About Me

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Montreal, Quebec, Canada
I am a Montreal-based actor, writer and comedian. When U.S. President John F. Kennedy was shot, I was three days old. I cried all day. My favourite books of all time are Moby Dick by Herman Melville, The Last Temptation by Nikos Kazantzakis and The Ewoks Fun Time Activity Book by Chirpa and Pamploo. I am a member of The Vestibules, On The Spot Improv and The Best Buy Battery Club. Except for the Battery Club, I've been at all this stuff for over 20 years. Enjoy my blog.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Super Mega Busy Week

Hey Everybody!

Super mega busy week hanging out with Officer Joe Coffey, Aquaman and Dr. Christmas Jones under the direction of Bill S. Preston, esq.

Not a lot of time for blogging in there.

So in the meantime, have fun with this great Youtube mashup.

I'll be on vacation and back with an all new post on Friday September 9, 2011.

But I'll be sure to post some fun stuff to keep you amused while I'm away.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Conan The Cimmerian and Other Literary Adventure Heroes The Movies Mangled

Another film adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s classic pulp fantasy adventure hero Conan The Cimmerian will be arriving in cinemas soon. The new movie,  Conan The Barbarian, stars Stargate Atlantis’s and Game of Thrones' Jason Momoa as Conan and is directed by Marcus Nipsel who has previously successfully revived both The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th  franchises.  

This will mark the third big screen outing for Howard’s immortal hero (anti-hero?) and the first cinematic appearance of Conan in 27 years.  As Howard fans on the Internet have already lamented, the trailers for Conan The Barbarian (and the title as well) make it look like the latest film version is merely a hyped up remake of the 1982 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie rather than more faithful adaptation of Howard’s Hyborian Age yarns.

Whether that is true or not, the initial reaction represents an oft repeated concern of the purist fans of literary adventure heroes towards film adaptations; that the movies just plain get it wrong. It's a tough dilemma for a film maker. With the possible exception of  more recent movie series like Harry Potter or Twilight, the vast majority of a potential movie audience has little or no familiarity with any given character's literary exploits. And movies and books are very different mediums. In order for one to effectively translate from one to the other, liberties must often be taken. Most fans probably understand those challenges, what is especially frustrating is when the movies do away with the spirit and intentions of the books.

Once a mass audience gets to know a character in big movies over time, for better or worse, they develop expectations around the character that are very hard to break. This especially becomes a problem when a generation or two grows up with that version of the character.  Try and put an authentic version of Howard’s Conan in front of an audience who have been watching the Schwarzenegger films since they were kids and you’ve got a problem that could put a major dent in your box office bottom line.

The case of the Conan movies vs the writings of Robert E. Howard is nothing new. Movies and literary adventure heroes, along with their fans, have been duking it out decades.

Here are some prime examples...

James Bond

Author of the James Bond novels, Ian Fleming once referred to Bond movie actor Sean Connery as "a Glaswegian lorry driver who mangles my character".  Many Fleming fans might be inclined to agree that sentiment.

The Bond novel, Goldfinger by Ian Fleming, opens with Bond sitting in a bar in the Miami Airport. He’s flying back from Central America where he has just carried out his assignment to kill a drug dealer who was working with the communists (the book was published in 1959). Bond reflects on the moment that he killed the man; how the man had life in him one moment and suddenly no longer had that life the minute Bond snapped his neck. His internal musings on his the nature of his dark and deadly occupation depict a man questioning his own morality and place in the world. Fleming's writing in that instance is almost existential in its poignancy.

The corresponding opening scene in the movie Goldfinger, sees Sean Connery as James Bond, on a similar mission, emerge from a pond with a plastic duck on his head.

Nothing can describe the difference between the Bond novels and the Bond films better than that comparison. The differences between the two is, at times, a very wide chasm.

Fleming, a WWII  British Naval Intelligence veteran, wrote the first Bond novel, Casino Royale, in 1952.  Described by Fleming as being a “blunt instrument” rather than a hero, the literary Bond bore only a passing resemblance to most of the film portrayals that audiences would come to know and love over the years. 

Fleming's Bond was something of a nasty character. He often struggled to keep his quick tempered aggression in check so that he could remain a cool, detached and efficient assassin.  And that’s often what Bond was depicted as the novels, a killer working for the British intelligence agency, MI6. Hence the term "License to Kill". 

Unlike the movies, Fleming's Bond rarely uttered a joke or a witty one-liners, least of all in regards to someone that he had just killed.  Fleming’s Bond did enjoy the lifestyle he shares with his cinematic counterpart.  He had very particular taste in things like liquor, clothes, cars and personal grooming, to name a few. These preferences were often based on Fleming’s own lifestyle at the time (not surprising that the man died so young).  Bond’s lifestyle was always treated seriously by the author.  Unlike the films, Bond’s lifestyle was never the stuff of comedic exaggeration or self parody.

Fleming’s Bond, like the movie Bond, saw plenty of sexual action as well. Though Fleming did state in interviews that he tried to keep Bond to only one sexual partner per book because any more would be stretching the credibility of the character and the story a bit too far; kind of a big difference with the movies there too.

In spite of their alleged "mangling", the early Bond films starring Sean Connery as 007 stayed somewhat close to at least the idea of Fleming’s Bond.  However, Connery developed something of a smirk addiction as the series continued. He's also not the kind of actor that loses himself in a role. Most likely, Connery's working class background lead him to play the lavish lifestyle habits of the upper class Bond with a sense of subtle yet bitter satire.   

The actors that followed Connery in the role of Bond strayed to and from Fleming to varying degrees. George Lazenby only played the role once in On Her Majesty's Secret Service ,in 1969, almost immediately following Connery's departure.  Lazenby was not an experienced enough actor to bring any kind of distinctive interpretation of the character to the table.   

Roger Moore took the part over from Live and Let Die in 1973 through to A View to a Kill in 1985. Moore played a highly campy character that happened to have the same name as Ian Fleming’s Bond.  Timothy Dalton, took over the role in 1987's The Living Daylights and is often denigrated by critics even to this day. 

Those criticisms are just a tad ironic when you consider that Dalton is often lauded by fans as one of the very best Bonds.  He was the only actor to play 007 who really and truly brought the spirit of Fleming to the role.  Watching Dalton in certain key scenes in The Living Daylights, you can almost hear Fleming’s prose describing Bond's characteristic repressed rage as Dalton broods.  The only problem was that neither the producers of the franchise nor the audiences coming off of 12 years of the Moore Bonds brand of mega escapism were on the same page as Dalton.  In a bit of direction most likely handed down from a corporate board room, he was told to tone down the brooding for his second and last appearance in the role in 1989's License To Kill. It was a direction that ultimately left Dalton with nowhere to go. 

Pierce Brosnan took over the role in Goldeneye in 1995. Brosnan's interpretation was something of a compromise between the lighter Bond of Connery/Lazenby/Moore and the darker Bond of Fleming/Dalton. His performance and the movies themselves often walked a blurred line between action and camp. 

Finally, Casino Royale, the Bond reboot of 2006 starring Daniel Craig as 007, brought back a darker Bond. Though Craig's Bond wasn’t entirely based on Fleming.  Some of the characteristics of Fleming’s Bond were there, to be sure, and the movie does follow much of the plot of Fleming’s novel, but, ultimately, Craig and the franchise both used Fleming and at the same time did their own thing with the character. 

The result seemed to satisfy both fans and mass audiences alike.

Matt Helm

Though not as widely known as Ian Fleming or James Bond, the Matt Helm spy novel’s film adaptations are a case of extreme mangling.  Between 1960 and 1993, American author Donald Hamilton wrote 27 novels centering on the exploits of the tough, hard-hitting, and very deadly secret agent named Matt Helm.   

Hamilton’s Helms stories were two-fisted, bare knuckled adventures filled with a gritty tense atmosphere. The character of Helm is cold and professional. The novels are all written in the first person and Helm describes his missions with the type of rough cynicism and dark dry humour often associated with Raymond Chandler or Mickey Spillane.  He also describes the violence and death around him  in chillingly dispassionate tones. 

The movies are, well, a tad different.

Four Matt Helm movies were made between 1966-69.  That was the height of the 60’s spy movie craze. It was also the height of spy movie silliness. The movies are outright comedies that redefine the parameters of wacky. 

Rat Pack legend Dean Martin plays Helm. Martin does not exactly stretch himself as an actor in the role. Not only does Martin maintain his classic recreational drinking, smoking and skirt chasing personality but he even ramps up that which was already a pretty steep ramp to begin with. The sexual innuendo one-liners never stop in the Helm movies, whether they are funny or not (most of the time, not). Nor does the parade of babes for Martin to smugly leer at.

The movies loosely used some plot elements of the Hamilton books.  For instance, in the novel The Ambushers, Matt Helm must stop a cadre of Nazis and Marxist revolutionaries from launching a stolen Russian missile from Mexico into the United States.  In the movie version of The Ambushers, Matt Helm must stop a cartoony South American revolutionary with an army of young women in khaki miniskirts from launching a flying saucer armed with a super duper laser beam.

Mike Myers has cited Martin’s (and not Hamilton’s) Matt Helm as a major influence on the creation of his of his 60's spy movie parody character, Austin Powers.  Both, for instance, have the cover profession of fashion photographer.  A number of the lines and scenes in the Powers movies are lifted directly out of Matt Helm.  Myers, fortunately, manages to make most of the Helm inspired humour much funnier.

Since 2002, rumours have been flying around the Internet that Steven Spielberg and his company Dreamworks has taken an interest in making a Matt Helm film closer in spirit to the Donald Hamilton novels. Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, the guys who wrote the well received 2009 Star Trek reboot are reportedly writing the script. 

Die hard Hamilton fans will no doubt exult the day that a serious dramatic Matt Helm thriller comes to be.

Tarzan of the Apes

Tarzan is one of the most popular fictional characters of the 20th century.  The character first appeared in print in 1912. The Disney animated movie adaptation of the character was a box office hit in 1999. That pretty much spans the century. During that time (and even since), there have been some Eighty plus Tarzan movies. The character is known all over the world and has multi-generational appeal and recognition.

However, comparatively few people are as familiar with any of the 25 or so Tarzan novels written by his creator, Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Very few of the Tarzan movies come close to portraying the Tarzan of Burroughs’ novels.

In original Burroughs novel, John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, is orphaned in the jungle and raised by a fictional species of apes. The name Tarzan means white skin in the language of the apes. And, yes, the apes have their own language in Tarzan’s world. He eventually teaches himself to read using books his parents left behind.  He is later discovered by a French explorer and learns French as his first human spoken language. Later, he meets and falls in love at first sight with an American, Jane Porter, for whom he learns English and becomes civilized. 

Burroughs’ vision of Tarzan is, quite simply, that of the noble savage. Tarzan is educated and very intelligent. He is strong, fast and has highly tuned senses. He has a very strong sense of morality and justice. He seems to be Burroughs' conception of the ideal man. Though Tarzan is certainly not without his dark, angry and sometimes even vicious side.

In later books, Tarzan marries Jane and uses his inherited aristocracy to set up a large estate in Africa, near where he grew up.  He lives both in and out of civilization, changing into his preferred animal skin loincloth whenever heading out into the jungle.  

Tarzan is, at various different times in various different books, is a French military intelligence officer in Algeria, discovers a valley of lost dinosaurs, is given an immortality potion by a witch doctor, fights the Germans in World War I,  shrinks down to seven inches in height, discovers the still living missing evolutionary link between man and ape and is a pilot for the British Royal Air Force during World War II.

In the movies, Tarzan has a really loud yell. 

Pre-Hayes code Hollywood clearly had no issues with side-ass.
For many years, the Hollywood series of films starring American Olympic Swimming Gold Medalist Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan, dominated the popular consciousness of the character. That series of movies began with Tarzan The Ape Man in 1932 and continuing for decades, both with and without Weissmuller. 

In those films, Tarzan was never even alluded to as being a British aristocrat; he is uneducated, speaks in broken English and has a simple almost child-like personality.  Tarzan also has a Chimpanzee sidekick named Cheetah. Getting through Cheetah’s “comic relief” segments in these movies requires a great deal of patience.

The movies pick up in quality in the 1950’s, after Weissmuller has left the series and the producers finally decided to let Tarzan speak and act intelligently . Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959) and Tarzan The Magnificent (1960), starring Gordon Scott are two of the better Tarzan movies out there. The 1960’s saw a Tarzan TV series featuring a well spoken intelligent Tarzan in the person of Ron Ely. However, it still never really captured the spirit of Burroughs.

The 1984 film Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, starring Christopher Lambert in the title role, follows some of the Burroughs story line from the original novel. The scenes of Tarzan growing up amongst the apes in the jungle are pretty close to the book. However, the story veers off significantly once Tarzan is brought back to civilization.

The Disney 1999 animated Tarzan also follows the early parts of the book quite closely.   Tarzan is depicted as teaching himself to read, for instance. However, once Tarzan meets Jane, it takes off on its own path.  As most Burroughs aficionados will tell you, however, there are no Phil Collins songs in the original novel.

One problem with the movie versions of Tarzan is that producers tend to like to cast the part based on physique first and acting chops second. To really pull the character off, you need a highly skilled, very physical and intense actor.  A Last of the Mohicans-era Daniel Day Lewis  or perhaps a Christian Bale type would be a step in the right direction.

The incredible motion capture CGI apes of the recent hit, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, certainly raises the specter of  a possible authentic to Burroughs Tarzan movie.

Conan The Cimmerian

One of Conan's early pulp appearances in the 1930's.
Unlike the other characters, Robert E. Howard’s Conan The Cimmerian has only seen two film adaptations, with a third only now on the way. While the first two films certainly have their merits and their fair share of fans, neither authentically captures the spirit of Howard.

Howard wrote the Conan stories for pulp magazines in the 1930’s.  While published in other forms after Howard’s tragic suicide in 1936, the stories did not really take off until the paperback editions of the 1960’s featuring the character defining cover art of Frank Frazetta.  A series of extremely popular Marvel comics followed in the 1970’s. By the 80’s, Conan was ready for the big screen.

Similar to Tarzan, casting is an issue in the Conan movies.  In Howard’s original stories, Conan is described as big, tall and muscular. However, the Frazetta paintings and the subsequent Marvel Comics take on Conan pretty much cemented an image in fans’ heads. The image was that of Conan The Bodybuilder. 

While it is true that Schwarzenegger’s acting skills would improve somewhat over the years to come, it is safe to say that those skills were still very much in their nascent state at the time of the first Conan movie. Howard’s Conan, in spite of being a basically simple barbarian, does have some complexity and depth.  Arnie was  just not in the right place as actor at the time to be able to pull that off.

Conan writer director John Milius
Another issue in Conan The Barbarian vs. Conan The Cimmerian is that of writer and director John Milius.  Milius has very particular right leaning libertarian viewpoints that to, one degree or another, colour all of his films (particularly Red Dawn, Farewell to the King and the first draft of his screenplay for Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.) This is true of Conan The Barbarian.

There is a now famous line in the film, in answer to the question, “What is best in life?", Conan answers, "To crush your enemies, see them driven before you and see the lamentation of their women.” The line is not to be found anywhere in the writings of Robert E. Howard. Milius pulled the line from a book called Genghis Kahn: Emperor of all Men by Howard Lamb. Clearly, this a line that Milius connected with.

But is it really reflective of Howard’s Conan?

Howard doesn’t endow Conan with any easily discernible guiding principles. Unlike Fleming with Bond or Hamilton with Helm or even Burroughs with Tarzan, Howard does not spend a lot time letting the reader in on Conan’s thoughts and feelings.  He describes what Conan does more than he describes what Conan thinks.  

The character is a reactor. He never seems to want anything more than  roam the world, to be left alone, drink the occasional mead, enjoy the company of a young "wench" now and then and, ultimately, be left alone. It is only once Conan finds himself lured into a situation he cannot control that the sword comes out and the serious ass-kicking begins. 

Conan doesn’t value conquest for the sake of conquest. Even when Conan is involved in battles, he appears to have no problem with walking away from them once they are over. In fact, when Conan fights in battles it is often as mercenary and for his own personal gain. While Howard is on record as citing Lamb as one of his favourite writers, the presence of the line says more about Milius than it does about Howard.

This is true of most the rest of Conan The Barbarian. Ideas that are not Howard's abound. Howard's stories, in fact, mainly turn up in episodic form throughout the film. 

Similarly the revenge scenario of Conan The Barbarian in which Conan wants to avenge the death of his father gives him a little too much of an  understandable motivation for his actions. Hollywood films tend to like stories with easily discernible goals and motivations. However, one of the great things about Howard’s Conan is his unpredictability.

Conan The Destroyer followed in 1984.  The Conan sequel was much lighter in tone than its predecessor. It also had the rather campy presence of people like Grace Jones and Wilt Chamberlain.  It is a very old school fantasy adventure movie at heart.  Director Richard Fleischer (20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Fantastic Voyage, Soylent Green) was one of the first directors to discover Schwarzenegger’s sense of humour. It is played up to the hilt and often to great effect. Conan The Destroyer marks the birth of the Schwarzenegger charisma that would lead Arnie through most of his movie work for the next 20 years but would not at all help the man in his subsequent political career.

Conan The Destroyer may be a fun movie but, ultimately it shares more in common with movies like The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad than it is to anything Howard ever wrote.

As for the new Conan movie well, it sure looks exciting anyway. And, well, the fans can, as always, only hope. 

These are but a few examples of the disappointment felt by many fans of many different literary heroes over the years. If there is an example that bugs you, please feel free to weigh in.