September 22, 2005


Ice-9 moments in screenwriting.

This entry may be taken as an example of how my brain works pretty much all the time.

I was watching "The Fast and the Furious" earlier, and it certainly delivered what I was prepared for--big, loud, dumb. But it was more than that, in a sort of way that requires a small field trip of an analogy to really explain. If you're like me, and you're watching a really stupid film starring Vin Diesel (I know that's redundant; it's really part of his charm--he's really sort of a Napoleon Dynamite who works out a lot), you think of Kurt Vonnegut.

I've found that apparently not many people are like me. Vin Diesel<->Vonnegut isn't a connection their brains make easily. But it's a connection that, in this instance, seems perfectly obvious to me. It's like I'm a Tralfamadorian shocked and curious--as I have always been and always will be at that moment--at the zoo specimens' weird tunnel-vision effect that makes them blind to time except in pathetically small swaths.

The preceding paragraph is a more run-of-the-mill mental connection of Vonnegut<->Vonnegut. But the Vonnegut I'm on about in this entry isn't Slaughterhouse Five, it's Cat's Cradle. In Cat's Cradle, one of the fathers of the atomic bomb is Dr. Hoenikker, who's one of those crazy-focused Asperger's savant templates. His greatest invention was, of course, not the A-bomb itself, but ice-9, which was simply a form of water whose phase transition between solid and liquid was something like a hundred degrees. The secret of how to make the initial seed crystal died with him, but luckily his spectacularly dysfunctional kids preserved chunks of it, and, as the Bokononist suicide-catechism goes, "Now I will destroy the entire world."

It's a great book. I like Slaughterhouse more on balance.

But I'm digressing. The analogy!

Stupid writing is a staple of dumb cinema. It's an integral part, really. But for the most part, the dumb writing in bad movies is very banal; like the oceans, it covers the vast majority of the planetary surface, if you can dig the simile thus far. What this movie made me realize is that the really enjoyable bad movies have a different form of stupid writing. It's the same essential stuff, mind you. Ice-9 is simply water, but it's water where the molecules just happen to have learned, via a mysterious seed crystal propagating itself, into a truly special form of itself.

The exact moment the seed crystal forms in "The Fast and the Furious" is a short distance in, when it's revealed (gasp! surprise!) that the hero of our flick is actually an undercover cop. (Oh my God, it's a mirage; he's gonna shut the illegal street racers/electronics trucking hijackers down with sabotage.) Various of his law enforcement contacts are introduced. The comic-relief boss. The milling extras. The FBI contact who--and this is the seed crystal moment I'm talking about--establishes himself as being from the FBI by stressing, with verbal italicized bolded blinking phonemes, that he's with the FBI in--this is the really brilliant stupid-9 genesis--about four times in only two lines of dialogue.

The chapter in Cat's Cradle where ice-9 finally falls into the sea is, again, a great bit of writing, where Vonnegut's choppy simple prose was firing on all cylinders (with like, dual NOS injectors). One of the great bits is, after the rolling surf simply turned to glimmering glass, the sky simply filled with writhing white worms, and the worms were tornadoes. The tornadoes carried the ice-9 inland; general armageddon; good stuff. (Now I will destroy the whole world.)

Precisely the same sort of effect happened when whatshisname made damn sure that even the members of the test-screening audience who watched the entire film with paper bags full of paint held up to their faces (probably about two-thirds of them) would understand that whatshisname was there from the FBI. The script just glazed over into solidity, and spawned whirlwinds of stupidity-9 that carried the apocalypse to the very ending page.

And that's how an enjoyably terrible film happens. I don't think anyone involved in the process ever is quite aware of what they're doing in producing stupid-9, just like the good Dr. Hoenikker. It just sort of happens, and what would otherwise simply be a banal ocean of dumb like most bad films becomes instead a beautiful frozen moment of time; probably with a mountaintop where the narrator suicides so that he'll be giving the finger to God until the sun engulfs the earth.


posted by Gar @ 9:59 PM
That guy was a cop? Shit, now that whole movie makes sense! I thought it was Vin Diesel that was the cop but now I get it: Kurt Vonnegut was an uncover CIA guy who robs banks and has the hots for that Nanny chick.

You can understand my confusion when I explain that during most of that film I was grinding my fingers down to bloody stumps trying to escape Luckily, it worked, but my brain hasn't been quite the same since.
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