saving the lost world

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When word came in that Jurassic World would effectively ignore the previous two installments in the Jurassic Park franchise and act as a direct sequel to the 1993 original, fans rejoiced. Like the Terminator and Alien franchises, which have and are currently employing similar strategies, the Jurassic Park franchise is in the paradoxical position of being a beloved property of which fans generally disapprove. The selective sequelling strategy is opportune then, as it takes all the best qualities of the reboot approach (a clean slate for storytelling, free from years of convoluted back-story and narrative detours) while circumventing its drawbacks (telling the origin all over again). The James Bond series has been doing this since its inception, and only ever to its benefit, but it can create its own form of convolution – certain movies being “less canon” than others and all the headaches that qualified absolute phrase inspires – and it runs the risk of measuring a movie’s worth solely on its narrative relevance to a larger franchise, instead of on its own artistic and historical merits.

1997’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg’s follow-up to his 1993 blockbuster, is not in dire need of defense or resurrection. It was a major Hollywood studio production that turned into a major box-office hit, it spawned a galaxy of merchandise, it fared decently with critics, and it was nominated for an Academy Award. But as evidenced by its reputation amongst the people currently in charge of the Jurassic Park property, it’s a movie held in much lower esteem than its predecessor, generally regarded as an inferior and forgettable sequel to an all-time classic. The shadow of Jurassic Park is not an easy one to thrive under, its landmark achievement in computer-generated effects, coupled with its iconic suspense sequences, will forever make it the essential entry into the franchise. But when divorced from its (not-insignificant) technical accomplishments and setpieces, Jurassic Park has little to say for itself, the initial criticisms about its flat characterizations and underdeveloped story all the more glaring upon contemporary viewings. There’s nothing resembling Spielberg’s restraint in Jaws, which held off on revealing its shark for a good hour, not only building suspense but also a solid, character-based foundation for its scares. Jurassic Park has significantly more interest in its dinosaurs than it does its humans, and while The Lost World also wastes no time in getting to the dinosaurs, and at times too bluntly attempts to recall or upstage its predecessor, its strongest elements are those that set it apart entirely – not only from the original, but from Spielberg’s prior filmography. Where the first Jurassic Park is entirely of a piece with Spielberg’s earlier work – Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the Indiana Jones movies, etc. – The Lost World is the first of its kind for the director, a rough draft of the form of filmmaking he’d perfect come the new millennium.

The Lost World was Spielberg’s first movie to begin production after what was by far his most somber work to date, 1993’s holocaust drama Schindler’s List. Schindler’s List had hung around Spielberg for nearly a decade, as he tried to pass the project along to other directors, unsure of his ability to handle the weight and scope of the story. Production didn’t begin until MCA-Universal president Sid Sheinberg agreed to finance the project, on the condition that Spielberg film Jurassic Park first. “He knew that once I had directed Schindler I wouldn’t be able to do Jurassic Park,” Spielberg said, and thanks to The Lost World, we don’t have to imagine how the reverse would have played out.

The Lost World marked Spielberg’s second collaboration with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, with whom he worked first on Schindler’s List and every release up to and including the forthcoming Bridge of Spies and The BFG.  Kaminski’s trademark shadows and sunlight set the film apart from its colorful and broadly-lit predecessor, the theme-park-artifice and majestic framing of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park traded out for a murkier and more organic palette, and compositions that often obscure the total grandeur of the dinosaurs, opting to make them more a part of the scene rather than the focus of it. Likewise, production designer Rick Carter and the costume department follow suit, using dirt, grime, and rust in place of shiny metallic surfaces, the khaki and camouflage disappearing (as it should) into the environment. Even composer John Williams, who has sometimes been known to wield his baton like a bludgeon, is relatively restrained here, holding off the original’s iconic theme until the last moments of the film.
 
LongGrassRaptors.png
 
Spielberg and company no longer bore the burden of making the dinosaur movie as they did with Jurassic Park, and as such could afford to tone down the roller-coaster bombast, though this may have hurt the film in the long run. Though it made a very respectable $618 million at the worldwide box office, its middling critical reception and diminishing reputation since is likely rooted it being perceived as a mere “monster movie,” as Roger Ebert noted. “Where is the awe?” he asked, and save for a few trademark Spielberg gazes and a killer shot of the T.Rex roaring in front of the San Diego skyline, there is indeed little awe to be found.

Yet what weakens the film more now are its callbacks to the original material and its reticence to fully conform to its aesthetic darkness. There was prescience in Sheinberg’s belief that Spielberg wouldn’t be able to do Jurassic Park after Schindler’s List, but Spielberg was less willing to admit it, even after the four-year hiatus between Schindler and The Lost World (the longest break of his career). “I wanted to step in the shallow end and get used to the water. I wanted to do something familiar,” he told Peter Biskind, though this didn’t quite work to his liking, as later on he would say he found himself asking, “Is that all there is? It’s not enough for me,” during the shoot.

Spielberg is his most restless in the film’s familiar moments, either in the sequel-typical “one more time” opening scenes, or in sequences that have direct equivalents in Jurassic Park.   Having all of its expositional heavy-lifting done in the first installment, The Lost World cuts right to the chase. Park founder and former InGen CEO John Hammond (Richad Attenborough) hires Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcolm to go Isla Sorna, the so-called “Site B” where the park’s dinosaurs were bred and continue to thrive without human interference. Malcolm is incredulous at the proposal, sarcastically batting down Hammond’s enthusiasm and abrupt shift in character – “So you went from capitalist to naturalist in just four years. That’s – that’s something.” (He stops just short of turning to the camera and rolling his eyes. See Ray Winstone-as-Spielberg facing down the camera and shrugging “I’m a capitalist, and they pay,” in Indiana Jones in the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.) Malcolm – publically humiliated after his account of the park got him laughed out the scientific community – only agrees to the mission when he learns that his zoologist girlfriend Dr. Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore) is already on the island and thus susceptible to danger. It’s not an accident that Jurassic Park’s least enchanted character has taken the lead here. Not only was Malcolm’s ironic commentary the original film its best means of making its absurdities palatable, Goldblum is especially gifted at turning the blandest dialog into the most inventive line readings this side of Christopher Walken, and David Koepp’s script has no shortage of clunkers.

The film’s first major suspense sequence is a conscious evocation of Jurassic Park’s T-Rex attack. Our heroes – Malcolm, Sarah, Malcolm’s stowaway daughter Kelly (Vanessa Lee Chester), along with engineer Eddie Carr and documentarian/environmental activist Nick Van Owen (Richard Schiff and Vince Vaughn, respectively) – realize that they are not the lone expedition on the island. Peter Ludlow (Arliss Howard), current InGen CEO and Hammond’s nephew, has brought along a team of big game hunters and scientists in order to track and bag a Tyrannosaurus Rex for display in San Diego. Under the advisement of international game hunter Roland Tembo (the late, great Pete Postlethwaite), they have captured a baby T-Rex as bait. When Sarah and Nick free it and return it to their RV for medical attention, they attract the vengeful ire of not just one, but both Tyrannosaur parents. The scene directly evokes its counterpart sequence in Jurassic Park – rippling water set to distant booms, dinosaur eyes peering right into windows, shattering glass, toppling vehicles, a thunderstorm – and it delivers the goods, especially when the RV is sent dangling over the edge of cliff and Sarah is stuck on the slowly cracking rear window. It’s Hollywood’s premiere action filmmaker shooting a literal cliffhanger, but it also smacks of the self-conscious, uninspired, one-upping endemic to sequels – two T-Rexes instead of one, Eddie ripped in half by the dinosaurs in a long take while Jurassic Park merely plucked a man off a toilet – and the shoehorned comic relief – angry Spanish-speaking radio dispatchers, the dangling heroes requesting cheeseburgers along with the rope – doesn’t help any.

The jokes are duds and delivered with fleeting commitment, and they pervade the rest of the film, including the cringeworthy moment in which Kelly employs middle-school gymnastics to kick a velociraptor out of a window. But what darkness there is The Lost World is rooted and potent, and all the more so for how jarringly it stands next to the perfunctory light moments. What’s unique about the attack scene is what puts it in motion. The rexes and raptors in Jurassic Park were solely motivated by their predatorial instincts, no different from the shark in Jaws. Here the Tyrannosaurs have a personal stake in matters, and a distinctly Spielbergian one at that. The core objective of nearly every Spielberg plot from ET to Empire of the Sun to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade has been to protect and/or reunite the family unit, more often than not in the form of a rescue mission. While Malcolm only agrees to travel to Isla Sorna when he learns that Sarah is there, and the stakes are raised when he discovers that his teenage daughter has snuck along for the ride, these threats to the family unit are a false lead. Malcolm finds Sarah mere moments after setting foot on the island’s shores, and Kelly is rarely out of the protective reach of her guardians. The real family under threat in The Lost World is that of island’s nuclear T-Rex unit, and when the injured baby squeals in pain the audience is meant to empathize. The conflict of the attack is thus considerably less clear-cut than its counterpart in Jurassic Park, as two families try to protect themselves, their mutual provocateur absent from the showdown. These murkier stakes don’t readily endear the movie to viewers the way the first film did, but the attack sequence is hardly a lesser effort in scares and suspense, and it packs a more provocative punch. When the Rex parents nab Eddie, his death is more unsettling than any in the first film, not so much because Eddie is an innocent, but because the brutality has an emotional and righteous motive.
 

 
Their equipment sent over a cliff and their engineer ripped to shreds, the heroes have no choice but to join Ludlow and the mercenaries in their search for a way off the island. While the stakes in this stretch are at times more conventional (raptors don’t need an excuse to kill), the invitation to root for the humans isn’t so plain as it was before. Where Jurassic Park could not imagine a human menace greater than its carnivorous creatures, The Lost World does – as per this exchange between Tembo and Malcolm: “My point is, predators don’t hunt when they’re not hungry.” “Yeah, only humans do.”

In adapting Jurassic Park to the screen, Spielberg and Koepp made numerous changes to Michael Crichton’s novel, one of the more crucial being in the characterization of John Hammond. Crichton, ever skeptical of the influence profit-chasing suits had over science and medicine, painted Hammond in the manner he did most executives – arrogant, miserly, and near-Machiavellian in his pursuit of capital.  Nevertheless, Hammond is a shameless dreamer and a benevolent family man, something that no doubt resonated with Spielberg.  The film’s Hammond is thus written more as foil than antagonist, somewhere between Francois Truffaut’s Claude Lacombe in Close Encounters of the Third Kind  (an authority figure whose nominal opposition to the hero is trumped by a mutual sense of idealism) and Jaws‘s Mayor Vaughn (whose penny-pinching is cast aside once his family is threatened).  Consequently, Jurassic Park on film has no major human antagonist.  Wayne Knight’s computer professional/bumbling idiot Dennis Nedry comes the closest, but he’s merely a figure to set the main conflict in motion – once he’s disabled the park’s security systems, his function is fulfilled and he is promptly killed off.

The Lost World differs even more dramatically from its source material, but in a sense remains more faithful to Crichton’s Jurassic Park by grafting the negative qualities of the novel’s Hammond onto Ludlow. Ludlow stinks of villainy the moment he walks on-screen, all faux-aristocratic body language and condescending dialog (“This suit costs more than your education.”). His money-grubbing arrogance, coupled with his willful ignorance of the catastrophic events of the last film (and the last act of King Kong, for that matter) pits him as the film’s unambiguous villain. On the second tier stands Postlethwaite’s Tembo, less enchanted by money, forgoing payment for an opportunity to hunt a T-Rex. Together they personify the twin failures Spielberg considered The Lost World’s themes: “the failure of people to find restraints in themselves and the failure of morality to protect these animals.” Bold words for a fast-tracked sequel to a movie about a dinosaur island, perhaps, but words nevertheless confirmed within the film.

Human and moral failures abound in The Lost World, inciting Spielberg’s passions more than any other element of the film, and informing its grimmest sequences. Crichton afforded Hammond a cruel but karmic death in the Jurassic Park novel, having him eaten alive by compsognathi after attempting to flee the site. Spielberg eased up, seeing it as punishment enough for Hammond to have a few dead souls on his conscience and witness the collapse of his dream. No longer so intent on forgiveness, Spielberg employs poetic justice with a vengeance The Lost World. After observing a harmless compy of which he is told has “no reason…to fear man” Dieter Stark, Tembo’s cruel and drunk right-hand man (Peter Stormare) coldly torments it with his cattle prod, slurring “Now it does.” Later, when relieving himself in a river, Stark again encounters the compys, now traveling in a large pack. Though the scene initially casts them as more of a slapstick-inspiring nuisance, the longer the scene goes on (and it is long), the tone shifts. Stark is lost, helpless, and sauced, and the compys are hungry and aware of his vulnerability. Pathetic as Stark is, Spielberg has no sympathy for him and lets him die a protracted and audibly gruesome death, the director’s allegiances wholly with the dinosaurs. When the heroes discover the caged and wounded dinosaurs in Ludlow’s camp, there’s real empathy in how Spielberg shoots them, scarcely different from the unjustly contained and hospitalized titular alien in E.T. The difference here is that these creatures have an appetite for humans, and Spielberg provides them with a full buffet.
 

 
When the transported T-Rex is running amok in San Diego in the film’s climax, Ludlow is shocked and remorseful to the point of near-catatonia, and Malcolm-as-narrator drives the point home by bluntly telling him “Now you’re John Hammond.” (Even he, it seems, was conscious of the re-casting.) Though T-Rex is deadly and destructive in its rampage, Spielberg inflects the entire sequence with comedy. Japanese tourists run and scream a-la Godzilla, a Phillips-76 gas station globe rolls down the street in a quick nod to Raiders of the Lost Ark, and a family screams in terror as the T-Rex devours the family dog in their backyard, a micro dino-edition of Poltergeist. Spielberg doesn’t grieve the losses of any civilians, even those who haven’t transgressed against the dinosaurs. The conflict of this sequence is again the separation of the family, and it finds its resolution not in the defeat of the T-Rex, but in the dino’s reunion with its kidnapped child. Moreover, the guilt-wrecked Ludlow isn’t let off the hook post-reunion. The parental Rex corners Ludlow in the cargo hold, briefly eases off, and lets the child finish the job in what is presumably its first kill.

Cosmic justice was no stranger to the Spielberg canon prior to The Lost World – the villains in the Indiana Jones films all get their just desserts in exceptionally graphic fashion – but rarely had he characterized villains with such cynicism. The Nazis and cultists of the Jones movies are oddball maniacs, the government agents of E.T. faceless and ultimately harmless, and Hook a literal mustache-twirler – always in the minority, never the majority.  The shift in characterization for Spielberg’s antagonists found its ferment four years earlier in Schindler’s List.  Though the film drew some criticism for making its central Nazi (Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Goeth) a temperamental sociopath instead of a compliant soldier or rationalizing bureaucrat, the film is nevertheless cognizant of the more insidious strains in society that perhaps better typified Nazism and allowed it to thrive.  Schindler himself is initially an opportunistic capitalist intent on exploiting Jews for cheap labor, and the pervasiveness of Nazi ideology is harrowingly exemplified in a pre-teen blonde girl who taunts “Goodbye Jews!” to the citizens rounded up in the Krakow ghetto. Spielberg later referred to the shooting as “unbearable,” the cast and crew facing anti-Semitic graffiti and off-camera abuse from unrepentant locals (all whilst living among recreations of Plaszow and Auschwitz of their own making, no less).

This is not to say that Spielberg inflected every subsequent film with Holocaust metaphor, or that The Lost World’s hubristic scientists and businessmen should be read as Nazi analogues. Rather Ludlow, Stark, and the mercenaries demonstrate a shift away from the abnormal madmen of Spielberg prior, enabled now by capitalism and emblematic of the imperial tendencies once equally associated with his protagonists. The heroic crew of the Orca in Jaws has no reservations about hunting the shark in its natural habitat, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom comes off as a paean to white colonialism, and the central failing of the titular Jurassic Park isn’t so much that the dinosaurs are caged, but that cages are inadequate. In and of themselves the aforementioned movies and their brethren don’t engage with these issues directly, much of their success derived from their narrow focus and consequent immediacy of their stakes. Post-Schindler, global and historical implications could no longer be ignored in Spielberg’s work, thus muddying the once clear-cut morality that defined his filmmaking. The shift is clear in the films that flank Schindler’s List – in Jurassic Park and The Lost World, Hammond and Ludlow have near-identical occupations and goals, but one is a hero while the other is a villain.

In the films that followed, the once unambiguous villains of his work were supplanted by characters with sinister motives inexorable from their social authority, morally grey counteractors, and faceless forces of destruction. Minority Report’s Lamar Burgess is the corrupt inventor of the system by which the hero lives, the family is threatened equally by aliens as they are humans in War of the Worlds, and the line between terrorism and counter-terrorism is blurred beyond distinction in Munich. Moreover, the heroic Spielberg surrogates once exemplified by dreamers like Close Encounters’ Roy Neary and Hook’s Peter Banning become harder to find, and less romanticized once identified, as when Frank Abignale Jr.’s twin pursuit of family and adventure in Catch Me If You Can ultimately leads him to neither. It all begins with Ian Malcolm in The Lost World, disenchanted and impervious to awe, and Tembo and his trophy-collecting mercenaries, whose reverence for their quarry and irreverence for international law is only steps removed from that of globetrotting pillager Indiana Jones.

The central thesis of Schindler’s List, communicated by Ben Kingsley’s Stern in its final moments, as well as by one of its taglines, is a phrase from the Talmud: “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.” Before Schindler, Spielberg seemed to believe this without question, but as it has been mentioned, the state of the “world entire” never took precedence over the “life of one.”  E.T.‘s presence is scarcely felt outside of the suburbs, the collapse of Imperial Japan after the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in Empire of the Sun is primarily an instigator for Jim’s family reunion, and Indiana Jones and friends stop the Nazis from acquiring powerful ancient relics, but prevent little else. In The Lost World and what follows, the weight of the world entire grows heavier and heavier, the victories harder won and their voids more nakedly exposed. Cinque and his attorneys win him his freedom from slavery in Amistad but he returns to Africa to find his family gone and presumably sold off, and while Saving Private Ryan might be the “one decent thing” the men do in that “whole god-awful shitty mess,” it warrants numerous casualties that haunt Ryan into old age. The family reunions that were once the hero’s great reward turned into mere consolation prizes amidst the endemic corruption, violence, destruction, and extinction respectively found in Minority Report, Munich, War of the Worlds, and AI.

Depending on one’s perspective, The Lost World is either a light movie with dark moments or a dark movie with light moments. While its status as a PG-13 dinosaur blockbuster with gymnastics jokes would suggest the former, Spielberg’s subsequent directorial work confirms the latter. The story concludes with the Tyrannosaur family safely reunited on Isla Sorna, which Hammond and the Costa Rican government have officially declared a nature preserve. Hammond offers the film’s thesis in the closing moments: “These creatures require our absence to survive, not our help. And if we could only step aside and trust in nature, life will find a way.” He’s directly quoting one of Malcolm’s lines from in the first film, but there’s a small but crucial difference. The “if” that precedes it casts the phrase less as a logical truth as it did coming from Malcolm and something closer to “life might find a way” – an apt summary of the nagging problem at the heart of Spielberg’s later films, most of which could neatly bear The Lost World as a subtitle. More so than its predecessor, whose name can be rattled off next to its thrill-ride siblings without a pause, The Lost World at times appears lost in the filmography of Steven Spielberg. But at this vantage, as it marks the near halfway-point of his career, it’s a portrait of both who the director was and who he has become – an uneven but compelling work by a confident director atypically unsure of his standing, one foot hoping to stay in the shallow end, the other ready to jump into deep, dark waters. While on its surface a folly, the experiment was both noble and necessary – it may have come at a cost, but life found a way.

what’s the deal with big fucking deal?

1 – CONCEPT

or WTF is BFD?


 

            You have decided to go outside and talk to people you vaguely know, perhaps with the intention of “networking,” but most likely due to the prospect of free food/booze.

            QUESTION ONE: Somebody with a good career, and possibly a similarly employed partner, who may even be responsible for multiple children, has just asked you what you do. How do you respond?

A)   Tell them you are unemployed or in food service/retail, and hope they don’t judge you as much as you judge yourself.

B)   Tell them your job is just “how you pay the rent,” and confess to making comic books.

            QUESTION TWO: “Oh comics, do you mean like graphic novels?”

A)   Yes, that is correct. I meant graphic novels.

B)   Well, sort of, you see, I wouldn’t really call my work novelesque…

C)   That’s a publishing term and not a medium, you idiot. Fuck off back to amateur hour.

            QUESTION THREE: “What are they about?

A)   Superheroes.

B)   Oh shit.


 

It doesn’t matter how many articles have been published in the past 30 years about how comics “aren’t just for kids anymore,” or how many college courses assign Maus or Persepolis every semester, I often feel delusional, or at best ambitious yet wholly misguided, when describing non-Superhero comics to the unfamiliar:

“Well…it’s like…you know Ghost World? They did a movie…not a horror movie, no, it’s more…American Splendor? Paul Giamatti…No? Harvey Pekar, this guy who worked with R. Crumb, you know R. Crumb? Yeah, yeah, “keep on truckin’.” No, nothing like that though…It’s just about kids, hanging out, not really autobiographical, sort of though, I guess “literary,” but that sounds kinda highbrow, which, well…yeah, like Archie I guess, but…” All the while the voice in the back of my head is surging towards the front, telling me to shut up, they don’t care, they were being polite and now you’re making an ass of yourself jabbering away, this is Minnesota goddamnit, and you’ve been talking about yourself for more than two minutes, you are now officially “real different…”

The problem, I’ve come to realize, isn’t so much that the general public is unfamiliar with contemporary comics, it’s that I have no idea how to summarize my work. If I could quickly tell you what BFD is about, it wouldn’t be 250 pages long.


 

The phone rings – it’s Carl. Scotty answers. Lights go up on stage right, revealing CARL, surrounded by stacks of paper, sketchbooks; his laptop sprouting endless cables – an effective techno-cephalopod. His fingers are covered in ink, which he has unknowingly smeared on his face and t-shirt.

            Carl: Hey dude, what’s up?

            Scotty: Just trying to write that little process piece thing about BFD.

            Carl: Cool. Finishing up layout. You think we should include a summary on the back of the book?

            Scotty: Jesus fucking Christ.


Okay, fine, fair enough. I can make like it’s torturous, but it has to be done – hell, it’s why I’m here right now anyway.

What is Big Fucking Deal?

Look at any “Greatest High School Movies” list, the tributes to the late John Hughes, the various critical responses to the High School Musical franchise, or matter-of-fact titles like The Secret Life of the American Teenager and you’ll find a common thread – a search for the story that Finally Gets It Right. The best of the best, it seems, are the movies that capture what it was “really like” being a teenager, that meet the elusive but apparently attainable standard of universal relatability.

And that’s ridiculous. Not only is a story for everybody really just a story for nobody, but it’s damn near impossible to write. Going into BFD I knew the project had fundamental limitations. Chronicling life in the rural Midwest meant chronicling the lives of mostly white kids, and though there’s nothing exactly wrong with that, it certainly meant I had to drop any pretensions of universal relatability right from the beginning.

Nevertheless, I had my issues with the genre, and there were things I set out to fix, to Get Right. The foremost goal with BFD was to write the comic I always wanted to read in high school, but never did, because it hadn’t been written yet. As a teenager I was tired of stories about virginity and prom and cliques and graduation. The shit I thought was interesting about my life seemed to happen just as often in classrooms or basements or backs of cars, on weekday afternoons, in months far away from graduation.

As time went on, and I got older and further removed from my teenage years, I developed a second goal: to not get bored. You know when you’re reading the work of a bored writer. I could tell my story exactly as it happened, pure autobio, but I already know how that story goes. There’d be no surprises in writing it, and likewise no surprises in reading it. In the latter half of BFD (spoiler alert!) some of our heroes go to prom. For two pages. I had a good time at mine, as I recall, and for all I know some people’s lives have changed dramatically on their prom nights. But a bunch of kids just dancing around, having a good time? I’d fall asleep at the keyboard if that went on for more than two pages, and it wouldn’t be a good time at all. And Carl would hate drawing that.

Which brings me to another goal I developed during the project, maybe the most important goal, or at least the most tangible: don’t bore the hell out of Carl. Carl and I went to High School together, and – perhaps more crucially – have spent the subsequent years reminiscing and over-analyzing our experiences together. While the characters and situations and dialog may be mine initially, Carl’s been the first person to hear any idea I’ve had, good or bad, and he’s been right there fleshing them out with me ever since this all started.

But he’s a tougher crowd than most. I don’t say that because he’s hyper-critical (though that wouldn’t be too far off a description). I say it because Carl will have to read and re-read this shit, my shit, more than anyone else ever will. More than me, even. If I’m going to ask one of my best friends to effectively study my writing for a few fucking years, then I better make it damn worth his while. I think I have. I’ve spent plenty of hours worrying about what a reader might think of BFD, but that never gets anywhere and I won’t truly know until some stranger picks it up. But I wrote it for Carl, and I’ve got him hooked. Let’s hope everyone else has his taste. If there were only more like him…

Oh yeah, did I mention that he’s a really fucking good cartoonist? It’d be a goddamned public disservice to make this guy draw bullshit for 250 pages:

BFD002_905

Shit, did I just implicitly call BFD a public service?

 

So, back to the point…what’s BFD about?

In short, Big Fucking Deal is a comic about six high school juniors living in Bluff City, MN in 2006-2007. It’s a coming-of-age story that eschews the traditional rights of passage; a story that says even the smallest moments can be a Big Fucking Deal.

Not too bad. Only took me 1,200 words to get there.

 

2 – EXECUTION

or Making a Big Fucking Deal

 

The majority of BFD was written over the course of a year I spent living in Richmond, Virginia, the year after I graduated from college. It was a good year, a great year, one of the best years…but that’s another comic (seriously, with Palmer Foley, it’s gonna be great). Which means that while Carl and I kicked around plenty of BFD in each other’s presence during the preceding few years, the first full draft of the motherfucker was completed while we were half a country apart, while I was working a full-time job washing dishes and chopping broccoli, hosting bizarre theme parties in my apartment, and making a mockumentary. So why embark on such a project?

I don’t know, I didn’t really decide to, it just happened. Like my sexuality or my recurring rabbit dreams or my love of deep-fried seafood (yes, all equally important), the compulsion to create was not a choice, or born out of any rational thinking. You wanna make a comic book about teenagers hanging out for a year? Yes! Why? Too late, I’ve already started!

I can go into the “How?” of it, though. Carl and I get asked about our process a lot, and anybody that’s asked us when we’re both present has had the good fortune of enduring something like 45 minutes of banter between a married couple that raised a comic book instead of a child. So here’s the relatively concise version (thus removing our culpability in talking your ear off should you ask us instead):

 

Step One: Scotty realizes his outline is bullshit. He wanders around the room, talks to his stuffed rabbits, Googles his name, drinks too much tea, has a beer to balance it out.

-1

 

Step Two: Scotty eventually cranks out something that resembles a scene. The requisite characters are present, they discuss things that establish their individuality and their potential dynamic, themes are implicitly addressed, and his visual descriptions could best be described as half-assed overcompensation.

1 - All My Best Friends script1

1 - All My Best Friends2

Step Three: Scotty does this throughout the script, and finishes it. He e-mails Carl.

Step Four: Carl receives the email. He reads Scotty’s work. He makes note of what he likes, and the times Scotty is asking for way too much (Scotty, that insensitive jerk, totally ignorant to the plight of the cartoonist).

Step Five: Carl and Scotty talk on the phone for hours. This consistently includes a panel-by-panel script analysis, recaps of the last episode of Community, stories of excessive spending at the comic book store, discussions of what should change in the next draft of the script, doom metal, and heaping praises on each other.  Aspects of this process were dramatized in their comic “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad…” Here, though Carl is nominally the “artist,” he contributes to the crafting of the story.

Step Six: Scotty, with his sufficiently legible notes from the phone conversation, returns to the script. He is inspired by Carl’s suggestions and enthusiasm and he is focused. The scene gets tighter, retaining the necessary elements, shedding the superfluous ideas, and gaining a visual coherence. Here, though Scotty is nominally the “writer,” he contributes to the visual components of the story.

17 Script

Step Seven: Carl reads it. It looks good enough to draw. He thumbnails. This will make the initial art less daunting, but also warn of potential problems.

bfd_one017thumbnail

 

Step Eight: Carl brings the scene to life by depicting the characters as ghosts.

bfd_one017pencils_light

To him, however, it looks more like this:

bfd_one017pencils

Step Nine: Scotty approves, because he better. Occasionally he may notice a character’s expression not quite matching his or her dialog, and Carl makes the requisite changes. Occasionally he may notice an issue with a character’s wristbone, but he should keep that shit to himself.

Step Ten: Carl applies ink to the pencils, adding depth and dimension, making the consideration he put into composition now apparent.

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He also gets to letter the dialog, which might seem wordy now, but that extended tangent about horse sex is essential to characterization and story, seriously.

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Step Eleven: Carl scans the images, and uses software to render it in a clear black and white.

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That’s it. A simple eleven-step process, that must be repeated hundreds of times over.

Photo 303Snapshot 2014-03-30 07-48-02This is fun though, really.

chuck jones 101

(cute kittens get page views)

(cute kittens get page views)

Today is the 101st birthday of the late Chuck Jones.  Though he doesn’t have his name attached to a worldwide series of theme parks, Jones is one of the most famous and prolific figures in American animation, director of over 300 cartoons featuring Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, Marvin the Martian, Pepe Le Pew, and Tom & Jerry, amongst many others.

An evaluation of the man’s entire career is better suited for a book, or even a chapter of a larger book, and I strongly encourage you check out any of the linked works if you want to learn more about Jones’s creative and collaborative process.  But today is Saturday, and I just want to watch some cartoons, and I’m assuming you do too.  As he possesses a giant filmography of which I’ve still only seen a fraction, this is a partial list, my attempt at listing the essentials.

The Undisputed Classics:

Three Jones cartoons are preserved in The National Film Registry at the Library of Congress: Duck Amuck, One Froggy Evening, and What’s Opera Doc?  It is no coincidence that they are all exemplars of his greatest strengths – timing, subtlety, expressive poses, and heaps of psychological humiliation.

Where his contemporaries like Tex Avery and Bob Clampett pushed the physicalities of their characters to extremes, Jones reigned his in, communicating his best jokes in small but nonetheless expressive movement.  When radical shifts occur, it’s in the disparity of poses, not the outrageous stretch in between, where the joke hits best.  All of this is on full display in One Froggy Evening.  Along with the comedy, the endless torrent of humiliation and frustration the construction worker experiences are communicated not with dialog, but with furrowed brows and shifting eyes.

Jones spent seven weeks instead of the usual five putting together What’s Opera, Doc?, composed of 106 shots, well over the standard 60.  Through a wide, subjective color palette and a commitment to the timing and emotional spectrum of Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” What’s Opera, Doc? is simultaneously a tongue-and-cheek riff on Fantasia and one of the most earnest of the Looney Tunes ever produced.

In Chuck Jones’s hands, Daffy Duck could sustain an entire cartoon.  While Bugs, Elmer, Porky, and the rest require a foil to bring out their personalities, Daffy’s foil is the world itself.  Nowhere else is this more evident than in Duck Amuck.  Constantly victimized by the unseen painter that relentlessly manipulates his universe, Jones reiterates a point that he often made himself in interviews – the cool, confident Bugs Bunny is who we want to be, but the pathetic, frustrated, Daffy is who we usually are.  And again, Jones communicates so much of this through Daffy’s face, not just through the bizarre landscape and costume changes.

The Hunting Trilogy:

Though Duck Amuck, What’s Opera, Doc?, and One Froggy Evening proved that Jones and his crew could pull of cartoons with one character, opera soundtracks, and no dialog, these were all successful because they were deviations from an established formula.  The three cartoons that make up the so-called “Hunting Trilogy” – Rabbit Seasoning, Rabbit Fire, and Duck Rabbit Duck! – are effectively the same premise.  Elmer Fudd is hunting, Daffy and Bugs are in the woods, whether or not is Duck or Rabbit season is in dispute, Daffy is repeatedly shot in the face.  But the cartoons rarely get boring.  Though Bugs, Elmer, and Daffy had each been around for close to a decade by the time these cartoons were produced, the three-way character dynamic infused in them by Jones and writer Michael Maltese creates an almost self-perpetuating gag machine.

More Bugs:

Jones frequently described his characterization of Bugs Bunny as a “counter-revolutionary,” who wanted nothing but to be left alone and only went into action when his antagonists finally went too far.  Outside of Elmer and Daffy, Jones gave Bugs a wide range of antagonists such as Giovanni Jones in Long-Haired Hare, Toro the bull in A Bully for Bugs, Marvin the Martian in Haredevil Hare, and Witch Hazel in Broom-Stick Bunny.  Outside of the Hunting Trilogy, one of the Best Bugs vs. Elmer cartoons is The Rabbit of Seville, another musically-driven outing in the vein of Long Haired-Hare and What’s Opera, Doc?, though considerably more gag-driven, with a joke to match nearly every musical cue.

More Daffy:

Outside of Duck Amuck and the Hunting Trilogy, Jones found many other ways to humiliate Daffy Duck, most successfully in a series of genre parodies: The Scarlet Pumpernickel (a personal favorite, in no small part for its abundance of dandyish costumes), Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century, Drip-Along Daffyand Robin Hood Daffy.   Porky joins Daffy in the latter three as a straight man (though mislabeled by Daffy as “comedy relief” in Drip-Along Daffy) providing a calm counterpoint to the increasingly angry and egotistical Daffy.

But Speaking of Frustrated Failures…

Jones’s skill with evoking a sense of empathy for even his most foolish (or at least perpetually unlucky) characters was the foundation for what might be his crowning work – the first 26 Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoons.  Redundant as they are, they remain some of his funniest, and his most effective.  In the words of animation historian Michael Barrier:

“(Jones) understood that violence must have consequences in the real world; otherwise, a gag with violence in it will seem incomplete and unsatisfying.  But the consequences can be different, and in the world of Jones’s cartoons, they are: the grisliest fate is not to be maimed or killed, but to be embarrassed…The Coyote is at the center of each gag; the long falls and tremendous explosions are simply means of making him funny.  What matters is not that a boulder is falling on the Coyote, but how he feels, as revealed in his face and body, when he sees it coming.”

As there are 26 essentially interchangeable cartoons in this series, it’s hard to recommend one of the other.  Fast and Furry-ous is the first, and after that I’d recommend just looking at this list and watching all of them, or picking based on which title pun you think is the best (Whoa, Be Gone! or Scrambled Aches are two of mine).

But wait, there’s more:

Before he honed his style, Jones started off his career with Warner Brothers making Disney-esque cutesy cartoons starring Sniffles the Mouse (they’re pretty obnoxious, I won’t provide the links).  Jones, however, was able to transfer that cuteness, and mix it in with some of most expressive work, in Feed the Kitty.  As in much of his best work, Jones’s two protagonists don’t speak, but communicate everything we need to know about them in their faces and in their body language.  The cartoon made an impact on the people at Pixar, as they pay a nearly shot-for-shot homage in Monsters, Inc.

In a bold effort to ditch his Disney-esque work in 1942, Jones made “The Dover Boys at Pimento University” or “The Rivals of Roquefort Hall.”  Based around shape-based characters and minimal motion, Dover Boys is one of the earliest examples of the Jones style.

Jones continued to experiment with sound, shape, and motion, later on his career with cartoons such as Now Hear This and The Dot and the Line.

Some Things I Didn’t Cover:

  • After Jones left Warner Bros. in the early 1960s, he went on to direct 34 Tom and Jerry shorts for MGM.
  • He helmed the animation for the holiday classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas as well another Dr. Seuss adaptation with Horton Hears a Who!
  • He collaborated with Seuss and many other animators with the Private Snafu WW2 propaganda shorts.   He also worked with UPA in making Hell-bent for Election, a FDR campaign cartoon.
  • He directed the animation for the film adaptation of The Phantom Tollbooth.
  • He made hundreds of cartoons, I can not cover all of them.  But someday I will see them all.

Chuck Jones received an Lifetime Achievement Academy Award in 1996.  Here’s a clip of his acceptance speech, gratingly introduced by a baggy-suited Robin Williams:

That’s it.  Go watch some cartoons.

it’s a mad mad mad mad mad… – a comic with carl thompson

After considering multiple approaches to an essay with far too many topics, I finally settled on this:

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as first seen on The New Sincerity.

art by Carl Thompson of http://www.carlthompsonart.com and http://carlthompson.tumblr.com/