For those of you who have enjoyed me analyzing screenplays, you can now LISTEN to me do so as I bloviate at length about various issues on the excellent podcast The Star Wars Minute here. The show was a ton of fun to do, the hosts are wonderful fellows, and at no point did they stop and say “Uh, Todd, we kind of need to wrap this up.”
It’s 1987. I’m standing in a bookstore on St. Mark’s Place in New York City. I pick up a book of writings by crazy people, titled Rants and Incendiary Tracts: Voices of Desperate Illumination, 1558 to Present. Being the young man I am, I think: hmm, looks interesting.
The book falls open to a selection titled “I Wish You All Had One Neck.” It’s a letter by Carl Panzram, a madman from the 1920s who was in prison and awaiting execution for the brutal, un-repented murders of almost two dozen men and boys on two continents. The letter is written to a kindly prison guard who took pity on the black-hearted maniac.
Panzram’s voice is savage, yet clear as a bell. “I have done as I was taught to do,” he writes. “I am not the least bit sorry. I have no conscience so that does not worry me. I don’t believe in man, God nor Devil. I hate the whole damned human race including myself. I have consistently followed one idea through all my life. I preyed upon the weak, the harmless and the unsuspecting.” To those who would wish to help him, he saves his most blistering attack: “The only thanks you will ever get from me for your efforts on my behalf is that I wish you all had one neck and I had my hands on it.”
Panzram’s mind on paper is chilling and unequivocal. And I think: if I can build a story around a character that strong, that absolute, that pure, I’ll really have something. I know some will love it and some will hate it, but I know everyone will respond to it.
I come up with an idea for a play as simple as a meat cleaver: a serial killer escapes from a mental institution and crashes a dinner party on Long Island. I take my character, my distillation of rage and misanthropy, and plunk him down in the middle of the cream of society – doctors, lawyers, stockbrokers, artists, media stars – and let him rip. The result is a dark comedy (“The mother of all black comedies” was the tag-line of the San Francisco production) that’s part The Man Who Came to Dinner, part Endgame and part Grand Guignol gorefest. By the end of the play we see that the killer is not a deviation from the norm, he is the purest expression of the norm. He’s not running counter to civilization, he is civilization, relentlessly, greedily pursuing death and destruction, conscienceless and remorseless.
I send the play out to agents. One responds with a phone call that says, and I quote, “This is the best play I’ve read in 17 years of being an agent, and I’m calling to tell you that I can’t represent you because it would be immoral.”
Now I know I’ve got something.
One Neck is available to purchase, for the first time, after 25 years, at the finest of online retailers.
As part 2 of “Maybe No Go” begins, The Monarch and 21 fight with, and turn the tables on, Redusa, who, we learn, isn’t even a member-in-good-standing with the Guild. She’s an outlier and an obvious has-been, but she’s still in line before the Monarch to arch Rusty. As 21 points out, the Monarch could “legally” kill her, but instead they let her off with a shrunken head, and, as mentioned before, a collectable free pen just for signing the waiver. As one of the few beats of actual supervillain action in the episode (the big set piece is still to come), it’s notable that the Monarch does very little in the scene but grouse and intimidate; 21 does all the heavy lifting of thwarting and threatening.
One of the most potent themes of The Venture Bros involves the question of the value of popular culture. Is it worthless garbage manufactured by corporations to distract people from the horrors those same corporations inflict daily upon the world, or is it a kind of magic, or both, or neither? The show might be a kind of a family saga, but it is also very much about the entertainment that reaches us when we are children. That entertainment, the shows and comics and commercials that hook us when we’re young, for better or worse, informs who we are as adults. It contains lessons about life, but also trains us to be consumers. I don’t think any episode of Venture Bros addresses that aspect of the theme better than “Maybe No Go.”
Out in the desert, the A-story of the episode begins with Billy Quizboy and Pete White experimenting with putting mouthwash in cookie dough (presumably for a cookie recipe). This experiment is taking place in their ancient trailer, under the broken neon sign advertising their company Conjectural Technologies. Obviously, business has been slow since the Ventures moved to New York, and no worthwhile inventions are coming down the pike.
Into this threadbare idyll comes a Truckasaurus operated by Augustus St. Cloud, the creepy collector of classic pop-culture memorabilia who has taken it upon himself to arch Billy Quizboy. “To the Quiz-Cave!” exclaims Billy, and we next see the opening titles to what I take to be an imaginary kids’ show starring Billy and Pete “The Pink Pilgrim,” done in the Hanna-Barbera style of the 1960s. The question is, if the show is imaginary, who is imagining it? My guess is Billy, who has lived too long in the shadow of Rusty Venture, who, even though he’s miserable because of it, once had his own TV show when he was a child. In taking on St. Cloud as an arch, Billy is, in his own way, getting out from under Rusty’s shadow and “getting his own show.” The entertainment of Billy’s childhood got into his system so completely, he’s willing to risk everything for a chance to join the party, as it were, and become his own super-science crime-fighter.
His fantasy is involved enough that, the next time we see him, he and Pete and their robot assistant are in the aforementioned Quiz-Cave, in their super-hero costumes, struggling to defeat the Truckasaurus attacking their trailer. The interesting thing about the scene, and the “Quiz-Cave,” is that, unlike, say, Batman and Robin going to the Batcave, where they analyze clues and hop in the Batmobile, the Quiz-Cave is entirely defensive in its effect. Even in his fantasies as an adventurer, Billy’s tendencies are inward.
The Truckasaurus, it turns out, is a mere distraction. Under this noisy cover, St. Cloud has stolen from Billy and Pete what appears to be a red rubber ball. Only a red rubber ball, but to Billy and Pete it’s “the holiest of holies” and “the source of all our powers.” The question of what exactly this ball is and what is its worth becomes the linchpin of the A-story.
Brock’s reappearance as the Ventures’ bodyguard very much indicates a fresh start for the series. And yet no fresh start in the Venture-verse is without casualties. In this case, Brock’s reinstatement means reassignment for Sgt. Hatred. A nobler character would take the change in stride, but Sgt. Hatred is not a nobler character, and the sight gag alone of the cut between Brock, above, and Hatred, below, is indicative enough of the two men’s characters: Brock is cocksure, respectful and upright, and Hatred is hunched, defeated and whining. He not only doesn’t take the setback easily, he refuses to take it at all, and stays on as the Venture’s unassigned stalker-bodyguard, sneaking around the Venture building and spying on the other security forces, looking for errors, echoing the more comic tension between HELPeR and the J-bots.
(On a more meta level, how cruel is this world, where Hunter S. Thompson is still alive in a cartoon, but David Bowie is not?)
It is a new season of The Venture Bros, and so it is time to once again ask “What does Rusty want?” “Hostile Makeover” answers the question before the titles even begin. Rusty wants his dead brother’s money, and receives it. Having outlived both his distant father and his parasitic twin, Rusty, who has lived in the past for so long, now has a new fortune to squander, and a new place to squander it in. Having been trapped since childhood in the dark, backward 1970s-Hanna-Barbera-netherworld of the Venture Compound, Rusty now has his own high-rise building smack on Columbus Circle in up-to-the-minute New York City. Now, perhaps, we can see him age in a 2010s-era Manhattan penthouse as his shiny new surroundings gradually get old and then burnish into nostalgia.
It was the spring of 1979. I was 17 years old and, since it was a Tuesday afternoon, in a record store. I was into Elvis Costello and Talking Heads and I was looking for other “New Wave” records to change my life. I saw, up on the shelf, Lodger, the new album by David Bowie, pictured above.
Look at that cover. That was the cover of an album by a major artist on a major label. I saw that cover and thought: “Huh. That’s weird. What the hell isthis?” To put the cover of Lodger into context, here are some other albums I might have seen in that record store that day: this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this and this.
The cover of Lodger was, in fact, so strange and mysterious that it spooked me a little. It was printed sideways and backwards, for one thing, with the image wrapping around the side of the gatefold, and the record top-heavy in the front pocket rather than weighing down the back. Everything about it was wrong, weird, fucked-up. I put David Bowie in my list of “artists to keep an eye on” and moved on to, probably, this.
A year or so later, David Bowie turned up, in Chicago (I was living in nearby Crystal Lake), performing in a run of the hit play The Elephant Man before taking over the title role on Broadway. As an aspiring 18-year-old playwright, I was primarily excited about seeing a genuine “Broadway play,” the fact that pop-star David Bowie was in the show was a secondary concern.
Well, the show was great, and Bowie was great in the part, and his first appearance on stage was as he appears in the second image above: naked but for a loincloth, his body way too thin and way too pale, as if the baby Jesus had been caught in a taffy-pull. I’ve been told that the part in The Elephant Man is “actor-proof,” but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of Bowie’s performance as he mimed John Merrick’s illness and distorted his voice to approximate the sound of a man with a head full of bulbous bone growth.
So this David Bowie fellow suddenly became very interesting to me. And he had a new record out, Scary Monsters, which had a cover almost as weird and fucked-up as that of Lodger. I snapped it up at my local record boutique, took it home and dropped a needle on it.
The Buddhists say that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear, and Scary Monsters was exactly the record I needed to hear in the summer of 1980. At this point, I was living in a trailer in southern Illinois, in a neighborhood where, no kidding, an 18-year-old kid could get beaten up for listening to David Bowie. Or for listening to anything to the left of this.
Scary Monsters had everything: huge amounts of weirdness, oddly tuned guitars, plenty of jarring, unsettling effects, great passion juxtaposed with jaded disaffection. It was, yes, scary and super, monstrous and creepy.
The following three years involved me soaking up everything Bowie had done up to that point. He became the center of my musical universe — he went to Africa before David Byrne or Peter Gabriel did, he worked with Robert Fripp and Brian Eno before Talking Heads did and hired Adrian Belew before Talking Heads did too, for that matter. His records swerved all over the place from weird and arty to weird and poppy to weird and soulful to weird and blistering. I rarely believed a word he sang, but sincerity somehow seemed beside the point — underneath and alongside the layers of irony and pose, covered over and thrown into relief by incident and marketing, the “message” in Bowie somehow always was located somewhere outside the lyrics. Now, the day after his death, I’m finding more and more that Bowie’s distance isn’t as distant as I first thought — his lyrics are sometimes oblique and confounding, but just as often they are solid emotion wrapped in technique.
In the midst of my obsession, 1982, I acquired my very first cat. There was no question what he would be named: Bowie was my avatar, my polestar, the banner of my identity.
Certain corners of the internet are rumpled with consternation over Carrie Fisher’s appearance in The Force Awakens. Specifically, people want her to shut up about having to lose weight to play the role of General Leia. I don’t generally concern myself with celebrity gossip, but this particular teapot-tempest has caught my attention.
Here’s the story as I understand it: Disney asked Fisher to lose 35 lbs in order to play Leia. Fisher, being past 50, had difficulty losing the weight. As anyone past 50 would. She has mentioned it in interviews, and on social media. With great grace and humor, because she is, in addition to everything else, a hell of a witty gal. She was under pressure to lose weight, as any aging actress — strike that, any aging woman — oh hell, any woman — is, and her current profile of “being in a new Star Wars movie” makes her struggle news. Who would not want to hear about an aging actress’s struggle to reclaim her signature role? I want to hear about it. The story has “human interest” written all over it. Everyone over 50, and anyone who plans to live past 50, has an interest in hearing about her struggle. And, while she says that Disney asked her to lose the weight, nowhere does she say that they were out of line to do so. She’s Hollywood royalty, she knows the score probably more than anyone alive.
Tale as old as time: the younger generation repeats the actions of the older generation. Each generation thinks they invented the world, but, always, there is precedent.
When A New Hope came out in 1977, its success was driven by teens but it was also a perfect family picture — adults could get lost in the nostalgia for old-timey serials, and perhaps admire the classically-hand-tooled-leather-bound storytelling, while children and teenagers could be simply thrilled and amazed as they never had been in a movie theater before. It was the Beatles of my generation, the one thing everyone agreed on.
I had never seen a Flash Gordon serial in my life, as there was no Youtube at the time, so the vision of George Lucas was a searingly brand new thing for me. I didn’t know that he’d lifted things from Flash Gordon (and many other sources), from the title crawl to the names of his characters. Nor would it have mattered to me if I did. Clearly, clearly, Lucas had added something to his endless references. Kurosawa could immediately see that Sergio Leone had stolen A Fistful of Dollars from Yojimbo, but I’m guessing he’d be hard-pressed to identify the elements George Lucas stole from The Hidden Fortress, although he would have recognized his beloved screen wipes.
Today, The Force Awakens repeats the feat of A New Hope, with a twist: children are amazed and moved by the stories of Rey and Finn, and everyone else gets lost in the nostalgia, but instead of nostalgia for other movies, it’s nostalgia for Star Wars itself. The defining feature of George Lucas’s generation of filmmakers (Spielberg, Scorsese, De Palma, Landis, Dante, Miller) was that they were the first generation of film-school directors: their movies were about other movies. Now, a generation later, filmmakers like JJ Abrams grew up on the movies of Lucas’s generation, and make movies about movies, about movies. My father was shocked at Jaws, not because of the violence in it, but because the kid who directed the movie ripped off Hitchcock at every turn and didn’t even break a sweat to do it. He took Hitchcock for granted. Now, that level of tossed-off cinematic reference is simply a part of the typical movie-going experience. In The Force Awakens, the Star Wars narrative, having launched a generation of imitators, has nothing to refer to but itself. What thirty-year-old genre could a new Star Wars movie refer to at this point?
A New Hope (God, I still hate that title) starred a cast of complete unknowns, with one special elderly guest star brought in to lend some gravitas to the proceedings. The Force Awakens repeats that trick, too, but in this case the elderly guest star is Harrison Ford, and he very much plays the Obi-Wan role, narratively speaking. The other actors are largely unknown, with the exception of Oscar Isaac, who plays Poe Dameron. Isaac, if you haven’t seen Inside Llewen Davis, A Most Violent Year or Ex Machina, is an incredibly serious capital-A Actor, the kind who, 30 years ago, wouldn’t have been caught dead in a Star Wars movie. If you can imagine Al Pacino playing a minor role in A New Hope, maybe Jabba the Hutt, with his tail being tread upon by Han Solo, that’s the level of incongruity at work here. (Not to mention Max von Sydow — Max von Sydow! — showing up briefly.)
That’s another symptom of our current generation of filmmakers. A Star Wars movie, or a Marvel movie, or a Harry Potter movie, or a Hunger Games movie, is no longer considered an embarrassment on your resume, something you did “for the money,” like Max von Sydow doing Flash Gordon (as we come full circle). It’s a badge of honor, a sign you’ve “made it.” “Serious” filmmaking used to be done in the realm of drama, and Star Wars was science fiction, a gutter genre. All that has changed now, all the serious money, and serious talent, is drawn not only to genre pictures, but juvenilia, and “serious drama” is all on television now. And Star Wars is the engine that drove that change.
But, to the question at hand: What does Poe Dameron want? Spoilers within!
Some folks on the internet find a cynical motive behind The Force Awakens‘s re-use of plot points from A New Hope. They see it as a corporation playing it safe, pandering to the audience, protecting their considerable investment. And yet, if “playing it safe” was the order of the day on the production of The Force Awakens, why are the four principle “good guys” of the movie played by a woman, a black man, a Guatemalan and a 73-year-old Jew? That sounds like idle snark, but let me assure you, movie studios are the most risk-averse institutions on the planet. I was once asked to develop a science-fiction franchise, based on a series of novels about a teenage girl trying to negotiate her way through a futuristic dystopia obsessed with beauty, and I outlined an entire trilogy, which took two and a half hours to pitch, only to have the female executive ask me if I could make the protagonist a boy. That was before The Hunger Games, of course, so now it would theoretically be “okay” to recognize that girls like science-fiction too, but to have a female protagonist with a black co-lead, and to have her kiss him in Act III? For the studio who refused to market Black Widow toys in connection with its Avengers movies, because “Disney has the girl market locked up with princess movies, thanks?” This is, I guarantee you, a bold step forward.
But, more germane to our discussion here, what does Finn want?