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Issue #266

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Issue #266

Watched LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN on DVD the other night. Turns out it’s a great film for people who want to learn to write modern material, because it gets it all wrong and I doubt it’s entirely the filmmakers’ fault.

It’s a crime film, with a decent cast: Bruce Willis as “a world class assassin” running some sort of game on two warring crime lords played by Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley, who via a case of mistaken identity trap hapless young man Josh Hartnett between them while neighbor/coroner Lucy Liu and, separately, police detective Stanley Tucci try to work out what the hell is going on. The directing’s solid with some entertaining tricks, and the whipcrack dialogue is generally decent if self-conscious, referential and fast for any character to develop an individual voice, like someone watched a little too much Tarantino and mainlined a little too much speed.

All that aside, it makes a cardinal error that’s way too prevalent, in every medium: it’s way too obvious.

The film opens with Willis in the deserted waiting room of an air terminal, telling a stranger the story of a twenty year old horserace that ended disastrously. Like many such films and comics and TV shows and novels, calling it a “crime story” is an oversimplification: it blurs sub-genres, overlaying an apparently simple mob film with a confidence game. That’s common enough; blurring sub-genres is part of the territory. The film fails when it works against itself, and it works against itself from a moment before Willis ends his opening monologue, because anyone who hasn’t figured out what’s going on in the film at that point must’ve been born yesterday.

The object of a con game – and, as Orson Welles demonstrated in his brilliant quasi-documentary F FOR FAKE, movies, all works of fiction, are themselves con game whose audiences are marks – is for the mark to not be able to figure out what’s going on. The best con games are the ones where the marks walk away feeling entertained and not cheated. There are uncomfortably narrow parameters on that possibility: stories have to generate their own coherent logic that the reader/viewer can apprehend if not necessarily consciously recognize, but that logic has to allow for a twist, a misdirection. Like a magic trick, the viewer should walk away feeling pleasantly surprised. It’s the job of the fiction creator to be almost obvious, and let’s re-emphasize almost. It should appear to point here instead of there, but when we arrive there instead, how we got there not only has to be obvious but we have to feel good about getting there instead of where we originally expected to be. All fiction does this, though the “somewhere else” needn’t be a drastic rabbit out of the hat, just some sort of element of surprise from a character forming an unexpected opinion or conclusion, or a small revelation that becomes the final puzzle piece to make everything that came before make sense, or something as simple and comical as the Enterprise dealing with their tribble problem by transporting the creatures to a rival Klingon ship. But it has to come out of the story’s logic. It can’t be something dropped out of nowhere.

Let me tell you a story about a story:

The first time I ever visited New York City, I ended up talking with Denny O’Neil. I was a kid barely out of high school, and, on learning it was my first visit to The Big City, Denny told me about a time he and fellow writer Steve Skeates had to walk to their homes in Soho at 4AM following a party on the Upper West Side, a distance of several miles. They decided it would be shorter to cut through Central Park despite the park being a mugger’s haven, and as a precaution Denny put his money in his shoe except for a $5 bill because if a mugger got a little money off you he’d generally leave happy but if he got nothing he might get violent. So off they went, and, sure enough, halfway through the park, two men stepped from the shadows and demanded their money. The one who patted down Denny and took his $5, was unarmed but the other, who patted down Skeates and found nothing, had a knife. The one with the knife was so furious about not getting money off Skeates that he turned in a rage and stabbed Denny in the stomach. The muggers ran off, and Denny and Skeates got across the park to the hospital on the East Side to get what amounted to a slight flesh wound checked out before they continued to Soho.

When he finished relating this cautionary tale, Denny asked me, “So you get what I’m telling you?”

“I think so,” I said. “If you’re going through Central Park at night and you don’t have any money, take a friend.”

That isn’t the obvious logical conclusion of Denny’s story. The obvious conclusion is what he laid out as the premise: always carry a little “throwaway” money for your own protection if you get mugged in New York City. My conclusion was one that followed on the logic of Denny’s story but wasn’t the one that would immediately leap out at you.

From the perspective of story logic, the conclusion should follow from the premise but not reiterate the premise. The premise is already known; nothing can be surprising about it.

LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN‘s problem is that it’s a con story masquerading as a mob story but at the very beginning Willis starts talking about con games to tell us what we’re about to watch is a con game, immediately followed by a bit of character foreshadowing (it’s in the haircut) that’s so blatant that when Hartnett’s character shows up there’s not the slightest doubt of who he really is. Once we know that there’s not the slightest doubt about what’s really going on, and while there’s some entertainment in the dialogue and character action past that point it plays out with leaden predictability.

Stories are tricky like that. Without some degree of predictability they’re no good either, which is why you can’t solve your characters’ problems by suddenly having a meteor crash from the sky onto whoever’s menacing your hero, or have your character abruptly wake from a horrific experience to discover it has all been a dream, with no consequence. “Magic” resolutions don’t cut it. You can even follow a story to a predictable conclusion if you develop it unpredictably, or, if you’re really clever, if the whole point of your story is the sheer inescapability of inexorable logic.

There’s a perception, particularly in Hollywood but widespread throughout our culture, that Audiences Won’t Understand Things. Which, yeah, is always a risk. While there has always been a reasonable editorial concern about such things, pretty much every writer in Hollywood can talk about some meeting where some dullard – studios and production companies apparently keep them on staff to be just such – just will not “get” something, prompting much script tampering to ensure that some element or another and its role in the story is totally and utterly apparent on its debut. In many areas it has become an obsession to make sure every element, every development, every possibility, is crystal clear so that the audience won’t get gripped by that most dreaded of evils, confusion. Over-explanation is the rule of the day, but the more many things in fiction are explained, the more time the audience has to think about it, and the less acceptable the explanation often becomes.

Besides, overexplanation butchers any reasonable probability of surprise.

More often than not, confusion is the result of either sloppy writing or editing, or of trying to serve too many masters with a single story, an easy trap to fall into especially when working commercially. (And don’t kid yourself; any enterprise that requires a number of collaborators or gatekeepers is a commercial enterprise.) Movies in particular can get confused by twisting this part of a story here to accommodate this director, that part there to accommodate that actor, that part because the standards and practices says no, or because some producer wanted a part for his new girlfriend or the studio ended up with another film that had a similar plot point etc. Even stories that evolve organically, and there are precious few of them, get rewritten inorganically. It’s like chopping a photo into sections, randomly Photoshopping sections, then trying to line all the pieces back up again.

LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN feels like it either went through that process or was specifically shaped in the screenplay to minimize that process by anticipating it. It plays like it was written to get a star attached by making sure he knows his character isn’t really being presented as “weak.” All the motivations are clearly spelled out. No chance of getting confused by this one, but the downside of spelling everything out is that all you do by the end is reiterate what the audience has already been told.

The problem really isn’t that audiences are stupid, though that’s how they’re commonly portrayed. It’s that they’re overeducated. Maybe not in traditional terms, but in pop culture. People grow up with movies, TV, comics. The challenge now isn’t coming up with material but coming up with material audiences are unfamiliar with. (Not that familiarity isn’t marketable – that’s a different discussion – but even the familiar requires a new wrinkle to be really marketable; has a new wrinkle ever done anything besides make something old look older?)

The trap writers are prone to is reinventing the wheel, believing that something is new because they haven’t done it before, and good and experienced writers fall into this trap no less than bad or new ones. The decision to do a western, say, invokes everything our culture teaches us about what a western is, and it’s often the opportunity to play with these motifs that’s the initial appeal for the writer. This seems particularly prevalent in comics, which often consist of writers and artists doing “their” version of material they’re familiar with and then being baffled when audiences don’t respond. There’s an essential disconnect there: forgetting that the writing experience isn’t the reading experience, and creating a film isn’t the same as watching one.

As much as anyone wants to talk about art and craft, on a commercial level we’re all novelty acts, leaving only two real options: develop a hardcore fan cult who’ll buy anything you do just because you’re you, or keep being novel, but that only works if the material’s novel in ways an audience will accept. Surprise is the only real friend fiction creators have, but, like a good poker game or magic trick, it has to be played right to have any power, and that becomes a matter of instinct. It’s learned but it can’t be taught; the only perspective we can get on it is in seeing where it didn’t work, and why.

Sometimes I think science fiction destroyed the future. There was a time when science was supposed to save us from everything and technological wonders would grace our lives. And they have, mostly: computers on our desks that can store entire libraries and TV screens an inch thick are so commonplace we don’t even reflect on them anymore. Completely unattached phones we carry in our pockets that take photos and transmit them throughout the world. None of these things have the pizzazz of a flying car, though, and to most people that’s what science fiction promised us: flying cars. Unlimited, virtually free power. An end to disease and class warfare. Robots handling all our menial labor needs, at least when they weren’t going haywire and trying to kill us. Science never really promised any of these things, or at least not overnight, but science fiction, widely derided for its frequent garishness and stupidity, nonetheless became the spear carrier for the Promise Of Science. I heard last week that someone’s now trying to develop a commercially available flying car, and it just shows how things have changed; my first thought wasn’t “Cool, I can finally get one,” but “Great, now hundreds of buildings can get crashed into.” Science fiction may have eagerly presaged putting a man on the moon, but it never quite wrapped its collective head around how many people seem to feel it’s their inalienable right to drive badly.

Science fiction has become reality only at the pace (and in the areas) that commerce is equipped to assimilate it. Even if we could successfully build an android (and the Japanese, at least, are hard at work on it), they’ll never become commonplace unless marketed as sex toys, and then everyone will want one. People talk about science being a false religion (ain’t they all?) but science was never marketed as a religion; science fiction was. (Though it took L. Ron Hubbard to turn science fiction into an official religion. That denies being a religion.) Science fiction, in its proselytizing mode, even helped the recent spread of religion by writing checks science couldn’t cash, and an awful lot of people have ‘returned’ to religion because they’ve felt betrayed by The Promise Of Science. Science, of course, still works just fine and continues on in its usual clumsy fits and starts. It’s science fiction that betrayed everyone. Science may deliver wonders – turns out there is much in heaven and earth that are not dreamt of in our philosophies – but science fiction never settled for mere wonders. It always wants miracles, just like everyone else, and, more than that, it wants miracles to be commonplace.

Of course, that’s the utopian – the traditional American – branch of science fiction. The other, primarily European, branch has commonly been dystopian, at least as far as HG Wells, the father of the disaster novel. (Certainly WAR OF THE WORLDS qualifies as that, postulating a ravaged Earth saved not by the actions of man but by a fluke of nature, and THE TIME MACHINE is itself a type of disaster novel, postulating a distant future where civilization is unrecognizable and humanity has degenerated into a race of ritualistic cannibals. These are not ennobling visions.) JG Ballard is probably the father of the modern disaster novel, stressing less any possibility of a return to normalcy in the face of disaster and more, much more, a fascination with the sheer inhuman strangeness of post-disaster worlds: reality as expression of the viewer’s mental state. There were cultural reasons Europe developed the disaster novel – they reflect an awareness of the limitations of empire and expectation of decline when empire fails – but that wasn’t a spirit an industrializing America was eager to embrace. But it has popped up with increasing frequency in America since the ’60s, and suddenly seems to have a new lease on life.

On TV, JERICHO (CBS, Wednesdays 8P) and BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (SciFi, Fridays 9P) have both caught on with horrific visions of human existence (though both retain a certain amount of the pre-requisite ‘noble human spirit in the face of adversity’). Bob Dylan concludes his new album MODERN TIMES with his best new song in decades, “Ain’t Talkin’,” an unrelentingly bleak musical road trip through a gutted land of betrayal, vengeance, violence, retribution and fear. Author Cormac McCarthy, best known for Larry McMurtry-esque examinations of life in Texas, has published the disturbing road trip novel, THE ROAD (Knopf), wherein a man and his young son steadily march southward through a desolate, charred landscape devoid of all of the last scattered remnants of life – a dog here, a child there, occasional small, roving bands collecting other travelers for food. Science fiction has tackled this subject before – Roger Zelazny’s DAMNATION ALLEY and George Miller’s ROAD WARRIOR come to mind – but McCarthy’s book, written in tiny episodes where the language marks the total social disintegration and The Road is only the last trace of a civilization that’s dead and gone, isn’t traditional science fiction. It’s an evocative horror novel, the protagonists trudging through each empty day just like the last struggling to simply survive at the most meager level, punctuated by increasingly horrific moments they mostly can only observe after the fact, and available information, somewhere for readers to ground themselves, is scant. The nature of the disaster – was it nuclear holocaust that charred the world and blackened the sky? A freak solar flare? The Rapture? – is left unspecified. McCarthy’s heroes aren’t saviors, or torchbearers, though they frame themselves as the latter. They can barely save themselves, and then only for moments at a time.

Which certainly parallels Dylan’s song, and its significant that the album’s producer is listed as “Jack Frost,” Dylan’s dissipated, oppressed alter ego in the film MASKED AND ANONYMOUS. The world of the movie, a totally corrupt America indistinguishable from a Mafia-infested Latin American banana republic, is the world of the song, which sounds like Frost’s diary of his travels following his exit from the movie.

The interesting thing about these works is that there seems to be something in the modern American psyche that’s responding to them, and it may be the secular version of that element that responds to promises of the impending Apocalypse. These aren’t even the relatively benign “dystopian futures” of cyberpunk, where government/corporate quasi-fascism is offset by the possibility of personal techno-anarchism, like a boy’s adventure novel. Even most of the bleakest science fiction contains the seeds of some sort of redemption (there’s that religious iconography again), but these new works are not about The End Of Days. They’re simply about the end.

Some mail:

“You wrote: “Saw THE DEPARTED over the weekend, since I couldn’t do much else, and I still don’t know what the title has to do with anything.”

I can shed some light on this for you–the title was actually very clever and applies in many different ways. Notably, the main character (Leonardo DiCaprio) gets killed in an unexpected way, and there are other seminal deaths throughout the movie. But the real genius of the title is that the one person who brings justice at the end of the movie is Mark Wahlberg’s character – not a dead guy, but a guy who has “departed” by quitting the police force halfway through the movie. It’s classic Scorcese “street justice” that implies that true justice comes not from public servants but from private individuals in many cases. And by the way, the whole point of the last twenty minutes is the question of whether justice will find the despicable Matt Damon character–which it does finally, thanks to “the departed” cop who takes him out with a silencer.

Of course, you can’t explain this to those who haven’t seen the movie without ruining its final scene. Overall, an amazingly good movie.

I’m miffed to hear SMITH was cancelled – it was miles above other network shows. Oh, well, too good for TV… it happens.”

While I accept your tortured explanation of the title, I think the real implication is that the main characters are “dead” as soon as they step into worlds where they don’t belong; past that point they’re just waiting for death to catch up to them. I still don’t think it was a very good title, and I still can’t warm to Scorcese’s work. As for SMITH, it really wasn’t all that good, though it had good actors. It was just better than most of the rest of network TV, and I can understand why not many viewers got into it. It happens. Do you ascribe the cancellation of shows you don’t like to they’re being “too good for television?” Do you assume that the shows you like that stay on the air must be crap because they don’t get cancelled? You have to be careful about that sort of reasoning.

“Basically, the President can do nothing about North Korea. His hands are tied, and while the UN may censure them, China, who has been giving aid to NK will also do nothing, since the collapse of North Korea would mean a major spill-over of refugees into their country. The DMZ is one of the most heavily fortified places on the planet, and any military options could only result in a mass bloodshed. Bill Richardson thought dialogue would be more effective but “the leader” is already laughing at us, anyways.

Saw BATTLESTAR GALACTICA 2.5, the three part episode of the Pegasus was excellent with Forbes, holding her own as Cain. Speaking of pacing, the pacing on the show is excellent, although showing a scene in the future and then backtracking is starting to get overused. The only downsides are sometimes the violence is too provocative and the tone, a little too dark. It needs a little lift once in a while like first season’s “hand of god.” Tipping the apple cart can get overused too, when the fleet is constantly devolving into anarchy, and mutiny. The more you use it, the less impact it has…”

That’s true of anything. There are a couple reasons why military action against North Korea is unlikely. China’s not going to take kindly to our invading the country, because it’s their sphere of influence, and China’s the only power in the world we can’t afford to piss off, partly because they still have the nuke strength to reduce much of this country to cinders and ashes and partly because, due to this administration’s fiscal policies, they’re supporting a good deal of our economic base and we’ve borrowed enough money from them to pay for foreign adventurism that they could bankrupt America overnight by calling in the debt. Nuking North Korea means dumping fallout on our ostensible comrades South Korea and Japan, and likely areas of China and possibly Taiwan and points East. Unless North Korea decides to lob a nuke somewhere, in which case all bets are off. Technically, mutually assured destruction remains our best bargaining chip, though that depends on Kim Jong Il still being sane enough to understand that we have the firepower to obliterate his entire country numerous times over. So far that’s been effective in keeping other countries from offensive use of nuclear weapons. Destabilizing North Korea isn’t a very good option either, unless we can first get mechanisms in place to ensure that whatever nuclear weapons he has to date (and there’s still not absolute evidence he has any, though evidence suggests it) won’t end up on the open market if Kim’s government collapses.

“I appreciate your attempt to clarify the fact that “gay” and “pedophile” are not one and the same thing. But I think you drew the line between them in the wrong place, in order to put Foley on the wrong side of it. Chasing 16- and 17-year-olds is not pedophilia. Not even when done by a 50-year-old. It’s poor judgment. It’s probably psychologically maladjusted. But it’s very different from going after pre-teen children.

Pedophilia is an abnormal attraction to people who are sexually immature. Granted, a 16-year-old isn’t emotionally mature, and they’re not allowed to vote or sign contracts, but to the parts of our brains that evolved to drive the species-propagating reflex, all that matters is that they’re fully functional. Having impure thoughts about a 16-year-old isn’t abnormal (like having them about an 8-year-old would be)… it’s just a reaction that any responsible adult would dismiss as an unhealthy idea to dwell on, or to follow up on.

Foley is guilty of sexual harassment, abuse of his authority as employer and legislator, being a bad role model, lack of self-control, incredibly poor judgment, and of course political hypocrisy. That ought to be enough reason to run him out of Washington, without accusing him incorrectly of pedophilia.”

To a certain extent, these distinctions are socially determined; in our current society, a 16 year old is at least legally considered sexually immature. At any rate, if we accept that 16 year olds are emotionally immature (which, again, may be more of a social convenience than a hard fact), then adults who act on their attraction to 16 year olds are engaging in predatory behavior because the 16 year old doesn’t have the emotional apparatus to deal with it. Which still puts Foley’s behavior a lot closer to the definition of pedophilia than that of homosexuality.

“Your comments regarding gunshots brought to mind what – to me – is one of the great moments in comic storytelling. In the mid-1960’s (I think 1966), when I was 10 or 11 years old, I was introduced to The Spirit through a couple of Harvey reprint editions. One reprinted Eisner’s “10 Minutes,” wherein a local punk shoots a candy store owner he’s known his whole life then goes on the run, pursued by The Spirit.

The panels portraying the gunshot and the store owner’s dying breath remain etched in my memory – I can see them in my mind’s eye as I write this. I’m curious as to whether you’ve read the story and, if so, what you think of it. You view comics with a trained and critical eye unlike most, and I’m interested in your opinion.”

Sure, I remember that story. That issue, found in an Osco Drugs in Green Bay WI, was my first introduction to the Spirit too, at around that same age. I haven’t looked at it in awhile, but “10 Minutes” is one of the great Spirit stories, and, if I remember correctly, it was one of writer Jules Feiffer’s great scripts. Matter of fact, it may be the first time I ever saw a serious examination of timing in comics, as Feiffer and Eisner “granulated” the moment into a series of moments and used perspective and emotion to disorient the reader into viewing the scene through the gunman’s eyes. (I particularly remember gunman sweating in shock in reflection in the counter man’s glasses as the baffled counter man clutches the hole in his chest, though I may be collapsing several panels into one in memory.) At any rate, it’s not only a great story, as neat a little morality play as Eisner and co. ever managed to get into eight pages, it’s practically a textbook.

Out of time this week, so, sorry, no reviews or politics, but check back next week for a review pile and reasons why Republicans will sweep the polls in 2008, and I don’t mean because those are the only jobs they’ll be able to find after the polls close.

For all those who wrote in with helpful suggestions for my computer, thanks very much. Things seem to knock wood be working fine now. Better than ever. Until the next crash. (Hopefully I’ve got another year.

Scattered throughout the column are the covers for this week’s Comics Cover Challenge. Seven comics, one secret theme connecting them. Be the first one to tell me what it is in an email, and you can promote any website of your choice here. (We reserve right of approval, but that hasn’t been an issue so far.) No free clue this week; if you want one, you’ll have to bribe me.

Available in pdf e-book form at Paper Movies and The Paper Movies Store:

TOTALLY OBVIOUS. Collecting all my “Master Of The Obvious” columns from 1998-2000, with still relevant commentary on comics, culture, creativity and the freelance life, revealing many previously unvoiced secrets behind all those things.

IMPOLITIC: A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEARS VOL 1. Collecting my political commentary of the early terror years, from Sept. 2001 through April 2005, revealing the terror behind the War On Terror.

HEAD CASES. A collection of comics scripts from work done c. 1992-1995 for various companies, including an unused script. Annotated.

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it’s not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They’re no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don’t really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.

IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.

Please don’t ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

The WHISPER NEWSLETTER is now up and running via the Yahoo groups. If you want to subscribe, click here.

I’m reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I’ll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send ’em if you want ’em mentioned, since I can’t review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can’t do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

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