Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Movies, politics, and Time Lords

Well, a lot's happened since my last blog post. I haven't had much time to work on the novel or a new script, although I'm getting a little bit done here and there.

Last month I started a new job, which I'm enjoying a lot. It's kept me very busy, though, so once again the demands of a day job left me not being quite in the mood to participate in the Little Theatre's marathon of Halloween films. I wasn't in a funk like last year, though, and at least I went to a couple of the shows.

One was of a film called Scumbabies, a hipster musical comedy that reminded me of two surreal 80s cult films, Forbidden Zone and Meet the Hollowheads. If you haven't heard of (or didn't enjoy) either of those films, you might not be the audience for this one. I wasn't quite sure what to make of it myself, but I was happy to see an original, oddball film that didn't cling to a comic book formula.

I also went to the Little's Halloween-night showing of locally made short films, about half of which were the same ones they showed last year. This fact, plus the news that next year's 360|365 film festival might not happen due to lack of funds, could make one pessimistic about the vitality of the Rochester film scene.

But Scumbabies was directed by a local filmmaker, and both that and The Beast Pageant prove that there's interesting work being done around here, even if it's not coming from the expected places. Every once in a while you hear about a middlebrow, medium-budget indie drama (with a B-list actor) that is supposedly going to “put Rochester on the map,” and while I wish any such production well, I gotta ask: Did Evil Dead put Detroit on the map? Did Clerks put Red Bank on the map? It's not about the cities, it's about individual filmmakers with unique, idiosyncratic visions.

Speaking of New Jersey, I got to support a fellow filmmaker that same week. At the IFP conference back in September, I met Kevin J. Williams, the Trenton-based director of a documentary called Fear of a Black Republican. The title and premise appealed to me (I had put conservative black characters in my last two feature-length movies), and I wanted to see the film, so I had encouraged Kevin to screen it in upstate New York. About a month later, he screened FoaBR at Squeaky Wheel in Buffalo and at a church in Rochester, and I got to see the film in both venues.

The first time I saw FoaBR, I thought it boldly challenged the views of people on both sides, criticizing the racism of some white Republicans as well as the cultural conformity of some white and black Democrats. But the second time, I saw the film more as a centrist plea for balance, bemoaning the over-domination of Democrats in urban areas and extolling the virtues of the two-party system.

The audience reaction was also different both times; the Buffalo crowd was liberal and skeptical, while the Rochester crowd was conservative and approving. It's inspiring to see a fellow indie filmmaker get his work out there to the public and get a response, and I'm glad I got to play some small part in the process.

Finally, I'd like to mention that today is the 48th anniversary of Doctor Who. Last year at this time, I blogged about the impact that Doctor Who had on me as a teenager, but I mostly talked about how I felt about it as a fan. I only briefly touched on what I learned (and continue to learn) from it as a filmmaker.

It's easy to mock the original series for its limited production values, but over the years I've really learned to appreciate the craft that went into these old episodes. Much of the original Doctor Who was, in fact, quite technically sophisticated for its time, pushing the envelope in terms of what could be done electronically and on videotape.

And the more I learn about the conditions under which these episodes were made, the more admiration I have for the fact that they were made at all. An early-70s story, “Colony in Space”, recently came out on DVD, and from the text commentary I learned that it wasn't until the eighth season that they were able to dub the audio during post-production. This means that for the first seven years of the show's production, the music and sound effects had to be played during shooting, and timed with the actions of the actors and cameramen.

“Colony in Space” also features a moment that, for me, sums up the magic of the old series. Near the end of this story, the Doctor (then played by Jon Pertwee) encounters the wizened alien ruler of a ruined city that houses a deadly super-weapon. The Doctor's archenemy, the Master, wants control of this weapon so that he can rule the universe, and offers to share it with the Doctor so that he can use its immense power for good.

The alien creature consists of a crummy little puppet body, topped by a rubbery monster-mask worn by an actor who is sticking his head through a hole in the set. The poor actor needn't have bothered; the mask is so crude and inarticulate that I originally thought it was a hand puppet. Yet when this Mr. Show reject vows to destroy the super-weapon, and himself with it, to prevent it from falling into evil hands, the Doctor gently replies, “Not only does justice prevail on your planet, sir, but infinite compassion as well.”

It's a tribute to Pertwee's acting ability that he is able to sell this, and the moment is genuinely (if unintentionally) profound. To you and I, this alien creature is just a really bad special effect. But the Doctor doesn't judge by appearances, and sees this creature for what it truly is – a wise, benevolent life form worthy of respect. The Doctor's intelligence and morality give him a deeper understanding of what's good and bad, right and wrong, meaningful and trivial.

This and so many other scenes in the old series are saved by the heroic efforts of classically trained British actors. This is the aspect of the show that I savor most as an adult, but I get the sense that in modern Britain there's been something of a backlash against the stagy, educated-sounding acting style of old. I once read a magazine quote (either from showrunner Russell T Davies, or from one of the producers) boasting that the new series would be fresh and new and modern and that the age of hammy, middle-aged British character actors was over.

To this American fan, though, old-school British acting is a superpower. It can take a silly script and fill it with gravitas, it can take a ponderous script and fill it with wit and charm. It can bestow upon crummy puppet aliens a sense of justice and infinite compassion. To see “hammy, middle-aged British character actors” remain unflappably dignified amidst papier-mache sets and unconvincing aliens is genuinely thrilling.

And when these same actors are given scripts and production values worthy of them, stand the hell back. I recently used a day recovering from a cold as an opportunity to watch the entirety of “The War Games”, the epic swan song of Pertwee's predecessor Patrick Troughton. “The War Games” is one of the all-time classics, for the sheer scale it implies through a handful of sets, some period costumes, and a map claiming to show additional story realms never featured onscreen.

The team of villains in this story run the gamut of RADA-trained awesomeness: the War Lord, played with marvelous understated menace; the War Chief, a wild-eyed madman whose go-for-broke death scene had me applauding; the Security Chief, whose accent-slash-speech-impediment would make Emperor Palpatine proud; and Captain von Weich, whose stereotypical Germanic monocle and Blofeld-ish dueling scar make him the original Dr. Evil, but funnier.

Even when the ingenuity of the production team wasn't enough to redeem a low budget, I still cherish old-school Doctor Who for its ambition. Nowadays, everything has to be technically perfect, and no one tries anything if they're not absolutely sure they can make it work. Everybody colors inside the lines now, resulting in TV and movies that are slick but tame.

By these modern standards, old Doctor Who is fearless. If the production team wanted to have a mile-wide squid-monster attacking a refinery, or a Concorde jet landing on prehistoric Earth, or giant ant-people battling flying giant-butterfly people, they would go ahead and do it, whatever the result looked like. When the new Doctor Who series first brought back the Doctor's oldest enemies, the machine-like Daleks, they made do with one Dalek in some guy's basement. While this turned out to be a clever bit of setup, it reminded me that the old episodes never let budget limitations stop them from regularly deploying giant armies of Daleks, even when they had to resort to cardboard cutouts or shop-bought toys to make up the numbers.

I think that British fans have rather less appreciation for this aspect of the show, and regard its homemade quality with some embarrassment. Even the makers of the original series, when speaking on DVD commentaries and documentary extras, often lament the low budgets they had while envying the greater technical resources available today.

And every time they talk that way, it's a knife in my heart. If anything, my admiration for these rickety episodes has only grown with time. Whenever another old-school Doctor Who adventure comes out on DVD, I look forward to watching it with new eyes. As I continue to develop my own skills as a writer and low-budget filmmaker, these old episodes give me a fuller appreciation for what can be conjured on a small budget.