Friday, February 28, 2014

Spider-Man (1967-1970)

If Frank Zappa had decided to get into Saturday morning cartoons instead of music I imagine it might look something like what Ralph Bakshi did when he took over Spider-Man in the late 1960s. Personally, it was one of the cartoons that I watched and loved as a child in the early 1980s. I collected comic books and was a tremendous fan of Spider-Man. Those that fondly remember this animated series will no doubt recall the trippy visuals and the insanely catchy theme song that started and ended every show. The show first aired on ABC in September 1967 and those early episodes really managed to capture the essence of the comic book.

Spider-Man was created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko for Marvel Comics during the ‘60s. It featured mild-mannered Peter Parker (Paul Soles) who, after being bitten by a radioactive spider while attending a radiology experiment, acquires the ability to climb walls, leap and have enhanced endurance and strength while also possessing a “spider-sense” that allows him to anticipate immediate danger. He begins using his powers for personal gain and his selfish behavior contributes to his beloved Uncle Ben’s death at the hands of a burglar. Wracked with guilt, Peter vows to fight crime as the costumed webslinger Spider-Man.

In the cartoon, Peter is an anguished young man torn between his duty as Spider-Man and trying to maintain a normal life. His wisecracking webslinger persona is also successfully transferred over from the comic book as he gleefully messes with villains before defeating them. The crankiness of Daily Bugle newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson (Paul Kligman) is beautifully realized as he makes it his life’s work to expose Spider-Man as a menace and torment those around him with his arrogant demands.


The authenticity of the first season is due in large part to the influence of Stan Lee and John Romita, who made sure many of the stories from those early comic books were translated directly to the show. Spider-Man saves New York City from many of the source material’s most memorable villains: the Lizard, Electro, Mysterio, the Green Goblin, and Doctor Octopus. The show also featured some truly odd original bad guys as well: the Fifth Avenue Phantom, whose sidekick was a woman with shrinking ray vision, and the Sinister Prime Minister, who was armed with a walking stick filled with sleeping gas and shot deadly darts.

In the second season, Ralph Bakshi (Fritz the Cat) came aboard as director, executive producer and story supervisor. Along with Gray Morrow, the show’s art director, they created an even more ‘60s influenced psychedelic look, with science fiction/fantasy-influenced stories (as opposed to ones based on the comic book) and groovy instrumental music by Ray Ellis that ranged from ‘60s dance music to eerie, atmospheric instrumentals that really helped establish an ominous mood when appropriate.

And yet, one of the strongest episodes of this season was the first one, “The Origin of Spider-Man,” which followed the comic book quite faithfully as Bakshi takes us back to where it all began as we see how Peter became Spider-Man. This included Peter discovering that he could crawl up walls and the creation of his web-shooters (two things that the feature film changed). At times, it feels as though Steve Ditko’s artwork has leapt from the pages and come to life. Bakshi also manages to insert some hilariously great period slang early on as we see Peter and his classmates on campus. It is also a fascinating snapshot of the ‘60s with an impressionistic take on New York City and trippy, abstract skies of all colors (at one point, a combo of yellow, green and black). This episode is a funky fusion of fidelity to the source material and Bakshi exerting his influence with a cool, jazzy soundtrack and a psychedelic ‘60s look, which is readily apparent in scenes like the one where Peter is bitten by a radioactive spider. The sequence is awash in trippy colors and odd sound effects.


Season 3 got even weirder as Bakshi was forced to cut costs even more by not only recycling animation from previous episodes, but also cannibalizing stuff from another cartoon, Rocket Robin Hood. This reached an apex with the episode “Revolt in the Fifth Dimension,” which was so out there that the network refused to air it! Early on, Spidey gazes into the trippy night sky full of washed out abstract watercolor paintings. Meanwhile, an alien race resides in Dimentia Five, a world that looks like it let Picasso loose to design its buildings. One of its inhabitants downloads their entire culture and takes off before their world is inexplicably destroyed.

In another, equally bizarre world, two insect-looking aliens pursue the one from Dimentia Five with their Psycho Army, causing the escaping craft to head for Earth where it crosses paths with Spidey. This episode features one amazingly surreal visual after another so that after a few minutes it feels like you’ve taken a hit of acid. At one point, Spidey avoids the fallen craft in a sequence saturated in red that anticipates Dario Argento’s stylish Giallo horror films by a few years. This episode is about as far as you can get from the Marvel Universe while still having one of its characters in it. More than any other episode, this one is a fantastic, subversive snapshot of the late ‘60s psychedelic era in all of its freaky glory and looking back at it now it wouldn’t look out of place if you dropped it in the middle of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998).

The Spider-Man comic book became very popular with children and teenagers who identified with Peter Parker and soon Marvel struck a deal for the superhero to get his own T.V. show. Krantz Films and Marvel contracted Grantray-Lawrence Animation, a cartoon studio out of California, to produce 52, half-hour episodes for the ABC network. However, the company went bankrupt so Krantz Films brought in Ralph Bakshi to executive produce the rest of the episodes in New York City. The voice cast was members of a voice artist company led by Bernard Cowan out of Toronto. This was done to avoid the residuals demanded by the Screen Actors’ Guild in the United States. The famous opening and closing theme song was performed by a vocal group while Paul Francis Webster wrote the lyrics and Bob Harris provided the music.


To cut costs and to meet the network’s deadlines, Bakshi saved time and money by reusing certain sequences over again and often resorted to having Spidey swing around the city to pad out episodes. He also utilized techniques like superimposing lip movement over static characters. Cost-cutting got so severe that Season 3 heavily reused animation and storylines from the first two seasons with animation also taken from Rocket Robin Hood, which only added to the surreal vibe. One has to remember that he was working on a shoestring budget, with a very small crew and under a strict deadline.

Spider-Man first aired on Saturday mornings starting on September 9, 1967 with the second season starting on August 30, 1969 and finally the last season on March 22, 1970 on Sunday mornings. How much you will like this incarnation Spider-Man really depends on the nostalgia value it holds for you. The animation is dated, in a wonderfully kitschy way. Sure, it is pretty crude by today’s standards — simple renderings with little background detail and lots of repetition (in some episodes it seemed like Spidey spent half the time swinging through the city) — but that is part of its charm. What it lacks in slick technique it more than makes up for in content and sheer gonzo logic (or lack thereof). In terms of style, Bakshi pushed the envelope more than any other superhero cartoon before or after, for that matter. I loved the cartoon when I was a kid and even more so now that I appreciate what Bakshi was doing.


SOURCES


McCorry, Kevin. Spiderman. http://kevinmccorrytv.webs.com/spidey.htm


Further reading: an excellent look at the music for the show.

Friday, February 21, 2014

RocknRolla

After the one-two punch of Swept Away (2002) and Revolver (2005), Guy Ritchie’s career had hit rock bottom. The former movie was an ill-conceived remake with his then-wife Madonna and which tanked spectacularly. The latter movie pushed his distinctive brand of crime story too far, alienating many of the fans he acquired with the immensely entertaining and popular Snatch (2000). Ritchie wisely regrouped and got back to basics with RocknRolla (2008), which was a welcome return to the tried and true formula that launched his career with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998). This involved a caper story with plenty of plot twists that mixed laughs with stylized action as a colorful assortment of gangsters and thugs bounced off each other all scored to an eclectic soundtrack of rock ‘n’ roll music. Best of all, it gave meaty roles to then-emerging actors Gerard Butler, Tom Hardy, Idris Elba, and Mark Strong – relative unknowns in North America, but who have gone on to appear in mainstream Hollywood movies.

Lenny Cole (Tom Wilkinson) is a ruthless gangster who runs London with the help of his right hand man Archy (Mark Strong). Lenny is gobbling up as much real estate in the city as he can, but faces stiff competition from an aggressive Russian billionaire named Uri (Karel Roden). Enter One Two (Gerard Butler) and Mumbles (Idris Elba), two small-time crooks that front a crew known as the Wild Bunch and who are also trying to acquire their own chunk of real estate, but need the cash and clout that only Lenny can provide. Unbeknownst to them, the elder gangster screws One Two and Mumbles out of a deal. Now, they need to come up with some money and quick. So, One Two contacts Stella (Thandie Newton), a beautiful accountant (she works for Uri), who gives them a job that soon has the two criminals running afoul of Uri’s seemingly indestructible henchmen.

The wild card in this mix is Johnny Quid (Toby Kebbell), Lenny’s estranged step-son and a rock star presumed dead, but who is very much alive and slumming with a dim-witted junkie. Add in Uri’s lucky painting, which has gone missing while in Lenny’s possession and you’ve got the makings for a very entertaining caper movie.


Much like the gangsters in Quentin Tarantino’s crime films (and a filmmaker Ritchie is often compared to), Ritchie’s crooks are a chatty bunch, not above pontificating about the right way to slap someone or the introduction of American crayfish into the Thames River in the 1970s. And like in QT’s films, most of the crooks talk excessively as a form of survival. It’s when they stop talking that bad things happen.

Ritchie’s witty screenplay gives his very talented cast all kinds of memorable dialogue to spout and so we get moments like an amusing bit where Archy chastises an underling for not slapping another one properly and proceeds to school him in the most eloquent fashion. Mark Strong doesn’t have to do much in this scene because he exudes a confident presence and a kind of casual menace that intimidates those around him. Even minor characters get their moment to shine, like two junkies – one a smooth talker, the other a complete space cadet – who comes into the Wild Bunch’s hangout trying to sell them fur coats in the middle of summer!

Watching this film again reminds one how Hollywood has failed miserably to exploit Butler’s talents as a suave leading man with a capacity for comedy. He’s not afraid to act silly and look good doing it. The flirty give and take he has with Thandie Newton’s sexy accountant is reminiscent of the kind of sexual chemistry George Clooney had with Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight (1998). In a perfect world, Butler would have Clooney’s career in the U.K. instead of doing forgettable garbage like The Ugly Truth (2009) and Playing for Keeps (2012).


Ritchie also gives us moments that show the strong bond between the Wild Bunch crew, especially best mates One Two and Handsome Bob (Tom Hardy) in a scene where the latter, clearly upset about an impending stretch in prison, tells the former that he’s gay and that he fancies him. It is an oddly touching and amusing scene that provides insight into their friendship while also showcasing the acting talents of Gerard Butler and Tom Hardy. Part of the joy of RocknRolla is watching the likes of Mark Strong and Tom Wilkinson getting a chance to chew on this meaty dialogue and have a blast doing it.

Versatile character actor Wilkinson plays the film’s baddie, a xenophobic bully in dire need of a much-deserved comeuppance. He’s the typical Ritchie villain – an old school gangster who thinks that fear and intimidation will keep everyone in line, but makes the fatal mistake of underestimating the wild card factor, which is Johnny Quid who has been patiently biding his time until he can exact retribution for years of abuse. Idris Elba and Tom Hardy also have memorable supporting roles as part of the Wild Bunch crew and get a chance to spar verbally with Butler while also getting in on some of the action in an exciting sequence where they attempt to rob the Russian mob.

Ritchie also shares Tarantino’s knack for marrying just the right song to a given scene and so One Two and Stella flirt while “Have Love, Will Travel” by The Sonics blasts over the soundtrack and we get insight into Lenny and Johnny’s turbulent relationship via flashback, scored to “Bankrobber” by The Clash. In keeping with his other films, Ritchie also throws in some vintage tunes, like “Outlaw” by War and “Funnel of Love” by Wanda Jackson for quite the eclectic soundtrack that enhances the brisk tone that is established right from the first scene.


RocknRolla was inspired by Guy Ritchie’s fascination with the presence of large amounts of foreign money – usually from Eastern Bloc countries – in London’s crime scene: “I wanted to take a humourous look at the consequences of the new school pushing in on the territory of the old school.” He wanted it set in London because, at the time, it was becoming an international sensation: “London is in the middle of the world in the sense that it’s often the last place you go on your way to America, and it’s the first place you arrive before you get to Europe.” Producer Joel Silver was a fan of Ritchie’s blend of action and comedy and within 24 hours of reading the screenplay for RocknRolla knew that he wanted to make it.

Ritchie realized that London had changed a lot since he made Lock, Stock and wanted RocknRolla to reflect that. He and production designer Richard Bridgland sought out parts of the city that were brand new or being rebuilt and looked for spaces that had a grandeur to them. To this end, they managed to get permission to film in the new Wembley Stadium – the first production given permission, which was quite the coup. As per Ritchie’s preference, the film was shot over a brisk six weeks using HD cameras.

Before RocknRolla’s release, Warner Bros. president Alan Horn saw the film and felt that it was not “broadly commercial,” was “very English,” and only had “funny spots.” As a result, the studio did not give it a wide release and even Ritchie admitted, “I’m not sure if Alan quite knows what to do with it.” RocknRolla received mixed reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “It never slows down enough to be really good, and never speeds up enough to be the Bourne Mortgage Crisis, but there’s one thing for sure: British actors love playing gangsters as much as American actors love playing cowboys, and it’s always nice to see people having fun.”

In her review for The New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote, “The violence is idiotic and brutal (the story is just idiotic), but it’s also so noncommittal that it doesn’t offend. Like the filmmaking itself, the violence has no passion, no oomph, no sense of real or even feigned purpose.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B+” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “He concocts a crime-jungle demimonde that’s organically linked to the real world, and it’s a damn fun one to visit.” Time magazine’s Richard Corliss wrote, “Ritchie has a portrait-satirist’s gift for creating supporting characters that’s almost in the league of Preston Sturges, the pinwheeling comic genius of 1940s Hollywood. Now if only he could duplicate Sturges’ range of milieu.” USA Today gave it two-and-a-half out of four stars and Claudia Puig wrote, “His edgy and visually bracing direction is better than his writing, though his oft-imitated, fast-paced style doesn’t seem nearly as fresh as it once did.”


Along with Layer Cake (2004), a British gangster film directed by Matthew Vaughn (Ritchie’s former long-time producer), RocknRolla addressed the notion of London as one of the premiere, desirable cities in the world to live in and how this made real estate values go through the roof. This, in turn, fueled all kinds of criminal enterprises and Ritchie shows how gangs diversified along ethnic lines. He doesn’t belabor the point, but instead has it in the background as part of the film’s tapestry. While RocknRolla didn’t exactly set the box office on fire, it was a return to form for Ritchie and paved the way for his Sherlock Holmes (2009) gig that has made him a sought after director of big budget studio moves. It would be a shame, however, if he didn’t return to this world and deliver on the sequel promised in the closing credits. Oh yeah, and also rescue Gerard Butler from mediocrity.


SOURCES

RocknRolla Production Notes, 2008.


McLean, Craig. “It’s A Guy Thing.” The Guardian. August 23, 2008.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Neuromancer

It is amazing to think that William Gibson’s debut novel, Neuromancer, turns 30 years old this year. It was a landmark science fiction novel that helped spearhead the Cyberpunk sub-genre of science fiction. As the author has said in interviews, it came out at just the right time when people were receptive to such a stylish, dystopic vision of the future. Gibson’s novel went on to become the first winner of the science fiction “triple crown” – the Nebula Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, and the Hugo Award – and influenced countless other SF novels and films.

Neuromancer is the first of three novels (and three short stories) that comprise the Sprawl trilogy – all set in the same fictional world sharing the occasional character and referencing events that happened in another story. The first novel focuses on Case, a burnt-out cyberspace cowboy who used to be in-demand for his superior hacking skills that saw him infiltrate and raid corporate databases in the Matrix. However, when he ripped off one of his employers, Case’s nervous system was severely damaged by a nasty mycotoxin that prevented him from hacking. He is given another chance by a shady group that will fix his nervous system in order for his help infiltrate a massively powerful artificial intelligence known as Wintermute with the help of Molly, a beautiful and deadly mercenary.

Neuromancer presents disturbing visions of our glitzy urban culture that often reflect our feelings of despair, confusion and victimization. The world in this book is shaped by two major influences that have had a profound effect on content and style. He has been inspired by the use of the cut-up methods and quick-fire stream of dissociated images of William S. Burroughs, and the ability to blend prose with technology from Thomas Pynchon. In Neuromancer, Gibson creates a world from his own observations of popular culture at the time: a collage of twentieth-century images heightened to a nightmarish level whose flash and appeal overshadows humanity.

Gibson's style of prose in Neuromancer has often been described as "Chandleresque," but as he admits in interviews, his prose owes more to the influences of William S. Burroughs: “I don't write like Raymond Chandler. I've hardly even read Raymond Chandler. Any Chandler influences I have are by cultural osmosis; for instance I think there is a fair bit of Chandler in William S. Burroughs.” Gibson creates characters that are reminiscent of the ones in a Burroughs novel. For example, Case is very similar to Bill Lee, the main protagonist in Burroughs' Naked Lunch. Both characters are overwhelmed by a sense of paranoia of living in a dangerous big city. This is evident when Case is being followed by Molly at the beginning of Neuromancer:

”The cultivation of a certain tame paranoia was something Case took for granted. The trick lay in not letting it get out of control. But that could be quite a trick, behind a stack of octagons. He fought the adrenaline surge and composed his narrow features in a mask of bored vacancy, pretending to let the crowd carry him along.”

For Case, a certain level of paranoia is common in this dangerous world. However, the sense that he is being followed increases this feeling and he fights to control it. This sense of paranoia can also seen in the beginning of Naked Lunch:

“I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station, vault a turnstile and two flights of down the iron stairs, catch an uptown A train ... And right on time this narcotics dick in a white trench coat (imagine tailing somebody in a white trench coat-trying to pass as a fag I guess) hit the platform ... But the subway is moving. ‘So long flatfoot!’ I yell, giving the fruit his B production.”

This passage conveys a feeling of fear and paranoia. The narrator can "feel the heat closing in," as Case in Neuromancer fights his "adrenaline surge," both experiencing a sensory overload by their surroundings. Case and Bill Lee are both being chased in these passages by not only a mysterious figure, but by their own fear of paranoia. There is so much going in the settings of both novels. Burroughs and Gibson accurately convey the fast paced lifestyle of contemporary urban life, where only the strong survive. Gibson sums up this lifestyle best when he writes, "Night City was like a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button." This description also applies to the world that Burroughs creates in Naked Lunch, which was a conscious influence on Gibson.

Gibson, like Burroughs, also sees himself as an outsider in the world of science fiction. It is this view that sets Gibson apart from other science fiction writers:

“What Burroughs was doing with plot and language and the SF motifs I saw in other writers was literally mind expanding. I saw this crazy outlaw character who seemed to have picked up SF and gone after society with it, the way some old guy might grab a rusty beer opener and start waving it around. Once you've had that experience, you're not quite the same.”

Gibson is fascinated with how Burroughs reinvents the structure of the novel in his books. Naked Lunch uses the cut-up technique, a controlled use of collage where random pieces of prose are pasted together to simulate the feeling of fragmented thought. This influence is seen in Case's dreams:

“Each time the image of Deane's shattered head struck the rear wall of the office, Case was aware of another thought, something darker, hidden, that rolled away, diving like a fish, just beyond his reach. Linda. Deane. Blood on the wall of the importer's office. Linda. Smell of burnt flesh in the shadows of the Chiba dome. Molly holding out a bag of ginger, the plastic filmed with blood.”

This passage is very fragmented in nature to simulate the speed of Case's thoughts. Images race through his mind at a very fast rate. Case's thoughts shift from Julius Deane's death to Linda's death, back to Deane's death, then to Linda and finally to Molly. Gibson takes an image, like Deane's death, and looks for ways to relate this image to the rest of the novel via a controlled use of collage, which is what Burroughs does in his novels.

Gibson uses SF to comment on the current situation of society much in the same way that Burroughs does in his novels. Burroughs uses his novels to comment on how rapidly society is decaying:

”America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil before the settlers, before the Indians. The evil is there waiting. And always cops: smooth college-trained state cops, practiced, apologetic patter, electronic eyes weigh your car and luggage, clothes and face; snarling big city dicks, soft-spoken country sheriffs with something black and menacing in old eyes color of a faded grey flannel shirt.”

Burroughs sees under through the pretty facade that the media presents and shows what America is really like: "old and dirty and evil," filled with "snarling," and "menacing," people. Gibson also takes existing problems like drugs, pollution, and corporate monopolies and "keeps one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button." In other words, he takes these problems and heightens them to nightmarish levels much like Burroughs does in his novels, and shows how bad things could get if these problems are not solved.

Gibson's novels are very visual in style. His descriptions are so vivid and detailed that the novel flows like a film. This style is influenced by Thomas Pynchon's novels, in particular Gravity's Rainbow. Pynchon combines images and figures from popular culture with literature and technology to illustrate how overwhelmed we are by the media. He does not restrict himself to one medium. Gibson takes images from various media in the same fashion: “I know I don't have a sense of writing as being divided up into different compartments, and I don't separate literature from the other arts. Fiction, television, music, film – all provide material in the form of images and phrases and codes that creep into my writing in ways both deliberate and unconscious.”

From the opening lines of Neuromancer, this "sense of writing" is evident. Gibson mixes elements from film noir in his descriptions of Night City and its inhabitants with characters like Linda Lee, who is a character out of Lou Reed song. Gibson takes images and ideas from various art forms and makes them his own. This is evident when Case visits Julius Deane and Gibson describes Deane's office in great detail:


“Neo-Aztec bookcases gathered dust against one wall of the room where Case waited. A pair of bulbous Disney-styled table lamps perched awkwardly on a low Kadinsky-look coffee table in scarlet-lacquered steel. A Dali clock hung on the wall between the bookcases, its distorted face sagging to the bare concrete floor. Its hands were holograms that altered to match the convolutions of the face as they rotated, but it never told the correct time.”

This passage is an example of Gibson's "compulsive use of brand names." He is drawing attention to how much brand names and popular culture play a role in our daily lives. In this passage alone Gibson refers to "Neo-Aztec" architecture, "Disney" pop culture kitsch, "Kandinsky" fine art, and "Dali-clock" surrealism. Gibson is acting like a customer in a "supermarket of 20th-century works," taking what he wants to get his point across. This passage also conveys a feeling of sensory overload. The reader is being bombarded with so many popular culture references that it all begins to blur together. Gibson is blurring the distinctions between fantasy and reality and asking the question, where does fantasy end and reality begin in world where these lines are not concrete? Pynchon also asks this question and goes one step further than Gibson. He uses figures from real life with his own characters in Gravity's Rainbow:

“It was one of Groucho Marx's vulgar friends. The sound is low, buzzing, and guttural. Bette Davis freezes, tosses her head, flicks her cigarette. ‘What,’ she inquires, ‘is that?’ Margaret Dumont smiles, throws out her chest, looks down her nose. ‘Well it sounds,’ she replies, ‘like a kazoo.’ For all Slothrop knows, it was a kazoo.”

Pynchon creates a world where Groucho Marx, Bette Davis and Margaret Dumont all know each other and know Slothrop, a character created by the author. Pynchon no longer has any distinctions between fantasy and reality. Everything is mixed together. Gibson does this as well, but not on the radical level that is seen in Pynchon's novels.

The Cyberpunk genre was influenced by the New Wave of SF writers that started appearing after legends that came before them were established. Some of the New Wave writers that influenced them were Harlan Ellison, who presented a streetwise, hardened, grab-you-by-the-throat style. There was Norman Spinrad, who presented a fast, furious future filled with rock ‘n’ roll rebels. J.G. Ballard was a British SF writer who also presented a hard edge to his work, but focused on technoshock, the human reaction to technology. Philip K. Dick presented one of the best visions of the future – an ecologically ravaged Earth with all the “best” specimens traveling to the far reaches of space leaving behind everyone else.

According to Bruce Sterling, one of the self-proclaimed Cyberpunks, the name came from cyber – meaning cybernetic, a mating of flesh and chrome, and punk – the late 1970s movement of radical rock ‘n’ roll that questioned society and challenged authority. Five authors emerged as the first generation Cyberpunks: William Gibson, Rudy Rucker, Lewis Shiner, John Shirley, and Sterling. They shared common themes, ideas, outlooks and a common symbol – mirrorshades: a unique symbol that suggested rebellion, craziness and a dangerous nature behind those mirrored, chrome glasses. Chrome and matte black became the Cyberpunk colors.


These writers loved style, were fashion conscious and prized “garage band mentality,” as Sterling said in a defining essay on the genre. They joined the ideas of technology and culture together. The main characters in their novels were usually cybernetically enhanced in some way that would show how the character coped with the invasion of technology in his or her body. The character would have to overcome the sense of technoshock and realize their human side or be lost to machines forever, risking alienation of friends and family. The world is often an ecologically ravaged, corrupt place with endless cities of concrete and glass. Pollution covers the sky, blotting out the sun. The setting can often be broken down to three levels: the bottom or street level where most of the characters live and die, filled with poor and desperate people. Next, is above the street – the middle class in their apartments or condos who live life a little better, but still deal with the riff raff of the streets. Finally, there is the high-rise or corporate level populated by powerful businessmen. The main characters of Cyberpunk stories are usually hackers, musicians or mercenaries selling their skills to the highest bidder. A lot of characters are hooked on drugs that give them an edge. Artificial intelligence and the virtual reality known as cyberspace plays an important role in a lot of Cyberpunk fiction, particularly Gibson’s. He treated the Internet like another dimension, a sort of astral plane where characters can imagine themselves as whatever they want to be. They can travel to databases all over the world to steal information, which is the most important commodity.

The short stories “Johnny Mnemonic” and “Burning Chrome” were early forays into the world Gibson would expand in greater detail with Neuromancer. After writing “Burning Chrome,” Gibson felt that he was four or five years away from writing a novel, but as luck would have it, editor Terry Carr was looking for promising authors and asked Gibson if he wanted to write a book. He agreed without realizing what a monumental task it would be: “In fact I was terrified once I actually sat down and started to think about what I meant. I didn’t think I could fill up that many pages. I didn’t even know how many pages the manuscript of a novel was ‘supposed’ to have.” Gibson was motivated by “blind animal panic” to write the book and “fueled by my terrible fear of losing the reader’s attention.” He looked back at his short stories to see what made them work and took the character of Molly from “Johnny Mnemonic” and the world he created in “Burning Chrome,” and put them in Neuromancer.

While writing Neuromancer, Gibson was not influenced by Cyberpunk-ian films like Blade Runner (1982) and Tron (1982), but rather John Carpenter’s film Escape from New York (1981), which was a significant influence:

“I was intrigued by the exchange in one of the opening scenes where the Warden says to Snake: ‘You flew the wing-five over Leningrad, didn’t you?’ It turns out to be just a throwaway line, but for a moment it worked like the best SF, where a casual reference can imply a lot.”

Much of the techno-speak in the book came from Gibson overhearing a word or phrase and appropriating it for his own uses:

“I like accidents, when an offhand line breezes by and you think to yourself, Yes, that will do. So you put it in your text and start working with it, seeing how it relates to other things you’ve got going, and eventually it begins to evolve, to branch off in ways you hadn’t anticipated.”

A lot of the language in Gibson’s novel came from dope dealer’s slang or biker talk circa 1969 Toronto. For example, “flatlining” (ambulance driver slang for “death”) was a word he heard in a bar 20 years prior to writing Neuromancer and applied it to hackers getting killed in cyberspace and then dying in real life. Ironically, Gibson knew very little about computers prior to writing his book, which allowed him to romanticize them:

“It wasn’t until I could finally afford a computer of my own that I found out there’s a drive mechanism inside – this little thing that spins around. I’d been expecting an exotic crystalline thing, a cyberspace deck or something, and what I got was a little piece of a Victorian engine that made noises like a scratchy old record player.”

Gibson actually came up with the cyberspace concept in “Burning Chrome” and carried it over to Neuromancer. He was inspired by kids playing video games in downtown Vancouver arcades:

“I could see in the physical intensity of their postures how rapt the kids inside were. It was like one of those closed systems out of a Pynchon novel: a feedback loop with photons coming off the screens into the kids’ eyes, neurons moving through their bodies, and electrons moving through the video game. These kids clearly believed in the space games projected.”

Humans, like Case are dependent on technology, like junkies. Technology is overwhelming us as it becomes part of our daily lives. There is a definite lack of emotion or optimism in Neuromancer where at the end of the novel Case and Molly survive, but never see each other again. Gibson’s novel explores the relationship between humans and their environment and how we interact with it. The most important aspect of this book is that the author is commenting on current society, examining the difference between reality and fantasy and how paranoia and popular culture blur these lines until there seems to be no distinction between the two sides.

Not surprisingly, the popularity of Neuromancer inspired several offshoots, including graphic novel, a video game (featuring a song by Devo no less), a radio play and even an opera. There have been several attempts to adapt it into a film with screenplays written by the likes of music video director Chris Cunningham and film director Chuck Russell (The Blob). In recent years, Joseph Kahn (Torque) was lined up to direct an adaptation starring Milla Jovovich, but that also fizzled out and currently Vincenzo Natali (Splice) is working on directing the film from his own screenplay with assistance from Gibson. Whether this latest incarnation gets made remains to be seen, but it demonstrates the continued interest in Gibson’s novel and how well it has aged over the years.


SOURCES

Burroughs, William S. Naked Lunch. New York: Grove Press, 1992.

Dorsey, Candas J. "Beyond Cyberspace." Books in Canada. June-July 1988.

Gibson, William. Neuromancer. Ace Books, 1984.

McCaffery, Larry, ed. Storming the Reality Studio. Duke University Press, 1991.

Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity's Rainbow. Viking Press, 1973.


Sterling, Bruce. “Preface to Mirrorshades.” Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology. Ed. Bruce Sterling. Ace Books. 1986.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Zero Effect

Zero Effect (1998) marked the auspicious debut of writer/director Jake Kasdan, son of famous filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill). The film was a quirky blend of detective story, comedy and romance – a contemporary spin on the classic Sherlock Holmes short story, “A Scandal in Bohemia.” It also provided, for perhaps the first time, the ideal vehicle for character actor Bill Pullman. This mix of genres resulted in a lukewarm critical reaction and failure to recoup even half of its five million dollar budget at the box office. Zero Effect disappeared onto home video where it found a second life and currently enjoys something of a cult following.

Daryl Zero (Bill Pullman) is an eccentric private investigator that deals with his clients via a proxy – his long-suffering associate Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller) who has become frustrated dealing with his employer’s odd hours and even odder habits. It doesn’t help that Arlo’s girlfriend Jess (Angela Featherstone) is putting pressure on him to settle down. The latest case that Arlo brings to Zero involves a rich businessman by the name of Gregory Stark (Ryan O’Neal) who has lost the key to a very important safety deposit box and is also being blackmailed. In keeping with his finely tuned investigative abilities, Zero already knows Stark’s backstory (“Son of a fatman,” he deadpans at one point) right from the get-go and finds the man’s keys in no time. The blackmail part takes a little longer.

When Zero meets a beautiful paramedic known as Gloria Sullivan (Kim Dickens) during the course of his investigation, he not only considers her potential suspect, but also begins to develop feelings for her, much to his surprise. The film shifts its tone from an offbeat comedy to a character-driven romance while never completely abandoning the mystery that kicked things off in the first place. It’s an unconventional romance to say the least as Zero initially pretends to be interested in Gloria only to find himself actually falling in love with her and she with him. She’s a bit of an enigma, which intrigues him and he gets deeper involved with her in order to uncover her motives.


The film grabs one’s attention right away with Elvis Costello’s “Mystery Dance” playing over the opening credits and this is rather apt as the song is about romantic and sexual inexperience, which could easily apply to Zero. He is completely clueless when it comes to love and relationships, much like the narrator of Costello’s song. Our introduction to Zero is an intriguing build-up as Arlo hypes his employer’s many impressive skills to a drinking buddy only to trash his personal habits in the next breath.

Next, Arlo enters Zero’s apartment, which is protected like a top secret fortress, complete with a keypad security system and a front door with five deadbolt locks. The camera follows Arlo around the place and one can hear guitar playing and really bad singing off in the distance. Arlo finds Zero in his bedroom and our first shot of enigmatic detective is of him singing and playing an acoustic guitar while wearing long underwear and a kimono. Apparently, he’s been awake for three days on speed and is given to eating tuna straight from the can, washing it down with a can of Tab (his drink of choice judging by his fridge, which is mostly taken up with the beverage).

Zero Effect starts off very much in the tradition of a film like Fletch (1985) with Zero adopting all kinds of disguises and identities in order to follow his client and get information from potential suspects. In a nice touch, each identity has its own driver’s license with a picture that looks a little crazier than the last. The pictures aren’t overtly wacky, but just slightly off-kilter as to be wryly funny. Zero Effect is filled with little moments like this, or an amusing scene, like the one where Arlo and Zero meet at a bank of pay phones at an airport because, according to the detective, two guys talking there is “a little fishy.”


After years of playing nice guy supporting roles in films like The Accidental Tourist (1988) and Sleepless in Seattle (1993), Bill Pullman finally got a substantial role in which to sink his teeth into and it also allowed him to demonstrate his range as an actor. He fully immerses himself in the role, playing a wildly eccentric character, but the actor knows just how to avoid veering off into goofy caricature territory by showing different sides of this man. It is all in the little choices he makes, like the way he delivers a certain line of dialogue, taking the most ordinary phrase or word and giving it just the right off-kilter spin to make it feel fresh, that makes his performance so fun to watch.

Ben Stiller’s Arlo is the Dr. Watson to Zero’s Sherlock Holmes albeit updated for a contemporary setting. While on a case, he and Zero are the best at what they do, but during their downtime they have a dysfunctional relationship and Stiller does a nice job showing how increasingly exasperated Arlo is from being basically at his employer’s beck and call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It is a nice change of pace for Stiller back when he was more willing to take chances in films like Reality Bites (1994) where he played a self-absorbed jerk and Permanent Midnight (1998) where he played a spiraling drug addict, and get out of his comfort zone of playing goofballs or neurotic messes. Stiller is an ideal foil for Pullman, but is more than capable of the dramatic stuff as evident in a scene where Arlo tells Zero that he’s going to quit after their current case is over. Of course, Zero freaks out and Arlo lays it all out, telling him what’s at stake and Stiller does an excellent job of conveying the seriousness of Arlo’s decision.

Much like Pullman, Kim Dickens has rarely been given an opportunity to showcase her skills as an actress in a substantial role (a notable exception is the under-appreciate Allison Anders film, Things Behind the Sun). Beyond her obvious beauty, the actress conveys a fierce intelligence that is crucial for this role as Gloria is supposed to be an intellectual challenge for Zero. She is not an easy character to read and this intrigues both us and Zero. As the film progresses, it becomes apparent that she’s the real mystery that Zero must figure out.


Bill Pullman met Jake Kasdan on the set of Lawrence Kasdan’s film The Accidental Tourist and they became good friends. While making Wyatt Earp (1994) – also for the elder Kasdan – Jake was making a documentary about the film. He told Pullman about wanting to be a writer and that some day he’d write a screenplay for the actor. Kasdan was influenced by the short stories of Sherlock Holmes and drawn to the idea of “master detectives with highly developed minds who have some sort of manner of deficiency.” He wanted to write about “the ways that people can really be good at some things and really bad at other things.” Pullman figured that it would never happen and was surprised when, a few years later, Kasdan offered him Zero Effect.

Zero Effect received mostly mixed reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “The first time we see him, Zero seems like a goofy, off-the-shelf weirdo. But Pullman, from While You Were Sleeping and Independence Day, can drop the façade and let you see the complications inside.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “both Pullman and the slyly restrained Stiller keep their characters entertaining even Kasdan’s interest is elsewhere. For all its admirable ambitions, this loosely focused feature has the makings of a better buddy story than detective tale anyhow.” The Los Angeles Times’ Jack Mathews wrote, “Zero Effect has its rough spots. The neurotic flourishes that Kasdan uses to introduce Zero manage to be both precious and over the top at the same time … And though the dialogue is generally sharp, there are bad patches.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C+” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “in a thanklessly ill-defined leading role, Pullman, that fine vanilla pudding of an actor, does the thing he does best, gamely throwing raisins of idiosyncrasy our way until something sticks. Finally, in her review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Ruthe Stein wrote, “Zero Effect is more an interesting idea for a detective movie than it is an interesting film. Kasdan is onto something, but he needs to develop it.”

I keep coming back to “Mystery Dance” and how I believe that Kasdan included it in the opening credits as a kind of foreshadowing as if he were trying to tell us that Zero Effect really isn’t about they mystery that Zero investigates, but about his development as a human being. By the end of the film, he realizes that there is more to life than work and that people can’t simply be observed analytically. One must get in there and mix it up by having an actual relationship with another person. Kasdan’s film starts off as sly comedy with Stiller playing straight man to Pullman’s eccentric oddball, but then something happens partway through when Zero gets romantically involved with Gloria and the tone shifts gears rather seamlessly into a drama of sorts. Best of all, the film allows Pullman to showcase the idiosyncratic tendencies that usually lurk underneath his good-looking façade. It took Kasdan creating a role tailor-made for the actor to show off his comedic talents as well as his dramatic chops. It’s a versatility that he rarely gets to demonstrate, which is a shame because he does it so well in Zero Effect.



SOURCES

Harris, Will. “Bill Pullman on How to Play the President and Being the Guy Who Doesn’t Get the Girl” A.V. Club. January 10, 2013


King, Susan. “Son of Hollywood.” Los Angeles Times. January 29, 1998.


For further reading, check out Sean Gill's fantastic take at his blog, and Chronlogical Snobbery's extensive 10th anniversay tribute.