Five easy pieces

Welcome to a little music history and education. I don’t think I’ve mentioned before on the blog, but I am a trained musician who plays anything with a keyboard (including piano accordion, thank you), and was lucky enough to be well-grounded in both the theory and history of music. It’s a fascinating subject.

Here, I’ll be dealing with some tunes that probably everybody would recognize after the first few notes, but very few people could actually name. For the most part, they were created for very different purposes, and a number of them are only known as small pieces of larger works. For all but two, they became iconic once they wound up in film or television — although it could be argued that the pop culture of the pre-mass media world did the same for the other two.

I encourage you to at least sample the linked videos so you can hear what I’m talking about, although most of the “Why you know it” sections will probably make the tunes play in your head automatically.

And-a 1, and-a 2, and-a 1, 2, 3, 4…

1.   Marche funèbre d’une marionnette

Funeral March of a Marionette, 1872, by Charles Guonod

Why you know it: Alfred Hitchcock. He mentioned loving the piece on a BBC Radio show called Desert Island Discs, in 1959. The show was basically one of those “If you could only take X things with you” question formats with celebrities, with the subject being eight pieces of music, a book, and a luxury item. This was one of Hitch’s eight pieces — probably not a surprise at the time, since he had already chosen it as the theme song for his TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which debuted in 1955.

How he stumbled across it is anyone’s guess, but it had already been used in a few films very early on, including Sunrise, Laurel and Hardy’s Habeas Corpus, and Buster Keaton’s Welcome Danger, all before 1929. Here’s the section from the opening of Hitchcock’s show.

Its original intent: Most likely, Guonod was aiming for a cross between macabre and whimsical. After all, this is a funeral cortege for a “dead” inanimate object, and the score itself plus a change to a D Major near the middle tells us that the “mourners” do stop for what is basically a buffet along the way. In other words, serious, not serious.

How it’s used: To create a general atmosphere of the macabre or sinister, leaving out any bit of whimsy or joy from the original.

Why you don’t know all of it: Hitchcock uses a tiny snippet. The whole piece is about four minutes — way too long for TV credits.

2. Vjezd gladiátorů

Entry of the Gladiators, 1897, by Julius Fučík

Why you know it: Ever been to the circus? You can’t hear this tune without seeing that parade of elephants and lions and clowns, all led by the ringmaster down the street and to the big top.

Its original intent: Pretty much the same as now. It’s from a genre of music called “screamer.” These were marches used in order to pump up a crowd, quite often at events like circuses or state fairs, and frequently right before the entrance of the main act or the famous clowns. What makes them notable is that they focus on the heavy brass in the band instead of the lighter woodwinds, and they are at a tempo that is actually too fast to march at comfortably. If you’ve ever been at any kind of performance that’s used pre-show music, then you’ve experienced this concept, although probably with a much different genre of music. Comedy clubs and live TV “tapings” (they really still use that word) use the same trick — fast-paced, upbeat music right before things start in order to get the audience in the mood.

How it’s used: As originally intended. It’s just that this particular piece happened to win out over all of the other screamers from the era. Oh — and don’t let the title fool you. Fučík never intended it to have anything to do with gladiators, either. He just had a jones for the glory that was Rome.

Why you don’t know all of it: Again, it’s short, and you may have heard the whole thing, but you only remember the hook. Bonus points — it was lifted by Three Dog Night. (God, the 70s didn’t age well.)

3.   O Fortuna!

AKA Oh Fortune, Empress of the World, from Carmina Burana, 1936, by Carl Orff

Why you know it: It’s been used as the soundtrack for countless films and movie trailers since forever. Here it is in Excalibur.

Its original intent: Somebody found a bunch of poetry written by 13th century monks, originally assumed to be from Beuren, but later determined to have actually been created in Austria. Oops! The title stuck, though. Carmina Burana means “songs of Beuren.” Written in a mix of Latin, German, and French of the era, they were not religious songs at all, but, in fact, were rather secular and earthy. Probably not surprising, though, considering that the authors were probably young men only just realizing what they had given up when they chose the monastic life. So, yeah… Orff didn’t start out with high art at all. The raunch is just hidden in the age of the language. Kind of like Shakespeare.

A great and probably honest description of the source comes from an NPR story on its history: “Carmina Burana,” Music of Monks and Drunks. Yeah, like I said, college kids. By the time it got around to Orff, though, he intended it as a pretty serious cantata, to be presented with dance and masks and all kinds of stage craft. After all, he titled it a “scenic cantata,” meaning that it would have scenes and scenery and stuff.

How it’s used: This is the “Shit’s about to get real” theme. Or, when used as satire, it means “Much ado about nothing.”

What you don’t know: It’s the opening and closing of the aforementioned song cycle, but none of the rest of it ever reaches this level of brilliant. I mean, the first four bars of O Fortuna are in a 3/1 time signature. Musicians will instantly get how balls to the wall that choice was. And while all that stuff between the beginning and ending isn’t well known, at least it’s good — unlike our next piece.

4.   Also sprach Zarathustra

Thus Spake Zarathustra, 1896, by Richard Strauss.

Why you know it: Stanley Kubrick.

Come on, really. If this isn’t the first movie you think of when you hear this song, you need to get out more. But even if you haven’t seen it, you do know the tune. Kubrick used it three times in the movie — under the opening credits, right before the most epic time span in a jump-cut in movies ever (hundreds of thousands of years, if not a million or two), and at the end as Bowman is… let’s just say, given a jumpstart in evolution.

Its original intent: Strauss was writing a tone poem based on a treatise by Friedrich Nietzsche of the same title, and probably most well-known for the statement “God is dead,” which appears as a question in the prologue and a statement in part two. It was this work that Strauss was trying to capture musically, although he proved that philosophical works probably don’t make the best source for emotionally moving art.

How it’s used: Whenever someone wants to parody or reference 2001: A Space Odyssey or indicate something profoundly epic is happening.

What you don’t know: Similar to Orff, this piece is the beginning and ending of a long song cycle. The difference is that while O Fortuna serves as the cookies outside of an Oreo, Also is just the bread on a shit sandwich. I’ve listened to the whole thing and, trust me, it’s less exciting than watching paint dry. There’s a reason that Johann “The Waltz King” is the better known Strauss, although he and Richard were not related. But Johann did get a piece in 2001 as well.

5.   Treulich gefürht

The Bridal Chorus, from Lohengrin, 1850, Richard Wagner

Why you know it: Come on. You’ve been to some weddings in your life, whether as guest, part of the wedding party, part of the family, or one of the two co-stars. This tune is now known as Here Comes the Bride, and it’s inspired more happy tears than have ever been cried by all of the fans of all the winning teams of every big sports ball championship final match ever.

Its original intent: Again, pretty much as we know it, except for the sole purpose of providing a dramatic, suspenseful, and emotional entrance for a wedding scene in an opera. It wasn’t written to be used in weddings at all. But you know how people are. It only took one socialite at the opera to announce, “Mother, we are using this song when I get married, and that’s it.” Boom. The rest is history.

How it’s used: Whether literally or ironically, it says “someone is about to get married.” It is most always played as the bride enters the wedding venue.

What you don’t know: Probably most of the rest of that opera, Lohengrin. And you probably don’t also realize the irony of weddings often using this song as an entrance and Felix Mendelssohn’s Wedding March as an exit — which is, sadly, not called There Goes the Bride. Why? Well, Richard had no love for Felix because Mendelssohn was Jewish and Wagner was a notorious anti-Semite. In fact, whenever the latter had to conduct the music of the former, he would wear gloves so that he didn’t have to come into contact with the score, and then throw the gloves away when he was done. Yes — Wagner was talented, but he was a jerk-ass.

What are your favorite “Songs everyone knows without knowing the source?” Tell us in the comments!

Image by Grzegorz Dymon, used unchanged under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

The art of war

Ending just over a century ago, World War I, originally known as The Great War or the War to End All Wars, turned out to be none of the above, since it was eclipsed by its sequel, World War II — to date, the planet’s only nuclear war — which also outdid the first World War in terms of “greatness” if you take “great” to mean number of deaths. Also, obviously, the fact that there was a II to follow the I — and many other wars thereafter to the present day — means that World War I didn’t end any wars at all.

What’s often forgotten about the aftermath of that wr was the effect it had on the people who lived through it — sometimes barely — and especially the effect it had on the arts and culture, as well as the politics of the rest of the first half of the 20th century. It left a generation that was as stunned as the post-Vietnam generation. In fact, it gave us the original term for what we now call PTSD: shell-shock.

In the arts, it gave us things like Dada, which led to Surrealism, which were both efforts to deal with the absolute horror of what really was the first modern war. After all, WWI gave us the first aerial warfare with planes (after a brief prelude in Mexico), the first trench warfare and the first large-scale chemical warfare. It also led to the development of new techniques in plastic surgery. Hey, gotta figure out how to rebuild all those faces that got blown off, right?

But it was the art connection that really hit home, because I can think of three films that dealt with World War I that have really stuck with me — the first because of the way it manages to demonstrate the pure horror of that war and all wars, and the other two because they show, brilliantly, how that war went on to influence the arts and artists of that generation as they grew up after it.

The oldest film and oldest source is Johnny Got His Gun, based on a book written Dalton Trumbo in 1938 — or, in other words, right before the sequel to the Great War was released. Ironically, he was later blacklisted as a communist in the 1950s. The movie came out in 1971, at the height of the anti-Vietnam War protest movement. Both it and the book tell a first-person story about a young veteran of World War I who comes home with all of his limbs and his face blown off. He basically has no way to communicate with the world, and keeps reliving the war while telling us what he can sense — which is mostly the sounds and touches from the nurses around him.

It’s a very dark and hopeless story. This man has basically been condemned to be trapped in his own practically useless body which is just being kept alive because, well, it’s what you do for the wounded, right? He is denied euthanasia and can’t even commit suicide. Even though he finally manages to try to communicate in Morse code by banging his head on his pillow, he’s ignored — just like so many veterans of that (and other) wars have been.

The second film, Savage Messiah, is one of Ken Russell’s earlier biopics. Released in 1972, it tells the story of artist Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. Gaudier was his birth name, but he had a rather unconventional relationship with a much older woman and took her name as a hyphenate way before it was even a thing, even though they never married.

Eventually, he marches off voluntarily to fight in World War I, and one of the scenes near the end of the film is one that has stuck with me since I first saw it in an art-house revival years ago. One character is reading a letter from Henri on the front that is glorifying the war, talking about killing the enemy. Another character, pitched as somewhat of an antagonist, says, “Whoever wrote that should be shot,” and the man reading the letter replies, “He was. This morning.”

And that is how we find out that this artist and sculptor is dead. It’s one of those rug-yank moments that works so well.

The final film, Max, came out thirty years after Savage Messiah, but is perhaps the strongest synthesis of the “how this war affected the arts” with “how this war got a sequel.” In it, John Cusack plays the titular character, a would-be artist who lost his painting arm in the trenches and so who is now just an art dealer and agent. He meets a young Hitler, portrayed by the brilliant Noah Taylor, and tries to mentor him, but it does not go well because Hitler cannot understand the human side of art while Max cannot see Hitler’s nascent fascism in his works.

One of the highlights is a Dadaist performance piece by Max in which he is lowered, apparently nude and with lost arm in full view sans prosthetic, into a giant meat-grinder while he talks about the war, tons of ground beef pouring out the business end. While the character of Max Rothman in 1918 may have been fictional, the film is still a very effective take on the emotional scars that this war left on everyone who had to live through the battlefield. Only the dead were left with just physical scars, and not emotional ones, although that’s probably not better.

Of course, there are a bunch of top-rated World War I movies, some made before, a lot made after; some of which I’ve seen, a lot of which I’ve haven’t, along with the long list of all World War I movies. Also, I can’t forget Black Adder Goes Forth, which basically ended a beloved series with (SPOILER ALERT) all of the characters rushing out of the trench to their certain deaths. But, c’mon. It’s a Black Adder series. That shouldn’t be a surprise at all, considering how the first one ended.

Finally, to really bring it full circle, Rajiv Joseph wrote a play about the start of World War I called Archduke which was pretty amazing and that played in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum in 2017, exactly a century after the U.S. finally entered WWI.

Oh yeah. The other big effect of that war? It’s the one that solidified the U.S. as a world super-power after we fired the first shot in the Spanish-American War but before we stole the thunder from Britain and France by finally jumping in to end the First World War. That part is not necessarily good, though, either.

What films about war particularly move you? Tell us in the comments!

On the shoulders of giants

A while back, I wrote about two writers who had a big influence on me, one directly in real life, and the other stylistically. But I’ve also been influenced by four film directors, one of whom directly inspired me to stupidly pursue a career in this business. Unlike one of the writers above, I never met any of them, and they all also happen to be dead now.

In a nutshell, and in order of influence, those directors are Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Ken Russell, and Nicolas Roeg. Sure, four old, white British men (Kubrick being an American ex-pat), but I didn’t know better as a kid, okay? All I knew was that my dad took me to see Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey during one of those many times when the Cinerama Dome opened a would-be blockbuster that bombed, so they had to fill time with something else — and this movie blew Star Wars right out of the water. It was Science Fiction that felt real. There was no sound in space, the movie took its time, the soundtrack was mostly classical music in a future context, and I walked out of that first viewing thinking, “Yeah. I want to do this.”

Present me would love to time travel back to then, grab that kid by the shoulders and shout in his face, “No, dumbass. You want to figure out how to make enough money to pay other people to do this for you so you’ll be richer than Croesus.”

Young me wouldn’t have listened.

Anyway, a few years later, I discovered the several “Art House” cinemas in Los Angeles like the Nuart Theater, mainly because I noticed that they showed other Kubrick films. They also didn’t seem to really pay a lot of attention to ratings, so I could get my young ass into R-rated films. Note: There are absolutely no penalties, legal or otherwise, for a theater not following the MPAA ratings when they sell tickets. None. Nada, and one theater openly defied an NC-17 rating. It’s all smoke and mirrors, folks. So anybody can go to an R-rated movie. It’s just the idea that ratings are some legal bar that makes them effective. But I do digress…

So I worked my way through the Kubrick oeuvre, then stumbled into Hitchcock, and while he created in a G-rated world, his films were just as amazing for different reasons. Kubrick’s works are all about Big Ideas passed through the filter of human experience. 2001 deals with the evolution of the human species, past and future; Clockwork Orange handles crime and punishment; Dr. Strangelove takes on war and peace; Barry Lyndon is all about the class system, and so on.

Hitchcock, though, was all about plot, especially when layered with suspense. Kubrick would make you think. Hitchcock would make you sit on the edge of your seat and clench your butt. Hitch was also far more prolific than Kubrick, which is why I think that there isn’t a single Kubrick film I don’t love, but I’m not a fan of every Hitchcock film.

The ones that really bowl me over, though, are North by Northwest, Rear Window, Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Rope. Oops… Psycho isn’t on that list? Well, for me it’s not, because it really doesn’t stack up against the others. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a great film, but in the context of the rest of his works, it’s actually on the lower end of the scale.

The other thing that struck me about both of these directors, though, is that they were technical innovators. Both of them constantly came up with new ways to do things on film. Hitchcock actually has a particular shooting technique named after him, and Kubrick managed to out-Star Wars Star Wars a decade before Star Wars without a single computer in sight.

After Hitchcock, though, those art house movies led me to another director who worked on a completely different plane, but to whom I clung immediately: Ken Russell. And if Kubrick specialized in ideas while Hitchcock mastered in plot, I’d have to say that Russell’s playing field dealt with emotions in general, or fantasies specifically. His biopics were amazing exercises in giving us emotional truths through metaphors.

Three in particular, each of which dealt with famous composers, run the scale (pun intended) from lightest to heaviest in fantasy: The Music Lovers, about Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, with some fantasy sequences, but not a lot; Mahler, about the composer Gustav Mahler, about half and half; and Lizstomania, almost entirely fantasy and, while it seems to be the most off-the-rails of them all in covering the life of Franz Lizst, it is actually the most accurate in its metaphorical way, because Lizst really was the first rock star, even if it happened 120 years before the Beatles.

Russell used fantasies and dreams to explore the emotional life of his characters, and it is beautiful. He’s another director with an oeuvre limited enough that I think I’ve seen almost all of his films, and while I have ups and downs, I don’t think there are many I don’t like. For calibration purposes, I’d rank Lair of the White Worm as worst, and the aforementioned Mahler as best.

After Russell, the art houses introduced me to another influence, a director named Nicolas Roeg. And the thing he specialized in was playing with time. Not a single one of his films took place in chronological order, and this was what taught me the power of editing. He’s probably best well-known for a film that most people haven’t seen but only know about because David Bowie starred in it: The Man Who Fell to Earth. And here’s the thing. This is one damn difficult movie to sit through, and it wasn’t my first Roeg film, so I came to it knowing his style.

Here’s the order I learned Roeg, as far as I can remember. Don’t Look Now, which is an amazing and stylish suspense horror film that isn’t gory, starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie; Walkabout, which deals with issues of privilege at a time when that wasn’t even a concept, as White Girl and White Boy (literally their names in the credits) are dumped in the Australian outback by their suicidal father, only to be saved by an aboriginal Black Boy who is on his Walkabout, which is a right of passage for his belief system. Needless to say, guess who it doesn’t end well for.

And before I got to The Man Who Fell to Earth, I also saw Roeg’s first big “Hey, look at me” movie, Performance, which actually gave us an incredible, well, um, performance from a young, often nude, and sexy Mick Jagger.

But the most important takeaway for me from Roeg’s films was this. Do not tell your story in chronological order. Tell it in emotional order. If the thing that happens in normal Act 3 seems meaningless then, but can serve as set-up for later, then move it up. And if the thing from Act 1 that seems meaningless up front takes on power later, move it down.

Put them all together, and this is where my playwriting goes: Stories about big ideas that are still very plotted, but which also use fantasy and surrealism to explore emotional truths, and tend to not take place in chronological order. In fact, only one of my produced full-length plays takes place in literal time, and that happens to be the first one produced.

And so there you go. I constantly play with ideas, plots, emotions, and chronology. The big idea comes first, and I build the story from that via plots that are driven by emotions. Once that’s in place, I chop the story up and order it based not on when, but on how the emotions drive the timeline and the plot. And this is how four very different directors created my artistic vision.

(Not noted above, Terry Gilliam, who I didn’t realize really was an influence at first, but taught me the idea of not taking anything too seriously, least of all yourself, and also confirmed that I was playing the game of cut and paste creativity properly.)

So who are your major influences? What have you taken from them, and how do you use that? Tell us in the comments!

Fangry

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard about the petition started by fans demanding a re-do of Season 8 of Game of Thrones, and this may have given you a flashback to last year, when fans of Star Wars demanded the same thing in the same way for The Last Jedi. Hm. Oddly enough, that was Episode VIII, but I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.

Of course, there’s no chance in hell that any of this is going to happen. Personally, if I were one of the producers on the receiving end of that petition, my response would be, “Okay, sure. Season 8 cost $90 million. When I checked, 218,141 of you signed the petition. So if each of you sends us $412.56, we’ll do it.” (Note: I am not going to link to the petition at all, and the reasons why not should become obvious shortly.)

This is called “putting your money where your mouth is,” although I’m sure that many of these fans who are complaining are either torrenting the series illegally or sharing HBO to Go passwords with each other, which just makes it more infuriating.

As an artist, nothing galls me more than armchair quarterbacking from the fans. Note that this is different than critiquing. If a fan sees one of my plays or reads one of my books and says, “I really didn’t like how the story played out,” or “I couldn’t relate to the lead character,” or similar, than that is totally valid. But as soon as a fan (or a critic) gets into, “It should have ended like this,” or “I would have written it like that,” or “this character should have done this instead,” then you’ve gone over the line.

Note, though: Professional critics do not do this. That’s what sets them apart from angry fanboys.

Thanks to the internet, we’ve moved into this weird area where what used to be a consumer culture has morphed into a participatory culture. Sorry to go Wiki there, but those are probably the most accessible ways in to what are very abstract concepts involving economics, marketing, and politics.

There are good and bad sides to both, which I’ll get to in a moment, and while the latter has always been lurking in the background, it hasn’t become as prevalent until very recently. Again, not necessarily a bad thing, but it needs understanding and context to work.

So what do we mean by consumer and participatory? The short version is “buy stuff” vs. “give stuff.” A consumer culture focuses on getting people to spend money in the pursuit of having a better life in a capitalist economy. Its marketing mantra is, “Hey… you have problem A? Product X will solve it!” It is also aimed at large groups based on demographics in order to bring in the herd mentality. Keeping up with the Joneses writ large. “Everybody is doing it/has one!”

Ever wonder why people line up down the block at midnight in order to get the latest iPhone or gaming console on the day it comes out? It’s because they have been lured, hook, line, and sinker into consumer culture. But here’s the thing people miss, or used to miss because I think we’re becoming a bit more aware. Because demographics are very important to consumer culture, you are also a product. And if some corporation is giving you something for free — like Google, Facebook, Instagram, etc. — then you are the only product.

Participatory culture is one in which people do not just buy, watch, or read the products, but in which they give input and feedback, and the rise of the internet and social media has pushed this to the forefront. Ever commented on a post by one of your favorite brands on how they could make it better? Ever snarked an elected official for whom you’re a constituent? Ever blasted a movie, show, or sketch in a mass media corporation’s website? Congratulations! That’s participatory culture.

As I mentioned above, it’s not new. In the days before the internet, people could always write letters to newspapers, legislators, corporations, and studios. The only difference then was that it was a bit harder — physically creating the message, whether with pen and paper or typewriter, then putting it in an envelope, looking up the address via dead tree media, taking the thing to a post office, putting a stamp on it, and dropping it off.

Phew. That’s some hard work. Now? Fire up Twitter, drop an @ and some text, click send, done.

And, again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’ve had more direct responses from my own elected officials to my social media comments than I ever did back in the days of mail of the E or snail variety only. The mail responses were always form letters with the subtext of, “Yeah, we get this a lot, we don’t care, here’s some boilerplate.” Social media doesn’t allow for that because it becomes too obvious.

But where participatory culture goes too far is when the fans turn it into possessory culture. Again, this isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s only become more common because being a participant and not just a consumer has become so much easier.

Here’s the anecdotal part. I’ve spent a lot of my working career in the entertainment industry, particularly film and television, and a lot of that dealing directly or indirectly with fans. And one thing that I can say for certain is that people who aren’t in the industry — termed “non-pro” by the trades and often called “muggles” by us — don’t have a clue about how it all works.

If you don’t know what “the trades” are, then you probably fall into the muggle category. Although it’s really a dying term, it refers to the magazines that covered the industry (“the trade”) from the inside, and which were read voraciously every day — principally Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and Billboard.

But I do digress.

In college, I interned for a game show production company, and one of my jobs was reading and properly directing fan mail, or replying to it with one of a dozen form letters they had printed out en masse, because yes, the questions or complaints were so predictable. One of the big recurring themes was the mistaken belief that the host of the game show personally wrote, directed, edited, and selected contestants for the entire thing. Yeah, no. Unless the host was an executive producer (and the only example that comes to mind is Alex Trebek, for whom I almost worked), then the only thing the host did was show up for the taping day, when they would do five half-hour shows back to back.

And so… I would read endless letters with sob stories begging the host to cast them, or complaints about wanting them to fire one or another guest celebrities, or, ridiculously often, outright requests for money because reasons (always from red states, too), prefiguring GoFundMe by a decade or two.

A lot of these letters also revealed how racist a lot of Americans were then (and still are) and yes, the response to that crap was one of our most sent-out form letters.

This pattern continued though, on into the days of the internet and email. When I worked on Melrose Place, we would constantly get emails telling the stars of the show things like, “I hated what you did to (character) in that episode. Why are you such a bitch?” or “Why don’t you change this story line? I hate it.”

Really? Really.

Gosh. I guess I never realized that scripted TV had so damn much improv going on. Yes, that was irony. And here’s a fun fact: While a lot of it may seem like it’s improv, SNL is actually not, and doing improv there is the quickest way to never get invited back.

At least those comments were much easier to respond to. “Thank you, but Heather Locklear does not actually write her parts, she only performs them. We will pass your concerns on to the producers.” (Which we never did, because, why?)

Still… misguided but fine. And even things like fan fiction are okay, because they aren’t trying to change canon so much as honor it — although it can sometimes spin off the rails, with Fifty Shades of Gray being the ur-example of a fangirl turning a Twilight fanfic into a super dumpster fire of bad writing and terrible movies and still somehow making a fortune off of it — the perfect storm of participatory culture turning around to bite the ass of consumer culture. I’m not sure whether that’s good or bad, but if anybody did this to my work, I’d probably want to punch them in the throat.

Of course, there are always textual poachers, who approach fanfic from a slightly different angle. Their aim isn’t to make their own fortune off of rewriting stuff. Rather, it’s to, well, as a quote from the book Textual Poachers says, “Fan fiction is a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of owned by the folk.”

So that’s perfectly fine. If you’re not happy with how Star Wars or Game of Thrones turned out, then write your own damn version yourself. Do it on your own time and at your own expense, and enjoy. But the second you’d deign to try to demand that any other artist should change their work to make you happy, then you have lost any right whatsoever to complain about it.

castle-rock-misery-stephen-king

Don’t be Annie Wilkes. Stephen King knew that.

See how that works? Or should I start a petition demanding that the other petition be worded differently? Yeah. I don’t think that would go over so well with the whiny fanboys either.

The perception of art is completely subjective while the creation thereof is completely under the artist’s control. If you don’t like it, don’t look at it, don’t watch it, don’t buy it. But, most of all, don’t tell the artist how they should have done it. Period. Full stop.

Bad movies that really aren’t

Judging any art form is really subjective. After all, one man’s masterpiece is another man’s mishegoss. And you can’t really measure the entire world of creativity based on just your standards. Sure, it’d be nice if everything conformed to your taste, but why does it have to? You don’t have to watch it if you don’t like it.

I mean, if I ruled the world of entertainment, then most reality shows would not exist, no one would have ever heard of the Kardashians or the residents of the Jersey Shore, and professional wrestling would have died in the 1950s, along with a lot of other things. And sorry, but there would also be no MCU or DC movies.

If all of that pisses you off, good. It should. Because, like I said, if there’s room for my fanboy stuff, there’s room for yours. If I don’t like your stuff, I don’t have to watch it, and vice versa.

This isn’t to say that everything ever produced is perfect, or that all critics are wrong. Sometimes, a hot mess can be damn entertaining despite, or even because of, its flaws, and here are my ten examples of movies that, IMHO, are much better than they have any business being.

  1. Myra Breckinridge (1970)

Adapted from Gore Vidal’s “book that couldn’t be written,” this “motion picture that couldn’t be made” is actually much better and far more subversive than it was given credit for at the time. Then again, maybe it was too far ahead of its time, since it dealt with issues of gender identity, sexual orientation, feminism, and the capitalistic rape of the arts at a time when American society wasn’t ready for that discussion. As if we really are now.

Vidal disowned the film, and a lot of the cast involved, especially Raquel Welch in the titular (ahemn) role bad-mouthed it before it came out. Some critics think it’s the one thing that prevented her meteoric rise to stardom from continuing, which is a shame. Rex Reed also isn’t half bad in his debut, but the rest of his onscreen acting career amounted to small parts, cameos, or appearing on game shows, although he did frequently appear as himself in documentaries about other performers.

Still… viewed through the lens of the world almost fifty years later, the film comes across as a wry and knowing satire that somehow managed to understand the marginalized, even if the director was a straight and probably homophobic moron.

  1. Caligula (1979)

This one is an interesting milestone mainly because it’s the only example I can think of that had a big name, famous cast combined with hardcore porn. Oh, sure. None of the stars were involved in the actual boinking, but nonetheless there was plenty of real sex happening onscreen in this film, money shots and all — and some of the big names did do a lot of faking it.

But here’s the thing. I’ve been a fan of Roman history for a long time, and had read Suetonius long before I saw this film in an art house revival, and if anything, it actually holds back a little bit from the reality, despite all  that jizz and gore on screen.

If you can handle all the ick, though, what’s not to like? We have Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O’Toole, and John Gielgud, leading up a cast of mostly Italian actors who were probably doing the old “it’s getting dubbed later” trick with their dialogue. But, anyway… for the most part, Caligula follows Suetonius pretty accurately, paints a really nice portrait of Rome circa 40 C.E., has a little bit of something for everyone, and has some really nice dark humor.

Bonus points and a connection to the first entry: the screenplay was written by… Gore Vidal, who also disowned it and insisted that his name be taken off. Somewhere in my collection, I think I still have a rare paperback edition of the novelization of the film that credits him as the author. He would have hated that.

  1. The Apple (1980)

Kudos for this one, because it happened right at a point when Hollywood musicals seemed dead — although it didn’t manage to get the same attention as the next entry on the list. This is definitely a B Movie and set in the then far-off world of 1994, where “life is nothing but show business.” The only thing they got wrong was in jumping the gun a little bit, but not by much.

I’d classify this one as pretentious silliness, but the musical numbers are enjoyable enough and well-choreographed, and the issues of reality shows with audience manipulation to tinker with the results still ring true today. Bonus points for the Big Bad being played by famous Polish character actor Vladek Sheybal in what is, as far as I know, his only musical role. He made a career out of playing dubious Soviets during the Cold War, but is probably best known to mainstream audiences for his role in the James Bond flick From Russia with Love. Here, it’s a hoot seeing him play a saucy singing and dancing stand-in for Satan.

Oh, yeah. In case the symbolism in the title was too subtle for you, yes, it’s that apple ultimately, with Mr. Boogalow and Mr. Topps competing for the souls of innocents Pandi and Dandi. I’m sure the symbolism of the protagonist’s and antagonist’s names will probably jump right out at you, too.

  1. Xanadu (1980)

Another musical dealing with religious mythology, although this time around it’s Greek, and involves a muse (Olivia Newton-John) who came down to Earth. (She’s Terpsichore, the muse of dance, in case you’re keeping track.) The plot involves some silliness about re-opening a long closed roller rink as a failed mural artist (Michael Beck) teams up with an old time band leader (Gene Kelly), and they all sing, dance, and skate around combined with some really cheesy 1980 visual effects that were in that awkward slot between purely optical and purely CGI.

Still… it’s an entertaining romp if you just let your brain go and marvel at this attempt to combine the au courant (Olivia) with the past (Kelly), and an even further past (the Pan Pacific Theater, which was another character, really),  and set it all to cheesy as hell pop songs. Hey, it was good enough to be unironically turned into a Broadway musical.

  1. Meet Joe Black (1998)

The main critique I hear of this film is that it’s just too damn long, but come on. It happens to be exactly the same length as Avengers: End Game to the minute. What I enjoy about this film, though, besides the amazing pairing of Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins in the leads, is how much of a throw-back to 1930s and 40s Hollywood films it is, particularly Heaven Can Wait (1943) and Death Takes a Holiday (1934) — which was the direct inspiration for this film.

After Joe Black takes over the body of a young man who struck the interest of Hopkins’ character’s daughter before he was hit by multiple cars and apparently killed, it becomes a meditation on the need for love and the inevitability of death and, indeed, how the former can conquer the latter. This is a film about big ideas, and it takes its time with it, which is probably why it put a lot of people off.

  1. Battlefield Earth (2000)

This one is on the top of my “So goddamn bad it’s gold” list. Cheesy as hell? Oh yeah. Cosmic shit show? In spades. Worth watching? Definitely. Here’s the review I wrote when it came out. What wasn’t to hate about it? Crazed cult member spends millions on vanity project with no apparent oversight, chews up and spits out the scenery, and everything in it seems derivative.

On that last point, here’s where I have to give props to L. Ron, though. Sure, there are bits that seem to have been ripped from Logan’s Run and Blade Runner and other stuff. However, he did write his pulp epic before those books and movies ever came out. So this is chicken and egg stuff. Still…

The best part of Battlefield Earth is that if you know it’s a thinly veiled explanation of Scientology, then everything in it makes that pseudo religion look so goddamn ridiculous that this movie is practically an anti-recruiting tool — and Travolta couldn’t even see that. And that was L. Ron Hubbard’s joke, really, I think, because he parodied hard the religion he created and its structure. Who are the villains in this story? The Psychlos. And even though he gave them a name reminiscent of the people Scientologists consider the villains — psychiatrists and psychologists — that was just a dodge,  because everything thing the Psychlos do and say, especially to each other, is right out of the Scientology  rule book.

So, yeah. This movie more than anything reminds me of what an evil genius L. Ron was. He managed to create a cult and then mock them quite openly in his fiction, knowing that they’d never get it because he’d blinded them to it. Brilliant!

  1. National Treasure (2004)

History: 0. Fun: 10. That’s all I really have to say about this one and its sequels. It’s a romp that may teach some people some stuff, and it’s sort of an Americanized Dan Brown, except without quite so much made up bullshit. Okay, a modicum of made up bullshit, but at least it’s not stolen from other writers who made it up first.

  1. John Carter (2012)

The only reason that John Carter tanked is this: Disney bought Lucasfilm. Period. Why did that have an effect? Simple. They didn’t want to start supporting another science fiction franchise in the wake of the behemoth they’d just reined in. So all PR and marketing for this film stopped abruptly before it opened, and more’s the shame, because it’s a pretty accurate take on what is arguably one of the earliest American science fiction franchises, and Mr. Carter deserved a hell of a lot more.

I mean, come on. Is Disney really that blind that they don’t realize how damn many fourteen-year-old boys (and girls) they could have gotten to come see A Princess of Mars? Otherwise, John Carter is a well-done ripping adventure that combines every desert planet from Star Wars with all of that MCU jumping about.

  1. Jupiter Ascending (2015)

This one was misunderstood by people who don’t like comedy or satire in their science fiction. (“You got chocolate in my peanut butter!”) But, come on. It’s funny and off-kilter, and it’s meant to be. The other thing to keep in mind: during the time this film was in production, the Wachowskis were going through some difficult personal times, just after Lana’s public transition and just before Lily’s — and one of them was outed as transgender against her will. So take that title, as well as the plot, as symbolic.

Is the whole thing meant to be camp and with a double meaning? Oh, hell yes.

  1. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

I consider this film to be the unofficial sequel to Luc Besson’s amazing The Fifth Element, because it really feels like it’s set in the same world, and it starts off with an absolutely amazing opening sequence (with Rutger Hauer and Bowie bonus points) and then includes this amazing bit of stuff from Rihanna that made me question my sexuality. What’s not to like?

Which movies that are generally considered “bad” do you really love and why? Tell us in the comments.

 

The spoiler paradox

In the last few days, I’ve accidentally stumbled across big spoilers for both Avengers: Endgame and the most recent episode of Game of Thrones. Now, I have friends who have posted online that if anyone spoils either or both of those things for them, then the person doing the spoiling is going to be unfriended.

Here’s the funny thing, though. According to a study done by Nicholas Christenfeld, a psychology professor at UCSD in California, although most people say that they hate spoilers, in reality, they actually enhance enjoyment, whether somebody was part of a particular fandom or not.

One of the most archetypal examples, perhaps, is the film Citizen Kane. I’m going to spoil it in the next sentence, so brace yourselves. “Rosebud” was his sled. (It was also William Randolph Hearst’s nickname for something else, but that’s beside the point.)

Oh noes! Movie ruined, right? Probably not. I’d had it spoiled for me long before my first viewing of the film in a high school movie history class, but it didn’t matter. Why not? For me, it was because I got to enjoy watching how the characters in the movie figured out what I already knew, as well as to enjoy all of those moments when they went down the wrong path thinking they were right.

A follow-up study by Christenfeld confirmed this even more. And think about it for a moment. Shakespeare is still being produced and adapted to this day, and so are a lot of other classic plays, but everybody knows how they end. Unless you’re maybe a middle-schooler who hasn’t read it yet, you know who dies in Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. But it doesn’t matter. You know who Keyser Söze is, or what’s in the box in Se7en, or who Luke’s daddy is (or Kylo Ren’s parents, for that matter.)

That doesn’t make these things unwatchable. And here’s another way to look at it. How many times have you re-watched your favorite film or TV episode/series or play? Did knowing what was going to happen wreck that experience in any way at all?

The answer, obviously, is “No.”

Another example from my life is Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None — which we first read in middle school English class, but at least we were fortunate enough to not be subjected to it until the book had gone through name changes in order to purge the title of not one but two absolutely racist terms. I didn’t manage to see the movie version until I rented it long after I’d read the book, but knowing who did it and how did not detract from the experience in the least. In fact, it made it more interesting because I was in the know, as I mentioned above, and seeing everyone else being totally oblivious to it all just made me, as an audience member, feel smart. (We’ll ignore the fact that this version changed the original ending. Argh!)

So, coming back to the present… a funny thing happened before I got around to watching Avengers: Infinity War. I had the whole gotdang thing spoiled for me — who got snapped away, who got killed before that, everything. Did it spoil my enjoyment of the film? Not one bit. Now, full disclosure: I am not a Marvel Fanboy. In fact, I’ve only seen a few of the movies, and really couldn’t care less about the franchise. Likewise, I never got into the Game of Thrones TV series (although I love the books), although I can appreciate them as art, and I do not begrudge their fandom one bit. Hey, if you like either or both, great. Just don’t look down on me for not being into them, and don’t give me crap for being a Whovian and Star Wars nerd. Deal?

(I will judge you if you’re a fan of gore porn horror movies, though. Seriously — what is wrong with you that you call that shit entertainment? On the other hand, since Titus Andronicus is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, did I just go full hypocrite? Or did I just say, “Hey, gore porn creators, class it up a bit, okay?” I mean, GOT did definitely steal at least one big dinner bit from Titus. Thanks, Arya!)

Now, back to one, as they say in the film biz. I know how Endgame ends, what happens to whom, and yadda yadda. Does that infuriate me or make me not want to see it or unfriend people? Oh, hell noes. It makes me want to enjoy the experience of seeing how they make those things happen. Same thing with the most recent episode of GOT. Ah, so she did what to whom? Bring it, and show me how.

“Spoilers” don’t really spoil anything. We only try to pretend that they do. But, as Professor Christenfeld has demonstrated, they most likely actually enhance the experience.

So when I tell you that I was really surprised when Tony Stark killed Jon Snow, don’t hate me. Thank me. I’ve just helped you enjoy both of those franchises even more.

Reconsidering Myra

Sometimes, it’s possible for a work of art to be so damn far ahead of its time that no one gets it until years later, and I was reminded of this recently when random events led me to take another look at the 1970 film adaptation of Gore Vidal’s infamous novel Myra Breckinridge. At the time it came out, the movie was hyped with the tag line, “From the book that couldn’t be written comes the motion picture that couldn’t be made!”

Now, I’ll admit up-front that I’ve always liked the movie and the book because they are both transgressive, and I’m also a huge fan of everything Vidal ever wrote. The novel is epistolary in structure, meaning it appears as a series of letters and memos, alternating between the voices of the titular Myra and her uncle Buck Loner, owner of the acting school she wants to take over. It’s actually not at all an uncommon style. One of the most famous examples is Bram Stoker’s Dracula. A more recent example is World War Z, which itself was directly influenced by Stud Terkel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Good War: An Oral History of World War II. The epistolary form is a very interesting and compelling story structure. In fact, it’s sort of a lynch-pin of a lot of modern gaming, whether text or action based.

But the main point is that Vidal’s original put us in the heads of the protagonist and antagonist and made us understand them both, although Buck’s recorded memos are decidedly colder and more self-serving, not to mention that he likes to lie about shit, while Myra lays it all out to explain what she’s up to. And, in retrospect, the movie does a good job at nodding to that while not sticking in it because, honestly, nothing would be more boring than a film in which we just watch two people write letters. But we do open with an actual view of the words Myra writes, and we have several scenes in which we see Buck record his memos, so the hat tip to the original is there.

What’s really interesting about the film is that the decidedly X-rated Myra (when that rating was still a thing), premiered two months after Midnight Cowboy became the first and only X-rated film to win the Best Picture Oscar. It seemed like movie-going audiences were ready for adult fare and, indeed, Midnight Cowboy grossed $44.8 million on a budget of $3.2 million or, adjusted for inflation, the film cost $21 million to make, but brought back just under $293 million.

The real problem was that while the MPAA trademarked all of its other ratings, they did not do so for X, and suddenly producers of exploitation and pornographic films started to slap the X on them in hopes of getting the same legitimacy as Hollywood fare like Midnight Cowboy, A Clockwork Orange, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, I Am Curious (Yellow), If…, and Last Tango in Paris, all of which were originally rated X.

Side note: What was considered “adult” back then would barely raise eyebrows today. Any single episode of any made-for-cable or streaming show now would have given the censors of the ‘60s and ‘70s total aneurysms despite the expanded sexual freedom as the Hays Code got kicked to the curb. It’s arguable that the only reason that Cowboy did get the X-rating is because of two scenes which imply but don’t show oral sex and anal rape, both acts involving only men.

The other weird thing about Myra is that the book was critically acclaimed while the movie was lambasted. The novel was also the first to depict a transgender character, not to mention that she was also the narrator and protagonist. Above all, it is a satire on gender roles and how they are artificially constructed, particularly via mass media.

The film was universally panned and it flopped, making only $4 million on a budget of $5.4 million, or, adjusted for inflation, taking in only $26.2 million on a budget of $37.3. And this was with an all-star cast of its era — Raquel Welch, Mae West, John Huston, Jim Backus, and John Carradine. It was the film that introduced both Farah Fawcett and Tom Selleck, and gave then well-known critic and gossip columnist Rex Reed his film debut (asshole in real life, but actually kind of hot here) — playing the pre-transition version of Raquel’s character to boot. Hell, even Toni Basil, of 80s pop music fame, turns up in a small role.

So I had a re-watch of the film a couple of days ago and, again, while the movie has always been one of my guilty pleasures, I put it in that “so bad it’s good category,” except that now, for some reason on this re-watch, my reaction was, “OMG. This move is really, really good.”

What stuck out, first of all, is that the A-List stars in this thing really, really got it. Nothing was supposed to have been taken seriously because everything was satire and parody. And it’s satire on so many levels. First of all, the film takes a major stab at the illusion that Hollywood is a fantasy factory that will make any rube who wanders in from the sticks instantly famous just because they’re pretty, but in reality makes it a habit to suck them dry of their money while doing nothing to help them improve their talent or make real connections. One character pretty much just says it outright: Students enroll in Buck Loner’s acting school, but none of them ever seem to graduate. And what happens to Rusty and Mary Ann is the literal embodiment of what the industry figuratively does to the naïfs who come here.

Second is how the film explodes the self-importance of those who have made it. John Huston’s character, Buck Loner, is the archetypal Hollywood cowboy star of the 1930s through 1950s. His students adore him, but he is clearly a walking parody from his first entrance. As played by Huston, Loner is clearly too stupid to get this. The only reason his students love him is because he might know people who know people, but the second that façade falls, they would run away.

And then there’s Myra, whose character thinks that the last important American motion picture was made in 1945. In case that date seems arbitrary, keep this in mind: That was the year that the U.S. nuked Japan and yes, we filmed it, so it’s entirely possible that this was the movie she was referring to. (There’s even stock footage of a nuclear bomb test that punctuates a pivotal moment in the film.) She also likes to dress like film starlets of the 1940s, and at one point appears in a uniform that looks very much like U.S. Navy dress white. And when you think about that, it’s a bit of a double gender-bender: a transwoman intentionally becoming a drag king, so basically a woman born in a man’s body who has become a woman through gender confirmation surgery, but then dresses like a man.

On top of all that, the movie is sprinkled with clips from classic American films made before 1945, and the filmmakers were promptly sued over several of them because certain actors didn’t want their work associated with something they saw as pornographic.

Yeah, they entirely missed the point, too.

If Myra were given a re-release today, I have no doubt that it would find an audience and become an instant classic. I’m pretty sure that Millennials would get it immediately. Why? Because it’s a movie that skewers pretension and the artificiality of gender roles, as well as inverts privilege and power. It repurposes pop culture of its era, further tweaking the self-importance of the mass media power structure, and it’s heroine is a very strong woman who knows what she wants and goes out to get it.

It also brings up a really good question. While remakes generally suck, this just might be one movie that merits one today, but updated. Hm. Forty years after… If it comes out next year and we keep the relative timing, that means that modern Myra would think that the last great American movie came out in 1995. If all of the clips reference films made between that year and 1965, when the Hays Code ended, it would give us a hell of an assortment, covering everything from the Getaway and the original Myra to game-changer blockbusters like The Godfather, The Exorcist, Jaws, and Star Wars, among many others.

Casting? Well… Rhys Ernst as Myron, Rain Valdez as Myra. (Double switch, because they’re both transgendered.) Clint Eastwood would be a mega-score as Buck Loner but, short of him… Arnold Schwarzenegger? And for total stunt casting, who do we get for the Mae West Part? Um… Raquel, of course, because she’s now of that age, and I’m sure that she’d love the karmatic revenge, since Mae was so awful to her. Hell, they could be the subject of a future episode of Feud. And if Ms. Welch demurred, then the next logical choice, again for reasons of symmetry, would be Anjelica Huston who, while she’s a decade younger than West was then and Welch is now, she’s also the daughter of the original Buck Loner.

Rusty, who gets pegged by Myra? Zack Efron. As for Rusty’s girlfriend and Mae’s stud? Yeah, let’s toss those roles to two lucky unknowns, just like the original.

For the Carradine and Backus cameos, I’d cast Martin Sheen and Seth MacFarlane, respectively, again because of the echoes of the originals — a famous actor father with famous acting sons, and a perennial and beloved TV and voiceover star.

But there’s one more step. See, Vidal wrote a sequel, Myron, which continued the story but which was also a total satire of the Nixon years with television as the medium instead of film. In a nutshell, Myra is back to being Myron, who is now living a straight, masculine, cis-gender life, married to Mary Ann — Fawcett’s character — but then he literally gets sucked into an imaginary 1948 Maria Montez movie Siren of Babylon while watching it on the late-night movie on TV (Maria did make a film in 1949 called Siren of Atlantis, though, but note the year of both the real and fictional movies. Neither one of them could have been any good according to Myra.)

Once Myron is in the movie, he’s stuck in the narrative while it’s airing but able to wander around the lot during commercials, and then Myra starts to re-emerge and tries to take over, much to Myron’s chagrin.

But… Myra/Myron as a limited run series with each book still set in its original era would get even more meta as we moved from the first book into the second. And the wrap-around meta to that maybe? The whole thing is told from the POV of a modern-day grad student majoring in social media and minoring in gender studies who is watching the movie or reading the books in order to write their thesis, except that maybe they get sucked into them, too, and the grad student is the kind of non-binary, gender-queer, and self-accepting person that people from the age of Myra or Myron couldn’t ever possibly even conceive of existing but which they have always subconsciously hoped to become. Maybe the character could be called Myrum —if you got that, you really know your Latin — or Myrex, which is actually probably better on about five hundred levels, and if you get that one, you really know your Latin@.

Hm. Myra/Myron/Myrex. Hey, FX… are you listening? Nine episodes, great ratings. Easy peasy, pan comido.

Photo: Gore Vidal, 1948, by Carl Van Vechten.