Thursday, December 5, 2013

If You Are Going To Do It, Please Do It Right!

I am a big reader. I read or listen as I drive, to many, many books in a year's time. I like books of all types, be they serious, comedic, fiction or nonfiction. I have read some books over and over again. I like a good story, whether fantasy or fact. But it needs to be good. With all of the good literature out there in the world and with fewer people willing to put the time in to actually read, it is understandable that film has become this generation's books. Now, I am not smug because I am a reader.  I am also a sort of movie buff. I like "good movies" and "good television shows" from every time period.  I particularly enjoy it when a favorite piece of literature of mine makes it onto the big or little screens. Of course the real primitive stuff, like Eadweard Muybridge's "Running Horse" made in 1878, were interesting and amazing for their time when still monochrome photography had only been around since about 1800, but they could not be considered masterpieces of any kind. They were curiosities and nothing more.

The first "movie" to tell a story was "The Great Train Robbery",  filmed by the Edison company in 1903. It lasted about 12 minutes and had a closeup and some pretty funny action scenes (by today's standards), but the story had no character development and was more like a news reel that we used to see in the movie theaters in the thirties and forties before television programming allowed for visual news to be reported directly to your home. But, the idea of moving pictures to tell a story was hard to resist. Instead of having to read popular novels or works of non-fiction, where you could only imagine the events in your mind's eye, you could now see a moving depiction of the material. Like they say, "before television and movies, we had books".

Of course it was still far from having a very realistic experience.  The movie world was monochrome and had no sound. You still had to do some reading to get a better gist of the story and you could not tell if the beautiful people on the screen were blondes, redheads, brown-eyed or blue-eyed.   Plus, you had an organist playing accompaniment to help get you excited or make you sympathetic at the right moments. It was hardly much better than reading, but was at least a step in the right direction. But, we had a little while to go before we would have the movie-going experience available to us today.

Color film actually proceed "Talkies" by about two-and-a-half decades. The 1903 French film, "The Passion Play" a depiction of the life of Christ, was done in Pathechrome, a process that involved staining parts of individual frames.  The process of capturing natural color would happen with Kinemacolor in 1914 and Technicolor would become the standard for color films in Hollywood by 1932.  So, color was available but it did not become the norm until the sixties. The color movies were, of course,  more costly to make and the expenditures for color movies were usually reserved for what were considered by the film companies as the more epic stories to tell. Of course, the advent of sound made telling a story easier. The technology existed since 1923 but it generally sounded like crap. When The Jazz Singer was released in 1927, sound was pretty much in to stay even though it continued to sound like crap for another few years. Everybody wanted to hear the same dialog, music and ambient sounds they were experiencing in everyday life.

Why, you may ask, did they start putting music in along with the natural soundtrack? If they are trying for realism, I think they are completely wrong. I know I don't have an orchestra or a snappy pop group following me around and playing music to match my mood or give my audience a nod as to what I may do next. I suspect it was part and parcel to the way silent films were watched, with a piano player or organist accompanying live at the movie house. Somehow, I do not begrudge the music too much, because there are times when it actually helps the action or lack of action on the screen.

Innovations in movie production have gone nuts since Star Wars in 1977. Special effects have become the norm for big budget money makers. People want to see what would have been impossible just a few years ago: Realistic-looking creatures and events that could not possibly be done outside of computer-generated images.   Now, 3D in film has been around  since about 1915, but it became a bit of a craze in the fifties and early sixties with mostly pretty silly monster movies, but they have really caught fire during the last decade with super hero and space-based movies. Where we had "Cinerama" in the fifties and sixties, which entailed a huge curved screen to help put you into the middle of the action, we now have IMAX, with really, really big screens and projectors that can project the big picture with amazing detail.  Now you can feel like an ant watching the action.  Audio has improved as well. In the sixties they tried a" Senssuround"  system to simulate the vibrations shown in the 1974 film, "Earth Quake", airplane take-offs and explosions in the film "Midway" of 1976--curiously both starred Charlton Heston--but it was not that much of a thrill to me. Now they have THX and  Dolby and Surround Sound to enhance your movie viewing pleasure, and if you want the vibrations, you can pay a bit more and sit in the special D-Box seats in some theaters which will vibrate and shake in conjunction with the visual action on the screen. Frankly, that particular advancement does little for me. In-fact, I find it extremely annoying. But I digress...

I began by saying I liked to read and was a sort of movie buff. Again, I really like movies of all shapes and sizes, if they are good and not overly pretentious. I, unlike my wife and some of my kids, really enjoy watching old movies in black and white with dated music, if they were done well. My wife is unable to enjoy anything that is shot in black and white and has dated sound. But I say good acting is good acting, and on-screen charisma is what it is.  It took a decade or two to get there, but eventually, the film industry developed directors and actors who understood the movies were not the stage and had to be more subtle.  I enjoy watching a play--I, myself have performed in some over the years--but it is obviously a much different deal than mugging for the intimate camera.  The movie has the better chance, or is better equipped in my opinion, of recreating for the observer a more complete entertainment experience when telling a story. However, they also have a greater chance of completely blowing it. If the powers that be in television and film cannot come up with their own original material, they go after what they think will make them the most money. I hate it when people with power in the entertainment media are only in it for the money. They will almost always get it wrong.

Movie and television producers, in my opinion, owe it to good literature to get it right.The way they usually blow it for me, is they try to tell a story that originated from a different medium and thunk they can make it better. Popular novels are most often abused, in my humble opinion. It is seldom that the movie is better than the book it was based on, especially when the movie producers think they can make the story better or change it in away that will make it sell better.  I have to admit that there have been a few times when I thought that the movie was better. For example, Jaws, the film, was better than Jaws, the book.  I understand that it is very difficult to include everything of importance from a book into a movie version and get it into a two-hour to three-hour time frame, so you may need to streamline the story a bit. However, when you take the stories of Edgar Rice Boroughs and his best characters like Tarzan and John Carter and come up with a completely different story and completely different lead character, you really start to hack me off. I do not understand why Burroughs let them get away with portraying his Tarzan as a moron when Burroughs wrote him as a genius.  Another example which comes to mind is the the attempt to make the Jason Bourne books into movies. I suspect that if I had not read the books, I would have thought the movies were okay, but the producers of those films thoroughly decimated Robert Ludlums brain child. If they were going to do a completely different story and make characters from the movie be the opposite of how they were in the book, why not just rip off the concept, give their characters different names and call the movie something else. With many of them you could never ever be charged with copyright infringement. Once the author of the book sells the rights, the movie producers can do pretty much what they want, and star pretty much who they want, who they think will sell the movie. How do they think the fans of the books feel about it? I do not think that they ever consider anything beyond what constitutes "marketability" in their own feeble brains. I know a bunch of people, as I do, who will not see a film that they KNOW is not a decent adaptation of a favorite book, or even a movie version of a popular TV show, which has happened many times in the last couple of decades. Money and power are often wasted on the clueless, I guess.

Since I just now turned this into a rant on stupid producers in Hollywood, let me vent a bit on the travesty that is the movie, Jack Reacher.  I know that Lee Child has been quoted as saying that he thought Tom Cruise captured the essence of his hero, but I mean really! For some reason, Tom Cruise is considered one of those charismatic movie star types. I do not get it, but I will allow that enough people like him to go see him in any movie. But, let us be realistic; Tom Cruise is at best five feet and six inches tall and weighs in at about 170 lbs., where the Jack Reacher of the Lee Child books is six feet and five inches tall and weighs in at around 250 lbs. The Jack Reacher in the novels is a scary dude, while Tom Cruise makes me laugh when I see him get tough. I have a pretty good imagination but it is not good enough to buy that.

So my request for the movie and television producers in the world would be that, if they cannot create something on their own, please do not turn silk into a sow's ear. You, Mr. and Miss Producer, most likely do not know how to make another artist's creation better, so go back to what you do best and have done over the last century: Keep coming up with new innovations and better and better special effects. But leave a good story alone. That's a wrap!

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