Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Characters vs. Trademarks

Entertainment companies want to reach out to an increasingly diverse and historically underserved audience. But in the age of remakes, sequels, and tentpoles, that rarely results in new characters. Instead it manifests in the laziest and most unsatisfying way possible: diversifying existing trademarks. My latest at Splice Today.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

On Trumpism

By Franklin Harris

Trumpism is bullshit. That is to say Donald Trump, his bombastic proclamations, his haphazard policy pronouncements, and his supporters are bullshit.

I don’t mean bullshit in the usual sense of a crude insult. Nor do I mean it in the sense of magicians Penn and Teller, who on their Showtime television series referred to frauds and hucksters as peddling “bullshit,” rather than in terms that might lead to lawsuits, no matter how frivolous.

Rather, I mean bullshit in a precise, technical sense.

Ten years ago, Harry G. Frankfurt, professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton, published a slim little book called On Bullshit. Surprisingly, this philosophical essay became a best-seller. Frankfurt was on to something. He surveyed the landscape and saw bullshit.

The best way to summarize Frankfurt’s analysis is through his distinction between a bullshitter and a plain old everyday liar. They have different relationships with the truth.

A liar knows and cares what the truth is, because the truth is something to avoid. The bullshitter, however, doesn’t care about the truth. He is indifferent to it. For the bullshitter, the truth literally doesn’t matter. Sometimes he may even tell the truth, and that’s fine, too. But most of the time, he doesn’t. When you speak or write without regard to the truth, the odds are against being truthful.

Talk radio, website comment sections, and cable television are fertile ground for bullshitters. But bullshit on Trump’s scale is new to presidential politics. We’re used to politicians who simply lie.

Richard Nixon lied. Bill Clinton lied. George W. Bush either lied or was lied to and passed it on. Hillary Clinton is intimately acquainted with the truth and wants no part of it.

President Barack Obama lies, but sometimes he bullshits. Is “If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor” really a lie? President Obama would have said whatever he thought people wanted to hear regardless of its truth value. The only important thing was enacting the government program that would be his legacy. Regardless, Obama is not in Trump’s league when it comes to bullshitting. Compared to Trump, Obama is — as he himself might say — junior varsity.

Trump bullshits all the time, no matter the subject. Does he still believe thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheered the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11? Who knows? He said it, and he’s sticking with it. The truth isn’t something to avoid or embrace; it just doesn’t matter.

The same goes for illegal immigration. Trump speaks off the top of his head, calling upon half-remembered headlines and something he may have seen on TV. The details are unimportant because the truth is unimportant. All that matters is Trump says what he says with gusto, that he convinces his supporters he’s the fighter they longed for.

The news media can fact-check Trump and proclaim his pants on fire, but for Trump that’s just another baseless attack. Truth is irrelevant to the bullshitter. Trump gets that, so why can’t those losers at The Associated Press and The Washington Post?

If the polls showing Trump extending his national lead are to be believed, Trump has found a constituency eager for bullshit. He also has found room to operate. If a candidate isn’t beholden to the truth or trapped in a lie, he has true freedom. He becomes the uber-candidate, a candidate beyond mere truth and falsehood. The old rules don’t apply to him.

Trump supporters display the same lack of regard for truth. Olivia Nuzzi of The Daily Beast interviewed Trump donors and found people like “the man who believes Trump has great intellect and his bold pronouncements are just showbiz.” They know Trump is bullshitting, and it’s part of his appeal. It may even be the key to his appeal. If so, it’s the answer to the question pundits and pollsters have asked themselves since Trump entered the race for the Republican presidential nomination in June and immediately claimed front-runner status, which he has yet to relinquish.

Trump is a bullshit candidate with bullshit ideas and bullshit supporters. As those of us not under Trump’s spell have feared, this presidential campaign is going to shit.

Franklin Harris is an editor and writer based in Alabama. His website is, and he tweets at @FranklinH3000.

Friday, July 31, 2015

'Rowdy' Roddy Piper, RIP

Roddy Piper as Nada in John Carpenter's "They Live."
The passing of “Rowdy” Roddy Piper at the too-young age of 61 strikes surprisingly hard. Unlike others who have died this year — Leonard Nimoy and Christopher Lee among them — “Hot Rod” died too soon. It’s a fate he shares with too many stars and former stars of professional wrestling.

The matches may be scripted, but wrestling takes a physical toll, none more brutal than what wrestlers do to themselves to make it to the top of their profession.

Still, Piper’s sudden death was a shock. Just hours earlier he was tweeting away on his frequently ungrammatical but always entertaining Twitter account. For a guy who spent the peak of his wrestling career as a heel, Piper always seemed to be the nicest of guys when it came to his fans. And Piper had lots of fans, both in and out of wrestling.

While other wrestlers have come out of the ring to try their luck in movies, few have done it so memorably as Piper did. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson may have racked up more lead roles and a lot more money at the box office, but Piper will always have John Carpenter’s “They Live.”

As a wrestler, Piper was known as much for his mic talent as for his moves in the squared circle. The man had charisma to spare, and that came through just as well on the movie screen.

For me, personally, Piper came along at just the right time. One’s teens are the perfect time to fall in love with wrestling and cheesy movies, and Hot Rod was there for both.

Back in the dark ages of cable TV, when USA Network was really worth watching, a kid could watch Rowdy Roddy ham it up in prime time during WWF (not yet WWE) matches from Madison Square Garden. Then he could tune in late on the weekend to watch Gilbert Gottfried host Piper’s post-apocalyptic sci-fi flick “Hell Comes to Frogtown” on “USA Up All Night.”

That, my friends, was quality television.

Piper’s death hits my inner teenager pretty hard. Piper was comfort viewing. He played the bad guy, but he was like a best friend. He had your back.

Now the curtain comes down on Piper’s Pit one last time. Cue the bagpipes.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

‘Doctor Who’ survives the wilderness

Paul McGann continues his adventures as the Eighth Doctor
in one of Big Finish Productions' audio dramas.
There was no real official theme, beyond the obvious, to this year’s Con Kasterborous, north Alabama’s annual “Doctor Who” convention. Yet had the convention’s organizers only thought of it, the theme could well have been “Doctor Who: The Wilderness Years.”

Four of this year’s celebrity guests played roles in keeping “Doctor Who” alive during the dark days between the classic series’ cancellation in 1989 and the revived series’ debut in 2005.

The guest of honor for the fourth Con Kasterborous, held earlier this month at The Westin Huntsville at Bridge Street Towne Center, was Paul McGann. McGann starred in the ill-fated 1996 “Doctor Who” TV movie, whose producers had hoped it would restart the series.

Two other con guests also appeared in the 1996 movie: Eric Roberts — as the Doctor’s arch foe, the Master — and Roberts’ real-life wife, Eliza, who played a supporting role.

McGann was arguably the most talented and accomplished actor to portray the Doctor up to that point (or possibly even since), and that’s no slight against his predecessors. McGann had previously played Anton in director Ken Russell’s 1989 adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s “The Rainbow” (available streaming on Amazon Prime) and starred opposite Richard E. Grant in Bruce Robinson’s wry, must-see cult comedy “Withnail & I” (find a copy if you can).

Alas, the 1996 pilot was neither a critical nor a ratings triumph. Fans would have to wait another nine years for a successful reboot.

No one, however, blamed McGann. Maybe the script wasn’t up to snuff, maybe Eric Roberts overacted a bit — OK, more than a bit — and maybe the whole enterprise, being a U.S. co-production, was too “American” and not enough “British.” But McGann acquitted himself flawlessly. In just 90 minutes, he showed the world he could be an excellent Doctor if given a real chance.

As it would happen, that chance would come, just not in front of a camera.

That brings us to Con Kasterborous’ fourth crucial guest. Jason Haigh-Ellery founded Big Finish Productions in 1996, and it was Big Finish’s full-cast audio plays, along with novels from Virgin Publishing, that kept new “Doctor Who” stories coming during the wilderness years.

McGann returned to appear in many of Big Finish’s new “Doctor Who” stories, along with a series of new traveling companions, some of whom have themselves become fan favorites. And it was in the Big Finish audio plays that McGann’s Doctor — the Eighth Doctor — really came into his own.

Now that the revived “Doctor Who” has been around for 10 years and seen four new Doctors, it’s easy to forget what it was like not to have a new season of “Doctor Who” on television every year, much as the dark decade between the cancellation of the original “Star Trek” and the release of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” is now just a dim memory.

Not only did McGann’s Doctor get to have via the Big Finish audios all the adventures he never got to have on television, previous Doctors got in on the act as well. Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor, who was never served well by the quality of scripts during his too-brief tenure, finally got to shine in the Big Finish stories, proving that Six wasn’t such a bad Doctor after all.

The Big Finish audios and Virgin novels were also a training ground for writers who would go on to work on the revived TV series. “Doctor Who” writers who cut their teeth on either the audios, the novels or both included Mark Gatiss, Gareth Roberts and “Doctor Who” producer Russell T Davies.

Between McGann, Eric and Eliza Roberts, and Haigh-Ellery on the one hand and the 1,623 fans who came out to see them on the other, Con Kasterborous 2015 was a commemoration of those years when the fans kept “Doctor Who” alive, in spite of the BBC’s indifference.

“Doctor Who” is back on television now and more popular than ever, but Big Finish keeps putting out its excellent audio dramas and McGann keeps appearing in them, even though his Doctor finally did get a proper sendoff in a 2013 “Doctor Who” 50th anniversary short, “The Night of the Doctor.”

For the Doctor and his fans, those wilderness years paid off.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Forget ‘Genisys’; we need ‘Terminator: Exodus’

By all rights, “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” should have been the end of the line. The machine apocalypse had been averted, the loop in time had been closed and the audience was left, quite unexpectedly, with a happy ending.

But if there’s one thing the Hollywood studios hate more than reasonable copyright laws, it’s happy endings. Leaving the audience wanting more is the same as leaving money on the table, and that just won’t do. So we got seven “Saw” movies in as many years. Hollywood will dish it out until you’re sick of it, and then some.

That’s why, despite the fact “Terminator 2” left no room for a sequel, 2003 brought us director Jonathan Mostow’s “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” which was all about that thing “Terminator 2” prevented happening. And that was just where the trouble started.

You might think Arnold Schwarzenegger taking time away to play the Governator of California would spare us yet another unnecessary “Terminator” installment, but you’d be wrong. The franchise hit its lowest point yet in 2009 with “Terminator: Salvation,” directed by “Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle’s” McG and starring “Avatar’s” charisma-challenged leading man Sam Worthington at the height of his inexplicable rise to fame.

With Schwarzenegger back to making movies, yet another “Terminator” sequel was inevitable. So we now have “Terminator: Genisys,” directed by Alan Taylor, whose other credits include “Game of Thrones” and Marvel’s most disappointing movie to date, “Thor: The Dark World.”

The good news is “Terminator: Genisys” is better than its two immediate predecessors. The bad news is that’s still not nearly good enough to justify its existence.

“Genisys” starts with the events leading up to James Cameron’s original “The Terminator.” That means we get to see John Conner (Jason Clarke) send his father Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back in time to save his mother Sarah Conner (“Game of Thrones’ ” Emilia Clarke) from Schwarzenegger’s T-800 so that John can be born and lead humanity to victory over the machines.

Only this time when Reese arrives in 1984 Los Angeles, he doesn’t find the past we know. Instead he finds a Sarah who is prepared for both him and the T-800, as well as a second T-800 that was sent back to an even earlier point in time and programmed to protect Sarah. And that’s before the shape-shifting T-1000 (Byung-hun Lee) from “Terminator 2” arrives — 11 years ahead of schedule.

It’s a premise that requires a lot of mostly nonsensical plot exposition. Unfortunately, there are few things more awkward than Schwarzenegger portraying a robot tasked by the script with explaining quantum physics and temporal paradoxes. Such things are better left to eccentric Time Lords.

Speaking of which, Matt Smith (“Doctor Who”) has what amounts to a cameo, no doubt meant to set up a larger role for his character in future unnecessary sequels.

Basically, humans and Terminators have jumped through time so many times they’ve managed to break time itself, which is as good a metaphor as any for what all this time hopping has done to the “Terminator” franchise. In other hands, “Terminator: Genisys” could have been a sly, tongue-in-cheek commentary on Hollywood’s financial dependence on sequels and remakes, always repeating itself with minor variations. But screenwriters Patrick Lussier and Laeta Kalogridis play it all depressingly straight, littering their script with callbacks to the other “Terminator” entries without a hint of irony.

The result is “Terminator: Genisys” plays like a greatest hits album, only the hits are all performed by cover bands. We’ve heard them before, and they were better the first time. Nothing in “Genisys” tops “Terminator 2’s” stunts, while Clarke and Courtney have the impossible task of following in the footsteps of Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn, and doing so with inferior material.

The lesson here is if time travel ever is invented, it’s probably too dangerous to use. But if we do use it, we should send someone to the past to stop all these unnecessary “Terminator” sequels. With any luck, the Terminator won’t be back.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Mockingbird sequel kills a Finch

Flannery O’Connor famously dismissed Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” as a “children’s book,” which it is, obviously. But that’s only the half of it.

Many children’s books do their young readers a service, dispelling the illusions in which adults attempt to disguise their follies. Think of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” or “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Children who read those books come away with a healthy skepticism for the adult world’s duplicity. That’s a valuable lesson.

“To Kill a Mockingbird,” however, reads like warm, fuzzy nostalgia for a childhood that is more fantasy than reality, in which a beloved father figure comes across as something just short of a saint.

The movie version, in which the upright country lawyer Atticus Finch is played by Gregory Peck, only adds to Atticus’ larger-than-life allure. It won Peck an Academy Award, which should have been a warning, given Hollywood’s tendency to reward fantasies disguised as reality.

Lee’s novel doesn’t dispel illusions; it is the illusion. It sets up its readers for either crushing disappointment or imprisonment in a nostalgic fantasy world of their own making.

Thus came the shock and disillusion that greeted Lee’s accidental sequel — if we can call a book that was written first and then locked away a “sequel” — “Go Set a Watchman.”

In “Go Set a Watchman,” Jean Louise — “To Kill a Mockingbird’s” Scout, now all grown up — returns home to 1950s Alabama and a now aged Atticus, who we come to find out is a racist and none too happy with the new stirrings for integration and equal rights.

The Atticus Finch who was the perfect father and moral conscience of his community turns out to be just a man after all — a man of his time, and all the more flawed for it, looking back from Jean Louise’s now enlightened vantage point.

With all the suddenness and finality of Toto pulling back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz, “Go Set a Watchman” breaks “To Kill a Mockingbird’s” spell. Jean Louise’s younger self, the tomboy Scout, turns out to be an unreliable narrator, and once you realize that, there is no going back.

This is where trusting in a child’s naïveté has brought us. So, if we feel misled, we have only ourselves to blame.

No doubt many readers who grew up admiring Atticus Finch will tell themselves “Go Set a Watchman” doesn’t count. I sympathize. In some ways, it’s a lot like all the movie sequels I pretend don’t exist: the “Matrix” sequels, the “Highlander” sequels, the “Jaws” sequels, everything after “Terminator 2,” “Ghostbusters 2” and so on.

But in the case of “Go Set a Watchman,” there is one crucial difference: It’s not really a sequel. It’s the story Lee wrote first, even if it saw daylight last. In a way, its Atticus is the original, the genuine article, while the venerated Atticus of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is the impostor.

“Go Set a Watchman” is the story Lee originally wanted to tell, the demon the first-time novelist had to exorcise. We got “To Kill a Mockingbird” only because her editor convinced her to put the demon back in the bottle. Thus, “Go Set a Watchman’s” flashbacks become Scout’s idealized childhood, which became Lee’s best-seller.

Lee wrote the truth, but her publisher convinced her to sell the lie, and generations of schoolkids have been taught it in class ever since.

Maybe in that lies the answer to the mystery of why Lee never, of her own initiative, published another book. She wrote two and saw readers fall in love with the story she originally had envisioned just as Scout’s falsified memories. Given the choice of the truth or the legend, she printed the legend, and everyone took it to be truth. That is a powerful and dangerous gift to discover one has.

None of that makes “Go Set a Watchman” the better book, the one that will now occupy space on all the required reading lists. But it is the more honest one.