Monday, June 29, 2009

The Text Itself

For the uninitiated, let me lay down an interesting fact about movies, specifically movie theaters and their methods of film projection.

Until movie theaters switch completely to digital projection, films played at movie theaters are done so via prints. A print is the industry term for a single copy of a movie that is rented by a movie theater. A print is rather a rather large thing made of a long strip of polyester (also called film stock) and, when looked at under light, is merely a seemingly endless series of small images placed one on top of the other (individually called a frame). Running down both margins are holes for sprockets which allow the print to be pulled through the projector at such a speed that the human eye detects what's really a series of still photographs as a single, moving image. The average print is rolled up into a big circle next to the projector, laid out on a large platter like a gigantic, grayish-brown pizza without any toppings and the middle cut out. The width is usually the length of a person's wingspan, reaching from fingertip to tip when one stretches out one's arms, though it is probably a little smaller than that. What I'm trying to say is that a print is a large thing, too large to be delivered to theaters in such a form.

So what do they do? They cut up the print into smaller reels and place all the reels into big cans with disproportionally small metal handles that cut into your fingers within seconds of lifting one. It is the job of the theater's projectionist to assemble (called "building up" the film) these prints together from the five or six reels that it was divided into. These reels are usually clearly marked and a print's assembly is normally a rather boring exercise (although you get to play with some pretty cool pieces of equipment). Rarely, prints are assembled incorrectly, the most common mistake being an out of order reel. When I mean "out of order" I don't mean "broken" or, if it were a pinball machine, "tilt;" no, I mean reels 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 were put together as 1, 2, 4, 3, and 5. It's a hard mistake to make, but once it's made the only way to catch it is to watch the movie; you can't tell just by looking at the print sitting on the platter.

Going into Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen with this knowledge, I wondered at the movie's end if a reel was out of order because, without even having to think about it, the movie didn't make sense in terms of contiguous continuity. It pushed the film, for me, to a point where I didn't enjoy the film (though there were many warning signs along the way, to be sure). To be fair, this issue did not detract from what story there was, and on the whole I actually like the story of Revenge of the Fallen more than the first movie. But the problem that infected the first movie also infects the new flick: Michael Bay is a terrible storyteller.

I don't ask for much and my expectations are amazingly simple when walking into a Transformers movie. I simply want to see Autobots punch the shit out of Decepticons and for the Decepticons to return the favor. I want to see Optimus Prime be a paragon for all that is good and Megatron be a vindictive asshole with Starscream being even more so. All of this I got with Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Most of these elements were missing in the first movie, so color me reasonably satisfied.

Now, having the aforementioned knowledge of film build-ups that I do, my first thought was that the print may have been assembled out of order, but this idea was quickly squashed. Too many cuts between the fights within the same reel proved this. So, I did what any nerd does when he or she is perplexed by a beloved franchise: I went home and got on the internet. Explanations are rampant, extolling multiple ideas that are all well and good but ignore the simple fact that nothing was explained in the movie.

In literary theory, specifically in the outmoded realm of New Criticism, critics developed a new way of interpreting literature (this is in the 1950s, so stay with me): gone are ideas like author's intent and socio-cultural influences on a work--the only thing you need to interpret the text is the text itself. Everything you need to develop a specific reading of the work is within the pages. While this theory has been largely disregarded, a lot of ideas introduced in New Criticism are still quite valid. When I go to see a movie, that is an insular experience, a self-contained event. Everything the viewer needs to know about the movie should be presented on-screen since a movie doesn't have the benefit of building a story over episodes (as TV does) or an infinite amount of time to draw out narrative and exposition (as books do). Movies, especially, need to present everything within that run time or else you'll have an unbelievable twaddle (as my father likes to say). In other words, a movie can't exist without its audience's sympathy, and a movie has to persuade the audience to care about it. Without a successful persuasion, as you can probably guess, the audience won't care.

If there are reasonable explanations for the contiguous continuity errors in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen then they weren't in the movie, and that is all I had to rely on when I walked through the hefty, fuscia-painted double doors of the local Cinemark's Auditorium #4 (coincidentally, both the Cinemark theater chain and the Transformers franchise celebrate their 25th anniversary this year).

Being confused, I left the theater mildly upset (for this and other movie-related reasons); in an effort to fill the screen with as many robots blowing the crap out of each other (violently, not sexually) did the filmmakers forsake quality for mere quantity? Could it have been so hard to simply make new models to stick into these scenes than the horrible Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V attitude of a freshman Photoshop user? Or were they simply too proud of their (admittedly) awesome 7 or 8 character models that they just said "Fuck it" to continuity and common sense simply to give these beautiful monsters more screen time? I don't know! I'll never know unless the DVD is 3 and 1/2 hours long with a bunch of deleted scenes that explain everything. This is Michael Bay, however. He makes movies where sunlight only lasts 30 minutes before falling to night. So, with that in mind, I doubt I'll see the affirmation and explanation I want to see in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

But that was hours ago, how did I get to where I am now, a man mostly contented with Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen? While driving home from the theater, pondering these head-scratchers, I escaped to my memories of the original cartoon. How I revel in their substandard quality! Like many cartoons of the 80s and 90s, the Transformers was full of technical mistakes: characters would speak with other characters' voices, a character was mysteriously colored differently for a single shot, characters don't seem to be standing on the ground, etc. Those glitches didn't bother me back then (hell, I thought they intentional and such artistic integrity was over my head), the simple stories they were trying to tell still worked, it was all part of the package. Seeing them now, I chuckle at the breaking strain of trying to throw together a show based on pre-existing toys and the further strain of writers trying to create a story with said toys, trying to make them into characters.

It's the lack of character that pervades much of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. New robots are shown without introduction. That was the benefit of the television show, Hasbro wanted the audience to know who each character was so you would run out and buy the toy. In the television show, nearly every character was given an episode to shine (or fumble), all in an effort to sell a toy, an unintended side effect of which was the development of a sympathetic character. Many of the new robots in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen are nameless, some even colorless. Robots, to Michael Bay, are hollow golems to throw at explosions and each other.

If you could hold back your dismissive chuckles, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is actually dumber than the early 80s television show, but between the two movies, this sequel is closer in terms of story and character with the cartoon than the first movie. But I'd like to think how much of a better series of movies these could have been had Steven Spielberg stepped into the director's chair instead of merely throwing money at it as a producer.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Turning Actual Pages: Looking at The Goon: Nothin' But Misery

Book Referenced:

The Goon: Nothin' But Misery by Eric Powell

published by Dark Horse Comics


Is it heresy to boast about a print comic on the site of a web-based comic? How about for a webcomic author such as myself to proclaim Mr. Ripley-level devotion to a print comicker? Fifteen years ago you would have heard me pine to be anywhere near Jim Lee. Luckily, the creators to whom I currently bow fill a much larger stable. The most recent addition is a man named Eric Powell.

I'd heard of the comic The Goon for years, keeping a peripheral eye on the print comic world since I'd formally left it probably more than ten years ago. Because of said absence from the comic-buying world I never picked up a copy of The Goon or its trade collections since it debuted in 1999, but I'd glanced at a few issues and always admired its striking covers and terrific character design. I unfortunately was unable to secure any legitimate fanboy status with The Goon because I only went out and bought a copy of the trade paperback collection after hearing about David Fincher's CG-animated telling of Powell's The Goon starting development (animated by the brilliant Blur Studios; if you're unfamiliar with their work--get familiar!). I found a copy of The Goon, volume 1 at the stupendous Berkeley, CA comic book store, Comic Relief (of which I spoke at length earlier), though the book is not hard to find, it was just the first time I'd actively looked for it.

After a few readings, I come here to speak webcomic heresy: I want to be Eric Powell, the print cartoonist. As a webcomicker, I should strive to be original, update daily and stay away from story-based comics, but fuck if Powell makes me want to eschew all of those unspoken clauses (even he only "updates" bi-monthly). Before Powell comes to kick my ass by calling him unoriginal, I emphasize the fact that The Goon is at least fourteen kinds of original, but its originality comes from Powell's gleeful treading of the waters of genre and storytelling mores. At once his books are 1950s horror comics, biting social satire, 1930s gangster pastiche, and...I don't even know what the hell Franky is. The book is an amalgamated love sonnet to EC Comics, where every I is dotted with a one-liner and each sentence is punctuated in gore.

The Goon: Nothin' But Misery is as good a place to get into the world of the Goon as, I'm guessing, nearly any other Goon book (don't start with The Goon: Chinatown because it is all origin story, and The Goon Noir does not feature Eric Powell at the helm, thus its canonicity is up for debate). This is not an origin story and is not, as such, necessarily the place one needs to start. Of course, by virtue of the fact that this simply is the first volume of the series, many prominent characters are introduced here, but none to the point of extreme narrative importance (you learn who the major players are––Goon, Franky, The Zombie Priest, Buzzard––and get familiar with the major places of action––Lonely Street, Norton's Bar). I have since picked up volume 2 (My Murderous Childhood and other Grievous Yarns) and though many secondary characters from volume 1 pop up in volume 2, knowledge of what happened in the first volume is not necessary to enjoy fully these further adventures.

Such leeway is granted when confronting the Goon trade paperbacks because of another word that is constantly associated with the series: pulpy serial. The stories of The Goon are very episodic. In fact, they are less than episodic--they read more like five page punchlines that suddenly reveal a piece of a greater plot slowly moving forward, but only after a second reading. What this shows the reader is that Powell is doing one thing above all else when crafting Goon stories: he's having fun. In a two-part interview with The Daily Cross Hatch Powell explains:
[The] one goal I had was that I was going to play to my strengths and do exactly what I wanted to do. And if you look at the book, for better or worse, that’s what I’ve done.

Powell's nostalgic reverence for horror pastiche, dark humor, and artistic whimsy evoke, for me, the work ethic of the artist with whom I most closely associate Powell and his Goon-world: Mike Mignola. Though not immediately quotable (I believe the following paraphrase comes from an interview on the Hellboy Director's Cut DVD), Mike Mignola created his beloved Hellboy on similar grounds. Loving his work in comics, Mignola felt to some degree unsatisfied with his work and created a character and premise which would allow him to draw the things he loved to draw most: monsters. This same attitude also created Frank Miller's Sin City (if I remember, the things Miller liked to draw most were "cars, guns and girls").

Luckily, from the pet projects of these two artists to whom Eric Powell most easily compares, successful and critically acclaimed film adaptations have been made, a promising if not completely circumstantial outlook for the future The Goon feature film.

Powell's art needs to be mentioned. No one can look at any single page of The Goon and say he's not any good. Nothin' But Misery (and all the other books, surely) are a mixture of technique, consisting of (but not limited to): traditional pen & ink, pencil, painting, and even photographs.

If I'm to be a self-proclaimed heretic, then let it be over Eric Powell's series, itself dancing on the edge of honest heresy (if not falling right over into it). The book is style and class and brilliance. Being a budding comic creator, that combination is indeed nothing but misery...because when I see The Goon I say, "That's what I want to do."

Further Reading:

An interesting interview by Publisher's Weekly about a censored Goon story.

Powell talks about the Goon movie on Hero Complex, a Los Angeles Times blog.

Official Goon website.

Dark Horse Comics

Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Art of Translation

As we all know, the transition from disc (or, for the old school, cartridge) to screen when talking about movies inspired by video games has been a taxing experience for fans of both games and film. While debates enrage about the few (if any) successes, we can agree that there has not yet been a The Dark Knight-level validation for movies based on video games.

Many games have indeed been labeled as cinematic, creating an experience for the player that has been described as an interactive film. Games such as those from the Metal Gear Solid series, Mass Effect, God of War, and Halo (among many others) have brought inspired speculation and argument from fans as to the type of brilliance these games could be if properly transcribed onto the silver screen. Coincidentally, all of the aforementioned games have been rumored to be in the process of cinematization (or whatever the word is).

But with all the talk about cinematic games, there are also brilliant video games that aren't necessarily cinematic but still fantastic experiences nonetheless. Games such as Psychonauts, Katamari Damacy, Little Big Planet, etc. are notable because they test the boundaries of gameplay, of storytelling. One such game was Shadow of the Colossus, brought by the developer of the equally esoteric game Ico. To be succinct, Shadow of the Colossus could be described as a game comprised only of boss battles, but where the bosses were four stories tall and they did nothing to provoke you.

The story, what there is of it, involves the protagonist––named in the booklet as Wander but never explicitly referred to that in-game--and his unconscious lady love (named Mono) whose slumber, Wander's told, can only be cured by defeating 16 colossi. Wander and his trusty, hard to maneuver steed--Agro--must traverse the gigantic map (in terms of Playstation 2 limitations) and defeat these monstrous beings on their home turf. Each colossus is different in look and weakness. There are no towns, shops, random battles, or side quests of any kind. Needless to say, it's an equally strange and beautiful game.

Recently, it was announced that a movie based on Shadow of the Colossus has been announced and I couldn't be more skeptical. After completing a game like Metal Gear Solid, I immediately considered how good a movie it could make. Not the case with Shadow of the Colossus. It's an experience that I'm not sure the hired help are not quite able to tackle, not because of talent (though that's highly questionable), but because it's a game that is not easily translatable into a cinematic experience. To be honest--if it were a literal translation--it'd be boring. Then again, the game's progression focuses on the "growth" of Wander, a symbolic progression that continually causes the player to question the motives behind his actions.

Plenty of video game movies that had a certain amount of cinematic flair have been made to less than satisfying results (though that is debatable, I readily admit). Perhaps adapting a more abstract game such as Shadow of the Colossus is the answer. Before, it was like translating an English book into Spanish before translating it back into English; it makes no sense. I'll leave my opinions open, though I can't help but outwardly express my skepticism.