Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘meta’

This one could be a bit different from usual. I am not sure I have ever lifted the curtain, or gone behind the lid on the thinking behind this undertaking before, but I do think if you’re going to write about films in a long-form sort of way – as opposed to something along the lines of ‘This rocked! Totes amazeballs! 10/10!’, and so on – you really do need to embrace that. Even when it seems difficult to find anything particularly pertinent, insightful, or interesting to say about a movie I do try to ensure the review clocks in at no fewer than a thousand words; the only exception I can think of in recent years was the review for Victoria, and that was because writing a single sentence of more than 600 words seemed incredibly difficult at the time.

But this one could be shorter, because the film in question is one which it is difficult to talk about in any detail without spoiling it: the surprises and twists involved are not just a key part of the story, in a very real sense they are the story. So let’s have a go and see how far we get. I apologise for the slightly self-regarding tone of the review so far, but this is not at all inappropriate for Ben Berman’s The Amazing Johnathan Documentary, which ends up being a bit self-regarding too. Unfortunately this is not a movie which appears to have landed a proper cinema release (despite the involvement of various heavyweight backers), instead getting one of those special ‘one night only’ screenings, accompanied by a live Q&A hosted by Louis Theroux (I strongly suspect those heavyweight backers may have called in a few favours). I’m not sure how successful this has been, as there were only about six people at the screening I attended. This strikes me as a shame, but then I suspect this is a film pitching for a limited audience, and one which will prove very difficult to market.

So, then: who is the Amazing Johnathan and why has Berman opted to do a documentary on him? Well, I just about knew who he was, but this owes more to my freakish mutant memory powers than anything else – John Szeles is a comedy magician, much more famous in the US than the UK (although I do recall him doing some TV shows over here in the early 1990s). To describe him as a kind of punk rock/heavy metal fusion of Penn and Teller and Tommy Cooper is not, perhaps, an especially helpful analogy, but on the other hand it does help bolster the word count. Various luminaries including Penn Jillette, Weird Al Yankovich and Carrot Top appear at the start of the film and talk about what an important and inspiring performer he was.

The starting point of the film is that, in 2014, Szeles effectively announced his retirement: he had been diagnosed with cardiomyopathy (a heart condition) and the doctor had given him only a year to live. The documentary catches up with a still-very-much-with-us Johnathan, sitting around his rather substantial mansion with a somewhat long-suffering wife, reflecting on his situation, his past, and his future (such as it is). Then, Szeles decides he is going to go back on the road for one last tour, feeling that anything is better than just sitting around waiting for the inevitable. Obviously, this seems like a very risky venture, and Szeles’ wife is obviously very uneasy about it all – hanging over the whole venture is the memory of what happened to Tommy Cooper (a much-loved British magician and comedian who not only literally died on stage, but did so in the middle of a live TV broadcast – footage of which is included here).

And then something happens. This is the point at which the film starts to depart from the path it has seemed likely to stay on. I am, to be honest, really unsure as to how much detail to give about this. I should probably make it clear that the Amazing Johnathan does not die while being filmed, and (at the time of writing) still seems to be with us. Okay: what happens is this. What appears to be a second documentary crew turns up, also intent on making a film about Szeles’ comeback tour, this particular project apparently backed by the makers of Man on Wire and Searching for Sugar Man. (Simon Chinn, producer of these films, also eventually becomes mixed up in it all.)

Needless to say this has a profound impact on Ben Berman, who has to confront the possibility of a project he has invested serious time and money in being squashed by big-name competitors. But then things get weirder and weirder, and strangely intimate and personal. The increasingly hapless Berman effectively becomes the lead character of his own film, which rather than a documentary about a terminally-ill magician transforms into an exploration of the reality of life as a documentary film-maker and a deconstruction of how these things get made. The director manages to fend off incipient paranoia in order to consider some serious questions – why are so many people so interested in making films about Szeles at this point? What is his own motivation for making this film? Just how does he anticipate his film will end?

There’s an entertaining detour when Berman genuinely starts to question what he’s found himself in the middle of, and even begins to wonder if the whole situation is actually some kind of an extraordinary slow-burning prank executed by Szeles himself, who is after all an illusionist with a very twisted sense of humour (a friend of Szeles’ takes Berman aside and quietly lets him know the magician has looked into the practicalities of faking his own death). By this time the film has come to resemble a confounding puzzle-box, or a mirrored labyrinth, and you do find yourself questioning everything you see on the screen. Could it be that the whole thing is in fact a scripted black comedy passing itself off as a documentary?

1000 words so far and I don’t think I have blown the gaffe too badly. I should also make clear that while the film may sound very self-regarding, it is thoroughly watchable and humane throughout – it is often very funny, too. In the end it offers a significant, if oblique, insight into what goes into the making of the brilliant documentaries we have seen so many of recently – the competition to find a good subject, the extent to which these are artificial narratives, and so on. (It goes without saying that getting people to question ‘facts’ presented to them by the media is an unqualified good, especially given the current state of the world.) I can see why a film with such niche concerns struggled to find even a limited cinema release, but it is still an intelligent and entertaining movie, well worth watching if documentaries are your thing.

Read Full Post »

Day One (October 12th)

As you may be aware, I’m never averse to a bit of a chat and maybe even some badinage with the people I buy my cinema tickets from; it helps me to sustain the delusion that going to the pictures eighty times a year is somehow a valid substitute for a conventional social life. Still, it comes as a shock when one of these conversations concludes with the person selling the tickets saying ‘Good luck!’ – and this is what happened on this particular occasion.

I half turned back to them and possibly cocked an eyebrow. ‘Why do you say that?’

‘Well, it’s a bit long, isn’t it,’ he said with a grin.

Well, maybe he had a point: there are not many films which you buy your ticket for in instalments, let alone ones where you get a discount for undertaking to watch the whole thing. But we were in the curious world of Mariano Llinas’ La Flor (Spanish for The Flower), where things are very, very different from the form they usually take.

There are lots of unusual figures associated with La Flor – for instance, the film was nine years in the making, more or less – but the key one is 808. 808 what? you may be wondering. Well, friends, 808 minutes, which is a) about thirteen and a half hours and b) the amount of your finite and precious lifespan you will have to commit, if you want to watch La Flor in its entirety. Yes, the mind boggles, does it not (and this is far from the last time, should you decide to go for the full La Flor experience).

Why would anyone want to go and see a thirteen and a half hour long movie? Well, I guess for the same reason they always used to climb Mount Everest: because it’s there. Also, I suspect, out of a sort of misguided cinematic machismo – are you really serious about all forms of cinema? Really serious? You may think so, but have you actually watched La Flor? Oh, well then…

As regular visitors will know, I’ll go and see most things at the cinema, but even I was given pause by the sheer scale of the commitment required here – La Flor is not so much a movie, more a sort of lifestyle choice: the full experience involved turning out for four Saturday afternoons in a row. In the end, though, sheer curiosity won out. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the UPP was not packed to bursting when the projectionist finally got things underway: only half a dozen or so brave souls had turned out (one of whom appears to have a form of Tourette’s, which could lead to frayed tempers before we reach November). Will everyone last the course? Will friendships bloom amongst La Flor devotees? Shall we have a commemorative medal struck for everyone who makes it to the end?

La Flor opens with a shot of generous duration depicting some scaffolding at the side of the road and traffic going past. Once this has sunk in, the director and his dog turn up to introduce the film and explain the structure of it, with the aid of some diagrams he draws in felt tip. The structure of the film is rather like that of a flower, hence the title, but already a big question was forming in my head – this isn’t so much a massive thirteen hour movie as just six regular-length films bolted together, linked by the same lead performers. Why not just release the component episodes individually? Is there something special to be gained from watching the whole thing, other than a deep-vein thrombosis? Oh well. We were already committed by this point.

The first episode of La Flor‘s six is a horror B-movie concerning some archaeologists (Elisa Carricajo, Valeria Correa, and Laura Paredes) who find themselves stuck in a remote office building over the Easter weekend, keeping an eye on an Inca mummy which has unexpectedly been foisted upon them. Low-key creepiness ensues, as first the institute cat and then one of the women begins to behave extremely strangely, eventually violently so. Are supernatural forces at work? Another woman who is essentially a government-employed exorcist (Pilar Gamboa) turns up to try and deal with the situation, before making a disturbing discovery…

This is, according to Llinas anyway, ‘the kind of B-movie that Americans can’t seem to make any more’, but I’m not entirely sure the torch has been cleanly passed – at least, not to Argentina. Episode 1 of La Flor isn’t scary enough to work as a full-blooded horror movie, but not knowing or funny enough to really succeed as a pastiche or a spoof of the genre. Or so it seemed to me: we all got up to stretch our legs during the interval (only two and three quarter hours in) and I overheard some of the other voyagers enthusiastically discussing how creepy the bit with the mummy had been. (Then again I suspect they are art-house lovers and haven’t seen as many schlocky genre movies as I have.) In the end… well, the thing is that the story is not resolved – a big revelation seems imminent, and then the story is abruptly abandoned as we move on to Episode 2.

This is, naturally, a complete change of pace, and is basically the story recounted in the Human League’s Don’t You Want Me, or maybe yet another version of A Star is Born – a singing duo is on the verge of breaking up, and are preparing to record a song apparently inspired by their collapsing relationship. The setting is a little obscure (it’s mostly done in close-up, often in unusually long takes). Gamboa makes up for her late arrival in Episode 1 by making all the early running here, giving a very impressive acting and vocal performance. The lead-up to the actual performance of the duo’s duet (Hector Diaz plays the male singer) is cleverly managed, leading up to a terrific moment when the individual elements come together.

However, this is La Flor, and the quasi-musical story appears to have got tangled up with a peculiar tale about a cult attempting to find the secret of eternal youth through experimentation with the venom of a rare scorpion – this is linked, one might almost say spuriously, by Gamboa’s PA (Paredes) being mixed up with the cult, and her emotional involvement with the singers’ situation is interfering with their experiments. The tonal mismatch of the two plot threads is hugely jarring, and the two threads come together at the cliffhanger which marks the end of the first instalment of La Flor. Is there to be some resolution, or (as indicated by the director) have we reached the point where the film once again abruptly switches to a new quasi-narrative?

 

Day Two (October 19th)

Some more numbers, while we’re at it: Episode 3 of La Flor apparently lasts for five-and-a-half hours, occupying all of Day Two and overspilling into Day Three. I have heard rumours that the closing credits alone last for forty minutes (I can’t confirm this yet, as I’m writing the review a week at a time). Perhaps the most pertinent figure relating to Day Two of this voyage into art-house cinema at its most impenetrable is a meagre three, which is the number of people who turned up.

Yes, that’s half the number from Day One, which was a bit dispiriting, although at least the chap with Tourette’s syndrome was one of the no-shows this time around. Apparently the evening screenings are proving more popular, as more people are more willing to give up four weekday evenings than a month’s worth of Saturday afternoons. Funny old world, isn’t it?

Having laid in a supply of doughnuts and chocolate-coated spherical honeycomb biscuits, I was prepared for this latest encounter with La Flor, and almost at once the burning question in my mind was answered: the cliffhanger from the end of Day One was destined never to be resolved, as we were straight into Episode 3 and another new genre and storyline. This opens with another one of those extraordinary moments unique to this film – a bad guy out of stock casting, complete with dark glasses, cigarette, and submachine gun, patrols in front of a field of blossoms, managing not to notice someone sneaking up on him within the flowers until he is killed by a knife-thrower.

Yes, only in La Flor. For (I think) the first time in the film so far, all four of the leads share the screen for an extended period, as we embark upon an existential spy thriller set in the 1980s. The quartet play black-clad intelligence operatives on a mission to kidnap a scientist from a secure location. But is there something else going on? It transpires their handler is conspiring against them and another team (also of four women) has been sent to assassinate them. It all becomes a bit bleak and fatalistic, some amusingly cack-handed martial arts choreography notwithstanding, as the four leads settle in and prepare to do battle for their lives.

At this point Llinas pops up again, rather unexpectedly, and pretty much the first thing he does is apologise for the fact that this is not yet the latest intermission. He also reveals Episode 3 has another three-and-a-half hours to go, most of which will be flashbacks. He also has a go at indicating where we’ve reached in the structure of the film, not that this really means very much. Then we’re back to the story.

One thing that has already become very clear is that La Flor is not a movie gripped by a great sense of urgency. Everything happens at a very languid pace, to the point of seeming rather self-indulgent. It’s almost as if they’ve decided that, as this film is going to run for an absurdly long time anyway, there’s no need to cut anything at all – the sheer, ridiculous duration of the thing has become its raison d’etre. If you released Episode 3 on its own, without the rest of the movie around it, it would still be vastly longer than most conventional films. Never mind a lifestyle choice or a mini-film festival, you almost start to suspect La Flor is some kind of absurd situationist prank.

And then it comes along and does something genuinely accomplished and involving, like the first two flashbacks to the past lives of the agents in the main story of Episode 3. First off is the tale of Gamboa’s character, who is a mute Englishwoman (I’m not sure whether playing a mute character in a five hour narrative counts as a smart career move or not). Lots of voice-over here (it’s a bit of a feature of this episode) but the story is, as noted, a very involving one, and Gamboa continues to give eye-catching performances.

That said, the film’s attempt to capture the British idiom of speaking is hilariously misjudged, and there’s a mind-boggling sequence where Gamboa’s character is taken to meet a senior figure of the British establishment. This turns out to be a bizarre, horse-riding, cigar-smoking version of Margaret Thatcher (played by Susana Pampin), who is addressed as ‘Your Royal Highness’ by those around her. Is this a deliberate, Comic Strip-style send up, or is the film as genuinely off its medication as it seems? It’s impossible to tell.

The final mini-narrative of the day concerns the prior history of Valeria Correa’s character, a violently psychotic warrior-woman raised as a soldier by Colombian revolutionaries. This is another very strong segment in terms of its storytelling and central performance, let down once again by the film’s attempt at using the American idiom and perhaps some of the supporting turns.

Frankly, three-and-a-half-hours of the same (not exactly action-packed) story, with no sign of resolution in sight, was a draining experience, but at least it peaked late on in the afternoon, when I was running short of doughnuts. With three and a bit more episodes to come, split over the last two days of the La Flor experience, there should at least be a bit more variety from this point on. Will there be anyone else there watching it with your correspondent? We shall have to wait and see.

 

Day Three (October 26th)

Well, to my total astonishment the number of Floristas turning up for the third day of the screening was actually up on that of Day Two: four, rather than three. In addition to your correspondent, there was a Spanish guy (who hadn’t actually come to Day One), a woman from the same neck of the woods, and an Australian woman. I had to wonder why anyone would turn up to watch only the second half of La Flor, and (making full use of the camaraderie born of collective adversity that a situation like this engenders) managed to chat with both the women during the intervals.

It turned out the Australian was only really interested in seeing Episode 6 (showing on Day Four) and had turned up a week early by mistake, while the Spanish lady was watching the evening showings of Days One, Two, and Four, but couldn’t make the third night and had decided to catch it in the afternoon instead. Quirks of scheduling meant that not only had she committed to watching a thirteen and a half hour movie, she was cheerfully watching it out of sequence.

I was honestly starting to wonder if La Flor was not just a mini-film festival or a baffling prank, but actually some kind of celluloid equivalent of The King in Yellow, a fiendish construct intended to ensnare innocent cinema-goers and reduce them to a state of obsessive dementation. In an attempt to make sense of it all, in the week I had managed to track down an interview with Llanos where he explained his vision for the movie.

I gather the idea was – well, when you see a movie like (for example) Unforgiven or The Shootist, the emotional impact of the piece isn’t just derived from the script and performances. The whole past career of the main actor and your pre-existing relationship with them informs your response to the film. La Flor is apparently an attempt to create a similar effect with respect to the leading quartet – you spend so long watching them in a variety of roles that a special bond is forged with them over the course of the (very, very long) film. It’s an interesting idea, but if bonding with audiences is what these actresses are looking to achieve, I wonder if they might not have been better off going out and having conventional careers rather than just spending the best part of a decade working on La Flor.

Day Three of the movie kicks off with what may very well be a knowingly self-deprecating gag (and by no means the last) – seven hours into the movie, we are treated to a lengthy interlude of someone snoring. Soon enough, however, we are back in the depths of Episode 3, exploring the back-stories of the four lead characters.

These really are one of the highlights of the film, and Laura Paredes’ episode is possibly the best of them. She brings an irresistible soulfulness to an understated tale of assassins silently falling in love with each other between assignments – the particular stylistic quirk of this segment is that none of the four have any significant dialogue, most of the exposition being handled by a poetic, if somewhat verbose, voice-over.

The back-stories conclude with that of Elisa Carricajo, who plays a Soviet bureaucrat who finds herself tasked with finding an infiltrator intent only on causing chaos and disrupting the state (he is known only as Boris, and you can insert your own joke at this point if you really must). We are back in existential territory, as the search for the mole consumes Carricajo’s life and she finds herself roaming the endless ‘sad and filthy’ hinterlands of Soviet Russia via its railway network. When she eventually catches up with Boris the mole, he is played by Llinas himself, although by this point the film has to work much harder than that to be surprising.

Needless to say, Episode 3 concludes before any of this is properly resolved, but this too is hardly a surprise. What did take me a little off-guard was the fact that the Spanish Florista, who’d missed Day One, left the cinema during the interval and never returned. Clearly he was only interested in Episode 3, although I’ve no idea why.

It was somewhat comforting to know we were now definitely half-way through the La Flor experience, and it was just a question of what Episode 4 had in store for us. Courtesy of the kind of narrative shift that could leave the unprepared with whiplash, we go from a spy thriller genre movie to metafictional self-parody: Episode 4 concerns the travails of a frazzled film director (not actually played by Llinas himself, but there’s a deliberate resemblance), who’s bogged down six years into making an insanely ambitious art-house movie entitled The Spider, so-called because the structure of the film, when shown as a diagram, resembles one.

The main problem is his relationship with the four actresses in the movie is disintegrating; they have become difficult and demanding, complaining about the lack of a script and the fact they have to keep learning different languages for each new episode. The director realises he’d much rather go off and film trees than deal with these four, and slowly comes to believe they are actually witches intent on destroying his life.

Rather to my astonishment, this turned out to be the most enjoyable part of the film yet – it’s clever, and very funny, and really rewards anyone who’s sat through the preceding nine hours or so to get to it. The humour varies from the off-beat (there’s an extended sequence where the director records his feelings about the film in his diary, rather incoherently, while the bemused crew stand around eating bananas) to the actually absurd (the witches are of the pointy-hat-wearing, broomstick-riding kind), but the in-jokes and meta stuff hit the mark – the director decides he doesn’t want to work with the (fictional) four actresses, with the result that this is a segment in which the (real) four actresses don’t get much screen-time. What exactly is La Flor doing, sending itself up so energetically? I’m not entirely sure, but this has been the strongest day yet.

 

Day Four (November 2nd)

I was half-expecting it to be a full-on battle to the finish just between me and the movie from this point on, but the Spanish chap who missed Day One entirely and then went home at the interval of Day Three reappeared for this final encounter. I must admit to feeling vaguely disappointed by this, but even so: I can proudly claim my medal for being the only one there throughout the Saturday afternoon screenings of this movie (they will have to pry said medal from my hand in order to get the straightjacket on me).

To be honest, I was also expecting to go straight into Episode 5 today, but this just shows my dodgy grasp of mathematics – I knew that Episodes 5 and 6 are considerably shorter than the others (put together, they’re still probably shorter than any of the other episodes), and yet today’s screening was the longest yet, at over three and three quarter hours. Something else had to be in the mix, and part of that was the second half of Episode 4.

Well, I suppose it qualifies as such, but the story goes off at a weird tangent (to be honest, from this point you may as well insert the adjective ‘weird’ at any point you wish). The protagonist is suddenly Gatto, a character who briefly appeared last week, when he seemed to be a character in the B-movie the director of the film-within-the-film was working on. Either this is not the case, or the fictional realms of La Flor have begun to collapse into each other. Gatto is some sort of paranormal investigator, who is called in when a car is found up a tree. Close by are a group of madmen, whom we recognise as the film crew from the start of the episode.

This leads Gatto into investigating the disappearance of the film director, mainly through reading his diary. I am making this all sound much more straightforward and coherent than it actually is. It really does feel like we’ve shifted into yet another story, or perhaps a collection of them, jostling together without much in the way of structure. There’s the story of Gatto, told mostly through his letters to a colleague, Smith. There’s a very peculiar subplot about a psychiatric colony which has fallen under the strange, almost supernatural erotic thrall of a mysterious Italian-speaking inmate. There’s a long scene in which a woman just stares into the camera while the director declaims poetry. There’s a bit about the director collecting early 20th-century weird fiction, with a particular namecheck going out to Arthur Machen – had they bigged up Robert Chambers I would have been convinced that my theory about La Flor really being The King in Yellow was on the money. There is a segment about Casanova falling under the sway of four different women (guess who) and becoming convinced they are members of an ancient secret society.

It goes on and on like this, almost overwhelmingly so. (Is the mysteriously alluring Italian inmate supposed to be Casanova, time-slipped to the present day?) In the end it dissolves into a montage tribute to the four lead actresses. Can this be it? Is the film actually finishing nearly two hours ahead of schedule?

No, of course it isn’t. After another interval we find ourselves back at the truck stop from which the director has been making his occasional, shambolic interventions. The sense of the film being essentially finished, though, persists, as he casually sets up Episode 5 and 6. ‘The girls aren’t in Episode 5,’ he confesses, ‘which is a bit strange, but it seemed like an interesting idea at the time.’ Few film directors apologise for their own work, but Mariano Llinas may be unique for doing it within the film in question. He gets his stuff together, clambers into his car, and is off.

What is the point of Episode 5? It’s a remake of Jean Renoir’s (unfinished) A Day in the Country, about two likely lads who have a bit of fun with the wife and daughter of a wealthy bourgeois businessman on a day out. It’s made in black and white and is almost totally silent, except for a sequence at one point which abandons the ongoing plot in favour of showing highlights of an aerobatic display at a provincial air show. (Twelve hours into La Flor, you almost come to expect this sort of thing.) Telling a story without any kind of sound takes a degree of skill, and the episode is impressive on these terms if no others, but even so. I guess it’s the equivalent of that pause at the end of a concert where there’s no-one on stage, giving the crowd a chance to call for the stars to do their encore, or curtain call.

lf2

Which is, I suppose, what Episode 6 is. Uniquely, it has an end but no beginning, and is a nominally historical drama concerning four women who’ve escaped from native captivity making their way back to civilisation (the fact this is the end of a long and strange journey is obviously resonant at this point). Only the leading quartet appear (two of them appear to be pregnant at this point), but the only dialogue comes from a voice-over accompanying deliberately primitive inter-titles. ‘Primal’ perhaps would be a better word: the whole episode appears to have been filmed through a camera obscura, with an intentionally grainy, distorted image. It is a strange and unsettling experience.

And then we are done, it is all over bar the closing credits. Of course, this being La Flor, the credits last over forty minutes and accompany upside-down footage of cast and crew celebrating the final wrap on the movie, then packing everything up, getting into their cars and driving off into the sunset. In the end a solitary film-maker is left, enjoying a cigarette from the comfort of a deckchair. And then it’s all over.

Friends, I did stay for the whole of the credits, even though not very much happens. My thought process was essentially, ‘Well, I’ve stayed this long…’, and I wonder if there isn’t a sense in which the film is playing mind-games with you. Certainly it lures you in by starting relatively conventionally, only to raise the stakes in its own unique brand of strangeness as it goes on – genres bang into each other, stories multiply, narratives expand to extraordinary length, and so on. Much of Day Four felt like the film was losing any real sense of itself as a single entity, and becoming completely unravelled (not that it was ever especially ravelled to begin with).

Is watching the whole of La Flor actually justified? Well, as an act of endurance, it’s certainly something of a feat, but as a piece of art I’m not sure. The relative absence of the leading quartet for much of the second half is really at odds with Llinas’ stated aims for the piece, and it is the performances of the actresses that really lift the best sections of the film. There are parts of Episodes 2, 3, and 4 I would unreservedly recommend as terrific pieces of cinema – but there’s also a lot here which is very indifferent, and even some parts which are actively frustrating and annoying. This was certainly a unique experience – I’m just not sure I’d call it a uniquely rewarding one.

Read Full Post »

Captain James T Kirk of the USS Enterprise gets his shirt off. A lot. Websites exist chronicling just how often the audience is treated to the sight of his exposed abdomen. People openly speculate as to just why it is that the captain’s shirt is of such poor quality that it tears so easily in so many episodes. Stepping back from the fiction for a moment, the captain-gets-his-shirt-off/torn bit is so notable that they do a gag about it in Galaxy Quest. (They also do a gag about it in Star Trek Beyond, but I’m tempted to suggest we restrict ourselves to the better class of Star Trek movie. Like Galaxy Quest.)

And it’s a decent gag, though perhaps a bit weary now from overuse. The same is probably true of the other done-to-death original series of Star Trek gag, which is the one about the fact that when Kirk, Spock, McCoy and a new guy from security beam down to a planet at the start of an episode, the security guy should have his will and life insurance sorted out, because his life expectancy would probably make an actuary blanch. (The best example I can think of is at the start of Friday’s Child, a (and this is perhaps significant) pretty poor episode of Trek.)

Now, you wouldn’t write a whole novel based around the idea that Kirk’s shirt gets ripped a lot (although as – and perhaps I’m assuming too much here – a fairly sane person, constant reader, you probably wouldn’t write a Star Trek-related novel of any kind). But someone has written a novel about the fact that the guys in the red shirts get killed at a frankly alarming rate, and… I still can’t quite believe it… it won the Hugo. The book is (duh) Redshirts, and it was written by John Scalzi.

redshirts_cover

The novel focuses on a bunch of new lower-decks crew members aboard the United Universe starship Intrepid, who very gradually become aware that the world they live in is, to put it mildly, statistically and scientifically unlikely. Why do most of the experienced crew spent much of their time hiding from the senior staff? Why is so much of the ship’s scientific research literally meaningless technobabble? How is it that ship’s navigator Kerensky can be beaten virtually to death every week and make a miraculous recovery time after time? And just why do they keep sending a navigator down on scientific survey missions anyway?

Well, you’re probably ahead of me on this one, but the protagonists eventually figure out that they are minor characters on a rather crappy TV space opera show, and their primary role is to die meaningless and slightly stupid deaths in order to serve the demands of the plot. The question, of course, is what on earth they can do about this not insignificant problem…

It’s to Scalzi’s credit that he takes what sounds very much like a one-joke conceit and spins it into a decent-length novel without it feeling too strained, although in order to do so occasionally feels like a bit of a stretch (the fictional characters in the book are not completely fictional in terms of the TV show, they exist in a genuine future which is warped, via inexplicable means, by the activities of TV writers in a parallel timeline). Do I even need to mention that this is a deeply recursive, very meta book? At one point even the characters start talking about how recursive and meta everything is, and you can’t get much more meta-recursive than that.

The book’s relationship with genuine Star Trek is a slightly peculiar one. Scalzi makes the joke in the acknowledgements that the book’s TV show is not remotely based on Stargate Universe (on which he apparently was consultant for a bit), but actual, proper, genuine Star Trek is explicitly name checked in the text of the novel itself, as someone figures out the only ship in the history of the universe with casualty rates like the Intrepid is the (explicitly fictional) Enterprise. It’s impossible not to conclude that the crappy TV show messing up the protagonists’ lives is an extremely thinly-veiled piss-take on Star Trek itself.

Hmmm, well. It’s not the most flattering depiction, nor is it (I would say) an especially fair one. The Redshirt Trope (as I suppose we should call it) obviously exists, and is certainly at its most visible in some of Star Trek‘s less impressive episodes – there’s Friday’s Child, as mentioned, plus also The Apple , in which an alien planet turns into a virtual shooting gallery for anyone in a scarlet sweater. There’s a fairly clear instance in The Omega Glory, too, which is on in front of me as I type – although I must confess to a sneaking fondness for this particular episode. (Is it worth mentioning the numerous episodes in which guys in blue and yellow shirts also meet sticky, plot-advancing demises?) But the thing is that the better episodes are not propelled along by casual slaughter – you won’t find any dead redshirts in Amok Time, or Doomsday Machine, or Trouble With Tribbles. Plus, very occasionally, you get an incidental crewmember death which is neither meaningless nor stupid – there’s Lt. Newlywed from Balance of Terror, not to mention Yeoman Scared from The Deadly Years. (Although I suppose there’s the question of whether these really count as ‘incidental’ deaths, given they’re significant. Recursiveness beckons again…)

Am I not getting just a bit too defensive about a book which, ultimately, appears to be at least somewhat knowledgeable and affectionate when it comes to Star Trek? (Especially when I am obviously not a Trekkie myself.) Mmm, well. The thing is that the portrayal of the show-within-the-book is wholly negative – even the characters making it admit it’s a cheap, incoherent piece of hackwork – with no mention of the many virtues or laudable things about real-life Trek. There’s a suggestion that Scalzi admits that making this kind of action-adventure genre show almost demands occasionally hokey writing in order to function at all, but not much more than this.

There’s an odd and presumably unintentional way in which Redshirts even shows up how well-written Trek is, in some respects at least. One of the things which writers on the show – during the Berman era, at least – complain about most bitterly was the difficulty of writing 24th century dialogue that sounds natural without being absurdly contemporary in tone. Good Trek dialogue has a slightly stylised quality to it, something classic, somewhat exaggerated. Having the characters just talk like regular people would somehow be ridiculous. The thing is that the characters in Redshirts do just talk like young people from the 2010s. It makes the achievement of creating characters like Picard and Sisko and the rest all the more impressive.

At various points in the book characters talk about Gawker (a popular if slightly disreputable US website, your honour) – there is eventually a time travel element to the story – and it seems to me that all the main characters talk and act like the millennial types you find hanging around on a site like io9 (a Gawker affiliate) – they’re bright, snarky, terribly aware of genre conventions and all that sort of narrative metajargon, and for all their talk about their lives being significant they treat everything with a distinctly ironic level of detachment. They drop the F-bomb and talk about oral sex virtually non-stop, too, which may mean they have a lot in common with Gene Roddenberry (I’m not sure, depends on which stories you believe), but they’re not really recognisable as being in any way akin to actual Star Trek characters.

I can see why Redshirts has proven so popular, if this is the audience which has adopted it – it’s a bright, snarky, knowing, media-literate book, which bright, snarky, knowing, media-literate people which are understandably going to enjoy. But it just seemed to me to be second-order science fiction at best, which it doesn’t strike me as being that difficult to write.  It is clever and inventive, but I found it rather lacking in warmth and depth – despite a concluding and slightly wrong-footing attempt at giving it all some emotional significance and heft. It may just be that I was expecting an affectionate and knowing Star Trek parody, and despite appearances this is not that book. It’s just a little difficult to work out what it actually is.

Read Full Post »