Taken on May 19, 2013, at “Goat Field” in SE Portland.
Taken on May 19, 2013, at “Goat Field” in SE Portland.
As the evening approached the golden hour, I took a stroll down to Goat Field and stumbled across this tableau. Over the next hour or so, I stood and watched the herd until it decided grazing time had come, and followed their path from outside the fence, all the way around to the far side of the field.
Some time later, one of the three-months, only slightly apart from the rest, starts to call out, as if lost. It looks around, calling repeatedly. A minute or two of this, until it takes off back toward the platforms and hutch all the way back across the field, searching frantically, calling out the entire way.
It runs up the ramp, standing as tall as it could atop the hutch, looking back the way it had come. No longer calling, but seemingly screaming in panic. Standing, looking, screaming. “Where are you? Where are you? I can’t find you anywhere.”
Until, finally, after so long a time, its sibling, which all along simply had been right there, just on the far side of the herd when this all began, looks up and calls back across the field’s expanse. As if to say, “What’s going on? What’s wrong? I’m right here.” Call and response, call and response.
Bounding down the ramp comes the first, calling out, its sibling echoing back. Almost back to the herd, it pauses, than runs again, its sibling running to meet it. A long-lost family reunited amid swaying grass and the swell of unheard music.
At some point during the third act of Star Trek Into Darkness, I realized that I actually was bored. In the midst of whatever number it was of the countless series of over-energized set pieces which comprise the film, I realized that I actually had tuned out and mentally drifted away. When the movie was over, I dubbed it “okay, at best”. By the time I got home, I’d moved on through “let down” and fully into disappointment.
This wasn’t a Star Trek movie, it was another anonymous and disposable summer action flick that had managed to secure the brand for a little extra geek cachet, to assuage the hardcore niche while appealing to a wider audience that just wants to be sensorily barraged for over two hours. Sound and fury signifying not nothing, but surely very little.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with a summer blockbuster full of sound and fury, but there’s no reason for it to be called Star Trek.
I felt mostly as if I had been forced to watch a Transformers-era Michael Bay picture, and then understood why when I discovered that Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman wrote his Transformers movies, and I wept into the nostalgia for my Star Trek-infused youth.
Lost in all of this pressing need to be on the go and on the move at all times was the room for when “nothing happens”, those spaces in which “nothing happens” typically being where most of the real stuff actually happens in a story. I find myself comparing the Orci/Kurtzman approach to story to that of, say, Joss Whedon, who mostly views set pieces as the connective tissue between the “nothing happens” parts where things actually happen. In comparison, Orci, Kurtzman, and Lindeloff seem to view the “nothing happens” parts as the connective tissue between set pieces, and is meant to be dispensed with as quickly, artlessly, and emptily as possible. Mostly by employing shorthand. Signifiers rather than the significant.
You can’t structure a story, a good one anyway, around shorthand and set pieces. Every writer (of summer blockbusters, to be sure) should know how to use both tools. At some point, however, you need to provide the room for actual storytelling. (Somewhat relatedly, see also Anna Pinkert’s thoughts on how “metaphor and allegory are different”.)
It didn’t help that so much of the script relied upon contrivance and convenience. These, too, are tools a writer can’t help but use. There’s a difference, though, between using them and making them central to your entire endeavor. Scotty quits, only to just happen to end up on the very ship that later will attack the Enterprise, allowing him to act as saboteur later on. Khan’s blood just happens to be regenerative and McCoy just happens to notice this fact, allowing him to revive the dead Kirk later on. No real-feeling universe behaves this way as a matter of routine, even one reliant on the suspension of disbelief.
Further, while I’m okay with reference — and when you’ve rebooted a universe, employing it is inevitable — at some point it becomes self-defeating. Fans and writers (and writers who are fans, and fans who are writers), especially in genre, of course end up spitballing “wouldn’t it be cool if…” scenarios. Good writers ultimately discard them as too cute, as too clever for their own sake and move on to something else, unless there’s something truly and meaningfully interesting to mine there. But at some point the too cute and too clever reference sabotages itself and its surroundings and becomes about the reference rather than about the present moment before us. It’s cute to have Kirk run into the warp chamber to save the ship, and have dialogue which echoes that from Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan, but it makes the scene about that reference and not about itself.
Which brings us to perhaps the single biggest misfire of the entire film, the largest of its “too cute and too clever” sins: Benedict Cumberbatch and Khan.
Let’s start with the fact that the man stated in the Star Trek episode “Space Seed” to be “from the northern Indian area” and “probably a Sikh” here turns out to be a British white man. The brand which once brought us the first interracial kiss on television (and a black character who once caused Whoopi Goldberg so much excitement because she was on TV and wasn’t a maid) whitewashed a brown-skinned character that frequently tops lists of the greatest villains of all time. I’m not sure what to say about this except to just be amongst the voices (chiefly Marissa Sammy) pointing it out.
Really, though, the movie is also a complete and utter waste of the character. Cumberbatch has almost no real presence, except I assume to all the men and women whose panties wet no matter what he does. Cumberbatch’s breathily deep delivery and emphatic enunciation is effectively empty, his moments of stillness are just sort of the absence of moving. Ricardo Montalban, while no one ever argued he was Lawrence Olivier, radiated presence, his moments of stillness those of the coiled and observing snake. Not the absence of motion but its deliberate and carefully considered restraint.
For all of the talk in this movie about what and who Khan is, what he could do, what he might do, I defy anyone who saw this movie without any prior experience of, or exposure to, the character to come away with any real sense of the character. I’m sure they could parrot whatever the characters said about him, but that’d empty description, not knowledge.
Khan, before, could only be Khan. You couldn’t put any other character in his stead and tell the story. In the episode “Space Seed”, the story was about the presence of a 20th-century genetically-engineered superman in the 23rd century. Khan himself was about how he viewed and treated the people around him, whether the way he saw the crew of the Enterprise or the way he saw his own. When he returned in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, he was about suddenly being able to seek out his revenge upon Kirk. The threat from him was immediate and it was visceral, and tied to people we knew. In both cases, you knew who he was, and you had a very real and present sense of his physical and mental abilities.
Not to mention, of his motivations. One throwaway line to Kirk about what one would do for family equals neither his care, affection, and protectiveness in “Space Seed” nor his seething need for vengeance in Wrath of Khan.
Here, he might just as well have been a guy actually named John Harrison on any revenge mission whatsoever. Who cares that he hates Admiral Marcus, a character that means nothing to us? It’s only Khan here because Orci, Kurtzman, and Lindeloff are all shorthand and signifier, too cute and too clever for their own good. Or that of the story.
I’m honestly unsure whether I would rather re-watch Star Trek Into Darkness or Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, but generally speaking I’d prefer the worst of any of the pre-reboot Trek series to this. The latest movie might be passable summer fare, but it’s not a Star Trek movie. I’m at a loss to explain why the people who made it seem to think those are mutually exclusive goals.
Postscript (May 19, 2013)
Postscript (May 21, 2013)
Other reviews echo my own, or, if you prefer, vice versa. You can, I’m sure, find plenty of good reviews, but I’m more interested in how widely-shared — and therefore not just pulled out of my own ass — my criticisms are.
It’s recently been pilot season on Amazon, as the site offered up a slate of comedy and children’s programming to be viewed, considered, and voted on by the streaming public. Amongst the selection: the almost universally panned Zombieland: The Series from the same writers as the originally movie, featuring the same characters but not starring any of the original actors.
Legitimately terrible — I’d actually consider this one of those circumstances where it’s possible to argue that something is objectively terrible — the performances, especially by the new Tallahassee but possibly excepting the new Little Rock, are uninspired or just plain bad. The morality both of the script’s treatment of other survivors and of the protagonists’ reactions to their deaths turns it into a spectacle of sociopathy akin to watching the cast of Seinfeld trying to navigate the zombie apocalypse. The four of them all are pretty reprehensible people.
So it was with no small hilarity that I read the tweets of Zombieland writer Rhett Reese in the wake of Amazon’s decision not to take the pilot to series.
I’ll never understand the vehement hate the pilot received from die-hard Zombieland fans.You guys successfully hated it out of existence.
— Rhett Reese (@RhettReese) May 17, 2013
Here’s the thing. Zombieland, the movie, unquestionably had some dark humor, and if you wanted to you could take up arms against the terribly gleeful ways in which it celebrates the destruction of zombies (the running “kill of the week” gag always was great), arguing that while they might be undead now they were actual people once upon a time. But the movie’s humor rarely came at the expense of other actual living people, the sole exception being to some extent its glorious Hollywood cameo, but there it’s a real person playing themselves and fully participating in the joke, so it works.
The pilot, on the other hand, almost entirely is built around the premise of laughing at the demise of other survivors, the joke being that the main characters keep trying to bring in new people, but then promptly and fully ignore them until they get killed. Then they shrug it off or behave as if the affront and the offense is theirs, that they have been put out by the experience. Not, say, the fellow survivors they just failed to protect.
It’s ugly. The characters are terrible people. And the cast mostly is terrible at being those terrible people.
One the darkest sides of fandom is the sense of fan entitlement, in which among other things certain (very vocal) contingents of this fandom or that fandom insist and demand that creators — be they writers or actors — owe them the presence of certain characters, the treatment of them only in particular ways, or the telling only of certain stories and not others. Sometimes they even insist and demand directly to the creators’ faces, even if typically it’s “just” online.
The flip-side to fan entitlement, however, is plainly on exhibit in Reese’s tweet. Zombieland fans own him no particular allegiance, or a least not the unquestioning kind. The disappointment is understandable, but (and it’s important to remember it wasn’t just fans who were down on this pilot) no one owes Reese or any other creator a good review. No fan is obligated to remain silent despite legitimate reservations or criticism. Creating for the public, and therefore creating in public, is a dangerous thing. I’m not completely sure why creators frequently seem to forget this fact.
Fans should be wary of thinking creators exist only to fulfill their whims and desires, but creators should be careful not to take their fans for granted, and should remember that sometimes — sometimes — fans (just like critics) turn out to be right. Sometimes what you’ve made just isn’t very good.
Early this afternoon, the extended trailer for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. dropped (at the same time the network posted the trailers for all their other new shows, alleged “tweet-to-unlock” campaign notwithstanding) and at around the 2:19 mark comes a scene with a line which prompted from me the laugh-stutter exclamation, “Oh, man.”
Reacting to Agent Jemma Simmons protestations that a short timeframe means there’s no way to do whatever it is they’ve been charged with doing, Agent Phil Coulson wheels around and delivers a sharp rebuke.
“Don’t ever tell me there’s no way.”
Throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far, including the various stingers and the two Marvel One-Shots focusing on him, Coulson has been a bad-ass to be sure, but also somewhat the paragon of the understated, if not laid back, deadpan. He could fuck you up, but he generally uses something of a gentle, if oftentimes bemused, touch in the course of normal social interaction. What I find most interesting about this trailer, among so many things I find interesting, is what this one line potentially says about where Agent Coulson is in his life.
After all he has seen and experienced, all he has done and has had done to him, perhaps his edge has become sharper and his innate optimism deeper at one and the same time.
This single line — “Don’t ever tell me there’s no way.” — and how piercingly and intently it is delivered seem to speak volumes about a man who knows with the certainty of extreme experience just what good people, both preternaturally super and otherwise, are capable of achieving, and who will brook no argument to the contrary. Coulson as we knew him is still there — his perfectly-timed revelation to Agent Grant Ward, his expression as Ward grills Skye, his warning regarding Lola — but possibly this is the Coulson as we knew him heightened and rededicated. Even more strongly self-defined than before.
After this trailer, in many ways I’m less interested now in the matter of how Coulson survived than I am in the way in which Coulson lives.
As part of Gender Through Comic Books, a massive open online course to examine “how comic books can be used to explore questions of gender identity, stereotypes, and roles”, the students’ final assignment was to “create a comic based on a story regarding gender you or a close friend/family member has experienced”, with at least four panels containing dialogue or thought balloons or narration, and at least two without.
Also, the last week of class, the wonderful team behind this class and I will choose what we think are the 10 best gender comics. With permission, we will post these and the class will vote for what they think is the best one. The winner will be published (with your permission) on Thrillbent.com, Mark Waid’s digital comics website. The winner will not be chosen on the art, but on the story.
My submission, titled “Meta”, was prompted by something of a stereotypical educational experience: unable to think of what to do for the assignment, I made the assignment about exactly that, but spun through the lens of the course. It wasn’t selected to be amongst the best comics produced by the class, but — freshly copied from Strip Generator — here it is in all its glory and/or infamy for you to admire and/or criticize. It’s minimalist, but it’s not as simple as it might seem at first read. I don’t want to explain what I mean by that; I’m curious to see if anyone figures it out.
As for the finalists in the class (there isn’t a publicly-viewable list, as far as I know), the ones that told stories rather than simply illustrated personal doctrine worked better for me, and “Girls Don’t Like Dinosaurs” (pdf) received my vote.