Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Do-Over

One of the big advantages of theater over film is that until you die, a play really isn't ever finished. This is particularly demonstrated in Edward Albee revisiting his breakthrough play A Zoo Story by adding an introductory play, Homelife to create the full length Peter and Jerry. Technically, you can probably liken this to prequels like The Phantom Menace, but while A Zoo Story remains unchanged, the pairing is now a different experience.

Remakes have not been uncommon in film. It would seem that they started as soon as there was enough material to mine for a second time. But for the sake of this argument I wouldn't qualify them specifically as a do over, though in some regards that may in fact be true depending on the distance from the original premise. I'll come back to that after I establish what I would say is a cinematic do-over.

The first category is probably the clearest, in the Director's Cut. Prominent since Ridley Scott released a voice-overless Bladerunner, it has grown with the home DVD market, sometimes in the guise of 'extra footage' or 'unrated versions.' The latter two make the distinction harder to determine. Is it really a do over or is it just 'value added content' (ah, my time at Stanford wasn't wasted...) for the home market DVD? I think there are obvious ways to determine that, and it's time and involvement. The Lord of the Rings wouldn't be considered a do over, for example. First of all, the footage was added with release of the DVDs and didn't significantly change the character of the narrative. Layering in a deeper insinuation of Decker being a replicant as well as changing the tone of the film by subtracting the voice over. Compared to adding a scene where members of the fellowship negotiate with a Clive Barker character at the gates, it's clear to see the difference.

The other is a little harder to define, but is a more recent phenomenon. It applies specifically to franchise films. They've been around for a while themselves, from Hope and Crosby's Road to... movies to Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies. Franchises have been 'refreshed' from time to time, Adam West gave way to Micheal Keaton, Sherlock Holmes has been played by numerous actors, as has James Bond.

But in even with James Bond, the new actors haven't resulted in a full stop restart until Daniel Craig took the roll over in Casino Royale.

This kind of restart is increasingly common. Batman Begins, Casino Royale, and the upcoming J.J. Abrahms' Star Trek and the Edward Norton The Incredible Hulk. Even Diary of the Dead mentioned here earlier.

What separates a remake from a do over? Is Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes
a do over or a remake? It significantly changes the tone and character of the story. Burton dubbed it as a 're-imagining.' Likewise with Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, this time billing it as more faithful to the original (despite Dahl writing the script to the Gene Wilder version). Or for that matter Mark Walberg's The Italian Job a do over of Micheal Caine's?

I think I have to argue that they are, even though there is a greater gulf of time between the original and the new version. While every remake contains the new perspective of the new artists involved and the perspective of the different time that it's made in, if the change is significant enough that it changes the basic premise of the original it would have to be considered a do over.

It's easy to be cynical about these franchise refreshers. Either the series had become cheesy, as with Batman, or threadbare, with James Bond. In order to keep the cash cow giving something drastic had to be done.

But with comics this isn't uncommon. Sixty issues in, Ghost Rider edited the origins, DC restarted its entire universe at one point. The John Travolta Punisher was a do over of the rather bland Dolph Lungren Punisher (and the Punisher will be played by the third actor in as many movies with the upcoming Punisher:War Zone).

But now, only five years after Ang Lee's, lets say ambitious The Hulk, the Hulk is getting a do over. The trailer takes pains to make its apologies to fans-Banner becomes the Hulk as a result of an accident, not an experiment from his dad, and he will go toe to toe with another big bad ass, not just fail to achieve the promise of that. (I'm still upset that the original movie set up a green hulk vs. purple hulk and instead just churned water...)

I don't necessarily think that it's a bad thing. It's hard to wrap something so clearly driven by market forces as 'artistic,' but why not? Regardless of the financial reasoning behind the decision, it's still new takes on old stories. Where Tim Burton's Batman was an exercise in set pieces and over the top villain performances, Christopher Nolan's Batman uses the villains to explore the darker aspects of the heroes personality. Daniel Craig's James Bond is an exploration of a man who has no family or social tie who takes killing so casually.

Plus, you know, it means I can hold out hope that I might get a better Ghost Rider...(I have to admit, I forgot my point...)

Friday, March 14, 2008

For the Love of Crap

I have, I have discovered, a remarkable threshold for crap. Some of the narratives and characters I have a great deal of affection for are really, by any objective measure, incredibly cheesy to be generous.

I've thought about this recently as I completed The Essential Silver Surfer V.1 and am half way through The Essential Ghost Rider V.1. I have a vast and equally cheesy collection of original recordings of the radio drama The Shadow.

I could pass this off as nostalgia, I became a fan of these characters when I was young and 'didn't know any better.' But I don't know that that is the case. I watched and loved G.I. Joe and when I had an opportunity to watch it again as an adult I found them unwatchable. Even The A-Team, with the always enjoyable Mr. T was stomach groaningly bad. An episode of MacGuyver made me question my judgment.

But are these characters whom I continue to hold such affection really all that different? The Shadow can get down right goofy-I remember an episode where a man creates a TV that can see in any room he desires. Lamont Cranston's back and forths with the easily frustrated Commissioner Weston are so riddled with naked winks to Cranston's alter ego that it seems ridiculous to think that Weston remains unaware of them. (It has led to, on occasion, me imagining that Weston is in fact aware that The Shadow is in fact wealthy man about town Lamont Cranston and has just decided that allowing his delusion would be easier than trying to tell him. Sometimes I go further and assume that The Shadow's lauded ability to 'cloud mens minds' is all in his head and it's only his staunch conviction that he's able to that throws his opponents off balance. "Don't bother looking for me, I've clouded your mind to make me invisible." "Is he kidding with that? He's standing right there with that big hat and goofy scarf? What's the gag?")

The Ghost Rider spends the first 60 issues of his run being protected by the purity of his girlfriend Roxanne Simpson from the devil's remarkably focused desire to capture the soul of Johnny Blaze. From a rather intriguing start where the devil makes him battle his raised from the dead adoptive father (who, in a healthy dose of the goofy, masquerades as 'Curly,' charismatic leader of a motorcycle gang. Predictably, motorcycle gangs play a pretty constant role in early Ghost Rider stories.

He fights demons like Roulette, Demon of Las Vegas, a NASCAR promoter killed by Vegas casino owners and resurrected by Satan in a ploy to get at Johnny Blaze that I still don't understand how was supposed to work.

Silver Surfer's preachy earnestness leaks over every page while he battle Mephisto (read:Satan) who is offended by the very existence of some so 'pure at heart.' (a theme, apparently, in Marvel comics of the late sixties and early seventies...). I was surprised a bit that Mephisto was actually created as a Silver Surfer villain.

What is the pull, the allure of these characters that hasn't managed to save G.I. Joe or The A-Team? I wonder if it's wishful thinking, a desire that the characters in some parallel universe are as interesting as I want them to be. Me and Sous Rature have talked about the stories we'd tell with some of these characters, or with Sous Rature's cheesy favorite ROM. Perhaps it's the earnestness that goes into the characters, that same earnestness that has made Spiderman one of the most popular super heroes.

I don't really have an answer. I just know that I can't wait for The Essential Silver Surfer V.2 and The Essential Ghost Rider V.3 (I already have V.2) come out. And sitting quietly on my hard drive for those moments of needed fix is every original pulp short stories of The Shadow...

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

End of an Era

Walrus texted me this morning with the news that Gary Gygax was dead. Now, Walrus and I aren't huge gamer geeks for reasons that I will explain later, but it struck me as significant nonetheless.

Gygax falls into that category of innovators who push something into the poular consciousness then lose control over it and become omnipresent but increasingly irrelevant, much like Atari founder Nolan Bushnell or (as much as I love the guy for being perhaps the most sincere human being on the planet) Stan Lee. They're happy to see their passion become so widespread, but they don't really get what's become of their work and aren't getting as many rewards as they probably feel they deserve.

Before I move on, let me explain that earlier statement that Walrus and I aren't gamer geeks. It's not a claim of superiority, really. I have a lot of respect for geeks of all varieties because they can achieve a much higher level of focus than I can. Not since I was a teenager could I become obsessed with something completely enough to lose all perspective. A lot of that comes from simply being intensely self-conscious. It's kind of hard to immerse yourself in something maintain an ironic distance from it. Conversely, neither of us really fell into the hipster group because we're not all irony--we actually do get jazzed up about all kinds of stuff and really don't get into the whole hatin' thing.

I played role playing games fairly regularly from about the age of 12 to about the age of 30 with some consistency--at that point, my life and the lives of others became to complicated to make the whole thing happen. There are a lot of people my age who still manage it, but I stand in awe of their geeky dedication, but I think the real reason is that I found that most, if not all, of the people I was playing with were there at cross purposes to mine.

Back in elementary school, teachers would occasionally have the class write chain stories, where each person writes a sentence, then passes it on to the next person, who adds a sentence, and so on. I HATED this, mainly because there was always some jackass who had to insert PacMan into each and every story regardless of relevance. This is roleplaying about 90% of the time.

People play for all kinds of reasons, but few of them to engage in (to get all up my own ass for a second) the collaborative exploration of a narrative space. Some people want to play a reeeeeally slow version of a video game; others want to act out some wish fulfillment scenario, many of which, disturbingly, involve naked zebra women or the like; still others are bucking for alpha male by poring over arcane regulations like a Fortune 500 tax accountant. All of this is a giant buzzkill for me and makes me wonder why I gave up a Sunday afternoon.

Gary Gygax spawned an entire subculture that has evolved and thrived for over thirty years now. Conventions, which used to be about 99% comic-book guy types, have become family affairs, involving two or three generations and a broad mix of cultures and a much more balanced gender profile. People can immerse themselves in this life without having to compromise with the culture at large. Game stores are to these people what bars are to frat guys--friends fantasize about opening one, and when one of them manages to do so, the group usually rides the whole thing all the way to the ground (although I tip my hat to those people who manage to make the necessary adult decisions to really make it work). Gary's legacy will outlive him by decades.

I've been reading about 4th Edition D&D lately--it seems like there's some interesting things going on there. It might be fun to thumb through, even if I can't quite get it together enough to actually get it together enough to geek out.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

My Star is On the Rise

Well, according to my starmeter on This was confusing me a bit until a friend looked into what would cause my star to rise, and that's people looking at my page. I can only guess that the people who didn't know who I was who managed to see my doc on youtube decided to look me up on to see if I had done anything of note.

Disappointingly, no. I couldn't even manage to get on the Harvey Milk film despite being down the street from the offices. So the flattery that goes with people thinking that maybe I've done something since college after seeing my college documentary gets to go hand in hand with my shame that, no, I haven't. I'm struggling even with the new agreement to get in at least two blog entries a week. (this was supposed to be about autuership in television, but I have to do some research...and I should have done my bit about genre years ago)

It's embarrassing. I've made a lot of progress in my vittles career, but as far as what I meant to do, not so much. And now I'm faced with disappointing the random stumblers or YouTubers looking for videos about Portal (the subject of most cake inquiries) with my lack of achievement.

I keep hoping I'll find the formula, that ellusive something that made me prolific back when. Was it having to face people expecting work from me every day? Was it that I had long periods where I had to sit silently with only my notebook to amuse me? Was it the lack of free time? (abundance of free time means that I can always do it 'later,' when I was producing regularly I was going to school full time and working full time) Was it concrete deadlines? Was it being around other people's creative work? Was it a fluke?

I need to figure this out. I don't want to disappoint the random people checking my IMDb page.