January 10, 2010

The Wide Platform

The term "high concept" never made much sense to me as story terminology. The popularly accepted definition is a story idea that can be encapsulated in a single sentence -- preferably one without too many modifiers or commas. You reel it off to a producer and he screams with glee, throws money at you, and sets you up with an office at Paramount. In TV, "'Wagon Train' to the stars" was the high-concept core of "Star Trek."¹ Toss a lemon peel in your martini instead of an olive, and suddenly it's a whole new drink that still proffers the same comforts.


In a more detailed reading, "high concept" doesn't so much describe a film or franchise as lay its base. The simplest foundations are often the most elegant. They come across like Zen koans, and plunge a writer's (or a viewer's) brain toward contemplation. The nucleus of the entertainment is revealed as not so much a statement as a question, and the answers are for the screenwriter and the audience to ponder, and for successive generations of scribes to build on. The founding idea leaves ground for a scaffold of what-ifs, and pretty soon there's material for sequels, second seasons, tie-in books, webisodes, slashfic.


Critics accuse science fiction movies of being just wispy motes of story encased in special effects. In the case of Avatar, that's actually true: James Cameron built a story base so slight and universal that it's the locus of practically every negative review the film has received.² A career soldier ventures into the territory of an outmatched enemy culture, embraces and masters that culture, and turns on his oppressive former leaders. That story hook leaves the viewer's mind uncluttered enough to dive wholly inside the 3D prog-rock album cover where the Na'vi reside. Not the medium, but the technology employed in that medium, is the message. The consequences of Jake Sully living out the life his brother should've had, the body-horror that drives him out of his own flesh, go unexplored. One hopes for something more when the lights go down for the sequel, but "John Dunbar among the Tharks" does fine as the entry gate for Cameron's new amusement park, and while we're there ... hey! dragons fighting Black Hawks!³


The best high concepts are better described as "wide platforms": They can spur good storytelling because of the avenues they leave open for exploration. The pitch for a wide-platform property is easily mocked, especially when it hinges on the "x + y" formula: Hamlet + Bambi = The Lion King. But even that example proves the thesis, as the hybrid story kernel grants structure to spectacle and yields an enduring animated film. (Due credit to the Disney marketing apparatus, of course, but why didn't their mojo work for Treasure Planet?)



A literary analog is the American minimalism of Hemingway or Raymond Carver (at least Carver as sculpted by Gordon Lish), where simple scenarios and spare language nonetheless grant us a vivid sense of the action, and a chance to sound out the characters' emotional states for ourselves. Think of The Old Man and the Sea as Snakes on a Plane with a Nobel. In modern television, the wide-platform story approach has given us "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," in which Joss Whedon built long, rewarding arcs on on the simplicity of "cute girl stakes the undead." Compare that to the underlying platform of "Dollhouse": "Science-fiction whorehouse raises questions about gender, individuality, identity, and interpersonal relationships."



Too specific, yet also too airy. A footstool with too many legs. Some of them are made of balsa. The house falls down.

__________

¹ ... and who remembers "Wagon Train" today? Charged with the reboot and constrained by cinematic SF's fetish for ship-to-ship space combat, screenwriters Orci and Kurtzman -- by all indications Campbellians to the bone -- instead bonded Kirk and Spock by having their parents murdered by the same vengeful asshole.


² The plainest story concepts reoccur like viruses, even if nobody's read them since Elvis was in the Army.


³ It's unrelated, but I've been dying to note that Cameron uses Avatar to pay homage to himself at least twice: the grunts' "motion detector" encounter in the Pandora undergrowth (itself an homage to Christian Nyby's/Howard Hawks' The Thing From Another World), and Sully's True Lies swing from a chopper-mounted missile. Find here also his latest instance of someone asphyxiating in a dark, claustrophobic, future-industrial space before being rescued by a love interest/gender opposite.



"Firefly," Whedon's "Western in space," sadly wasn't given much time to prove its platform's stability. I suspect as it went on -- taking Serenity as Exhibit A -- it would've been forced to pick a story path for its heroes and hew to it.

44 comments:

Andrew Wahl said...

Man, this was shaping up to be a smart, tight piece, but you couldn't help but turn it into yet another vehicle for your "Dollhouse" hatred. Sigh. (To be fair, I still haven't watched "Dollhouse" yet. It might be worthy of your deep scorn, but you've lowered the bar so far I'm guessing it can't help but clear the now-subterranean bar. Need to Netflix that soon.) Anyway, thumbs up on the wide platform concept. Hope it catches on.

Dan said...

@AndrewL I disagree with JR's Dollhouse hatred, although I enjoyed his S1 box-set review and agreed with some of his points. I think S2 has been much stronger (no doubt because Joss Whedon's staff were given an expiration date and 9 episodes to bring all their ideas to a head.)

In fact, everything since ep4 this season has been absolutely wonderful, tightly-written and intelligent sci-fi, imo. A little rushed because of the circumstances with Fox, but otherwise rock-solid.

Kyle Puetz said...

I just wanted to say I really enjoyed Ian's comments on Thirst in the FFC Best of 2009, and it makes me want to reevaluate a film that I considered a tonal mess, albeit a likable one.

אורי said...

"I'd like a beer please" from the insane politics/comedy/thriller with a heart guy. Hilarious.

jer fairall said...

R.I.P. Eric Rohmer

Anonymous said...

Does anyone else find it interesting how Roger Ebert's beliefs seem to have changed since his diagnosed cancer and subsequent operations into atheism/agnosticism? Lots of his earlier reviews talk about the importance of religion, I cite Larry Clark's Kids as him talking about how malnurished the characters' lives are without such beliefs, yet his blogging over the past year - including his infamous evolution post - are very thoughtfully atheistic.

Alex Jackson said...

I'm not so sure there's a great shift. I don't think he was talking specifically about religion in reference to Kids and he has said in his journal that he doesn't like being labeled an atheist. If anything, I think he's more of an agnostic, likes not knowing, and has great respect for religion.

In rejecting The Lovely Bones, I think he is rejecting more its vision of heaven than the idea of heaven itself.

Anonymous said...

re: The Hannah Montah Movie review

You may call that ending "bittersweet", Bill, maybe because you knew "Hannah Montana" was still airing, but I didn't, I only rented it out of morbid curiosity, and to me, that ending was TERRIFYING. My stomach fucking dropped. Miley makes this big emotional speech about how she can't pretend to be someone else anymore, she reveals her big secret, she performs her own personal song (one of the most brain-emptyingly banal in recent memory, fwiw), and the entire crowd looks at her and FUCKING REJECTS HER and says, "No! We don't want the real you! We only love Hannah! We don't care about your pathetic attempts at personal growth, you stupid teenage girl! Get back in your cage and dance, monkey!" You are right that this movie was much better than it had to be, but dear God, when that scene happened my soul died a little.

--Kim

Bill C said...

@Kim: I can't dispute a word of that. Chelsom says something weird on the commentary, about how they "get away with this" by having kids speak up during the concert, without really explaining what "this" is. For brevity's sake, I took Vanessa Williams' line about how she'll never have a normal life if she doesn't maintain a double one at face value, but the first time I saw the picture, my soul died a little, too.

אורי said...

Hehe, Alf on the phone.

Patrick said...

I can't get over the fact that the last video is called "best revive scene ever LOL".

Patrick said...

So with Avatar and the Globes, will it be the same as with Titanic? In other words, a "best film? Really? Really really?" moment?

Anonymous said...

I still think it's Bigelow and 'The Hurt Locker' at the Oscars.

Alex Jackson said...

Don't You Forget About Me, featuring Bill Chambers, is now available on Netflix Instant View. Watched it last night and it's a pretty good way to start off the new year.

Stephen Reese said...

Bill offers, in my opinion, the only insights in Don't You Forget About Me. They shoulda used way more of his interview, or better yet, just pointed the camera at him between the clips of Hughes films and called it a day.

Bill C said...

@Stephen: You'll have to trust that this is not false modesty when I say they would not have benefited from using my entire interview.

Walter_Chaw said...

I'll agree that it's not false modesty, but the absolute genuine kind. I would go on to say that we're lucky to have who might be the preeminent thinker on Hughes flicks right here in-house. It's Bill. He knows his shit.

Bill C said...

*gulp*

Jonathan said...

Anyone around these parts take in Zombie's director's cut of Halloween II?

The construct of the white horse visions still isn't any more successful than it was in the theatrical cut, and some serious gaps remain in the scene-to-scene continuity, but his staunch refusal to bend to the conventions of the franchise is admirable, and the whole of it is just tremendously sticky. Would be interested to see some other reactions to it.

Bill C said...

I loved it, myself. Found it such a heartbroken/heartbreaking film that truthfully I was a little devastated by it. (It's probably the most grief-stricken slasher since Clark's BLACK XMAS, and I appreciated that it managed to make me feel like an asshole for ever lionizing Michael Myers without the moral hectoring of Haneke's FUNNY GAMES.) Personally, I sorta accept the dollarbook Freud imagery as being a necessary evil, as coming from the same go-for-broke place as the rest of it.

Alex Jackson said...

I saw the theatrical cut at the dollar movies a month or so or ago and absolutely adored it.

Repeating what I wrote on my message board:

I think that the biggest flaw with Zombie as a filmmaker is that his movies are really just compendiums of shit that he likes regardless of whether or not any of it makes any sense (i.e. Sherri Moon watching Bride of the Monster in The Devil's Rejects). The biggest flaw with his remake of Halloween is that he gives Michael Myers a good half hour of backstory so that when Dr. Loomis calls him "pure evil" we can't believe it. We understand pretty fully why he does the things he does. He's an angry kid. This is not a welcome alteration from the original Halloween where Myers was virtually a mythological creation.

With Halloween 2, he turns these flaws into great strengths. What got to me in the film was how Myers' mother in a white robe was evocative of white supremacist iconology. The idea isn't that the other races are inferior, but the white race is superior. It is about belonging to the superior race and has nothing to do with politics. In microcosm, I think this shows the aesthetic values in the film as being all about inflating a diminished ego. The white power stuff, like the boogeyman stuff, positions Michael Myers-- the white trash son of a stripper, into something beyond human. Once I got that, the film was really fascinating to me.

I think it would be a very good companion piece to Chapter 27, the last time I remember so loving a film that the popular audience and critics both agreed was horrible. I think that Halloween 2 alienates people for the same reason. It diffuses the line between filmmaker and subject to such a point that we get an extremely subjective and non-judgmental look at a crazed mind. I think I like it better though.


Regarding the dollar book Freud. I think I almost consider that as a genre convention.

Eager to check out the director's cut. This was one of the best films of 2009.

Anonymous said...

I'd really love to read Alex's thoughts on it (and I'd really love his site to be reorganised so it's possible to figure out what his newest reviews are and so on) but I personally loved it for being constantly subversive of the genre, for example, showing the survivors of the first massacre very severely psychologically damaged. I wish Zombie was more restrained at times - the devastating scene where the sheriff returns home was discredited somewhat with the insertion of the family-video-footage, and the "It was all a dream" fake out was obvious and a shame, but otherwise it's a very solid and interesting film, both DC and non-DC.

RoQnRollMartian said...

Geez, "sticky" seems to be the perfect way to describe my feelings toward Halloween 2. When I saw it back in August I regarded it as Zombie's first real miss (though 1000 Corpses, which I haven't seen in years, I'm sure could be argued for). The flasbacks/visions and their music video-style editing felt overwrought to the point of self-parody as did the entire white horse motif, and I just couldn't get over the drastic shift in the Loomis character and the whole hack, media whore persona he took on. That said, reading the thoughts here and revisiting the plot overview on wikipedia, I feel there must have been something I missed, though I would still like to hear some intelligent negative criticism of the piece as most of the stuff on Rotten Tomatoes is of the usual dismissive, thoughtless kind. Basically, I gotta go out and see it again, I think.

Also, bravo to Walter for probably the definitive review of Paranormal Activity and, by extension, this Culture of the Internet Meme we are currently embroiled in- pretty much all you really need to know about that little instant pop culture artifact (that is, if anyone remembers it in a years time). Hell, I'd even be the first to admit I had a hoot seeing it in theaters. I just can't imagine a non-social situation where anyone could sit through the whole thing.

The Voice said...

I haven't yet revisited Paranormal Activity and perhaps, as the man with the ridiculous pseudonym above me suggests, for good reason. That said, I did quite enjoy both the experience and even the film, finding a lot of interesting subtext that couldn't be mined from the admirable but headache inducing experience of Halloween II. If, on second take, I come away anywhere near as impressed as I was during the theatrical viewing, I'll state my defense here.

schnofel said...

Absolutely agree with Bill that Halloween II is the film that Funny Games wanted to be - in that it is as repulsive a reminder that slasher films are crap, and that it is better for the soul to not indulge in them.

And by saying that I give the film some credit, because the Final Destination variety is just icky without really considering the moral repercussions such fun has. I adore every film that is shot in 16 mm nowadays, and there is something about Zombie's Freudian/nightmare images that truly haunted me when going to sleep.

But really, the film is such a compendium of cliches (not even cliches, just horror signposts) and build-up/execution sequences that its only merit can be a geeky kind of tone dissection. Of murder.

Because listen, a story it is not, the writing is amateur, the acting of the heroine atrocious. And maybe I can't groove with Zombie's directorial style because I don't listen to metal.

DaveA said...

Sidenote: Received THE BOOK on Monday and I'm having a blast with it. First of course I had to read the Inside/Martyrs review, which irrevocably convinced me to never see those two. Also great: the Twilight/Let the right one in double feature, re-reading the Tucker and Kaufman interviews... oh well, so much to chew on, so little time. Great stuff.

Jason said...

I haven't seen Rob Zombie's Halloween II since the first weekend of its theatrical release, so my memories of that version are somewhat sketchy. However, after seeing the Director's Cut, I have to agree with Outlaw Vern that I can only give a half-hearted recommendation, especially compared with the theatrical cut. All of the additions and minor changes only serve to make the film feel watered down from the theatrical version.

It also doesn't help that a lot of the "additions" (if they were additions and not my memories playing tricks on me) that I spotted became really repetitive. Yeah, it's interesting that Laurie and Annie's relationship is revealed to be a lot more caustic and damaged in this version, especially in light of what happened at the end of Zombie's Halloween I. That said, all of the additions do nothing but make Laurie a fairly unlikable character, and display the same terrible "Fuck you!""No, fuck you!"-style of writing from the first one.

SPOILER-ISH STUFF AHEAD.

I will say this though, there is one deleted scene that really feels devastating, especially seeing it after the Director's Cut -- the one where Laurie tells her friend how much she regrets being a bitch to Annie. This, of course, comes right before they go upstairs and find Annie clinging to life in the bathroom. All of the other extended scenes with Laurie and Annie probably could have been left out still, but knowing that this scene exists, and still hasn't been worked back into the narrative, makes its absence feel all the more heartbreaking.

The double-edged sword here is that, like everything else that Zombie is fucking around with in the Director's Cut, is that the net effect is less than he intended. Yeah, it sucks that Laurie never gets a chance to reconcile with her friend before her death, or that she shows some sign of emotional growth in that regard to illustrate some kind of redemptive element to her personality. But, without that element in the film proper, it becomes harder to feel sorry for her as things progress. It's all understandable, but all of that swearing and beer swilling and pouting and so on has a real fingernails on a chalkboard effect the longer it goes on, so when the end comes, I care a lot less than I did the first time around.

Speaking of which, I HATE the new ending. It gives Laurie a lot less to do, it trades the dollar store Freudian image of Laurie wandering outside with Michael's mask on for a pithy "is she dead or not?" overhead shot, and Michael's actions make no sense. Yeah, okay, he finally gets a kill with his mask off and says his first and only word in the entire series. I wish I could say that any of that mattered, or was pulled off with some kind of finesse. Plus, I remember that cover of "Love Hurts" coming right at the end credits, and being a smack in the mouth, in the theatrical cut; editing the last scene to the song in the Director's Cut is just stupid.

It sucks that Blu-Ray owners only get the Director's Cut. This is one of those instances where the director really didn't seem to understand what was working in his film in the first place. Yeah, those last 20-some minutes, from when Annie gets attacked in the bathroom until the end are still gut-wrenching, and the beginning hospital scenes are really tense (though what was up with that corpse pit? Was that there in the theatrical version?). I wish I could say that the middle 80 minutes or so still worked as well as they did on me in August.

Rick said...

Speaking of Funny Games, thoughts on The White Ribbon? I suppose films which show a mentally challenged kid who is severely beaten are subtle and show restraint? I do not understand how people think this is different from other Haneke. Cache had a similar feel to it, and a better pace.

Mark Palermo said...

I hated Halloween II when I saw it in the theatre. The Director's Cut is substantially better, imo. It doesn't matter so much that Laurie is "unlikable": Her issues, as well as the movie's, are now more coherent. This is Rob Zombie's attempt at making Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me as a slasher film.

The movie is still a mess in that it never has much forward momentum, fetishizes the cruelty it's appalled by, and has a film school quality to some of the edits (the cross cutting of the sheriff eating pizza with Myers eating dog still sucks.) But its weight is now more tragic (two of the new scenes actually evoke sadness), and its themes cut deeper. I'm surprised since the DC of Zombie's first Halloween was substantially worse than the theatrical version.

With the Director's Cut, Zombie establishes H2 as one of the only truly interesting films in this series. It has a despair and sickness in its heart that's rare in recent horror. And in its nighttime scenes, at least, it's visually striking. This is more of a pure Grindhouse film than either Death Proof or Planet Terror.

Stephen Reese said...

Haven't seen H2 yet, but treated myself to a double-bill of Deadgirl and The House of the Devil last night, and was NOT disappointed. Thank you FFC!

Jefferson Robbins said...

Deadgirl was like a little treasure when I saw it at SIFF ... a zombie allegory on a difficult subject, handled in a way nobody (not even Romero) has been able to pull off in several years.

Bill C said...

@DaveA: Glad you're having a blast with it.

Tom N said...

i liked 'the white ribbon' better than usual haneke fare not because it's less extreme in its shocks but because i didn't notice any huge fuck-off arrows pointing at the extreme stuff and flashing REPRESSION MORAL DEPRAVITY BOURGEOIS in big red lights then slowly turning and pointing straight at your face and patronising and winking and judging all at once like a total cunt.

that's not to say that they weren't there, only that this is the first of the six haneke films i've seen where i've actually been absorbed enough in proceedings to lose sight of the director hammering his points home - for long stretches, anyway. the extremity seemed to evolve organically from the scenario without ever becoming the sole reason for that scenario; these were real people for once, no matter how cold. and, hey presto, it's the first time his observations have really felt like something i've witnessed for myself.

Anonymous said...

God, I hope you guys are joking. Deadgirl was total, preposterous, unwatchable crap. Amateurish like no one's business.

Bill C said...

Way to own that opinion, troll.

Alex Jackson said...

First day of Sundance: Nothing terrible, nothing that knocked me flat on my ass. I'm not feeling particularly optimistic. I know I'll feel better when I get to writing the capsules, but I kind of feel that I've wasted my day.

Something that should probably have been obvious to me: Four times out of five, the films everybody is trying to get into are going to be the most boring.

I barely made it into The Killing Room last year and go see how that one has been doing.

Jefferson Robbins said...

I never joke about zombies.

PS: Thanks for taking lumps for the cause, Alex.

Arlvy said...

Try and see Four Lions if you get the chance, Alex. Morris is a genuinely brilliant satirist and I'm eager to see how well he does with a feature length film.

RoQnRollMartian said...

Random: I was just looking through the Superannual (as everyone else here has said, it's wonderful) and revisited the best of '08 lists where Bill plead with Hollywood not to remake Let The Right One In. As it turns out, I was back home the last month in Los Alamos, NM where they just wrapped up shooting for the Matt Reeves-helmed rework Let Me In. Don't really know enough to say whether or not I'm looking forward to it yet, though it looked like they chose some cool places around my hometown to shoot (I blame at least part of my affection for the recent Brothers on the familiar scenery).

Patrick said...

re: Ian's "When in Rome" review – you know you can find more of Kate Macucci online, as she is one half of the music duo Garfunkel and Oates, e.g.:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EXPcBI4CJc8

Patrick said...

So I've been pointed to Armond White's review of Precious, which is... well, precious in itself. Because:

Not since The Birth of a Nation has a mainstream movie demeaned the idea of black American life as much as Precious. Full of brazenly racist clichés (Precious steals and eats an entire bucket of fried chicken), it is a sociological horror show. Offering racist hysteria masquerading as social sensitivity, it’s been acclaimed on the international festival circuit that usually disdains movies about black Americans as somehow inartistic and unworthy.

Okay... but this is how White continues directly from that paragraph:

The hype for Precious indicates a culture-wide willingness to accept particular ethnic stereotypes as a way of maintaining status quo film values. Excellent recent films with black themes—Next Day Air, Cadillac Records, Meet Dave, Norbit, Little Man, Akeelah and the Bee, First Sunday, The Ladykillers, Marci X, Palindromes, Mr. 3000, even back to the great Beloved (also produced by Oprah)—have been ignored by the mainstream media and serious film culture while this carnival of black degradation gets celebrated.

Norbit? Little Man? The Ladykillers? I don't know the other films, but way to lose any kind of credibility in one fell swoop there.

Dan said...

@Patrick: Mark Kermode was referred to Armond White's review of Precious last week, and likewise used his apparent love of Norbit and Little Man to call the entire anti-Precious review into question. You have to wonder if Armond White is being serious these days, as he's started becoming well-known purely for having alarmingly bad taste in movies.

The Voice said...

Armond's Precious review, taken in conjunction with his rave for The Blind Side, may be the year's best film criticism and I'm surprised to see it being panned around here. Aren't we the folks who should know exactly who he intends on provoking, egregious victims of the Rotten Tomatoes comments section? Armond White is a national treasure.

I finally had the opportunity to see Antichrist on the big screen last night, where it cements my place as 2009's #1, as clear a choice as Synecdoche was in 2008.

Patrick said...

So... is Armond White a culture critic? The American Borat, holding the mirror of bad taste in front of an audience who doesn't notice it? Is he simply edging further and further into obvious parody because he can't believe he hasn't been found out yet? Is he sitting in his apartment, surrounded by DVDs of the AFI top 1000 and every Criterion Collection ever released, tearing at his scalp, wondering whether he's supposed to champion Uwe Boll or what else it would take for people to wake up?

Or can a paid film critic really have such a... peculiar taste in film?