The Crying of Lot 49 (2007)

2015 #149a
Jeremy Sutheim | 7 mins | streaming | 4:3 | USA / English

After watching Inherent Vice back in August, I was inspired to re-read the only Thomas Pynchon novel I’d ever read, which I’d liked very much and been meaning to take another run at for years. That was, as you might guess, The Crying of Lot 49, a ’60s tale of possible conspiracy and definite paranoia. Reading about it afterwards, I came upon thomaspynchon.com — not an official site, despite the straightforward name — which linked to their series of Wikis on each of his novels; and right at the top of the Crying of Lot 49 one was a subsection entitled “And now… The Movie…”, complete with a YouTube link. So I watched that and now I’m reviewing it because, you know, that’s what I do.

Although details are fairly scarce on the film’s YouTube page, it appears to be a student short, possibly only made for some school project. It adapts the entire novel in just seven minutes, solely through meaningful images and music — there are no actors, no dialogue, no voiceover. A solid knowledge of the book is essential to understand what’s going on and why certain imagery has been chosen; without it, I think the film would come across as utterly meaningless. Even with it, you find yourself grasping back to memories of the novel to work out what you’re being shown and why.

Some images are lifted out of the text wholesale, like representing an approaching city as a circuitboard. In the novel, it’s a memorable visual simile; on screen, its effectiveness is bluntly underlined (you can, literally, see what Pynchon means), though in the context of the film it’s an odd item to just pop up. Most of the rest of the film is more literal, picking out locations and things to show that will (or may) trigger a memory of the appropriate part of the book. That’s where a viewer will get the narrative from — as a film in its own right, it’s unfollowable. As someone in the comments accurately describes it, “This feels like a version of [the novel] done by Microsoft’s Summarize Text feature. It’s all basically there but coherence and cohesion have been thrown out the Windows.”

It’s probably not fair to judge The Crying of Lot 49 by normal moviemaking standards. As a high school project to summarise a novel in a few minutes of video (which it may or may not be), it’s probably alright. Otherwise, though, it’s not worth the seven minutes; not even for die-hard fans of the author and/or novel. It is, you might say, a W.A.S.T.E. of time. #injoke

1 out of 5

The Crying of Lot 49 can be watched on YouTube.

Bill the Galactic Hero (2014)

2014 #128
Alex Cox, Merritt Crocker, Amanda Gostomski, Danny Beard, Alicia Ramirez, Jordan Thompson & Raziel Scher | 90 mins | download | 16:9 | USA / English

Bill the Galactic HeroAlex Cox was once the director of noticed movies like Repo Man and Sid and Nancy, tipped for Hollywood success. That wasn’t really his style, though, and he wound up heading into ultra-indie territory, ultimately to “microfeatures” — films made so cheaply they fall below the Screen Actors Guild cut-off of $200,000. I confess that the only previous film of his I’ve seen is one of these: Repo Chick, a non-sequel to Repo Man that most people hate but I kinda loved. So when it turned out he was crowdfunding a new film, and a satirical science-fiction comedy at that, I jumped on it (readers with long memories may remember I mentioned it at the time). The finished result finally came out back in December, and… well…

To start at the beginning, Bill the Galactic Hero is an SF comedy novel by Harry Harrison. It’s a spoof of right-wing militaristic sci-fi, specifically Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (which was also lampooned in its own film adaptation (apparently — I’ve still not seen it)). The story sees a lad from a backwater planet, Bill (James Miller), being tricked into joining the intergalactic military, who are locked in a never-ending war with reptilian aliens called Chingers. We follow him through his training, his dispatch aboard a war(space)ship, and adventures beyond. The novel is very good — not packed with gags and perhaps not often laugh-out-loud funny, but consistently wry in its outlook. You can see it would be a tough sell as an adaptation, mind, so an alternative director like Cox is probably the perfect fit.

Colorado bouldersThe way he’s gone about filming it is as, essentially, a giant student film. Cox currently teaches film at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and it was along with his students (plus some professional colleagues from previous films) that this movie was produced — that’s partly why there’s the lengthy list of directors (Cox actually directed “most of the first act and all the third”, as discussed in this interview with Quiet Earth). For various legal reasons, it’s a not-for-profit venture; indeed, any venue in the world can acquire a good-enough-to-screen quality copy from Cox for free, so long as it’s being shown in aid of charity. (That, and other interesting points, are discussed in this interview with Boulder Weekly.) The film is also available online, for free, here. This combination of factors (student film; shown only for charity; etc) makes it a little hard to be judgemental about it — witness, for instance, this ‘review’ from Boulder Weekly. But judge we must, and, sadly, in many ways it’s just not very good.

Things start badly with a colourful animated opening. I can see why this was judged to be the most cost-effective way to relate that part of the tale, as it’s set on an alien planet and filled with background extras and future-technology, but considering the amount of cardboard-and-Sellotape set dressing later in the film, surely they could have rustled something up? I also simply don’t like the style of the animation. Its painfully-bright colourfulness provides a contrast to what follows that is nearly appropriate, Awful animationbut there’s no transition from it into the black-and-white live-action main film, just an abrupt cut (a good place to have put the title credits, at the very least!) Worst of all, no effort whatsoever is made to establish that the cartoon guy we saw being enlisted at the start is now a live-action guy with a teddybear strapped to his spacesuit. It took me a minute to get it, and I’ve read the book.

The cast are kept in full spacesuit gear the whole time. This sounded like a bad idea, and it is. It’s hard to relate to their facelessness, harder still to tell the supporting characters apart. That’s also a flaw of the screenplay and direction, neither of which allow enough time to establish anyone. A lot of the supporting cast are fleeting anyway — as I said, we follow Bill across multiple situations, each with a new group of people around him — but the potential impact of certain scenes involving characters like Eager Beager and Deathwish Drang is lost thanks to the lack of early investment. Even central Bill is lacking in personality or identifiability, particularly so considering he’s the main character. This is in some ways a problem inherited from the novel, where Bill is a blank canvas floating through his various adventures. I don’t know if that was intentional on Harrison’s part, but it didn’t work for me in the book and it doesn’t here either.

The spacesuit decisionAfter a hurried start, the film does settle down to slightly longer scenes with more of a point, like Bill’s encounter with the Laundry Officer-cum-Chaplain, and some of these work pretty well. Sadly, too much of the time it’s a race through the novel’s story, feeling like a filmed recap for those who’ve read the book. Goodness knows what someone who hasn’t would make of it all. Goodness knows if they’d even be able to follow it at all, to be frank.

Not all of the adaptation’s ideas are poor, though. The novel was written in 1965, bang in the middle of the Vietnam War. For the film, Cox has substituted the final act’s Vietnam-inspired jungle planet for an era-appropriate Middle East-inspired dustbowl. An ingenious idea, though there’s little (or no) commentary on the past couple of decades of Western military intervention once you get past that obvious observation. Ah well.

The live-action parts (i.e. most of the film) are shot on black-and-white film stock, though I’m not convinced they should have bothered — video would’ve been cheaper, and probably looked much the same in the end. That said, there’s an oppressively dark feel to much of the cinematography, with numerous deep blacks crowding in, which is surely the result of using real film. It’s quite appropriate to the story’s tone, a very dry satire of a controlling future dystopia. Conversely, the special effects look great. They’re the kind of lo-fi models-and-basic-CGI style that I had been expecting, and they nail the intended tone in a way other elements are too amateurish to quite reach.

lo-fi models and basic CGI

Unfortunately, the audio quality is quite poor. The spacesuit decision reveals itself to be a bad idea once again when it muffles all the dialogue. Halfway through one character is subtitled, and I’m not sure why — she’s just as clear as everyone else. That is to say, not very; but no one else has subtitles so why does she? Possibly this could all be to do with the film being mixed for 5.1 by people inexperienced in doing so (Cox admitted as much himself) and then poorly downmixed to stereo for the online version that I watched. Perhaps the 5.1 version on the DVD comes over better? (I do have a copy, but haven’t brought myself to watch it to find out.) The end credits scroll under a new song by Iggy Pop, which I actually rather liked.

The sad thing is, I think the film could have been so much better. And I don’t mean by making it ‘properly’, either. Cox has shown he can make microfeatures work, and I don’t believe student films (which this essentially is) are fundamentally meritless. Even the production values, low-rent as they are, are fine if that’s what you’re expecting (and, given the film’s background, you should be). No, the problem lies in the storytelling: a pace that rushes through the novel at such speed that only someone familiar with it could keep up; a lack of time spent establishing characters and situations; rough editing and sound design that obscure elements and, without any breathing room elsewhere, leave you no space to work out the gaps and catch up.

HandyBill the Galactic Hero might be best described as a noble failure. It’s been created with the best of intentions, both in terms of adapting a quality novel that Hollywood had no interest in, and in training up a new generation of filmmakers in an independent and proactive way. It’s a shame the end result isn’t wholly as enjoyable as it might’ve been.

2 out of 5

Bill the Galactic Hero is now available to stream or download, for free, on Vimeo.

Verity (2010)

2010 #118a
Stephen Cheung | 9 mins | streaming

There’s probably a worthwhile biopic to be made about Verity Lambert. In 1963, she became not only the youngest-ever producer of a BBC television programme, but the first female one too; the programme she was charged with launching was Doctor Who, which she took from a short-commission no-hoper to a firm part of the national culture — and we all know what’s happened to it since she left in 1965. Her extensive career continued until her death in 2007, encompassing such televisual landmarks (for good or ill) as The Naked Civil Servant, Quatermass, Minder, G.B.H., Eldorado and Jonathan Creek.

This nine-minute effort from student screenwriters Thomas Cowell and Joey Guy is, unsurprisingly, not that biopic. Wisely, it focuses on the start of Lambert’s producing career, dramatising the events around her being chosen by Sydney Newman (then the BBC’s Head of Drama) to shepherd his idea for an educational science-fiction children’s drama, its initial ratings failure and, shortly after, its ratings success. The film’s tagline — “men, bitches and Daleks” — sums up its thematic concerns: Lambert argues with the man who hired her, faces animosity from other female members of staff, and saves the day by forcing the Daleks into the series despite Newman’s forbiddance.

Verity in VerityBefore I set off really critiquing the film, let’s just remember this: it’s a student effort. In that context, I’ve seen far worse — heck, I’ve been involved in the production of worse. Cowell and Guy have set themselves an almost Herculean task by choosing a period tale, which obviously necessitates all sorts of extra effort in terms of costumes, locations, dialogue… And to make it worse, they’ve chosen the ’60s, evoked so faultlessly in almost 40 hours (and counting) of Mad Men. Of course a low/no-budget student film can’t compete with an expensive, acclaimed US TV series; and actually, Verity does a fair job of recreating its era… visually.

The comparison with Mad Men comes up in more than just the visuals though, because that also deals extensively with gender politics in the ’60s. Here, Verity can’t compete. Dialogue is too on the nose — some of the language they use freely is implausible for the era; the way they often bluntly state their point is implausible for any time. “I’m making history” is an unlikely thing for anyone to say ever.

In terms of these specific events, it doesn’t fare much better. Accuracy to facts can occasionally be ignored if it makes for a good story, and Verity’s outright rebellion against Newman’s “no bug-eyed monsters” mandate might appear to be that, but its execution is left wanting. She storms into his office and informs him the Daleks will be in the series, Verity in Sydney's officewhich he accepts with merely a muttered “damn” when she leaves. Sorry, what? There’s nothing believable in that scene, never mind accurate.

After the ratings success of the Daleks’ first appearance, Newman can’t help but think of the “merchandising opportunities”. Really? A lot of stuff was indeed produced during Dalekmania in the mid-’60s, but this is still the state-funded BBC and 14 years before Star Wars — not to mention that Verity brandishes a Dalek toy, which wouldn’t be produced until 1965. (If you really want it rubbed in, the prop she’s holding is clearly a new series toy.)

Ten minutes isn’t much to play with, true, but I think it’s fine for a version of this story. Cowell and Guy have picked their scenes well, it’s just that the actions and words they’ve filled the scenes with don’t ring true. This is only partially the fault of the cast’s rampant overacting — though, in fairness, I think Rachel Watson is fighting against an affected southern/period accent as Verity, and Brian Clarke gives quite a good performance as Newman.

Sydney Newman in VerityTechnically, the piece is just as much a mixed bag. Stephen Cheung’s direction picks out some decent angles, avoiding the flat point-and-shoot trap some student filmmakers are apt to fall into, while the sepia-ish wash helps the period tone and adds a small amount of welcome gloss. The editing is a little rough around the edges, particularly at scene changes and toward the end. YouTube claims it’s viewable in 1080p — whether something went wrong in shooting, editing or at YouTube’s end I don’t know, but it isn’t that high quality. (This last point doesn’t impact on my score at all, it’s just an observation.)

I’d like to say Verity is a good effort, but though it has a few things going for it — and even allowing for the fact it’s a student film — it would clearly benefit from better research and greater subtlety in characters’ actions and dialogue. Must try harder.

2 out of 5

Verity is available on YouTube.

Three years later, the BBC told the same story in Mark Gatiss’ TV movie An Adventure in Space and Time, which is properly brilliant.