Wednesday, 19 March 2014


...and still, sort of, on the subject of working out where stories go wrong...

It was brought home to me recently how much of a snob I am when I found myself watching the Euro-drivel that is Salamander.  Like Britain's car parks, this fails to work on so many levels.  Why are the sixty-six senior figures holding material in their bank safes which can be used to blackmail them? why not simply burn it all?  Why does the inside man not simply empty the safes himself rather than mark them for people tunneling in from the sewers?  Why doesn't the perpetrator simply send it all to the police or the press if he's after the effect of the information going public - resignations and suicides - not money?

But my point is this: if this weren't subtitled I wouldn't be watching it.  Okay, so in part it's down to trusting the judgment of the good people at BBC4 who have to fill their Eurocrime slot somehow.  But, really it's snobbery.  To put it bluntly, I know that the best, possibly only way to get to watch Midsomer Murders is to dub it into Danish the subtitle it.

So why bring it up here?  Well, we're awash with subtitled crime, but I'm really struggling to think of any decent foreign language sci-fi, SE Asian monster movies apart.  And it was Jules Verne who (partially) invented the genre.

Any suggestions?

Monday, 10 March 2014

The Adjustment Bureau - in need of adjustment

This was going to be a quick post, commenting that I'm currently reading the 1959 Philip K Dick classic Time Out of Joint in which Ragle Gumm's middling life in middle America is disturbed, amongst other things, when a soft-drink stand disappears, replaced by a small slip of paper with the words "SOFT-DRINK STAND" printed on it and how that seems to be utterly prescient of what happens to photos on websites when links are broken.  Particularly websites designed by me.

But Mr Dick made another of his frequent crossings of my path when I finally caught up with the movie The Adjustment Bureau.

My initial reaction when the credits came up was that it must have been made during a writers' strike, but checking the web shows that it's a reasonably well-regarded movie.

Well, I thought it was a mess.

I perversely enjoy watching films that (I think) don't work in order to think about where they don't work.  And this one has taken a certain amount of musing.  Now I haven't read the Dick original, which is (crucially) a short story rather than a novel, so I think much of the film story can be attributed to the filmmakers rather than the late Mr Dick.  Which is exactly as it should be.

I've come to the conclusion that the root problem is all about point of view.  When you tell a story (sf or otherwise) you make choices about your point of view.  If you're going to live inside the head of your hero then, to a large degree, you don't need to worry about the methods or motivations of your antagonists.  If your point of view is more universal - the all-seeing eye looking down - then you need to see the chess game from both angles.  (This is all a rule of thumb, of course).

But, whatever you go for, stick to it.  I like cheesecake.  I like beer.  But I wouldn't want them mixed.  Either tell the story from one point of view or the other.  Mixing them just leaves biscuit base and cream cheese floating in my brown ale.

The Adjustment Bureau wanted its cake both eaten and left intact on the plate.  Most of the time it was telling the story from the Matt Damon character's point of view, with these inexplicable entities messing with his passage through time and space.  If they'd stuck to this then they didn't need to justify or explain the actions of the antagonists.

But they didn't.

As soon as you have scenes of the antagonists discussing their plans you've taken the point of view away from the hero.  You've become a disembodied, objective observer looking down on all the action.  And if their plans don't make sense then the audience starts to disengage.  And I was left utterly unconvinced by the logic and rationale of those trying to mess with Mr Damon's head but simultaneously feeling that I should have some understanding.

Maybe the reason the writers were so reticent, making their antagonists middlemen who only had part of the masterplan, was because the hell that was to be avoided - happily married mediocrity - didn't seem to be a hell at all.  Hasn't Hollywood taught us that love conquers all, is the most important thing?  Jason Bourne would have laughed in the face of the choice and tried to have (the apparently mutually inclusive and reinforcing) both.  I needed (and felt Matt Damon needed) more convincing that he couldn't have the girl and the career other than by the trilby tribe telling him so.

So would editing out all the scenes without Matt Damon in have worked for anybody other than Mr Damon and his agent?

Probably not.  You see, when you have a hero like that he stands proxy for us, he's an everyman.  And as soon as you think why didn't you do that? or why did you do that? he becomes less of an everyman.  When the audience have a whole list of questions of the 'who are you guys?' and 'where do you come from?' variety which don't get asked when the hero and the people getting in his way get face time together (or the hero fails to justify not asking the killer questions) then the story trips and falls.  The bottom line is that the everyman hero is us, and anything that breaks that link breaks the illusion.

Which takes us back to Ragle Gumm, don't you think?


Also on the subject of rubbishing that which numerous others have found wonderful I've also just abandoned Nicola Griffith's 'Slow River'; you can find my review at  Again, I appear to be in a very small minority...