Rejected Film Category #1: Best Head

You know, you’d think you could make a pretty good category out of “best disembodied, talking head”, but if you have to struggle to come up with ten films to fit the category, it’s not that good.

I came up with: They Saved Hitler’s Brain, The Thing That Couldn’t Die, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die and Re-Animator. I’m on the fence as to whether Wizard of Oz would count (I think not, since it’s not a real head), and also disinclined to count Jason X and Alien, which both feature severed talking heads, but robotic heads. Oh, an Hayao Miyazaki uses a lot of floating heads, but that’s animation and they’re spirits so I don’t count those either.

Re-Animator wins this hands down, as the severed head is not just talky, it’s in control of its own destiny, and is a pervert.

Second place goes to They Saved Hitler’s Brain, just because they don’t just save his brain, they save his entire head, and a darling head it is. It sneers, glowers, wiggles its moustache, and also seems entirely in control of its own destiny, which is pretty impressive for, you know, a head in a jar.

On the TV show “Futurama”, they have guest stars (and generate other plot devices) by storing everyone’s head in a jar. All the US Presidents, for example, are in jars. The entire cast of the original “Star Trek” (and John Frakes of TNG) are in jars, Pamela Anderson’s head is in a jar, Claudia Schiffer, Lucy Liu, Al Gore, etc.

On the commentary for the DVD, someone asks him where he got the idea and he said something to the effect that “it’s a common sci-fi device.”

If it’s so common, I ask, where are all the disembodied head movies? The only actual head-in-a-jar movie I can think of is They Saved Hitler’s Brain, and I never once read any SF with that as a premise.

Anyway, Trooper York is already hard at work, I suspect, creating more good movie categories.

We shall see who walks away from this battle with his head in a jar.

“Science fiction has always been strongly dystopian overall…”

I stumbled across this post from Althouse–the premise of which I agree with–but which contained the above quote: “Science fiction has always been strongly dystopian overall…” My response was:

What? No! The Golden Era of Science-Fiction was steeped in optimism. It was gritty sometimes, and foresaw many unpleasant ends, but the underlying principle was a faith in technology to help man conquer time, death, etc. You could debate the roots of SF, that Verne and Wells and Gernsback were more agnostic but that’s more complicated. They’re certainly not dystopic in the modern sense.

Movie sci-fi was much the same way until post-”2001: A Space Odyssey” (which itself is far from dystopic). Yes, there were alien menaces, but they were conquered by heroic man and his gigantic human brain. Dystopia became fashionable in the ’70s and “Blade Runner” and “Mad Max”/”Road Warrior” had the advantage of being stylish and cheap to evoke, especially the latter.

The change in attitude was so drastic, that by the ‘80s series “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, an exasperated Gene Roddenberry had to write–well, let me quote Ed Driscoll:

Almost 20 years ago, I remember buying an early version of the guide handed out to writers on the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation from the late 1980s. In order to prevent another round of episodes where Evil Computers Run Amok and the heroic captain of the Enterprise must destroy them, Roddenberry inserted a passage that reminded his writers that the crew of the Enterprise aren’t Luddites: technology is what got them into space and keeps them there, so avoid writing anti-technology screeds.

Ed has his ideas about what caused this, but it’s interesting to note that the series didn’t stop with the anti-technology and humans-are-evil memes to its ending day. I seem to recall one of the last episodes being about how warp-drive technology caused damage to the physical universe.

Conceptually, this is as amusing as global warming, raised to an infinite power. (Space, it seems, is really, really big. Damaging it would seem to be problematic.)

A late Ray Bradbury story, “The Toynbee Convector” is actually a perfect analog to what science-fiction (at least during the Golden Age) was meant to do. Basically, John Campbell and a bunch of writers felt that the only thing they could do to keep Man from destroying himself was turn his attention outward, to the conquest of the nature and the universe.

Some dystopia is, of course, quite good. The classics (Brave New World, 1984 and Fahrenheit 451) are good reading, for example, based on some fairly sound observations. E.g., what we now call “Political Correctness” was identified by Bradbury decades ago, though he mistook the form it would take. (He also describes iPods and cell phones pretty well, though they seem so much more sinister when he did it!) 1984 stabs at a similar totalitarian control, from the angle of a Soviet-style state. And Brave New World is not entirely unimaginable, though horribly, I could see it evolving at a social level. (Not just people all wanting to have super-babies, but people wanting their children to be just like them–including having all their limitations.)

But, as I’ve mentioned, I’m particularly hard on dystopic visions, particularly post-Apocalyptic ones. I found Haldeman’s recent book to be interesting, for example, but he leveraged some heavy-ass technology to explain his world. A good dystopia has you wondering about human nature. A bad one has giggling or thinking maybe the author has an axe to grind, like Handmaid’s Tale. A good one extrapolates reasonably from observable human characteristics (the desire to no be offended nor to give offense, as in Fahrenheit 451, a bad one works backward from some creepy setting and makes a statement about Man’s general bad-ness, as in Children of Men, where the end portrayed doesn’t follow logically from the bad circumstance.)

But I digress. One of the reasons dystopia is so common is that it’s easy. It’s the science fiction equivalent of “clap humor”. Make a dystopic future where religious fanatics have taken over, or men are oppressing women, and you’ll get readers believing you’re soooo profound and have such a good grasp of things.

In any event, the perversion of science-fiction into a shopping list of all the ways we might fail is just that: a perversion.

“Clap Humor”

I use this term all the time but I guess it’s not really that common, or obvious in meaning.

“Clap humor” is an ostensible joke that isn’t really funny, but which expresses a sentiment with which the audience agrees. They laugh, but they mostly clap. Stand-up comedians will do lame local humor, knowing that people will clap out of recognition. Over the years that I’ve watched him, I’ve seen David Letterman do essentially the same fat jokes about Oprah, Roseanne Barr and Rosie O’ Donnell. Or, you can take any political joke and substitute today’s politician with the original:

A man died and went to heaven. As he stood in front of St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, he saw a huge wall of clocks behind him. He asked, “What are all those clocks?” St. Peter answered, “Those are Lie-Clocks. Everyone on Earth has a Lie-Clock. Every time you lie, the hands on the clock will move.” “Oh” said the man. “And whose clock is that one?” “That’s Mother Teresa’s. The hand have never moved, indicating that she never told a lie.” “Incredible” said the man. “And whose clock is that one?” St. Peter responded, “That’s Abraham Lincoln’s clock. The hands have moved twice, telling us that Abe told only two lies in his entire life.” “Where’s [whoever]’s clock?” asked the man. “[Whoever]’s clock is in Jesus’ office. He’s using it as a ceiling fan.

Other ones include such classics as "He said he killed the pig” and “God doesn’t think he’s [blank]”.

The thing about “clap humor” is that it’s easy. You just set yourself up with a particular audience and rely on their agreement to get half your job done. It is, to some degree, a fair tool in the comic’s toolbox, but it gets old fast, and you have to not care about alienating people.

Categories for 10 Best Lists

I was going over the “10 best” categories on AFI and thinking it would be more interesting to list “10 best” categories in a more narrow sense.

For instance, they list Back to the Future as one of the ten best sci-fi movies, but to paraphrase Woody Allen, how do you compare that movie with Star Wars?

“Time-travel comedy” would be a better category. Star Wars would be “space opera”. Annie Hall–the movie that Allen was talking about when rejecting the Oscars in ‘77–isn’t easily comparable to Philadelphia Story. Allen’s films are more “New York Fetish” or “neurotic comedy”, almost a sub-genre unto themselves.

Of course, movies can be in multiple categories. Beauty and the Beast is under “best animation” on the AFI list but, really, the animation is kind of rough in spots. As “romantic musical” it works much better.

You also need to distinguish between “good” and “historically important”, as well. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves is historically important, perhaps one of the most important films in history, as it showed that an animated feature was both possible and potentially profitable. But is it good?

I think it holds up pretty well, but I think very little in the original Disney canon–and I’ve seen them all many, many times–holds up as well as Pixar’s output. Actually, even from the new Disney canon, I’d probably only put The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and half of Aladdin (the half written before Howard Ashman died) in there. I find The Lion King pretty bland.

In the upcoming days, I’ll try to compose some “ten best” lists (maybe not ten, actually, depending on the genre), that I think might be more fun.

And One More For The Road

It’s a quarter to three
There’s no one in the place except you and me
So, set ‘em up Joe
I’ve got a little story you oughtta know

We’re drinking my friend
To the end of a brief episode
Make it one for my baby
and one more for the road

I got the routine
So put another nickel in the machine
I’m feelin so bad
I wish you’d make the music dreamy and sad

Could tell you a lot
But you’ve got to be true to your code
Make it one for your baby
and one more for the road

You’d never know it
But buddy, I’m kind of poet
And I’ve gotta lotta things to say
And when I’m gloomy
You simply gotta listen to me
Until it’s talked away

Well, that’s how it goes
And Joe, I know you’re anxious to close
So thanks for the cheer
I hope you don’t my bending your ear

The torch that I’ve found
Must be drowned or it soon might explode
Make it one for my baby
And one more for the road

AFI Top Ten

So, AFI divided up the world of movies into ten categories, and picked the ten best movies in each category.

Yeah, who cares, right? This sorta thing is fun if to dismantle. The problem is that the categories are far too broad. Leading Lord of the Rings to be lumped in with Miracle on 34th Street. ‘cause, you know, they’re both fantasy.

No horror genre, with three appearances by horrors in the sci-fi category, no thriller or suspense category, no musicals, romantic comedy only (no screwball, farce, etc.), no superhero category (though that’d be a gimme for movies made in the past 10 years, which no critic wants to be seen lauding), no action, etc. etc. etc.

Well, it’s all in fun, right? It would be interesting to see someone put some real work into studying genres and coming up with some insights. Things you might not know about famous movies:

  • Hitch regarded Psycho as a comedy.
  • Independence Day, while looking like a sci-fi action thriller, really follows the a lot of the tropes of the ’70s disaster movie, and deliberately so. (This is also true of Mars Attacks!)
  • Joe Bob Briggs argues convincingly that Die Hard borrows heavily from the horror genre.
  • Sci-fi can be a very non-descriptive label: Alien is structurally really a slasher flick, Outland is very transparently High Noon, Blade Runner is really a noir detective story, Star Wars is a samuari picture (The Hidden Fortress, specifically), etc.

Just off the top of my head.

Classification can actually be pretty enlightening by making you think about genre conventions and how clever filmmakers can work against your expectations by showing you the trappings for one thing and having a different mechanic going on underneath.

Don’t Be Cool.

Trooper York mentioned how embarrassing youthful passions can be in my D&D post, referencing his own comics comments in the Hulk/Marvel comics thread. Which reminded me in turn of advice given by one of my favorite people ever: Don’t be cool.

The guy who “gave me my start” in becoming a professional tech writer was Jeff Duntemann, who’s been blogging since before it was called blogging. Blogging is as natural a format for him as it is unnatural for me.

Jeff is kind of an alpha nerd. He’s not just into tech stuff, he’s into life. He’s always thinking, building, pursuing, etc. Somewhere on his site is some advice. It’s not this, I don’t think, but more general advice to young people which includes the aforementioned “Don’t be cool.” In this case, “cool” meaning “detached, uninterested, un-excitable”.

The phrase resonated with me because when I grew up there was some sort of continuum which ranged from “spaz” to “cool”. The more excited or enthusiastic or passionate you were about something, the more you were on the “spaz” side–and the more worthy of shunning as a result.

But being a dilettante is easy. People go through life being dilettantes, never seeing the value in a deep, immersive passion.

There is a time for “cool”, of course. If the jet you’re flying has gone into a tailspin or your house is on fire, being dispassionate can help you operate in a rational fashion.

And maybe the clue is in there somewhere: We admire those who are calm in a crisis, and extrapolate that as though life were a crisis.

And I suppose there’s no Limbo any more, either.

No, this isn’t a religious post. But, content warning: It is highly nerdy. Up there with the rare computer programming post I make. But moreso.

The new rules for Dungeons and Dragons came out. I played D&D during my second decade of life, stopping not really because it wasn’t fun but because I was busy and the people I played with all went off to college. For a guy like me, fascinated with mythology, lover of gaming and gaming systems, and a prolific writer and cartographer, D&D was an excellent outlet.

Now, truth be told, the original D&D (or Advanced D&D, as it was called, to distinguish itself both from its roots and its cheaper, less time-intensive, and less parent frightening sibling) was not what you would call a great gaming system. Even calling it good is stretching it a bit.

It was, however, good enough. And it was the first to make a splash (and the only one to really make a splash outside of the gaming nerd circle). So it is that D&D is the gold standard by which role-playing games are compared.

A few years ago, Wizards of the Coast took over from the colossally poorly run TSR, and produced a new set of rules, the third edition. In a fit of nostalgic interest, I picked up those books and examined them for what they changed. (Also, I knew The Boy would take to it. Playing D&D was a prime motivator in getting him to learn to read.)

Now, about eight years after the third edition was released, Wizards has released a fourth edition, even more streamlined from the third.

This is not a bad thing, really. One of the things that makes D&D so impossibly nerdy is the stacks of rules and stats one has to manage. The new set of books is somewhat thinner, with much bigger, clearer print, and lots of boldface type. (Partly reflecting the aging of gamers, perhaps? The Golden Age of D&D was 30 years ago, eyes must certainly be failing.)

But here’s what prompted this post: AD&D from the start had the concept of alignment. Alignment was the ethical and moral orientation of the beings in the universe. Good and evil, for example, was along one axis. Law and chaos were along the other. Also, you could be neutral along one or both axes. (If you’re counting at home, that makes nine alignments.) These were not abstract concepts in the game: There were gods and forces akin to gravity that were associated with these alignments. Changing alignment was a cataclysmic event that could occur due to misbehavior, treachery or magic. It’d be like changing your blood type.

As I’ve read commentary over the years, “alignment” was always much maligned. Real people, of course, don’t have alignments. They have points-of-view. They have goals in conflict with another.

But, what makes fantasy fun, is that there is evil, you can spot it pretty easily, and you don’t have to feel guilty about kicking it’s ass. Really: Humanize orcs, and Lord of the Rings becomes impossibly jingoistic.

In D&D the system was highly nuanced without being particularly burdensome, and resulted in a most unusual cosmology: The Outer Planes (like Heaven and Hell, essentially) consisted of sixteen different universes populated by beings of a particular alignment. Besides Heaven and Hell, for good and evil, there were such colorful places as Arcadia, representing Lawful Neutral, and populated by ant-like beings of supreme order, Mechanus (also Lawful Neutral), populated by geometrically-shaped creatures known as Modrons, who lived in an impossibly ordered society, or Limbo, the plane of Chaotic Neutral, so unstable as to be populated only by the insane.

These made good potential plot hooks. An entire fantasy realm based on these Outer Planes was created called “Planescape”. One of the great computer RPGs of all time was based on it. That game showed that even in the highly artificial structure of a fantasy “afterlife”, you could ask interesting philosophical questions. (After all, you couldn’t really be killed. You were already dead! Where would you go? Detroit?)

Startlingly, the fourth edition halves the number of alignments, allowing only Lawful Good, Good, Unaligned (that’s the half-alignment–it’s not even Neutral), Evil and Chaotic Evil. This is sort of the gaming equivalent to the Catholic Church removing Limbo. In fact, it does perchance remove Limbo, since there is no Chaotic Neutral anymore.

Now, maybe it doesn’t remove anything. After all, even in previous versions there were more Outer Planes than official D&D alignments (like Neutral Good, but with Lawful tendencies), so there’s no saying for sure that those have been removed from the D&D cosmology, and perhaps the streamlining helps in the gameplay. (I’m not far enough along in the rules to tell.)

I can’t believe I actually wrote this and am about to post it publicly. I don’t even play D&D any more (except a small message board game at But it was a compelling idea. Check out the Wiki page, where they list the alignments of other fictional characters (some of which I would disagree with). It’s up there with “Who would win in a fight against Superman and Batman?” for nerd discussions.

OK, now back to The Movies….