Walks like a Duck, Quacks like a Duck

So, yeah. DuckTales 2017 is, as many predicted, almost more of a re-adaptation of the Duck comics than of the 1987 show. It has the optics: Donald is present as a key team member, Scrooge is in his Comic colors, there are Ben Day dots all over the place. Whatever. But, Jesus.

I mean, seriously, this goes straight back to the comics. And not just Carl Barks. I mean Don Rosa. The first episode combs through Life & Times, with portraits of Scrooge’s parents, a lineage chart for the nephews that includes Hortense and Quackmore, and just generally way more awareness of and investment in the comic mythology, as focused and enhanced by Rosa.

Scrooge and Donald carry something more like their comic personas. Donald is about 60/40 Comic Don versus Cartoon Don here — still recognizably the guy who you can depend on to throw walnuts at Chip & Dale out of spite, but also a more layered character. The Comic Donald is a simple, lazy, fairly unlucky guy way out of his depth in every part of his life. Part of his laziness seems to be a zoned-out avoidance because he can’t handle the life he’s been dealt. But, importantly, when he’s really needed he always steps up and is willing to get, you know, shot in the face if need be to live up to his obligations or protect the people he cares about. He’s a sympathetic character in the way that Cartoon Donald could never be. He also speaks like a normal person, with his own curious idioms and speech patterns, as opposed to an incomprehensible squawkbox. That cartoon element is still present in 2017 Don, because people would flip out if they changed it, but it seems to be played as one more of a million things that makes the poor guy’s life hell. He can’t even get a sentence out, and his lack of an ability to communicate only fuels his bad temper.

Scrooge, meanwhile, is back to being the largely self-centered, irresponsible figure he is in the comics. The first episode goes to great lengths to contrast the two uncles’ parenting styles; whereas Donald is paranoid and overprotective because of his own experiences with life, always on edge, waiting for the other shoe to drop, always sleepy from his against-his-nature vigilance against the horrors of life that may at any moment pounce on his nephews, Scrooge just doesn’t give a damn. He has no regard for danger, and often stirs more trouble than he expects or immediately knows how to handle. But he’s sure he’ll think of something. Which totally Freaks Donald Out.

Long ago he used to assist Scrooge on his adventures, but by the time we catch up here he’d long since distanced himself from Scrooge, to the extent that the nephews barely seem aware that Scrooge was a relative.

Since this is 2017, there also seem to be some ongoing story threads. The very final shot of the pilot ought to be interesting, as it dives right into the biggest unexplained mystery in all iterations of the Duck universe. This is like “why exactly did the Doctor leave Gallifrey?” business. A thing that even Don Rosa steered way clear of touching, except in a passing manner in a late chapter of Life & Times.

It also is consciously DuckTales, in that it borrows from the earlier show’s iconography enough to call itself DuckTales. And then borrows from Darkwing Duck, and TaleSpin, and Goof Troop. More than just DuckTales, the show seems to be quietly setting up a new Disney Duck Animated Universe.

You’ve got most of the original DuckTales characters who aren’t useless or annoying (no Doofus or Bubba, I so hope — have yet to hear anything), but they’re remixed and employed in functional roles here. Duckworth is pretty much gone (though I’ve read he’ll appear in some form, later?), while the more-vital Launchpad and Ms. Beakley step into that void and split his duties. Beakley is more vital because she comes with Webby — who now, instead of being, uh, plot luggage, has been upgraded to an audience surrogate — so she’s been made a more general and much more capable personal assistant. Launchpad is just a general hired hand/chauffeur, no matter the vehicle or task. He’s incompetent at everything, but he’s game and presumably he’s inexpensive.

Then you’ve got the odd changes brought about by the 1987 series, which the 2017 one just runs with. Glomgold is not just Scottish (instead of South African, as in the comics); he’s so Scottish that he constantly talks about how Scottish he is. Which… come to think of it may be overcompensation. Is he genuinely Scottish? The way this is set up, I’d be unsurprised to see a long game in here.

Anyway. This is really well-done. The pilot at least is very smart and well-written. They seem to have thought this project through in insane modern showrunner sort of detail, with hints and seeds of future adventures and character development and revelations strewn all over. And nearly everything the characters do, every plot that they embark on, has its roots in character, and in the show’s basic themes (which are themselves rooted in character). You know how Buffy‘s monsters are all projections of the characters’ anxieties and the emotional things they’re going through that week? This is kind of like that, except with Barks/Rosa style adventures that illuminate family tensions and anxieties.

Like, in the pilot, Donald reluctantly leaves the nephews with Scrooge, whom again they’d never met and it seems like Donald has rarely if ever mentioned around them, issuing him (not them) a stern warning to behave while he’s off, because he needs someone to watch them while he goes off on a job interview. That interview happens to be with Glomgold, who Donald is dense or self-absorbed enough not to clock as Scrooge’s arch-nemesis. So while Scrooge gets carried away and winds up on an adventure with the nephews and Webby, Donald ends up becoming Glomgold’s own personal Launchpad. All of which is structurally really cool and which serves as a perfect canvas for exploring what’s going on within and between all the characters, and why it is that Donald is so pissed off with his uncle.

Which… may or may not have something to do with that final shot, again, and that unspoken mystery at the heart of Duckdom.

Change, my dear

I’m not sure that there’s much consequence to most classic Who stories. Ghost Light is maybe a little odd in that its events have less to do with plot than with theme. There is really no more or less carry-over than you get from Planet of Evil — except that maybe the themes will stick with the viewer more than the mechanics of who escaped from which prison in which order.

Ghost Light is about evolution in all of the ways that the concept could be applied to life, both literal and abstract.

It’s basically the same idea as Adaptation. That’s a really abstract movie about, well, adaptation. It uses the diversity of orchids and the desperation of species to propagate as a metaphor for the creative struggles of a screenwriter (indeed the very person writing the movie at hand), the tragedies and coping mechanisms of a weirdo plant poacher in the Florida Everglades, and the unfulfilled life of a posh magazine writer from Manhattan. And as with Ghost Light, the film doesn’t have much of a plot — at least, not until its shambling events reach the notion of tacking on a hackneyed Hollywood style conclusion of the sort that one of the story’s characters would have written. Instead, every element of the story exists in order to explore some aspect of its basic theme.

Ghost Light plays kind of loose with the literal mechanics of evolution, because it’s more concerned with the implications of change versus stasis. Change is embodied in Control and Ace. Anyone who fails to adapt to circumstances, like the policeman who refuses to wrap his head around what is happening, tends to perish. Nimrod is simple enough to roll with and accept whatever he is handed, so he turns out okay. Josiah’s whole interpretation of change is warped (in a very typical way, insofar as classical understanding of Darwinism), such that he views it as a narrow one-way journey to a static supremacy rather than a simple response to the needs of the environment. His reading doesn’t hold up in the end, so he also dies.

The way that I spell all of this out, I’m making it sound more complex than it is. Basically, it’s just 75 minutes of fantasy TV that dramatizes the notion of evolution in all its permutations.

Sherlock Holmes

A while back, I exchanged words with a long and close Internet friend on the recent Sherlock Holmes movies, featuring Robert Downey Jr. I like them well enough — or, rather, I like the first one; have yet to see the second — as I know the material, I knew ahead of time that these were silly Hollywood action movies, and as they work really well as stupid action movies based on Sherlock Holmes. Given that they are stupid Hollywood style action movies — Hollywood being more about a state of mind than a birth certificate — they are unusually faithful. My friend objected that, having read the entire body of Doyle’s work at least eight times over, the movies were actually one of the most accurate adaptations out there. There was a bit more violence, but otherwise their vision of Holmes is very close to as written.

Thing is, there’s a difference between being accurate and not being inaccurate. The Downey movies may not technically be inaccurate; that doesn’t make them truly accurate.

Prior to about 1980, nearly every adaptation of Sherlock Holmes was deathly inaccurate. Since the Granada series with Jeremy Brett, the popular image of Holmes (and, particularly, Watson) is actually pretty close to the source material.

To date that’s probably still the most accurate portrayal in terms of the character motivation and dynamics. The recent Steven Moffat series is also weirdly accurate, despite all the liberties it takes. I don’t think I’ve seen another adaptation that focuses on Holmes’s complete ignorance of facts and concepts outside of his area of study (like that the earth revolves around the sun, or who the current prime minister happens to be).

The Downey movies go with a fun interpretation, that actually hews closer to the facts and themes of the material than one might expect. The way it extrapolates the facts and themes, though, ain’t close at all.

The boxing scene is a key point of reference. Holmes is an expert pugilist, true. He is also very observational. He is not, however, a sensor. Outside of a few parlor tricks that he has mastered in order to impress potential clients, he needs time and thought and focus to make sense of his observations. Put him against an untrained ruffian, and Holmes will deftly apply his memorized technique to get the upper hand. Put him against a professional boxer, and he will have no instincts. Even if he may conclude that his opponent is from Devonshire and chews a particular brand of tobacco, his observational skills will not be of the required sort and the speed to guide his hands like an assassin. That’s not the way his brain works.

The skill of Sherlock Holmes is in identifying important information in a sea of noise. Making sense or use of that information is another skill entirely, and one that comes to him with far more difficulty. Likewise, that focus comes at a great cost elsewhere for the character.

In adaptation, the inclination is often to burden an odd and cranky but otherwise well adjusted character with superhuman powers of observation and extrapolation. You get a bunch of the super power in Moffat’s adaptation as well, and it can get tedious. You do get far more than usual of the cost, though. And it’s on that point that the show is interesting.

In the Downey movies, the super powers are bolted on top of a stock action hero. The movie goes into more than the usual detail on the nature of his observations, allowing the audience to follow his line of reasoning. The speed and application of his conclusions, however, remains mystical.

It’s that misreading, or rather deliberate misinterpretation, of Holmes’s mentality that informs the pace, structure, and thematic weight of the films. They need to work like a stupid Hollywood blockbuster, and if you squint then Doyle provides the material to bend. So if you know the material back and front, then yeah, the movies are surprisingly clever in how they use it. That doesn’t make them a faithful representation of that material. Their faith lies somewhere else entirely.

That’s fine, because they’re good natured in the way they use the material. I don’t think the movies make any secrets about what they’re up to, and nearly every beat is accompanied by a wink. It’s fun to be free with this stuff, sometimes. Break a few expectations and shine a new light in an old, dusty room. The Granada series did just that by hewing starkly to the original material for the first time ever, and breaking out of all of the material that pop culture had aggregated on top of it. For 1980, that was revolutionary. In his weird way, Steven Moffat is cutting even closer — while at the same time bending the concept (and any characters outside of Holmes and Watson) to his own whims.

It’s just — all the good will in the world doesn’t make it accurate.

List #8: The Eternal Synecdoche of Being Adapted

One of the few lists in this series that one could call more or less complete.

Charlie Kaufman is one of only a handful of screenwriters in history to know widespread name recognition. Whatever directors, producers, or stars he involves, it’s Kaufman’s scripts that drive and define his projects. And his scripts are certainly distinctive.

The movies in this list are either prime Kaufman or in another universe they might well have been. These stories are neurotic tales of love and self-loathing narrated through devices of surreal psychological whimsy. Secret doors into the brains of boring celebrities! Selective memory erasure! Building a complete replica of life, then succumbing to the replica!

If you feel that a movie has already accounted for every possible reaction you might have, leaving you nothing intelligent to say about it, it belongs on this list.

Adaptation

Maybe the best Kaufman movie, probably the most representative, definitely the definitive one — and also one of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies.

In the process of adapting Susan Orlean’s ponderous The Orchid Thief, the character of Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) writes himself into the screenplay. He also writes in his more superficial yet somehow more likable twin, Donald (also Nicolas Cage). Problems arise when Donald decides that he too wants to write movies, and starts to produce dial-a-plot scripts that are actually much more successful than the work that causes Charlie so much distress. Charlie’s heightened search for authenticity leads him down a dangerous path.

Being John Malkovich

Kaufman’s first movie to gain him wide recognition is also sort of a litmus test. This movie is bizarre enough, and leaves enough unstated between the levels of its absurdity, for viewers to get a pretty quick sense of whether Kaufman speaks to them. When people get this movie, it’s one of the most delightful things they’ve ever seen. When they don’t get it, it’s almost painful. There’s very little in between, aside from a certain nervous confusion. Not Kaufman’s best work, or his most representative, and far from his most appealing. Rather, BJM is a sort of a tutorial. You like this, there’s much more in the wings for you. You don’t, you’d better get out now.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

Probably the least of Kaufman’s movies, and a hair away from decanonization. For his first directorial gig, George Clooney decided to put his mark on every aspect of the production — including the script. His changes are often arbitrary and a little strange. “I had a movie that I wrote,” Kaufman later groused, “and that isn’t it.” Still, the Kaufman flavor remains and Clooney did make several interesting decisions — particularly in some very long single takes.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

The only Kaufman movie to achieve real mainstream success, and most of that success is despite Kaufman’s script. You see a few boilerplate responses to this movie. Often people will say, yeah, the movie was really pretty and sad, and Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey were great in it, but the story was confusing and weird. Others will say, yeah, it was pretty but the casting was weird and the story was stupid. Others will say, yeah, the script was great and the casting was interesting, but the direction called way too much attention to itself. Others will say, ih, it’s Kaufman lite. Familiar themes, but assembled well enough and interpreted onto film with a minimum of problems. Sweet and comforting in a way that Kaufman usually isn’t.

Human Nature

The first Kaufman/Gondry collaboration, and one of the lesser results so far, Human Nature comes off as a familiar goofball comedy with a few distinctly weird moments. The best part is the Tim Robbins character, whose experiments with white mice and mental wiring are not unlike Tom Wilkinson’s clinician in Eternal Sunshine. As with several early Kaufman scripts, Human Nature bounced around Hollywood for the best part of a decade before someone new to Hollywood (usually and in this case a music video director) who didn’t understand the risk dove in and made it happen.

A Scanner Darkly

Kaufman wrote a script for this. It’s out there on the Internet, if you know where to look. Eventually, the movie went in a totally different and less interesting direction. You know how Hollywood works.

Synecdoche, New York

Kaufman’s third collaboration with Jonze, and his first as director, Synecdoche is about as far down the Charlie train as it seems possible to travel. A playwright receives a little recognition and a weird grant, and decides to produce his own magnum opus — a play that encompasses the entire experience of life. That play is contained in an impossibly huge hangar, and as an accurate depiction of the playwright’s life also contains sub-plays that contain sub-plays that contain sub-plays. The play consumes so much of the playwright’s life that his family falls apart around him — and all he can do is observe and use the material for his play. Eventually the play takes on a will of its own, and the line between life and art is destroyed.

List #7: Writer’s Block is a Killer

I kind of like this one. Still a work in progress, but offhand these six are all that came to me.

You sit at your desk and stare at your screen, or your typewriter. You’re so desperate to produce something great that you freeze up and your imagination goes in every other direction at once. Nothing good can come of this situation, especially when you yourself are fictional.

Adaptation

Charlie Kaufman is hired to adapt Susan Orlean’s book, The Orchid Thief, into a screenplay. In his desperation he winds up writing himself into the story. It all goes to hell from there.

Alan Wake

You play as a popular writer, stuck for progress in your new novel. As you mope and sulk around your small town, the characters from your book start to come to life around you. It all goes to hell from there.

Barton Fink

A snooty New York playwright comes to L.A. to write for the movies. The studio puts him up in a questionable hotel, under questionable management, in the company of questionable guests. It all goes to hell from there.

Secret Window

Before his divorce, Johnny Depp used to be a successful writer. Now it’s all he can do to type a paragraph before returning to bed. One day he hears a knock on his cabin door. On answer, he beholds a strange fellow who accuses Depp of plagiarism. It all goes to hell from there.

The Shining

Jack Nicholson is an abusive father with a drinking problem. In an attempt to put all of that behind him, he takes some time off from work to manage an abandoned hotel over the winter, and concentrate on his book. It all goes to hell from there.

Throw Momma from the Train

Billy Crystal deals with his writer’s block by teaching community college. One of his students, Danny Devito, writes inept revenge fantasies about his own mother. Crystal suggests that Devito watch a Hitchcock movie for inspiration. It all goes to hell from there.