Other Buzzzzzzzz

I am not going to go see the new Green Hornet movie.  I knew that long before its release, when I heard Seth Rogen had been cast as the Hornet.  I just knew it would be a waste of everyone’s time, money, and sentiment.

I’m sorry.  Hollywood has been doing superhero movies now for decades and they’ve gotten a few of them pretty right.  Except for a ridiculous semi-musical romantic interlude, the first Superman movie with Christopher Reeve was fine.  Mostly this was due to Reeve and co-star Gene Hackman (who can save just about any movie), but they treated the material lovingly the whole way.  Subsequent versions, not so much.  In fact, by the fourth outing as Superman, Reeve must have been a bit embarrassed.  Clearly, the problem with sequels is that we’re dealing with material that was born to be a serial, and the best medium for that is television, not big budget cinema.  That said, a few of these aren’t so bad.  It helps not being immersed in the comic books to begin with (for instance, I was able to enjoy all three of the primary X-Men films without getting all worked up over the liberties taken by the studio that incensed many dedicated fans—except for a Baker’s Dozen back when I was 13 or 14, I did not follow the comics), but I can more or less enjoy many of these outings.  Have to admit, though, to date the Marvel franchise has fared much better.

But the Green Hornet is another matter and one of the things that Hollywood so often forgets is that the material must be taken seriously!


These were the guys I grew up with.  Brit Reid and Kato as played by Van Williams and Bruce Lee, 1966 to 67.  The car especially, Black Beauty, really rocked.  Now, I saw these in first-run and haven’t seen them since, so doubtless they have dated and dated badly.  But my imagination took the original viewing and went amazing places with it, and that is the problem with a lot of these films.

No doubt the film-makers took a cue from the Iron Man movies.  There is a lot of humor in those films, but—the films are not humorous.  Tony Stark is funny, but funny within context—and with a lot of credit going to Robert Downey Jr. for just doing a tremendous job in the role—and that’s something film makers fail to grasp time and again.

For instance, the best Three Musketeer films ever made were the Salkind productions in the 70s with Michael York and Oliver Reed.  Great films.  And funny!  But funny as a consequence of the action within context—the characters themselves were not jokes, they were serious.  Much later, a third film was made, Return of the Three Musketeers, with the same cast, but something had been lost—they were turned into buffoons in order to artificially inject humor rather than letting it arise from the context, and it is painful to watch.

Long ago now Tim Burton made a Batman movie and cast a comic actor, Michael Keeton.  A lot of people probably moaned, fearing the worst.  But Burton treated the material seriously and Keeton played it straight.  Likewise in the sequel, but when Burton lost control Keeton bailed, and good for him, because the studio starting injecting jokes, much as had been done with the James Bond films, and taking the premise much less seriously, until they produced a truly foul film (one of the few I have been utterly unable to watch more than 15 minutes of).

Keeton, however, had done serious films before.  He had a reputation as a comic actor, but more in the line of Jack Lemmon than Seth Rogen, who has gone from one slapstick dumbshit vehicle to another, and apparently the studio opted to play to his strengths in that regard here.

I don’t like movies or television that rely on stupidity to carry the story.  That’s why I no longer watch most sitcoms.  Stupid is not funny to me.  The great comics knew that good comedy was not to make fun of people’s stupidity but to derive the humor from stupid situations.  Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp was not stupid.  Lucille Ball’s character was not stupid, either, she simply never knew enough to follow through effectively on her schemes, and the situation tripped her up.

That said, superhero stories walk a fine line between significance and the absurd.  I mean, really, these people are improbable at best.  It is all too easy to paint them as ridiculous or such utter fantasies that no real drama could result from their stories.  It’s difficult to write sympathetically, not to say powerfully, about people who are so much more than average.  And the scenarios!

But that’s what makes them iconic, because they achieved that balance and then some.  So you have to be careful when translating them from one medium to another.  In this instance, they clearly didn’t get it.

Now back to our regularly scheduled day.

The Bubble and Warehouse 13

I just finished watching the new show on SyFy called Warehouse 13.  I enjoyed it, it was a good ride, even though they clearly went after the X-Files crowd with this one.  It could be worth a few hours to see where they go with it.  They took the endless warehouse from Indiana Jones, added some National Treasure grace notes, stirred in a dollop of Muldur and Scully, and introduced a bit of humor.  That last is very important, because when you have a premise that is this borderline, taking it too seriously is risking alienating a lot of audience.  The main reason the X-Files worked was the mood, the color, the textures that Carter wove into it, and he played the conspiracy theory game like a master.  But for me, it got very old very fast.

The problems with the X-Files were manifold and manifest.  The biggest one was Scully.  She was the dumbest “scientist” I’d ever seen on television or read in fiction.  To remain so obdurately unseeing through all that she was put through required zero imagination in the character, zero sense of humor, and probably some sort of serial fixation or related pathology.  If they’d played that up it might have worked, but for pity’s sake she was just dense.  And therefore unbelievable.

The other problem with it was the profundity of the secrets ultimately being kept.  It worked well when Muldur was just going through a bunch of old case files no one wanted to tackle because they led to bizarre places.  Kept modest like that would have allowed the concept to work on the fringe, where it started out, and could have been very entertaining.  But when it became this all-encompassing, “the aliens have been here and we are in league with them” kind of schtick, it became ridiculous.

Because they were trying to keep it consistent with mimetic fiction.  They were trying to convince us that the world really is this way, only we don’t know it.  They tried to make it mainstream.

Doesn’t work.  Fringe stuff has to stay on the fringe.  Now you can use the premise that what’s on the fringe is really there, but it’s kept on the fringe, and the agents in charge are tasked with keeping the rest of us from knowing it, and in so doing keep all this weird shit away from everyone.  You build a bubble attached to the “real world” and populate it with fun plots and wild extrapolations. but it doesn’t have to bear the burden of supporting itself interwoven with the rest of the world.

Which one can do as well, but not at series length.  A single movie will work.  A novel, a short story.  Once you extend the concept into multiple seasons, you run into problems.

The Warehouse 13 people aren’t making that mistake.  They’ve created their bubble and there is a conduit attaching it to the real world, but it is not in the real world.  The two agents are tasked with removing the weird stuff and quarantining it in South Dakota.  That will work.

They will, certainly, imply that what is secreted in the warehouse has, in one way or another, over time, here and there, now and then, affected the real world, and that’s cool, too, but with the conceit that the three habitues of the warehouse are supposed to bottle this stuff up we are not burdened with the implausibilities and inexplicabilities of having the government know about this stuff and attempting to use it.

And keeping everything looking like it still does when we step out our front door.

The way science fiction would work in that instance would be to set the show in the future and posit that everything is now different.  It would not then be burdened with selling the audience that this is “our” world, but a world yet to come.  Suspension of disbelief proceeds apace then without fear that some major difficulties with the audience b.s. detector will come into play.

Part of this problem is also with what I call the Escalation Problem, which has been part of science fiction almost from day one.  Look at, say, E.E. Doc Smith’s Lensmen.  Each succeeding book—indeed, each succeeding chapter—required a bigger bang than the last.  It was almost a Hollywood approach—to feed the expectations of the audience, the special effects have to keep getting bigger, wilder, more impressive, almost to the point where the storytelling and plot become little more than vehicles for the next cool thing.  Smith could match his plots and ideas to his effects, so it wasn’t a disaster, but today, especially in television, this is a Big Problem.  It leads to escalations of the absurd in many instances.  It leads to cul-de-sacs out of which the writers cannot write.

But it’s a real disaster when  stories are set in the given world, the mundane world as it were.  Because eventually you have to explain, subtextually if nothing else, why the world hasn’t changed when the tv is turned off and we turn on the news.

Hence the bubble.

I’m looking forward to seeing a few more episodes of this show.  I like the premise (such as it is) and I love Saul Rubinek.  He’s one of the better character actors working today.  For a treat, you should see his portrayal of Lon Cohen in the Timothy Hutton Nero Wolfe’s.

So, with a caveat or two, I’ll give Warehouse 13 my blessing.  As if it needs it.  Let’s just hope they can keep it on track.