Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Doctor Who: 47 years of cheapo genius

47 years ago today, the very first episode of Doctor Who aired in England.

What to say about good old Doctor Who at this point? Once the Charlie Brown Christmas tree of sci-fi shows, now a global phenomenon. November 23 doesn't have many hours left in it (it's been a long, hard day at work), so I'll have to keep it brief.

I'd heard of Doctor Who as a kid, but didn't actually try to watch it until mid-1989. As part of a pledge drive, PBS station WXXI-TV showed the documentary “Doctor Who's Who's Who” as a lead-in to the season premiere “Remembrance of the Daleks”, and I was hooked immediately by this rumpled, misfit hero. Unlike the macho high school purgatory I lived in, in Doctor Who-land you could be the hero simply by being smart, interesting and funny.

After the pledge drive, WXXI started over with the very first black-and-white episode, and spent the next three years crawling forward through all surviving installments of the entire series. I watched in rapt attention, not knowing that this would be WXXI's last-ever complete run of the entire series, or that the next new season of Doctor Who (which aired in Britain later in 1989) would be the last for 16 years.

But somehow, that was part of the magic of Doctor Who back then, at least from an American point of view – it was this ancient, foreign artifact that few people seemed to know about, and episode guides were hard to come by. The only way you could catch up on all that lore was to collect the novelizations, peruse the few reference books available in libraries or comic book stores … and, of course, watch the show every Saturday night at 11 pm, usually with little or no knowledge of what was going to happen next. (Pleasingly, WXXI has given that exact timeslot to reruns of the new series.)

The continuing DVD releases of old episodes has allowed me to watch these shows in a new light. Some episodes that I enjoyed as a teenager haven't held up, while others that failed to impress me back then have turned out to be highly enjoyable. The old version of Doctor Who (by which I mean the first 26 years' worth of episodes up until its 1989 cancellation) is notorious for its shot-on-video cheapness, with flimsy sets, Halloween-mask aliens, and unconvincing special effects. But I still find those episodes enormously inspiring as a low-budget filmmaker, and many of those episodes were ahead of their time – or at least, far more sophisticated than audiences of the time would have noticed.

If you can get past the creaky production values and slow pace, there's a huge range of material in those old shows – comedy, horror, action, fantasy, surrealism, high-concept sci-fi, and various combinations thereof.

Most fans have a favorite Doctor (as fans know, the alien hero's ability to “regenerate” allows the part to be recast several times) or a favorite era. I came in with Sylvester McCoy (the seventh and last of the original Doctors), followed quickly by the early William Hartnell episodes, so those two will always be sentimental favorites.

Coincidentally, I've had the chance to revisit my two “first” Doctors quite recently. I've been watching a group of Hartnell stories on DVD in broadcast order, and “The Chase” jumped out at me as a particular gem. The Doctor and his trusty time machine, the TARDIS, are pursued through the space-time continuum by his archenemies – the tanklike cyborgs known as Daleks – through a number of cheap-but-charming locales including a desert planet, a sailing ship, a haunted house, and a jungle planet with killer plants and a gleaming abandoned city a mile high. It ends with the genuinely moving farewell of Ian and Barbara, two of the Doctor's original travelling companions. “The Chase” has a poor reputation among Doctor Who fans, so I was surprised to myself enjoying it so thoroughly after all these years.

Meanwhile, one of the first Sylvester McCoy stories I ever saw, “Silver Nemesis”, has recently come out on DVD. This one is also considered a clunker by fans, but it was only the third Doctor Who adventure I ever saw and at the time I loved it. It seemed to blend together every genre I liked, combining sci-fi, fantasy, action and comedy; and it introduced me to the Doctor's other cyborg foes, the more humanoid Cybermen.

For sheer quality, though, the pinnacle for me would be the “Key to Time” season of 1978-79, during Tom Baker's lengthy run as the Doctor. The quality of the stories and dialogue is uniformly high in this season, with each alien world imaginatively developed and populated by memorable guest characters. Tom Baker is at the top of his game, enjoying terrific screwball chemistry with his latest co-star, Mary Tamm (as Romana, an aloof genius belonging to the same Time Lord race as the Doctor himself).

The most recognized formula for Doctor Who (which the new show conforms to) is to have a young and na├»ve Earth girl traveling with the Doctor as he battles alien invasions of present-day Earth. But my favorite overall period of Doctor Who abandons this approach almost entirely. From about 1976 through the early 80s, the show takes a leap into pure space opera. Instead of a modern-day “audience identification” character as the Doctor's companion, we get a series of nonhuman or off-world characters as bizarre as the Doctor, and exotic, high-concept alien environments that are worthy of his penetrating intelligence. Doctor Who just seemed smarter and more imaginative during that period.

That the shoestring budget of old-school Doctor Who could deliver jungle planets, planets petrified by radiation, swamp planets where transportation is possible only by boat, planets ruled by giant insects, invisible planets, vampire planets, planets made of pure mathematics, planets that eat other planets … not to mention antimatter universes, lands of pure fiction, and so much else ... makes it somewhat disappointing that today's big-budget Doctor Who so seldom stretches beyond modern suburbs and council estates. Developing genuinely original alien environments may require a slower and more atmospheric pace than is permissible today, even with the best CGI money can buy. While executive producer Russell T Davies and his successor, Steven Moffatt, have been wise to ground the modern series in contemporary reality, I often crave the more adventurous, carefree spirit of the old series.

But today, anyone with a camcorder and a computer can make sci-fi that is at least as technically competent as old-school Doctor Who. And those old episodes showed that you didn't need huge budgets if you had a clever script, a good cast, and a lot of imagination. This is why the show continues to inspire me, two decades after I first watched it, and nearly half a century after it first aired.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Legacy of Tron

One month from today, Tron Legacy will open in theaters.

It's only recently that I've fully realized what a huge impact the original Tron had on me as a kid. I saw the film when it first came out and don't recall being that impressed, but I got to know the film well on home video, and became quite obsessed with it.

Whereas Star Wars inspired me to be a filmmaker, Tron almost singlehandedly triggered my interest in anything digital, from computer animation to game design to programming.

The depth of this hit home when I attended a screening of the film at the George Eastman House earlier this year. When Bruce Boxleitner is first shown sitting at his cubicle working on a software program, I realized with a shock that I now had the same day job as this character. I was looking at myself, even though I had no ambitions in that direction when I first saw the film 28 years ago.

I wonder if anyone else was similarly influenced, since Tron came out quite early in the history of personal computing. One of the ironies of Tron is that, back when it was made, even imagery that was supposed to be perceived as digital had to be largely created through old-fashioned analog means. (In the 21st century, of course, it's completely the opposite; digital technology is regularly used to create images that are supposed to be accepted as real.)

I remember being a bit confused by the movie when I first saw it. I was obsessed with video games as a kid, and was under the impression that Tron would be a video game movie. It more or less delivered this for the first half, then seemed to get more abstract and confusing. But after repeated viewings on video, my young brain came to appreciate that the film was less about video games than about computers: it helped introduced me to users and programs, input and output, bits and bugs.

Set in a self-consciously artificial world, Tron is (perhaps inevitably) simplistic in its story and characters, and gets a bit slow and meandering once the two lead characters, Flynn and Tron, are separated from each other by the plot. But it creates a unique and imaginative world with its own strange rules. It's a purely conceptual universe where programs are living, thinking humanoids that have the same likeness as their creators – “our spirit remains in every program we design,” says one elderly programmer early in the film.

The audience doesn't need to be told that these characters glow brighter when they're emotional and fainter when they're weakened, or that when they die their particles disperse and are reabsorbed into the environment. (I also like the subtle touch that the older, more obsolete programs have hand-drawn, hieroglyphic-style patterns on their costumes, as opposed to the circuit-like patterns worn by the younger characters.) This is visual storytelling, and the fact that these exotic and esoteric concepts are so easily communicated in the guise of a straightforward summer action movie may actually qualify as a kind of genius.

Other themes that may have been intended by the filmmakers were less obvious to me as a kid. On one of the DVD extras, writer/director Steve Lisberger claims that the film depicted the conflict between the personal computer and the mainframe – the idea being, presumably, that characters such as Flynn, Tron and Clu represent individual will and freedom, while the Master Control Program represents authoritarian control. Like its precursor Star Wars, Tron champions freedom, creativity and innovation while itself being an example of these values.

I haven't paid too much attention to the viral marketing for Tron Legacy (well, apart from a six-hour round trip to Toronto with my friend Scott just to see the two-minute trailer when it was first unveiled). I'm trying not to watch the increasing amounts of footage that Disney has been putting online, because I want to be surprised by the finished film. From what I have seen, the visuals appear to be more impressive than the writing, but then that was true of the original Tron as well. It's been a while since I went to a midnight movie opening (I'm still kicking myself for not attending the earliest screenings of Grindhouse or Snakes on a Plane), but I ain't gonna miss this one.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Beast Pageant and other Rochester films

The day after my premiere screening of Saberfrog at The Cinema, another Rochester-produced film made its debut at the George Eastman House. That film was The Beast Pageant, a surreal feature by Eastman House employees Jon Moses (who also starred) and Albert Birney. It looked amazing from the online trailer, but unfortunately the debut screening conflicted with rehearsal for an RIT student film I was in (more on that later) and I had to miss it. Fortunately, the film was scheduled to be shown again this past Friday at the Little Theater.

I was fully intending to be out of town this past Friday. The organizers of the only film festival to accept my previous feature now had a film of their own playing at another film festival in Ottawa, and I was planning to go there to support them, but a second chance to see The Beast Pageant was a tempting alternative. When the workload at my day job prevented me from traveling on Friday anyway, it meant I could see The Beast Pageant after all.

Since there were two showings, I was able to attend the later show and still go see another movie – Beyond Gotham, a documentary about upstate New York's hip hop scene that was playing at the Baobab Cultural Center. (That there were two locally made independent films to choose from that night seems like a healthy sign for the future of filmmaking in Rochester.)

Beyond Gotham was a low-tech production covering the hip hop scenes in Kingston (the director's hometown), Albany, and most of all Rochester. I'm neither a pop music expert nor a great judge of documentaries, and though I enjoyed the film well enough I found the director himself far more inspiring. Going by the handle of “Juse”, he explained that hip hop wasn't just music, but a grassroots, DIY movement and lifestyle that was being embraced by artists of every ethnicity, across the country and around the world. It made me feel that independent filmmaking was also, in a sense, hip hop.

Then it was on to The Beast Pageant. It was a very hirsute audience I saw the film with, and unusually for a Rochester film event there was almost no one there that I knew personally; it was good to know that there was a large indie/art crowd in Rochester beyond the tight community I usually interact with.

To sum up this movie as best as I can, a guy named Abraham works at a fish processing plant, and comes home every day to a lonely apartment where his only roommate is a giant machine with two talking-head personalities: a droning-voiced woman who provides companionship, and a bearded man who offers him instant access to consumer goods. One day Abraham develops a parasitic twin – a tiny singing cowboy (presumably representing Abraham's repressed soul) who grows out of his stomach. After this happens, Abraham leaves the grim nameless city he lives in and ends up in an outdoor realm, where even stranger things happen.

A rarity among low-budget indie films today, The Beast Pageant was shot on black-and-white 16mm stock, using a Bolex camera that was (according to the film's website) salvaged from a dumpster. This film looks and sounds amazing. The handmade sets, props and costumes are detailed and imaginative, and the music and sound design are simply incredible. The film was entirely post-dubbed (and the minimalist dialogue and slow line readings seemed designed to facilitate this), but this gave the filmmakers full reign to create an entirely new, layered soundtrack that is absolutely striking. A minotaur-like creature who appears late in the film is made genuinely fearsome by the thundering soundtrack created for it, and the computer's disjointed female voice saying “Welllcomme hoooome Aaaabraahaaammm” still echoes in my head days after seeing the film.

In the post-screening Q&A, the directors said they were influenced by Terry Gilliam and Jan Svankmajer. While I can see both of those influences in the film, I was surprised they didn't mention David Lynch's Eraserhead, which The Beast Pageant was reminding me of even before the weird crying baby showed up; there seemed to be parallels not only in the general theme (urban factory worker dreams of escape) but in the moody black-and-white photography and the attention to sound design. However, The Beast Pageant is much more whimsical and comedic.

Even at 74 minutes the film is a bit slow at times (the early scenes establishing Abraham's dull job seemed to go on longer than necessary), and I found it jarring any time a clearly produced-on-video image (such as the goofy animated commercials viewed by Abraham on his computer) intruded on the grainy 16mm mood that otherwise predominated. Despite these quibbles, The Beast Pageant is a unique achievement. Birney and Moses could have made a straightforward genre film or a small-scale drama, but instead chose to make something bold and bizarre. Definitely check this one out if it screens near you.

My weekend of Rochester indie cinema didn't end on Friday, though. The next day I went to RIT to see student films being screened, including the one I'd starred in. I didn't stay for the entire program, but I stayed long enough to see a good variety of movies – some clearly trying to look like Hollywood productions, and some following their own strange mutant path.

Sweaters Over Plaid and A Kitty Cat (formerly titled Jerry And His Cat, a title I personally liked better) went over well with the audience. While the character of Jerry was nerdy and unflattering, I'd taken a page from my friend John Karyus' book and fully embraced the role as a chance to make a fool of myself on-camera. The resulting performance got laughs, and even applause at one point.

A film I enjoyed even more, though, was Thr33 Men & A Zombie, a doofusy fake sitcom about college dudes putting up with a zombie roommate, intercut with cheesy fake commercials for nonexistent shows and products. While the faculty seemed to find the film lowbrow and foolish, to me this was exactly the kind of warped slacker comedy that embodied the spirit of RIT student filmmaking. (I also liked its synopsis in the program book: “Two people who have nothing in common said they both kinda liked it.” Even better, though, was the synopsis for a film I didn't stick around to see: “This is my thesis. There are many like it but this one is mine.”

I had just enough time to get a quick dinner before going to Visual Studies Workshop for another show of weird and wonderful old 16mm films from the proverbial vault. This month's selection of films had a “drug” theme, and organizer Dan Varenka provided appropriately themed snacks – brownies, red-and-blue candy, donut holes with powdered sugar, and little bags of potato chips.

Two films stood out for their star power. Stand Up For Yourself: Peer Pressure and Drugs (1987) got a surprised laugh from the audience by starring an uncredited but unmistakable Cuba Gooding Jr. I'm 90 percent certain that Cirroc Lofton (the kid who played Jake Sisko on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) was also in the film. After this, The Perfect Drug Film (1971) lived up to its title by starring Beau Bridges as a suspiciously mellow host.

The day after that, Sunday, I went to Buffalo to hang out with my peeps at the Buffalo Video-Movie Makers group. I also booked another Buffalo-area showing of Saberfrog – this time at The Screening Room (3131 Sheridan Drive in Amherst) on Wednesday, December 8th at 7:30 pm. Admission is $6 unless you worked on the damn thing, then it's free!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A cheerfulness manifesto

Yesterday was the final day of shooting for an RIT student film in which I had a starring role. I played Jerry, a neurotic oddball obsessed with his cat, and the film was called (with admirable Snakes on a Plane bluntness) Jerry and His Cat. This was the second RIT student film I got to act in during the last year or so (the previous role being a zombie in the student-made feature film Project Nine).

It's been fun to be part of the RIT filmmaking scene again, more than a decade after graduating. For one thing, I've had a chance to observe the advances in the school's film equipment. Digital SLRs have replaced the Bolex and the CP-16; card-based digital audio recorders have replaced Nagras and even DATs.

I've also gotten to observe a slight change in the student culture as well. The RIT film department was a haven of eccentricity and insanity when I was there, and ex-classmates John Karyus and Dan Didsbury have regaled me with tales of the foolishness and hijinks that went on in and out of class. But while the young crew of Jerry and His Cat were certainly irreverent, they weren't crazy. They were competent, and cheerful, and didn't seem to be wracked by inner demons compelling them to screw everything up.

This is a huge generational shift.

I sometimes hear old fuddy-duddies (and sadly this includes many people my own age) complain that millenials, aka Generation Y, are silly and shallow, just because they have actual social skills and don't spend every waking hour complaining about their miserable lot in life. Jeff Gordinier's book X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep Everything from Sucking seems to sum up this attitude; it's an amusing read but an irksome one, since its overall thesis seems to be “How dare people younger or older than me exist?!”

Frankly, I think the millenials' attitude is a refreshing change. I'm tired of the cloud of resentment that seems to follow every Generation X-er through life. A couple years ago I was in Greenwich Village, near where I went to college, and as I observed the local students walking past me while talking on their cell phones, I noticed a behavior that I seldom saw back in my “day”: They were smiling.

The children of the 80s/90s seem to have a much healthier attitude to life than those born in the 70s. While I get tired of the ongoing hype surrounding social media (did our forebears take this long to calm down about telephones?), there's little doubt in my mind that the Internet, and digital technology in general, have made it much easier for people to connect with each other and gain access to culture. People are less isolated, and more able to express themselves.

Yes, there is a dark side to all this – it's easier for people to spread abuse and misinformation. It's hard to read the comments section of any online news article without thinking that the veneer of human civilization is disintegrating. But I'd rather have too much speech than too little.

Once in a while we do need to step away from the online chatter, catch our breath, and regain our perspective. Jon Stewart spoke for thousands, if not millions, this past Saturday in his plea for sanity, dignity and cooperation; it may be the most important speech of our fragile new century, even if it took a talk-show jester to deliver it.

In some recent posts I've been expressing despair about the kinds of audiences who resist originality and complain incesssantly about irrelevant trivia. But there are plenty of people out there who are a bit more open-minded, who aren't so relentlessly possessive and intransigent. And I've decided that theirs is the world I will travel in from now on.

After the RIT shoot, I wandered over to the campus bookstore. Flipping through a book I found in the film/TV section, I found a passage in which the author explained why Hollywood is dominated by remakes and sequels right now – because something original would be too big a financial risk.

I sort of suspected that. But seeing it spelled out like that, as a cold hard fact in black-and-white, gave me pause. The book went on to point out something else that I did already know – that the independent film industry, at least as we knew it in Miramax's 1990s heyday, was dead.

When I shot Saberfrog two years ago, I was laboring under two key assumptions. One was that you could still make a cheap movie on credit cards, get it into a festival, and expect a distributor to snap it up and make you a star. The other was that there was still a huge mass audience that craved indie filmmaking as an alternative to formulaic Hollywood, and was still eager to be challenged and have their view of the world expanded. These were slightly outdated assumptions, but I'm glad I didn't know better; if I had, I might not have made the movie.

I used to hear sci-fi fans complain about the lousiness of Hollywood movies, but the movies they complained about were always hack action movies based on video games or old TV shows. This always used to strike me as hypocrisy – they claimed to care about quality, yet only watched the worst movies they could find. When something came along that was worthwhile – such as the Sam Rockwell movie Moon, for example – they would say “Oh … I wanted to see that, I heard it was good.”

But now I realize that what audiences really crave today, far more than quality, is familiarity. When entertainment choices are limited (as they used to be), you crave diversity and novelty. When entertainment choices are infinite (as they are now), you choose the entertainment that best supports the tastes and values you already have. From an artist's point of view, it might be less about creating an audience and more about finding an existing audience that matches.

In that case, what audience do we, as filmmakers, want to attract?

I have some future movie ideas in the proverbial drawer that used to appeal to me because they were moody, atmospheric, edgy, angsty – in a word, “dark”. But I've decided that I don't need to continue in that direction. Between script and completion, Saberfrog evolved from a comedy-drama into just a comedy … and is a much better movie for it. Somehow that seems to point the way forward.

Saberfrog came out of my own personal issues about the direction my life was headed at that time, and transformed those issues into wacky humor. It was a summation of the themes that had defined my life up to that point.

But my next project will come from a different place. It's a new world. Other people can cling to past hurts if they want to, but I'm moving forward.

There are many people who are content simply to complain about the world. Many of them seem to regard the Internet, and digital filmmaking tools, as yet more avenues for voicing their complaint. But deep down, I regard creativity as a positive force, and the creation of art as a positive act. The filmmakers (and artists in general) that inspired me most are the ones who set a better example, who showed that there was something more to life.

Today is Election Day. A lot of people are mad right now, and tomorrow the madness will probably continue. But just because everyone around you is telling you to be crazy doesn't mean you have to obey.

You can set a better example.

You can lead a better life.

You can do good works, and be happy.

This has been a public service announcement.