Monday, June 22, 2009

Metal Fatigue

(Or "Why I won't be subjecting myself to Transformers 2")

It would not be strictly true to say that I have a blanket disdain for the oeuvre of Michael Bay. The Island didn't totally suck and, like Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, I too have an unhealthy affection for Bad Boys II. Anything that extreme and that offensive - that pushes the buddy-cop movie so far past the breaking point until all that remains is a clotted mess of spent shell-casings, twisted metal and bleeding eardrums - deserves some kind of warped recognition.

But I remember my experience of being battered by Bay's first Transformers movie. And it's not something I'd willingly put myself through a second time.

A couple of years ago, I had a blistering job interview that left me reeling. It was more like a sustained attack on every single element of my professional and personal life to date. My interviewer made Sir Alan Sugar look like a pussy. It was interminable and painful, like a trip to the gym after decades sitting slumped on a couch, and the interviewer's opening gambit was "I don't believe half of the shit that you've written on your CV, but we'll come back to that later."

Two and a half hours later, I staggered back out into the murky, welcoming air of London, loosened my tie and tried to remember how to walk again. I was completely and utterly spent. I hopped on the Tube and headed towards Leicester Square, figuring that I deserved to treat myself to a movie. Something big and dumb that I wouldn't have to think about. Something that would just wash over me. I chose Transformers.

At that point, it would have behooved me to remember that Michael Bay calls his style of filmmaking "fucking the frame". In Transformers, the frame should have brought Michael Bay up on charges for sexual assault.

I'm just old enough not to have any kind of nostalgic affection for the robots in disguise, so I wasn't concerned that an icon of my childhood was going to be defiled by a movie. That was one thing working in my favour. Turns out that was the only thing working in my favour.

Not only was my choice of movie a boneheaded move, but I thought I'd catch it on the largest screen of the Empire Leicester Square, where everything is bigger and louder. It's easy to describe the Transformers movies as "robots hitting each other". It felt more like "robots punch me in the head over and over and over again for two and a half hours."

And another thing. I really don't comprehend the enduring appeal of Shia LeBeouf. He's a perfectly adequate performer, but he's not leading man material. But then, he is playing second fiddle to clanking metal.

And I sat there thinking "You know, big robots are inherently cool. Big robots changing and unfolding should be visually interesting. But when the director keeps cut-cut-cutting and the soundtrack keeps clang-clang-clanging, what is the point of all these horrendously expensive visual effects when I can't keep track of whatever it is I'm supposed to be looking at?"

I also thought: "This is giving me a fucking headache."

For the second time that day, I weaved outside dazed from a not-particularly-pleasant sensory onslaught. And that's why I won't be pissing any of my money up the wall to see Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

(Postscript: It was worth subjecting myself to the interview, though. I got the job. I've still got the job to this day. My interviewer likes someone who can hold their own against a verbal reaming. So the day wasn't a total bust.)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Unhappy Campers - Kirkman, Moore & Adlard's The Walking Dead

Zombies. I love 'em. Can't get enough of them.

The birth of the current strain of post-apocalyptic zombie story can be traced back to George A. Romero's landmark 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead and the moment when a doofus in specs (looking not unlike one of the Proclaimers) lurched around a graveyard saying "I'm coming to get you, Barbara!" The joke was on him. Within minutes, he was zombie food.

If Night of the Living Dead was the first born child of the zombie apocalypse, then travel that line a little bit further back and you hit that child's bloodthirsty progenitor - Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I Am Legend. Whilst the relentless creatures at the dark heart of Matheson's novel are vampires rather than zombies, all of the major tropes of zombie fiction are already here: rapid societal collapse; a devastating and largely unavoidable pandemic; survival; and the concept of the enemy as something that used to be us (and, equally terrifying, something that we can still become).

(I won't veer off into a reflection on the subsequent movie adaptations of Matheson's novel - The Omega Man or the recent Will Smith version - because that would be one digression too many for this little ol' blog post).

Since Romero's original Dead film, the zombie movie has thrived and proliferated, currently enjoying a particularly fertile period with variable results. But they all fit to the same basic templates, largely due to the time constraints of a feature-length movie. You've got about 90 minutes to get in, unleash the flesh-hungry critters on your rag-tag band of random survivors, throw some gore at the screen, and get out again. And there's your movie. There are a lot of different ways to play that particular tune, but the skeleton of the story is essentially the same.

But what if you could dispense with that limitation? What if you could stretch that time frame to do more than just set-up your scenario as an excuse for bursts of gut-munching and decapitations? And that's when you start looking at other mediums better suited to the slow-burn.

Which leads me to Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard's monthly comics series from Image Comics - The Walking Dead. (Tony Moore was there for the initial six-issue arc, with Adlard taking over from there). I enjoyed the first two volumes of the book, but there was a slight feeling of been-there, done-that even though there was a great deal to enjoy and the execution of the story was exemplary, because the first two books are familiar exercises in world-building in the early days of a Grave New World. But I wasn't completely and utterly hooked until Volume 3 - Safety Behind Bars got its rotting teeth into me, because that was the point where I really started to see the bigger picture.

Unlike the majority of zombie movies, where the living are almost as disposable and loosely sketched as the shambling undead, The Walking Dead is all about the long game. Kirkman follows the lives of an ever-changing group of survivors from the moment that the zombie apocalypse begins and continues forward over a growing period of time. There is no end point. We can follow the characters as they fight and change, adapt and survive, live and die - month after month, year after year. The stories work better when the zombies are the set-dressing and the living are foregrounded.

And that's what makes The Walking Dead such an outstanding piece of work. The real enemy isn't the unending supply of gnashing corpses. The enemy is the living. We see survivors under stress and the terrible and wonderful things that people can do to and for each other in order to survive. And because we have the opportunity to spend time with them and get to know them, every casualty is more keenly felt. It's not just an expendable cast member for a cool sight gag involving unravelling entrails.

Don't get me wrong - Kirkman and Adlard leave plenty of space for horror and excitement and fun and surprises. But they still get to grips with the practical minutiae of living in a world where civilisation as we know it has ceased to exist and they make it compelling. And the best thing about comics? Unlimited budget means unlimited imagination. A shot of two talking heads costs the same to create as a rampaging horde of zombies replete with dripping jaws and flying extremities.

Kirkman plays by Romero Rules - the dead are slow and mindless; you can "turn" without a bite (natural death will still provide the same end result); and Romero's Cardinal Rule - Never, ever explain how it happened. Zombie stories that try to provide some sort of rational or scientific explanation for the apocalypse always somehow diminishes the story. I can't overstate the allure of the Unknown. If you subtract the "Why?", everything else is so much more unnerving.

I'm a late-comer to The Walking Dead, and I burned my way through the first nine volumes of Kirkman's ongoing epic in the space of a week. Can't wait for the next one.

The Walking Dead is available in monthly installments from all good comic shops, or in a variety of collected editions from fine purveyors of printed matter.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Beginning of the Ends

It's been quiet around here, hasn't it? Let's see if I can do something about that.

There are a few reasons for the dearth of new blog posts. I've been writing almost exclusively offline recently and, on top of that, I keep sliding into phases where my Output slows down to a pitiful trickle and so I ramp up the Input, squeezing stuff into my head to see what sparks off all the gunk slooshing around in my brainpan.

Partly by design, but largely by coincidence, a disproportionate amount of the entertainment I've been consuming lately has been post-apocalyptic or survivalist fiction. The "design" bit of the equation falls under that multi-purpose word "research". For quite a while, I've been working on a script which is only tangentially post-apocalyptic survivalist fiction, so I've been eating up stuff safe in the knowledge that I'm not plagiarising anything or anyone. The "coincidence" bit is just grabbing books, comics, movies, etc. that pique my interest and discovering that, yet again, there's an End of the World scenario at play.

But here's the thing that's really interesting to me. Post-apocalyptic stories all start from a similar starting point - "Something Bad Happens and Everything Changes" - but I've been endlessly delighted at the breadth and range of stories you can get to by spinning off from such a flexible and versatile beginning.

The enduring appeal of post-apocalyptic fiction is obvious and understandable. All day everyday, newspapers and rolling 24-hour news channels scream in our faces about Y2K bugs, avian flu, SARS, swine flu, the collapse of banking institutions, terrorist attacks, ecological disasters and on and on and on. Great horror stories get under your skin because they tap into your existing fears and make them easier to process by clothing them as zombies or vampires or killer cyborgs from the future.

So consider this an introductory blurb because, for the foreseeable future, this blog is going to carry my impressions of a significant pile of the aforementioned post-apocalyptic fiction. Some of it might come off as notemaking in public and thinking out loud. But I'm interested in looking at both the similarities and differences in this substantial and growing sub-genre and not just purely in terms of storytelling. I hope that I'm not the only one to get something out of it.

Now if you'll excuse me, there's an underground bunker that I need to finish building.