Monday, April 12, 2010

Fog Blog

More examples of What's Wrong With Hollywood:

John Carpenter's 1980 ghost thriller The Fog has more an ensemble cast than a star. The closest thing to a leading man is 45-year-old Tom Atkins as small-town slacker Nick Castle, who makes a casual living fishing with his beer-drinking buddies.

In the 2005 remake, the character is played by 28-year-old Tom Welling, who's rather more, shall we say, on the Greek Godlike side. He's also been transformed into the responsible captain of his own boat, and owner of Castle and Son Fishing Charters.

Not that Welling hasn't shown some acting chops on Smallville, or that I don't like me the eye candy. It's just -- everything doesn't have to be eye candy all the time. American films used to occasionally feature people who weren't 20-something and/or gorgeous, and I miss them.

Both Fogs tell the story of a small seaside town, whose founders killed a group of lepers and stole their money to bankroll the colony. A hundred years later, the residents are plagued by a supernatural weather phenomenon: ghostly wet lepers that come out of a glowing fog bank, seeking revenge.

There are, however, some important differences between the two, not even counting the addition of the familiar "girl in the present looks exactly like a woman from the past!" bit. (Yup, again).

The characters in the original Fog fall into three groups:

Group 1: Nick and Elizabeth, played by Atkins and Jamie Lee Curtis, have just met and had a one-night-stand. They develop an easy rapport that carries through the rest of the movie, as they investigate what happened to his buddy's missing boat, the Seagrass. (Horror buffs will all know that the character's full name, Nick Castle, is the same as the actor who first played Michael Meyers, in the original Halloween).

Elizabeth, exploring: They drank a lot of beer last night.
Nick: Every night.
Elizabeth: What's it like?
Nick: It's always the same. The room starts spinning...
Elizabeth, sharply: I mean fishing.

Group 2: Kathy Williams (Janet Leigh) is an older woman who's setting up a Centennial hoopla in the town of Antonio Bay, with the help of her crabby assistant Sandy (Carpenter Ensemble Company player Nancy Loomis). They make what the Doctor Who About Time guides would call "an effective double act," with Mrs. Williams a highly-strung Lady Who Lunches type, and Sandy, as her boss points out, someone who can make "yes ma'am" sound like "screw you." Despite that, they show genuine affection for each other, and both get some fun lines.

Mrs. Williams: Are you going to give the benediction tonight, Father?
Father Malone: Antonio Bay has a curse on it.
Sandy: Do we take that as a "no"?

Groups 1 and 2 only interact in that Mrs. Williams' fisherman husband is Nick's friend, owner of the missing boat, which ran afoul of the deadly fog bank.

Group 3 includes Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau), the radio DJ and station owner, and her circle: her son, his babysitter, and the guy who gives her the weather reports. She recently moved to Antonio Bay from Chicago, and only interacts with the other character groups through her broadcasts, and once through a brief phone conversation with Nick, who calls the station. She spends most of the movie at work, alone.

Stevie: You're just a voice on the phone.
Dan the Weatherman: And you're just a voice on the radio. We'd make a perfect couple. You let me take you to dinner tonight, I'll prove it to you.
Stevie: Sorry, Dan. My idea of perfection is a voice on the phone.

Separately, the different people use their abilities to find and share the knowledge that will save them.

Group 1 finds the physical evidence that something mysterious is going on. Group 2, through a talk with the drunk priest who found a secret journal, gathers the information about the past that explains the "why" behind it. And Stevie provides direct observation of events from her vantage point in an old lighthouse.

As the characters separately begin to realize the strange things that are going on, they become more alert, so that by the time Stevie knows there's a strange knock on the weatherman's door, and Nick hears Stevie talking crazy on the radio, they recognize the actual danger of the situation. It's an intuitive leap, an acceptance of the strange and possibly supernatural, but they've all got different pieces of the puzzle, and are putting them together.

With the exception of Father Exposition, the priest played by Hal Holbrook, none of the characters have anything to do in any way with the back story about the town fathers and the lepers. Elizabeth and Stevie, as well as Stevie's son, are newcomers, complete outsiders, but that doesn't keep them out of danger. There's an idea that everyone in the town is, in an indirect way, profiting from the long-ago evil doings. Much the way that in Precinct 13, our police protagonists didn't do anything to the gang members, but they're judged guilty by association anyway.

In the remake, however:

Nick and Elizabeth (Lost's Maggie Grace) are an established couple, who've been in a long-distance relationship since she left town to find herself. The Seagrass has become Nick's own boat. Nick has gotten involved with Stevie (Selma Blair) in Elizabeth's absence. Elizabeth is Kathy Williams' daughter, although the two are estranged. (Funny they went in this direction, since Curtis and Leigh were, of course, mother and daughter, but any temptation to connect them was resisted. I suppose it's intended as an homage). Of course, Mrs. Williams knows and openly disapproves of Nick, and Elizabeth and Stevie know each other.

And they're all, to a person, the descendants of the original scheming town fathers, so it's a direct "sins of the fathers" scenario, instead of a more complicated form of guilt or responsibility. The movie's first line of dialogue is Stevie on the radio, talking about how one of the founders was her great-great-grandfather.

What's mainly wrong with the relationships in the new movie is that they're so over-determined. Atkins doesn't get drawn into the action because his son disappeared, or his brother, or his best friend: the kind of narrative crutch I'm used to in contemporary Hollywood. It's a guy he sometimes get drunk with. They're just good enough friends for him to know that something is wrong when his boat doesn't come back. The strongest bond he has is with Curtis, who he literally just met. They become a couple because when trouble starts, they stick together.

Welling's Nick, on the other hand, goes looking for the missing boat because it belongs to him. That's an absolutely crucial character difference.

They're also used to provide shorthand for motivation, and the use of shorthand is a way of avoiding complexity. In the original, the characters were connected by the story. They were all important threads, carrying the plot forward, uncovering separate clues, and eventually more or less braiding together.

In the remake, the characters are connected by backstory. All the information is really found and put together by Nick and Elizabeth, without any real contribution to the overall story by the other characters, who've become like the comedy track you could excise without noticing.

For example, the original Mrs. Williams' boosterish celebration of the town's anniversary is the means by which we find out what's actually happening. The remake Mrs. Williams doesn't know anything about what's going on, and is such a caricature, she's not even concerned that her estranged daughter just discovered a couple of horrible corpses. Instead, she's depicted as overridingly brittle and bitchy, for no particular reason, and certainly has no moment as endearing as Janet Leigh's comment about the priest, "Now say a little prayer that he's not in his cups."

Similarly, for the new Stevie: the whole narrative reason that the radio station was in a lighthouse was so she could see where the fog is and where it's going. Because of that, original Stevie finds herself in the position where she's the only one who can do the job of warning the town, and she does it. But the new Stevie actually abandons her post almost immediately. If you removed Leigh's or Barbeau's characters from the original, the actual plot would unravel. If you removed the updated versions, you'd lose scenes that take up time, but you wouldn't lose anything that actually drives the plot or contributes to any overriding theme. They could be replaced with anything, or anybody being menaced.

In the absence of their doing anything important to the plot, or displaying any heroism (see below), the only reason we're given to care about the fates of these characters is because of who they're related to: it's her mother, his girl on the side. And that's not enough reason.

While I'm talking about the characters, I need to go off on an Elizabeth tangent. One of the valid criticisms of the 1980 Fog is that the character development is a little on the sketchy side. What we know about Curtis' Elizabeth is fairly limited -- basically given in about two lines of dialogue -- but it's instructive to note what those two lines tell us. We already know that she's traveling alone, self-sufficient and able to take care of herself. The additional info is that she's from a rich, privileged background, where she wasn't happy and wasn't able to "do what I want," or be who she is. We also learn she's an artist, who sells her pictures to subsidize her adventuring.

There's also a line where she wonders if she's bad luck, but that's pretty clearly a tip of the hat to her role in Halloween. (As is, I suspect, her casual attitude toward sex. There's plenty of evidence that Carpenter was dumbfounded by the common idea that his slasher classic is saying that girls deserve to be punished for sex. In his next movie, he took the actress who played the supposedly significant virgin, and made her a really nice girl who'll fall into bed with anyone she kinda likes, with no disapproval whatsoever).

So the character is changed from someone who's in Antonio Bay because she left her hometown to be herself, to someone who's there because she's returning to her hometown and her old boyfriend. That's a big difference. Not to mention that she had no particular reason for leaving, beyond a vague sense of not belonging, and she came back because she was having weird dreams, so with a lot more screentime, she has a lot less motivation -- seeming to be carried along by fate.

Tangent on a tangent: the later Snake Plissken from Escape from New York is a lone wolf and criminal on the future equivalent of Death Row whose trouble really starts when he allows himself to get involved with other people, and becomes most dangerous to the world when he embraces higher ideals. Similarly, the man in They Live (credited as "Nada," but never named in the movie) starts out desperate and alone, but also becomes most endangered himself, and again, a true danger to the establishment, when he makes connections, joining forces with others. Elizabeth was an early tilt in that direction. Here's she's a young woman (Curtis was 22 when the movie came out) who's been hitchhiking alone on dark isolated roads, alienated from the people in the world where she came from. She only finds herself in a life and death struggle when she makes a connection to someone else, and decides to stick around in one place.

Alienation versus belonging, isolation versus connection: each has a down side. It's not a polarized view of the world, either/or. However a person deals with other people, there's a double-edged sword quality. The examples in these movies, in my opinion, clearly show belonging and connection as better. This is where the possibility of nobility occurs. This is what makes life worth living, worth surviving for. But belonging and connection can also make life harder and more dangerous. There's more to lose, and an individual loses a degree of control over their destiny. The clear, obvious virtue of self-preservation is made murky by concern for the people you care about, and for a greater good. ("The greater good.") Sorry, but if you've seen Hot Fuzz, you know I can't say that without echoing.

There are a lot of movies that show an alienated person learning to connect and love again. I'm gonna pick Garden State off the top of my head, because we just saw Zach Braff on TV the other day. But they rarely depict such a realistic world as Carpenter's, where life and elements thereof are recognized as imperfect, complicated, threatening, and worth fighting for.

In the remake of The Fog, as in the remade Assault on Precinct 13, everything happens for a reason. In Carpenter's films, the whole point is that there is no reason. His characters are in the wrong place at the wrong time (Halloween, The Thing), or being held responsible for things they didn't do (Precinct 13, The Fog). Thus the symbolic significance of Curtis playing a hitchhiker: sheer drifting chance brought her to this place at this time, to be menaced by ghostly lepers, of all things.

These early films (including Escape from New York, although as dystopian sci-fi, it's in a different class) are all set in existential worlds. Whether there are meaningful personal connections is a matter of chance (in The Fog, for example, Nick's parents are dead, and Elizabeth is alienated from her family). The social structure and authority figures that make people feel safe can't help them in the strange situations where they find themselves. The characters are on their own, by and large, and, as usually happens in life, don't really know what's happening to them or why. They're forced to find their own meaning in the world.

As the 1980 Nick says, "I don't believe in luck, good or bad. I don't believe in anything much."

Many people view this existential universe of Carpenter's as bleak, even cynical. When I watch them, though, I find the opposite to be true.

In the original Assault on Precinct 13, the hero's commanding officer asks him at the beginning of the movie,"Do you want to be a hero your first night out, Lieutenant?" When he responds, "Yes, sir!" the officer tells him, "There are no heroes anymore, Bishop. Just men who follow orders."

Then the whole movie goes on to prove the CO wrong. There are definitely heroes, although they're sometimes unlikely ones. In a Carpenter film, anyone can be a hero, because the hero is whoever rises to the occasion.

Carpenter's existential films start out grounded in the attitudes of normal people, rather than obviously exceptional ones. The characters live in safe, even dull small towns, and/or they're at jobs that they expect to be uneventful on a day-to-day basis. They have no reason to believe they're in any kind of danger (a point that decades of critical theorists on Halloween often ignore). They are complacent about their lives. Then something terrible happens that shakes their complacency.

The characters discover that the world is not what it seemed. Their assumptions about the world were wrong: actually, death is inevitable. There's no authority there to protect them, and with sheer personal survival suddenly on the line, there may not be any straightforward moral guidelines for them to follow.

Now, in real life, this is as far as many people go. You're an ordinary person with an ordinary life, taking your everyday reality for granted. Then something happens. It's a personal tragedy of some sort, as in Halloween. Or in the more symbolic Fog, you learn things that put that reality in a darker light.

In the new Fog, it's Elizabeth who reads the journal, and the information will eventually tell her how she's personally affected by the past: it's all about her identity. In the original, the information was given to Mrs. Williams and Sandy, and Janet Leigh handled the Everywoman reaction in a perfect low-key manner, telling the priest (traumatized by this violent disruption of his worldview) gently "There's not much we can do about this right now." She's not meaning to be callous; just realistic. This all happened a long time ago. Almost anywhere we can live has a bloody history we all ignore so we can go on with our lives.

The idea of people walking around unruffled in their little worlds, oblivious to all the terrible things that have happened (and may still be happening) behind the scenes, is of course a common theme, from Peyton Place to Blue Velvet to contemporary exposes about sweat shops and blood diamonds. But Carpenter's films neither respond with a jaded attitude of "Yup, that's life, get used to it," nor with a Lynchian, "Look, it's a pretty birdy! See, the world is okay after all!" (Huh, it just occurs to me, it's the twentieth anniversary of Twin Peaks, where Lynch most tried to really explore this favorite theme of his -- again, not quite successfully, but still mostly darn good).

His characters have to face up to the loss of a coherent belief system, and the absence of any external force that tells them what to do and, more importantly, what to believe, and hang on to their humanity. The people who become his heroes respond to the situation by refusing to act on selfish self-interest. Even in the absence of certainty or any hope of reward, they risk their lives for others.

(Note: I'm not arguing that there is no higher order, power, or meaning to the world. That's beyond my knowledge and capability. Rather, I'm acknowledging that we live in an age where there is much doubt, and loss of faith in the metaphysical structures that once helped people make sense of their lives. Within that state of mind, when the universe seems cold and purposeless, how do people create meaning and retain moral ideals that are for the good of all?)

When the storylines are of stripped of their existential edge, the heroism deflates along with it. For example, it's not particularly noble of Welling's Nick to go rescue a kid he knows personally, who's the son of a woman he's been sleeping with. Atkins and Curtis' characters, only vaguely connected by definable ties to anyone else, just hear over the radio that a complete stranger is in trouble, and rush to help, because it's the right thing to do.

The original Stevie stays at her post in the lighthouse, broadcasting the movements of the fog because it's job that needs doing, and she's the only one who can do it. This absolutely key part of the original story is completely abandoned in the remake, where it doesn't even occur to Stevie that she can help more in the lighthouse than by running off. The original Mrs. Williams even shows bravery in trying to carry on with the town festivities despite learning the awful truth, and the fact that her husband is missing at sea.

And you'd think I've picked on the new Precinct 13 enough, but that too has changes that render the remade characters much less brave or morally strong. In both versions, there's a person in the station that the attackers want the police to turn over to them. In the original, a frightened character suggests that they do it to save their own necks, and the heroes stare her down, refusing to do so. In the remake, by the time the option comes up to give the bad guys who they want, the characters already know they're all going to be killed either way, as witnesses. So the moral decision is taken away from them. They're all mainly saving themselves, not saving each other.

Even most of Carpenter's fans will agree that The Fog is one of the director's minor works, which doesn't hold together in all its details, despite my enormous fondness for it. In general, it's a moody trifle, with a likable cast, and a spooky score in the patented vein of John Carpenter minimalism. But it also contains a message of how to cope in a cold and apparently unfriendly, incoherent universe that I have always found personally inspiring.

An off-topic annoyance: I can't help mentioning that remake Stevie seems to think she can swear on the radio, which you can't do on "regular radio." But "what the hell, I can do whatever I want. It's my very own station." I think that would be news to the FCC.

And one last thing: in the original Fog, when Nick and Elizabeth rescue little Andy, he grabs the kid, leaving her at the wheel of his pickup. This leads to a suspense scene where they're stuck briefly in the mud, We know it isn't her truck, she's not skilled at driving it, and they're briefly trapped as the killer ghosts converge. Then she gets it to work, and they escape. She did it!

In the remake, the scene works the same way: Nick grabs kid, Elizabeth's at the wheel, they're stuck in the mud. But then, she can't get it to work. Nick actually has to get out of the car, get in the driver's seat, and in two seconds he has them loose so they can escape. When I saw the remake for the first time, in the theater, this change was so gratuitous, and so insulting, I swear to god I wanted to punch director Rupert Wainwright in the face.


houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

And the most troubling thing: the writers of the new Fog probably think they improved on the original script "by tightening the character bonds".

(Exceptional post, btw).

Anarchivist said...

Aww, thanks.

memsaab said...

Sounds like the director of the second version SHOULD be punched in the face.

Ugh. I just don't watch contemporary Hollywood (or newer B'wood either for much the same reasons) anymore. Old really IS gold...

Anarchivist said...

Until I started writing this up, I hadn't really analyzed how much of what I dislike about current filmmaking is the simple lack of storytelling. Like they really, honestly don't know how to tell a story. But they still get paid for it!

memsaab said...

It's all about sfx and pretty Stepford people now :( Sad, really. Well at least there's a treasure trove of oldies out there for us to catch up on :)

vferrante said...

Saw the remake on TV the other night. I couldn't remember the plot of the original (which I saw in the theatre in 1980) but I know it didn't have that hokey reincarnation plot conceit. And so here was your blog, almost a year to the day. I had so much fun reading it that it made me want to run out and sign up for a film course again. Thanks!