Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘J.J. Abrams

Revenge of the list

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Note: A few minor spoilers follow for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.

When I try to explain my mixed feelings about the new Star Wars movie, I find myself turning, heretically, to a story about the franchise’s greatest rival. Nicholas Meyer was, in many ways, the J.J. Abrams of his day: a hugely talented, relatively young outsider who was brought in to correct the course of a series that had lost its sense of purpose. He wasn’t a Star Trek fan, but he was able to find elements—like its echoes of the Horatio Hornblower novels—that he could highlight and enlarge. When he signed on to write and direct the first sequel, however, five separate scripts had already been written, and he had to prepare a workable screenplay in twelve days. His response to the challenge resulted in one of my favorite Hollywood anecdotes ever, as Meyer recounts it in his memoir The View From the Bridge:

“Well, here’s my other idea,” I told them, taking a deep breath and producing a yellow legal pad from under my chair. “Why don’t we make a list of everything we like in these five drafts? Could be a plot, a subplot, a sequence, a scene, a character, a line even…And then I will write a new script and cobble together all the things we choose…”

We then made the list. It included…Khan (from the “Space Seed” episode…); the Genesis Project (creating planetary life); Kirk meeting his son; Lieutenant Saavik (Spock’s beautiful Vulan protégée); the death of Spock; and the simulator sequence…All these materials were culled higgledy-piggledy from the five different drafts that I never—to the best of my recollection—consulted again.

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I never tire of retelling this story, both as an illustration of the power of lists as a creative tool and as a reminder of how surprising, organic narratives can emerge from the most artificial of beginnings. And it’s as true today as it ever was. In the excellent bonus features for Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, Christopher McQuarrie says that they began writing the movie with a list of action set pieces, and that important emotional beats—including Ilsa Faust’s motivations and the entire character of Attlee—emerged when they put those scenes in a certain order. Matthew Weiner and his core writing staff assembled a list of possible themes and ideas to revisit when it came time to plot out the final season of Mad Men. In the last few months alone, we’ve seen The Peanuts Movie, of which I wrote: “[It] sometimes plays as if it had been written according to the model that Nicholas Meyer used when cracking The Wrath of Khan…The result is an anthology, gracefully assembled, of the best moments from the strip and specials.” And now, of course, we have Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which struck me when I first saw it as a kind of greatest hits collection from the original trilogy, only to have this confirmed by the same Wired interview with J.J. Abrams that I discussed yesterday: “When we began working on this film, Larry [Kasdan] and I started by making a list of things that we knew held interest for us, the things we wanted to see, the things we felt were important.”

Nicholas Meyer and William Shatner on the set of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Yet the fact remains that The Wrath of Khan comes off as a seamless burst of pure story, while The Force Awakens, for all its considerable merits, still feels like a list. (The best thing that could be said for it, and this shouldn’t be lightly disregarded, is that it’s the right list. ) When you look at the list that Meyer put together for Star Trek, with the notable exception of Khan himself, you see that it consists of ideas that audiences hadn’t seen before. The Force Awakens, by contrast, is a list of things that are familiar, and once we’ve seen a couple of moments or images that remind us of the original movies, we naturally start a mental checklist as we keep an eye out for more. Sometimes, the way it quotes its predecessors is delightful; at other times, as when it gears up for yet another aerial assault on an impregnable planetary superweapon, it’s less than wonderful. As the Resistance prepared for the attack on Starkiller Base, I felt a slight sinking feeling: two out of the first three Star Wars movies ended in exactly the same way, perhaps as a nod to The Dam Busters, and I hoped that Abrams was about to spring some kind of novel twist or variation on that theme. Obviously, he doesn’t, to the extent that he includes a story point—a small group on the ground fighting to deactivate the shield generator—lifted straight from Return of the Jedi. It isn’t hard to imagine a version of this sort of climax that would have given us something new: I’d love to see a full-on Saving Private Ryan sequence showing an infantry assault on the base, or even a naval battle. And if we didn’t get it here, it’s because Abrams and the rest were sticking closely to their list.

But this kind of respectful homage is utterly alien to the spirit of the original movies themselves, which were eager to show us things that we had never imagined. The opening scenes on Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back, for instance, immediately expand the possibilities of that universe: not only does the ice planet give us a gloriously different backdrop, but the battle with the Imperial Walkers feels like a deliberate inversion of the dogfights that ended the first movie. The entire film, in fact, plays like a deliciously inverted list: it takes the things that audiences loved about Star Wars and then turns them all by a hundred and eighty degrees. The Force Awakens lacks that kind of basic invention, as much I liked so much of it. (Among other things, it makes it unnecessary to watch the prequels ever again. If Disney follows through with its plans of releasing a movie of comparable quality every year, Episode I, II, and III will start to take on the status of The Sting II or Grease 2: we’ll have trouble remembering that they even exist.) It’s possible that, like the first season of Fargo, the new movie’s energies were devoted mostly to establishing its bona fides, and that the next batch of sequels will be more willing to go into unexpected directions. Still, the fact remains that while Abrams and Kasdan made a great list, they failed to add anything new to it—which raises the troubling implication that the galaxy of Star Wars, after six films, isn’t as vast or rich with potential as we always thought it was. I hope that isn’t the case. But now that Abrams and his collaborators have gotten that list out of their system, the next thing they need to do is throw it into the nearest trash compactor.

The forced error

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R2-D2 and J.J. Abrams on the set of The Force Awakens

Note: Oblique spoilers follow for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.

At this point, it might seem that there isn’t anything new left to say about The Force Awakens, but I’d like to highlight a revealing statement from director J.J. Abrams that, to my knowledge, hasn’t been given its due emphasis before. It appears in an interview that was published by Wired on November 9, or over a month in advance of the film’s release. When the reporter Scott Dadich asks if there are any moments from the original trilogy that stand out to him, Abrams replies:

It would be a much shorter conversation to talk about the scenes that didn’t stand out. As a fan of Star Wars, I can look at those movies and both respect and love what they’ve done. But working on The Force Awakens, we’ve had to consider them in a slightly different context. For example, it’s very easy to love “I am your father.” But when you think about how and when and where that came, I’m not sure that even Star Wars itself could have supported that story point had it existed in the first film, Episode IV. Meaning: It was a massively powerful, instantly classic moment in movie history, but it was only possible because it stood on the shoulders of the film that came before it. There had been a couple of years to allow the idea of Darth Vader to sink in, to let him emerge as one of the greatest movie villains ever. Time built up everyone’s expectations about the impending conflict between Luke and Vader. If “I am your father” had been in the first film, I don’t know if it would have had the resonance. I actually don’t know if it would have worked.

Taken in isolation, the statement is interesting but not especially revelatory. When we revisit it in light of what we now know about The Force Awakens, however, it takes on a startling second meaning. It’s hard not to read it today without thinking of a particular reveal about one new character and the sudden departure of another important player. When I first saw the film, without having read the interview in Wired, it immediately struck me that these plot points were in the wrong movie: they seemed much more like moments that would have felt more at home in the second installment of the sequel trilogy, and not merely because the sequence in question openly pays homage to the most memorable scene in The Empire Strikes Back. To venture briefly into spoilerish territory: if Kylo Ren had been allowed to dominate the entirety of The Force Awakens “as one of the greatest movie villains ever,” to use Abrams’s own words, the impact of his actions and what we learn about his motivations would have been far more powerful—but only if they had been saved for Episode VIII. As it stands, we’re introduced to Ren and his backstory all but in the same breath, and it can’t help but feel rushed. Similarly, when another important character appears and exits the franchise within an hour or so of screentime, it feels like a wasted opportunity. They only had one chance to do it right, and compressing what properly should have been the events of two films into one is a real flaw in an otherwise enjoyable movie.

The Empire Strikes Back

And what intrigues me the most about the quote above is that Abrams himself seems agonizingly aware of the issue. When you read over his response again, it becomes clear that he isn’t quite responding to the question that the interviewer asked. Instead, he goes off on a tangent that wouldn’t even have occurred to him if it hadn’t already been on his mind. I have no way of looking into Abrams’s brain, Jedi style, but it isn’t difficult to imagine what happened. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, and Michael Arndt—the three credited screenwriters, which doesn’t even take into account the countless other producers and executives who took a hand in the process—must have discussed the timing of these plot elements in detail, along with so many others, and at some point, the question would have been raised as to whether they might not better be saved for a later movie. Abrams’s statement to Wired feels like an undigested excerpt from those discussions that surfaced in an unrelated context, simply because he happened to remember it in the course of the interview. (Anyone who has ever been interviewed, and who wants to give well-reasoned responses, will know how this works: you often end up repurposing thoughts and material that you’ve worked up elsewhere, if they have even the most tangential relevance to the topic at hand.) If you replace “Darth Vader” with “Kylo Ren” in Abrams’s reply, and make a few other revisions to square it with Episode VII, you can forensically reconstruct one side of an argument that must have taken place in the offices of Bad Robot on multiple occasions. And Abrams never forgot it.

So what made him decide to ignore an insight so good that he practically internalized it? There’s no way of knowing for sure, but it seems likely that contract negotiations with one of the actors involved—and those who have seen the movie will know which one I mean—affected the decision to move this scene up to where it appears now. Dramatically speaking, it’s in the wrong place, but Abrams and his collaborators may not have had a choice. As he implies throughout this interview and elsewhere, The Force Awakens was made under conditions of enormous pressure: it isn’t just a single movie, but the opening act in the renewal of a global entertainment franchise, and the variables involved are so complicated that no one filmmaker can have full control over the result. (It’s also tempting to put some of the blame on Abrams’s directing style, which rushes headlong from one plot point to another as if this were the only new Star Wars movie we were ever going to get. The approach works wonderfully in the first half, which is refreshingly eager to get down to business and slot the necessary pieces into place, but it starts to backfire in the second and third acts, which burn through big moments so quickly that we’re left scrambling to feel anything about what we’ve seen.) Tomorrow, I’m going to talk a little more about how the result left me feeling both optimistic and slightly wary of what the future of Star Wars might bring. But in this particular instance, Abrams made an error. Or he suspects that he did. And when he searches his feelings, he knows it to be true.

Written by nevalalee

December 28, 2015 at 10:16 am

The Force Majority

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Daisey Ridley in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Earlier this morning, when the embargo on reviews of Star Wars: The Force Awakens was finally lifted, it was as if millions of critics suddenly cried out and were silenced by fans shouting: “No spoilers! No spoilers!” I haven’t seen the movie, of course, but I’ve been cautiously skimming the dozens of reviews that appeared a few hours ago, and most are positive and encouraging. If there’s one common caveat, it’s that the new movie is, if anything, a little too reverent toward its predecessors: Andrew O’Hehir of Salon calls it “an adoring copy.” Which, you might think, is only to be expected: loving regard for the source material is one thing, among so much else, that the prequels sorely lacked, and the best way to recover what was lost might well be to take it out of the hands of the man who invented it in the first place and entrust it to an outsider. The new movie certainly seems eager to give people what they want. And this might all seem too obvious to even state out loud—except for the fact that its release also coincides with the trailer for Star Trek Beyond, which is largely the handiwork of the very same man, and which is anything but respectful toward what inspired it. In fact, it’s anxious to look like anything except for Star Trek, and while it’s too soon to pass judgment on either movie, it doesn’t seem premature to talk about their intentions. And the fact that J.J. Abrams has taken such different approaches with our two most iconic science fiction franchises raises fascinating questions about the position that each one holds in our culture.

I don’t intend to get into the whole Star Trek vs. Star Wars debate here. (It’s enough to say, perhaps, that I’m temperamentally more inclined toward Star Trek, but I like both about equally, and each strikes me as having one indisputable masterpiece—in both cases, the first sequel—surrounded by a lot that is uneven, dated, or disposable.) But the fact that their modern incarnations happen to depend largely on the personality and decisions of a single man sheds new light on an old subject. Elsewhere, I’ve written of Abrams: “With four movies as a feature director under his belt, he has yet to reveal himself as anything more than a highly skillful producer and packager of mainstream material, full of good taste and intentions, but fundamentally without personality.” And I have reasons for hoping that The Force Awakens will break that pattern. But if it does, it’s because Star Wars speaks to Abrams himself in a way that Star Trek never did. He’s always been candid about his efforts to turn the latter franchise into something more like the former, as if it were a problem that had to be fixed. If Star Trek Into Darkness inspired a backlash great enough to cast the considerable merits of the first of the rebooted movies into question, it’s because by repurposing The Wrath of Khan so blatantly, it emphasized how willing Abrams has been to pillage the franchise for material while remaining indifferent to what made it special. But none of this would be interesting if Abrams himself weren’t a kind of test case for viewers everywhere, a majority of whom, it’s fair to say, would rather spend two hours of their time in the Star Wars universe.

Star Trek Into Darkness

The real question is why. You could start by defining the difference between Star Trek and Star Wars as a tale of two Campbells. The first, John W. Campbell, was the most important editor science fiction ever had, and in his three decades at the helm of Astounding Science Fiction, later known as Analog, he perfected a kind of plot that was essentially about solving problems through logic and ingenuity. The second, Joseph Campbell, was a Jungian scholar whose conception of the hero’s journey was based more on suffering, rebirth, and transcendence, and if the hero triumphs in the end, it’s mostly as a reward for what he endures. Star Trek—which raided many of John W. Campbell’s core writers for scripts, outlines, and spinoff books—took its cues from the former, Star Wars from the latter. And while each approach has its merits, there’s a reason why one has remained the province of a close community of fans, while the other has expanded to fill all of Hollywood. One is basically a writer’s series; the other belongs to the producers, including George Lucas himself, who recognized early on that the real power didn’t lie in the director’s chair. Star Wars is less about any particular set of ideas than about a certain tone or feeling that has rightly thrilled a generation of viewers. What’s funny, though, is how rarely it gets at the sense of transcendence that Joseph Campbell evoked, and if it ever does, it’s thanks mostly to John Williams. At their best, these are fun, thrilling movies, and it’s precisely because they take the glories of outer space for granted in a way the original Star Trek never did, perhaps because it spent more time thinking about space as something more than a backdrop for chases and narrow escapes.

And this isn’t a bug in the Star Wars franchise, but a feature. After the premiere of The Force Awakens, Patton Oswalt tweeted that it “has the best final shot of any Star Wars film,” which only reminds us of how lame the final shots of those earlier movies really are: half are basically just wide shots of a party or celebration. When we contrast them with the last five minutes of Wrath of Khan, which are among the most spine-tingling I’ve ever seen, it shows how strangely cramped Star Wars can seem by comparison. Pauline Kael noted that there’s only one moment of organic beauty in A New Hope—the double sunset on Tatooine—and later complained of the lack of satisfying climaxes in Return of the Jedi: “When Leia finally frees Han Solo from his living death as sculpture, the scene has almost no emotional weight. It’s as if Han Solo had locked himself in the garage, tapped on the door, and been let out.” But this isn’t necessarily a flaw. There’s a place for what Kael called the “bam bam pow” of the Lucas approach, once we embrace its limits. If The Empire Strikes Back is the best movie in the original trilogy, it’s for the same reasons that some viewers were disappointed by it on its first release: it’s nothing but a second act. Star Wars has always been better at setting up situations than at paying them off. These days, that’s a strength. Abrams is notoriously more interested in creating mysteries than in resolving them, and it makes him a great fit for Star Wars, which, like most modern franchises, doesn’t have much of a stake in narrative resolution. Disney plans to release a new Star Wars movie every year for the rest of time, and if its approach to the Marvel universe is any indication, it’s the project for which Abrams was born—a franchise without any annoying third acts. But as much as I wish him well here, I hope he remembers that Star Trek deserves to go beyond it.

“The yacht was a monster…”

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"Maddy gazed out at the sea..."

Note: This post is the thirty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 34. You can read the previous installments here.

Umberto Eco once said that he wrote The Name of the Rose because he felt like poisoning a monk. For William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury began with a mental picture:

I didn’t realize at the time it was symbolical. The picture was of the muddy seat of a little girl’s drawers in a pear tree, where she could see through a window where her grandmother’s funeral was taking place and report what was happening to her brothers on the ground below. By the time I explained who they were and what they were doing and how her pants got muddy, I realized it would be impossible to get all of it into a short story and that it would have to be a book.

Joseph Heller started writing Something Happened with two sentences that came to him out of nowhere: “In the office in which I work, there are four people of whom I am afraid. Each of these four people is afraid of five people.” And E.L. Doctorow, in the middle of a bad case of writer’s block, began Ragtime by staring at the wall of his office, writing about it and the surrounding house, and then trying to imagine the period in which it was built—”In desperation,” Doctorow told The Paris Review, “to those few images.”

One of the subtle privileges of the writer’s craft is that while a reader generally reads a story from first page to last, the initial seed from which it grew in the author’s mind can occur at any point in the narrative, and it often isn’t clear, when you look at the finished result, which part came first. The idea of an author beginning with an inciting incident and following its implications to the very last page is an attractive one, and many writers start their apprentice efforts in much the same way. Usually, though, after the writer learns more about structure and the logistics of finishing a major project, the germ that gives rise to the rest of it turns out to be a moment that lies somewhere in the middle, with the writer working in either direction to lead toward and away from that first spark of inspiration. And this approach can work enormously in the story’s favor. We’re all hoping to come up with an arresting beginning, but we’re less likely to discover it from first principles than to derive it, almost mathematically, from a scene to which it leads a hundred pages down the line. The more rigorously you work out that logic, following what I’ve elsewhere called the anthropic principle of fiction, the more likely you are to arrive at an opening—as well as a setting and a cast of characters—that never would have occurred to you if you had tried to invent a grabber from scratch. (If you do, the strain often shows, and the reader may rightly wonder if you’ll be able to sustain that level of intensity to the end.)

"The yacht was a monster..."

Even novels or stories that unfold along fairly conventional lines often benefit from originating in an odd, intensely personal seed of obsession. The Icon Thief and its sequels were written to honor, rather than to undermine, the conventions of the thriller, but each one grew out of an eccentric core that had little to do with the plot summary you see on the back cover. For The Icon Thief, the real inciting factor—aside from a vague ambition to write a suspense novel about the art world—was my discovery of Marcel Duchamp’s Étant Donnés and my determination to be the first writer to build a novel around what Jasper Johns called “the strangest work of art in any museum.” For City of Exiles, it was my longstanding interest in the vision of Ezekiel, which I’d tried on and off to incorporate into a novel for almost two decades before finding a place for it here. And for Eternal Empire, it was my desire to write a novel about a megayacht. I’m not sure if this comes through in text of the book itself: the yacht in question, the Rigden, doesn’t make an appearance until halfway through the story, and maybe a quarter of the book as a whole is set on or around it. But I knew before I’d figured out anything else about the plot that I wanted a yacht like this to be at the center, which, in turn, implied much of the rest. You don’t write a novel about a megayacht, especially one owned by a Russian oligarch at the heart of what looks to be a vast conspiracy, without being prepared to sink it with everyone on board.

The moment when the yacht goes down—and I don’t think I’m spoiling much by saying this—won’t occur for another hundred pages or so, and I’ll deal with those scenes when I come to them. (To my eyes, the yacht’s destruction and the ensuing showdown onshore are the best extended sequences I’ve ever written, and they’re among the few sections that I’m likely to read again for my own pleasure.) But I want to focus for now on the first time we see the Rigden, in Chapter 34, after a few dozen pages’ worth of buildup. Aside from Titanic, my inspiration here was the obligatory scene in the early Star Trek films in which Kirk first approaches the Enterprise, allowing for a few minutes of awed tracking shots of the starship’s exterior—a convention that J.J. Abrams, alas, is too busy to honor. It slows down the narrative incrementally, but it also provides a sense of scale that strengthens much of what follows. And since this is more or less the reason I wanted to write the entire book, I felt justified in lingering on it. When Maddy gets her first glimpse of the yacht, the metaphorical implications are obvious, as is the impact of the ship’s existence on the shape of the story itself: a book about a yacht also has to be about a journey, and figuring out the start and end points was half the fun. Even if most of the book takes place on land, the events that unfold there are largely designed to get us onto and off that ship. And even if the destination remains unknown, we know that we’ll get there in style…

“It’s a beautiful property…”

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"At the end of the drive stood the main house..."

Note: This post is the eighth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 7. You can read the previous installments here.

In writing, as in life, the best measure of whether or not you truly understand a rule is knowing when to ignore it. Take, for instance, the general principle that chapters should start as late and end as early as possible. The screenwriter William Goldman notes that you can safely omit the beginnings and endings of most scenes, jumping instead from middle to middle, and I first encountered this rule as it applied to fiction in a book on writing by David Morrell, most famous as the author of First Blood. This works both as an overall narrative strategy and as a tactic for managing information within scenes: it’s frequently best to open on action or dialogue, pulling back only later to describe the location, much as a television show will often return from a commercial break on a closeup, followed shortly thereafter by the establishing shot. It’s a nice rule because it builds momentum, generates tension and suspense, and naturally focuses on the sections of a first draft—when the writer is ramping into and out of the scene in his imagination—that can most profitably be cut. And it’s saved my neck on more than one occasion.

Yet a rule like this can also be dangerous if applied mechanically. It’s no accident that the examples above all come from film and television: a scene in a movie can start in the middle because we’re given a lot of incidental information—visual, auditory, or even emotional, in the form of an intonation or the look on an actor’s face—that grounds us in the situation at once. A short story or novel, by contrast, has to rely on words. Focusing relentlessly on the middle may keep the plot racing along, but sometimes at the cost of those passages of description or exposition that lure the reader into the fictional dream. The writer Colin Wilson likes to cite examples, like the opening of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, in which a slow descriptive passage is used to immerse us in the scene, making the ensuing action all the more vivid. Cutting such material indiscriminately can leave the reader stranded or indifferent. Wilson frames it in terms of forcing the left hemisphere to slow down to the pace of the right, bringing the two halves of the brain to bear down together, but you don’t need to accept his explanation to grant his point. A novel made up of nothing but middles may fly by, but it can also start to seem monotonous and superficial.

"It's a beautiful property..."

Scenes of arrival and departure, in particular, are a mainstay of great fiction, for much the same reason that so many stories are built around initial encounters between two people. When the protagonist arrives in a new place or meets a person for the first time, he or she is really being put in the shoes of the reader: instead of catching up to events that have already happened, we’re experiencing them in real time, side by side with the characters, and it encourages a powerful sense of identification. This is especially true when we’re being introduced to something inherently interesting, which is exactly when the narrative can most afford to slow down. (To return to film for a second, one of my chief complaints with the new Star Trek movies is how little time they spend on the ship itself. Star Trek: The Motion Picture and The Wrath of Khan both have gorgeous docking scenes that allow us to fully appreciate the scale and beauty of the Enterprise, but when J.J. Abrams tries for the same effect, he’s as impatient here as he is everywhere else, and it’s over in less than a minute. It keeps the story moving, but at the expense of the awe we need to take it seriously.)

In Eternal Empire, which generally clocks along at a fast pace, I tried to remain mindful of the need for such moments. My favorite example comes later, at our extended first approach to Tarkovsky’s megayacht—in which I was thinking of both the Enterprise and the Titanic—but there’s another nice instance in Chapter 7, when Maddy arrives at the oligarch’s estate for the first time. I could have started the scene with her emerging from the car at his front door, or even when she was already inside, but it seemed right to devote a couple of pages to the journey there and what she sees on the way. It’s as good a place as any for a sequence like this, which might otherwise seem too leisurely: Maddy is entering a new world, and I wanted to make it just as meaningful for the reader as it was for her. The entire chapter is structured as a sequence of transitions from large spaces to small, leaving her alone at last in her tiny office, and although the exact geography of the setting isn’t all that relevant to the plot, the emotional purpose it serves is a real one. If I did it in every chapter, the result would quickly become unbearable. But the fact that I cut beginnings and endings so obsessively elsewhere allowed me to break the rule here. Because this is where the story really begins…

Written by nevalalee

February 5, 2015 at 9:33 am

Star Trek into dorkiness

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Trekkies

You know we’re past the midpoint of summer when Comic-Con is back in the news, with the usual coverage of big announcements, horrendous lines, and occasional bad behavior at the San Diego Convention Center. Comic-Con, of course, is a major business event these days, with the few remaining aficionados of comics themselves shuttled aside into remote floors and tiny conference rooms. Instead of a refuge for a subculture, it’s the headquarters of the monoculture, an overpowering declaration that we’re all nerds now, at least from the point of view of the major movie studios. As it happens, I ended up watching the 1997 documentary Trekkies for the first time over the weekend. And although the film is full of moments—as when we meet dentist Denis Bourguinon, whose office, Star Base Dental, looks like one of William Shatner’s fever dreams—when we seem to have strayed into Christopher Guest territory, it feels now like a bittersweet paean to something lost forever. (I ended up watching it, incidentally, because it was one of the only movies available at the beach house my wife’s family was renting in Michigan City. In summer cottages, we’re thrown back on an earlier world of entertainment, rooting through the same faded paperbacks and board games that generations did before us.)

And I’m glad it took me seventeen years to watch Trekkies. When it was first released, there were heated arguments about its true attitude toward its subjects: whether it was affectionate or condescending, a love letter or a freak show. Seen from the distance of close to two decades, though, it comes across as a surprisingly gentle portrait, especially now that the airwaves are filled with documentaries looking for other subcultures to mock, and it gains an added resonance that wasn’t there at the time. On its initial run, it would have felt like a report from the front lines of nerd culture; now, it’s a time capsule, capturing a moment in fandom that would never come again. It takes place during the most epochal event in the history of fan culture, the advent of the Internet, which allowed obsessive, often introverted personalities from all parts of the world to seek one another out in safe spaces online. We never hear the roar of a dialup modem in Trekkies, but as the camera pans across a fan’s lovingly curated Brent Spiner site on Geocities, it’s hard not to imagine it in the background. And this is still a transitional moment, with Kirk/Spock fanfic and bondage fantasies featuring Captain Janeway distributed in photocopied newsletters.

The Star Trek episode "Mirror Mirror"

Today, we don’t need to go in active search of fandoms; the fandoms all but come to us. Internet culture and the Trekkie world overlapped so beautifully in those early years because they attracted people of the same stripe: to get online at all in the mid- to late nineties, you had to be pulled in by the prospect of what you’d find there, and willing to tolerate long nights in a dark room waiting for downloads at 14.4 kbps. Trekkies formed a natural community of early adopters, both because of their interest in technology—you can see rough versions of iPads in The Next Generation and the equivalent of a verbal Google search in the episode “Darmok”—and their capacity for solitary, meticulous work. It’s no surprise that when they logged on, they found people a lot like them. Now, with our options for going online all but beating through our screens, online comment sections have come to look more or less like the rest of the world. You don’t need to meet any particular threshold of patience or motivation to share an opinion: in some ways, it’s harder not to share. And while, on balance, it’s a positive development, it also leads to a form of engagement with pop culture that has little in common with the world that Trekkies depicts.

Call it whatever you like, but it boils down to the difference between hanging out with a few committed friends at the Magic: The Gathering table at lunch period and being thrown headlong into the full cafeteria. Drop into a discussion of Star Trek these days, and you’re less likely to encounter an analysis of the Klingon language than dismissive comments about the J.J. Abrams franchise and invectives against Kurtzman and Orci.  (It’s an especially stark contrast with the treatment of creative figureheads in Trekkies, in which showrunners like Brannon Braga are treated like gods.) If online fandom seems generally less impassioned and more ambivalent these days, it’s only because it reflects the world as a whole, rather than the views of a handful of devotees who wouldn’t be online at all if they didn’t have strong feelings to share. In the world of Trekkies, there was room for everything but “meh.” Negativity has always been part of the fan experience; what it’s striking about it now is how so much of it seems to come from indifference. There’s a sequel to Trekkies, more than a decade old, that I haven’t seen, but I already feel that it’s time for a third installment, even if it’s less about uncovering an unseen stratum of pop culture than analyzing what is taking place all around us.

Written by nevalalee

July 28, 2014 at 10:23 am

Star Trek into detachment

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Star Trek Into Darkness

Note: Spoilers follow for Star Trek Into Darkness.

On Friday, my wife and I went to the movies for the first time in six months, which is the longest I’ve gone without seeing a film in theaters since I was old enough to be watching movies at all. There wasn’t much suspense about what we’d be seeing: ever since my daughter was born in December, I knew that the first movie I’d see on the big screen would be Star Trek Into Darkness. And on balance, I think I made the right choice, even if the film itself ends up feeling like much less than the sum of its parts. It’s a slick, enjoyable blockbuster that does everything it can to give the audience its money’s worth, but it’s also a little hollow, especially because it constantly asks us to compare it to a film that ranks among my ten favorite movies of all time while falling short in every measure. I knew going in that Benedict Cumberbatch was Khan, but I wasn’t prepared for how little the movie would understand his character’s true nature: Khan is a great villain to the extent that he’s obsessed with Kirk, and the duel between these two men ought to be intensely personal. As valiantly as Cumberbatch works in the role, turning him into a terrorist with a vendetta against all of Starfleet robs him of much of his appeal.

And this is a minor problem compared to a larger issue that has me slightly concerned about the future of the franchise: its lack of character. I’m not talking about the members of the crew—who are all nicely drawn, even if the script spends most of its time putting them through manufactured conflicts, and often feels as if it’s checking items off a list—but about the filmmakers themselves. After two movies, the first of which I enjoyed tremendously, I still don’t know how J.J. Abrams and his collaborators feel about Star Trek, except as a delivery system for cool moments and action scenes. Part of this is due to Abrams himself: with four movies as a feature director under his belt, he has yet to reveal himself as anything more than a highly skillful producer and packager of mainstream material, full of good taste and intentions, but fundamentally without personality. There’s a reason why his fondness for lens flares has become a punchline, because it’s the only recognizable stylistic element in all of his work, aside from a tendency to spin an air of mystery around nonexistent surprises. And this is fundamentally out of tune with the spirit of the series itself, which has always been at its best as reflection of the idiosyncratic, prickly individuals who created it.

Nicholas Meyer, Leonard Nimoy, and William Shatner on the set of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

I’m aware that it might seem a little strange for me to wish for more of a personal take on the material, since I’ve frequently drawn a sharp contrast between such doomed passion projects as John Carter and the sleek, impersonal machinery of a movie like Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol. Detachment, I’ve often said, is the key to making good art, and I still believe this. What’s less obvious, and something I’m only starting to figure out now, is that detachment, paradoxically, is useful to the extent that it allows a personal statement to emerge. For evidence, we need only turn to the very film that the Abrams movies revisit so obsessively. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the story behind Wrath of Khan is one of my favorite Hollywood legends: Nicholas Meyer, a novelist and screenwriter with limited prior interest in Star Trek, cobbled together a story from six earlier drafts over the course of one long weekend, and the result was a beautiful, ingenious script with real emotional resonance. (To compare the ending of Wrath of Khan with its homage in Into Darkness is to be reminded of the difference between earned feeling and efficient, facile manipulation.)

And the really strange thing about Meyer’s detachment is that it resulted in a movie that was profoundly, even eccentrically personal. Meyer didn’t care much about Star Trek, so he filled the movie with a list of things he liked: the nautical mood and motifs, the sense of the Enterprise as Horatio Hornblower in space, the references to Moby-Dick and A Tale of Two Cities. In Meyer’s version of Starfleet, characters freely quote Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes, and they actually read physical books, which is perfectly in tune with the original series and its successors, which gain much of their charm from how they refract and reinterpret elements of our own culture. The current films, by contrast, seems to take place in a universe devoid of any cultural memory or artifacts of the past, aside from “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys. For all the obligatory nods that Abrams and crew make to the history of the franchise, it’s still a work of limited knowledge and curiosity about everything else that matters. And as far as the rest of the world is concerned, it might as well take place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Written by nevalalee

June 3, 2013 at 9:06 am

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