Believe it or not, this post started as a reply to Pickle Rick, in the comments below, in re: the “Valkyrie” plot to kill Mustache Guy. Stick with me:
When I first announced I was planning my retirement from the ivory tower, I got a lot of jokes about when I’d get started on my novel. It’s the standard gag about us Liberal Arts types, that we’re all frustrated artistes. You hear that joke enough, and you eventually do start contemplating it…
I quickly concluded that I couldn’t do it. The main thing is, they say “write what you know,” and what I know is the ivory tower — that is to say, an institution where all the drama is entirely self-manufactured by vain, petty people who think they’re much smarter than they actually are. That rules out most genres people actually enjoy reading right there. There’s comedy, I guess, and I considered giving that a go, but the modern university is beyond parody. Maybe Joseph Heller at his absolute apex could pull it off, but I’m no Joseph Heller. Nor am I Franz Kafka, who is the onlie begetter of the only other genre that would cover academia: Surrealist, absurdist, dystopian horror. The adjective “Kafkaesque” describes graduate school perfectly, no doubt, but if you somehow need a dose of that, just go read The Trial. Or watch the film Brazil, and imagine everyone is twice as polysyllabically self-important…
Ok, so forget academia, I thought. I’ll go the opposite route, and write what I don’t know. The problem there isn’t ignorance. Not factual ignorance, anyway, since I have lots of recent professional experience doing research, but what you might call mechanical ignorance. Guys like James Patterson and Tom Clancy and Dan Brown (who has the market cornered on “sexy professor” thrillers, damn him) get criticized for having formulaic, paint-by-numbers plots, so much so that at least one of the former two is dead and the other might as well be, since “he” seems to be mostly a name for a factory full of ghostwriters. But if you actually sit down and try to dope out the “formula,” it’s a lot tougher than it sounds. Even “Jack Ryan foils the bad guys”-level plots have lots of moving parts….
…at which point I gave the whole thing up, but the very process was instructive. Seeing how tough a time I had with it, is it any surprise that our hormone-addled, diversity-addict overlords are fucking it up so egregiously?
So bad is it, in fact, that even supposedly professional storytellers are screwing it up. The “Valkyrie” plot was really a thing that happened (the cognoscenti call it the Schwarze Kapelle), and it’s got all the makings of a great spy thriller… except one: There’s no good guy. Claus von Stauffenberg was a better guy than Hitler, I suppose, but that’s a bar so low it’s subterranean. Von Stauffenberg was a Wehrmacht colonel who’d seen action in pretty much every theater up to that point, including the invasions of Poland and Russia. It’s safe to say that one does not rise to the rank of colonel via combat in the Nazi armed forces without being involved in some shady shit. Indeed, as wiki informs us, von Stauffenberg was fine with the way things ran in Poland, and initially declined to participate in the resistance out of a sense of personal loyalty to the Fuhrer.
A movie can get away with showing mostly shades of gray, but in the case of the “Valkyrie” plot, both shades are pretty damn close to black.
Nor was the 2008 movie, starring Tom Cruise, an isolated case. A few years earlier, Jude Law and Ed Harris squared off as dueling snipers in Enemy at the Gates… set during the Battle of Stalingrad. Who do you root for, the Nazi or the Commie? The producers opt for “commie,” obviously, but their attempts to humanize the Jude Law character are embarrassing — even if we accept Law’s character as totally apolitical, no movie featuring a political commissar in a vital supporting role, not to mention “cameos” by Khrushchev and Stalin himself, can fail to remind viewers that everyone involved was awful. Even the most gripping battle scenes (and to be fair, some of them were pretty good) can’t make up for the fact that the world would be a far, far better place if they somehow both could’ve lost.
Those are high-level failures, conceptual mistakes, the kind that professional storytellers simply shouldn’t make. Not only that, though, both movies have unforgivable mistakes in the execution, at almost every level. Tom Cruise, for instance, is comically miscast as Stauffenberg. I’ve written before about how weird it is that casting directors seem to obsess over finding actors who look like even obscure historical figures.* Cruise looks a bit like Stauffenberg, I guess, but there’s simply no way a guy with his…ummm….distinctive acting style should be anywhere near a historical drama. Tom Cruise only ever really plays Tom Cruise, so “Tom Cruise dressed up as a Nazi” is really jarring.
And that’s before you consider the accents. Maybe Tom Cruise can’t do a German accent, I dunno. I seem to recall he did an Irish accent in a movie once, and that turned out ok, but again, whatever character he was playing was just “Tom Cruise with an Irish accent.” So maybe if you feel you must cast him as a German, letting him use his “natural” American accent is the way to go.** But if you’re going to do that, please, for pete’s sake, make everyone else do an American accent, too. I know Kenneth Branagh can do one. So either cast guys who can do the right accent, or, failing that, who can do each other’s accent. Otherwise you get a huge, distracting mess.
Enemy at the Gates was actually worse: Law, Joseph Fiennes (the commissar), and Rachel Weisz (the love interest) all used their native British accents… but they’re different kinds of British accent, at least in Law’s case. Meanwhile, Ed Harris (the Nazi antagonist) uses the “neutral” American accent, while supporting player Ron Perlman, who is American, does a comically over-the-top Russian… as do the guys playing Khrushchev and Stalin. It’s just weird. In both movies, you’ve got supposedly tight groups of friends (or, at least, co-conspirators) talking to each other in wildly different accents. That kind of thing is bad enough in a movie like Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, which made no pretenses to historical accuracy; it’s movie-destroying in a supposedly serious, historically-based thriller.
Again, as fun as it is to talk about movies from decades ago, there’s a point to this, and here it is: These are professional storytellers screwing up some of the most basic of storytelling mechanics. It’s a lot harder than it looks, in other words, and it’s only going to get worse as people get dumber. Given all that, is it surprising how badly our political class is screwing up their propaganda? And that’s before the people who can’t figure out what pronouns to use get into any but the lowest-level command positions….
This has been your white pill for the day.
*There are a zillion examples, but I think my personal favorite is the HBO series Deadwood. Actor Ian McShane is great in the role of Al Swearingen, and he actually does kinda look like the guy in the few known historical photographs, but… who in the audience had ever even heard of some bartender from Dakota Territory in the 1870s? I mean, yeah, ok, there are a few historical figures where you have to cast a lookalike — Hitler, Elvis, maybe Abe Lincoln (though “Daniel Day Lewis on stilts with a beard” seems to have done the job there), maybe one or two more. But as thankful as I am that Ian McShane got the job — he’s just terrific — I promise you that absolutely no one would turn off their tvs in disgust if he looked nothing like the historical person.
**Whatever you call the American version of British “received pronunciation,” which is what I think they call the accent they used to teach all the aspiring poshos at the BBC before they went full retard. The “neutral,” “default,” whatever-you-want-to-call-it American accent is fascinating, and has gone through significant changes over the years. Consider the “1930s movie newsreel reader” accent. I don’t know what it’s called, but I know you recognize it. It’s fairly close to the natural speaking accent of guys like FDR. But by the 1960s, you’ve got the “Tom Brokaw” accent, which is more or less the “Tom Cruise” accent…. again, no idea what these are called, and this is all tangential, but it’s cool.***
***Since we’ve mentioned Daniel Day Lewis in passing, how about some props to him for his killer “American frontier” accent in Last of the Mohicans? I have no doubt that Day Lewis, being Day Lewis, pestered every historical linguist in North America for tips on the most “authentic” possible colonial frontier accent, though no one living has ever heard it. It was really a nice touch.Loading Likes...