Tuesday, December 28, 2010

John Scalzi and the Myth of Inerrancy

I recently decided to pick up John Scalzi's book 'Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded', based on the fact that I'd heard good things about him as a blogger. I did feel a little trepidation doing so, having already read his 'Rough Guide to Science Fiction' and found myself more than a little irritated by a few of its claims, such as "You're not a true science-fiction fan if you don't like 'The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai'!" (a claim right up there with "You're not a real gourmet unless you can appreciate the subtle flavors and distinct aroma of yak vomit," or "The true automotive enthusiast loves the classic lines and dynamic handling of the AMC Gremlin.") But on the whole, I found myself greatly entertained by the book, and thought Scalzi was generally pretty clever and insightful.

Except for his column on Star Wars, which takes a few good points and weaves them together into a wild mess of incoherent fanboyish speculation that bears no connection to the worlds of art, commerce, film theory, mythology, and quite possibly chemistry and physics as well. I'm aware, of course, that despite Scalzi's repeated assertions that he's not particularly famous, his fame relative to mine is similar to George Lucas' relative to his, but nonetheless I feel bound to reply, knowing he'll probably never see this. (Which doesn't mean I plan to insult him just because I don't think he'll answer back. My policy when blogging is never to say anything I wouldn't say to someone's face. Which should tell you something about my lack of social graces, looking back...)

Scalzi's basic assertion, for those of you who couldn't be bothered to follow the link, is that the reason the prequels weren't any good (he takes it as an article of faith that you'll agree, but I don't mind that, because the prequels really weren't any good) is that Lucas doesn't actually have any talent as a film-maker; he's obsessed with detailing the mythology of the Star Wars universe, and anything good in the movies is either (to quote Scalzi) "unintentional, achieved through special effects, or is the work of hired guns, notably Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett".

This statement tells me something pretty important right off the bat. Namely, it tells me he hasn't actually seen the movies in a long time. Fan opinion has a tendency to petrify in the absence of occasional connection with the material; over time, the actual feelings you had about the original work slowly get leached away and replaced by the discussions you had with other fans. Everybody "knows" that 'Empire' is the best Star Wars movie, because we all talk about it all the time at conventions and we all agree on it.

In fact, Empire is pretty damn awful. It's a long, shaggy-dog story that starts with the Rebels having established themselves in a very stupid position with no logical explanation, and then proceeds to make an entire plot of, "Will our heroes get away?" Which is a problem, as the answer can never be anything other than, "Well, yes, of course." (Except for Han, who gets captured in a weak attempt at a cliff-hanger; it's funny fans excoriate 'Return of the Jedi' without ever considering the fact that it's forced to spend a half-hour extricating itself from the plot cul-de-sac left at the end of 'Empire'.) Most of its reputation rests on the fact that "it's dark" (never underestimate the attraction to grown-up fanboys of a "darker, more adult" version of something they liked as kids), the romance between Han and Leia (which was rightly eviscerated by Jeanne Cavelos as the moment when Leia stopped being a strong female character and started being a shrill, whiny stereotype of the Girl Who Just Needs a Man In Her Life) and the "I am your father" bit, which was good but not nearly good enough to rescue the movie. The actual great movie is the original, always has been, but it's become fashionable to hate it because We're Too Grown-Up For That Now.

The point is, the second I hear, "The only good one was 'Empire'," I immediately know that this is going to be someone who is discussing the fan orthodoxies of the Star Wars movies, rather than the movies themselves. And Scalzi doesn't disappoint. He makes the entirely correct point that Lucas has nobody who can gainsay his opinions when making the prequels, nobody who can edit him, but then goes on to make the claim that this means that we're seeing undiluted Lucas, without the filters of talented people making him better, and that this just shows how inept Lucas really is without others there to save his bacon.

Now this isn't just stupid, it's disappointing. Scalzi is a very intelligent man. He knows the value of a good editor--hell, he extols it elsewhere in the same collection of blog entries. But somehow, he completely forgets that film is a collaboration and that strong editorial voices make your work better when he has the chance to take a baseball bat to someone he doesn't like already. Of course, Lucas' work isn't as good when nobody can tell him where he's going wrong! Twenty years off from writing and directing probably didn't help much either. But to suggest that this means that the movies were good despite Lucas, not because of them, shows an absolutely staggering ignorance of the basics of film-making.

Yes, Lucas hired other people to do important work on the movies. That's kind of the nature of film-making; the number of movies that can be made by one person can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand. But his role on the film was to provide guidance and direction to the "hired guns" that Scalzi apparently thinks did their work in the dead of night, having possibly tied Lucas up to prevent him from interfering with their attempts to rescue his film from mediocrity. Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan didn't turn up with a finished script for Lucas to delight over, then hand off to Irvin Kershner to film; at every stage, from the initial script conference to the two-page brief to the outline to every single draft of the movie, they got copious notes from Lucas on what he wanted changed. And when they finally got around to shooting, it wasn't like Kershner did his work in a vacuum, either.

Lucas was responsible for everything that happened in the Star Wars movies, because that was his job. The man created an entire new company, staffed it, and helped them revolutionize the entire special effects industry because he had a very specific idea of what he wanted his movie to look like and the technology wasn't there yet when he started filming, and we're supposed to believe that the end result of the original 'Star Wars' was "unintentional"? (And anyone who says, "It just had good special effects" misses the point so completely that they've pretty much disqualified themselves from the conversation. 'Star Wars' created a whole new standard for special effects based on the visual aesthetic that Lucas wanted to create--it wasn't just that they were "good", it was that they created an immersive effect that no other film had tried to create before. They were an artistic decision, not merely a technological innovation.)

Ultimately, I feel like there's something fundamentalist in the assertion (not unique to Scalzi) that the Star Wars movies were good despite Lucas, not because of them. The fan mentality simply cannot cope with the idea that the same people responsible for works of staggering genius like the original trilogy can make something so staggeringly inept as the prequels. So in order to preserve our belief in a Towering Auteur Figure Who Can Do No Wrong, we make the brilliant genius someone else in the process and insist that it's them who did all the great stuff. (Which may be the other reason why 'Empire' has become the Official Good Star Wars Movie...although you don't exactly hear people lauding Kershner's other films like 'Never Say Never Again' and 'Robocop 2'.) We don't like our creative idols to have feet of clay, and we don't like to think that studio interference makes movies better, not worse. Lucas' reputation is a casualty of that mindset.

Or, if none of the above convinced you, I can put it another way...Scalzi's essay is the equivalent of arguing that the 'Sandman' comics wouldn't be nearly as good if Neil Gaiman didn't have any editors, and if he drew it all himself. Sure, it's true, but it's meaningless, and anyone who would actually try to present it as an argument for a lack of talent on Gaiman's part would be an idiot.

Sorry, better Scalzi that up a bit, just in case he reads this. "Would be a spastic lemur with the brains of a syphilitic toad." Hope that's a little more entertaining.


Anonymous said...

Just curious, but why don't you like Buckaroo Banzai?

John Scalzi said...

"Scalzi's basic assertion, for those of you who couldn't be bothered to follow the link, is that the reason the prequels weren't any good... is that Lucas doesn't actually have any talent as a film-maker"

Well, no, that's completely incorrect. Here's what I think of Lucas as a filmmaker, which is detailed in the entry immediately following the one you link to:

"I’ve long and publicly said that I believe he’s unquestionably the most significant filmmaker of the last 30 years and possibly ever, because of what he’s done for the technical aspects of filmmaking. Special effects, sound production, computer graphics, film editing, post-production, digital filmmaking — basically if there’s a filmmaking process around, there’s a damn fine chance that Lucasfilm or one of its subsidiaries or spinoffs was a pioneer in it or refined the process substantially. We watch film the way we do because of George Lucas, end of story, period. The guy’s a genius, or knows how to hire them, which is almost as good. Indeed, the only two aspects of filmmaking where he falls down on the job are writing and directing, which is ironic (and not only because he has two Oscar nominations for screenwriting, and another two for directing). But, you know what? No one’s good at everything."

Likewise, you both alter without notice and misattribute the subject for the following:

"anything good in the movies is either (to quote Scalzi) 'unintentional, achieved through special effects, or is the work of hired guns, notably Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett'."

The full quote, including what it refers to, is:

"Now that the magnum opus of the Star Wars cycle is done, we can see that any entertainment value of the series is either unintentional (Lucas couldn’t suck the pure entertainment value out of his pastiche sources), achieved through special effects, or is the work of hired guns, notably Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett (those two wrote The Empire Strikes Back, the only movie in the series that has a script that evidences much in the way of wit, much less dialogue that ranks above serviceable. Kasdan and Brackett were clearly attempting to entertain as well as serve the mythology, showing it is possible to do both)."

The argument is in fact not whether Lucas is a good filmmaker (he is, albeit better at some things than others) or whether he's responsible for what is good in the Star Wars series. The argument is whether the Star Wars films should be considered as "entertainment," and whether what is entertaining about the series is the work of Lucas himself or those he's hired, whose sensibilities, as I have argued, are more attuned toward what is actually entertaining.


Kathryn said...

Well, it is good that you have your own opinions on so many things. I have met many who share your views and as they are your views I really have no right to demean or disrespect them in any way. I regret that there are things you feel son strongly about, but I agree with it as many lately say how wonderful movies like Predator Quietus is as I am so mad at it that I can't even watch it from beginning to the end, I had to watch it piece by piece...
So, point being, they are your opinions about these movies. At least you have taken the time to watch them unlike those who say a movie is crap but doesn't spend the time to actually try to watch it and make a correct assumption. As for Scalzi and what he said or didn't say, I'll leave it alone. But at least what he said lead you to saying something leading him to responding which lead me to reading you instead of some horrible fan-fic or something worse, like Fox News. :D

Anonymous said...

I agree that Star Wars (the first movie) is a great movie, but Empire Strikes Back is not awful, it's very good.

The three prequels are truly awful. They are some of the worst movies ever made. It's unfortunate that, since the first three movies were so good, Lucas doesn't get bashed for making three of the worst movies in film history.

Anonymous said...

You weren't asking me, Anonymous person, but I'd guess it would be because Buckaroo Banzai is a convoluted mess too enamored with it's own camp to bother with creating any emotional attachment to its characters or structure to its narrative.

Anonymous said...

Empire is overrated, just as Jedi is underrated. The inclusion of Ewoks does that one in: another victim of that breed of simple-minded "auteur" that rotely assigns movie grades inversely proportionate to the film's license-able merchandise.

The proper ranking of the Star Wars movies is:

A New Hope
Return of the Jedi
(...a bit of space...)
Empire Strikes Back
(..a lot of space...)
Phantom Menace
Revenge of the Sith
(..an infinite amount of space..)
Attack of the Clones

Jason said...

No, it goes:

The Empire Strikes Back
A New Hope (though really, I'd tie the two)
Return of the Jedi

Everything else.

The one letter wonder said...

I have to (slightly) disagree with the second anonymous poster, while the prequels aren't the best movies... They are far from the worst movies ever and if they are the worst movies you have ever seen that you are a truly lucky person. I agree with Mr. Seavey that the first film is the best of the bunch. Now, if you want a truly terrible movie I would go with Dolph Lundgrin's He-Man or Lucas's Howard the duck and I think most of the hate against the prequels are that they could never have lived up to fan expectations.

Don said...

You cannot possibly be a true star wars fan of a magnitude higher than your average "cool kid" if you think that Empire was anything less than the best star wars movie. All geeks, specifically all Star Wars geeks think this is true.

RichardAK said...

I happened to like Empire the best, but I'll grant that that's a matter of taste, especially between Empire and New Hope, but I think you've completely misdiagnosed what's wrong with Return of the Jedi, and in so doing have wrongly blamed its failings on Empire.

The beginning of Return is, you are right, the resolution of Empire, but there's nothing wrong with that. The problems with Return, or at least the serious problems, start after that. First, there's the fact that the plot is an obvious retread of New Hope. Secondly, there's the much-commented on fact that an entire legion of the Empire's best troops were defeated by Ewoks, which pretty seriously undermines the Empire's credibility as a villain.

Thirdly, there's the fact that the whole confrontation with Luke, Vader, and the Emperor on the Death Star has no bearing on the larger plot. If Luke had lost the fight to Vader, or Luke had turned to the dark side, or some other outcome had occurred, it wouldn't have mattered, because they all would have died when Wedge and Lando blew up the Death Star anyway. That whole big confrontation doesn't mean anything to the larger story.

(Incidentally, I also totally disagree with you about the portrayal of Leia's character in Empire and Return.)

YodasEars said...

Have to ask you to re-read Scalzi's article, then read yours.

You have made a some assertions about his article that are factually incorrect, not least of which is that he acknowledged New Hope as well as Empire.

I note also that you do not address the core point of his article either. Nowhere do you address the paradigm that GL was more interested in creating his pocket universe than in the audience that would see it. You paraphrase his position as:
"the reason the prequels weren't any good ... is that Lucas doesn't actually have any talent as a film-maker". Do you mind highlighting that part? It conveniently overlooks half the point of the article you critique (that the overriding concern is mythology building, not entertainment).

Isn't that trolling? :)

BTW Robocop 2 was so many kinds of awesome it's terrifying. May Cain smell out nuke under your bed for even suggesting that this is not the case :)

Anonymous said...

George Lucas has truly become Ed Wood with hundred million dollar production budgets. It's kind of sad to see someone's skills fall so much.

Go to Youtube and search "Phantom Menace Review" or any of the other prequel reviews. They are very insightful, and far more entertaining than the actual movies.

Greg said...

how the hell is "Empire Strikes Back" a shaggy dog story???

Its two stories, one of Luke training with Yoda, and the other of Han and the others being chased by the Empire. The movie starts with the characters together. They split after the Empire attacks. Two plots advance separately. The plots rejoin when Han and friends are used as bait to lure Luke back.

I dont see a shaggy dog plot there at all.

John Seavey said...

@anonymous: I don't like Buckaroo Banzai because it's so smugly convinced that its central premise is brilliant that it doesn't feel like it has to actually make any effort to be good. "Look! It's a tongue-in-cheek modernization of old pulp heroes like Doc Savage! And it suggests an elaborate backstory that doesn't really exist! Isn't that enough?" When, in fact, it's basically 'Leonard Part 6' in sci-fi drag.

@Don: The problem is, you are defining the degree of someone's fandom by the degree to which they are willing to buy into your fan orthodoxy. The definition of how much of a fan you are is how much you like 'Star Wars', not by how much your ranking system agrees with other fans.

@YodasEars: When Scalzi says anything good about the SW movies was ""unintentional, achieved through special effects, or is the work of hired guns, notably Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett", I don't think I actually need to dredge up a quote that specifically says "he's untalented." The article drips content for Lucas (as does his review of the movies for the Rough Guide to Science-Fiction)...willfully ignoring the tone to argue that he never actually said Lucas was incompetent is sophistry, and I won't indulge you in it.

@Greg: "In its original sense, a shaggy dog story is an extremely long-winded tale featuring extensive narration of typically irrelevant incidents, usually resulting in a pointless or absurd punchline." Empire in a nutshell. The narration is just a string of, "And then the Star Destroyers catch up. And then they fly into the asteroids. And then the engines break. And then they escape the space worm. And then they go to Bespin. And then C-3P0 breaks. And then..." All ending with, "And R2 fixes the hyperdrive and they get away." There's no coherent narrative arc, as opposed to the original 'Star Wars', where the incidents connect logically from beginning to end.

John Seavey said...

Grrr! Contempt, not content. Teach me to type on the tail end of a 13-hour shift. :)

Anonymous said...

LOL, nice to see some take scalzi to task.

A.J. said...

The two main faults that hamper Scalzi's argument are his assertion that the Star Wars movies are only entertaining by accident, or due to people who aren't Lucas, and that he ignores the fact that Lucas has done work besides 'Star Wars', which allows him to build up his untalented-Lucas view.

The prequels are still underwhelming, though.

Greg said...

Empire Strikes Back is mostly about Luke learning from Yoda. There is a battle on Hoth to guve some action and then when Luke goes to Degobah, he goes ALONE, so Han and friends get chased by Vader and go to Cloud City to keep some action in the film while Luke is getting all cerebral with Yoda.
the 'and then' part of the story is the side story with Han. The part of the story with Luke was pretty standard character development and not too shabby at that.

Lukes path in Empire is standard Act2 plot. protaginist tries to achieve goal and fails. He tains with Yoda then confronts Vader and barely escapes alive ofter losing his hand.

The stuff with Han and friends wasnt the plot. It was interesting side story for when things got slow with Luke.

Its like the battle at Helms Deep. The real story is Frodo and whether he will make it to Mordor. But it takes Frodo a long time to get there, so Aragon and friends battle orcs and trolls to have some action to represent the cerebral battle going on in Frodos head. Will he make it? Will he succumb to the ring? Will he give up? Frodos battle is mostly mental. like Lukes training on Degobah. The supporting characters are used to keep things interesting and varied.

calling Empire a shaggy dog story because of some side plot with the secindary characters seems to be missing the point, or the plot, or something.

Jacob said...

@YodasEars: When Scalzi says anything good about the SW movies was ""unintentional, achieved through special effects, or is the work of hired guns, notably Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett"
Holy straw man, batman! Scalzi didn't say "anything good" he said "any entertainment value". Those are two very different things.

Anonymous said...


John Seavey said...

@Jacob: They might be different things, but neither one is very complimentary. :) Frankly, Scalzi's argument is equally silly whether he's talking about "quality" or "entertainment value"; no matter what, he's suggesting that someone other than Lucas is responsible for everything he found entertaining, and Lucas is responsible for everything he didn't find entertaining. This is highly unlikely on the face of it, and I don't see any way to argue against that.

Greg said...

What I read him saying is that whatever might be entertaining in Star Wars is either by accident on Lucas's part or intentional on someone other than Lucas's part.

Thats different than your paraphrase of Scalzi.

Lucas only cares about his world building. Characters and plot seem irrelevant to him.

I dont know if you have ever read slush or first drafts from a writers group, but this is a common problem. Writers have a great idea for a world, an interesting world, but the characters are flat and the plot is nonsense or cliche.

In Star Wars, Lucas shows us a fully fleshed out world alien to ours and viewing this world might entertain people, but I think Scalzi is saying this is by accident. Like bad slush with bad characters and bad plot but an interesting world, that world is interesting in spite of the writer's overall story.

Lucas comes acros as someone interested.in creating his world whethe anyoneliked it or not.

If Lucas was an "entertainer" then his goal would have been to create a world the audience would like. Or create his world and wrap it up in a story that people found entertaining.

Episodes 1-3 seem like Lucas was going to write the story he wanted to write, to put flesh on the mythology in his mind, and he didnt care whether anyone found it entertaining. Or entertainment of others was extremely low on Lucas's priority.

whether you were entertained by Phamtom Menace is irrelevant to whether Lucas made your entertainment a high priority when he was making the movie.