Saturday, August 06, 2005

What's up with me?

Well, considering the fact that I'm writing this blog at 11:17 PM on Saturday instead of being out doing something, you may say, 'wow, it must be slow times with Patrick, yeah?' In the short term, you'd be right, but in the long term, much is going on.

My biggest project right now is my graphic novel, Division Shadow. This is a story I started writing two years ago, it centers around a covert military organization called, as you might have guessed, Division Shadow, but it's not really about military stuff, it's really about showing the lives of a whole bunch of characters connected by the organization. There's three basic story strands. One is about a family man working in the military who's offered a promotion that would take him away from his family, then there's two people battling US military control over in Middle Eastern 'borderlands' that are controlled by the US government, and finally there's an old man who's dying and needs to get something to his son before he dies. Structurally, and even a bit in the plot, it's heavily inspired by Magnolia, but I think the different genre and settings make it a totally unique piece.

So, two years ago, I had an artist set up and we worked on the project for a while, but he always had some excuse for why he wasn't starting and eventually we drifted apart and the project lay dormant. But, one day this summer I decided, I'm bringing it back, I posted an ad looking for artists and got a ton of responses. I picked three of them, one for each chunk of the story, and now we're moving forward. I've already got two finished pages in, and the fact that we have three artists means we can finish the issues relatively quickly.

I'm hoping to finish the first issue by the end of September, and I'm going to print some minicomics up to mail to comic pros to try to get some review quotes for the first real volume, which will be 96 pages long. Then, six months down the line, the second volume will drop, containing the rest of the story. Right now, I'm planning to self publish everything, but there's the chance a publisher will pick up the book, which would be awesome. I'd love to make money off the book, instead of lose it, but either way, this is what I want to do with my life, tell stories, so if I have to spend money on something, it's going to be that.

If you want to check out the art we've got so far, you can see it here. I think it's pretty awesome, this book has really come together and has become my primary creative outlet. I've got the whole story mapped out already, but I'm always thinking about how to break down the next chunk into pages, and how to make the stuff I've already written better.

So, that's one major project. The other thing I'm doing now is running a video workshop for LMC-TV, the local public access station here in Mamaroneck. This consists of instructing about ten 12-15 year olds in the basics of filmmaking and also making a film with them. I did this last year, and the film turned out great. It's really stylish and always looks good, even though there were some complaints about the story not making sense. This year, I've been doing more actual teaching of film techniques, using clips from films I really like, Wong Kar-Wai's stuff, some Magnolia, some Once Upon a Time in the West and so on. The goal is to give them ideas they can 'homage' in the film, so we basically jumble together a whole bunch of interesting shots and hope it hangs together.

It's an odd experience being an authority and a leader. I always noticed when you're a kid, adults would tell you to stop doing stuff that might not really be dangerous, but could be potentially destructive, like tossing a ball in the air inside. And, it always bothered me. But now, I do the exact same thing, I tell the kids to stop doing this stuff, even though it probably won't cause any problems, it's just I feel like I have to. I now get that adult mindset of needing to stop kids from getting into trouble, stuff I may do on my own when no one's there, I'll stop the kids from doing. It makes me feel old, because I've become the authority when it seems like I was just the one watching people my age get called out for causing trouble.

I know I'm not old in the grand scheme of things, but there's definitely an impending feeling of adulthood coming on. Two years from now, I'll probably have a 'real job,' I won't be in school and I'll have to support myself. If I think about how quick the past two years have gone, to think I'll be finished school then, it's a bit frightening.

But, at the same time, I feel like all this school is just a prelude to the real world, and it's about time to get there. And, I want to see what sort of job I end up with and what happens when I graduate. Everything so far is basically the standard route, high school to college, but after that, who knows what'll happen?

And hopefully by the time I graduate, this graphic novel will be finished and successful. My first goal with the book is just to complete it and be able to point to my shelf and say, 'see that book, I wrote that.' Second would be to sell enough copies to support another graphic novel.

So, amidst all this, I've also started editing the film I made on break, which was also lying dormant for a long time. It's a pretty good looking film, and I'm psyched to see what I can make of the footage.

It seems like I spend all my time living in fictional worlds, writing it, filming it and watching it. I guess spending the summer making comics and movies, and even being paid for the latter, professionally speaking, it couldn't be much better.

Six Feet Under: 'Time Flies'

Another day, another episode. It's been a long time since I've had new episodes of something this good coming in on a regular basis. Six Feet Under is such a layered, well made series, it really makes almost every other show look like it's not even trying. When watching the show in 'binge' form last year, I saw things mainly in terms of the big picture, the overall character arcs and direction of the season, so I lost the sense of each episode as an individual entity. Even though everything is totally continuous, it's really interesting to see the way that each episode goes a way towards forwarding the story, and creating parallels within each 'chapter' of the story.

This episode is notable for bringing all the characters together, putting their problems into slightly different perspective. The first chunk doesn't have too much notable stuff, the funniest bit was David and Keith's day with the kids. It was a hilarious story, though I was expecting the bad experience David had with these children to cause him to second guess his own desire for kids.

The real 'meat' of the episode was the party scene, which was notable for both how heavy and dramatic it was, and how funny it was. First, the funny bits. The cake scene was hilarious, the way everyone was enjoying cake so much that Claire just has to say fuck it, give me a piece. There was also the George/Billy discussion, and the presence of Tom, Nate's friend from two episodes ago, who got some really funny material. Jokes like the bathroom line are funny here because of how dramatic everything else is. It's the contrast, not the material itself that works.

But, despite any good times there might be, we ultimately end up with darkness, as a number of couples have arguments. I'm always rooting for Nate and Brenda to be together, but I still found their arguing here really interesting. Following the conversation with his father, Nate is starting to question what he had taken for granted. Is he getting into another Lisa-like situation, where he marries Brenda, has a kid with her, and then winds up feeling trapped and unhappy? Just like Brenda provided an out he could always use, his relationship with Maggie seems to be developing into something more than just friends.

I don't see Alan Ball going down the route of having Nate sleep with Maggie, because it would be rather predictable. I think it would be really interesting for them to have a platonic relationship that becomes very close, and causes Brenda to become jealous. I think she, and the audience, always assumed that her and Nate would be together, Lisa was a temporary stopover, but could she stand to be the like Lisa, someone who's become so normal and suffocating that Nate has to find his mental and emotional stimulation somewhere else? I don't know, but we're clearly headed for some major trauma, as Nate is starting to lose it, even as Brenda seems to be increasingly stable.

Elsewhere, Claire and Billy are having problems as well. I found it a bit disturbing that Claire would sleep with the forty-something divorcee, but I think it works for where her character is now. She'd broken ties with her home, assuming that she could live with Billy. However, when Billy starts to break down, she finds she has nowhere to go. Could Claire move back home, or is she going to have to set out on her own, and probably have to enroll in school again. I don't see her lasting too much longer with Billy, but what effect losing Claire will have on Billy is where things could get interesting.

I like the way the George storyline is being played from both sides more now. We still see how Ruth suffers, but also the fact that George desperately wants to be better, he just can't be. I like the way the conversation between George and Billy sets up Ruth and Claire as parallel characters.

Then with Keith and David, there's still some lingering questions about Keith's sexuality. It seems like the reason David may be so resistant to the surrogate is that that would set up Keith as the father, this woman as the mother and leave him with no role. An adoption would serve as a more 'legitimately gay' way to have a child. The scene with Keith and Brenda presented Keith as a father in the context of a heterosexual coupling as opposed to a homosexual one.

So, this is sort of the blow up that things have been building to for a while, but not too much has actually changed. I guess the real test will be in the next episode when we find out the effect that these arguments have on the relationships in question.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Six Feet Under: "Hold My Hand" (5.3)

Well, after an absurd delay of two months, which seemed like barely any time, I'm back on the wagon, or off the wagon, and have finally seen a new episode of Six Feet Under, the third episode of the fifth season, 'Hold My Hand.' It's really difficult to objectively address this episode because part of me is just so damn happy to finally see a new episode. Still, sometimes time absence does not make the heart grow fonder for a series, what will it be in this case?

Well, I really enjoyed this episode, it felt good to be back in the world of SFU, and while it's certainly not one of the best episodes of the series, it's one of those necessary episodes that advances the plots to the point where major events can occur in future episodes. It's critical to view series like Six Feet Under as one big story told in chapters. So, some chapters will have a lot of big events, some won't, but there's no need for each chapter to really tell a story in and of itself. This is an episode that you wouldn't really remember when your each the end of the season, but I'd imagine will be crucial in furthering the character arcs.

And, in this show, the characters are so interesting that spending an hour with them is something I love to do. The best series reach a point where the characters can be doing the most mundane things and the show is still riveting. Buffy is a good example, I loved when they scaled back the slaying bits, and focused on the characters. In this show, the funeral services used to serve as the standalone plot for each episode, but any plot other than personal issues has basically been removed from the series.

This is something that bothers a lot of people, who say things along the lines of lighten up and stop whining. It's true that the early years of the show were much lighter, but if you're going to have bad things happen to the characters, it wouldn't make sense to have them be carefree. I guess what the complaint is is that there used to be a balance between the darkness and the lighter material, but I still get a lot of laughs from the show. It's just that the laughs are more isolated amidst a core of darkness.

But what about this episode? I find it interesting how in this season every plotline revolves in some way around wanting to have children and the affect of parenting. David and Keith are struggling to get a baby for themselves, while Nate and Brenda deal with the difficulties of carrying a child to term. On some level, they all see a child as a chance to make up for their mistakes and reinvent themselves. For David, it will legitimize his life as a gay man, Keith will get a chance to be a different, better father than his own. For Brenda, having a child would complete her transformation from rebellious and wild to domestic, it would make her pure again and erase the things she'd done in the past. But, Nate's thoughts here tell us that he doesn't think she can do that, she's not a domestic, and never will be. I found that scene a bit cheesy in context, but it says so much about the character's state of mind that I'm glad they included it.

But, this entire mindset is called into question by Maggie, with her tale of losing her son at age two. The idea that these characters' greatest hope could become their greatest tragedy creates a foreboding around all the events that follow.

Then, there's the difficulty of being a child and dealing with parents. George is still dealing with the awful treatment he got from his mother, and now he wants to hide his weakness from Ruth, fearing that she will abandon him as his mother did. I like the idea that because of his disease, his timeline will break down and Ruth and his mother will become esssentially one person.

Claire also is struggling with Ruth, wanting to be truly independent, but ironically the only route to independence is through her father's trust fund. Ruth is on the defensive in both storylines. I loved the scene where she argues with Claire, the history between the characters is what gives it such power.

Claire's storyline was one of the highlights of this episode. Since I'm still young, it's a bit tough to relate with all these characters' desire for children. So, the fact that Claire wasn't going after a kid was refreshing. I love her breakdown in the camera store, the way she feels that she's entitled to this money, and is totally unable to see why anyone wouldn't want her to have it. She's created an entire world around herself in which she is learning from real life experience, with no mind to the fact that society basically requires you to have a college degree. And now that Billy is off his meds, she's got the perfect counterpart to live in this fantasy with. The Sharper Image scene at the end is a great way of making us wonder about how long Billy can last without his meds.

The other highlight of this episode was the Rico storyline. His affair at the Quality Inn was hilarious, largely because of Illeana Douglas, who plays the scenes to the extreme. Her enthusiasm was a great contrast to the dour mannered behavior of everyone else in the episode. The details were what made this story, with the fritos, and particularly the reference to the orange crackers. It was also nice to see Rico's skill rewarded.

The other scenes I really liked were Brenda's, particularly the dinner scene, where she sees, perhaps for the first time, a 'real family,' that loves each other and is fully functional. I think she would have rejected this idea of family as a 'cliche' that doesn't exist, but there it is in front of her, and this forces her to reevaluate what she wants from her relationship with Nate. What it comes down to is does she really want to lead a family life, and if she doesn't, how long will it take for her to revert to who she once was?

So, there's a lot to deal with, and luckily I've got episodes 4 and 5 on tape, so those reviews will be coming up later this weekend, and from there, I'll have to get people to tape the other episodes for me. I should be caught up pretty soon. But, sadly, there's not that many episodes left, and I'm dreading that final fade to white which means the end of one of the greatest TV shows ever made.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Wong Kar-Wai Day

Well, tomorrow finally sees the domestic release of Wong Kar-Wai's brilliant film, 2046. I saw the film back in January, on an import DVD from Hong Kong, and then I saw it again in June, at the Wong Kar-Wai Q&A event at Lincoln Center. Still, despite having seen the film a number of times, I'm going to go back for another viewing on the big screen. I'd never seen a WKW movie in the theater before, and it was an incredible experience, you truly are immersed in another world of glamour and sadness.

Wong Kar-Wai is probably the world's best director right now, his films are incredibly beautiful, and tell stories that are linked more by visual and musical connections than a strict narrative, and in that sense he's taking full use of the storytelling properties of the medium. So, if you haven't seen 2046, or even if you have, go back for another viewing on the big screen, and be dazzled by the images.

I've been reading some of the reviews of the film here in the US press, and most of them like the film, but express the feeling that it's somehow superfluous, that he's not doing anything new. This is a valid complaint, 2046 is largely a summation of everything that WKW has done to date, and on the surface it is. This film is virtually a remake of Days of Being Wild, but while the plot is roughly the same, the emotional state of the characters is totally different. For one, there's the spectre of Chow's relationship with Su Li-Zhen, Maggie Cheung casts such a shadow over this film, that despite only appearing in it for roughly a minute, her presence is felt in every scene, and we view all the women Chow meets in terms of how they compare to Su Li-Zhen. That's the point, this guy is trapped in the past, he constructs a fantasy world in fiction, where he can recapture his lost memories, but when he tries to recapture the same memories with real women, he finds they can't live up to his idealized memory.

So, this film is much more tragic than Days, which despite the main character's death, has a sense of youthful optimism with the other characters, you feel like their lives will go on and get better after the film. In this film, Chow's unfeeling treatment of the women has scarred them and with Zhang Ziyi, he has created a new version of himself, someone who will use men in the same way that Chow uses women. The ending of the film is almost apocalyptic, as Tony Leung lies slumped over in a cab, completely alone, a sad contrast to the scenes in Happy Together and In the Mood where he's riding with someone.

Basically, what I'm saying is this is a film that on the surface seems similar, but beneath is totally innovative and new, with much more scope than any previous WKW flick. It's also a film that demands multiple viewings. On the first viewing, it's confusing, and this can dull the emotional impact, but if you watch it again, and are aware of the chronology, it's much more powerful. That's one of the problems I have with film critic reviews, they've only seen the film once, I don't think you can truly evaluate a film until two viewings. 2046 is going to be a film that'll be much more appreciated in the future, once it no longer has to deal with the expectations created by its five years in production. But, right now, I'd call it WKW's third best film, and a film that takes full use of the possibilities of the medium. Other than Revenge of the Sith, it makes every other movie released this year look like it's not even trying.

So, as I did with Richard Linklater a few weeks ago, here's an index of all the stuff I've written on Wong Kar-Wai here on the blog. There's quite a few articles, and you can see my journey from WKW newbie to WKW expert. But, you could know everything about the man, there's still some mystery in those films.

Days of Being Wild Review (First Viewing): 11/21/2004
Fallen Angels: 12/10/2004
2046 Review (First Viewing): 1/4/2005
In the Mood For Love (Deleted Scenes): 1/9/2005
Chungking Express Review: 1/14/2005
Ashes of Time Review: 4/20/2005
Days of Being Wild (Second Viewing): 4/28/2005
Happy Together: 5/5/2005
2046 Review: Screening with Wong Kar-Wai: 6/16/2005

Those are the core posts, then here's some more articles that mention WKW films.

My Favorite Actresses
My 2004 Oscar Nominations
Top 10 Films of 2004
What makes an action movie work?

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Brian Bendis Syndrome

So, watching Elephant and the Bad News Bears, I saw two very different works from directors who started out as indie filmmakers and have gone on to flirt with the mainstream. In recent years, most filmmakers start out not within the studio system, but as indie directors, who are then offered studio support for their next project. As a wannabe director, I'm always fascinated to see what people do as they move from the independent scene to the studio system. A lot of the time, it isn't good. And this just isn't in films, it's also in comics, most notably in the sad tale of Brian Michael Bendis, a man who became the most powerful writer in comics, but along the way, lost his soul...

Well, he didn't exactly lose his soul, but his tale still is quite interesting. In the late 90s, Bendis was a writer/artist, publishing his books through small publishers. He did a number of books, but his two most successful were Jinx and Goldfish. These were two serialized noir graphic novels that he wrote and drew. I'm a huge fan of both books, the art is really innovative, and the stories are emotionally engaging. Both books are just well told original tales, something that there isn't enough of in comics.

So, Bendis was a unique new voice in the medium, with the potential to be the next Frank Miller, a writer/artist who would change what the medium could do, or at least create some cool noir comics. Bendis' books were picked up by Image Comics, and published under that banner, along with a new series called Powers, which is about cops in a world of superheroes. It's a pretty solid book, that riffs on all kinds of archetypes from years of comics. So, Bendis was on a roll.

In 2000, Marvel was starting up a new line of comics, which would reinvent their characters for a new generation, in a new continuity. They went to Bendis to write Ultimate Spider-Man, a controversial pick, but one that was generally hailed, Bendis was seen as someone who could bring an indie sensibility to this mainstream comic, someone with a more unique than your average Marvel writer.

So, in the five years between the start of Ultimate Spider-Man and the present, Bendis has become Marvel's lead writer, with four or five books going at once, all set in the Marvel universe, except for Powers, which continues. Bendis hasn't stopped being a good writer, his Daredevil is excellent, and Ultimate Spider-man has its moments, though the early issues are much stronger than the recent stuff. I haven't read much of Bendis' recent Marvel output, like New Avengers or House of M, but going off his other Marvel stuff, I'd imagine it's competent, entertaining stuff that lacks the originality and emotional bite of his early, creator owned stuff.

Bendis seems to have become so enamored of writing in the Marvel universe, writing the characters he read as a child, that he's forgotten the virtue of creating an original story. Alias, a book about a private eye in the Marvel universe, has some good character stuff, but it's an exercise similar to Powers, the entire pleasure is in seeing how two disparate genres mash together. And with House of M, Bendis is writing an entirely conventional superhero story, one that hasn't been getting particularly good reviews.

So, Bendis went from innovative indie comics writer to someone whose only book not set in the Marvel universe is a riff on superhero universes. I'm not saying that doing work in the Marvel universe is pointless, or that working within the superhero genre is a bad thing. Grant Morrison is someone who frequently works within the Marvel or DC universe, and the work he does there is frequently some of his best. But, first, step back and consider how the story of Bendis is not unique to comics.

Music is the medium where an artist is most frequently accused of selling out, but I think it's the medium where selling out is much less of a concern. In comics, a lot of creators have this desire to write the characters they grew up on, and end up writing only those books, as in the case of Bendis. In film, it's a bit more complex. Other than Bond, there's no franchises that are ongoing and always switch directors. But the Bendis problem still exists.

Take a look at the career of Brian Singer. This is a guy who came to prominence with the film, The Usual Suspects. I think it's an overrated movie, but it's still original and stylish. After Suspects, Singer made Apt Pupil, a film that wasn't too successful. However, his big change happened with X-Men, he directed the film and it was a big hit, so he was hired to do the sequel. After X2, he was booked for X3, only to leave that to direct the new Superman film. Much like Bendis, this was a guy who started out doing small indie films, and in a short amount of time finds himself working exclusively on corporate properties.

Superman Returns is symptomatic of an increasing problem in film. As directors become more powerful, you'll see a lot of them do vanity projects in which they pay homage to a film they loved in their youth. With Superman Returns, Singer's goal is to recreate the feeling of the 1979 Superman movie, a film that's not that good, and isn't even that old. Why not come up with a new take on the character instead of making a slavish homage to a work that is by no means the definitive take on the character. Similarly, Peter Jackon's King Kong is a salute to a film he loved in his youth, but why salute it by just making it again, knowing that you'll probably never match the original. The worst of these was the shot for shot Psycho remake, by Gus Van Sant, an utterly pointless film.

I think the goal as a filmmaker should not be to remake the films you liked when you were young, instead to try and capture the feeling they gave you and update that into a new film. Look at Star Wars, Lucas set out to remake Flash Gordon, but he couldn't get the rights, so he made an original story that does so much more, and has become a totally unique piece of cultural mythology, while the 1980 Flash Gordon remake occasionally turns up on Saturday afternoon TV. He did the same thing with Indiana Jones, rather than remaking an adventure serial, he takes the best elements of them and creates the definitive version. Tarantino's Kill Bill is another example. These works go beyond their inspiration, rather than just trying to recapture the feeling of something that's already been made.

Did all these directors really get into filmmaking to remake movies they liked as a kid? Did Bendis get into comics to write yet another bloated Marvel crossover?

Things are really different in indie comics and indie film. It's conceivable that all Brian Singer wanted to do was make comic book movies, and he made his early stuff as a way of making his name, so he could get the budget for these films. For the successful indie filmmaker, the time always comes when they get studio funding for a film, and looking at this transition movie is critical to seeing what kind of director they want to be. For Kevin Smith, the restraint of Clerks totally falls away when he makes the generic teen comedy, Mallrats. However, Richard Linklater keeps his indie sensibility and fits it into a slightly more traditional narrative structure in Dazed and Confused. Linklater has generally remained more independent than Smith, who has made plays for the mainstream, retreating to more indie work when he fails, as in the case of Chasing Amy and the upcoming Clerks sequel. Clearly Smith's indie work is better than his mainstream films, so why does he keep making stuff like Jersey Girl?

Ultimately, a director's path may not be theirs to choose. For indie directors who succeed making studio films, it's difficult to get back on the indie path. If Superman Returns is a huge failure, Singer may go back to smaller movies, but for now, he's carried along on the momentum of his big budget success. Look at David Lynch's career, if Dune had been a success, he would have made a sequel to it, and from there, he might have taken on another big studio franchise, and never made Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks. Then, we'd have David Lynch, mainstream director, with that one wacky indie film, Eraserhead behind him. Similarly, Kevin Smith would likely never have made Chasing Amy if Mallrats had succeeded.

It seems that failure is the best way to get a director away from the mainstream. All directors who have flirted with mainstream, but remained independent have had one big failure that forces them back to the indie world. Look at Gus Van Sant, after the failure of Finding Forrester, a totally mainstream film, he took stock and went back to the indie world, with his most indie films yet.

In comics, I think the biggest problem is that people start writing with the end goal of writing the superheros they knew as a child. If you look at Bendis' output, it would seem that he has reached his goal, the original work serving merely as a stepping stone to his time on Daredevil. The main difference between comics and film is that in terms of story content, indie comics have no budget restrictions, it's all what you can imagine, so there's no need to get a bigger budget to tell your story, if you've got a story to tell, you can do it just as easily on your own as you can with Marvel. However, if your story involves Wolverine, you do need Marvel.

So, indie comics creators will make their own book as a way to get attention and then wind up writing superhero comics down the line. Unfortunately, to a mainstream audience, a book like Jinx is much more accessible than House of M, that's where the comics marketplace is skewed. What is so called 'mainstream' (i.e. the superhero comic) is actually a genre that has taken over the whole medium. That's not to say that superhero stories aren't popular, in films almost every successful action film this summer has some ties to the genre. Even critically mauled films like Fantastic Four can be saved by their comics connections, while a film with slightly better critical reaction, The Island, just dies, because it has no built in audience.

But, the basic point is, now that he has the ability to do whatever book he wants, what is that drives Bendis to write only Marvel books? Doesn't he have any of his own stories to tell, a story that doesn't involve costumed people fighting evil. Maybe that's what he wanted to do all along, but I'd like to think that people would rather bring original characters and stories into the world, rather than just rework pre-existing concepts.

In film, Chris Nolan may have made a faithful Batman movie, but he didn't add anything to the character as Tim Burton did with Batman Returns. Batman Returns used the character as a way to explore issues really close to Burton, Nolan changed his style to fit the material, while Burton fit the material into the style. Most people don't go Burton's route. What Burton did is the same thing as Morrison did with the X-Men, he used the characters to explore things that were really interesting to him, he didn't worry about what had come before, he drew on the archetypes, and ended up writing much better comics than people who were dreadfully faithful to the material.