire to inject fresh blood into a stagnant programme – and for this he ought to be applauded, particularly on the back of hiring a writing duo who’d been doing TV for longer than even Doctor Who had been around. But a more experienced hand than Cartmel’s – when offered the job he’d been with the BBC Script Unit a short while on the strength of two unproduced scripts and still had nothing actually made to show for his name – was sorely needed to guide writers fresh out of the Script Unit or off fringe stages.
Continued next week