October 29th, 2007

Neil Buttons


Janet and I saw Stardust this weekend, and I'm still trying to decide if I like it. I've put off reading any reviews or comments on the film, because I wanted to form my own uninfluenced opinions.

Anybody who knows me knows that I'm a huge Gaimaniac (a word that I don't believe to have seen before) and read the illustrated novel years ago*. So I already had the story in my head, even though it had been a while since I'd read it, when we stepped into the theater (which was so cold that they were storing meat on ceiling hooks).

For the most part, it was very faithful to the spirit of the book, and I appreciated this. The main storyline is intact, albeit with some changes. Okay, they renamed the protagonist Tristan instead of Tristran, but this could be to save the actors' tongues from getting tripped over. Fine, the rotating guard shifts at the wall are replaced by ass-kicking octogenarian David Kelly. Some differences were necessary just because of the change in medium, from prose to film.

However, there were other changes that I think hurt the film, and in the end make it weaker than the source material.


The magical land beyond the wall in the film is called Stormhold. And we learn that it's ruled by a dying king and a bunch of princes killing each other off to gain the throne. But in the book, Stormhold is just the name of the castle and surrounding lands in which these people live; the overarching setting beyond the wall is the realm of Faerie, of which Stormhold is just one part. Because of this, we know that Tristran's entrance into fairyland holds a certain familiarity; mythologists and folklorists and storytellers have been writing about Faerie for centuries (and, one could argue, millenia), and therefore, we know that there are certain expectations about the place. The place by its very nature is suffused with magic, and almost anything, including sitting on a cloud, is possible, albeit for a price. Instead, in the film, we're given the kingdom of Stormhold, where magical things do indeed happen, but we're uncertain just how magical the place is; can anything happen, or are there hidden rules we don't know about? It's a subtle difference, but it's enough to bring up questions that interfere with the viewing experience.

Though the cast is impressive, something about the acting overall felt flat. Possibly the direction. The story (in both the book and film) takes place in the late 1830s, and the dialogue in the book is consistent with this, but in the film it isn't always. Contemporary phrases pop into conversation willy nilly (this is glaring near the end when Tristan tells Victoria that "you need to grow up, and get over yourself"); these anachronistic intrusions hurt the versimilitude of the overall text, and for no discernible reason. (Possibly it was because the screenwriters wanted it to appeal to a broad audience, even as they were aiming for "fresh" and "hip.")

I was also bothered by the fate of Lamia the witch (played expertly by Michelle Pfeiffer). It's interesting that they named her Lamia in the film, as Gaiman has previously used the name for a warmth-vampire in Neverwhere; she is unnamed in the book, simply called the witch-queen (Gaiman has discussed the name change at his blog). Anyway, she's the Big Bad throughout the film (and the book), hunting down Yvaine the star so that she can cut out the star's heart and regain her youth. At the end of the book, the witch-queen has used up all of her magical youth in her pursuit, to the point where she has become a crone: "The old woman, shrunk by age and time to little bigger than a child, held onto a stick as tall and bent as herself with palsied and swollen-knuckled hands." And even though the witch-queen wanted Yvaine dead, the star pities the old woman and lets her go; this type of anti-climactic conclusion has happened numerous times in Gaiman's fiction (notably in Black Orchid), where violence is not met again with violence, where revenge is seen as something that prolongs the cycle of violence; forgiveness, rather than vengeance, is shown to be the higher path. But I suppose the screenwriters felt that moviegoers simply want black-and-white good-and-evil issues, and decided to write a showdown instead, where Lamia is blown to bits by Yvaine's incandescent starlight. The Big Bad gets what she deserves, and we can leave the theater once again comforted that we know right from wrong.

And, lastly, I must bring up Captain Shakespeare. Called Captain Johannes Alberic in the book, his part is very small, rescuing Tristan and Yvaine from being stranded in the clouds, feeding them, and then dropping them off later. Most of the time spent with Alberic is in summary. But the captain changes in the film to an important minor character, played by Robert Deniro. Instead of a skyship captain, he's a lightning pirate (which, I have to admit, was pretty cool, and allowed for some great visuals). But when he reveals himself to Tristan and Yvaine as a gay man, the character loses all credibility. Not because he's gay, but because Deniro chooses to play him as stereotypical camp. I have nothing against the idea of a gay pirate captain (it's actually not far-fetched at all), but Shakespeare is way over-the-top, in his mannerisms, in his penchant for hair styling and fashion and theatre, in his need to put on a dress and dance the can-can in his cabin. It's just too much.

Homosexuality does not necessarily mean transvestism, yet in the movie the two are conflated, and it's played for laughs. But then Shakespeare is caught in this compromising position by Prince Septimus, who quickly overpowers him; the pirate crew run in to find Septimus' sword at their captain's throat, and the image is telling, with Shakespeare on his back, and Septimus looming over him in the overtly dominant position. I didn't even believe that this would happen; regardless of Shakespeare's sexual orientation, the man is a fucking pirate captain. He's gotten to where he is not on reputation alone, but because of skill and cunning; he turns Tristan into a fencing master in less than a week, and is clearly no slouch with a sword; and there were no small number of potential weapons in the large closet in which he was caught out. Septimus is a bad-ass to be sure, but Shakespeare should have been able to hold his own, at the very least until his crew finished dispatching Septimus' men and could rush in to help. But instead, we're given the stereotypical Hollywood view of homosexuality; a gay man can't be strong, a gay man can't be commanding without compromising who he is (although his crew know about him and still accept him for it), a gay man must parade around in women's clothing when no one's looking. What's especially frustrating about this is that Neil Gaiman has written about sympathetic realistically-portrayed gay men and women in his fiction, with no hint of malice or mockery; the fact that the screenwriters portrayed the only gay character in the film in such a way feels like a slap in the face to both Gaiman's writing and to his fans. I might be overreacting and totally off-base, but it's such an obvious thing that it's hard not to notice or have a reaction to it.

So, like I said, I'm still deciding whether or not I really like the film. It has a lot going for it: gorgeously made, well-acted in some instances (the ghost-princes of Stormhold were great in their roles as comic relief; and Claire Danes, one of my long-term crushes, is wonderful in both her insults and luminosity), well-plotted (if a bit slow at times), good transitions. Ricky Gervais' shoehorned cameo was memorable. My above criticisms keep me from geeking out over it like I might have, but none of that changes the fact that the book by Gaiman and Vess isn't altered at all by my reaction to the film, and it remains as enjoyable as ever; however you felt about the film, I still highly recommend the illustrated novel.

*I actually bought the straight text version first, but after totally dissing Charles Vess at the very first Trinoc-con**, I picked up the trade paperback (originally issued as a four-part limited series for Vertigo) that he and Gaiman had collaborated on. And after doing so, I much preferred the illustrated version.

**A huge group of us were in someone's hotel room for a party, possibly Kelly and Gavin's, and Vess was in there as well. We struck up a conversation, and at some point I mentioned Neil Gaiman, and he asked if I'd read Stardust. I admitted that I had, and he asked if I'd read the version he'd worked on. I hadn't yet. Well, he said, I know there are copies in the dealer's room if you're interested. Hefting my nigh full book bag back on my shoulder (full of books, naturally, though now I can't remember which ones), and not wanting to spend any more money on books that weekend, I said something like: that's okay, I'll pass. Which was incredibly insulting, and a dumbass thing to do, and at which point Vess saw someone in the hall he recognized (or at least pretended to), and left. A couple weeks later, I ended up buying the graphic novel at the bookstore, and once again smacking myself for my dumbassery.
Jason sepia

[publication] screwhead at hot metal bridge

Thirteen years ago at a family reunion in Connecticut (it may have been Christmas, or possibly Thanksgiving, or maybe just summer vacation), my uncle, musician and composer Doug Katsaros, played a tape of cartoons for us of a new show that featured his original music. The cartoon was goofy and satirical and hilarious, and we couldn't stop watching (I think he had the first six episodes on that tape). It featured superheroes, but no superheroes I'd ever heard of; sometimes ineffective, sometimes causing more destruction than the villains they were hoping to stop. A fantastic send-up of the entire genre, and it made me howl with laughter.

The show, of course, was The Tick.

After that, I followed the show religiously, first on Fox, then on Comedy Central. It quickly became one of my favorites. During a marathon, I taped something like ten shows in a row, and every so often when I needed a pick-me-up, I'd put the tape in, and the enthusiasm of the Big Blue Goon would put me in a better mood; sadly, as with many of my things, I had to get rid of the tape before the big move, although I notice that both seasons one and two are now on DVD.

Anyway, this is all to say that when Carolyn Kellogg mentioned the theme of "headless" in her call for entries for Hot Metal Bridge #2, my brain went straight to that goofy cartoon show. Thankfully, the editors at HMB took the story I sent them, and the issue went live today.

My contribution: "Screwhead."

I would often, when watching the cartoon series “The Tick,” wonder about a certain henchman, the one with a giant thumbscrew for a head. Not fortunate enough to warrant his own super-villain moniker, he is simply named Dean. Gifted with incredible strength used for the bidding of City crime boss Chairface Chippendale, Dean can go toe-to-toe with The Tick, bending a steel ladder around the hero’s frame, or holding him in a bear hug while other villains pummel the Great Blue Hope in the stomach. But Dean is always defeated, usually outwitted or outfoxed, because having a giant thumbscrew for a head is not really conducive to a life of intellectual rigor.

Probably my least categorizable piece of fiction: part-memoir, part-fanfic, part-pomo-self-examination, part-working-class-lament. And all in 1200 words! My first publication in a more "literary" venue, and it shares electrons with contributions from George Saunders, Brian Evenson, Daphne Gottlieb, Roy Kesey, Kevin Moffett, Christopher Bakken, Kate Burgo, Erin Fitzgerald, Tod Goldberg, Kevin O'Cuinn, Jack Pendarvis, Justin Runge, Richard Siken, and Patsy Zettler.

If you're interested, do that clicky thing.