Black Box

This is a flexible black box theatre stage:

They are one of the most common types of theatre, along with prosceniums, thrusts, and arenas. They are highly configurable, because all they are is a room painted black, and both the seating and set can be placed where ever one chooses.

Much black box theatre is performed with either minimalistic or no set, and minimal costuming. Everything from very traditional Shakespeare or Greek tragedy, to very modern experimental or absurd theatre can performed black box. The audience uses their imagination to fill in the blanks, and the show goes on.

The actors, meanwhile, get over themselves and do their damn jobs. They idea that you can’t act against a blue or green screen is patently false.

Even on a very built up and detailed set, there’s this thing called the Fourth Wall. It’s the one that the audience sees through into the action.

In a film or TV, this area is completely covered with cameras, crew, other actors, people’s girlfriends, craft services, runners with script changes…

In modern one camera filming, the cameras will often be directly in your face, over your shoulder, between your legs, kneeling in front of you shooting up your nose, or in a myriad of other very close positions.

There is never a moment in which you are not aware that you are acting.


Scrubs was filmed in an actual hospital, but even then, it was chockful of camera people and assistants and such. 

You get over it and do it anyways.

The idea that “Oh, if only they’d had more real sets!” is garbage.

You can even act with something that isn’t there. There’s an entire movie where Jimmy Stewart’s co-star never makes an appearance. It’s widely regarded as a classic.

Acting is a learned skill that takes time and effort, and not some magical gift granted by the gods.

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A Sense of Wonder

A young man steps into the hanger, accompanied by the wizened old mentor who has told him of his mysterious past, and the two slaved that have brought a mysterious message that could save the world. The young man has just sold his speeder, a vehicle that he treasured, but that he acknowledges is no longer in demand since a newer model came out. The old man has assured him that it will be enough.

We see the star ship that they will fly in: it looks nothing like the traditional rockets we are used to in science fiction, nor the “space plane” that we see from real life space exploration. Even in contrast to the other ships we have seen thus far in this world, this one is unique: unlike the Tantive IV or the Devistator, this ship is flat, more like a pizza or a hamburger, with a cockpit stuck awkwardly onto the side, and a loading platform more like that of a cargo plane.

“What a piece of junk!” exclaims the young man.

There’s a moment in most Steven Spielberg movies where, upon seeing the object of wonder (the dinosaurs, the aliens, the bicycle flying), we cut back to the people watching react. We see the children’s faces in awe, the parents with mouths agape, the government agents shocked and in disbelief. The film tells us what reaction we should be having.

Yet, we are all taken in by Han Solo. Luke, who is shown to have a strong interest in spaceships, is planning on attending the Academy to become a pilot, is later in the film shown to be quite a competent pilot himself, says the Millennium Falcon is a junk ship. When Han tries to justify the condition by saying that he’s made a lot of “special modifications”, Obi-Wan simply rolls his eyes.

This isn’t the first time that Obi-Wan hasn’t been taken in either. Take the famous “Kessel run in less than twelve parsecs” exchange in the cantina. Much ink has been spilled to justify that a parsec is a measure of distance, not time, and therefore the Falcon must have a very efficient navigational computer, or Han is much better at piloting than others, so in a treacherous environment like the area around Kessel, he must be able to blah blah blah. Almost no one considers that he’s a smuggler and con man who is trying to talk up a potential client, and saying whatever comes into his head to impress them. It’s much like his later bullshitting about a reactor leak caused by a slight weapons malfunction and that he needs a few minutes to lock down. Large leak. Very dangerous.

Again, watch Obi-Wan’s reaction:

This is not a man taken in by fancy words. He knows Han is bullshitting him, but he doesn’t have much choice, as he’s in a time crunch and needs to leave right now. Better a thief than a stormtrooper.

Han then proceeds to kill a debt collector, shooting him under the table (not unjustifiably, as Han was being threatened), unlike Obi-Wan, who merely maimed the thug who was bothering Luke, and tried to deescalate the situation first.

But the idea that Han Solo is a good person, is introduced to us as a hero, is from the get go a role model? There’s little in the film to support this. He gets his money and runs, just like he said he would.

And this makes his return at the very end to save Luke, and therefore insure the destruction of the Death Star all the more heroic.

What’s in a Name?

Canon is pretty funny to discuss.

For example, what’s that lady in white’s name?

It’s Mon Mothma, obviously, and she’s about to tell us about how many bothans died to get the plans for the second Death Star.

But her name isn’t actually used in Return of the Jedi. It is mentioned once in Revenge of the Sith, and she’s in the Clone Wars cartoon, but those came out over 20 years later. We all learned it somewhere, through osmosis, through fan transmission, through the strange ways that we communicate knowledge to one another on the playground, on the internet, in the letter pages of fanzines…

But, during that interregnum, what counted as good enough evidence that her name was Mon Mothma? What counts as “canon”?

The ending credits, which aren’t a part of the narrative?

Jedi Credits

The shooting script, which isn’t part of the film at all?

jedi script

The novelization?

jedi novel

Trading cards?

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Action figures?

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Signed photos from the actress herself?

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I would submit that, rather than worrying if we have to accept that Art Carney is a member of the Rebel Alliance if we also want Chewbacca to have a family, it doesn’t actually matter where the information comes from, provided it makes for a better and more interesting story, and a more rewarding experience interacting with the film. Sometimes it’s trivia, sometimes it makes a big difference, and sometimes it’s meaningless.

More, of course, on this topic to come…

Apocalypse and Revelation: the Televisualization of Movies

X-Men: Apocalypse is a hot mess of a film, with some lovely action sequences, some well done CGI, fairly good acting, good make-up and costuming, and an overstuffed plot that has a few too many twists and characters to make its nearly 2 1/2 hour run time feel worth it. Compounding the strangeness is that I haven’t seen Days of Future Past, nor First Class, and the older X-Men films are memories from a decade ago. This isn’t the fault of the film, which is explicitly billed as the third entry in the franchise, but which also makes a number of concessions to newer viewers via flashbacks and expository dialogue; it’s entirely my own.

There are some needless sequences. The one that stands out most prominently is the kidnapping by Colonel Stryker and the bit in the Weapon X facility, a half-hour detour that is eventually just a transparent excuse to have a Hugh Jackman cameo. It’s a nice shout out to Barry Windsor-Smith’s iconic run, and a naked Jackman is rarely a bad thing to have in a film, but just as easy would have been to excise that entire part. Nicholas Hoult already showed off his fancy new plane to Jennifer Lawrence. They could get in that and go straight to Cairo.

In fact, it was difficult to get a bead on who was supposed to be the protagonist. The only people with character arcs are Oscar Isaac (who comes back to hate the modern world, tries to destroy it, and fails), Michael Fassbender (who comes back to the public world after the death of his family, tries to destroy it, and  has a change of heart), and Evan Peters (who comes out of hiding to look for his father, finds him, and then decides not to tell him the truth). Everyone else is either static, or only hits partway towards a change, without resolution. The movie itself is made with a sequel in mind.

And this is an interesting thing. It felt more like watching a few episodes of a television show, albeit one with a much much larger budget than usual, spliced together, than a feature film. Detours like the Weapon X one make sense if it were just an episode of a program. You wouldn’t need to keep cutting back to Oscar Isaac to remind you of why the characters need to hurry.

This makes perfect sense from a financial standpoint: movies are very expensive to make, and therefore if one can get a franchise going, the odds of getting another film made are even better. This leads to an automatic draw at the box office, easier branding, easier promotion, etc. etc. However, it comes at the expense of an actually satisfying film experience. The questions that are posed by the film have to be interesting ones, and far too often, they simply aren’t. There’s a limited number of twists and turns that an audience will accept, and because there are so many competing franchises, and due to the internet’s obsessive theorizing and analyzing of any given piece of media, the answers are inevitably unsatisfying.

Time was, you could leave things open ended, and that was alright. The Maltese Falcon, for example, doesn’t delve deeply into Spade and Archer’s relationship. The film famously doesn’t even get into the real mystery of the falcon itself; such a thing is beside the point of the story. These are left to the imagination of the viewer. And yet it could have easily been developed into a franchise — in fact there was an Adventures of Sam Spade radio serial that ran from 1946-1951. But constant call backs and references to the past were not the point.

Such things make sense for the finale of a TV season. The ongoing subplots can be resolved, everything can be wrapped up, the villain who has been directing things can be defeated, and so on. One goes in nowadays knowing that it is the culmination of a build up of 12 or 25 or whatever previous episodes. But when the call backs become the point, when the plot is an excuse to make references that the long term fans will pick up on, then you’ve insured that you will not be successful. You’ve turned your product into something insular and incestuous, doubly so if it is full of things that can only be found by becoming involved in the internet fandoms. Assuming that your viewers have seen the previous films in the franchise is acceptable. Assuming that they’ve seen them ten times is not.

Which winds us back to Apocalypse. I wasn’t lost at all, because I’ve read almost all the X-Men comics produced from 1963-1993. It was simple to say “Oh, that’s (so and so)” based on casual details or “Oh, they’re doing (that plot)” based on things I recognized. And unlike some, I don’t mind seeing details change; if I wanted to see the same story again, I’d just fish my comics out of the longbox and reread them. I want something mixed up and served differently. Make it unfamiliar enough that I can’t guess exactly what’s going to happen next. Tell new stories with the old characters — I don’t care if it contradicts issue 213 where Wolverine missed Shadowcat’s birthday because he was held up in traffic, not because the subway was stopped due to a track malfunction. There is joy in recognition, but it’s much sweeter to not predict where a story is going.

What some people want, judging from their reactions, is much closer to the original video animations (OVAs) released to tie in with popular manga in the 80s and 90s. The idea was that when a series reached a certain level, the company would commission two episodes of a cartoon, adapting two popular stories from the comic, and sell it direct to video at a terribly expensive mark-up, and Japanese fan culture being what it is, they would sell well enough to make it worthwhile. Nowadays they simply adapt their entire series into a half or full season, with perhaps an OVA to serve as a capstone, but then things are different from how they were thirty years ago. I can understand the appeal of seeing the book in color and motion, with voice acting and sound effects. People enjoy different things. But is it too much to ask that some effort be put in as well?