Get Smart: The Next Generation

In the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2008 a movie was released which was based on the TV show Get Smart. It was called—unsurprisingly but in a sense daringly—Get Smart. It starred Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway. It had some callbacks to the original, but other than that it had basically none of the spirit, tone, or style of the original. And I enjoyed the movie immensely. Before I proceed, let me note that I’m a big fan of the original. Here are my DVDs of seasons 1 and 2:

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The TV show with Don Adams and Barbra Feldon was immensely fun. I watched it as a kid and still love it (as, I hope, my owning of two seasons of it demonstrates). So how could I enjoy a Get Smart movie which basically had nothing to do with the original?

Actually, that’s how I could enjoy it. Having nothing to do with the original, I could simply enjoy it on its own terms. It wasn’t pretending to trash something I loved, so I had nothing against it. And on its own terms, it was quite fun.

I should note that the movie did have a slight connection to the original, in that the Control which this Maxwell Smart worked for was hinted at as being the same that the original Maxwell Smart worked for; there’s a moment where Max passes a tour which include the original’s suit and shoe-phone and sunbeam tiger, and the tour guide is telling the people that Control was disbanded at the end of the cold war. That’s really the only connection; everyone in the original has retired, having done their duty and succeeded in protecting their country. And that’s entirely respectful of the original. It’s also approximately the amount the movie has to do with the original, so it fits.

Further, the writers of the new Get Smart actually developed their own ideas, rather than trying to milk the original ideas. And they broke with modern movie trends by not winking at the audience. I’m not sure why writers are so enamored of winking at the audience—my guess is it used to be cheap laughs and they’re desperate—but it is a profoundly annoying habit. Its complete absence in the new Get Smart allows one to enjoy the film as a film rather than as a nostalgic celebration of how you’re too cool to indulge in nostalgia.

Ultimately, I think that if next-generations/sequels/continuations must be made this is one of the better ways to do it. Pay some tribute to what you’re following and do something good that isn’t trying to be the original. The odds of recreating the original are approximately zero, anyway.

Star Trek TNG: Sub Rosa

I forget why, but I was recently reading about the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, Sub Rosa. It was an unusual episode, being described by Memory Alpha as a foray into gothic horror. It was a (sort of) ghost story, centering about an “anaphasic entity” which had been haunting the women of Beverly Crusher’s family. Haunting isn’t quite the right word, as it seemed to live symbiotically with them. Though like all TNG episodes, it had its share of plot holes.

For one thing, it was said to have lived symbiotically with the “Howard Women” for centuries, except that family names are patrilineal, not matrilineal, so they would have been Howard women for a single generation. (You could get around this by skipping a generation, going from grand-mother to grand-daughter, which happened in the case of Beverly Crusher but didn’t at any other time.) I bring this up not to nit-pick, but because it’s a good symbol of how much the TNG writers cared about plot holes: not very much.

A bigger plot hole was that the anaphasic entity was supposed to be sinister, but it seemed to be symbiotic, not parasitic. Beverly came into contact with it because she was burying her grandmother at a very old age, and the Howard women were, if I recall correctly, generally described as hardy. This suggests that the anaphasic entity kept them healthy. It also, according to Beverly’s grandmother’s diary, kept them happy. Why, then, it was supposed to be bad was completely unclear. It did eventually murder someone, though there was no obvious reason that things got to that point.

As I said, it’s not that I particularly care about the plot holes in TNG episodes, at least not any more. When I was watching them as a teenager I would immediately call up a close friend and the two of us would nitpick the night’s episode for the better part of two hours, but I’ve gotten over that. What I do find interesting is what this suggests about resource allocation: most of these plot holes would not have been at all hard to fix. The producers of Star Trek: The Next Generation just didn’t care. And what I found most interesting about the Memory Alpha article were some quotes from the writers at the end. First, from Jeri Taylor, the showrunner at the time:

Rick and Michael were very distrustful of this story. They considered it a romance novel in space and felt the possibility for embarrassment was monumental, but I just knew it would work. It’s a different kind of story for Star Trek to tell. It is a romance but we do have women in our audience and women do traditionally respond to romantic stories.

This from Bannon Braga:

It was the best performance I’ve ever seen. I just thought she did a wonderful job. Picard catches Beverly masturbating for crying out loud! What a tough role to play. When I was writing the words, ‘She writhes around in the bed having invisible sex,’ I just thought, ‘Oh man, we’re asking for trouble. Are they gonna be able to pull this off?’ Thanks to [director] Jonathan Frakes and Gates, it was not hokey. It was very good. Look, I scripted the first orgasm in “The Game“. This was mild by comparison. Sure it was racy. Even Rick Berman had said, ‘I can’t believe we’re doing this.’ I think they trimmed quite a bit out of the writhing sequences.

And finally, this from René Echevarria:

“I can still reduce Brannon to shudders when I go into his office and say, ‘I can travel on the power transfer beam’. But the cast loved it. Every woman on the lot who read it was coming up to Brannon and patting him. Ultimately I think it was worth doing because it was campy fun and the production values were wonderful. The sets look great and everybody threw themselves into it. Gates did a wonderful job. It just got bigger and broader and to the point of grandmother leaping out of the grave. Just having Beverly basically writhing around having an orgasm at 6 o’clock on family TV was great. For that alone it was worth doing. We got away with murder.”

That last line really summed up a sneaking suspicion I have about the writing on The Next Generation. “We got away with murder.” They weren’t trying to tell good stories. They were trying to be clever.

(I should note that I mean good in the sense of, well, good. Not in the sense of “addictive”.)

Star Wars Movie Titles

While in general it is a good idea not to judge a book by its cover—and that cuts both ways; just because a book has an awesome cover doesn’t mean that the book is any good—it is instructive to look at movie titles . They can be deceptive, but unless they’re outright lies, they do give you a sense of what a movie is about. So, in story order, here are the titles so far:

  1. The Phantom Menace
  2. I don’t Remember and don’t care enough to look it up.
  3. This one wasn’t good enough to justify looking up its title either.
  4. A New Hope
  5. The Empire Strikes Back
  6. Return of the Jedi
  7. The Force Awakens
  8. The Last Jedi

Now, I’d like to point out items 6 and 8, in particular. Two movies after Return of the Jedi comes The Last Jedi. So apparently the Jedi didn’t return for long. So, it apparently turns out that the Jedi’s return consisted of one guy. This is bad story telling. This is very bad story telling. This is story telling so bad that improv actors with no time to think about their lines usually don’t make this sort of mistake. Let me explain.

One of the golden rules of improv is: always agree. That is, you never contradict what another actor said, because that’s not funny. I saw it explained like this: Consider the line, “I have the finest sword in all the land.” A bad response is, “No you don’t.” It’s not funny for a variety of reasons, but the most relevant one is that it shatters the immersion which is where the enjoyment in watching the thing at all comes from. A good response is, “Then it’s a good thing that I import my swords!” This works because it builds on the previous line, even though it does so in order to go in a different direction. In other words, don’t be Agent Michael Scarn (first four seconds of the clip):

And you can see, right in the titles, that they were pulling an Agent Michael Scarn. “Talk! Shut Up!”

And in fact there’s another bit of The Office wisdom which the Disney writers would have benefited from learning. Don’t start with the gun:

It’s likely that episode 8 got its title from someone saying, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if we killed the Jedi off? No one would see that coming!” Of course, the first problem is that it wouldn’t be awesome. It would be daring. Mostly in the sense that seeing your six year old brother building a complicated scene out of legos and smashing it to bits would be daring. He sure will cry for a long time. And Dad will yell at you for a long time. It will be an enormous reaction! But it wouldn’t be awesome, because destruction, though emotionally significant, is easy. And you have to be a fool to believe that modern writers could possibly build something even better in its place, given that they can only tell one story, and it isn’t a very good one.

And I feel like at this point someone (possibly not someone who reads my blog, though) will say, “but for all you know the movie was awesome anyway!” And here’s the thing: no it isn’t. Because, stupid and dishonest as the average hollywood critter is, they’re not going to name a movie in which the Jedi get more numerous, The Last Jedi. And there is no movie which can plausibly be titled The Last Jedi which is a good sequel, involving some of the same characters, to Return of the Jedi. They might as well have titled it, Never Mind. These days no one makes any references to the prequel trilogy, except to Jar Jar Binks. I’ll be shocked if in ten years anyone makes reference to sequel trilogy either.

Except perhaps to Luke drinking milk fresh from the testicle-teats of the uglybeast:

The Story Modern (Western) Screenwriters can Tell

I’ve lost interest in modern American movies. (Fair warning: I’m going to paint with a very broad brush for simplicity. Keep a grain of salt on hand.) If I’m being brief, I just say that Hollywood is made up of atheists and atheists have no interesting stories to tell. That’s not quite true, though; there’s one (mildly) interesting story atheists can tell, and it’s the only story they’ve been telling for decades now.

This is not to say that movies all have the same plots in the details; it’s a bit like how pop songs have different words but all use the same four cords:

The analogy breaks down because pop songs can be about anything, even about good subjects. But the basic story which all recent movies are about is the “hero” deciding that he won’t be a villain after all. Not, it should be pointed out, in the sense of overcoming temptation. That was done very well in this star trek scene:

Instead, the modern story is about choosing an identity. The difference is that in the modern story, being the villain is a live option in the sense of being a good option. When a man is tempted, he may do what’s wrong, but he knows that he’s the worse for it. In the modern story, when the man is tempted he doesn’t see the villain as any worse. He just chooses (for no rational reason) to not be the villain.

And when I say that it’s mildly interesting, most of its interest comes not from the story itself but from the story it can feel like: whether a man will resist temptation. Resisting temptation is a religious story, though. At least in the sense of it having religious premises. For there to be a real story about whether a man will resist temptation, there must be good and evil, and there must be free will. You don’t have any of those things in a materialist universe. (Some will call it a naturalist universe. Quibbling over terms that mean the same thing is a waste of time.)

But if one is telling stories within a religious framework—and especially within a Christian framework—far more types of stories become possible. With real virtues available, it becomes possible to tell stories about choosing between virtues. The meson (balance between competing virtues) of Aristotle can be an excellent basis for a story. There are also stories of redemption. It’s true that modern atheistic stories may have what is called the heel-face turn, but by and large that’s just a switching of sides. True redemption involves things like contrition (which is the hatred of the evil done, not anguish over one’s current place in society). They involve things like performing restitution. And they involve things like trying to help others to turn away from evil. People who have truly repented tend to be the most evangelical, not the most mopey. Basically, those who have been given much more than they deserve want to share it.

I do think that there’s another culprit behind the bland homogeneity of modern screenwriting: modern education is primarily organized around training people to be good factory workers in a socialist utopia (thank you, John Dewey). Screenwriters have almost never read any of the classic stories of western literature; they’re familiar primarily with TV and movies. And the result seems to be a kind of literary inbreeding. The family nose is getting ever more pronounced, even as the family lungs are getting ever weaker and more wheezy.

Update: I’ve written a followup post. That Story That Modern Screenwriters Can Tell.

Authority Figures in Movies

One of the curious things about the roles of authority figures in movies is that they are very rarely played by people who have ever had any authority. One might think that this wouldn’t have too much of an impact since the actors are just reciting dialog which other people wrote. (People who most of the time haven’t had any authority themselves, but that’s a somewhat separate matter.) And in the end, authority is the ability to use force to compel people, so does it matter much what the mannerisms an actor uses are?

Actually, yes, because in fact a great deal of authority, in practice, is about using social skills to get people to cooperate without having to use one’s authority. And a great deal of social skills are body language, tone of voice, emphasis, and pacing. Kind of like the famous advice given by Dalton in Road House:

For some reason, authority figures are usually portrayed as grim and stern—at this point I think because it’s a shorthand so you can tell who is who—but there is a great deal which can be accomplished by smiling. There’s an odd idea that many people seem to have that smiling is only sincere if it is an instinctual, uncontrollable reaction. I’ve no idea where this crazy notion came from, but in fact smiling is primarily a form of communication. It communicates that one is not (immediately) a threat, that (in the moment) one intends cooperation, that the order of the moment is conversation rather than action. Like all communication it can of course be a lie, but the solution to that is very simple: don’t lie with your smile. Words can be lies, but the solution is not to refrain from speaking unless you can’t help yourself; it’s to tell the truth when one opens one’s mouth. So tell the truth when you smile with your mouth, too. And since actions are choices, one very viable option, if you smile at someone, is to follow through and (in the moment) be nice.

Anyone (sane) who has a dog knows that in many ways they’re terrible creatures. They steal your food, destroy everyday items, throw up on your floor when they’ve eaten things that aren’t food, get dog hair everywhere, and make your couches stink of dog. And yet, people love dogs who do these things to them for a very simple reason: any time you come home, your dog smiles at you and wags its tail and is glad to see you. And it’s human nature that it’s impossible to be angry at someone who is just so gosh darned happy that you’re in the same room as them.

People in authority are rarely there because they have a history of failure and incompetence at dealing with people; it may be a convenient movie shorthand that people in authority are stone-faced, grumpy, and stern, but in real life people in positions of authority are generally friendly. It’s easy to read too much into that friendliness, of course—they’re only friendly so long as you stay on the right side of what you’re supposed to be doing—but this unrealistic movie shorthand makes for far less interesting characters.

And I suppose I should note that there are some people in positions of authority who are often stone-faced and grim, but these are usually the people responsible for administering discipline to those already known to be transgressors. This is especially true of those dealing with children, who have little self control and less of a grasp of the gravity of most situations they’re in and who need all the help they can get in realizing that it’s not play time. By contrast, during the short time I was able to take part in my parish’s prison ministry, I noticed that the prison guards were generally friendly (if guardedly so) with the inmates. Basically, being friendly can invite people to try to take liberties, but being grumpy usually gets far less cooperation, and outside of places like Nazi death camps where you are actually willing to shoot people for being uncooperative, cooperation is usually far more useful than people trying to take liberties and having to be told “no” is inconvenient.

But most of the actors who play authority figures don’t know any of this; and when you research the individual actors they often turn out to be goofballs who don’t like authority and whose portrayal of it is largely formed by what they most dislike about it.