Batman Redux Ad Nauseum

This morning, I watched the most recent Batman vs. Superman trailer, and I was suitably impressed. I actually felt like I should watch “Man of Steel,” which I deliberately skipped, to prepare for this one. If the full feature is structured as well as the trailer, it has the hallmarks of a good story.

But.

There are a couple of cuts in the trailer that made me roll my eyes. At about two and a half minutes in, we see young Bruce Wayne reacting to his parents’ murders, and then what looks like their funeral. Now, maybe in the full feature, these scenes are just a flashback, but even so, why waste screen time on it? Is there anyone who would go see this movie who DOESN’T know Batman’s origin?

Some thoughts on “Cabaret”

This summer, I was privileged to see a production of Cabaret twice at Saint Petersburg Florida’s freeFall Theatre. The production opens with the year 1945 projected on the doors of Fraulein Schneider’s rooming house. A newsreel announces the end of World War II while the Master of Ceremonies mounts the dimly lit Kit Kat Club stage. A recording of the monologue that Clifford will speak at the end of the show plays, and the Emcee begins to weep. The cast (except for Clifford) quietly surrounds the stage. When the Emcee recognizes the ghosts, he sings “Willkommen,” the lights come up, and the years projected on the wall roll back to 1929.

The closing scene echoes the opening. As Cliff recites his monologue, the remaining characters again surround the stage. During the reprise of “Willkommen,” a Nazi banner unfurls behind the Emcee. He rips it down in the moment that the stage goes dark and assumes a position and posture similar to his lamentation in the first scene. By connecting the story’s past and present with a futile gesture that comes too late, the production highlights the way the Emcee’s apathy toward and acquiescence to the rise of fascism makes him complicit in Nazi violence.

The Emcee’s apathy is clear enough. In Act I, Kit Kat boy Herman begins to sing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” and the Emcee, at first, joins him. But when the song turns dark, the Emcee yields to Herman and lets him finish alone. Act II’s “If You Could See Her” demonstrates that he understands the repulsiveness of Nazi politics, but he does nothing to oppose them. Although the song “I Don’t Care Much” echoes and mocks Sally and Clifford’s relationship, it could also be an anthem of his political attitude.

We might overlook this weakness if it were not for what comes moments after “I Don’t Care Much,” while Sally and Clifford argue over the political situation in Germany. In the background, at about the moment that Sally tells Clifford, “It’s only politics; it has nothing to do with us,” the Emcee kisses Kit Kat Club boys Victor and Bobby, wraps their biceps in Nazi armbands, and sends them out into the audience. By this act, he transforms them into the thugs who brutalize Clifford.

Clifford is beaten for striking the Nazi courier Ernst Ludwig. Victor and Bobby emerge from the tables near the stage, drag him to the side, and beat him while Sally’s big number, “Cabaret” begins. In a way, this staging makes even the audience complicit in Nazi violence. The thugs have come from our ranks. We can hear and see the beating take place. But we turn away from it, straining to hear the one number we all came for, and pretend that the violence isn’t happening. If we give it any thought, it’s, “That’s really distracting. I can’t hear the song.”

FreeFall’s Cabaret eerily echoes current political trends. In much the same way that Ludwig tells Fraulein Schneider that Herr Schultz “is NOT a German,” American politicians and commentators proclaim that Muslims “do not share American values” and that only conservatives are “real Americans.” They denigrate the poor, and indeed nearly half of Americans, as “parasites” and “moochers,” dehumanizing 47% of the country. FreeFall Theatre asks us to consider the implications of remaining quiescent in the face of this repulsive behavior and to confront it for the evil that it is.

Pueri Alleynienses

The May issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine arrived two weeks ago, but I’m so far behind in my reading that I’ve only just finished the April issue, which contained the delightfully well-written story,  “Pueri Alleynienses” by Stephen Ross. It opens with a wonderful example of how to grab a reader’s interest and hold it:

“Whatever happened to Tupper?” I asked. We had been chatting idly over a bottle of claret.

“I murdered him,” Coates answered, with all sincerity.

I believed him.

In four sentences, Ross establishes a lot of character and plants several questions: Who is Tupper? Why did Coates murder him? Why does the narrator believe him? Why does Coates so blithely confess?

The first and third questions are answered deftly and quickly, and the answers develop both Coates and the narrator, reveal their history of mutual animosity toward Tupper and each other. The other two questions, and their corollaries, aren’t answered until two masterfully executed twists near the end. There is very little action and yet the story is fascinating, filled with tension. This story was a great example of why I subscribe to Alfred Hitchcock.

 

Chronicle

I saw Chronicle last week, and I was a little disappointed. It wasn’t a terrible film, but it certainly wasn’t as good as the reviews would have you believe, with a Rotten Tomatoes score in the mid-80% range.

The movie opens with Andy setting up his new video camera. “I’m filming everything now,” he tells his father, who is pounding on the door. Andy is clearly established as the protagonist, and he’s a relatively sympathetic one at first: the picked-on underdog, largely friendless, son of a dying mother and abusive, alcoholic father. The problem is that Andy never grows beyond that, and we never have a clear grasp of what Andy wants. To be liked? Maybe. He asks his cousin, Matt, “Do you like me?” But it never seems like that’s really what he wants, and even in the scenes that hint at it–like the storm-cloud confrontation with Steve–it’s not clear. In that scene, he accuses Steve of not really liking or caring about him, because before they got powers, Steve wasn’t his friend. So even if friendship is what Andy wants, he is incapable of recognizing when it is offered to him.

The character who really seems to want something is Matt. But Matt doesn’t grow, either. He’s a thoughtful person with a sense of responsibility when we meet him, and he pretty much ends up that way. So even if he were considered to be the protagonist, he doesn’t struggle with anything that makes me care about him or the story.

The movie wasn’t all bad. It had stunning effects and some genuinely honest moments. The way the boys discover their powers and learn to use them seemed authentic. Teenage boys who gain telekinesis really would use it to play silly pranks. Several scenes between Andy and Matt were touching. In spite of those positives, though, there was no sense of struggle and I was bored and anxious for the film to end less than 2/3 of the way though it.

Criticizing fiction from a writer’s perspective

When criticizing fiction (whether we’re talking about published work or material for a critique group), it’s easy to fall into the trap of asking “Did I like this?” The subject of that question is not the work, but the reader: “I.” These are some of the questions we should ask instead:

  • What work does the first line do? Does it set up what’s to come? Does it provide a hook for readers so that they’ll be curious enough to continue?
  • What viewpoint is used? How does it affect the story and the reader’s expectations or experience?
  • Who is the protagonist? What does he want in this story or scene? What is stopping him from getting it?
  • Who are the other characters? What do they want? How do their desires interfere with or complement the protagonists?
  • What’s important about this story or scene? What’s at stake for these characters?

Examine what’s in the work rather than whether you like it. You’ll understand it better and provide better criticism.