Saturday, April 09, 2005

Grant Morrison's 'Seaguy'

I just finished reading the collected edition of Grant Morrison's recent mini-series, Seaguy. This book is part of a series of three three issue miniseries he's doing for Vertigo, and it's the first one I've read.

This is a book that took me a while to get into. The first issue sets up the world of the book. Seaguy and his sidekick, Chubby da Choona, live in a world that used to be dominated by superheroics, but now the heroes have retired and Seaguy lives a boring life, the only excitement coming from the adventures of Mickey Eye on TV. The thing I really like about the first issue is the sense of malaise you get. Seaguy may be living in a crazy world, but he has the same malaise that a lot of people in our world feel. Modern life is devoid of adventure and excitement, and that launches in him a desire to do something exciting.

This leads him to Mickey Eye theme park, a place clearly modeled on Disney World, right down to the giant Mickey Eye ball in the center of the park. While at the park he runs into Doc Hero, an old superhero who can only find thrills by going on an amusement park ride.

A crucial thing to understanding Seaguy is to get that even though this seems to be a fantasy world, the book is really a brutal satire of modern life. It's essentially about the modern malaise that people feel in a world where thrills come from television or amusement parks, rather than from actual adventures. Morrison presents the Mickey Eye show as something that will brainwash you, something similar to reality TV, just pointless viewing that you watch because you've got nothing else to do. There is this weight of generations past, who had adventures and did important things, while in our own world, the only thrills are artificial, created in carefully controlled theme parks. But the thing that's missing from amusement parks is any real sense of danger or change. It's just going around in loops.

So, adventure presents itself in the form of Xoo, a highly commodified substance that is the building block for the world's first artificial living foodstuff. This brings Seaguy to a ship where Xoo is produced, and here the Xoo reacts against the people who are creating it, and destroys the ship. The image of Seaguy with Xoo on his spoon is devestating, and I really love the sequence in which Xoo destroys the ship. The attempt to control this living foodstuff inadvertantly leads to the corporation's destruction. Basically, the commodified object rebels against the world that created it.

While being interrogated by the Xoo gang, one of the suits voices what will become the essential question of the series: "Xoo is multi-purpose. Xoo is low cost. Xoo makes people happy. And what's so wrong with happy?" In this case, the point is that the world that Seaguy lives in, the 'happiness' he had, is just artificial surface happiness, it's not real fulfillment.

Almost all of Morrison's protagonists are dissatisfied with their status quo, and want something more, a drive that leads to investigations that bring them into contact with different layers of reality. Jack, Buddy in Animal Man, Greg in The Filth, Flex Mentallo, they all seek a better, more exciting world. And in Seaguy's case, that better world means coming into conflict with a corporation that wants to spoonfeed happiness to people.

The first two issues of the book were good, but I didn't really get the sense that this was any more than a twisty revisionist superhero story. It was all pretty simple until the last issue where stuff goes crazy. The issue opens with the harrowing image of Cubby's cartoony head on a body that is now only a skeleton, and then Seaguy winds up on the moon.

The end of this issue raises a lot of questions, both about what exactly happened and about consumerism and society. At the end, Seaguy is basically reprogrammed, his need for adventure removed, and he is placed back into normal society. When I finished it, I was wondering what work it really reminded me of, and it just clicked that the ending has a lot of similarities with my own movie, Tabula Rasa. It's basically the same idea, someone decides to rebel against the system, they're chased down, reprogrammed and things loop around at the end. Though, Morrison's work is much better than my own, it's still cool that we're working on really similar ideas. Tabula Rasa was heavily Morrison inspired.

Anyway, the pages where we see Doc Hero being tortured and then Seaguy getting reprogrammed were amazing. The one page with Seaguy in the room with a bunch of TVs with Mickey Eye on is so Morrison, pure genius. That page alone makes the series worth reading. So, basically, the ruling power in this society, Mickey Eye is rounding up heroes, and replacing the drive for adventure with an artificial happiness. And then these people leave the rebooting camp going around in sort of a daze. Is this the first time Seaguy has been rebooted? I would lean to yes, but I'm not positive.

I think the thing that Seaguy gets so right is the way people feel this lack of purpose in the modern world. We can distract ourselves all we want, but there seems to be the need for an adventure, or just excitement outside the daily routine, it's what Seaguy feels. Seaguy longs for an age where adventure was the norm, and when he finally does have his adventure, he winds up on the moon, which is actually a 5,000 year old Egyptian tomb. There's a deliberate tie in to an age that seemed more interesting and vibrant. The pharoah is looking for heroes, but only one has turned up and that's Seaguy. And ultimately, the whole call for heroes turns out to be a trap. The pharaoh is being maniupated by the Mickey Eye group, and they lure Seaguy to a place where they can capture him and reprogram him.

So, this corporation wants to prevent real adventurers from returning because that would take away their control of global entertainment. They couldn't brainwash people anymore if there were real adventures to experience. Morrison is someone who's decidedly not reactionary, so I don't think the point of all this is to say that we should go back to a more exciting time in the past. I think it's more that we should seek out adventure in the modern world. Seaguy wants to change his life, he wants adventure and he finds it. That ties in with Morrison's ideas on chaos magick, that if you want something enough, you'll get it. So, Seaguy is the only one to recognize and interrogate his unhappiness and this allows him to change his life, and for a brief moment, find a sense of purpose and excitement in life. So, Morrison is imploring the reader to find their own adventure in the world, even if it seems like you're locked into a boring routine.

The end of the work is difficult to judge. I would say that even though it seems like Seaguy is back living this boring life, things have changed a bit. The crucial thing is that this time he chooses to be black when playing chess with death, implying that he is really going to be playing the game, instead of seeking the artificial comfort of cheating to know he can win. Basically, rather than accepting the boring routine of life, and not taking risk, he's taking a huge risk with this chess game, he is finding the adventure in the everyday, and he has not forgotten the lessons of what happened to him earlier.

So, I thought this was a great book. It's one that you're not really sure where it's going, but in the end everything comes together. I've got to give props to Cameron Stewart's art, which is just gorgeous, and perfectly captures the odd cartoony vibe of the world. It's really artificial, yet also emotionally real. And also the fact that GM is able to make the story work on so many layers. It's at once a fantastical superhero tale, and a brutal critique of modern society. There's so much casual surrealism, particularly in the moon scene, crazy images presented without explanation that you accept because it's in tone with the world. This is a work that plunges you into a crazy world with no easy guide, it lets you figure things out on your own, and that's part of what makes the end so rewarding. It's not Morrison's best, but it's another great addition to one of the greatest canons of a storyteller in any medium.

Friday, April 08, 2005


A few days ago I finished watching Nip/Tuck season two. Over break I had watched season one and I really enjoyed it, but I felt like the series never made the jump from addictive and good to really great work of art, and season two left me wondering if it could do that.

When it comes to TV shows, most of the stuff I'm a fan of is really continuous, and largely dependent on character relationships for the drama. Another notable aspect of most of these shows is that pretty much every character has something awful happen to them at some point along the way, for this is the stuff that drama is made of. But, the thing that separates the best TV shows from ones that are merely good is whether plot arcs have real consequences, or whether everything functions on sort of a loop, where storylines will happen, but eventually, we will always find ourselves back roughly where we started.

So, the difference boils down to whether the show has some sort of overall purpose, one massive story it is telling that snakes through all the years, or whether events arbitrarily occur because there needs to be another season. Looking at the two magnum opuses of television, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Sopranos, you can see that even though there are heavy soap opera elements, and a strong stress on character problems(which I love) there are also overarching character and plot arcs that
keep the series moving forward. So, whereas Sean's depression on Nip/Tuck is treated as something he has to get over and move on from, in season six, Buffy's depression profoundly changes her character, and doesn't seem gimmicky at all. Sean, you don't get the sense that what happened here will have a huge effect on him down the line, whereas Buffy's depression has major consequences. It marks the nadir of Buffy's life, before she is reborn and reinvigorated in season seven.

In The Sopranos, we see characters going through huge, irrevocable changes that develop out of the story organically, rather than being forced on them due to the need to keep things happening. Tony and Carmela's separation in season five feels warranted and clearly has major consequences for the characters. When Sean and Julia split up on Nip/Tuck, you get the feeling that it's just a temporary thing, because the same exact story was done in season one. There's no sense of forward progression, and the storyline doesn't come out of character actions.

I think that's the primary difference, on Nip/Tuck or The OC, external forces are the primary drive behind narrative events. On the best shows, it's the characters themselves who create the stories. I'd consider Buffy season six the pinnacle of television storytelling and here, everything is character based. Buffy's depression leads her to a relationship with Spike, Willow's abuse of magic leads to her breakup with Tara, Xander's fear is what leads to him breaking off the wedding with Anya. These events grow out of long held character flaws. That's a big part of it too, making characters flawed, by doing this you create the potential for great drama.
The Sopranos has very morally ambiguous characters, who are always stuck between doing what is in their best interests and doing what is morally right.

A show like Six Feet Under sort of walks the line. We know that Nate will always wind up back with Brenda and that David will always end up with Keith, but the show is so well written, it never feels like a loop. Even though the relationships may stick, the characters end up changing a lot. Plus, the production values and artistry behind the show are so good, it's on an entirely different level than most other shows.

So, that brings us to Nip/Tuck season two. I find the show extremely entertaining, and at the end of each episode, I'm always wishing there was a little bit more. That said, as much as I love the show, there is very little of the artistic value that the best TV shows have. There's countless things you could write about on Buffy or The Sopranos, or even Cowboy Bebop or The Office have really deep thematic and character
development. Nip/Tuck basically riffs on the relationship between outward appearance and the inner self, and then throws on a bunch of character problems with that.

My favorite episode of the year was the alternate universe Julia episode. Alternate universe episodes, such as Buffy's The Wish, are always entertaining, even though they may not actually have that much substance. The episode I would most closely equate this with is 'Perfect Circles,' the Six Feet Under third season premiere, which saw Nate wandering through a myriad of parallel universes, observing different versions of himself. What elevated that episode above the Julia episode is that the worlds he saw were a reflection of the character's fears about his place in the
world. Notably, in the world where he is mentally damaged after the accident and is trying to speak again with David's help. It really plays on his sense of mortality, and there's a sense of danger throughout.

Julia's is more of a tour through another world, observing with an interested but not particularly invested eye. That said, it was all very entertaining, I loved Kimber in the episode, and her looking at Julia as she and Christian had sex. I liked the cocaine driven lifestyle of excess she and Christian have, something that's always entertaining to watch, as was the return of Meagan O'Hara and Jude from season one. The show has an admirably deep memory in some cases. The best scenes were in the
'netherworld' where Ava and Julia talk, most notably the end of the episode where Julia floats through a white void, passing everyone in her life, while being drawn to Ava. 'You Can't Always Get what You Want' worked really well with the scene, and just the image of Ava drawing Julia to her death was great. That's an example of the purely symbolic visual storytelling that a TV show can allow. Because we know and are invested in these characters, we can understand exactly what's going on, without
dialogue. Just like the last episode of Twin Peaks or Buffy's Restless, the set narrative universe allows for a move away from traditional storytelling, while still doing things that are relevant to character development.

So, that episode was great, as was the journey of Kimber. Back in season one, Kimber and Christian had a relationship that ended with her tying him to the bed and threatening him with a knife. But, upon her return in season two we see a new Kimber. The first episode she was in, the one that ended with the reveal that she was now starring in porn was pretty shocking, and I was eager to see where she went from there. This led to the great episode where she gives Sean the 'realdoll' of her, and
eventually they get together. The thing I really liked about Kimber was the fact that, post cocaine binge, she seemed to be the only character who had things together and knew where she was going in life, and at the end of the season when we see her directing a porn, we get a sense of how far she has come. She's the only character in this season who went through things that irrevocably change her. Christian and Sean have the same basic conflicts, but she has moved on and become a better person.

The fact that her development stands out so much reflects poorly on the show. Sean and Christian have basically the same character conflicts they did in season one, and both go through essentially the same arc. Because of this essential loop, the show is good, but it's not quite great. Still, I loved watching it, and can't wait for season three.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Sin City

On Saturday I finally saw Sin City, a film I've been looking forward to ever since last March when the project was announced, and even more so since reading the books during the summer, and this was definitely a film that lived up to the expectations. And as much as it is a great film on its own, it's also a film that represents a dynamic use of cinema, one that will change the medium in the future in ways we cannot even imagine.

Having read all the books, it was positively surreal watching what I'd seen on the page play out on screen. The film basically is the comics transported to another medium. The dialogue is all repeated verbatim and the shots basically replicate the exact images of the comics. Unlike most people, I thought the Marv story was the weakest of the three. When I read the books, the first one I read was The Yellow Bastard, so Marv wasn't my introduction to Sin City, and as a result, I think that story might pale in comparison to some of the later stories. However, when you read/see it first, it has the feeling of discovery, and it's the other stories that seem like retreads. That's not to say it wasn't good. Kevin certainly is a nasty villain, and there's something cathartic about watching him get eaten by his own wolves. Elijah Wood owns in the role, really freaky. He's the highlight of that segment. Plus, I've got to give props to Rutger Hauer, who's great as Cardinal Roarke, this is his best work since Blade Runner. In this sequence, I loved the black shadow cast onto walls, which replicates Miller's style of drawing.

'The Big Fat Kill,' the story with Dwight and the prostitutes was actually my favorite in the film. I think it was the most visually interesting, particularly at the end with the red sky behind the prostitutes and Dwight, as well as the gorgeous image of Becky completely dark, with only her jewelry illuminated. Those silhouette images were probably my favorite shots in the film, notably the one with Dwight sinking under the tar, only to be pulled out by Miho. I feel like those best capture the visual style of the comic, which was entirely reliant on the sharp contrast between black and white images, to the point that it looks like paper cutouts at times. If Kevin was the awesome silent killer in the previous story, Miho takes that here. She's really menacing. In this sequence, I was surprised at how well stuff from the comics, like Jackie-Boy's head speaking worked, and in that sequence we even see Dwight speaking his voiceover out loud and it works. That's part of being integrated into the world of this story.

'The Yellow Bastard' was my favorite of the books, and it doesn't work quite as well on the second go through, because so much of it is predicated on the twists. Also, by breaking up the first scene and the prison stuff, we don't get the sense of imprisonment from the book. Reading the book, I was really angry at the Senator, and got the sense of being imprisoned for a long time. In the film, we skip over Hartigan's trials in prison, which makes his actions when he's out less motivated. Another thing I think that didn't work as well was the reveal of Nancy. Reading the book, I was shocked to find out Nancy became a stripper, but here it's dealt as an off hand reveal, one that is actually spoiled by her appearance in Marv. That said, the hanging sequence was really well done, and the whole farm bit worked great too. The ending of this segment is really brutal, and features another great use of silhouette.

If I had to find fault with the film it would be that this is such a direct translation of the books, we don't really get anything additional. Miller's use of comics as a medium was innovative, and completely unique. The film basically replicates this innovation, but doesn't take advantage of film itself. Music is really underplayed, and the camera barely moves. You can tell that each shot is basically replicating the book. I think the best example of this might be in the Nancy scenes. Despite not having any actual movement, I get a stronger sense of motion from the book version of her dance than the film's. In the book, you can feel that she is captivating these guys, and is really special, in the film, it looks like she got drunk and is standing on the bar. That's where Rodriguez should have innovated with film in the same way that Miller innovated with comics.

But, if he had done this sort of thing, people could just have easily say he's straying from the spirit of the comics. Even if he isn't using the camera in a particularly interesting way, what this film does for digital production is even more revolutionary. Sky Captain, even though it looked good, always looked artificial. Here, I would swear most of the film was shot on sets, and most of the time, I wasn't even considering the digital aspect of it. That's the best compliment for an effect. It works seamlessly, and this allows the film to go over the top visually in a way that hasn't been seen before. This is basically Rodriguez showing us the future of film.

I don't think every film should be shot in this way, I would suspect that part of the reason the camera isn't moving around as much is because it's tough to do that with a digital backlot. A film like Irreversible would not work on green screen, but if you're creating a different world, it clearly works. Both this and Irreverisble show how you can use digital to service the story, and I think we're heading for a world where every frame of a film is digitally altered in some way.

Rodriguez is basically living the life I'd want. He writes, directs, edits, shoots and scores his films. I think a crucial part of making the film is being involved in all aspects of production, not just writing a script and handing it over to a bunch of technicians. I would love to have the control that he does, and the freedom to make whatever he wants. Is he making great films? Other than Sin City, I wouldn't say he's made anything too noteworthy. Spy Kids is basically a waste of time, and the upcoming 'Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3D' will probably appeal to no one over ten. That said, if it's what he wants to make, more power to him.

So, it's a great film, a film that is completely unique and for that reason alone it's worth seeing. What this film does make me question is whether I would like to see something like this done for The Invisibles or Watchmen, comics that are really important to me. Sin City, with its minimalist artwork is ideal for this kind of film translation, but could it work for Watchmen? I think it could, but on some level, I would rather see it interpreted to suit the medium. Yes, Moore's work is very cinematic, but he uses comics specifically.

Most great works make specific use of the advantages of the medium. Sin City in some respects feels like a comic book adaptation of a film, in that even if it is good, it always seems odd to not read the work as it was originally intended. I mean, let's say there was a comics version of Magnolia, I'd be all over that, but even if it was great on its own, would there be a reason for it to exist? Even though I love film, I find it odd that it's always assumed that something from other media should become a movie. Shouldn't we be creating films that specifically tailored to what that medium can do, rather than trying to bring in stories from other media?

So that even while I love Sin City, it exists already, and Rodriguez could have made his own noir, inspired by the work, rather than exactly replicating it. I really do love the movie, and I'm looking forward to the Watchmen and V For Vendetta movies, but on some level it seems hopeless. It's the same thing with the American version of the TV show, The Office. The original was so brilliant, essentially flawless, so how could a remake be anything but worse?

I'll admit that a lot of the stories I do are inspired by watching other movies, but even if you start out doing an exact copy of something, as you go along, things'll change and you'll end up with a more original story than you start out with. Basically what I'm saying is when you experience a great work, why not try to create something equally great, but different instead of just redoing what has already been done.

That's why if I were to become a successful filmmaker, I would only do original screenplays, written by me, with a couple of exceptions. If I had the chance, I would make an Invisibles movie, and what I would try to do is keep the same story and characters, but really focus on making it cinematic, through the use of music and camera movement.

But mainly, I would want to tell original stories, things that are new and different, building on what has come before, and also going beyond it.