Thursday, April 02, 2009

The Best Fake Musical In A Real Movie.

What is new?

That's the question I'll be exploring, off and on, in the month of April, having come to the depressing conclusion that art -- books, movies, sports, more -- has given up on new things and is simply repackaging old things for us, over and over and over, because we (and by we I mean you) simply won't buy/watch/eat/listen to anything that doesn't have the patina of the familiar on it.

This isn't (ironically?) a new complaint on my part. I noted a long time ago that there were, in terms of human existence, really only four new things in the 20th century. I've mentioned before that some television shows seem to be simply repackaged versions of earlier television shows and also get by simply by "parodying" other television shows and movies (and "parodying" is in quotes because to be a parody, don't you have to be making a point about the original, a point of some kind, instead of simply plugging your own characters into it?)

And while I'm not against some artistic comfort food -- I'm right now reading a John Grisham novel that differs from other John Grisham novels in that the character is on the run from a pregnant cheerleader, rather than an angry mafioso -- I'm against constantly having to retread old ground and I'm against the idea that as a society, we can no longer expect that anything will be new.

Take the latest affront to my sensibilities: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. This is the latest in a recent string of books that merely repackages another story -- like "Edgar Sawtelle," which was "Hamlet, only with dogs." Or "What Happened To Anna K?" which takes Anna Karenina -- a story that didn't need to be told in the first place -- and transports it to modern-day New York.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies starts with what could be considered a unique premise: what would happen if zombies existed in the Jane-Austen-Version-Of-England -- how would those upright, very mannered people deal with the existence of zombies?

But it then throws that unique premise away by simply splattering (!) it onto an actual Jane Austen work.


Because nobody would buy it if it wasn't linked to "Pride & Prejudice?" Is that the thinking? Was it a very creative idea that some hack at a publishing company said "Wait a minute, there's no way we can market this unless, say, we tie it into Jane Austen or something" and then the publisher forced the writer to change all the characters' names to "Mr. Darcy?" Or did it start out being less than creative?

Because I've got to say: My mom reads Jane Austen, and loves her. But I don't see her branching out into the zombie-verse.

Would the book be better if it was called, say, Victorian Zombies? I think so: It would be more creative. In a world where there are 924 different versions of the game "Monopoly," shouldn't we be trying less to repackage the old with a new gloss, and more to come up with something new that doesn't need gloss?

And it's not like everything about something has to be completely new or made-up or never before seen. That's the discussion I have with my kids all the time: They complain that we have the same things for dinner, over and over. "We always have eggs," they say, and that's generally true-- about once a week we have some sort of egg-based dinner. One week, it's homemade egg mcmuffins. The next, it might be western omelettes. Then egg salad sandwiches and soup. Then fried eggs and bacon. And so on.

So is it fair to say that we always have eggs? Yes -- but is it fair to say that each new dish isn't new? No.

See? I'm not so irrational: I'm saying you can take the same old parts and put them together in a new way, and have it be fun and interesting. You could take zombies (old) and Victorian England (old) and combine them, and get new. But if you then take that new and smush it back into Jane Austen, it's old again. It's no longer, if you do that, an omelette vs. an egg sandwich. It's an egg-sandwich-on-wheat vs. an egg-sandwich-on-white.

To an extent, all art is simply putting together the old pieces in a new way: each story, each painting, each football game, each song, is the same old pieces but stacked up new. Art, in that sense, is a Lego house: there are only a certain number of different kinds of Legos. If you take all the Legos and build a house, and I take them apart and build a different house, we've each made a Lego house, but mine is new (unless I copy yours and call it a parody, a la Seth MacFarlane and the South Park guys.)

With those same Legos, you can build a house, you can build a London Bridge, you can build a Lunar Landing Module, you can build a pirate ship, you can build...anything.

But if the people who mostly run art these days -- Big Art, if you will-- had their way, we would have an endless series of Lego Houses, each slightly different than the rest, for about 10 or 20 years. Then we'd do it all over -- but this time with red Legos.

I don't want Red Lego Houses forever, anymore than I want "Mountain Dew Orange Juice" in the morning. So it's up to me to save the world -- again-- and start telling people how to make something new. And, if you haven't guessed, today's new-osity is created by Putting Old Things Together In A Totally New Way, and that is best demonstrated by the movie Hamlet 2, which as a movie was good, but served a higher purpose: that of housing the The Best Fake Musical In A Real Movie.

At first glance, there is absolutely nothing new about either "Hamlet 2" the movie or the musical. There is nothing new about putting a fake musical into a real movie -- it's been done on other occasions, most recently by Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but it goes back at least to Grease 2 and the talent shows.

On that subject, did you ever stop to think of the great strides made by males in between Grease and Grease 2? In Grease, it was embarrassing for Danny to simply like a girl -- if his buddies knew he liked Sandy, he'd be mortally embarrassed, which is why he had to pretend to be mean to her. But by Grease 2, which was (I think?) only a few years later, Johnny Nogerelli could not only openly like Stephanie Zinone, but he could openly like her and Paulette, and he could sing and dance onstage without being beaten up by his friends. Danny couldn't even admit he wanted to go out for track. Johnny could perform in a talent show.

So the individual parts of Hamlet 2 the movie were nothing new: a struggling, weird artistic teacher tries to motivate kids, the art program at school is in trouble, a guy's wife is leaving him... all of it not very original-sounding.

And the musical in Hamlet 2 -- the actual musical-within-a-movie, "Hamlet 2," put on by the students and the teacher, itself starts out with not much of a very original idea: A rock-star-esque Jesus returns to the world and markets himself. (As I've pointed out before, the unusual-version-of-God is played out; my love of newness no longer extends to unique versions of God. Just get Morgan Freeman. Except in Hamlet 2, as we'll see.)

From those old Legos, though, arises something new. Not entirely new, not My God, I've never seen something like this before New, but new, and that new thing is the actual musical-within-a-movie, the "Hamlet 2" play put on by the students and the teacher.

A lot of times, when I'm watching a movie and they put on a fake musical in it, I find myself thinking Boy, I wish I could watch that whole thing. I thought that when Jason Segal performed bits and pieces of Dracula the musical in Sarah Marshall -- while the Sarah Marshall movie was okay, the musical in it looked great.

That's what I thought, too, while watching (the movie) Hamlet 2: the movie is okay, but that musical looks great.

That's part of what elevates Hamlet 2 above all the other fake musicals in real movies: it's sheer greatness and the spectacle suggested by it. The musical (in the movie) is staged in an abandoned warehouse and has movie screens and dancers and waving blue things simulating water and a time machine filled with televisions and a choir singing "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" and wire-work and... more and more and more, and watching the movie gives a viewer the chance to see enough of it to think: screw this movie, I want to see the musical.

The other part of what makes Hamlet 2 (the musical-within-the-movie) rise above all contenders is that the part presented to the movie viewer is so short, so tantalizing, and so above-and-beyond anything we've ever seen actually performed on stage. I've been in, and to, a lot of musicals in my life. I had bit parts, in middle school, in two musicals, and saw my brother Matt (post the video, Matt!) in one, and saw Phantom of the Opera and Evita and Stomp and The Producers, and I once saw an actual opera performed and I've been to see Pink Floyd in concert (and I kind of almost remember it) and Paul McCartney in concert -- I've seen people put on spectacles, or try to.

But I never saw anything that even hinted at how great Hamlet 2 (the fake musical) was, nothing that combined so many old elements (Elton John, Sexy Jesus, time machines) into something so new and wondrous and beautiful.

And, yeah, "Sexy Jesus" is an old idea: Jesus Christ Superstar, Jesus Christ the Musical, Jesus of Suburbia, The Wrong-Eyed Jesus... there's not a lot new there.

There is a sad lesson that could be drawn from the fact that these fake musicals, including Hamlet 2, are always fake and always shown in bits and pieces. More than one sad lesson, in fact.

I could assume that they're always fake because people couldn't pull off that kind of creativity in "real life," couldn't actually stage that kind of musical for real because we're just not creative enough to mount a truly wonderful, truly new production like Hamlet 2 in real life.

Or I could assume that the fake musicals are always fake and short because it's impossible to sustain that level of creativity for the long haul -- that people can come up with a couple of good ideas but can't wrap a whole musical around them.

I could even assume that the only reason these look so good is because they're short and fake -- that if they were presented in "real" life I'd hate them and be bored.

But I don't assume any of that. Instead, I conclude that the reason these fake musicals are presented simply as fake little musicals in real movies, as bits and pieces of other, more standard works of art, is because the Powers That Be, Big Art, won't let them be actual musicals or movies.

There is, after all, no real reason that Hamlet 2, the musical couldn't have simply been made and mounted as a musical or movie. The geniuses that came up with the idea, and the songs that appear in the movie, could have simply written an entire musical based on the idea that Hamlet and Jesus use a time machine to keep everyone from dying in the original Hamlet play (that's the premise of the fake musical) and produced that. There is, after all, no real reason that a Puppet Dracula musical couldn't have been made, either -- and I suspect that Jason Segal wanted to, or would want to, do that, seeing as how he has said he's going to write the next Muppet Movie.

(And the original Muppet Movie had one of the classic fake musicals in it -- a Mobius strip of a fake musical, when the Muppets get together to make a musical movie about the musical movie you've just seen. That was a strong contender for this nomination.)

So why didn't we get Hamlet 2, the actual musical, instead of "Hamlet 2," the fake musical inside "Hamlet 2 The Movie?" Why didn't we get "Dracula The Actual Puppet Musical" instead of "Dracula" the fake puppet musical inside of Forgetting Sarah Marshall?

Because we don't demand them, that's why. Big Art won't give them to us because we won't go watch them because we'd rather watch another stupid movie about a guy who thinks he's in love with one girl but is actually in love with another, and have a tiny bit of a fantastic new musical in that, than watch the fantastic new musical.

And by "we" I mean you.

It wasn't always that way: The Muppet Movie, as I said, was a brand-new kind of musical: Puppets playing banjos and traveling the country to make a movie. If The Muppet Movie were made today, it would, no doubt, be more predictable and more trite and more recognizable, and maybe have a fake musical in it, a burst of creativity in a same-old/same-old chicken pot pie of a movie. I can say that with confidence, because look at the history of the Muppet movies:

* The Muppet Movie
* The Great Muppet Caper
* The Muppets Take Manhattan
* A Muppet Family Christmas (1987) (TV)
* The Muppet Christmas Carol
* Muppet Treasure Island
* Muppets From Space (1999)
* The Muppets' Wizard of Oz

Do you see what happened there? From the weirdness of the first two movies, to the third movie (which itself had another great fake musical in it, and was about putting on that musical)(see how Hamlet 2 isn't built of all new parts?) the Muppets went downhill, eventually just remaking "A Christmas Carol" (which itself is being remade yet again, the lesson being, apparently, that there is only one Christmas story worth telling) and other familiar works of art. (Let's hope that Jason Segal isn't writing "The Muppets In Pride & Prejudice and Zombies.")

It's not just Muppets, either. Disney totally fell downhill, too -- they used to present new stuff like Fantasia and The Rescuers and other original ideas. But with the success of The Little Mermaid, Disney fell into a rut for a long time of simply repackaging old, familiar stories into cartoons (Hercules, Pocahontas) and left the original stuff to subsidiaries like Pixar.

People keep paying actual money to see "Fast and Furious," the threequel to "The Fast and The Furious," which was the first in that line of movies, and "2 Fast 2 Furious," the second in that line, and a movie which in its very title shows how limited our scope is: There are people out there, now, who will no longer go see a sequel if that sequel does not instantly call to mind the original. Those people could not be bothered to see "The Empire Strikes Back," because it would be too different from Star Wars; if it came out today, that movie would likely have to have been called Star Wars 2: More Wars. (When I first saw a commercial for Fast and Furious, I was confused; I thought they were re-releasing "The Fast and The Furious," while Sweetie thought they were remaking the earlier movie. Judging from commercials, she may be right.)

Those same people -- hopefully not you -- are the people who won't pick up Victorian Zombies, who want to keep re-reading Anna Karenina (Book Pitch: Suppose Anna Karenina were to live in Hollywood? Why not a whole series of Anna K books: "Anna K, Texas Housewife"-- it's "Dallas Meets Real Housewives," with a smidge of literary pretension?), and it's those people I have to fight against by presenting the glories of things like Hamlet 2, The Best Fake Musical In A Real Movie, in hopes that they'll put down their same old egg sandwich, put a bookmark in their umpteenth repackaging of Bridget Jones, pause the DVR playback of Yet Another Teen Christmas Carol, and allow me, and hopefully you, to see something new.
Because until then, we're going to be stuck hoping for little nuggets of gold hidden in the same old same old:

Related: John Irving included A Christmas Carol in A Prayer For Owen Meany, in a totally new way.

Like fake works of art? Read About The Best Book That Never Existed, But Should.


Husbands Anonymous said...

I once heard a novelist say that there are only three plot lines to ANY story- but I'm damned if I can remember them. Love? Death and something?
And in advertising, it has to be sex, children or animals.
I liked the brief fake musical in Monsters Inc, when Mike is pretending to practice for it, so that he doesn't get caught out for something else.
Sorry. My memory isn't good.
But I did love your post, it provoked me.

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