Aloha, Bloggers. Welcome to Hawaii! So…following on from the new Indiana Jones movie…from “From Hell” and “Heroes”…and from most (if not all) points comicward…
How hard is it, do you think — how hard is it really — to make half-decent crap?
Not that hard?
But, have you noticed that hardly anyone knows how to do it anymore?
I’ve said it before, and it still is true: Gilligan’s Island, as a crap piece of entertainment, is built about a hundred times more solidly and is about a hundred times more nourishing than any episode of Friends ever made. Evidence: Gilligan’s Island rarely makes stoned people flee screaming from the room, while Friends frequently does — hey, try it at home. I mean, it’s a little bit of who’s the tallest Smurf in the village, I admit, but the effect of this difference is nonetheless readily observable: Friends makes stoners dress in black and stay in their rooms and moan about the rain, and Gilligan’s Island makes them laugh and eat Cheezies.
And I’m telling you: there’s something there. That’s a qualitative difference.
There’s an easy way to account for it. Loss of professional pride. Because Gilligan’s Island, whatever its other faults, was made by the Old Pros, most of whom after all could never seriously think of making a dollar or a dime in this game, and so must’ve been in it for some sort of love of the craft, or else been extraordinarily unhappy in their work, poor bastards…
These are people who came up from the lowest and most disregarded stratum of cultural work. Hacks, we once called them; because they were talented enough that they could’ve done something else. They could’ve written War And Peace, instead of jokes for Bob Hope’s radio shows.
Of course they probably would’ve said: screw you, I think the odds are pretty rock-solid that I’m the only person in this conversation who’s read and understood War And Peace, so what d’you think you’re telling me for? And by the way you couldn’t write a joke to save your life. And I could’ve been dead at thirty-five from black lung like Uncle Jim, instead of having dinner with Dorothy Parker next Tuesday. And anyway who told you that you got to make the rules about what people are supposed to do with their talent? If the world was ruled by snobs like you, we could’ve kissed Shakespeare, Pucchini, and Gershwin all goodbye…and so you don’t know what you’re talking about, and therefore: fish, cut bait, or get outta the goddamn boat. No one’s taking your precious War And Peace away from you…that you probably haven’t read anyway…
Hey, when you write for Gilligan’s Island you’ve gotta have your sword at the ready, you know!
But that was then; and the necessity for the ready sword has gone down some, since.
Because well-made crap is in ever-shorter supply, these days. The bits of cultural fluff once churned out just to make a buck, actually look like pretty stellar stuff compared with the junk that clogs the pipe of culture today. And I don’t say that just to be a reactionary, though I am one. Because the fact is, it’s the money that’s made the difference: New Pros get paid a lot more than Old Pros, even if they do shittier work. Speaking of Bob Hope, they say by the time he was thirty years old, he was so seasoned that if a bomb had gone off in the theatre where he was performing, he’d have used it…just rolled right on into it.
And do we have a lot of people like that, today?
Well, we do; but we’ve also got drastically unseasoned people, and they look shellshocked even when a bomb’s been nowhere near them. In fact they themselves should be bombing left and right, but somehow they’re not.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s no bad thing that our New Pros get paid better than their predecessors, and there’s no denying there’s a lot of New Pro work out there that compares favourably with just about anything you’d care to stack up alongside it. Absolutely, no question.
But was there ever an age when so much shit was hailed as such pure gold?
Tallest Smurf In The Village: it’s a fun game, let’s play it. Small things, but with observable weight. The Star Trek television spinoffs, for example.
These were not very good.
And I’m not criticizing you, any of you; I’m just saying they weren’t very good. Hey, I like lots of stuff that isn’t very good, okay? But here I’m talking about a couple of easily identifiable later-Trek traits which made them rather more akin to Space Academy (or perhaps Jason of Star Command, or even Ark II — but no, now I go too far) than to their parent trademark.
And I’m suggesting that the difference is one of New Pros.
Follow me along, and then tell me you really, really don’t think I’ve got a point. Because anybody can notice the enormous amount of telling-not-showing that goes on in the later Treks, yes even in the better episodes of the better shows…when characters launch into tortured exposition of their inner states (and they always do, you know they always do), there’s always something faintly self-congratulatory in it, as though they’re pleased with themselves for being able to interpret their own feelings, and identify their conflicts in so many words…and, well I’ve felt it even if you haven’t, when the viewer hears and interprets these expo-character moments, is it not a similar self-congratulation he or she is meant to feel? As though we have shown the teacher that we can, indeed, regurgitate the right answer onto the test paper. A bit like a laugh track for drama — but not a very good one. Hell, of course it’s not a very good one, if musical and sound direction are regularly pressganged into ineptly overselling or underselling a dramatic moment that either is or is not there to be over- or under-sold, spoken words can never do much better than worse, can they? People, after all, understand how music works; whereas writing is mostly a mystery to them. Writing’s really mostly a mystery to everybody, if you think about it — which is why the writers themselves are the only folks who set the standards for what’s a decent day’s work and what isn’t.
But, then again, that’s no excuse at all.
Because it truly pains me, on watching certain (numerous) episodes of Deep Space 9, to have to watch actors struggling so hard to let me know that these aren’t just words…! When of course that’s just what they are; they’re just words. And all they have going for them is that they’re capable of being recognized as such. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present: the actor as human jukebox…
…And may I humbly submit that that’s not good enough.
Because the only thing wrong with latter-day Star Trek is that somebody didn’t take enough time to look at it and see it for what it really is. Certainly I think it likely that the actors all knew what they were doing: it’s just that the scripts didn’t support them as well as they could’ve, and why? Well, the word for this disease is cliche, the word is laziness, obviously we all know that, so there’s no point me being all mysterious about it. And though there are things in DS9 that are not horribly cliched and lazy, I think we can all admit that there’s much that is, too. Star Trek: TNG is even worse in this respect, naturally, despite Patrick Stewart’s undeniable acting skill — well, one of the problems is that his character is just not written as a particularly interesting fellow, is he? And it’s the same problem for all the characters on that show: even when they start tossing hobbies at them after a while, the hobbies don’t always stick, and where they do stick they don’t necessarily do any good. The conflicts aren’t really lived through, so much as they’re talked about…I mean, am I right?
Hey, on Voyager it’s even worse than that: characters might as well be named Bob Pseudo-Reckless and Jimmy Grow-Out-Of-It Diffident — the conflicts fail to achieve genuine conflict-y-ness, no matter what the actors do. That’s not a show, it’s a Dungeons & Dragons game, it’s a little girl’s tea party…nothing ever happens, except the actors look stiffly worried about something the viewers by rights ought to be capable of giving a shit about, but actually — deep down — can’t. Because of something that is really enormously simple: because the relationships are all inverted, the beats all come out of order, the aims don’t match the material, the tension’s defused when it should be mounting up, and mounts up when it ought to be being defused…the built-up structure of the thing is collapsed, and that’s considered to be how you get from the beginning of the story to its end. Of course that’s just a matter of getting things back-to-front — but getting things back-to-front is actually a much more natural thing to do than you might think. I’ve seen this a hundred times. I used to see it every day, back when I worked as an essay tutor: the writer mistakes his job for the reader’s job, tries to provide a reading instead of a writing, tries to meet the wrong expectation. In journalistic parlance this is known as “burying the lead”, and it comes about very simply and organically through not matching vision with forethought. It’s a common thing! The snowball mistake: the cold equations of time and trajectory, that make it so if you don’t fix the problem right away, it’ll fix you later on. The simple lesson of the stitch in time, which is that it saves nine.
Of course, that lesson’s only a valuable one if you accept the necessity of having to make those nine remedial stitches, in the event that you unfortunately miss that first one.
And of course you don’t have to accept that necessity at all. You could just as easily choose not to care.
Professional pride, see? You don’t have to have it. In fact if your motto happens to read “close enough is good enough”, professional pride’s even an encumbrance, something that gets in the way of doing work. And to be this way, it isn’t a sin — at least not much of one — but importantly neither is it a virtue.
I think we’ve been having a little conversation about this recently, in several parts: Rogue’s Reviews and Delineations and many occasional posts and comments (many of them my own), spread too far and wide to tote up here. But it’s all about the matter of identifying where that first stitch ought to have gone, the matter of seeing what is there to work with, setting the relationships in proper order, organizing the beats into patterns…of daylighting the lead. And you can almost always do this: no one who buries a lead does so on purpose, so they usually don’t do anything like a thorough job of it. Parts of it stick out like roots, and you can’t help tripping over these. And what you do then is, you don’t saw down the root so nobody else will trip over it. No. Instead you grab onto it with both hands, and you pull up the whole tree. See what went wrong. See what the difference is, between the tree and the root. Because you already know they don’t match up.
So let’s contrast the latter-day sawn-down-and-shouty mutations with Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek series…no work of high art, clearly! But it was one in which conflicts became real-seeming as more than intellectual exercises, because they were attached to characters who did more than just declaim about how those conflicts made them feel, more than just flower as cherries when under the ground they were really apples…you know, not to be a dick, but I can supply examples for all of these things I’m saying here…and if much of it was in absolute terms pretty trashy and awful, just about all of it was better than the best moments of any of its descendants. Because it knew what it was out to do, if you see what I mean. It understood what material it was working with, and it had appropriate writerly expectations for that material. In other words: it knew what target it was trying to hit, and it hit it. Most importantly, say what you will about Roddenberry, but he knew what constituted a day’s work. Were Kirk, Spock, and McCoy the most fully fleshed-out three-dimensional characters to ever hit the small screen? Certainly not; but they were a little bit more than just sketches, too, and as a consequence they did manage to speak in their “own” voices, and not just read aloud from the answer key to somebody’s Science Fiction Screenwriting 101 textbook. You know…most of the time.
So…why do so many people prefer the later versions of Trek, if what I’m arguing is true, and they really are not as good?
Why would anyone ever feel any attachment to the hateful character known as Geordie LaForge, or the gaping absence of meaning referred to by those in the know as “Harry Kim”? Why would anyone, anyone, ever put up with hearing so much talk of modulating the shield harmonics, or going back through the spatial anomaly so many times, to a point before the core breach occurred? I mean how many times in a single human life can you bear to hear this ridiculous wank fall on your eardrums? For God’s sake, this coat’s got more thread in it than it does cloth! Why in God’s name would you ever choose to suffer wearing it?
Only one reason!
Because it doesn’t make you feel stupid.
People really, really, really do not like to be made to feel stupid, you see.
I’ll tell you something, Gilligan’s Island will not ever make you feel stupid. Perish the thought! You are flying far above Gilligan’s Island at every moment, and you know this. But, watching the last season of Friends certainly won’t make you feel stupid either…
So what’s the difference?
Old Pros and New Pros, and professional pride. Think of it, not only did the Howells bring along suitcases full of money on a three-hour cruise, but Ginger Grant brought along a lab coat and fake glasses so she could play psychiatrist…! And yet what’s more insulting: that she has those, or that the Friends have that god-damned apartment, and dare to comment stupidly and generically on what they observe out its so-capacious windows? What’s more toxic, the acceptance of the fact that the Skipper never ever takes off his goddamn clothes, not even to wash them or to sleep — never in fact so much as takes off his hat — he sleeps in it, for God’s sake! — or the acceptance of the fact that at some level you know you’re supposed to be yearning for Ross and Rachel to get back together, so at some level you decide you might as well give in and get on with it? Both of these shows were arguably just about the crappiest crap that ever crapped crap, but one of them did it in the catbox and the other one did it in the cookie jar, and I’ll tell you why — because the creators of Friends, unlike the creators of Gilligan’s Island, for some reason thought they were making cookies.
And of course…they weren’t.
They were making what you make after you’ve eaten cookies.
What were the latter-day Star Treks about? They were about paranoia: about how the rot was setting in, under the wallpaper of the science-fiction utopia, and what needed to be done about it in order to maintain a useful self-delusion. Well of course they were about that! Look at the times in which they were made, the time of Neuromancer — they could hardly have been about anything else. And they were all absolutely beautiful vehicles for exploring this theme, even if that exploration would had to have been a little on the surreptitious side. Look, they even addressed those issues! More than once! However — and, I think, sadly — the relationship between investigator and investigated was turned around, turned backwards, and so what we ended up with was not an expose but a whitewash — a reason to consider the question closed, or even moot. The Old Pros would never have made this sort of mistake — they would have looked at the latter-day Star Treks and said “this set-up isn’t really like Star Trek at all, is it? It doesn’t start from the same place, and it doesn’t go to the same place.” And they would’ve made a stitch in time.
They would have noticed those tree-roots poking up from the ground.
A lot of design is actually quite near to being unconscious, in its creation — maybe somewhere north of seventy percent of it, by my best guess. The rest is craft, and disciplined attention: being able to discern what is in the design, that otherwise comes so magically pre-assembled for you. What was Friends about? It was about a bunch of people who say and do funny things because they’re basically idiots. My Dad used to watch this show, when it was first on TV — he called it “that stupid show”. He used to tape it.
But he stopped watching it, as soon as he was asked to believe they were not idiots.
Because he, too, is an Old Pro.
What does it take to scale Mount Get-It-Wrong, to make that perilous ascent from top to bottom? Well…perhaps a type of dedication, though the job certainly doesn’t take smarts: still, you have to want it, at least. Somehow, in some way. I think what you have to do is not want to feel dumb, so that then you can get that all backwards as well, and try to satisfy yourself by making everything around you so dumb that dumbness just becomes an ambience, and you don’t have to worry about it any more. Thus, you absolve the dumbness from criticism: you turn it into your basic construction material, a way of doing things, rather than what results from a way of doing things. Consider the humble television commercial, and how much energy and expertise it takes behind the scenes, to put something so basically and insultingly stupid, so damn timewasting, up on your screen! It’s a massive industry, a truly colossal marshalling of training and talent and state-of-the-art equipment, all to have a black guy in a sweater say something about what it’s like to eat at McDonald’s, that no black guy in a sweater would ever say, that’s ever been born. An astonishing level of falsity, and an astonishing outpouring of effort, in one: and far, far worse than the most unfunny joke Bob Hope ever rejected.
I asked my friend the mailman to pretend he had to come up with a pitch for a TV show. It took him eight minutes to come up with one that was, by today’s standards, exceptional. And admittedly he’s an exceptional sort of mailman, but he’s an exceptional sort of mailman, damn it…! And his show idea was crap, but it was crap that outshone a lot of shows currently on TV just by virtue of being crap: by being made as crap, with a reasonable level of diligence and a reasonable level of care. Like, eight minutes worth.
I bought him a coffee for it.
So…what’s not out of whack, in this picture?
I suppose I could’ve asked him to pitch me a comic book. Seriously, how hard could that possibly be, for our exceptional mailman, here? I could probably sit him in a room with a bunch of comics taken from whatever era of comics-making I wanted to emulate, and say “make me one of these — I’ll give you two hours.” It can be done. Okay, maybe he missed his calling, maybe he’s some sort of mini-genius…but that’s not the point!
The point is that standards are declining.
But, not the standards for what’s good and what’s bad.
The standards for what is an acceptable level of shittiness, in things that we already know to be shitty.
Or, if you like: the standards for how much minimal truth a given piece of hype must contain, in order for it to be considered swallowable.
Recently I read an online comment from someone who objected to the idea that the quality of Big Two comics had rolled downhill, by saying that in every medium you have to sift the good from the bad, and that it’s been that way throughout time. To which I’d say: okay, I’ll give you that one on technical grounds. But at the same time, that’s just hype, too: excusing the bad, because it was never meant to be good? And how time- and culture-specific is this species of forgiveness? Is there no such thing, anymore, as “inept, yet at least he works hard for his B-grade minimal return”? Workmanlike…adequate…do these words have no meaning, in this grand and high-gloss age? It’s funny the things people will excuse: a good critic will demand more from a work of high quality, hold it to a different, higher standard than something simply churned out in board-feet per hour to make a buck. A poor critic, on the other hand — getting things backwards, of course! — will hold the bad stuff (and sometimes bad and good stuff alike) to a lower standard. This is the kind of thinking that leads people to say “Spider-Man 3 was all right for what it was, just big explody entertainment, but Jimmy Corrigan sucked because it was pretentious and hard to read.”
Perhaps a comprehensible, even defensible, point of view. In a way it is like what the Good Critic says.
Only, turned around and pointed the wrong way.
Maybe it is the money that does it: after all, people will go where there’s money to be made, and as I mentioned before, writing is not a thing that many people understand very well. So to write with a readerly intention rather than a writerly one is a mistake most people might not ever catch…especially considering that for many people, the point of it all is simply to satisfy the grazing instinct. Was this grass? If it was coloured green and grew out of the ground, it probably was, and anyway we’re here to graze, not to ask questions, so shut up. People make stuff that way these days; they don’t just take it. A recent commenter around here chided me for getting irate about Brian Bendis’ throwaway line in Dark Reign that established Canada as the home of proxy concentration camps for the American government…saying something to the effect of “Dude, it’s just comics, relax.” Well, at least he didn’t append “Peace” to the comment, so it didn’t out-and-out shatter the yardstick by which we measure drive-by passive-aggression on the Internet…just another local Maturity Cop swinging by to shine the flashlight into the car, really, nothing special…but of course the point is not that I’m failing to “relax”, it’s that the bar establishing what constitutes agitation is set so low that you can’t get under it while doing sit-ups. There is no sense but the nominal in which “From Hell” can be considered a movie about Jack The Ripper; there is no sense but the nominal in which Secret Invasion can be considered an Event, or in which TNG can be considered an SF drama that treads in the footsteps of Star Trek. I’m not even laying any judgements down, here: it simply is true that From Hell is mainly about the shocks suffered by its protagonist, from wherever those shocks may happen to emerge. It simply is true that very few events actually saw fit to eventuate themselves in Secret Invasion. It simply is true that TNG, as executed, would be just as good if it were divorced from Star-Trekkiness. With a teenage Data. An ancient Riker. A fat Troi. A tall LaForge. And a bronze starburst on everyone’s shoulder, instead of the familiar gold Starfleet symbol over their heart.
There is no sense any longer, it appears, but the nominal.
And nominally, this is good news.
But who nominates the nominal? Eh?
No one likes to feel stupid. Everyone likes to feel respected. But “respect” is a term without a simple meaning, and anyway it makes a difference in which direction it flows: uphill or downhill. It might be elicited by returning a loyalty that’s been offered. It might be demonstrated in refusing to acquiesce to feelings of loyalty, when there’s something bigger at issue. No one knows (I think) whether respect is in the seeing, or the being.
In the picking, or the choosing.
Respect is funny that way! They often say it must be earned. But I think it far more likely that, with somewhat greater frequency, it is owed.
Parse that as you please, Bloggers.
But never let yourself climb Mount Get-It-Wrong, to do it.
And may your Skipper never lose its Gilligan, on the hammock-hook overnight. Rumplestiltskin in reverse? Heck, no.
This is Rumplestiltskin straight ahead.
And may the Great Bird Of The Galaxy not, um…straw in your hair.
Because that shit would be a bitch to get out, I’m telling you.
Well, I guess you could always say it’s a new and more advanced type of wig. Dude, relax!
Now get off my lawn.
And leave me in peace.