Monday, November 29, 2010

The Visionary and the Administrator

It's been a couple weeks since I wrote here. I've been busy: I went to Vancouver and, when I returned, hosted a house concert for Suzie Vinnick. The concert was awesome but only four people showed and I felt like a heel.

I've done some thinking about the "everything is getting worse" mentality from which I sometimes suffer. It's a mindset that is very destructive to day-to-day morale, motivation, and even self-esteem. I inhabited this place for a long time in my life, particularly in the years immediately following the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. If one looks, one can see the world he knows crumbling, enemies lurking everywhere and apathy.

I've done much to banish "everything is getting worse" by not watching television. I get my news from a little Google sidebar and avoid the stuff I don't want to see. I have also stopped reading activist websites, which honestly just make me angry at the world and then make me feel powerless. As a result of study of The Principia Discordia, I've been able to see the world not as crumbling, but as changing, and make my peace with change.

However, I've done some serious thinking about "everything is getting worse" lately. Not because I'm thinking of subscribing to its ideals again, but to see if it has any truth at all. After some deep thought, I've created this grandiose statement:

"It is the nature of our society for products to get worse."

If you would, I would like you to think of a brand-name food item that has been around for several decades (assuming you're old enough). It can come off a grocery shelf or be served in a restaurant. Close your eyes, visualize it. Think about how it looks, how it tastes, it smells, how it is packaged. Now think about how it used to be. Visualize it in the same way. Compare. Was the older version of this food product bigger? Did the package contain less air? Did it taste better? Did it cost less? Chances are that you can answer yes to at least one of these questions, probably more. Think of another food item and repeat the process.

Sure, currency inflation explains why it costs more, but from the perspective of the average consumer, what else is inflation but the manifestation of everything getting worse? There is some bias, of course, in the question of "did it taste better?", because when you were younger you had more taste buds and everything tasted better. But in the question of taste, consider how the major soft-drink manufacturers switched from cane sugar to corn syrup as a sweetener in the 80s. Putting questions of obesity aside, how did that affect the flavour of our pop?

Don't try to deny it. In our society, once a product or idea is marketed, the forces of capitalism begin their work. Those who make their living from it seek to make it cheaper to produce, smaller and tagged with a higher retail price. It is a slow process, usually imperceptible with the passing of years. The McDonald's cheeseburger of today is a very different food item than the ten-cent burger of 1937. Specifically, it's smaller, more expensive, and made with less-wholesome but cheaper products.

It's not just food items, either. It's all products and services. It's in entertainment: the sequel is always worse than the original. In workplaces all over the world, people are getting laid-off while the workload stays the same, the remaining employees tacitly asked to work overtime without pay and openly asked to "do more with less". It's not just free-market services either. The quality of service from the Canadian government, for instance, from the NFB to the CBC to Medicare to the Canada Pension Plan to the Canada Council, it's all worse.

Every good product and innovative service has two metaphorical figures locked in loving embrace and struggle: the Visionary and the Administrator.

The Visionary is a creator of ideas. She has creativity to see problems from new angles, courage to challenge established order and luck. The Visionary's desire is to change the world in her image. At her best, the Visionary dreams of new ideas that make our life better. At her worst, the Visionary is a reckless wastrel that destroys resources on bad ideas.

The Administrator is a facilitator. He has common sense, a grasp of reality and the ability to think critically about what is important. The Administrator's desire is to draw black ink. At his best, the Administrator helps Visionaries and employees realize their maximum potential, gathers and manages resources wisely and makes life easier. At his worst, he destroys creativity, fears change, overworks employees and makes policy that benefits Administrators.

It is a never-ending cycle. It starts with an idea, dreamed by a Visionary. An idea is just an idea and doesn't become reality until the Visionary seeks help from an Administrator. The Administrator helps the Visionary see what is realistic for the idea, provides creative limitation, finds funding and manages the workforce. The idea expands and grows to its full potential.

Then something happens. At some point, control of the product shifts from the Visionary to the Administrator. Either the Visionary moves to a new product, or dies or becomes complacent. The retail price goes up as the brand is established. The budget shrinks. The product changes in tiny ways. The workforce used to create and support it vapourizes with layoffs. The Administrator is rewarded by bigger payoff, but the product suffers. The only way to return the product to its former glory is the actions of another Visionary, but at this point, Administrators fear jeopardizing their holdings and resist any new changes. When the product suffers, so does the public.

It's just how it goes. The only things that will motivate Administrators to reverse the effects of their product-destroying policies are the actions of hostile Visionaries that threaten their holdings. It explains why dynamic industries, like those related to techology breakthroughs, are always in healthy competition and have good products: today's computers are decidedly better than those I grew up with. However, beef technology has not improved and my Whopper Jr. is worse than the one I ate fifteen years ago.

As we drift through life, it is very easy to see how great ideas are ruined every day and fixate on it. Some guy died waiting for publicly-funded cancer treatment. The Star Wars prequels sucked. My Pepsi doesn't taste like it did when I plucked it from my Grandad's bar fridge when I was a kid. I can't buy O'Ryan's Sour Cream and Onion chips anymore. Canada's international reputation is besmirched, diminished from the days when Lester B. Pearson blah blah blah everything is getting worse blah blah blah.

To thoroughly enjoy yourself in this society, you must have an appreciation for the new and marvel and must not cling to that which is dying and changing for the worse. Enjoy them while they're still good. Get lost in a video game sometime and marvel at the graphics before another game trumps them. If Burger King fails to offer you a good Whopper Jr., seek the burger that some Visionary somewhere else is offering and do not shed a tear for the decline of your favourite meal. Vote out the government of tired old men. Hail Eris.

Above all, you must not be afraid.


Monday, November 8, 2010

Review of American Graffiti

American Graffiti is a coming-of-age flick set in Modesto, California in 1962. It put director George Lucas in the Hollywood spotlight, made him a millionaire, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. It inspired the creation of Happy Days. It is also number 62 on AFI's list, hence my watching.

Despite the praise this film has garnered, I found it to be lame. I recognized it instantly as the inspiration for another film I found lame, Dazed and Confused. Both of these films are slice-of-life, nostalgic, plotless, limp and self-indulgent. They both expect that if they feature some vehicles, showcase some stereotypical characters and make you listen to period music, you'll feel so overcome with nostalgia that you'll forget that there's no story. Some nice kid loses his innocence and his world changes forever. Next.

What is interesting about this film is that it is bad in a way much different than George Lucas' later bad work, before he got obsessed with the Hero's Journey, images moving so fast the viewer can barely see what's going on, and computer animation replacing actors. American Graffiti is very personal, not detached like his later work. There is no absurd urge to entertain the shit out of the audience so much that it's grating. Yet American Graffiti is still lame. It's boring in a very un-Lucas-like way.

Here's a question for you all. We are all aware that if a character expresses concern for the well-being of his car in a movie, something bad is going to happen to it before the end of the picture, usually several bad things. Did American Graffiti start this cliche, or was it well-known even by the time of filming?

Part of the problem is that I wasn't alive in 1962. This movie would be much more interesting to somebody who was. This review sounds like I really hated American Graffiti. That's not the case. This movie isn't terrible, it's just meh with a touch of banal. For me, movies are enjoyable if they're so terrible that they're funny. Being meh, banal and wimpy is just completely uninteresting.
2 attempts to pull booze out of 5

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Watchmen: The Graphic Novel, the Movie and Adaptation

When Watchmen was released in 1986 it changed comic books forever. At the time, comics were viewed as a children's medium. Watchmen is for adults. Written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons, it is introspective and intelligent. It made the industry and audiences take notice. Post-Watchmen, the terms “graphic novel” and “sequential art” came into common use.

For many years DC comics had been searching for the right director, the right screenplay and the right concept to make Watchmen into a movie. As the 20-oughts came to a close they found their director: Zack Snyder, who had previously directed an adaptation of another graphic novel, 300. In 300, Snyder framed and filmed shots to recreate still images from the comic, so great was is zeal for faithfulness.

When Watchmen was released in 2009, similar attention to detail and love was paid to each frame. It can rightly be called a faithful adaptation. Yet it is still different. Certain elements of Watchmen the comic book were impossible to translate to the screen and others were ignored. New ideas and images were added.

With this post I will examine the differences between the two Watchmen media as far as plot, structure and backstory are concerned. Cosmetic differences will be ignored. Screenwriters and storytellers, pay attention! This post is specifically for you! With these insights, perhaps we can gain some understanding of how a graphic novel ought or ought not to be adapted to the screen.

Author's note: This post is not for people who have seen neither the movie nor read the graphic novel as it is rife with ***SPOILERS*** The insights listed here are only based on outsider's observations and may not represent the actual views of the creators. In other words, it could all be total bullshit. I guess you'll just have to take that chance. Read on.

The Tales of the Black Freighter sequences which punctuate the graphic novel are absent. In the comic, a young black kid reads Tales of the Black Freighter comics while a nearby white news vendor chatters about world events and his views thereon. Their two worlds are disjointed: the kid reads his dark pirate comic, the narration balloons and panels of which are interspersed with events in real life. He seems to pay no heed to the babbling news vendor.

The Black Freighter comic itself is a reflection of the views of many of the Watchmen's characters: that the world is a dark, unhappy joke. A sailor travels through a hellish ocean with corpses as his raft to save his family from the pirate ship that slaughtered his crew, only to beat his wife and commit murder in his resulting madness. “How had I reached this appalling position, with love, only love, as my guide?” laments the narrator.

Finally, as the kid's comic ends in tragedy, the news vendor himself laments upon how unconnected are his fellow humans and asks the kid what he's doing there. The kid says he has no place better to be. When Ozymandias' disaster descends upon New York, the news vendor and the kid clutch each other in terror, their last fearful embrace becoming the connection they lacked in life.

The mood, if not the message of the Black Freighter infects Watchmen, but was neglected for the film. The reasons why are obvious. The sequences, as important as they are, do not advance the main plot, nor do they serve as backstory. Most adaptation requires cutting and editing in pre-and-post production, and it makes sense that The Black Freighter had to go. The comic reader and the news vendor are there at the end, getting blown-up, but that is as much homage to the Black Freighter as could be spared. Zack Snyder must have found this omission painful because he lent his talents to the production of The Black Freighter as a separate entity from his Watchmen movie. A link can be found to the animated short here:

Next, Watchmen contains several sections which were originally included at the end of issues which are newspaper clippings, Rorschach's psych profile, and quotes from “Under the Hood”, a book by the original Nite Owl, amongst others. These sections serve as valuable backstory in the comic book, exposing the events and intentions of the costumed heroes of days past.

Film is a visual medium, but it ain't that kinda visual. Showing too many words onscreen would be death by boredom and showing all that backstory would make for a nine-hour movie. Instead, the Watchmen movie attempts to convey to the audience as much meaning and backstory as possible through imagery, particularly in the opening credits. It is a poor substitute for the sheer amount of information in the graphic novel, but it is the best that film can do without boring the audience.

Also serving little plot in the graphic novel are the sequences that take place in the New Frontiersman's newsroom. Once again, while serving as flavour for the universe of Watchmen, little happens there. The only event of note to the main plot is the discovery of Rorschach's journal in the crank file at the end. This event, and this New Frontiersman event only, is shown in the film.

What was changed in the film? And what was new material? Watchmen the movie was a labour of love for its crew. They could not resist adding their own touches to the final canvas.

The Watchmen film includes many more aspects of life in this alternate 80's than the comic. For one thing, there is far more President Richard Nixon. Where Nixon has two scenes in the comic, he and his distracting false nose have at least four in the movie.

The film also contains more 80's nostalgia. At the beginning, the Comedian watches the McLaughlin Group on television, for instance. Interestingly, 80's nostalgia wins over the comic's backstory in some cases, such as the automobiles. In the comic, Dr. Manhattan has allowed for the mass production of electric cars and airships by his ability to create lithium in vast amounts. In the movie, while airships are seen flying about, the automobiles appear to be standard gas-powered models available in the 80s.

One of the most noticeable additions is the amount of violence. It has been over twenty years since the publication of Watchmen. At the time, comic books were criticized for the amount of violence therein. However, since then, the action-loving public has developed a bloodlust that is difficult to slake. The bloody 90's have made their mark on film. As a result, Watchmen the film is filled with gore and fighting, not that the comic lacks, but just more of it.

Examples? The Comedian's death is protracted and involves the flinging of knives and a smashed hand. Instead of being escorted off government property, the Silk Spectre II instead attacks a government agent, slams his head into a sink and escapes. The assassination attempt on Adrian Veidt in the comic results in the shooting in the chest of Veidt's secretary. In the film, while she doesn't die, she does get shot through the leg and loses two fingers, while an old plutocrat is shot in the chest and head. When Roschach is framed for the murder of Moloch and jumps out a second-story window to escape, instead of landing painfully on some garbage cans and being quickly subdued by police, he rolls and keeps fighting, landing eleven ninja-like blows before he is pacified.

Another way in which the movie is “amped-up” is that time is truncated. While the motif of a ticking clock is powerful in the graphic novel, the clock is ticking faster in the movie. The novel contains a scene where Richard Nixon discusses the escalating nuclear threat with his advisors. The scene ends with Nixon saying, “I think we'll give it a week, gentlemen, before bringing out our big guns. After that, humanity is in the hands of a higher authority than mine. Let's just hope he's on our side.” In the film, Nixon delivers the same speech, but says, “Dr. Manhattan has two days. After that, humanity is in the hands of a higher authority than mine. Let's just hope he's on our side.” In theory, the film's creators hoped to add more tension to the story by making time even shorter.

I leave the biggest change for last: the nature of Ozymandias' plot to prevent nuclear catastrophe. The novel's story has him kidnapping intellectuals and genetically engineering a monstrosity. This monstrosity is huge and has the cloned brain of a powerful psychic. Using teleportation technology imperfectly crafted from Dr. Manhattan, Ozymandias transports the creature into the middle of New York, where the teleportation process kills it. In its death throes, it lashes out psychically, killing millions. Amongst the images it telegraphs into people's brains are hints of an alternate dimension. Believing that the world is under inter-dimensional attack, the forces of earth unite to stop a common foe.

Ozymandias' plot differs in the film. There, he uses Dr. Manhattan's power to create what the world believes is a limitless energy source. Instead, he uses its power to launch terrorist attacks in metropoli around the world. The attacks bear Dr. Manhattan's energy signature, and the world, believing he is responsible, unites against him.

What could possibly be the reason for changing the nature of Ozymandias's plot? I have two theories, both of which could be true. The first is that the film's plot is simpler. The comic's plot requires a lot of explanation and, frankly, it would confuse a lot of moviegoers. Film once again earns its reputation for dumbing-down the plot.

But, secondly, the film's plot is slightly more compelling than the comic's. When Dr. Manhattan realizes that Ozymandias has killed millions to save billions, he must not only accept the greater good, but he also must overlook the fact that he is being demonized by a deluded world. The fact that he doesn't care about being the world's boogeyman is very revealing of his character. This revelation about his character, while it is based on events which don't happen in the original story, is true to the novel.

O ye screenwriters and storytellers who have stayed with me to the end of this post, what have we learned about adaptation? If you know anything about writing Hollywood movies, probably nothing you didn't already learn elsewhere. When you go to adapt a novel, graphic or otherwise, for the big screen, keep these guidelines in mind:

1. Eliminate plot threads that don't influence your main characters.
2. Don't bore your audience with too much exposition.
3. If you are writing something historical from the living past, play on nostalgia.
4. Add more violence.
5. Add a ticking clock. If there already is a ticking clock, set it forward.
6. Make it simpler.
7. You can always make your characters more involved in the plot.

Does that sound formulaic? Maybe cynical? Maybe like it's capable of destroying great works of literature by turning them into screen-trash? There's some merit in those criticisms.

I believe in good writing, not necessarily Hollywood writing. The Watchmen graphic novel is sublime. It's film adaptation is one of the more faithful that I've seen, and it's very entertaining. But it didn't move me. I am truly at a loss to describe why. I don't think it's because it became more Hollywood-ized, either. As often happens with adaptations, something was lost in the medium transfer.

However, if you do your job as a writer well, changing the medium of a story from page to screen can make a masterpiece. It was watching The Fellowship of the Ring that inspired me to become a writer. The Lord of the Rings, Pride and Prejudice (the 1995 version), Master and Commander and Rosemary's Baby are among my favourite screen productions. Some productions, like the Sharpe series, are actually better on screen than the page. When I read anything I am always adapting it for screen in my mind and considering what scenes will work and which won't. Adaptation can be very rewarding for audiences and lead them to reading the original source material. That's a good thing. If some dude decides to read Watchmen because he saw some lady's fingers getting blown off, I'd say the movie has achieved a noble goal.