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Monthly Archives: September 2010

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The Twilight Zone with M. Night Shyamalan?

It’s not that stupid of an idea. M. Night Shyamalan has gotten worse at making movies, but his style of wrapping an idea around a twist would work well with an anthology series. Of course M. Night Shyamalan might not want to limit himself that way, but why not. Devil looks like it had a good opening, and it’s basically an anthology episode expanded into a movie. It would probably have worked better as an episode. And while M. Night Shyamalan trying to be Rod Serling would get annoying fast, he’s probably the best bet for a half-decent anthology series on TV. M. Night Shyamalan is trying to do that already, except he’s turning his ideas into movies that somebody else directs. If the first entry doesn’t have too big a fallout on the second weekend, M. Night Shyamalan could be a supernatural Tyler Perry, churning out ideas that someone else directs at low cost. But if not, there’s always a door, which you are entering, and on the other side is M. Night Shyamalan with a story about an ordinary man who finds himself in an elevator with M. Night Shyamalan. Except it’s actually a pool to another dimension and he’s really a superhero and the plants are out to get you.

Reviving, At the Movies, Why?

Ebert’s revival of At the Movies is getting thumbs up, but it’s a purely nostalgic reaction. Let’s set aside the general uselessness of At the Movies, a show in which two critics would bicker for 15 seconds about a movie in the shallowest way before deciding which way to point their thumbs, and ask why. Disney didn’t trash At the Movies because it hated good film criticism, it was desperately trying to keep a 30 minute show about movies afloat in the age of the internet, where you could get about a dozen opinions about movies that went deeper than anything At the Movies could see, and see their trailers in the same time. Public television is a good harbor for At the Movies, because it’s unsupportable. Flash video, broadband and Rotten Tomatoes has made sitting through half hour shows reviewing movies, strange. And YouTube is full of gimmicky reviewers. This isn’t about bringing back literate film criticism, that died out thanks to gimmicks like At the Movies, which was to movie reviews what radio shrinks are to helping patients with problems. It’s about an institution that was part of the problem being brought back out of sheer nostalgia.

I’m Still Here and I Still Don’t Care

The only thing Joaquin Pheonix really accomplished with I’m Still Here was to try and charge people to see, what they can see for free on most Reality TV shows already. And that was the fatal flaw. Back when Andy Kaufman was coming up with wacky stunts, there weren’t a dozen TV shows with unhinged people, some of them former celebrities, being crazy every week. Exit Through the Gift Shop was intriguing because it raised some points about the art world, the only thing I’m Still Here really explored is whether Pheonix was crazy or not. And the answer is, not. It won’t kill his career. But it already did in a way. After Walk the Line, Pheonix could have used that to move up. Instead he decided to stay around being artsy. You can’t blame him too much for it. Look what Jason Bateman’s comeback got him, a chance to appear opposite Jennifer Aniston, or in Couples Retreat. That could have been Joaquin Pheonix’s career. Suddenly I’m Still Here doesn’t look that crazy.

Social Media Blackout

5 years ago, a social media blackout might have been an experiment. Today most of what people do on the internet is social media. Facebook gets more traffic than Google does. Eliminate Facebook, Twitter and the rest, and there’s no internet left. Just portals, wikipedia and corporate sites. So a social media blackout doesn’t have any point to it. Aaron Sorkin may be boast that he doesn’t know how Facebook works, but the internet has now become Facebook. Like buttons are everywhere. Facebook logins are ubiquitous. Facebook has done what MySpace and Twitter couldn’t do, which is integrate itself into the body of the internet. It’s not a permanent state. Facebook could still share Friendster’s fate, but it still points the way where we’re headed. And that is to an internet that is more social, and some might say less useful. But that’s a point of view. But to block out Facebook in 2010, is as hopeless as trying to shut down telephones in the 50’s or television in the 60’s. It’s gone too far for that.

Quality Children’s Television, Also This

An advocacy group on Tuesday asked the Federal Communications Commission to block a soon-to-debut TV cartoon show starring characters first created to market Skechers footwear to children.

Now let’s be honest here, how many cartoons aren’t marketing something to children? GI Joe, Batman, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Dora the Explorer, we’re talking huge merchandise lines for every one of them. What’s the difference if the merchandise is limited to a brand of shoes, instead of a gazillion lunch boxes, coloring books, action figures and all the rest of that stuff which we can thank Mattel, Hasbro and George Lucas for.

It’s not as if public TV was purer than pure either. How much Barney merchandise got sold, to a much younger demographic? We’re not talking about Joe the Camel, who doesn’t exist anymore anyway, getting his own TV show, which ends with him smoking fine Camel cigarettes with a bunch of 9 year olds. We’re talking about a really ugly TV series promoting some really ugly shoes. I’m not so sure kids will even want to watch it.

But now if Kool Aid Man got his own series…

Juggler of Worlds by Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner

Like Fleet of Worlds, Juggler of Worlds is a strong Science Fiction novel, but both books are flawed. Fleet of Worlds had a great plot and few juggler of Worlds Niven Lernercharacters to care about besides Nessus. Juggler of Worlds has two strong characters in Nessus, and Sigmund Ausfaller, the paranoid ARM dedicated to protecting earth, but its plot suffers from a tangle of asides as the novel recaps half a dozen of Niven’s existing Known Space stories.

The dualism between Nessus and Sigmund Ausfaller, both sent out to protect societies that they can never belong to, because their abilities are considered to be a form of mental illness, is compelling; but Niven and Lerner dive into too much of the backstory involving Ausfaller, Nessus, Beowulf Shaeffer, Carlos Wu, sidelining the character development into constant asides and making Juggler of Worlds feel more like meta-fiction, than fiction. Juggler of Worlds isn’t the first time Niven has tried to fix up his Known Space concordance, but this time it’s in the middle of a strong novel that would have been better off without it.

Juggler of Worlds is still a formidable novel, and it’s some of the best stuff out under Niven’s name in quite a while. It helps lift Known Space out of a fannish ghetto, where it had leaked into Star Trek and fannish created memes, before they were called that. When Sigmund Ausfaller uses his paranoid brain, it’s as fun to watch as seeing any detective solve a crime. The ending that gives both Sigmund Ausfaller and Nessus a chance to have children and belong somewhere is a nice touch, even if it comes after a clumsy last minute showdown with the Outsiders. It could have been better, but it is good for what it is.

Space and Science Fiction

Heavy Armor comments that a decline of interest in space can be traced to film and TV Science Fiction that isn’t interested in space.

The list goes on. Bablyon 5, Andromeda, Earth: Final Conflict, and so on. Many of these shows featured nothing but conflict, war, social dysfunction, and more importantly, a pessimistic view of Humanity leaving the Earth. Combine this with a near complete disdain by many Americans to education, science, medicine, and technological advances (that have nothing to do with cementing control to a central authority – government, corporate, or otherwise), we reach this point where NASA’s future and America’s participation in space travel are in serious doubt.

I would extend that to printed Science Fiction too, where optimistic hard science is on the decline, and space exploration gets short shift. There’s still a market for faux retro pieces from Allen Steele or Jack McDevitt, but the promotion is behind Steampunk, which is even more pathetically retro and content free, or dour British writers with a negative view of space exploration and human potential.

You can extend that to the TNG movies which were either up front negative about space exploration (in Generations, Picard mourns never having a family. In First Contact, all we can do is have an idiot launch a rocket in the hopes that the Vulcans will come and save us from ourselves while we mock them for it. In Insurrection, space travel is bad and being a Luddite is good. In Nemesis, there’s just darkness, pain and death. The only time Picard enjoys himself is when he’s racing a dune buggy across a desert.)

It’s a stark contrast to the love that Kirk projected for space exploration and adventure in even the worst movies. Abrams’ Reboot captured some of the optimism, but only in the service of a generic action movie. But the contrast between Nemesis and the reboot, shows how far Star Trek went down a gloomy doomy rabbit hole.

But when you can’t even be hopeful about space exploration in Science Fiction, or even Star Trek, that’s Hollywood refusing to show what people want to see. Because they don’t believe it themselves. For all his flaws, Roddenberry did believe it. Berman, Braga and Moore didn’t. And their work shows it. (Braga might have, but not that much.)

So Much for Microsoft Learning Anything

For all the talk about HTML5, Microsoft is going down the old road again. Bing is touting special animations and features with IE9. For those with one of those long memories, Microsoft went down this road before with ActiveX. It’s the proprietary sickness in which Microsoft tries to monopolize internet technologies and only ends up creating more dead ends. It also perpetuates the gap between Internet Explorer and other browsers, which is what makes anyone who does web design hate Microsoft.

Even despite the beating it’s taken, Microsoft still thinks in terms of control. It wants to control web search with Bing. It wants to keep control of web browsing with Internet Explorer. But if it should have learned any lesson at all from Google’s dominance, it’s that controlling the browser doesn’t mean you control the web. The majority of people still use Internet Explorer and Google. Getting them to use Bing with exclusive IE9 features won’t work. If Google had tried to play that game it wouldn’t work either.

Microsoft still doesn’t get the internet. It doesn’t get why people use anything. If Google thinks in engineering terms, Microsoft treats users like idiots, and wonders why that doesn’t work. People are not going to use Bing because it’s shiny. At least most people won’t. They might use it because it’s convenient. And with Google Instant, they might fall back on Bing because it’s simpler and easier to use. Bing News is better than Google News already. But Bing itself isn’t beating Google just yet.

Star Trek TNG Movies Weren’t Movies At All

This was prompted by Heavy Armor’s review of Generations,

Humor in Star Trek used to be contextual. Even in a movie as bad as STV it was still an organic fit. It’s an organic fit with the Abrams reboot. But the TNG movies insisted on gags that didn’t fit, that were completely out of place and just popped up artificially just to give the audience COMEDY in all caps. The idiotic ship scene at the start of Generations is a perfect example. Instead of understated repartee, the comedy became something foreign and artificial they piled on top, like pouring whipped cream on a steak. I blame the fact that the TNG movies were made by people who didn’t understand how to make movies, or what movies are.

Generations is probably the best example of a TNG movie made by people who didn’t understand what movies are. Generations was really an overbudgeted two part episode assembled out of pieces that never fit. If this had been the bookend to a Season 8 that never was, with the death of Kirk stripped out, fans would have shrugged and accepted it. Some would have even praised it. Instead it was released into theaters.

First Contact convinced a lot of fans that maybe Braga, Moore and Berman finally knew how to make movies. They didn’t. They just had an easy plot to work with, and Frakes was competent enough not to screw up. They made a zombie movie in space, and that’s hard to screw up. Not that Braga and Moore didn’t try. The Borg Queen turned the Borg into a joke. Cochrane was turned into a joke too. But that was just canon, which Braga and Moore didn’t give a damn about.

First Contact was another two parter, but it looked good enough that no one noticed in between all the shooting and screaming. But when the same people had to handle anything more complicated in Insurrection, it all fell apart. Without a script that boiled down to running and shooting at zombies, all Frakes could offer was competent direction. And he took the blame, even though he had no power to override Berman or Stewart and Spiner elbowing out the rest of the cast, to do really stupid stories. Piller’s original story got turned into rubbish. And expecting another hit, Paramount was pissed.

So they made Nemesis instead. Nemesis was supposed to be really dark. A return to First Contact. Except it was just more Insurrection and Generations again. The story was too complicated to just be a zombies in space shoot. The director couldn’t manage to deliver anything you could even watch. Stewart and Spiner were completely out of control, hijacking the movie with scenes that spun it sideways and inflated the budget. Nemesis had brought on pros like Logan and Baird, but they weren’t very good, and they didn’t have much autonomy. So they ended up going down the same road. Another glorified two part that didn’t work as a movie.

Science Fiction Writers and Suicide

The death of F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre has caused some people’s attention because of the bizarre manner of his death and the whole backstory behind it. But there are and were much bigger names from Science Fiction living in bad conditions in and out of New York. We could talk about Avram Davidson’s situation before his death. What about Robert Sheckley who had to drag to the Ukraine to make money, got sick and needed donations to get back. Before that Sheckley was forced to do media tie in novels.

Then there’s Thomas Disch writing poems on LiveJournal, constantly afraid of being evicted from his New York City apartment, before committing suicide. Again big names. But not big enough to dodge the same problems. We could go back much further. What about Cordwainer Smith, the creator of Conan. Financial problems, plus personal turmoil also led to suicide. I’m not going to go into Walter M. Miller or James Tiptree, both more complicated cases.
But what about H. Beam Piper, again financial problems and personal problems, leading to suicide.

In Science Fiction, a handful of marketable big names make the big money. Everyone else not so much. Writers who had made a major impact on the field, still came to the point where they felt their career was dead, the money wasn’t coming in, and they ended it. Those who didn’t end it, like Davidson and Sheckley, still lived poorly and didn’t reap the same financial rewards of people who were influenced by their work, but were much more marketable. And now that Science Fiction is dying, stuck in an academic ghetto where the powers that be insist on shoving the same 5 dour British writers to a public that isn’t interested, while the shelves fill up with media tie in novels, the situation isn’t going to get any better. (Of course it’s worse in comics.)

(Footnote, MacIntyre helped organize the first Star Trek convention.)

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