Last night Suze and I checked out Tin Man, the Sci-Fi channel’s “re-imagining” of The Wizard of Oz. Underwhelmed might be a good way to describe where I’m at with it (and what’s with the lame title, guys? The Tin Man’s not the story’s focal point!). It comes across as one of those things where it probably sounded good on paper but neither the writers nor the director have a feel for pacing or character development. You need a way to sneak into Central City — Boom! There’s you’re plot contrivance.
The project has “potential” written all over it, not the least of which is the casting of Zoey Deschanel as “D.G.” the modern day Dorothy. The plot’s not worth rehashing, the point is that on the surface Zoey makes a cute canvas to any character; the problem is she cannot (or does not) act. After you’ve seen her in one film you know all her mannerisms, all her vocal tics and movements. She doesn’t act so much as show up, and for a while she stands out because there is something a little off-kilter about the way she presents. Then it wears off and you get the feeling she’s coasting.
Talking about it earlier with Suze I tossed out the idea that I think she works better as a character actor, a bit of quirky spice in the mix and not one to hold down the anchor for an entire movie. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I think the same of Bill Murry who, except for a couple of standout performances, works better when he can riff on a minor character. For Murry that would be the shyster strip mall lawyer in Wild Things. For Deschanel it would be the big sister in Almost Famous.
So now I’m thinking about the movie Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s biographical re-imagining of his own early teen years, and I’m remembering that Crowe married one of the Wilson sisters from the band Heart. Together they wrote some of the songs of the fictitious band in the film Stillwater, and didn’t I hear that they were eventually going to release the original music as a commercial compact disc?
Now I’m on Wikipedia doing research, and then I’m on Amazon. Yes, I use Amazon as a research site. Between their listings, reviews, and customer brown-nosing I can usually find what I need to know and then continue to buy, research or follow-up elsewhere. Why buy from Amazon when there’s an Internet out there full of proof that they aren’t all that and a bag of chips?
Anyway, I hit pay dirt: The director’s cut of Almost Famous — baring the film’s original title Untitled — contains a third disc that contains the unreleased Stillwater music. Well, I can now put that into my mental wish-list hopper and keep an eye out for it the next time I’m bored and trolling Half.com.
But what’s this? Here are two reviews, an Amazon review — which is, what, ever going to be critical and kill sales, or give you anything substantial? — and one from The New Yorker‘s David Denby who, despite being from New York, has slightly more cred when it comes to reviewing. I’m scanning the Denby review and it’s full of the usual hyphenates that are a critic’s shorthand for description — “stand-in,” “freckle-faced,” “real-life,” “mid-level,” “danger-morally”… huh, what? Oh, that last one was an editing error. One of those en-dash em-dash problems that I wouldn’t expect anyone “copy-editing” at Amazon (are there such people?) to catch.
Wait, what is Denby saying?
Much of the movie plays easily and well as a record of good times, but there’s no particular point to it. William is never put in enough danger-morally, spiritually, sexually, or any other way-to become a hero for us, and the music of Stillwater is not meant to be great. What’s at stake?
Ooo, so many places to take offense! Let’s keep it clear: Crowe couldn’t have made the film using the real names of bands and people because (a) he didn’t want to get sued (b) he didn’t want to hurt the feelings of friends and (c) occasionally, and especially outside of strict documentary, you need to condense information to fit a narrative flow; William/Crowe isn’t put through any unnecessary danger to support a false narrative structure, but for a fifteen-year-old traveling with drugged out 1970s bands he encounters probably more than Denby has ever seen in his life; William/Crowe isn’t supposed to be a hero, he’s a window (or a mirror) into the times he experienced, too young to fully comprehend the history surrounding him but undeniably a part of that history; Stillwater isn’t supposed to be a great band — the point of the movie is also it’s title ALMOST Famous — that the voyage is the destination, and that for all the greats surrounding them there are countless others struggling to make it anywhere among the Pantheon.
Why does this irk me so? Because it’s clear that either Denby has no kids, knows no kids, or at the very least doesn’t have a clue about young adult life. To that end I have to conclude that he’s never read a YA title and would presume that his knowledge of YA stories is limited to what gets adapted into Hollywood’s cinematic format, and by extrapolation, this film doesn’t work for him — “What’s at stake?” — because he can’t imagine that what’s at stake isn’t the kind of thing that is easily captured in a happy Hollywood ending. That Crowe is able to fashion a coherent narrative from his experiences that fits into a traditional movie format is not a feat to be taken lightly, though I do need to point out that the film is far from High Art.
I suddenly realize that I haven’t seen Almost Famous since it was released, since I have decided to write for a YA audience. I occurs to me that there might be more clues within this movie about the possibilities of YA storytelling than I ever previously considered. I might be totally off base, but I’ve been on the hunt for stories that include boys, would play to a general audience, and don’t necessarily feel the need to include gratuitous hero-making danger.
With that, our train has pulled into the depot.