In Ask The A.V. Club, we get as obsessed about your pop-culture questions as you do. Here are this week's Q&As about the little things on your mind:
No, Really, Do Screenwriters Matter?
When critics pan a movie, it seems like they invariably talk about the low quality of the writing. I don't know how many descriptions I've read about this great actor or this great actress, and how they were wasted by a bad script. But what I'm wondering is, what are some examples of movies with a good screenplay that were torpedoed by something else, whether it be bad acting, bad direction, etc.?
A.V. Club film editor Scott Tobias responds:
First off, I'm generally not the type of critic to bring up the screenplay all that frequently, unless it's a really distinctive piece of writing, or I'm talking about a writer-director. In Hollywood films especially, the issue of attribution is tricky, because scripts tend to be written and rewritten, and the credits aren't always a solid indication of who's responsible for what. But I think you make a good point: When the subject of screenplays comes up in reviews, it's generally so the critic can assault the plotting or the dialogue or other shortcomings that may or may not be the screenwriter's fault. A good script provides the blueprint for a good movie, but when it isn't well-executed by the filmmakers, it tends not to look very good. Shakespeare's Hamlet, for example, is a great piece of writing, but Kenneth Branagh's four-hour unabridged adaptation makes it look lumpy and slack, with whole characters and scenes that seem completely superfluous to the story.
As for movies where good screenplays are torpedoed by other elements, I could think of surprisingly few, though there are plenty of examples of fine scripts that are weakened by the performances or direction. David Mamet's House Of Games is a brilliant debut feature, but Joe Mantegna outmatches Lindsay Crouse to such a degree (in more ways than one) that it throws the movie out of balance; this same problem has an even more devastating effect on Mamet's sexual harassment drama Oleanna, which tips an even more important balance by casting an actress (Debra Eisenstadt) who isn't nearly as seasoned (or, more crucially, sympathetic) as her counterpart, William H. Macy. Casting was also a problem recently in Proof, which replaced the accomplished Mary-Louise Parker with Gwyneth Paltrow and brought on the egregiously hammy Anthony Hopkins in a pivotal role. And then there are examples of great material spoiled by direction: Many people think Charlie Kaufman's screenplay for Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind ranks among his best, but George Clooney's adaptation is confused and amateurish. And though Paul Schrader won praise for Affliction, I thought his exceedingly awkward staging sabotaged one of Russell Banks' most powerful stories, to say nothing of Nick Nolte's fine work. These are all examples off the top of my head; perhaps our readers can think up more in the discussion forum.
Alf On Heroin: Just Say Probably Not
Years ago, I remember seeing an after-school special with all the Looney Tune and Disney characters (may have just been Looney Tunes) coming to help a little girl who has an older brother and he is drinking and doing drugs. I used to have the tape, but lost it after all these years. Can someone help me out and tell me what it was called and ease my mind that I did not just dream up this cartoon goodness? Thank you.
Tasha Robinson replies:
It seems like we're getting more and more letters from people who suggest that whatever obscure TV episode or comic or song they're asking about may have just been a dream, or an attack of adolescent hormones, or wishful thinking, or some such illusion. While it would certainly give us an easy out to just tell everyone writing such letters, "Uh, yeah, you dreamed that up, that show never existed," it's my sad duty to tell you that no, you weren't having a Pop Rocks and Coke-induced nightmare when you saw Bugs Bunny, the Smurfs, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Slimer from Ghostbusters, and Winnie The Pooh teaming up to get a cartoon boy off drugs.
You're thinking of a network special called Cartoon All-Stars To The Rescue, a thoroughly bizarre little animated artifact of 1990. Not that it was a little thing at the time: It was deemed so important to reach kids that all the companies involved—Disney, Warner Bros., Marvel, Henson Productions, and so forth—granted a special license for use of their characters in the piece, and ABC, NBC, and CBS simulcast it to keep bored kids from changing the channel and missing Michelangelo the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle telling us how drugs were, like, totally non-radical, dude.
The cartoon itself is also pretty non-radical; it's uniquely surreal and psychedelic, and it mostly features the original voice actors reprising their roles, although Mel Blanc died around the time it was in production, so this reportedly marked the first time someone else was called in to voice Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. Still, Cartoon All-Stars To The Rescue is packed with the kind of aching, over-the-top sincerity and stilted attempts to reach kids with their own lingo that still mar anti-drug spots today. Plus it's got all the dumb humor of the cartoon shows that fed into it, with Garfield enthusing about lasagna, Alf threatening to eat him, and baby Miss Piggy hitting on baby Kermit. The high point is probably when Donald Duck's nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie lead the cast in a big, almost incoherent sing-along that starts off "There's a million wild and wonderful ways to say no…"
You can watch the entire thing—complete with ironic anti-piracy, no-copying-this-tape warning, a pre-cartoon message from George Bush Sr. and Barbara Bush, and videotape static and distortion right here at Google Video. It's on YouTube, too, in segments. Good thing, too, because the videotape is out of print, and it's never been released on DVD. Internet scuttlebutt claims that Garfield creator Jim Davis was annoyed that his grouchy feline was licensed without his permission (presumably by Film Roman, the company making the Garfield And Friends cartoon at the time), and the rights issue kept the show from being broadcast again, but I couldn't find any hard proof to that effect.
Fingering A Thief
In your opinion, was Bill Finger the co-creator of Batman?
Comics fan Keith Phipps speaks up:
It's a complicated issue, Rock, one whose ultimate answer is lost in the mists of history. But my short answer would have to be "Yes." Gerard Jones' essential comic-book history Men Of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters And The Birth Of The Comic Book makes a good case for Finger, portraying credited Batman creator Bob Kane as a man quick to take credit for others' work.
The story goes that Detective Comics editor Vin Sullivan, inspired by the recent success of Superman, put out a call for a costumed crimefighter for his pages. What happened next is unclear, in large part because Kane couldn't keep his story straight. Per Jones:
Kane would even go so far as to forge sketches that he supposedly drew in January 1934 "at the age of thirteen" showing a "bat-man," a "hawk-man," and an "eagle-man"… [H]e tried to prove not only that Finger hadn't helped him but that he couldn't even have been inspired by the Birdmen in Flash Gordon, which he'd already cited as an influence in interviews.
There's little dispute, however, that Finger and his friend Kane worked together on conceptualizing Batman. It's mostly a question of who contributed what. But whatever the case, Kane happily signed a deal claiming the character as his creation, then put Finger to work as his writer for a percentage of his page rate. In the years to come, Finger would provide most of the Batman scripts, fleshing out the mythos with artists like Jerry Robinson, creator of the Joker. Finger, who also co-created the original Green Lantern and contributed to the creation of or created whole-cloth such Batman staples as The Riddler, Catwoman, the Batcave, and Gotham City, died a despondent, forgotten man in 1974. Robinson, who went on to considerable success as an editorial and comic-strip cartoonist, founded the Bill Finger Award in 2005 to honor comic-book writers who never received popular recognition in a day when bylines were considered an indulgence, and business sense met with greater rewards than creativity.
Stumped No More!
We got an overwhelming flood of replies to our latest round of "Stumped!" queries:
Andy asked "Does anybody remember Gary Coleman singing a duet with a guy dressed like a Jheri-curled cowboy on national television?" This got the fewest responses, and some of those responses directly conflicted with each other. But a few people responding on last week's Ask The A.V. Club discussion board tracked down specific evidence to support their claims that this was probably a live performance of "The Outlaw And The Indian," a single that Coleman cut with his then-manager, live-in bodyguard, and occasional Michael Jackson impersonator Dion Mial. It's available as a 12-inch here, if you're dying to hear it again, Andy. "Dougglasner" on the discussion board (who found the product link above) suggested that the duo actually appeared on The Wil Shriner Show, though a write-in response said that the performance was actually on The Arsenio Hall Show. But it doesn't seem implausible that Coleman and friend appeared both places.
Jason asked about a movie where a girl dies because her siblings tie her shoelaces together while she sleeps, which prevents her from escaping the family car later during an accident. Many respondants IDed this film as the 1982 movie Don't Go To Sleep, starring former Gunsmoke star Dennis Weaver and Rhoda's Valerie Harper.
Finally, more than 50 people wrote in to tell us that Jill, who asked about a scary movie featuring a decapitated Vincent Schiavelli, was actually thinking of a 1986 episode of Amazing Stories called "Go To The Head Of The Class," starring Christopher Lloyd and helmed by Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Forrest Gump director Robert Zemeckis. Three-fourths of those respondants specifically linked to this feature at x-entertainment.com, which includes a detailed episode summary and many, many screencaps. And many people included little essays on their experience with the episode, which seems to have traumatized a lot of kids. Thanks to everyone who wrote in—you're a big help. We'll have more challenges for you soon.
Next week, Ask The A.V. Club goes meta, as we talk about our interviews, and analyze what makes them what they are. And we answer more of your queries about all sorts of things. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.