Saturday, April 26, 2008
Overview: To this day, I find it amazing that Max Headroom ever existed, particularly on prime-time network television. It’s commonly referred to as ground-breaking and yes, it certainly was, but after the ground was broken, it didn’t exactly spawn a horde of imitators. In the twenty years since it went off the air, have there been other unambiguously cyberpunk shows on network television? I can’t come up with any, and there sure isn’t anything like it on the air nowadays. Maybe only in the eighties, in the mystic realm of Mad Max and Miami Vice and post-apocalyptic Duran Duran videos, could this show have found a home.
Max Headroom was an ABC series that premiered in 1987 and ran for a season and a half. The first incarnation was a British made-for-television movie, which was intended to introduce audiences to the character of Max, the computer-generated host of a UK variety show. The UK movie was re-shot, with the script largely intact, and used as the pilot for the ABC series. The US version kept the original leads -- Matt Frewer and Amanda Pays -- and replaced most of the rest of the cast.
Since its cancellation, Max Headroom has aired in syndication on the Bravo and SciFi channels, but, as it has never been released on DVD, it’s remembered mostly as a relic of the eighties. The character of Max Headroom -- Coke shill and pop-culture punchline -- is more widely remembered than the series, which is unfortunate: beyond the pilot episode, Max was fairly peripheral to the show. He’d appear in the teaser and tag of most episodes, and would make sporadic appearances throughout, but his presence was generally not crucial to the plot.
Set, as the chyron would inform us as the start of each episode, twenty minutes in the future (in fact, 20 Minutes Into the Future was the title of the original UK TV movie), the world of Max Headroom was an aggressive dystopia, a television-obsessed society dominated by hundreds of television networks and fueled by a maniacal drive for higher ratings. The series focused upon the corrupt and powerful Network 23 and its star investigative reporter, Edison Carter. Matt Frewer, who was usually a character actor (among many other roles, he’s known for the miniseries The Stand), made a rare and effective foray into leading-man territory in Max Headroom; it’s hard to think of another actor with the right blend of crisp intelligence and glacial snark to pull Edison off (think Anderson Cooper with more bite). Max Headroom himself was a chatty, unrestrained, computer-replicated version of Edison’s memory, who took on a kind of life of his own beyond the borders of his programming. Edison worked in tandem with his controller, Theora Jones (Amanda Pays, a knockout who made a strangely plausible computer geek), who navigated clear paths for Edison through Max Headroom’s endlessly networked landscape by overriding alarms and unlocking doors and plotting escape routes; between them, Edison and Theora made investigative reporting look terribly exciting and glamorous.
Almost as valuable to Edison as Theora was teen prodigy Bryce Lynch. Eighties movies and television were glutted with kid geniuses and computer geeks, but Bryce, played by Chris Young in the ABC version, was one of the best, probably because he was the creation of people who understood that super-smart teenagers didn’t necessarily need to be precious or abrasive or loathsome. Antisocial and arrogant, Bryce cheerfully involved himself in a number of shady situations, but was essentially a good kid. Recurring villainy was supplied by Grossberg (Charles Rocket), the disgraced head of Network 23, and his sinister odd-job men Brueghel and Mahler. The cast was rounded out with top-drawer actors like W. Morgan Sheppard, Jeffrey Tambor, and Conchetta Tomei.
Personal Context: Max Headroom aired in 1987 and 1988, which is when I was transitioning from junior high to high school. It was my first exposure to cyberpunk – it’s preceded by Blade Runner and William Gibson’s Neuromancer, but I saw Max Headroom before becoming aware of either. I remember an old interview with Blink-182 where they referred to themselves as the Fisher-Price My First Punk Band. Furthering this concept, Max Headroom is the Fisher-Price My First Cyberpunk Experience.
Inspiration Vulture: Max Headroom is all about style and tone. Blade Runner is the obvious comparison (here’s a guilty secret: I actually don’t like Blade Runner all that much. I know, I know, no need to tell me; it’s a character flaw on my part. In any case, it seems like 90% of everything I admire holds some kind of debt to Blade Runner, and I respect it for that, but the film itself -- original version, director’s cut, extended cut, what have you -- gives me narcolepsy), but tone-wise it’s closer to Brazil. Maybe this is a credit to the UK roots: Max Headroom is quirky and sardonic, darkly satirical and unsentimental, though not bleak. Visually, while the special effects may be outdated by two decades, the show managed to put together an evocative, iconic look. I’m a sucker for a good futuristic cityscape -- I love the sight of the Network 23 tower looming over a ruined city, surrounded by mounds of debris and trash can fires and, most pertinently, television sets as far as the eye can see. That’s Max Headroom.
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
Overview: Akira, for the tragically uninitiated, is Katsuhiro Otomo’s groundbreaking 1989 anime feature film, which is based upon his long-running manga series. Akira is giddy and glorious, a huge, elaborate, expensive, overstuffed, adrenaline-laden, hyper-violent spectacle of sheer awesomeness. The film is set in 2019 in Neo Tokyo, a megacity built upon the ruins of Tokyo, which was devastated two decades earlier by a mysterious atomic blast. Neo Tokyo is dazzling and gorgeous, sleek and shimmering in neon pinks and golds, though it’s in the process of falling apart at the seams. It’s hurtling towards another mega-catastrophe, and all the various factions -- motorcycle gangs, terrorists, religious fanatics, corrupt politicians, military, scientists and creepy shriveled-up psychic children -- work at violent cross-purposes to either ward off disaster or speed it along.
Akira has a sprawling, labyrinthine plot that’s impossible to follow the first time around and still remains muddled upon second or third or fourth viewing. The ostensible hero of the story, or at least the character we follow the most, is Kaneda, an oddly endearing young idiot who leads a biker gang. During a clash with another gang, Kaneda’s smaller, weaker, much-beleaguered best friend Tetsuo comes into contact with Takashi, an escaped test subject from a long-running top-secret government project, and starts to develop: a) unstoppable super-powers, and b) a stunning mean streak. It falls to Kaneda to stop his friend from destroying Neo Tokyo, or to redeem him, or to get his bike back from him (Kaneda’s super-elaborate bike is fetishized beyond all comprehension, both onscreen and in Akira fandom. Haven’t seen the movie? Just Google “Kaneda’s bike”; you’ll see what I mean), or to hook up with foxy rebel Kei… okay, it’s usually not at all clear what Kaneda’s trying to do, but since Kaneda himself seems never seems to know what’s going on, I see no reason why the audience should feel any obligation to try to sort it all out. Just sit back and bask in the awesomeness.
It all builds to an inconclusive or possibly incoherent climax (spoiler alert: Kaneda and Tetsuo shout at each other a lot and try to kill each other in increasingly ludicrous ways, and then the city gets destroyed or reborn or something). In another kind of film, the ambiguity would be an annoyance, but in a film like Akira, the muddled ending is beside the point. Apart from the aforementioned awesomeness, it’s funny, the kind of film you snort and chortle all the way through. Years ago, I recommended it to a friend at film school, who watched it for the first time in the public media center. Halfway through, the student at the viewing booth next to him tapped him on the shoulder and asked if he was having some kind of attack -- apparently, he’d been making disturbing strangled noises throughout. That’s the proper Akira reaction.
Personal Context: “What’s your favorite movie?” is an impossible question, yet when asked, I say it’s Akira, though that’s at least in part because I think people would lose respect for me if I said Tuff Turf. In any case, I adore this film, and have adored ever since I first saw it at the Magic Lantern Theater in Spokane, Washington, in 1990. This was the much-maligned version dubbed and distributed in the United States by Streamline. It was re-released by Pioneer in 2001 with new dubbing and a new translation, which eliminated some of the dialogue oddities of the earlier version (I never did figure out what Kaneda meant by, “Just when my coil was reaching the green line”; the context doesn’t support it, but I like to think it was somehow sexual in nature). I went into the theater not knowing anything about it -- I liked anime, though, as this was 1990, my exposure had been limited to Voltron and Robotech and Speed Racer. (These were the days when everyone still called it Japanimation, kids. Ah, good times).
There are movies that are mood-altering. And then there are movies that are life-altering. Akira falls into the latter camp. Watching Akira for the first time was one of those turning points, a moment in my life where Everything Changed Forever. It’s a jolt of dangerous adrenaline, the kind of film that makes you feel invincible, like you can walk down dark alleys by yourself and blow out street lights using only the power of your mind. At the very least, it infuses you with a strange desire to run off and join a Tokyo bike gang. This is heady, dangerous stuff.
I went off to college a year later, where I taped my Akira poster to my dorm room wall. A theater in Westwood showed it as their midnight movie, and I hitched a ride with a couple of hyper-pretentious fellow film majors, who made sarcastic comments throughout. I’m pretty easygoing, particularly with people who are providing my means of transportation, but I got downright shirty with them and almost ended up walking back to campus. I’m very protective of this movie. So protective that the recent news that a live-action remake has been greenlit and put on the fast-track for production (they’re Hollywoodizing it: it will be set in “New Manhattan”, not Neo Tokyo) sent me into a major funk: there is no way this can turn out well. There’s been no word as to prospective casting, but if we end up with Shia LaBeouf as Kaneda, I will cry and cry and cry.
Inspiration Vulture: If I could harvest one trait from Akira to use in my own writing, it would be the boundless energy, the relentless motion, the joyous chaos of Kaneda and his merry gang of idiots. Akira often gets compared to Blade Runner, and in terms of striking visual design, yeah, Blade Runner’s a clear influence. But Akira’s hyperkinetic pace is a lifetime away from Blade Runner’s languorous, torpid neo-noir universe: more happens in Akira’s dazzling, violent opening sequence than in all of Blade Runner. My writing tends to be pretty controlled. I outline carefully, I think things through, I plan everything in advance. If I could relinquish some of that control in exchange for a dose of Akira’s jubilant mayhem, I think I’d come out ahead.
Next up: Max Headroom
Monday, April 14, 2008
When I posted a month ago about the Great Agent Search of 2008, I mentioned I had sent out a fresh batch of five query letters to literary agents in the ongoing quest for representation for my book, Charlotte Dent. From that batch of letters, I’ve thus far received one form rejection, one personal rejection from an agent who liked my sample pages but thought the book would work better rewritten in first person, and one request to read the full manuscript. That agent ultimately passed: while she thought Charlotte was professional and publishable, she didn’t feel strongly enough about it to offer representation. There’s been nary a word from either of the other agents I queried; perhaps they’re backlogged with query letters, or perhaps they’ve already steamed the stamps off my self-addressed reply envelopes to use on their tax forms.
Next step? Query on, query ever. I’ll send out a new wave of letters this week.
I’m itching to start a Big New Unspecified Writing Project (another book? Another screenplay?), though I seem to be bankrupt for material to write about. (I tried to sit and brainstorm ideas earlier today, but then I got sucked in by VH-1’s Viva Hollywood! Have you seen this? It’s fabulous: actors compete to win a role on a telenovela. In the first episode, a stunt coordinator trained the contestants in the art of bitch-slapping and tossing drinks in faces. My hopes for future installments are high.) It’s a rough, amorphous, disorganized process, this business of generating ideas. Inspiration is a vulture which feasts on the carrion of other people’s lives and other people’s ideas and digests it all into something wholly new and different. Ideas come from random things that have struck me at some point in the past -- things I’ve seen, things I’ve experienced, things I’ve heard or misheard, books I’ve read, films I’ve watched -- which are filed away, then eventually retrieved and strung together with thousands of other random things, until the original source is all but unrecognizable. Charlotte Dent, for example, contains a mishmash of different influences, ranging from the obvious (my experiences working in the entertainment industry) to the obscure (the actor commentary track on the Fantastic Four DVD and an interview Orlando Bloom once gave about how he prepared for Lord of the Rings by eating nuts and berries and switching from coffee to tea both provided me with strange bits of inspiration for the book).
I tend to get sort of obsessive about stuff. It’s easy to see where my brain has been recently: twenty of twenty-nine total posts on this blog have had something to do with Heroes. As for past obsessions, there’s a nice chronicle of some of them over on my main site. Obsessiveness isn’t a bad character trait for a writer, because obsessions provide a great resource for finding things to write about. Thus, over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to take a look at some of my past obsessions -- television shows, films, books, Duran Duran videos -- in the hope of drumming up new sparks of ideas for the Big New Unspecified Writing Project.
First up: the Inspiration Vulture feasts on Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (“Kanedaaaaaa!”). That’s tomorrow.
Friday, April 4, 2008
I spent the past week watching Season Three of Battlestar Galactica on DVD, and now I have a chest rattle, a sore throat, body pains, and a pervasive feeling of encompassing despair. Coincidence?
Well, yes. Of course it is. I don’t really think Battlestar Galactica made me ill. Obviously. Still, some paranoid little part of my brain can’t help suspecting the show of giving my immune system a beatdown. I wouldn’t put it past it.
Battlestar Galactica is a show I admire, but it’s not a show I love (look, Season Three ended a year ago, and I just got around to watching it this week). Don’t get me wrong: It’s a really great show. Really, really great. Everyone knows it’s a great show. On every website I’ve visited in the past few weeks leading up to SciFi Channel’s gala kickoff to Season Four, I’ve encountered big banner ads reminding me what a great show it is, so I’m not likely to forget. In terms of consistent quality, it’s about eighty times better than Heroes. And yet, for all its failings, I love Heroes about eighty times more.
Okay, so it’s a great show. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have problems. Here’s one problem: Season Three featured way too much crap mysticism. The human characters adhere to a polytheistic religious system loosely based around the Greek (and sometimes Roman) gods. The twelve colonies destroyed in the Cylon attacks were named for the constellations (Caprica, Sagittaron, etcetera). There are far too many references to ancient texts, and far too many prophecies, and far too much mystical gobbledygook. In Season Three, we discover that Baltar is the Chosen One™, that Starbuck has a Special Destiny™, that Boomer and Helo’s half-Cylon baby is destined to shape the course of the future. It’s possible we’ve heard this somewhere before. It’s a shame we’ve been deluged with all these tired clichés, because the show does a fantastic job of weaving in subtler, fresher religious concepts -- the monotheistic robot Cylons are, in a neat twist, convinced they are God’s special children, favored above their flawed human creators. The Cylon concept of God as inextricably linked with cybernetics is a cool one; too bad it’s diluted by all this Chosen One™ business.
Another problem: the nonstop sexualized violence against women. Cally gets shot in the stomach during an attempted rape. The Cylons capture Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) and take her to a rape farm -- a facility established to mechanically impregnate human women -- where they steal one of her ovaries. Pregnant Boomer (Grace Park) is almost gang-raped by the crew of the battleship Pegasus. The version of the Number Six Cylon (Tricia Helfer) known as Gina is gang-raped by the crew of the Pegasus. On the Cylon-infested settlement of New Caprica, Ellen Tigh trades sexual favors to ensure her husband’s safety, while Starbuck is forced to play house with creepy lovestruck Leoben. Is this sensationalistic? It’s a fine line, and I could be convinced by arguments either way. The show does a mighty fine job with its portrayal of female characters, and the show’s creators would probably argue that such assaults would realistically occur under the dire circumstances shown on the show. They’d probably be right. Still, it’d be nice if they’d knock it off with the rapes.
There’s plenty of stuff I outright love about Battlestar Galactica. I love those crazy-mixed-up, oversexed Cylons. I love the Cylon baseships, the interiors of which look like cool Eighties dance clubs. The Cylons are snazzy dressers (I love every jacket that Boomer -- aka Sharon Valerii, aka Sharon Agathon, aka Athena -- has ever worn). They have creepy living ships. They can resurrect themselves endlessly. They’re deeply, deeply confused (the single biggest lie of the series comes in the opening scroll that precedes each episode which states, in reference to the Cylons, “And they have a plan.” If we’ve learned nothing else about the Cylons, it’s that they have no clue, much less a plan). Best of all, they count Lucy Lawless and Dean Stockwell among their limited numbers. What’s not to love?
The Cylons are a lot easier to take than our main characters, and here we’re coming to the crux of why I’ve been laid up with some dreaded mystery disease this week. In Season Three, Battlestar Galactica took the principal characters -- and the audience along with them -- to their darkest places and left them there. Constant application of tremendous pressure creates diamonds or explosions, and there’s nothing sparkly on the Galactica. Everyone behaves badly. Everyone behaves understandably, given the desperate circumstances, but still badly (it’s like all the aforementioned sexual violence: yes, I see exactly what brought us to this point, but that doesn’t mean I want to stay here). President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell) steals babies and rigs elections. Admiral Adama (Edward James Olmos) turns a blind eye to the failings of those within his inner circle. His son Apollo (Hornblower's Jamie Bamber, a talented actor who has a real gift for playing characters that annoy the crap out of me) decides to put his inherent obnoxiousness to good use by becoming a sleazeball lawyer (to clarify, I’m not categorizing all lawyers as sleazeballs; I’m just categorizing Apollo as one). Resident villain Baltar (James Callis) becomes a broken, sniveling mess. Colonel Tigh (Michael Hogan) gets an eye gouged out by the Cylons, kills his wife for collaborating with the Cylons, and then, for an encore, discovers he himself is a Cylon. As for hotshot pilot Starbuck, it’s hard to know where to start.
I must give Starbuck proper credit: she’s one of the most layered characters on television. If she were an appetizer, she’d be an artichoke, or perhaps a fried onion blossom. Never the most stable character to begin with, she undergoes a great deal of psychological abuse on New Caprica at the start of Season Three, and it’s fair to say she doesn’t handle it well. Sackhoff’s a phenomenal actress, and Starbuck’s outbursts are understandable -- the show has taken great pains to establish her traumas and emotional baggage -- but her behavior makes her hard to tolerate and impossible to like.
Because I was so put off by our main players in Season Three, I glommed onto the second tier of characters, who’d thus far been largely unspoiled by events of prior seasons: genial Anders, competent Tory, sweet, pretty Dualla, and sweet, pretty Gaeta. They fare no better: Dualla, who has the grave misfortune of being married to Apollo, and Anders, who has the grave misfortune of being married to Starbuck, are left to fume while their respective spouses get it on with each other, Gaeta gets crushed by the lingering aftereffects of the disaster of New Caprica, and Tory and Anders find out they’re both Cylons. Which is a mood-crusher, to be sure.
I latched onto Gaeta because he’s quietly awesome (and because Alessandro Juliani is hot and I am shallow). Galactica's indispensable and uber-competent Tactical Officer, Gaeta was characterized mainly in the first two seasons by his odd yet sweet hero-worship of/undying faith in shady, conniving Baltar. (Everyone is loved by someone, and Baltar does have a certain scuzzy charm, but… winning the hearts of Gaeta AND Number Six AND Lucy Lawless’s Number Three? There’s not enough luck in the universe, Baltar). After uncovering the election fraud that Laura Roslin tried to perpetrate, Gaeta becomes Chief of Staff to newly-elected President Baltar on New Caprica and thus is in exactly the wrong place when the Cylons arrive. Under the thumb of the Cylons, Gaeta secretly passes along vital tactical information to the resistance, which leads to their rescue off the crappy little planet by the Galactica. Back aboard the Galactica, he’s shunned by his friends, tried as a Cylon collaborator by a vengeance-bent kangaroo court (Starbuck, serving as one of his judges, kicks him when he’s tied on his knees and tries to force him to beg for his life. I did mention that Starbuck was impossible to like this season, right?), and comes within a whisker of getting tossed out the airlock. Gaeta gets through it with astonishing dignity and moral strength, but it’s not enough to save him: he spends the rest of the season desperately trying to murder Baltar for ruining his life. The death of idealism is not a pretty thing. It took you three years, Battlestar Galactica, but you finally broke Gaeta. Er… congratulations?
There were fragments of hope in the early seasons when, after the devastation of humanity by the Cylons, the struggling survivors first embarked on an insane quest to find the legendary Thirteenth Colony, Earth. They’re too far gone now; if they find Earth, it won’t be enough to fix them. This is what they are, and they are ruined. They had a trial run of Earth on New Caprica, where things were rotten and miserable even before the Cylons arrived and started gouging out eyeballs. Peace and stability eluded them -- everyone tried to settle down, but it didn’t work. Cally and Chief Tyrol (Aaron Douglas) got married and had a child, but their marriage is fraught with squabbles, which will probably not be helped by Tyrol’s recent discovery that, yep, he’s a Cylon (Season Three will forever be known as the “We’re all Cylons!” season). Starbuck and Apollo sabotaged their own respective marriages because they couldn’t sort out their feelings for each other. The humans couldn’t hack it on New Caprica; Earth won’t be much more of a relief.
Season Four kicks off tonight (thank you, relentless banner ads on websites and billboards around Los Angeles, because there was a chance I might have forgotten it). It’s the final season, and we’re promised answers to all the lingering questions: Who’s the final Cylon? Did Starbuck really find Earth? Are the Cylons finally going to admit they have no idea why they’ve been trailing the humans around the galaxy? It’ll probably be a good ride, but I might not be around for it. Watching Battlestar Galactica is a profoundly mood-altering experience, which is the hallmark of powerful television. The problem is, it’s not empowering or intoxicating or cathartic, or anything other than sort of devastating.
Battlestar Galactica is a grimly beautiful depiction of the limitations of the human spirit. We’re taught from childhood that we are indomitable; Battlestar Galactica shows the lie in that. Everyone dies, after all, and our lives may or may not have value and meaning before that. Battlestar Galactica takes it a step further: Everyone dies, but before you do you’ll compromise everything you hold dear, you’ll commit unpardonable acts, and everything that makes you special and unique will become perverted beyond recognition. And there’s a better than even chance you’ll get gang-raped by robots. Seriously, Battlestar Galactica, it wouldn’t kill you to add a dash of genuine hope and salvation into your bleak, murky mix, because after a while, we start asking ourselves, what’s the point?