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Archive: May 2005

Minority Report and Film Adaptation: Part 1

Film adaptations of Philip K. Dick’s stories are obviously nothing like the stories. But I’ve never thought in depth about specifically how they differ, so now I’m looking at Dick’s “Minority Report” vs. Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report.

First, most immediately obvious, is style. Here’s a passage from “Minority Report”:

“Jerry” was twenty-four years old. Originally, he had been classified as a hydrocephalic idiot but when he reached the age of six the psych testers had identified the precog talent, buried under the layers of tissue corrosion. Placed in a government-operated training school, the latent talent had been cultivated. By the time he was nine the talent had advanced to a useful stage. “Jerry,” however, remained in the aimless chaos of idiocy; the burgeoning faculty had absorbed the totality of his personality.

Serviceable but unpolished. It’s a little clunky; the third sentence is carelessly ungrammatical. Having read several of Dick’s novels and short stories, I suspect he would write a story once, as quickly as he could, and never look back. I don’t know if that’s really the case; but he wrote forty-four novels and one-hundred twenty-one short stories in about thirty years, so he couldn’t have had much time for revision and proofreading. Dick’s writing isn’t always as rough as that passage, and it has its own shabby charm; but mostly, you don’t Dick to admire his lovely prose style. He rushes too urgently through the story to have style.

The story also lacks for description, both of the future world and the immediate environments and characters. Anything that must be described receives minimal description. The story takes place in New York, under the control of the Federal Westbloc Government; “Federal” suggests some continuity with the United States of America, and “Westbloc” suggests the government is a descendent of NATO. There was a devestating Anglo-Chinese War which left much of at least North America in blasted ruins, during which the Westbloc was controlled entirely by the military, which operated a domestic police force in addition to fighting the war. After the war, the Westbloc was demilitarized and the Precrime Agency founded to run the police force. There is a Senate, but it’s not clear what it does or what the government looks like at all. The preceeding paragraph is not a summary: it is almost the entirety of the setting information provided by the story itself. There are a few other details, but none of them implies a deeper world than is explicitly presented.

But consider Minority Report. Like all film adaptations of Dick’s work, the first thing you notice is how good it looks. Not only good, but polished and shiny; the entire movie has a hazy, slightly overexposed glow. It looks like the inside of a tv ad. True, it’s not all shiny and tv-ready: Spielberg’s vision of Dick’s paranoid future does have slums populated by illicit Russian surgeons and drug dealers who’ve removed their own eyes to avoid ubiquitous retinal scanners. But the prettiness seeps even into the slum, in the form of a huge tv screen running ads for the precog police unit attached to the bottom of an overpass. (I’m not sure whether the slum advertising is supposed to be frightening or comforting, but it doesn’t matter in the end; the slum is forgotten in the climactic confrontation between the powerful.)

Where Dick’s story lacks style, Spielberg’s movie is intensely stylized; and where Dick’s world is sparse, Spielberg’s is dense. That density is necessary for Spielberg’s Hollywood brand of realism. It’s part of Spielberg’s schtick: he goes to great lengths to present a plausible future reality. (Of course, plausibility always comes second to thrilling chase scenes.) According to Joel Garreau’s account of Spielberg’s Minority Report futurist think tank, producer Bonnie Curtis claimed that the movie is grounded in “future reality” rather than “science fiction.” I know Spielberg said something similar about Jurassic Park back in 1993—I believe he used the phrase “science future”—but unfortunately I don’t have a citation for that. In his piece, Garreau says that

…the moviemakers seem to have gone to great deal of trouble to make this a legally persuasive future. The tension throughout the movie is between safety and freedom, a timely topic in 2002. And the whole plot of the movie centers on the notion that this Pre-Cog system is utterly infallible. Only thus can it be seen as reasonable search and seizure. Philip K. Dick didn’t go to this much trouble in his 1956 story of the same name on which the film is based.

These statements not only demonstrate a profound ignorance of science fiction outside the sealed-off reality of Hollywood; they also suggest how and why the filmmakers fail to understand or choose to ignore Dick’s point. For Dick, the point is not specifically how the Constitution would have to change to allow the existence of a precrime police agency in the United States; the point is to discover the more fundamental change required in society, the moral implications of that change and the impossibility of unchanging it. Details of world-building are unimportant, so Dick leaves them out. For Spielberg, though, the spectacle of an amazing future (and amazing chase scenes!) is at least as important as the moral implications of that future, if not moreso. Spielberg love big shiny toys—in fact, most filmmakers in Hollywood making science-fiction movies love big shiny toys. Despite Bonnie Curtis’s misguided praise, Minority Report is not fundamentally much different from, say, The Matrix: both movies surround a potentially daring speculative concept with dazzling Hollwood spectacle. (Actually, The Matrix is an unusually clever example of Hollywood science fiction: it turns its dazzling spectacle into something weightier by presenting a speculation about the relationship between reality and spectacle.) Spielberg likes to hire experts for a sense of authoritative realism, but that’s only another part of the spectacle.

Stay tuned for Part 2: John Anderton vs. John Anderton.

Sex, Lies, and Online Comics Writing

I can’t stay gone because I can’t stand to stay silent right now. Manga Life is a site from the folks who brought you Silver Bullet Comics: “Our aim is to guide you through the masses of manga appearing on the shelves of your book store, to pick out THE essential books to own.” While it was Johanna Draper Carlson who brought this to my attention, their review of From Eroica with Love deserves a close read. I realize that comics journalism on the internet is pretty dire and assume that there is little editorial oversight anywhere, but apparently the SBC/ML crew are okay with statements like “[homosexuality] is a gender, not a ‘Lifestyle choice’” and “[the male characters] look like women in drag! ” (since I’m assuming the author, Michael Deeley, doesn’t mean they do, in fact, resemble women in drag, who could pass as men) being prominently displayed in their reviews. I mention this because his input alone is enough to make me want to avoid the site. But I’m not just offended by the total lack of empathy or tact (”Also, the gay love scenes made me cringe. I????????m open-minded; not open-bodied.”) but by the fact that this is just horribly written. I don’t want to hear from an editor about how they’ll do better in the future; the present matters and it’s awfully grim.

Enough. I just wanted to pause a moment and go back to that (sort of) to boil things down to the most generic level and say that, basically, people have sexes (biological/genetic), genders (cultural expressions of masculinity/femininity), and sexual orientations (straight/gay/bisexual) with several other options that could be tossed into each of my parentheticals. Anyone who can’t handle this level of terminology probably shouldn’t be talking about any of this.

And have you guessed yet where I’m going with this? Maybe, if you saw that I already sputtered about this this morning, but here I go again. I’m a big proponent of conversation, communication, mutual understanding, which I hope would be clear to anyone who’s been reading this blog for any length of time. I think that at some fundamental level we do end up with Roman Jakobsen/James Smith-style mutual untranslatability where each of us uses language in a unique enough way that to some extent we can’t fully speak to one another. And so if I were James Meeley, I would never have assumed that “explor[ing] the kids’ identities — sexual and otherwise –” meant to everyone what it means to me. In fact, I know it doesn’t, since to me exploring a sexual identity means trying to figure out what sort of people you find attractive, dealing with fluttery yearnings and awkward kisses and awkward suitors and unrequited affection. And sure, at some point, sexual activity probably comes into the picture, but it’s by no means the core. And so my first objection to Meeley’s first objection to the aforementioned trend in Young Avengers is that the simplest response would be to clarify the terms, not draw up battle lines. But that’s why I’m not the sort of person who sends offended letters to comics publishers, I suppose.

My second and more important objection to both that and his second objection is that if he wants to convince everyone there’s no homophobia here, I’d like to see a little logic. Meeley’s complaint is about alleged future sexual content in an “all-ages” title. I see no point in disputing about what the future may hold, but you just can’t argue that this is an all-ages title. It’s quite clearly labeled PSR, which as a retailer of sorts is something he should understand means this is material suitable for 12-year-olds and older readers. While this is what Marvel used to call PG back when they were stealing terms from the MPAA, but clearly it’s more equivalent to their PG-13 rating. And what does PG-13 mean? It means that parents are strongly cautioned that some material may be inappropriate for kids under the age of 13. Marvel’s PSR is appropriate for most ages but parents should review it before or with young (presumably sub-12) children. Whether or not Meeley thinks this should be an all-ages book has no bearing on its status in reality. (Both Marvel and the MPAA share what I consider a disturbing tendency to let kids see tons and tons of violence per rating level, but that doesn’t really factor into this argument, thank goodness.)

My brother is 13 and I’d have no qualms about letting him read Young Avengers. I differ from James Meeley in that I would still lend him my copy if there was some gay romance, although I’m still not sure what this “sexual exploration” that so frightens him entails. And I suppose I’d let him watch PG-13 movies and have in fact taken him to a few myself. One I haven’t taken him to see but enjoy a lot myself is Saved, which I think could teach us a thing or two about the PG-13 rating (and, by extension, what sort of material is appropriate for the 12-and-up crew who are the explicit target audience for Young Avengers). In Saved, Mary is a student at a Christian high school whose classmate and boyfriend confesses to her that he thinks he’s gay. She decides to have sex with him (on screen, though with tasteful editing) to try to encourage a conversion experience that will make him straight. The experiment is a failure: he gets sent to a “recovery” program and she ends up pregnant. The rest of the film deals with these high school students (I don’t think I’m old enough yet to call them “kids”) exploring their identities — “sexual and otherwise.” This means everything from Mary’s sex with Dean to her later shy flirting with new student Patrick to her super-Christian friend Hillary Faye’s ends-justify-the-means attempt to draw attention to a topic she cares about to Cassandra’s ups and downs as a Jew at a Christian school and her boyfriend Roland’s experiences as a paraplegic. Because it’s a PG-13 movie set in a Christian high school, there’s not a lot of profanity, though Mary says “fuck!” after finding out she’s pregnant. In PG-13 movies, apparently, you can get away with one non-verbal “fuck” that doesn’t refer to a sex act. I’m pretty sure that’s not true even of PSR+ books at Marvel. Would I have taken my brother to see it? Probably not, because he’s young for his age and still sort of disgusted by kissing and also because my parents’ views and mine differ on religion and I wouldn’t necessarily want to get into that with him or upset them just because of a movie. But I’ve lent it to the brothers older than him and wouldn’t mind at all if he wanted to borrow it in a year or two when he’s ready for that sort of story.

Where am I going with this? Nowhere, really, because Meeley’s response when David Welsh posed the question of ratings to him this morning was just to say that Young Avengers ought to be all-ages. It’s not entirely clear whether this is a “some imaginary world, like, in my head” kind of response or that he simply wishes there were more all-ages comics or that he’s seen the recent darkening of the Marvel and DC universes and plans to rage against the dying of the light. The facts are that Young Avengers isn’t an all-ages title and doesn’t have any homosexual content. I don’t see why there’s any reason for it to be a last stand in the culture wars. By all means, it’s fine to write to Marvel to ask them to bring back Bucky or keep queers out of the limelight or aim for a no-prize in explaining what’s really up with The Scarlet Witch, but I hope no one doing this would be surprised when the response isn’t total concession from the publisher. Maybe as a woman and a feminist and someone well outside the target audience I’m just used to the idea that my preferences won’t be heard or reflected in most superhero comics, but I would hope that’s a more universal response.

And as usual, I don’t like the idea that comics need to be for kids. I wish there were more comics for smart people of many different ages, and it’s that lack that I’m feeling most acutely now. Young Avengers could perhaps be just such a title, a book young teens could read about the perils and excitement of being a teen writ large. I doubt it will be, but unlike some people I’m willing to hope. And I’m willing to say my piece and go away from things that don’t appeal to me, so this should be the last you hear from me about Manga Life unless things change drastically. But I think it’s worth having a conversation rather than sermonizing, don’t you?

Goodbye (this is not goodbye)

After a long spring of frustrating writer’s block, I suddenly find myself with so many things I want to talk about and things I’ve made promises to discuss that I finally feel ready to fulfill, but I’m not going to be doing any of that for a while. My job is more taxing than it really ought to be and we’re in a heavy season right now, which always brings a lot of pain for my poor curved spine. But now there’s something new, pain all along my right arm to the point where it’s hard to hold a hairbrush even. I’m using a trackball at work as of today, which does seem to help a bit, although it will be some time before I get my thumb motions coordinated enough to do a really good job moving the cursor. It will be another week until I can see a doctor and I have no idea what will happen next. I just want to feel better, and so I’m trying to stop as much recreational arm use as I can for now. So don’t think of this as a hiatus, just a medical leave of absence. If I get desperate enough, I can do what I’m doing now and peck with my left hand, but no matter what I’ll still be reading here and on the other blogs I enjoy and will return in full as soon as I’m able.

“Do you still wish to penetrate me? Or is it I who has penetrated you?”

Ron Rosenbaum is going to upset some people. In fact, he already has. The bulk of Sean’s reply to Rosenbaum focuses on Rosenbaum’s perceived anti-white-male prejudice, and Jon Hastings has already pointed out the flaws in Sean’s invocation of race. And Sean has acknowledged the flaws and further claimed that his argument is really mostly against Rosenbaum’s “anti-male, anti-fanboy” prejudice. Which, first of all, being anti-fanboy isn’t the same thing at all as being anti-male, so let’s not obfuscate things. And as for being anti-fanboy—Rosenbaum is that, indeed. Is Rosenbaum talking crazy talk?

Now, most of you reading this blog probably have had some exposure to geek subculture; I’m sure you know what a fanboy is. And you know that there are—um, girl fanboys too, which is a problem for the gender-specificity of the term. Or is it? In the egalitarian twenty-first century, we can all be nerdy ????ber-fans, but who dominates? From where I’m looking, it’s guys, guys, guys. Sean specifically cites Elizabeth Avellan as a producer of Sin City—one of eight, and producers don’t really have creative input in modern filmmaking anyway. He also cites Uma Thurman’s collaboration with Quentin Tarantino on Kill Bill, which I don’t know much about. But that some women have creative roles in these movies doesn’t have a lot of weight against Rosenbaum’s argument, especially because, N.B., how many women direct these fanboy movies? (By the way, Jon makes the good point that Sin City is not referential in the same way Kill Bill is, but I think that’s only a minor flaw in Rosenbaum’s argument. Rosenbaum also mentions Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and I’m inclined to think these movies use different means to reach similar ends.) I don’t know of any. Are there any? But even if there are, let’s face it, the dominant creative source, and the dominant audience destination, of fanboy movies is guys. They’re called fanboys for a reason, after all—it’s silly to claim women aren’t involved in this stuff (not that Rosenbaum actually claimed any such thing, that I see), but it’s equally silly to claim that the stereotypical association of fanboy stuff—manly violence, phallic symbols (swords!), pseudo-feminist “tough-guy women” characters, &c.—with guys is entirely false.

I haven’t seen Sin City and I’m not sure I will, so I don’t really know about that. But Kill Bill is, in its every aspect, fanboyism turned into an aesthetic. Deep morality? Oh ho. Maybe more on this later, or maybe you all have figured out what I think of Kill Bill by now, since I’ve written about it so much. For now, I might as well link back to “Remix Aesthetic in Moulin Rouge and Kill Bill.” Also, consider: a movie which portentously bleeps out the main character’s name, solely to set up two of the dumbest name-based puns in history, is the very definition of deliberately pretentiously stupid.