Friday, December 24, 2010


So, enough about a 28 year old move. What does the new TRON have to offer?

Well, it does succeed where the old TRON failed. It is a visual spectacle to anyone sitting in the audience. But unfortunately it fails where the original succeeded.

Where the original tried to be a good, old fashioned good guys vs. bad guys romp, the new movie strives for profundity and fails miserably. As a headline on said: "Tron Legacy Director Says He Aimed for Bold Concept- Made Tron Legacy Instead." The religious allegories take center stage instead of the passing wave the first film gave them. Flynn has become a holy man, a zen Lebowsky, trapped in a world of his own creation. This creator has two sons- his artificial progeny Clu, who has fallen from grace and decided to make the world perfect through fascism, and his human son, Sam, who holds the capacity for salvation of this microcosmic world and is transfigured into a simple program who is yet so much more. Like Satan, Clu is the ruler of this fallen world. He walks to and fro, back and forth in the earth, but his mouth doesn't work quite right and his face looks kind of freaky.

And there's the second problem for TRON redux. While AVATAR may have jumped the uncanny valley in a single bound, TRON LEGACY falls to it's death in the chasm. You might believe Clu as a soulless program, but you're never for a minute fooled into thinking he's the embodiment of a young Jeff Bridges. In TRON Bridges was funny, exciting, and droll. His face was expressive and (dare I say it) animated. Clu looks just a little bit more like a young Jeff Bridges than Jason in the FRIDAY THE 13TH movies looked like William Shatner (look it up). I never quite got away from the idea that it was somebody wearing a young Jeff Bridges latex mask. Or that rather than CGI that they had just given Bridges whole face Botox injections. It's a great idea, but everything is in the execution. And whoever thought audiences would be taken up in all this pseudo-religious claptrap or taken in by the digital youthening of the leads should be executed.

And then there's THE MATRIX.

You see, just over a decade ago they made a sequel to TRON. It was called THE MATRIX. It was about a computer uprising, where a programmer was trapped in a computer generated world, and had god-like powers. It came at a time when computers were becoming commonplace, when a worldwide network of them had entered the zeitgeist, and when pseudo-religious claptrap was becoming mainstream. THE MATRIX was the right movie at the right time to catch the imagination of the general public. And it had visually spectacular special effects. Neo fought using Kung-Fu, not day-glo frisbees. Neo lived in a completely realized computer world indistinguishable from reality, not a black light Salvadore Dali painting. Neo fought for the salvation of mankind from a monolithic, inhuman, oppressive, totalitarian state; not to prevent a bunch of 8-bit programs in an antiquated CRAY mainframe from getting into our cell phones and iPads.

And where THE MATRIX and its sequels tried to actually present some of the philosophical questions inherent in the story- mind-body dualism, determinism, messianic complexes, systems of control, whether consciousness is an emergent or intrinsic property, the nature of reality, subjectivism vs. objectivism- TRON LEGACY doesn't even give lip service to any of the ideas contained in its scenario. The closest we get to a philosophical idea is when Flynn says, "The only way to win is not to play." A bon mot so deep and insightful that they lifted it directly from another movie released around the same time as the original TRON- WARGAMES. The world Flynn built in his antiquated mainframe is a molecule deep at best. Shiny, but without substance.

And in addition to not giving the story even the depth of the original TRON, let alone THE MATRIX, they also seem to have borrowed a lot of the look of the film as well. TL's virtual world is a place where the sun never shines, where the sky is filled with roiling clouds all the time, and even interior rooms are dimly lit. It's like the "real world" from the MATRIX only with better urban renewal. The only place in the Mainframe that's brightly lit is Flynn's villa, and it resembles, more than anything else, the hotel room from the end of 2001. That's what passes for a visual metaphor in this movie.

I think that it's pretty clear that the people who made this movie knew they had been beaten to the punch.

And even the one part of the movie that was almost sure to add some depth, that it's in 3-D, didn't come off well for me. A lot of folks online have praised the 3-D effects as adding to the story. I didn't see it that way. Having the parts of the movie set in the real world in 2-D (mostly) and the parts in the computer in 3-D was a neat idea- WHEN THEY DID IT WITH COLOR IN THE WIZARD OF OZ 70 YEARS AGO! Taking a darkly lit movie and darkening it further with 3D, missing the fact that depth of field is compromised in a dark environment anyway, and still missing the fact that out of focus foregrounds and backgrounds are a way to have 2D cameras simulate depth and don't work in 3D films because in a real place your eye is able to focus on whatever it looks at automatically, whether near or far, just adds further to the feeling that nobody associated with the movie really gave a damn about anything except OOHHH LIGHTCYCLES.

The filmmakers must have known this was a problem. Before the movie started they had a disclaimer (here I quote from memory, so it may not be entirely accurate): "There are parts of this movie that were shot in 2-D and parts that were shot in 3-D. We realize this is going to be weird and disorienting to the audience so we're asking you to keep your glasses on and just go with it. Let's face it, we don't really know what we're doing. And that Cameron dude came along last year and changed all the rules and how were we supposed to know that was going to happen after we were two years into production? Anyway, we fucked up. Just go with it, like we said. You've already paid for the ticket so what have you got to lose? And by doing this little disclaimer where we claim that we meant to do it all along, we can say that it isn't us, it's you if you spend most of the movie wondering why things look shitty."

Now, don't get me wrong. I got a thrill out of seeing the old Lightcycles updated. I enjoyed seeing programs on the game grid shattered into cubes. I liked the new Solar Sailor, the dogfight with the virtual AT-10, the new lightcycles defying gravity and acting like, well, REAL motorcycles (except for the gravity defying part). I'm as much a victim of geekstalgia as anybody. And there were a couple of nice things about the movie. Olivia Wilde is pretty. And I'm a sucker for bowl haircuts. Michael Sheen was entertaining as Ziggy Stardust (the Merovingian? Oh yeah, Zuse), the bar owner. It's nice to see him getting work impersonating Brits besides Tony Blair. Garrett Hedlund is fine in a pretty flat role, although he keeps morphing from looking like Trip from Star Trek: Enterprise when shot straight on to Jon Stewart when shot in profile. Unfortunately Jeff Bridges, who was the standout performance in the original and who I like in just about everything, sleepwalks through the whole thing. Maybe he's overdosed on the Botox they gave him for the Clu scenes.

So what's left to say? TRON LEGACY isn't a bad movie if all you want is eye candy, lots of shiny vehicles going fast, and attractive people dressed up in funny costumes saying things between trips in other shiny vehicles going fast. And there isn't anything wrong with that. But if you are looking for anything more, it just ain't there.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Well, the Gfriend and I went to see TRON LEGACY on its opening weekend. But first we watched an HDNet showing of the original I'd been saving for about six months on my TIVO to set the mood. Here are my reflections on both movies in two parts.

The original TRON was groundbreaking for its time. The first movie to make use of what has now become ubiquitous computer generated special effects. Other than that, it was groundbreaking for Disney. It may be hard to remember, but in the early 1980s Disney was a company flirting with bankruptcy. It was considered passe and outdated. It's animation department was in shambles. (Don Bluth had left the company in 1979 out of disgust for their death spiral, and taken most of the good animators with him. The same year TRON came out, Bluth would release THE SECRET OF HIMH, a movie closer to the animated Disney classics like SNOW WHITE and DUMBO than anything the company had been able to manage in decades.) The company's stock was in the cellar. And the smart money was that Disney wasn't long for solvency. Their big post-STAR WARS SF attempt, THE BLACK HOLE, was just that- a black hole- at the box office and TRON was an act of desperation to cash in on the burgeoning video game market.

Disney's desperation led them to Steve Lisberger, someone outside their corporate plantation, who had the skills and "nerd cred" to undertake such a radical departure. Unfortunately, TRON wasn't the blockbuster Disney was hoping for and a couple of years later a hostile takeover attempt by financier Saul Steinberg would cause Roy Disney to enlist Jeffery Katsenberg to run the company. The rest is, shall we say, history. Katsenberg led the company back from the edge of corporate ruin to its current megacorp status.

But as a movie, TRON wasn't that bad. It didn't catch the popular imagination, probably because it was a little too esoteric for early 80s audiences to grasp. The whole idea of being sucked into a computer was a little too cutting edge for a population thats closest interaction with a computer had been a trip to the local arcade and whos most sophisticated computing device was an Atari 2600 or a PONG game. Added to this were all the "in" jokes in the script. TRON is, in fact, a command in Basic, the predominant programming language for home computers at the time. (Please realize, this is two full years before the first Macintosh- the first computer with a mouse!- was released by Apple. The same year that the original IBM PC was widely distributed, and when over 80% of the tiny market for home computers was pretty evenly divided between Radio Shack's TRS-80 and the Apple IIC. Owning a computer in 1982 was like owning a HAM radio rig, except there were more HAM radio rigs.) It meant TRace ON and was a command to debug a program you had written. Invaluable in a time when most of the programs you ran you had to write yourself.

The movie is full of such "in" jokes that audiences didn't get. "Bring in the logic probe" (it looked like the very logic probe I sold in my Radio Shack store at the time), "grid bugs" (bugs in a program were unknown to most people), I-O towers (input-output busses), laser digitization (scanners were unheard of, let alone 3-D scanners), users (Lisberger says that one of the Disney execs thought this was vaguely dirty), and even bits (Flynn's, and Clu's, sidekick was a visualization of the basic nomenclature of binary systems- it's either positive (YES) or negative (NO), 1's and 0's, get it?). And my all-time favorite, "Cummon you skuzzy data, be in there." (SCSI, pronounced 'skuzzy', was an early hard disk interface.) Too much of the movie was simply way too geeky for the audience.

But the movie itself is a great deal of fun. Jeff Bridges shows the kind of natural likeability in front of the camera that would serve him well for the next 30 years. His lines really aren't much: "That's a big door." "It's all in the wrist." "Hey, it's the big Master Control Program everybody's been talking about!" "You don't look anything like your pictures." "Does she still leave her clothes all over the floor?" "How you gonna run the universe if you can't solve a few insolvable problems?" But Bridges delivery makes them shine and is the reason some of them became standards in GeekSpeek.

The rest of the cast isn't really given much to do. David Warner somehow stands out as Dillenger/Sark, and has a few ironically funny moments (such as when he suddenly turns his smile on for Alan during their confrontation in the office). Bruce Boxleitner displays his typical cardboard hero character (which he pulled out of mothballs as John Sheridan on four seasons of Babylon 5) but here it's OK because he's playing an uninspired programmer and a soulless program. He does get one unintentional laugh however with his 'ol west delivery of the line, "The name... of my user." And Barnard Hughes is here because it was some sort of rule at the Disney Studios back then that Barnard Hughes had to be in EVERY FRIGGING MOVIE DISNEY MADE.

Walt Disney's Common Law Same Sex Marriage Partner

But the real reason to see TRON was the visual spectacle. It was the era of the Special Effects Movie and people went to the theater to be dazzled. Unfortunately, it was five years after George Lucas started this trend and two years after THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. So bedazzlement was beginning to get a little old. And while TRON had a new way of putting impossible pictures on the screen, CGI wasn't really ready for prime time and the result looked like animation in a time when animation was almost a dirty word. Lucas and Spielberg had been delivering never-before-seen movie magic for years, using decades old techniques. And although 1982 was the debut year for the technology, with TRON, THE LAST STARFIGHTER, and the Genesis effect in STAR TREK II, CGI wouldn't begin to challenge conventional special effects technology until TERMINATOR II, and wouldn't draw crowds into theaters for the sheer spectacle until JURRASIC PARK. In fact, the technology was still so primitive that it couldn't even be used to paint in the glowing lines on the costumes- they had to be rotoscoped by hand! (The computers they used were about as powerful as the one in your watch and nowhere near as sophisticated as the one in your phone.) In contrast to the visual alacrity of TRON, Ridley Scott's BLADERUNNER came out the same year. And Douglas Trumbull's special effects on that film set new standards for veracity.

But one thing that TRON and BLADERUNNER shared was visual designer Syd Mead. At that time Mead was perhaps one of the busiest artists in Hollywood. It seems that almost no big budget SF movie made back then didn't employ Mead to design vehicles. And while Lucas didn't hire Mead to design for EMPIRE, he wasn't above stealing the design for the Imperial Snow Walkers from a painting Mead had done years before.

The other designer TRON used was the incredible artist Jean Giraud, who went by the pseudonym Mobius. Giraud was known predominantly to American audiences through his work in Heavy Metal magazine. But at the same time he was one of the most respected international comic artists, famous in Europe and Asia for his Blueberry westerns as much as his groundbreaking SF work. Mobius' more organic and complex style would be reflected in, of all things, the costuming of the programs inhabiting the computer world. Sark's helmet is a particularly iconic Mobius design.

Alas, TRON didn't do too well at the box office. Steve Lisberger would say afterward that it was because they didn't make the MCP evil enough, but I disagree. There was never any ambiguity in the good vs. evil story of TRON. After all, didn't they show Flynn's doppelganger Clu being derezzed in the first few minutes, and Bernard Hughes crucified and tortured near the end? No, I think the failure of TRON was due to the reasons stated above: special effects that were only special if you understood how unique they were, a story that didn't connect with an audience that didn't understand the implications of the new technology they were just beginning to sample, and Disney's faltering reputation for making childish entertainments with nothing to offer adults. Add that to a religious allegory in a time when religious allegories were out of fashion, and you have a movie simply too far ahead of it's time.

But what of TRON LEGACY?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

MUSIC- Old Man's War (Toy Matinee)

Got together with an old friend from high school, that I hadn't seen for 30 years in-between, for the second time a couple of weeks ago. The uncanny thing the first time we re-met was that we were able to pick right up where we left off. The weird thing this time was that in the interviening years we had developed so many similar tastes. Perhaps it's no so strange. After all, we'd been together through our formative years. Why wouldn't we follow paraelle paths in the years later? But the thing is- we've had different carreers, different love lives, different interests. I traveled all over the world, he stayed close to home. I was prone to small groups of close friends, he was more outgoing and social. I developed odd ideas about the world that sometimes it seems only I subscribe to, he is funny, charming, and relatable. Even my girlfriend thought he was more immediately accessable than I am (she was privy to most of our last get-together) and she's every bit as odd as I am. (In fact, I often think of her as the female version of me since we are so much alike. And realize that when she annoys me it's just Karma paying me back for how much I must have annoyed everyone around me for all these years.)
But the thing we seem to have paraelled more than anything else was our taste in music. Perhaps that isn't surprising. We were both musicians in high school. We loved going to concerts (rock, classical, big band, marching band, whatever...). But I was surprised to hear that he didn't like Steely Dan so much in high school but came to appreciate their music in later years (just as I had). So I turned him onto a song from another band that I love who makes music just as pop and yet as complex as Steely Dan did.

Toy Matinee

Toy Matinee made only one album. Like Steely Dan it was the brainchild of a pair of musical geniuses: Kevin Gilbert and Patrick Leonard. Unfortunately, Gilbert died before a second album could be made. Their music was a combination of pop, progressive, jazz, and fusion, that dealt with political and intellectual subjects (the first album contains songs such as Remember My Name about Vaclav Havel and Turn It On Salvadore about Salvadore Dali) while being filled with great gituar and keyboard riffs, lush productions, lyrical complexity, and catchy pop melodies. I found them when a radio station started playing this tune while I was in college.

Enamored with the Steely Dan combination of great musicianship, provocative lyrics, layered production, and catchy pop hooks, I sought out the album and in the interviening 20 years it has become the most played album in my life. It simply never seems to get old as I find new newance in the melody/countermelody, rythmic changes, key changes, and catchy tunes. Other standouts from the album include:
Turn It On Salvadore

wow, The first lyric references everything from UN CHIEN ANDALOU (drag the bound priest across the floor) to "death and a Gala Premere". Gala was, by the way, the love of Salvador Dali's life and the muse for most of his great works of art. It has nothing to do with a gala premere with the "a" having a long a sound.
This is just scratching the surface of why these guys made ART while most pop bands make SHIT.
Let's go back to the definition of ART: (well, at least my definition of ART, but I have yet to find a better one. If you know one, please clue me in.) Art is that which is complexly satisfying. Art is something that touches the brain and the heart. Art is something that makes you want to learn something while it makes you FEEL something. If you feel something visceral (if you get a chill, it sturs your loins, it frightens you, it moves you) while it makes you want to know something (it stirs your curiosity) then you have found a work of art.
Toy Matinee does that for me.

But, like so many artists, they didn't stick around on this world too long. Next time I'll talk about their successor: Third Matinee

In the meantime, go buy their album...