Oct 1, 2012

Bad Movies and Writing - The Blog Post, Part II

Click here for Part One 


If you want to study a plague, you need samples. All serious research comes to a point where theoretical models don't cut it. For that very reason, I chose three indigestible chunks of cinema that will serve us well.

Are you ready, fellow scientist? Wearing your goggles and respirator? Let us proceed.


1. Killer Klowns from Outer Space
(1988, horror comedy)


Aliens that resemble clowns land near Crescent Cove, California and start abducting people by most creative means. Comedy or no comedy, this movie is one long object lesson in bad writing.

You find a circus tent in the middle of nowhere. At night. It's all lit up for no reason and your dog vanishes while you're looking for an entrance.

What do you do? You punch the tent, of course.[1] But you nearly break every bone in your hand.

What's the logical thing to do? Why, you decide to tear up the tent with your own bare hands.

Not a good idea.

Two characters, Mike and Debbie, explore the circus tent/spaceship and find the engine room.


As it turns out, this is no circus tent, and they definitely don't belong there. Debbie, the more rational of the pair, tells Mike they should leave. Mike, who was enthusiastic about this wondrous place, begins to share Debbie's apprehension.

They wander into an adjacent room where the Klowns store several cotton-candy cocoon thingies and now Mike wants to linger because hey, cotton candy. All of a sudden, his self-preservation instincts shut down.


Police Sergeant Mooney gets tons of calls from frantic townspeople as the aliens grow bolder. How does he react? Why, he concludes that the whole town is playing a prank on him. The whole town, including the elderly owner of the local drugstore. Mooney stops taking calls, pours himself a bourbon and lights up a fat cigar. As they say in French, "lazy caricature."*
*Disclaimer: they don't say that in French at all. At least not using English words.

Maybe stuff like this happens in real life -- police ignoring legitimate complaints, not acting until it's too late. And you can represent that in film or literature. But at one point, Mooney's attitude stops being funny. The narrative paints the Police Sergeant as a throwback at first, only to defuse the point it was trying to make. Mooney isn't conservative, he's irredeemably stupid, so nothing he does really matters.

The take-away: logic must play a part in every story, regardless of genre. People sometimes make baffling decisions; not all the time, though. Also, before I forget, most people tend to have better short-term memories than Mike's. Their bad feelings do not simply evaporate from one moment to the next.


2. Night of the Comet
(1984, science fiction/horror/undecided)


Two sisters, Regina and Samantha, join forces with Chakotay from Star Trek: Voyager and do their best to survive in the post-apocalypse, after the comet that took out the dinosaurs makes another flyby past this blue pearl of a planet that we live on.

It's packed with cheesy one-liners and "what the fuck are you wearing"-type moments.

Moment #1.

As for the one-liners, this is what you tell a snarling zombie kid at your door:
"Look, kid, just stay away, we don't want any!"

Because he'll find your argument rather compelling.

My favorite is delivered by a little Asian girl, toward the end: "Hey, if you're gonna throw those guns away, can I have one?" She's like ten or something, and overly attached to her stuffed bunny.

Anyways. When we first meet Regina, she's playing an arcade game. On the job.


Regina works at a movie theater. Rather miffed that Regina doesn't take her job seriously, her boss gives her a flashlight and orders her to "walk the house." Instead, she goes up to the projection booth and cuddles with the projectionist. All night. Nobody seems to notice.[2] My question is, why don't they let her go? The theater's got more staff and she doesn't seem to fulfill any pressing needs.

And what's the first thing she does after she gets up? 

Yeah, you guessed it.

Later, once it becomes clear that things have changed irrevocably, Sam and Regina sit on the hood of a police car and reminisce, not about family members who are surely dead, but about schoolmates and would-be crushes. It's the specter of a pep squad friend that drives Sam to tears.

And a moment of bonding between sisters ends with the gleeful proclamation: "The stores are open!" Which translates as, "Everyone we know is dead. Let's try on lots of clothes." 

Screw all you know about human psychology.

The sisters' romp at a department store is colored by that song of songs, "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." Have I mentioned that there are zombies about?

Goons -- live ones, that is -- trap Sam and Regina at the department store. Almost immediately start shooting at them. Hang on. Aren't they the last two women on Earth, or something? Oh, wait, the goons wear sunglasses indoors during a shootout. Their priorities must be a little mixed up.

The goons outmaneuver Sam and Regina and seize them. As it turns out, the goons' leader is undergoing zombification. It's all he wants to torture the girls. As the fun and games begin, a group of paramilitary agents storm in at a very convenient moment and shoot the goons. They shoot them dead. Extremely dead.

These guys in uniform work for a post-governmental organization that's got a maze for a logo. Maybe some kind of comment on the labyrinthine and parasitical nature of government? If so, it's heavy-handed and unsubtle.


The take-away: I guess 'don't write stupid characters' is too vague a suggestion. But I do have something to offer. Study crises, riots and revolutions, moments of turmoil. Surprising things do happen, but they do not run counter to basic human motivations. Now would not be a bad time to take a look at Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

Night of the Comet doesn't know what kind of movie it wants to be; anemic humor and derivative horror don't mix. The zombies never pose a serious threat, the inner workings of the secret organization remain a mystery. To all appearances, its only purpose is to be overcome by teenagers. What's the message here? 'Kids good, government evil'?

Also, make really really really really sure what tone you're going for. If you can't get it right from the first draft, that's fine. You can rewrite and polish until the comet returns. Good writing can speak to you on different levels, but you won't get far unless you know what you're trying to say. For that to happen, you have to tap into your hopes and fears and obsessions. That private place where your beliefs come from.

3. Frankenhooker
(1990, horror comedy)


Brought to you by the poor man's Tim Burton, or Ed Wood's latest avatar -- Frank Henenlotter.

Jeffrey Franken has been kicked out of three medical schools. When his fiancée dies in a totally avoidable accident with a lawnmower, he hatches a plan to bring her back to life. Said plan involves 16,000 watts of electricity and an assortment of body parts, most of them procured from ladies of the evening.

Not since Rubber, a movie about a self-propelled car tire that makes stuff explode through telepathy, have I had so much fun watching an incomprehensible movie. Apparently, this one carries an endorsement from Bill Murray himself. Supposing the endorsement is real, it could be another example of Bill Murray's real-life trolling.

Frankenhooker brings you several gifts: a healthy contempt for the way reality organizes itself, and characters right out of a Reanimator-Sex and the City mashup.

We meet Jeffrey as he sticks a scalpel into a brain-like creature he keeps in a tank and muttering "I've gotta be careful, don't wanna give it a lobotomy." Then he hammers it in. *Urrr.*


Despite his well-rounded weirdness, Jeffrey's engaged to a sweet blond named Elizabeth.

So now we're at a birthday party and Elizabeth meets a tragic fate as a lawnmower, well, mows her down. A remote-controlled lawnmower that she turned on herself. On top of that, she stood in front of it, despite repeated warnings to step aside. And our loving, heroic Jeffrey? Did he even budge from his seat? No.

Months elapse. Jeffrey obsesses over power schematics, drawing diagram after diagram, mumbling to himself all day.

His mother talks to him about moving on. The following exchange occurs:

Jeffrey Franken: "I seem to be disassociating myself from reality, more and more each day. I am antisocial, becoming dangerously amoral. I've lost the ability to distinguish right from wrong, good from bad. I'm scared, ma. I feel like sometimes I'm plunging headfirst into some kind of black void of sheer, utter madness or something."
Jeffrey's mother: "Do you want a sandwich?"

I've been turning this over in my head. Is that a parody of bad dialogue, or just plain bad? Because with Frankenhooker you never know.


Here's a guy who can create synthetic life forms and yet works a mediocre job at a power station. But then, Jeffrey stimulates creative thought by piercing his own cranium with a power drill. Multiple times. Maybe all the kinetic energy bouncing around in his skull makes him talk like that?

This isn't painful to him, for some unexplained reason.

Jeffrey creates "super-crack" that causes living creatures to explode soon after they inhale its fumes. He already knows this as he goes shopping for prostitute parts, and he intends to let a group of women to consume his super-crack, yet balks at the last minute. Now, when you balk, remember this: you can never balk too soon.

Rather predictably, the prostitutes Jeffrey has assembled (so he could measure their limbs) end up finding Jeffrey's, um, payload. Then you get to see numerous dummies blow up.

Of course, what Jeffrey Franken says after the event -- to a room littered with body parts -- doesn't make any sense:

"I didn't mean for this to happen. It was an accident."


At any rate, Jeffrey gathers enough parts to reassemble his darling Elizabeth. Droll misunderstandings ensue, as Elizabeth doesn't remember who she used to be. In fact, she thinks she's several prostitutes. Oh, and have I mentioned that Jeffrey kept her head in an estrogen-based solution for months, periodically removing it from storage so he and the head could have dinner together? Brain death doesn't exist in this universe.

Elizabeth awakens.

After the droll misunderstandings play out, Jeffrey gives Elizabeth another jolt of electricity and she comes to her senses. Sort of. She wants to know what happened following her death --
Jeffrey: "I brought you back, Elizabeth. I brought you back to life."
Elizabeth: "How?"
Jeffrey: "Oh, a bunch of things. I've got it all written down over there."

One would think he could take Elizabeth more seriously. After all, he went to a lot of trouble on her account.

The take-away: Frankenhooker falls into its own trap. While it is a clever satire of B movies and the exploitation genre, and the idiocy that fuels such narratives, it doesn't avoid idiocy.

When you already find yourself on overdrive, how do you top that? How do you exaggerate more?[4]

This is why, for example, Weird Al Yankovic failed so, so hard when he parodied Lady Gaga; she already provides excellent self-parody. There's nothing you can add, Mr Yankovic. At least Barely Political cut right to the core of Gaga's emptiness.

CODA
BAD MOVIES:
WHAT ARE THEY FOR?

1. Bad movies teach you the value of logical thinking. If you subject yourself to a torrent of stupid movies, you end up developing antibodies. You begin to recognize the factors that damage a story -- above all a lack of internal coherence. Bad movies break their own rules and assume you're too dumb to notice.



2. Characters are a lot like actors. If you feed them bad lines, you'll get a bad performance. Nor are they interested in improving the script; that's entirely up to you. If you ask them to act in illogical ways, they'll take your directions.
3. When you describe your setting, you're choosing props for your scenes. Creating an environment, an atmosphere. You can have Gangs of New York or Zombie Strippers. Your choice.
4. Unlikely premises don't lead to bad execution. Terrible movies tend to be sloppy -- I've watched more than my share of films where they spent all their budget on special effects. Everything else is beyond redemption.
Sometimes, a movie is garbage despite the big-name actors and superlative special effects because, in essence, there's no story to tell. Think Transformers or, heavens forfend, Battleship.
5. You have a right to enjoy bad movies. Let no-one tell you otherwise.

FOOTNOTES
[1] The more I think about this, the more retarded it seems. Punching a tent? Really?
[2] Also, it seems that Regina and the projectionist get down to business before the movie's done showing. This part is unclear, but it does look like that.
[3] This footnote was about Bill Murray. Now, it is merely self-referential. See? Trolling.
[4] Not that long ago, Frank Henenlotter directed a movie about a woman with seven clitorises and a man with a surprisingly autonomous penis. So I guess you can outdo yourself if you work hard. 

What can they teach you about writing? -- is a weekly series of articles drawing on public statements by talented people, and how such statements apply to the act of writing. “Talented people” does not mean they’re entertainers, nor do I expect you to agree with my definition of talent at all times. In early 2012, I decided to expand the scope of these articles to include remarkable characters in works of fiction. 
Read more in this series.

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