Stay Tuned

Posted: September 4, 2022 in Uncategorized

© 2022 G.N. Jacobs

I’m not exactly sure why it mattered to me to go looking for Peter Hyams’ old movie Stay Tuned on Amazon Prime. I had remembered the movie from a long-ago previous foray into cable television as a mostly pleasant but entirely forgettable comedic romp satirizing television itself. But then I read an article comparing the movie to a more recent movie that borrowed the central premise, a couch potato ends up sucked into TV-land and must prevail over…

Truthfully, Stay Tuned doesn’t improve with a nostalgic re-watch three decades later. It is still a pleasant but ultimately forgettable movie. And until I somehow expended the mental effort the second time to think about a movie that doesn’t really justify the effort, I couldn’t have explained why. Now I think I can…as if it matters. The filmmakers pretty much created a movie that’s supposed to turn on a foundering relationship but only showed us one half of that relationship.

The Plot. Roy Knable (John Ritter) neglects his wife, Helen (Pam Dawber) not for the charms of another woman, but for the siren call of Mistress TV. Whether beaten down because former passionate champion fencers just perhaps shouldn’t try to sell plumbing supplies or passively aggressively annoyed the wife is doing better at her vitamin company executive job, Roy is now a couch potato. Way too much TV.

Helen breaks the TV in the living room during the latest Pay Attention Fight. This allows the mysterious man, Mr. Spike (Jeffery Jones) to appear and seductively offer a huge home entertainment system. There is, of course, the catch that the cable plan is a little off presenting shows designed to cater to an audience of one…someone who just loves sadism and misery. And with that Roy and Helen are sucked into the satellite dish to star in Hellavision. They have to survive a full day on shows trying to kill them to be released. What follows is a thinly disguised attempt to satirize TV and the shows found therein during the late 1980s through 1990s. Okay…cool, I guess.

Early on, the Knables are dropped into a Chuck Jones animation sequence as mice trying to do several things all at the same time: evade the robot cat trying to wipe them out, grab donuts left out on the kitchen counter and discuss the causes of their marital strife. Pretty much, this animated sequence defines the high-water mark for the whole movie. How do does a struggling couple escape a cartoon where they only have a limited amount of script immunity? How does anyone survive a cartoon? Generous access to the ACME Consumer Products catalogue.

Anyway, the rest of the movie proceeds through a serious of sight gags about TV. Wayne’s World becomes Duane’s Underworld and so forth and so on. Hanging on to various remotes gifted by Spike and/or finding a channel conduit is how you move from show to show trying to evade Satan’s TV minions. Yes, the filmmakers dropped Roy Knable played by John Ritter into a brief callback to Threes Company, yet Helen as played by Pam Dawber didn’t land in Mindy’s living room on Mork & Mindy

*Author rubs nonexistent beard in wonder* – “Gee, I wonder what’s going on there?”

Each sight gag is good for a chuckle, but only a chuckle. A second part of my epiphany about roads not taken in this movie is that I think the filmmakers needed to pick more shows and old movies that directly related to Roy Knable’s character. We see him enjoying old swashbuckler movies even waving an old rapier saying the dialogue long since committed to memory. So, this is where a smarty pants type suggests a slightly longer movie where more sword fighting takes place and to show character progression.

Yes, we did almost get a good moment out of the French Revolution movie “Off With His Head” that perhaps takes Tale of Two Cities to the woodshed. But maybe Roy Knable playing Le Baron de Knable Enemy of the People, needed to also be in an Errol Flynn pirate movie. A spoof segment that shows how people who haven’t picked up an epee in a while might just get their ass kicked?

Letting Roy recover his fencing skills on screen might also touch on what the movie is really lacking: Helen’s Why. She married a champion fencer, there’s a story that can be touched on with each thrust, parry and – “as I end the refrain, I thrust home!” Yes, fighting for her and his family is Roy’s Why to recover that younger better self. Why has Helen also been sucked into Hell TV?

We do see her getting on his case. She packs bags and expresses her regret that maybe Roy’s failure to keep fighting like the champion fencer he used to be is why their marriage is on the rocks. However, on screen it feels quite performative like filmmakers needing a reason why instead of diving in.

What if we saw a little more about Helen? She is the frustrated wife angry that her husband neglects her. We’ve seen in other movies what can happen when this sets in…

Does she start sleeping with her boss at the vitamin company (American Beauty)? Does she almost sleep with someone else willing to pay attention only to discover why she should stay with the husband (True Lies)? More importantly, due to being in the middle of a story about Hell and Lucifer what is the Devil going to do to use her needs to attack her relationship with her husband?

It came to me in a flash that if the Devil, whom I not sure we saw on screen, took a liking to Helen as the Conquest du Jour that suddenly you have real stakes for the Knables and the family. If, say, Spike tries to promise her he’d always be there for her. Would never throw her over for the Worlds Series. What happens in that movie? We don’t know…

In sum, Stay Tuned is a movie that maybe you’ve never seen because people my age thought it barely registered as interesting. I have my opinions about improving the movie by doing more with the wife…easily thirty years too late. And then we move on…

Operation Mincemeat

Posted: August 2, 2022 in Uncategorized

© 2022 G.N. Jacobs

I guess this is where the smarty-pants types among you might ask, “so was it worth it to read and watch four different versions of the same gruesome WW2 story where the British grab a dead body, dress it up with a uniform and a fake life in order to accidentally on purpose lose certain highly classified documents to the Nazis in order to pull the head fake to end all head fakes concerning Allied intentions leading up to the invasion of Sicily?” Ending on the recent John Madden version based on Ben McIntyre’s book (see review) the answer is, “Yeah, the project peaked on a good movie.” Ending on The Man Who Never Was (see review) based on the memoir of the man who was there, Ewen Montague, given the same title (see review), the answer lands more on, “I guess so, it’s such a fascinating event that any version will at least hold my interest.”

There is so much to like about how McIntyre’s book landed on screen where even the artifice seems to generally support the truthful whole. This narrative web does a brilliant job of adding the human touches that actually make the story more like the spy thriller it was sold as across all four incarnations. What do I mean? Spy thrillers allow for the actions of both sides to come to the fore creating the possibility of abject defeat in a game noted for knees and elbows alley fighting. 

The real events of Operation Mincemeat took place in offices and clubs in three phases, A) developing the fake man, B) waiting out the tense fortnight between sending Major Martin to war and recovery of his body and C) sitting around the telex praying for the Germans to believe the letters. Certainly, a nail-bitingly tense six months for the people actually in the room who know how many lives might be on the line should the Allies land at an honestly contested beach. Filmgoers tend to value things that appear to happen and sitting in offices around the Telex machine doesn’t count…

…unless the filmmakers cannily fill those spaces with natural expansions of the narrative implied by how McIntyre wrote his book with how these interactions might have played out should time travelers go back with a fistful of 1080p cameras disguised as ladybugs (to prevent said cameras being squashed, we like ladybugs). Thus, the thin traces of a relationship between Montague (Colin Firth) and Jean Leslie (Kelly MacDonald), the young Admiralty staffer that gave a photo to Major Martin, pretty much hinted at by McIntyre in the book becomes a fully realized almost affair filled with walks home in the gloom of a blacked-out wartime London. Scenes where playing pretend about the otherwise fictional Bill Martin and his one-true love, Pam, becomes an excuse for Montague, presently estranged from the wife and kids secured in the United States, to imagine what might happen if he leans in for a kiss with either the best or worst timing possible…depending on point of view.

Similarly, another thread that might not have really happened are the interactions between Montague and Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen) and Jean that add so much to the potboiler parts of the plot that fill in the boring parts of the movie (the thing about offices and Telexes). While the possibility of Montague and Jean exist in the book, the added layer of a triangle between Montague, Cholmondeley and Jean is just brilliant fiction. The plot thickens when Admiral John Godfrey (Jason Isaacs) recruits Cholmondeley to watch Montague over the suspected Communist leanings, confirmed after the war, of a brother, Ivor Montague (Mark Gatiss) actions that come to a head riding in the truck taking the body to Scotland to meet up with the submarine, HMS Seraph, intended to drop off the body in the water near Spain.

To make the story work even more like the finely tuned Swiss watch that lands on screen, some otherwise minor characters are given scenes that hit hard and move on. British Naval Attaché in Madrid, Captain David Ainsworth (Nicholas Rowe) has to goose a Spanish secret police commander, Colonel Cerruti (Oscar Zafra), into acting to make sure the fake letters fall into the hands of the more Fascist (anybody but the Navy) parts of the Spanish Government. Technique employed…a hand job (pardon my French). Did it really happen? McIntyre’s book doesn’t mention it (there was another British intelligence officer omitted from the movie found and photographed in a dress), but given that no country on the planet was all that tolerant of LBGTQ, except for those deemed useful to the larger cause who could keep things from going public, until very recently, if it did happen no way does the man put this moment in a report that could one day declassify.

That last bit of complete artifice that seems to enhance the movie is the handling of Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn), who history records was in the room and was among the first to propose the idea of a dead body loaded up with fake papers a couple years before Operation Mincemeat. He wrote a memo with various ruses upon the start of the war that no one else in British intelligence thought could work until Montague and Cholmondeley tackled the problem halfway through the war by asking what the experts thought would work. 

In addition to Fleming’s real role as intermediary between Montague’s office and the rest of the Twenty Committee overseeing all wartime deceptions, the filmmakers decided that the fictional version of the man later to create James Bond should act as narrator of a sort. On the day of the invasion of Sicily, Flynn playing Fleming narrates as he types a quite poetic summary of the plot using various sayings about espionage written elsewhere for example, “wilderness of mirrors” and “the truth is protected by a bodyguard of lies.” In the movie, Fleming is depicted in the office actually sitting at a typewriter. Yes, Montague calls out the oddity of Fleming over in the corner while everyone else is at their desks pensively praying, drinking too much high-caffeine tea and coffee and just hoping the Telex spits out good news. My instincts would be to go deeper with the moment…

“Really, Ian, you can type at a time like this? And make sure the office censor sees those pages before you leave.”

“I’ve drunk too much coffee today, Ewan, and I have to do something with my hands. If it’s all the same to you the shredder’s over in the corner.”

…except no one paid me to have any input whatsoever.

The moment does lead into giving Cholmondeley an observation that even I mentioned in the review for McIntyre’s book…how many real-life amateur novelists had a piece of the greater story. Upon hearing someone else in the office congratulate Captain Ainsworth on the recently finished novel, Cholmondeley asks with great exasperation “how many novelists are there in this operation?” – followed by grousing to Jean – “I’m surrounded by them, novelists I mean, not Germans.” Carefully counting up the novelists in the book it came out to four, including Ian Fleming who freely admitted to the most writer thing of all, stealing *AHEM* borrowing ideas from someone else. And then you get to thinking that the fate of a major Allied operation depended in part on four novelists taking a highly novelistic plot and going about their business with such a straight face that with a little help from a sympathetic Nazi the whole zaniness worked.

In addition to a set of brilliance in weaving together truth and things we wish were true, the strength of this movie rests on the casting. Colin Firth plays this general part of the genteel British man trying to make sense of how he fits in the larger scheme in his sleep. Matthew Macfadyen eats up scenery playing both the fictional and truthful aspects of Charles Cholmondeley and clearly looked at a few photographs of the real man. The man embodied the awkwardness that would leave him as the unsuccessful third wheel of the fictional triangle with Jean at the apex. 

However, I did take exception to the clearly fictional depiction of Cholmondeley going along on the HMS Seraph as part of an overly sentimental need to show respect for Major Martin a.k.a. Glyndwyr Michael. Both the real man and the actor were too tall for the average submarine of the era. He says as much upon returning to London, but here’s the real rub of the moment…after dropping the body into Spanish coastal waters the real Seraph was ordered to destroy evidence of the plot (the cannister carrying the body) and then go into the Mediterranean on a normal patrol against Axis shipping. 

In order to divest the submarine of a very tall man who has little in the way of submarine skills, the Seraph would have to pull into the nearest Allied port of Gibraltar. Pulling into port when you don’t have to risks being seen by an Axis spy creating danger when a report of “Allied submarine, possibly HMS Seraph reported in port on…” lands on a desk in Berlin. But the audience does get to feel the sentimentality of someone from the deception office going along to recite the Burial at Sea Ceremony (truthfully conducted by the Captain of the Seraph, Bill Jewell (Rufus Wright)).

My main pet peeve about this otherwise amazing movie rests on the cinematography. The only well-lit scenes happen indoors. Certain scenes, especially the ones on the deck of the submarine are just too dark, an artistic decision in the eternal cinematic battle between how the dark of night can create fear and indecision and the audience getting confused as to what is happening. Most movies experiment to find a middle ground. This one didn’t care that I reached in vain for the Brightness button on three separate devices to see the Netflix feed. Though the general darkness works better for walking around London at night with flashlights pointed at the ground, because it’s war and cities blackout in war.

To close, this movie deserves the hype you’ve likely been hearing about it. I’m an easy sell when it comes to well-made war movies. Still, perhaps if you haven’t already, see it for yourself and enjoy!        

The Man Who Never Was

Posted: August 2, 2022 in Uncategorized

© 2022 G.N. Jacobs

A body with documents washes ashore with important documents. Major William Martin never exactly existed except in the minds of a special team of British intelligence officers tasked with creating confusion among the Nazis prior to the 1943 invasion of Sicily.

This first film version of the story about a gruesome and apparently highly successful deception operation is pretty much the first draft of the story. Seeing this movie the first time without benefit of reading either the eponymous book by Hon. LCDR Ewen Montague RN on which this film is based (see review) or the more complete Operation Mincemeat by Ben McIntyre (see review) gives the initial impression of a great movie. Now that I’ve read the real story, my current feeling has more to do with not even getting to the really good parts. The filmmakers including director Ronald Neame seemed more interested in the ‘just the facts, ma’am’ version of the story.’ We’ll see about the upcoming Operation Mincemeat based on McIntyre’s book (see review).

The story is streamlined to remove and consolidate many characters while presenting a mostly one-note depiction of fairly standard British stock characters. Clifton Webb as Montague does his best to seem like the real-life intelligence officer given the gruesome job. The thing is, even without the extra knowledge that comes from the decades-later declassification of the project’s full file, this movie doesn’t fully live up to what was known based on Montague’s book published in the 1950s. A publication that happened because a cabinet secretary wrote a novel about it and a journalist on the outside whom the British government wanted to cut off at the knees neared completing his own book.

Looking at the movie now, the interplay between the truthful parts, the mechanics of creating a person out of thin air with a real personality to convince Adolf Hitler to reinforce Sardinia and Greece at the expense of Sicily and the invented parts don’t mesh together the way I thought they did. The pure invention is Lucy (Gloria Grahame) who shares a flat in London with Pam (Josephine Griffin). The act of Pam farming out the letters to Lucy as she experiences the same emotions having her own whirlwind romance proves both dangerous and fortuitous.

Admiral Wilhelm Canaris sends an agent based in Dublin, Patrick O’Reilly (Stephen Boyd) to London to run down the basic facts of Major Martin’s life. This includes stops at the clothing store that sells British officers their uniforms, the residential club and finally Pam and Lucy’s flat. Tragically and luckily, Lucy’s actual fiancé died the same day that the German agent arrives to ask about the relationship with Major Martin. Her tears prove convincing and O’Reilly takes a risk exposing his address in London for final confirmation and is allowed to escape to prove his message.

This whole subplot is both a reason to see the movie and once you read the real story feel cheated at how extravagantly fictional it is. Gloria Grahame cries well on cue. She’s ecstatically happy when Joe is still alive and crushingly sad when he isn’t. And the music that plays underneath goes for schmaltz as sometimes happens in movies of the era. And Stephen Boyd as the Irish Nazi is appropriately terrifying is ways that not even his Mesala was a few years later…waiting in doorways like that approaching silently until the woman employed by British Intelligence but who still is a woman turns on the light.

The problem is that very little of this carried over into the streamlined but more factual scenes about Montague and his sidekick, George Akers (Robert Flemyng) a pseudonym for the real-life Charles Cholmondeley. At a key moment, Webb’s Montague basically runs a little roughshod over Pam when she gets a little weepy when she tries to explain how Lucy was so convincing when the German agent came calling. A little mean in any movie and downright weird as well as mean now that I’ve actually read the books on which this movie is based.

In a similar vein, the Akers character is a fairly ordinary dry witted English good-time guy stereotype that doesn’t hold up well having read the books. Even in Montagu’s book, where the still serving Cholmondeley needed to be written out of the story, the George on the page is more interesting than the George in this movie. And then when you read McIntyre’s book, you see how shallow and vacuous the fictional man really is. It gets funnier because Cholmondeley was on set acting as unofficial technical advisor during shooting.

When I first saw this movie on whatever cable channel it was, none of these issues mattered. I didn’t notice how the two halves didn’t really belong together in the same movie. It was a mostly true story about a true event in the war that worked out well for the Allies. I didn’t need better than that. Now I do. The movie still entertains, just try to see it before Operation Mincemeat.   

Operation Mincemeat

Posted: August 2, 2022 in Uncategorized

© 2022 G.N. Jacobs

In continuing my exploration of the strange wartime exploits of Major William Martin, R.M. (oh, sorry Glyndwr Michael), the next stop on the journey is, of course, Ben McIntyre’s book Operation Mincemeat. This second book published long after Britain feels any need to preserve secrecy concerning either operations (e.g. “we may want to do this again”) or the delicacy involved with whose body got grabbed and how the grabbing took place is the book that The Man Who Never Was by Ewen Montagu never got to be. It helps to have Britain, Germany, Spain and Italy open up their files.

To recap, Operation Mincemeat was a deception operation in World War Two where in the lead up to the Sicily Invasion the body of a freshly dead homeless man went sideways into war service as a Royal Marine major in order to convince the Nazis that letters found on the body indicated false attacks elsewhere than Sicily. History records the gruesome ploy worked. McIntyre endeavors to explain why and expresses, in 20-20 hindsight how slightly different decisions and thought processes at all levels of the Nazi Government mean that the plan should’ve failed…miserably.

The book begins with the Spaniard that found the body and ends with a wealth of detail taking place after the war about Montagu’s attempts to convince British authorities to let him publish the story. In between, there are vivid character portraits and connections to whole other facets of Britain’s history between the 1930s up through the 1960s, in some cases I’ve read those books too. Then again, Montagu did work for what was alternately called Twenty Committee, Double Cross Committee or XX Committee (I hope you see the similarities in the names so I don’t have to spell it out). Pretty much this group had access to everything British Intelligence generated with an eye towards using it to fool the Nazis into doing stupid things to lose the war…of course the connections go everywhere.

What struck me about the narrative is how many novelists featured in the story beyond just Ian Fleming, acting as personal assistant to committee member and head of Naval Intelligence, Admiral John Godfrey. At least, four other names mentioned wrote, mostly unpublished and probably unpublishable, crime, thriller and maybe an adventure novel or two about treasure hunting. You’d think with so many of these mostly men being properly or nominally in the Royal Navy that at least one of them would’ve busted out something about pirates, but I digress. 

More importantly, these novelists had read other contemporary writers and when they were tasked after the successful African Campaign to deflect Nazi attention away from Sicily, they grabbed the idea of a dead body with a briefcase full of documents from some other novels that clearly the Nazis hadn’t read. Gee, it gives hope that maybe one day I can grow up to beat the crap of my nation’s enemies with the same skills involved in inventing new RPG monsters, devious crimes and fictional bare-knuckle politics…imagination. Though, of course, there is also a record scratch moment – “What? Wait! A gruesome and ingenious plan originally came from a couple of pre-war novels and it worked?”

McIntyre gives a full picture of some very odd people across Europe and Africa all pulling on the same oars, whether the aforementioned novelists, journalists, lawyers and military professionals on the team. We learn about cross dressing British diplomats, nearsighted F1 drivers, extremely arrogant professors of forensic medicine, a humorous other forensic pathologist tasked with actually finding the body. And I’ll split the infinitive, so to speak, before discussing some of the equally interesting Nazi personalities that experienced these events from the other side.

These eccentric personalities were needed to do one thing; convince Nazis with the same ability to read a map that “ignore those war preparations going on in Tunisia and Egypt, we’re really invading Sardinia and Greece at the same time.” To bolster the belief structure likely to accept the lie the Allies had A) the resources for two invasions at the same time and B) could see military wisdom in avoiding the obvious geographical requirement of Sicily (look at the map, it’s practically in the exact center of the Mediterranean, a soccer ball getting its ass kicked by Italy), many hundreds of people went to work inflating, installing and moving rubber and balsa wood armies in the Sahara Desert. Real commandos went to Greece to blow things up ahead of the lie. The dead body with the suitcase full of “revealing letters” was only intended as the icing on the cake.

There was a problem. The British didn’t quite get the part about exactly keeping the body fresh over the three months between Mr. Michael’s death and Major Martin’s unfortunate crash near southwestern Spain between Gibraltar and Portugal. The Spanish medical examiner that did the initial examination listed a range for probable times of death and floating in the ocean that conflicted with the timeline created by the pocket litter (various personal letters, theater stubs, overdraft notices, etc.) by up to four days.

Luckily, a British Vice Consul, Frances Haselden, was in the room to help the pathologist make only a cursory examination trading on assumptions that Spanish Catholics would want to slack off on full post-mortems for British Catholic soldiers. This *ahem* diplomat also had the task of getting Major Martin’s grave covered with a marble slab as soon as possible to prevent the Nazis or Spaniards from digging up the body for a full reexamination. He also was one of at least four British diplomats tasked with the delicate acting job of pressing neutral Spanish authorities for the return of the body and effects as soon as possible, but not too soon to prevent the letters from being photographed by the fascist Spanish and provided to the Nazis whom they owed for the help in the Spanish Civil War. 

Which brings us back around to the Nazi personalities in this story. At the local level near the small city of Huelva we have Adolfo Clauss, son of the local German consul. He was terrifyingly efficient at spying in his region. Being good at making friends with Spanish officials had been noted by the British…why they picked his territory.

One step above Clauss in the Madrid embassy, we have Karl-Erich Kühlenthal, whom history records wasn’t nearly as good at spying as Clauss, but given that espionage is a “wilderness of mirrors” didn’t know it until long after the war and never publicly admitted to his failures. Kühlenthal was primarily involved in running the infamous double agent, Juan Pujol Garcia (codenamed Garbo by the British for his sheer acting ability) who simply made up a whole network of completely imaginary subagents in Britain intent on selling the con to the Nazis. Kühlenthal did get his boss, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, to weigh in personally to get the letters from the Spanish.

Still, with a possible four-day discrepancy that is at the very least something that should be vigorously investigated, we come around to the last link in the chain on the Nazi side of things, Colonel Baron Alexis von Roenne. This interesting man was thought of as “Hitler’s favorite intelligence analyst.” The man who was staunchly Christian in the best way to mean that word possibly did everything he could to undermine the Nazis by recommending bad information up the chain of command. Whether for Operation Barclay (the larger project that included Mincemeat) or the later similar deceptions concerning the Normandy invasion a year later, it is supposed that despite doubts about the quality of various data he told the High Command and Hitler that the information was good. The good baron was friends with the public face of Operation Valkyrie (July 20 bombing plot against Hitler), Claus von Stauffenberg. Being friends with the man that placed the bomb wasn’t good for life expectancy, the baron died gruesomely on a meat hook in October 1944.

In the end, Mincemeat and the larger deception worked because Hitler, who saw the documents within days of recovery from Spain, needed them to be genuine. If the Allies actually had the resources depicted in the deception, attacking Greece presents an interesting problem for the Axis. Greece leads through admittedly rugged mountainous terrain to Romania from where the Nazis obtained most of their petroleum. 

Additionally, attacking Europe through the Balkans meant linking up with the Soviets as if the western allies were taking Stalin seriously about a Second Front and could lead to a better postwar result concerning Eastern Europe. Similarly, Sardinia was a necessary first stop on the way to southern France, a possibility if more American generals had won more early arguments with British generals that the war would be won in France going straight at the Nazis. All it took to reinforce these possibilities was a huge amount of fake troop movements, radio traffic and a dead body with fake letters.

Believing the lie, the Nazis reinforced everywhere but southern Sicily and pulled up short in the massive tank battle near Kursk. Sicily crumbled. Italy’s other fascists convinced the Italian King to pull support from Mussolini and promptly change sides in the war to get the unpopular Germans from Italian soil (a two-year campaign until the end of the war). Near total success.

Mostly because of how McIntyre presents the information highlighting the many strange personalities involved in this story where the body of a homeless Welshman died in London and went to war as a fictitious Royal Marine major, I found this to be one of the more enlightening reads in the subject of History. I’m also glad to have read the book first because the recent Netflix movie (see review) is going to cut the narrative down to size. A great read!  

The Man Who Never Was

Posted: August 2, 2022 in Uncategorized

© 2022 G.N. Jacobs

I first learned of the gruesome intelligence operation known as Operation Mincemeat in a great old book on World War Two I can no longer find thusly – “They took a body. Put him in a uniform with a briefcase and dropped him in the water near Spain.” Young me filed that away until I then saw the first filmed adaptation of Ewen Montagu’s wartime memoir The Man Who Never Was. I’ll get to that part later; this is me reading the actual book.

Knowing that with the advent on Netflix of the second adaptation Operation Mincemeat, it was time to go looking in the library. Two modestly unpalatable choices exist for grabbing this 70-year-old title suddenly made hot by the new movie. Wait out the hold process for getting the one copy circulating from a branch that is practically on the opposite end of our fair Southern California city (San Diego). Or take the trolley downtown to the main library where an earlier edition of the book waited on the 940.54 shelf on the Fifth Floor. I went downtown and forgot to turn around until prompted by the librarian coming to help…added about twenty minutes of where is it?

For those of you that might be a little like me, where being an ADHD poster child guarantees difficulty reading versus just watching the movie, this book is a godsend. A first-person narrative (the guy writing it borrowed a subordinate’s similar idea for another intelligence problem against the Nazis and made it happen) with an easy breezy writing style that pretty much can’t hide…yeah, he’s an upper middle class British guy whose daddy has a peerage of fairly recent vintage relative to the 1943 timeframe of most of these events. Easy to read blocking out four hours is always a plus.

Anyway, the book shows us how you have to think when the intent of grabbing a freshly dead body out of the morgues of London is to drop him in the water with a briefcase filled with two completely fake letters from high-ranking generals in order to convince the Germans that “ignore that completely obvious invasion of Sicily, it’s just a diversion from a two-pronged effort one going at Sardinia and the other for Greece.” Basically, it comes down to answering the Capitol One Question – “What’s in your wallet?” I don’t think anyone associated with the more recent movie thought to have Jennifer Garner do a cameo…pity (not really).

The narrative becomes about the nuts and bolts. How do you get a body? How do you get the body’s family to agree to give up their loved one with no questions asked for the war effort? What deaths on land most mimic a drowning? What service should he be in? What is his purpose for going to the Mediterranean that two real generals would write letters giving away the fake invasions? And lastly (truth in advertising) what knickknacks need to be in this guy’s wallet that would make a Spanish pathologist, a specifically targeted German spy and the entire Nazi high command believe both the fake man and his letters?

The team settles on Captain (Temporary Major) William Martin, Royal Marines. One of the letters from Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten (Prince Phillip’s cousin and at the time commander of all commando operations) specifically says Martin is an expert on amphibious operations with a rising star because of predicting that the Dieppe Raid (an infamous failure valued as a learning experience) would go bad months before anyone else did. The same letter makes a snide joke about sardines giving the game away about Sardinia. The second letter more prosaically gives the game away saying Sicily will divert from the Sardinia operation and the Dodecanese islands will divert from an attack in Greece more or less near Corinth.

Major Martin is a person, one likely to lightly break certain strict security protocols because he’s human, sees certain rules as total BS and because even a James Bond movie once asserted that fake biographies (legends) can be seen through because the person depicted is too perfect. So suddenly there’s a girlfriend/fiancé, actually it was two women, one to give the photo the other to write the steamy gushy (more of the latter, British People, natch) love letters. They decide Martin isn’t that great with money having the receipts for temporary debts from a tailor/haberdasher that has outfitted British officers since forever for a new shirt. Another receipt for a wedding ring gifted to the lady writing the letters. Major Martin’s dad also wrote a letter commenting on the impending wartime wedding. A lot of detail…

The moment comes to drop the body into the water from a submarine that had already engaged in certain clandestine activities related to the recent invasion of North Africa. A few people, including the Author, keep certain knickknacks as souvenirs. The sub captain clues in his officers who help him set a body that drowned after a plane wreck adrift. The BBC drops in a mention about the crashed aircraft. And then everybody has to wait months and for some questions two years until the end of the war to find out did the plan work?

Early on, the clues came in the form of diplomatic messages with the British consul for the city of Huelva where the trick is to look concerned that British officers are falling into the ocean carrying sensitive letters but not too concerned. The idea was that local Spanish authorities would want to help out their German friends and hold onto the documents long enough for them to be unfolded, photographed and resealed before obeying the niceties of diplomacy between countries that aren’t at war. The targeted German spy saw the documents and sent them to Berlin. The invasion of Sicily goes better than expected (we’ve all seen the movies).

What takes two years to learn is just what happened to the documents after being sent to Germany. Memos captured in the last gasp of Nazi Germany reveal that copies of Major Martin’s documents took about two weeks to go from the morgue in Spain to Hitler’s office in Berlin. Mustache Man, believed his generals, and ordered reinforcements to move towards Sardinia, Greece and away from the southeast beaches near Syracuse. Complete success for the kind of plot that might not surface in warfare for another 200 years (cat’s out of the bag for anyone with a library card).

One note, the book doesn’t tell the whole story, only an overview narrative that glossed over the ugly details of the plot later revealed by the release of supporting documents from the notoriously clammed up British Security Services. Part of it, as LCDR Montagu put it himself, some of the people he dealt with on a daily basis during those war years still worked for Britain in clandestine duties at the time of writing. Both the fundamental gruesomeness of the task and/or just making writing decisions geared towards “just the summarized facts, Ma’am,” lead us to a book that hints at some interesting interactions with various personalities we’ll have to wait to see the most recent movie, Operation Mincemeatto actually see.

For instance, the declassified documents suggest that Glyndwyr Michael, the dead Welsh homeless man picked to serve as Major William Martin, had died of rat poisoning rather than the pneumonia asserted in both the book and the first movie. Additionally, having died completely indigent Michael had no family to give consent to the use of the body, certainly not even the proud Scot depicted in the first movie. I would be willing to bet that making up having a family to give permission helped the author sleep at night in the many decades after the war.

Anyway, there you have it an immensely readable and only modestly fictional account of the hard lengths people will go to win a war when the “alternative is too horrifying to contemplate.” The reviews for the movies will join this one when the library and making nice with friends and relatives still willing to pay for Netflix makes them available. Can’t wait…           

Le Esprit de L’Escalier Pt. 2

Posted: October 14, 2021 in Uncategorized

© 2021 G.N. Jacobs

Just because I previously wrote about something doesn’t mean I’ve magically excised it from my writing. For instance, do I still get mugged by The Spirit of the Staircase (see post) having flashes of what I should’ve said ten minutes after it could ever do me any good? To date, my recent improv classes have excellent incubators for – “Doh! That scene just died and I now know how to fix it!”

I’ll back up a bit out of consideration for my recent postings being next to nonexistent. Needing something, anything to do here in San Diego that is A) creative and B) social in a way that doesn’t depend on my family for going out and doing stuff, I ran away to the circus and joined an improv class. Starting with a Zoom class, I learned the basics and then when there was a tiny break in the grim COVID situation there was the stage. At the moment, I’m working up for the friends and family show that probably is also the final audition for joining the cast of the theater doing the teaching…no pressure there.

I suppose this is where I might go on and on about the value of classes and experiences like this upon my writing and, by extension your writing. Blather about thinking on your feet. Or learning what is and what isn’t a good scene. Just because these concepts might be true doesn’t mean I want to waste more than the two paragraphs used up here. 

For one thing, there hasn’t been the kind of improvement likely to justify such – “Dude, you clearly drank the Kool-Aid.” – praise and that type of verbiage sometimes just sounds stupid saying it out loud. Writing for years; rewriting for the same many years has a way of teaching the basics. Though I can’t deny that learning to do this mental prep work faster will help at some point. I probably could’ve gotten the same skills out of an acting class.

And now for the blood and guts of my weekly self-immolation for which you came. For your consideration, I present to you two scenes one I played in and one I just watched from the front row. And both times I got the brainwave after the instructor either gave his notes or the class had already repaired to the pub next door.

A typical safari operation in Kenya will test the marriage of a pair of newlyweds seemingly on the adventure of a lifetime…

Okay, the Rod Serling narration above didn’t work like I thought it would. Basically, it’s a three-person scene where two people start on stage and the third person either enters the scene as the third character or wipes the scene to things along. The fictional groom is having trouble with the tse-tse flies, the heat and keeping his food down in any order gets the most laughs. The fictional bride reveals under questioning a liking for the safari guide…who enters showing off his guns. Things quickly progressed to a massively kinky three-way.

The scene mostly worked, except for the note from the instructor about the difference between the Yes And of improv and the reality of a scene. Yes And in this case meant the players had to accept the reality of the possible love triangle while on safari, but they don’t have to be cool with it inside the narrative. More than enough people in the groom’s thoroughly cuckolded shoes would get nasty about this revolting turn of events. The three-way is a choice based on the players rapidly deciding what they want when they get the suggestion of safari from the audience. There are other choices.

I wasn’t in this scene. I thought nothing much of it through the rest of the class and even moving to the pub next door for the beer and chicken tenders that seem to glue the class together. We made plans for upcoming shows and discussed shows and recent mud races and, and, and… Then, I went home.

Somewhere between either catching up on the Padres’ dismal play (I’m glad this isn’t a sports blog), watching some movie, solving a crossword puzzle or even stealing time to work on my latest magnum opus it hit me.  Oh, it would’ve been totally cool if [BLEEP!] playing the groom picked a moment where he holds up an imaginary cell phone at the reveal of the affair and – “Darling, despite my barfing every four minutes, I managed to post this of the two of you on PornHub.”

Basically, my brilliant idea was to have the groom blackmail his bride with a revenge porn posting. He’d explain that yes, PornHub is all about consensual porn and that she could fight to have it removed two to three weeks from now and the possibility of hundreds of thousands or millions of page views exposing her for the scheming &*($^ she is or, in return for the appropriate consideration, he can remove it now when there’s only been fifty page views. The three-way is still possible after this move, but the scene work to get there would be balls out fun. 

This brainwave seems to me to fit into things we’ve already been taught about scenes, technical stuff like status, raising stakes, role reversals…all the things I’ve also been taught in regular acting class as well. Except there is a script in acting class. I kept seeing where [BLEEP!] playing the bride could take things. Maybe she gets rubby-rubby on the hubby. Maybe she has her own compromat on the husband (devised just now as I typed). What was it do you think? 

Hell, even [BLEEP!] as the guide has things to play from here. Just because he’s playing a Ranger Rick fella doesn’t mean that he can’t pull out his dueling cell phone and assert that the groom has his own video on PornHub (though my really wicked idea here that the other party in that video is a chimpanzee would absolutely not fly with any audience likely to buy tickets). Or that in-between safari trips, he supplements his income as one of PornHub’s web developers granting access to the passwords that arbitrarily delete any file he wants from the site. All good ideas that struck after I needed them.

Imagine if you will, two ordinary FBI agents discussing the composition of the 10 Most Wanted List…

Okay, the last four students, myself included, did a scene with the crowd suggestion of the FBI and we’d added the rule for a game we play called Blind Line. The audience suggests about two things per player in the scene that get written down and thrown on the stage. At random intervals, players pick up the pieces of paper and say the line written thereon…while justifying the dialogue in the scene.

[BLEEP!] and [BLEEP!] came out discussing that there were only white perpetrators on the 10 Most Wanted. [BLEEP!] later admitted to total brain freeze and trying to save the moment by making the disparity about all white criminals. Still, it was a train wreck waiting for a character coming on later (me) to play up a dinosaur holdover from the very bad old days of the Federal Bureau of Intimidation. 

I’ll be a little cagey here because we do live in a society that likes to misinterpret fictional things as being representative of the real views of the player and then weaponize. Made a mistake doubling down on [BLEEP!]’s rotten grapefruit served up in a moment of panic; that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Again, Yes And only applies to having to play that your scene partner launched this rotten tomato, not to doubling down.

Hours after [BLEEP!] and I admitted to each other how much we’d both fucked that one up at the pub, I took the second mugging off The Spirit of the Staircase. And the head slapper here gets even more painful when you consider my own reading history. I actually know just enough about spies and FBI agents to fake it; e.g. I can use dead drop, brush pass and false flag in a sentence and not be laughed at…thank you John Le Carré (no, I didn’t write my grand spy novel, yet, because I haven’t made much effort to find research subjects with whom I could ask to check the master’s homework).

The scene that played out long after it would do me any good started with me playing the supervisor doing what is called a Canadian Cross (cross the stage and broom off the whole train wreck). The best example is probably Graham Chapman of Monty Python wearing his British General’s uniform – “Stop that! Stop that, this instant!”

Anyway, I come on derisively calling the two characters by their last names to establish that I’m the pissed off boss. I make a joke about the 10 Most Wanted List being somewhat like “Assclowns R’ Us, if you’re an assclown you’ll eventually see us.” I then hold up imaginary (it’s improv, no props) paper targets from the other two guys’ most recent range sessions.

I point. “Well, that one almost worked out…looks like you got this imaginary perp in the carotid artery, but all these other shots are just terrible. Four outright misses. This one you took off some hair from his scalp and…” I point again. “And you, you’re worse, your best bullet looks like it took out the suspect’s left ball sack…okay, from the standpoint of acting as natural selection on the gene pool, but crap for the purposes of keeping your jobs. Now, drop what you’re doing and go down to the range to practice!”

Now I’m alone on stage with a possible fourth character that hasn’t come on, yet. I pick up my line from the floor, read it and say – “Jeez, he’s never used the emergency code!” I cross the stage and grab the fourth [BLEEP!] out of the stage wing calling him Oleg.

This part of the scene becomes about an FBI supervisor and SVR Resident who meet in a park after taking a million buses and taxis (tradecraft) to ensure they weren’t followed. The two men have an improper relationship where they’re both juggling the secret love and the toe dance with outright treason discussing spy stuff…like the fact the first two incompetent [BLEEP!]s are not only double agents but triple agents also working for the Chinese. Oleg and I then conspire to burn the untrustworthy and incompetent.None of the above happened because The Spirit of the Staircase threw a serious left hook catching me on the right mandibular joint. So far, I’m great with the time to edit. And, I’m only a bad breakfast burrito away from total disaster…at least on stage.   

© 2021 G.N. Jacobs

So, you’re trying to write an epic SF story and you’re stuck on what sort of people to stick on the ship just over there loading photon torpedoes, what now? If you’ve been hired to write in an established franchise, stop reading now there’s a list of possibilities that already exist…use them. And for the rest of us that don’t have the Rolodex to get hired to further the ongoing mission to…there’s no one way and I’m not even sure what follows is mine. Anyway…

Many times, an alien race will get constructed based on the function they serve in the script. Early on the Klingons were intended to stand in for the Soviet Union in the Cold War, so you need folks likely to roll up to the neutral space station as part of an externally enforced “peaceful” settlement and cause trouble. Shooting the Enterprise violates the Organian Cease Fire (it wasn’t a peace treaty, watch The Undiscovered Country set afterwards to see my point) imposed the year earlier, but placing a spy aboard with instructions to poison the Federation’s special wheat supplies so that the nearby colony world would have to turn to the Klingon Empire to get through the next calendar year isn’t quite so well enforced by the Organians.

The writers of The Trouble with Tribbles also needed the Klingons to be good for picking the kind of bar fight that seemingly by union mandate must occur in what is essentially a Port Call/Shore Leave episode. The Klingon First Officer insults Captain Kirk, the Federation and…finally, the Enterprise. Scotty throws a haymaker probably learned from doing various pub crawls in Scotland.

So, if we are to build a race based on the handful of times the Klingons show up, we get deceitful, arrogant, warlike etc. etc. However, the folks that kept watching the show will tell you that the Klingons suddenly shifted slightly with the advent of STNG. Deceitful at all times became “only in service of defeating one’s enemies and at no other times.” What happened?

Gene Roddenberry decided to put a Klingon character, LT. Worf, on the bridge of the new Enterprise to go with “it’s eighty years later, you think maybe the war ended by now?” And given that STNG Season 1 predated Undiscovered Country by a year and a half, you see where the people doing the movie got their marching orders to dramatize the difficult change from Klingons Bad to Klingons Not So Bad. One faction of Klingons when faced with a thinly disguised metaphor for the Chernobyl Disaster sought peace and the other decided to pick a fight aided by rogue Starfleet Officers frightened of a galaxy without the Cold War.

Anyway, back to Worf. He was raised on Earth after being orphaned during a battle between the Klingons and Romulans for which the Federation rendered humanitarian aid. According to Worf, the animus of a warrior race thinking the human led Federation to be weak cowards for espousing cooperation faded over time in favor of – “wow, we can at least trust those Earthlings to keep their word.”

Worf fairly continuously mentioned his understanding of Klingon ethics, gained on Earth because no one kept him from his library card, as being about honor, duty and die serving the society. Ideals that from the outside during times when few Federation citizens had made any Klingon friends, sure look like invade and subjugate everyone around you. People I watched the show with would initially grouse – “Really? They turned the Klingons into a pastiche of Vikings mixed with a lot of Samurai.”

A backhanded way into a common reductionist method for developing a people: take characteristics supposed to have existed in the various cultures and put that on the page. Klingons may feel like the pop culture rehash of what we believe about the Vikings or the Samurai based on having these people in our collective past. But it also sort of explains how the audience suddenly decides they like Klingons, Vulcans, Andorians or whomever to populate their favorite morality play…they’re people so very much like somebody living down the street.

As a shorthand to quickly putting somebody interesting on the other ship across the video link blustering and posturing – “Ah, I can see how lawyers in the future may find flaw in my logic in this case, but you, Captain Kirk, will not be alive to benefit from their deliberations.” – I can support this method with caveats to be discussed below. Pretty much the same caveats built into my shorthand techniques for every other aspect of characters and writing fiction in general…jettison the tricks with increasing experience.

When the Klingons were first conceived, people who pick fights and conquer are going to be thought of as deceitful to go with warlike, aggressive and arrogant, like a pack of freshly trained Marines in a bar. Suddenly, with Worf taking some kind of unspecified red uniform job on the bridge before later getting the yellow shirt job of Security, the deceitful part of the previous show’s depiction has to go.

As far back as the first wave of licensed novels before STNG, Klingons got tagged with deceitful and backstabbing for having a promotion system that lands roughly between the seppuku ceremony of the samurai and what I tend to refer to as the Sith Lord Management Change Ceremony a.k.a. a junior officer kills his superior and takes the better job. The Mirror Universe also devised these ethics.

Then Worf is the good guy. The subtle shift in the cultural ethos becomes “we are so dedicated to dying in service to our people that an honorable failure among Klingons welcomes being killed for the betterment of our people.” And there are review procedures to curb the activities of the purely ambitious. We hope…

The exaggerate human traits method of alien design helps a lot with the audience bonding with Worf, Kang, Kor, Koloth and General Martok. Take it too far and the story suddenly takes on weird characteristics that sit just under the surface and can stink up the joint. One is to assume that because the in-narrative version of human culture is as equally as broad as the real culture drawn upon to create Klingons, Centauri, Narn, Romulans that the in-narrative humans will succeed because of having more tricks in their bags. 

Up to a point, this assumption can be fun to pull out explaining why Commander Riker did so well on an exchange tour with the Klingons (that and Starfleet’s SERE training that helps one keep a straight face eating Gahk because he’s already eaten grasshoppers in a desert). But there is a point where assuming that the in-narrative humans always win the inter-species diplomacy because human culture is thousands of cultures still trying to figure out how to share the same planet is just bad writing…usually someone laid it on six meters deep without thought for the exceptions that prove the rule. 

To that end the writers periodically foxed us a little bit with the Klingons on several occasions showing us sides of the species we hadn’t seen before. Canny Klingon captains proudly declare – “We have no need of assistance hating humans, but only a fool fights in a burning house! Begone!” – when they need to drive out an energy being feeding on the built-in animus between the races. When they need to bust out some legal trickery to burn Captain Kirk as part of the greater conspiracy, we see Klingon lawyers played by Christopher Plummer – “Don’t wait for the translation!” And of course, my favorite out-of-archetype Klingon is the Singing Chef…

On Star Trek: DS-9, a small almost kiosk-sized Klingon eatery opened up on the Promenade. As directed by the culturally accepted Klingon cookbooks, the Gahk wiggles and the replicated targ almost convinces the taster of having squealed just a few minutes ago (I did mention the part about nearly kiosk-sized, there really isn’t space for live targ, unless the dude has other spaces on the station we didn’t see). Lastly, this worthy gentleman busts out the highpoints from the Klingon opera canon in what I think was a decent baritone all in the service of flirting with Jadzia Dax.

Other Klingons sang these songs, usually celebrating great victories or even ones made great by exaggeration with tankards of blood wine (a decent off-brand merlot in the ken of the franchise’s relentless marketing) in hand. The Chef just wanted to get laid with a worthy woman whose actions made her almost a Klingon woman. Alas, the lady preferred Worf in later seasons, but the gent kept singing incurring the annoyance of General Martok commenting on the end of Klingon civilization as they knew it.

Of course, the existence of this chef doesn’t have to necessarily represent the end of all things Klingon. If we go back to Obi-Wan’s semi-evasive observation that begins with – “from a certain point of view” – a good chef is essential to the functioning of the army. He who has the knack of the great barbecue sauce and leaving the targ on the grill just long enough to avoid drying it out gives aid and comfort to his fellows who then gird up to slaughter tribbles with great celerity. Thus, he shall live and die advancing his society and be found flipping targ steaks upon his invitation to Stovokor. Or perhaps Martok is right and the shame of – “Gentlemen, now abed on Qo’noS (Kronos) shall hold their manhoods accursed in the presence of one of my brothers…” – has lost its sting for non-warriors and something needs to be done.

Regardless, the Singing Chef exists as a point of debate among fans and as an easy trick for the writer to expand beyond the limitations of the archetypes used to create the people from whom he springs. Here’s hoping your Klingon Singing Chef works as well…       

Because I Said So…

Posted: September 11, 2021 in Uncategorized

© 2021 G.N. Jacobs

You ever have to deal with a reader/listener heckling the story? Depending on when the hecklement happens, it’s either a thing of beauty or a good time for – “Fuck you, too, the story’s the story and the clay/ink/stone just dried!” Knowing when to choose between your options is something we all learn, relearn and once again, just to be sure, because there’s always Thag in the back sitting under the painted antelope on the wall who’s pretty much just throwing hard elbows because he can.

Thag, whom the rest of us assume is five, coked up on sugar, a poster child for undiagnosed ADHD or horrors all of the above, usually can’t help it. Of course, naming this cranky gent (or lady) after one of cartoonist Gary Larson’s caveman characters, famously eviscerated by the pointy end of a stegosaur tail and, true story, that caused real-life paleontologists to name the previously unnamed anatomical structure after Mr. Thag, is unquestionably an intentional act. And then, I sometimes figuratively (people don’t offer the good stuff, anymore) smoke a bowl and relax, an act that allows me to eventually and grudgingly admit Thag isn’t always wrong.

For me, Thag was a tag team of three good friends left over from my hilarious attempt at film career. Much beer and in the spirit of In Cerveza Veritas and suddenly I’m going on and on about mostly true events in my life since the last time we gathered to drink beer and whine about the assholes that made those attempts at a film career so hilarious. I’m pretty sure Thag doesn’t like my slightly rambling speaking style that adds detail where it wasn’t requested and so blow Charge and the hecklement is off to the races.

Short version, 90-precent of all Thag-induced drop-ins ended up adding all kinds of slightly freaky sexual acts to the narrative (Thag likes what he/she/they likes). I’d dig the hole deeper trying to edit out these digressions that I thought didn’t belong in the story. A day or day and a half later, yeah, story’s actually better usually set in. No, I don’t remember any of the modified stories for – “Strong drink giveth the desire but taketh the ability.” – always reigns supreme and, really, just because the sex improved the story doesn’t always mean it was all that great from jump.

If you must know, I’m much better on paper precisely because editing helps eliminate silly digressions. My story and I’m sticking to it.

In a broader sense, the process described above seems to be the reason for the persistence of Jungian Psychology and the related contributions to the study of folklore given by Joseph Campbell and continuously foisted on us by Mssrs. Field, Vogler and Snyder (I still maintain read their books after you lock a draft). The theory is that over the multigenerational life of the story, Thag heckled – “Boring! Come on! Maybe the iguana breathes fire! No…better idea, have the girl take off her shirt!” – and then the story with its basic underlying structure hardens into epics where iguanas become dragons and heroines start to look like Wonder Woman.

The theory continues to make a few assumptions. The good, exciting parts of the story left behind by Thag create a physiological reaction to which we become addicted. How many of us seek out a scary movie precisely for the feeling of jumping out of the seats? The other main assumption is that all humans once shared the same cook fires and told the same stories, so that all narratives that really work are universal constructs and that even the structure (put a sword fight on page 50 and/or have the hero crash and burn having to reevaluate the whole journey on page 80) is assumed to be equally universal. Put another way, the story about the iguana turned dragon isn’t all that different from the story of the tall guy turned giant, even if they appear to come from opposite sides of the planet.

The folks making money selling the how-to-books have always rested their pitch on this presumed universality of certain types of stories. And they’re not always wrong. Why is it that people doing Samurai movies borrowed from Westerns only to find that the next batch of filmmakers doing Westerns borrowed from the earlier Samurai films and everybody everywhere with a Blockbuster card understood all versions of the same story as specifically exemplified by Seven Samurai and both versions of The Magnificent Seven?

Some academics build whole careers out of refuting the previous academics’ work. To my limited understanding, they do better asserting other story structures than the According-to-Hoyle Hero’s Journey as a way to get to the same place, rather than refuting the basic psychology and the work of Thag that plays out underneath. My problem with the how-to books has always been the cookie cutter mentality of follow this recipe without trying other things, but that’s a post for another day.

Thag heckled a story and depending on the opinions we take above, maybe we eventually give him/her/them credit for forcing great storytelling out into the air. Thag isn’t always wrong.

Thag isn’t always right, either.

Sometimes, the heckling is just fanboy competitiveness that takes the form of – “You did it wrong! You really should’ve had X do Y!” I’m not immune though I usually stifle this stupid shit before asking a question…or I just skip the author reading.

Recently, I’ve started to re-read Tolkien. Seeing the story again with the eyes I have now, I have questions. The biggest one I have centers around the whole structure of The Lord of the Rings…a magic ring of great and terrible power must be carried to the place of its birth and destroyed in fire to break the power of the angry being that created it.

I know why Professor Tolkien made up the rule that the Ring must go back to Mt. Doom for disposal; it creates the quest. But I can see the crankiest version of myself that really wants to know how the magic works and this or that arcane knowledge asking questions like – “wouldn’t any volcano be good for destroying the Ring?”

I could argue that a volcano, any volcano, acts as primal force of the ongoing cycle of creation and destruction and that Magic as a part of that cycle would be satisfied anywhere. Now we have a different sort of quest, one that plays out like six-dimensional hard elbow combat chess – “well, let’s see, my good buddy Gwahir (FYI, the eagle king) reports from his latest reconnaissance overflights of southern Middle-Earth that there’s, like, twenty full regiments of orcs camped out at the base of Mt. Doom, so Sauron must be expecting us. Anyway, his nephew went further south well past what we think of as the Southron lands and there is an equally suitable volcano that should serve our needs and there aren’t any orcs or southern men nearby, so maybe we adjust the plan…”

I think readers of the above seeing orc armies march back and forth between various volcanos, while the good guy armies countermarch all to deke out the other guys trying to guard the net might close the book about halfway through…no payoff soon enough. Or I might be wrong and all of this frustrating march, march, march until the marching’s done might be the basis of a really great war buddy story (something that already exists between Frodo and Sam) and we shouldn’t let my possible failure of imagination steamroll someone else’s classic literature. Either way, the story’s the story and, except as an illustrative example, I have no interest in re-writing it. If for no other reason than if I want people to respect my story as it lands on the page then I should do the same for theirs…respecting the moment when “because, I said so” becomes Canon Law.

To summarize, early on when things aren’t fully set Thag heckling the story is a good thing. Iguanas become dragons. Tall warriors just able to go above the rim on the slam become creatures for whom regular dudes named Jack or David dispose of with the greatest skill and cleverness. But once the author figures out where to put the good parts that give epinephrine hits that keep them coming back for years – “the story is the story…because I said so.

© 2021 G.N. Jacobs

Okay, the project named All Things Phantom Menace is now done (until I really have to see it again). With the novelization in the can, I can now move on to All Things Attack of the Clones or hopefully All Things Casino Royale (we’ll see).

Unlike the Shakespeare version (see post), there is very little about the novelization that will change the opinions formed by seeing the movie. You either roll your eyes the minute Jar Jar Binks enters frame or you slap your knees thinking you’ve experienced the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Still, they did try a little. It helps.

Mostly, the author added in quite a few scenes and moments concerning Anakin Skywalker before meeting the other pathetic lifeforms fleeing the invasion of Naboo. Anakin mentions getting flashed with Sebulba’s vents as the reason why he lost the previous pod race. So, the book starts on said race.

While I suspect that the author (Terry Brooks) working from George Lucas’s script still had to put as much of the kludgy writing style of the movie into the manuscript in the eternal dance between improving and just giving the audience more of what they want, I did like his descriptions of the desert flashing by under the pods. The two pod race sequences present a surprisingly vivid, a swirl of the red rocks, yellow sand flashing by under our hero’s pod at breakneck speed. A good moment to read.

There are many other small moments to enjoy about this book that play out in the small places between what’s required by servicing the script that we’ve already seen.

For instance, when the Trade Federation decides to gas the Jedi at the beginning a pair of birdlike creatures left in the room die first. Methinks PETA got to George Lucas and conducted a mugging to keep it out of the movie, but I digress. Or we actually see Anakin carve the japoor snippet for Padmé. A nice moment likely to always get cut out of the movie for reasons of time and flow.

Adding more in the way of slightly extra concerning Padmé’s thought process as the embattled leader of the sleepy and previously peaceful planet was quite entertaining to read. She’s depicted as blasting droid soldiers left and right to the surprise of everybody including Anakin. 

Dialogue is just simply not Star Wars’ best attribute whether in the movies or on the written page and this process continues here where Mr. Brooks added extra words explaining more about the plot at the expense of more spoken kludge. Novelizations typically get started as soon as the production “locks” the script at the beginning of production not after the martini shot goes into the can. The adaption thus has more material from which to draw and represents the script as it existed before the film editor applied a poetic ear towards cutting the spoken fat. I prefer to blame Mr. Lucas.

The depiction of Jar Jar Binks frankly doesn’t improve with the translation to the page. If much of the criticism concerning this character lands because some people feel too many real-world nasty stereotypes (Jamaican, cowardly etc…) were given free vent in a world that changed under some people’s feet, learning more about Jar Jar by way of the inner monologue common to novels isn’t going to change things.

Most of the rest of what is hard to like about the Phantom Menace are the stuff of an impressive nerd fight, that won’t change just because I read the book. No matter the form, I still ask the question – of all the star systems without proper air forces affected by the Senate’s taxation plan, why does the Trade Federation choose to blockade and invade Naboo? What does the Trade Federation get out of the deal? And did Darth Sidious choose the planet for them opting to grind some kind of axe against the planet that is allegedly his home? Never mind, I spend too much time contemplating these things.

As a read this novelization is like so many others of its ilk, an acceptable read despite that we’ve already seen the movie. There are flashes of brilliance that almost help me forget where this story really came from, but then these are dragged down by the things that dragged down the movie. Though, I can see a frazzled parent reaching for this book as a way to sneak up on a child bitching and moaning about summer reading lists and book completion quotas. Truthfully, that’s why I picked this book despite yes, I saw the movie, but that’s a story for another day…

© 2021 G.N. Jacobs

Wow! Imagine reading Ian Doescher’s William Shakespeare’s The Phantom of Menace: Star Wars Part the FirstBEFORE seeing the movie by George Lucas! I guess that covers the pull quote for this review. Anyway, I like Shakespeare and I like Star Wars, even the much-derided Episode One (well…in the sense of enjoying going to the dentist after the cleaning ends). Obviously, I’m all over the Shakespearean homage.

Truthfully, the play’s the play and nothing substantive changes (Mr. Doescher’s readers might get nasty in tragic ways if the plot changes…like that time I spent six months re-writing a three-hour version of The Return of the Jedi. Never mind). I have and will continue to savage the actual movie well into the future (see post). What I really like about this version that trades on the tropes and limitations of the Elizabethan stage for which Shakespeare and Marlowe dove in head first is how the union-mandated iambic pentameter, asides, soliloquies and verbal description of the action serves to make it very clear that perhaps we get to blame the movie a little bit more on decisions made after the script was locked.

The reader upon being told that a Shakespeare homage edition was contemplated might chuckle a little bit and ask many relevant questions.

How does the stage director depict the pod-race that eats up ten minutes in an otherwise lackluster movie that seems to hang its hat on the scene?

People run in and out reporting to Qui-Gon Jinn the results of the latest lap, while the pod racers occasionally run through in the foreground inside cardboard pods much like the hobby horses last seen in Monty Python’s: The Holy Grail.The Shakespearean battle scene that I thought it most reminded me of was Bosworth Field from Richard III (“Rescue, My Lord, Rescue!”), but there are other possibilities…Shakespeare liked him his battles and frequently did the same things over and over.

There’s a lot of people communicating across Galactic distances in holographic beams, so how do handle that, Buster?  

Guys, spotlights. A modern stage just flips the switch and there you are. If by some highly inexplicable time travel accident this script lands on Shakespeare’s desk and he, as was accused in movies like Anonymous, appropriates it as his own, the stagehands of the day had lanterns, mirrors and such. People can work it out.

Anyway, as I read the play, I couldn’t help but enjoy it far more than the movie that spawned it. Mostly, it was because Mr. Doescher dove in head first with the Jar-Jar Binks problem. In the movie, this amphibian Falstaff archetype either really pissed off the viewer as being too forced acting as the comedy relief. Too over the top with a mostly Jamaican (we think) patois that sparked some to go nuts trying to find hidden racial insensitivities in Star Wars. Or for the younger viewers for whom George Lucas always said the series was the primary audience, Jar-Jar was greater than sliced bread because kids tend to respond to people tripping over themselves to get a laugh.

 Doescher gives Jar-Jar one hell of a raison d’etre, to unify the Gungans and human Naboo in a vision of a shared planet that rises to meet all challenges together. Thus, he speaks the best possible rendition of his movie dialogue translated into iambic pentameter and then gives an aside to the audience delivered in what in the Star Wars galaxy is the local equivalent of Received Pronunciation (also in iambic pentameter). Jar-Jar doing things intentionally and telling the audience why goes a long way towards feeling better about the character.

Another character that gets a small amount of interesting of asides is Artoo. We just have to take it on trust that Threepio isn’t intentionally mistranslating our favorite astro-mech droid. In the play, Artoo reveals he might be the smartest character in the room sussing out Jar-Jar. Everybody else just talks over and around our least favorite Frog Clown.

All through the play, the dialogue plays out clever with a capital C. There are references to other Shakespeare lines and more importantly references to dialogue the actors played in other movies. Basically, Mr. Doescher has used his library card well.

Truthfully, I missed many of the promised Samuel L. Jackson-isms probably because I don’t know, brain freeze (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it). However, I didn’t fail to miss some biggies posted thirty feet tall in neon. Qui-Gon Jinn picks the last fight (in the movie set to “Duel of the Fates”) with Darth Maul dropping in extra dialogue much like Kung Fu movie fighters pointing out the people with whom they’re going to mop the floor. 

Pay attention, just before the saber merge Qui-Gon says the words “I have skills.” If we could only have a daughter for the Jedi master to rescue from traffickers (and perhaps a more forgiving screenwriter), you think maybe he’d survive this one. And when Maul skewers the Jedi, the exit line is “et tu, Sith.” Perhaps not as rhyming as “et tu, Brute,” but I’ll take it.

This play, even starting from the hardest Star Wars movie to watch, is simply excellent fun for people who enjoy both Shakespeare and The Galaxy Far, Far Away and Long Ago. Now to see if Disney actually releases it onto the stage…