Archive for April, 2017

© 2017 G.N. Jacobs

I wasn’t going to comment on the recent version of Ghost in the Shell, especially so soon after using this column to suggest a simple in hindsight script doctor fix for Passengers. The highfalutin point about allowing art, even that with which we don’t agree, be has been made. The second point that we should treat artists better to forestall the ugly day when after getting the shit beat out of us by our very customers we quit and cede the field letting a certain fat and evil Orange Peel Man win in the absence of all art…been there, done that as recently as last week. Basically, I didn’t think I had a fix to justify inclusion in this writers’ column. Give it a day… 

So the problem. A sci-fi movie given the live action treatment needs at least $100,000,000 to convince filmgoers to come out instead of stay home and dig out the original anime. Hollywood being what it is needs a white actress to lead the movie or the suits will stay home and dig out the anime…taking their checkbook with them. In the course of needing to explain how a white actress played what might be interpreted as an Asian role, the story on screen decided to come up with a convoluted deal where Major Kusanagi was a white looking asskicking fembot who didn’t know her human brain started out as a Japanese girl murdered as part of unethical cybernetic experiments. In 20/20 hindsight, expect to roll tape on the shrill racial outrage.

Now, there are other, so far unsuccessful, ways to argue that the butthurt among us should’ve just chilled out, treated this movie as a flawed artifact and given it a chance. I tried on Facebook to remind people that Japanese animators don’t actually draw verifiably Japanese women in anime. I tried the “it’s science fiction set in an era when people have become post-racial,” argument. And it didn’t work, because the butthurt don’t listen to rational argument, but also because the story chosen really is a convoluted mess that actually gives me a tiny bit more sympathy for the anti-whitewashing position, at least in this case.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m agreeing with the detractors more because the perceived racist story solution is also the clumsy and inarticulate solution. But, hey, we put up with the Soviets for three and a half years knowing Russian bodies backed up by American bullets would kill a lot of Nazis. I hate clumsy. We all hate the racism underpinning whitewashing (I just don’t let it get in the way of experiencing art). Allies…until they improperly go off on the next butt-rash inducing movie.

So how would your humble unemployed script doctor fix Ghost in the Shell? Eliminate the whole “started out as a Japanese girl firing off sharply worded manifesto blogs until kidnapped by the evil robot building corporation” origin. Yes, it’s just that simple. Major Kusanagi was always white, even as a human.

“But, Kusanagi is such a stereotypical Japanese surname,” you might comment, “we really should explain this oddity.” No, actually we don’t. The less elegant variation of this solution, say nothing and trust in the imagination of the audience, could work. This is the same trust that stage impresarios show when they decide that the ticket sale value of James Earl Jones playing Lear far outweighs the inevitable – “But, isn’t King Lear a white dude?”

How does that play out on stage? No one changes Shakespeare’s words. James Earl Jones shows up and plays the hell out of the role without resorting to a ridiculous white-face makeup job. They cast Cordelia and the other sisters according to whoever walks in the door with the best auditions. Maybe people discuss the oddity for a few minutes over dinner, but then they talk about how James Earl Jones made them feel. A workable but inelegant solution in the case of Ghost in the Shell.

My solution. Major Kusanagi starts out as an orphaned white girl washed up on the unnamed, but presumably Japanese shore. Madame Kusanagi falls for the little girl and takes her home adopting her. Later, the temporary argument leads to a runaway situation where a beloved daughter never actually comes home.

I really like this variation of the use black highlighter to the script solution because of several factors. First, it fits the theme of the movie better, where the movie defines the struggle of the individual to stake out a claim to our singular humanity in the face of technology that, when used improperly, debases us. In a movie where evil robotics corporations just grab their enemies off the street to harvest their brains to run lethal fembot shells, you don’t need to clusterfuck the story with excessive reliance on racial gymnastics intended to explain how a white woman is named Kusanagi.

Yes, in the real world the answer to that mess lies in the paradox of the white actress funds the movie, but you can’t change the character’s name because you can only go so far before your movie stops being recognizable as Ghost in the Shell. A “she was adopted” solution works even better than the “say nothing and tap dance” solution. Why, you ask?

One thing that it will take to evolve our society into anything resembling the post-racial tropes of most good science fiction is that we’re going to have to get over ourselves when it comes to cross-cultural adoption. In the hypothetical case of Madame Kusanagi seeing a lost little girl for the first time, she becomes a mother ignoring stupid white people arguing for cultural purity at the expense of the wisdom closest surrogate mother willing to take responsibility gets the child. The Major picks up the Kusanagi surname because parents name their children usually based on patrilineal descent.

The foundling makes good as a literary trope goes back a long way. I’ll have to reread the Bible again to see if Moses got his name from his Jewish mother or the Egyptian princess that found him by the river. In this case, adoption artfully cuts out much of what fell flat about the movie, even for me.

No Japanese actress hired to play the Major’s human incarnation in blurry-face. No nasty, if unintended (we hope), digs about whiteness being better. No excessively convoluted story messes leaving the viewer asking WTF?

This clumsiness in storytelling basically helped the story find the worst possible way to unfold. It insulted people who would’ve otherwise found another movie to wipe their asses on hoping to heal their permanent butt-rash. And it just confused the segment of the filmgoing population less likely to care by taking the long and dumb way to the end.

By contrast, how are post-racial elements supposed to work in science fiction? Very carefully, you can still screw things up. But, just do it and don’t telegraph it might be a plan.

My favorite modern show, Babylon 5, had two examples of interesting casting choices that bear relevance here. In the episode “War Prayer,” show creator J. Michael Straczynski needed a racist anti-alien man named Roberts. They cast Michael Paul Chan, an Asian-American actor. Similarly, in “Voice in the Wilderness Part 1,” the casting call went out for intrepid Interstellar Network News reporter Derek Mobotowabe played by a white man, Langdon Bensing. Yeah, this one still raises my eyebrows imagining that fictional man’s genealogy how he ended up with what sure sounds like a Swahili derived name.

Neither casting choice was predicated on stupidity like – “okay, we need to explain how the Major will look white but have a Japanese name, because unlike theater audiences that can still use imagination to work out whatever they like about her backstory we assume movies audiences are stupid. Therefore, we’ll do some Frankenstein style brain and body switching between a Japanese actress and ScarJo!”

I might diverge some from my temporary allies over how much weight to give the racial whitewashing aspect of this narrative lead balloon. I think it’s bad, but shouldn’t have detracted from the larger themes of humanity in the face of corporations willing to crush everything for profit or to simply ruminate on the nature of humanity itself. I would’ve preferred that Ghost in the Shell’s many enemies didn’t freak out and go for the pious boycott missing out on a valiant attempt at a theme.

But, when the racism is also clunky, convoluted and predicated on assuming your audience is so stupid that we needed a narrative element we really didn’t ask for, you just lost me. So I will close suggesting those suits left holding the bag on the debt to remember to smile at the bank.

© 2017 G.N. Jacobs

Now that Paramount’s Passengers has safely moved into home video, I think we can say the movie needed a doctor. Two of them, in fact, an extra autodoc machine and, more importantly, a script doctor. 

A quick look at Box Office Mojo says at approximately $300 million the movie eked its way just barely into the black. This assumes a reported budget of $110 million and a longstanding rule of thumb to double the reported production budget. And the IRS will be told the movie tanked due to studio accounting shifting general operational expenses onto the movie’s ledgers.

One possible answer to why a film about passengers on a sub-light colony starship who wake up early, have a relationship, break up and get back together in order to fix the broken ship got kicked in the teeth: politics. Another, to be discussed in later paragraphs, is that the story needed another go around with the many script doctors that help keep the Hollywood engine going. And it’s nearly impossible to separate the sign of the times political vitriol from the fact that really good script doctoring solves both the pseudo-politics and the story issues of a movie.

Before we go further, I’ll briefly repeat my pro-Free Speech, pro-Artistic Expression, anti-Vitriol approach to art. Yes, art can and sometimes should make the viewer angry. But, the worst people who light up social media seem to lack the awareness of context for why the art came out the way that it did.

Was the artist deliberately playing Devil’s Advocate to provoke a response and discussion in a way that uses a negative example to teach? Was the artist merely going with the inertia of 150,000 years of human storytelling that echoed the Men Rule tropes of society as a whole?

Are those storytelling tropes highlighted by nearly every How to Write a Story book in our literary marketplace truly as psychologically immutable as claimed? And if the storytelling tropes described in Blake Snyder, Syd Field, Robert McKee, Robert Bly and Joseph Campbell are deemed immutable, either because of genetics (in our DNA) or epigenetics (the related science of how biochemical triggers change how DNA expresses itself: on or off), does this mean that any well meaning attempts to change how we create art that don’t take into account the factors are doomed to fail because the consumers will simply reject things they don’t understand?

I don’t have these answers. No one does really. We live in a global society where the few name-value rock star scientists are almost all astrophysicists. A class of people who just aren’t going to take ten years away from measuring universe expansion, dark matter and string theory to really go everywhere in the world with the intent of telling us if Joseph Campbell, Robert Bly and the rest were, in strict point of fact, full of shit. There might not be enough math in this field where people basically read a lot of books and create PhD level compare and contrast essays between two ancient literary properties.

I try to forgive art of which I might not fully understand or approve. Yes, forgiveness, a nasty word largely associated with male-dominated Christianity, but of which clearly everybody needs more. And understanding. You get the idea. It is this perception that I should take the time to experience new art trying to understand as much underlying context as possible, while speaking to the artist as a human being, well, that’s enough to pick a fight these days.

So anyway, the politics of Passengers. Nearly every script leak and advanced showing allowed the angry among filmgoers to bore in on one key story element; that Chris Pratt’s character when faced with the kind of crushing loneliness only really cinematically experienced by Bruce Dern’s character in Silent Running and Dave Bowman in 2001 woke up Jennifer Lawrence without her consent. Social media blew up with shrill cries of Rape Culture and a rejection of the decision of the female lead to forgive the man that woke her up. There are refutations to most of that noise that I’ll leave aside in favor the movie needed more development that likely would’ve solved this problem and made the watching experience better.

No, the solution is not rewrite the script so that the woman wakes up the man in order to save herself from drowning and then fix the ship. Yes, I’ve heard from a few people, some women included, that the simple role reversal ploy would’ve meant far less online vitriol because the loud and angry segments of progressive viewers would be okay with a woman acting badly instead of a patriarchal man. Which frankly just exposes hypocrisy and a double standard that doesn’t represent improvement for women if her gains come at the expense of the men and is likely to just cause a violent retrenching back in favor of men at a later date (the pendulum theory of society).

Eventually if an evenhanded society is deemed important, someone has to reach into the pit at the risk of losing fingers on the wire to stop the pendulum. Or the observer could wait for the swinging to stop on its own because even as a sociopolitical metaphor there is simply no perpetual motion with pendulums or any other devices. A fancy way to say it should be as equally unacceptable for the woman on the ship to allegedly wake up a man without consent as the shrill cries about Chris Pratt’s character.

In both cases, the character that did the waking up should be judged the same way with potential mitigation coming from that these actions actually saved the ship and thousands of blissfully unaware passengers. The moral balancing act between the forcible wake up and saving the ship is a nuance to this story that I don’t feel those that chose anger give full credit. And the lazy methodology of a simple gender switch doesn’t solve this underlying problem.

So how does one go about fixing this movie so that it’s empirically better than an average relationship movie on one side and a politically charged nightmare on the other? Double down on the mind bending science fiction by enhancing story elements that already exist on screen but were curiously not explored…steal from 2001 and make the computer the agency driving the movie.

Chris Pratt wakes up because of an apparent glitch. But, was it a glitch? The character is described as a plumber/handyman traveling to the distant colony world on the economy ticket. He is exactly who an intelligent ship that knows it just took a cosmic bullet and may die killing thousands of helpless people in its care would wake up in a cry for help.

Jennifer Lawrence could then be woken up because the ship simply acts like a dating computer and matches the man to the best possible woman on the ship. The AI doesn’t want her chosen repairman to go crazy from loneliness. So she makes an executive decision to wake up the three people most likely to save the ship. The handyman, the helpmeet and Lawrence Fishburne as the engineering officer who provides two functions in the story, he checks the handyman’s homework and mediates the dispute. In my hypothetical rewrite Lawrence Fishburne’s character would also serve a third function, to point the other characters towards the computer as the entity behind their vastly changed lives driving the film to the end.

My solution to this problem created by loud pseudo-politics would on the surface actually make the story less dramatic. Movies are asserted by the late Blake Snyder in Save the Cat to work according to the same fifteen beat structure, so once the type of story is chosen by the writer the beats become clear. Basically, the woman learning the truth about waking up at the man’s discretion acts as the Third Act All is Lost Moment intended to create obstacles for the characters late in the movie. If she’s angry about waking up she might not help fix the ship.

My solution adds another wrinkle of the intelligent computer wakes up the woman, but contrives to make the man think he’s responsible. He was depicted as being nearly out of his mind with loneliness; it would be easy to get him to believe he pushed the Thaw Button. Lawrence Fishburne’s character could find curious clues to the ship’s sentience before he dies leaving breadcrumbs for Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence to forgive each other, fix the ship and confront the ship for screwing them over.

Yes, these fixes solve the political outrage expressed at the movie, but they also give the audience a more impactful experience. The story would rise from an average romance to a cool twist ending where the ship is alive. A better reason to play script doctor.

Sadly, these story elements were never fully explored and so now I’m a crank with a pet methodology to fix things. But, I also bring it up to nudge some of us writers towards getting paid for fixing movies that other writers couldn’t because of a failure of imagination. If attacking films for political reasons is the new normal, there will be lots of jobs for script doctors.