Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Autopilot

You ever watch a movie or read a book and feel like the writer/director is just phoning it in? I've been having that feeling a lot lately. I think I first became aware of this as I was reading "Under the Dome" by Stephen King. I already went on a rant over his use of stereotypes, so I won't belabor the point. But lately it seems like whenever I try to read something by a favorite author, or even watch a movie by a director who is usually reliable, I am ho-hummed to death. Is it me? Or does it seem like once a certain level of success is achieved, people just stop trying? I started musing on this topic after trying to read Grave Secret by Charlaine Harris. I've been a fan of Harris ever since her first Sookie Stackhouse book came out. She was one of the first to really tap into the paranormal romance market and Sookie is still a unique character in a market littered with spunky female heroines. Harris parlayed that success into several other directions with a cable television show and another series of books featuring another unusual lead character-- and I've been enjoying all of it; until now. The Harper Connelly Mysteries, Harris' other paranormal series, is slightly controversial in nature in that the main character (spoiler warning) engages in a sexual relationship with her step-brother. I don't particularly object to this as a plot-line, I'm all for taking risks and letting the story go where the author wants it to go. But in reading this book I noticed that Harris has started treading familiar ground with her writing by letting religion be the requisite bad guy. I have a real love-hate relationship with religion in fiction. I love it when authors play with biblical lore, but I hate it when authors use religious fanatics as the go-to villain; it's just too easy and it's been done to death. Where Harris went wrong with her book is that she falls back on a bible-thumping relative to be the voice of disapproval when it comes to the step-sibling relationship when, let's face it, most people, regardless of religion, are going to raise their eyebrows when confronted with that information. No matter how you broach that topic, there is an ick factor that can't be denied. I'm thinking Harris could have found many diverse ways to deal with the prejudice the characters felt directed at them without even needing to deal with religious disapproval. I doubt it would have even been that hard to do. And, the thing is, Harris has done this before. Anyone who has read her Sookie Stackhouse books, or watched the series "True Blood," knows that Harris worked in the religious-fanatic storyline by creating a church devoted to the destruction of the vampires who populate that series. And while I'm willing to acknowledge that that's a pretty realistic avenue to go down-- what church wouldn't declare vampires are an abomination? I'm probably considered a bad person by some just for reading about it. But I'm also willing to bet that the public at large would freak out if vampires and werewolves turned out to be more than figments of the imagination. I know sometimes I'm scared of swimming in the ocean because I'm not at the top of the food-chain when I tread those waters--so seeing fangs paired with human intelligence would worry me profoundly. But I guess dealing with those issues makes it hard for the vampire to be the romantic leading character doesn't it? I guess Harris' autopilot steers at religion. But I can't fault Harris too much. She's got it right to a point. And she's not nearly as guilty as others when it comes to working on autopilot. I've really been enjoying the videos posted by Red Letter Media on YouTube that deconstruct the "Star Wars" prequels and movies like "Avatar." Those of us who grew up on the original "Star Wars" trilogy know that the prequel movies don't hold up and after watching the Red Letter Media critiques it's pretty obvious that George Lucas tried to get away with a re-hash of his earlier films with jazzed up visuals. James Cameron pretty much does the same thing with "Avatar"-- who needs more than a superficial plot when you have pretty pictures flitting across the screen? Lately it's very hard to find entertainment by an established name that works as hard as they did when they were establishing themselves. Tim Burton barely seemed to lift a finger with "Alice in Wonderland"-- it's very Burton-ish in appearance but very forgettable. So I guess Lucas, Cameron and Burton all have autopilots that steer toward dazzling the eye but not the mind. I could go on listing examples but something tells me that you know exactly what I'm talking about. I'm bored with the entertainment I've been presented with lately... I think I'll go watch "The Dark Knight" again and pray that Christopher Nolan keeps on caring about Batman.

9 comments:

Steve Malley said...

I've often wondered about this: Is the ennui mine, or the creator's?

Either way, it's always awesome to find a fresh new voice!

Charles Gramlich said...

I've noticed this too, and I think part of it is the relentless push for more and more product. Good stuff needs TIME to be worked on and developed, and so few authors and movie makers have that time these days.

Jim Haley said...

My wife loves Mary Higgans Clark, but she claims that author has been phoning it in for years now.

For filmmakers (or TV producers) who I think still have their edge, I'd go to Ron Moore, Joss Whedon, and JJ Abrams. More often than not, Spielberg is still capable of greatness in his filmmaking as well. Sure, he has some duds, but he's not afraid of that which works to his advantage. I think some of the filmmakers you're talking about (and some you haven't mentioned, like maybe Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi) become afraid of failure, so they stick with what works instead of taking a risk. Lucas' last risk was probably either Willow or Young Indiana Jones Chronicles - both of which were 'failures' and seem to have driven him to just return to what 'works'.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Christopher Nolan can do no wrong.

Skip the remake of Clash of the Titans. That was even worse than your average 'phoning it in.' Paint by number doesn't work when the picture is awful.

Scott Marlowe said...

For me, it's a combination of "been there, done that" and age.

I just re-watched The Dark Knight for only the 2nd time. What a great movie.

SQT said...

Steve-- I'm happy if an old voice doesn't seem tired. I just got done reading the 20th "Prey" book by John Sandford and still think it's a solid series. Maybe it's phoned in a little but it's still really good. I wish everyone could keep up that kind of consistency.

Charles-- Yeah, there's always the pressure to deliver.

Jim-- Ron Moore & Joss Whedon still have it IMO. I'm not sure about JJ Abrams. I liked the newest Star Trek, but there are times when I feel like the guy just likes to run audiences in circles. And I'm still not sure I've forgiven Spielberg for "The Crystal Skull" yet.

Alex-- Nolan is the top of the heap IMO. That's a shame about "Clash of the Titans." I used to watch that movie all the time as a kid.

Scott-- I think "The Dark Knight" is pretty much flawless.

Kendama said...

But I'm also willing to bet that the p*bic at large would freak out... [censored slightly to get past moderation]

You might want to correct that. :)

Anonymous said...

Bernard Cornwell and the late, great Robert B. Parker are two authors I've loved but can't read any more.

Cornwell can transplant his characters to whatever time period he wants but after the first 12 or so Sharpe novels, it's mostly the same notes again and again. You can tell by chapter 4 of any of his books which characters will be filling which roles.

Parker coasted for the last 20 years and probably has a bunch of books to be published posthumously. I still ove the early Spensers (and the Tom Selleck Jesse Stone movies) but I gave up reading him long ago.

SQT said...

Kendama-- Yikes. That's one that the spell check didn't catch for me. Late night proofreading is not exactly reliable. Thanks.

Anon-- I remember reading a book by Danielle Steele years ago and thinking it wasn't bad. Then I read the second one and it was virtually identical to the first, just with different characters and settings. I guess some people pick a formula and stick to it.