Monthly Archives: May 2011

Going on the Account: RED JENNY Part Thirteen

Part Thirteen of RED JENNY AND THE PIRATES OF BUFFALO in now up, and may be read here.


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Going on the Account: Hear Ye Word of These…?

Looking through the mail packet, catching up on things the way those at sea would do on meeting another ship.  So what’s on the wires?  Let’s see:

  • In other news, it looks like we may have really hit close to the time of “peak oil,” or at least have to go after harder to pump crude.  Well, when we do have our next energy crisis, it’s going to be interesting to hear some folks yell, “Well, drill harder, baby, drill harder”…
  • And speaking of risqué things to say, this piece (with language warnings) about a writer who should have been a LOT more discrete when she was younger was worth a few moments to read; all I can say is, there’s a good reason why some couples used to burn their letters as they got older…

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Going on the Account: “Pirates” of the Caribbean?

Trying to write about Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides has been a little difficult, and it’s only been as of now why it is hard for me to discuss.

It’s not for lack of appreciation, in that the film is by no means the worst tale about the Brethren of the Coast.  There were the requisite number of buckles swashed and do daringly done by the protagonists, and some of the touches were extraordinary; I could easily see a film built around the mermaids themselves with nothing else from the movie present.

Heck, I see such a mermaid film set in modern times directed in the style of John Carpenter, with the setting changed to a Club Med / Sandals Caribbean resort that’s under attack after an oil drilling platform befouls the mermaid resting place, and the displaced need sustenance and spawning partners quickly if they’re going to get through the disaster.  Think Mars Needs Women mashed with Piranha 3D with a much, much better set of effects and script…

But I digress-  No, actually I’m stalling, bear with me…

Despite there being plenty of things to recommend the movie for, for small things and large to both the pirate-sympathetic and the general audience, there was something that seemed off to me.  Part of me wondered if it might be the way the original novel, On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers, was subsumed by the screenplay; that’s still something I’m digesting and may with some time to reflect discuss later.  However, it feels to me as though it’s beyond that and that alone, this sense of disturbance.

And then it hit me after a few moments…

We have in the theaters a pirate movie where there’s no piracy!

Seriously, we know the main characters are pirates because one of them is in the dock standing trial as the film opens, before his daring escape, and the term is thrown around quite a lot in mention of what these characters do, but when we see them, they plunder and ransack…

…zero vessels or towns.  They’re too busy dealing with each other or emissaries of King George II while under license from His Majesty on the quest for the Big MacGuffin the Fountain of Youth for them to actually meet their job requirements.

Think about this a moment:  What if they had a movie about cops where none of the cops actually bothered to enforce the law, not even to flash a badge and issue a traffic ticket?  What if we had a movie about firefighters where none of these firefighting characters ever went to the firehouse, responded to an alarm or suited up to go into a fire?  What about a war movie where we are told the characters are soldiers but they don’t even drill?  Imagine if you can a superhero film where the characters don’t actually suit up to fight crime or save the world…

…and the first one of you to shout out, “Hey! That’s Watchmen right there!” I’m going to show the door; that’s one argument we are not having today…

The point is, why talk about pirates if they’re not allowed to be pirates?  In Powers’ book, we see characters actually practice the Sweet Trade; for that matter, in most of the classic pirate films and works there are definite acts of piracy committed by the characters.  There’s even quite a few such acts in some of the less well known works on pirates out there…

(…thought I was going to hotlink back to the novel again for a second there, didn’t ya…?)

But Jerry Bruckheimer doesn’t give us a single act of piracy onscreen here.  In fact, there’s not a lot of piracy depicted in any of the four films in the franchise, though with the wild divergences and overcrowded set pieces in the second and third films, it would have been hard to tell they were missing.  Which means that, for four films, we have people who don’t actually do what their job description claim they do.

And that puts the most recent film and whole franchise in a whole new light.  Consider the possibilities as to what we might be seeing here:

  • We have a whole new description of what constitutes being a pirate offered here.  It’s much looser than we’ve known, and rather nebulous in the description, kind of like what being an ‘Executive Producer’ is…
  • Being a pirate is a title of affection in the film’s universe, much the same way you refer to someone as ‘Squire’ or ‘M’lady’ whom you meet at the tavern ashore.  And let me say, these are titles that are much better worn than the usual passing titles New Yorkers get anointed with during a pressing rush hour…
  • There may be a whole host of reasons out there for this, all of them better than the most obvious one that suggests itself…

which is, sadly…

  • …that the pirates in the film are being whitewashed by storytellers who don’t trust their audience to deal with the reality of pirates.

Unfortunately, there are no winners in a situation like this.  To use the word “pirate” to describe someone, then attempt to remove all meaning from the word is to deny the reality of history, myth and tradition.  And once you’ve denied the reality of a character’s background, you’re left with someone without a past, with no roots on which to build their motivation or drive, a character without anything to latch on to.

Likewise, to pretend that pirates are just colorfully dressed sailors who are more likely to behave like costumed heroes or villains, many of which in the films being amateur bossale (save in this film Blackbeard, who is a full-fledged houngan with zombie officers aboard a Queen Anne’s Revenge that looks more menacing than any ship from 1718 ever could have), gives the wrong idea about pirates as a whole, one that diminishes them as a force of history that for all their bloody actions are worthy of our respect.  And a people without a true sense of their own history are one that are left poorer without a foundation for their own back story.

Heads on this cursed doubloon, the film’s characters are cutouts; tails, we’re not well fleshed-out characters ourselves.

And that’s a shame, because we had the pieces here for a decent pirate film that had it been played straight could have been monumental.  Ian McShane could have made a fascinating Edward Teach in his own right; that we first see him enter the scene with black-powder matches tied to his beard and hair alit gave him plenty of menace even before his +3 Sword of Ship Control got drawn.  They even have Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow mention in the script the details of Blackbeard’s actual last encounter at Ocracoke against Maynard, a scene that could have in this film’s crew’s hands been something to behold.  Sadly, this was a lost opportunity.

And if the film is indeed the end-all of all pirate tales for the big screen, there may be plenty of lost opportunities for serious pirate fare that devolves into cartoon, where themes that could have gotten serious treatment through the pirate experience are keel-hauled for the sake of the franchise.

Like I said earlier, there’re plenty of bits to keep you from wishing you were swabbing the decks instead of seeing the film.  The set pieces are entertaining, and the mermaids were interesting.  And who am I to object to Penelope Cruz as a pirate?

Even if “pirate” is a rather loose term here…

All content Copyright © 2011 James Ryan

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Going on the Account: RED JENNY Part Twelve

Part Twelve of RED JENNY AND THE PIRATES OF BUFFALO in now up, and may be read here.


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Going on the Account: Letters of Marque to Come?

OK, we all know that you can pirate goods off a ship; the latest IMB map can show you every attack on shipping that’s happened so far.  And we’ve all heard about pirating movies and music; if you’ve done more than heard about it, well, don’t say anything to me about it…

But pirating books?  For real?

As of now, yes.  A report from Fast Company (with language that may be offensive to some, especially concerning the title) details exactly that, following up on an online Bay Citizen story regarding a pirated PDF of a ‘children’s’ book that was a few weeks from its street date.  Long story short, the book is now a major seller on thanks to the pre-publication copy of the title drawing interest to it.  So anxious is the interest that Fox 2000 has optioned it for a film based on the copy that went viral.

The question, of course, is how many potential sales did the book lose to the PDF, and were they made up by the publicity this gave the tome.  It’s hard to say, as there’s never been a good tool for modeling the sales of any intellectual property with any precision; yes, we can apply formulas to determine how much oil or corn will go up or down with all known factors figured, but how well a movie does on its opening weekend is still anybody’s guess.

But what does this act of piracy teach us, in the end?  Is there a lesson in all this?  Maybe…

  • Pirates continue to test the waters:  Much like the Brethren of the Coast before them, bringing to bear the latest technologies and tactics while testing new ways of plying the seas, the modern pirates show us what is possible in these waters.  Who’s to say that  publishers might be willing to forgo moving a few units if there’s a chance for an option down the road that they can share in?
  • Pirates are their own operations unto themselves:  Many a scurvy dog would change their flag if it suited them.  An author or publisher that wanted to try something out there but wasn’t sure of the reaction could send something under false flag and depending on the reaction adjust their rollout without over committing ahead of time.  (And yes, there’s some of that having happened before, as any fans of Richard Bachman can attest…)
  • Pirates can find the profits quickly:  Pirates of every age make their living by quickly going in for the easiest portable treasure they can seize and run with it.  Imagine someone in publishing tracking a pirated copy of the work to be able to target where the real roll outs need to go, as the pirate copy had done all the market research for it.  Apparently, Neil Gaiman has already done this with success, something I’ll need to consider…

So, does this turn all pirates from sinners to saints?  There’re still a lot of issues to be dealt with, as not every piece of information that wants to be free is going to lead to more sales down the road.  As well, there’s one big disadvantage:

  • Pirates are notorious for their fickleness:  Pirates have their reputation for seeing to their own skins first and likely to turn if they think they can get a better deal elsewhere.  Unlike a traditional marketing arm, using pirates can spin wildly out of control in ways no one could anticipate, or appreciate…

As you can see, I tend to focus on news items that catch my fancy, such as the one above.  I’ve also had my attention drawn to a piece from Gawker about failed municipal investment schemes, and one carried by the AP about virtual teaching replacing snow days.

Do I have a reason for having these draw me to them?   Well, maybe…

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Going on the Account: RED JENNY Part Eleven

Part Eleven of RED JENNY AND THE PIRATES OF BUFFALO in now up, and may be read here.


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Going on the Account: More Pirates on the Horizon

If nothing else, the  new PotC film certainly is making it easier for new pirate properties to come to screen.

Word is that the creator or PRIME SUSPECT is adapting Villains of All Nations  for television.  If as promised in the piece, this does lead to a “modern, bold and gritty interpretation of the genre,” it should be interesting to watch.


With any luck, we’ll get pirates that aren’t dependent on mermaids, voodoo curses, black magic, sea gods and Time Lords to get some camera time…

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Going on the Account: On Tides Not Strange Enough…

So just how desperate is it getting amidst real pirates?

A few small reminders of reality as we set sail amidst the fantastic…

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Going on the Account: Um, You Don’t Say…

Today was published a piece in io9 reporting from the press conference held by the cast and crew of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.  Amidst the discussions and pronouncements from the event was this from the producer:

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer explained that buying the rights to Tim Powers’s 1987 book On Stranger Tides, from which the movie is loosely adapted, gave writer Ted Rossio new ideas and offered a new way to think about the Pirates universe. When asked whether they had learned any lessons from the negative response to the previous sequels Dead Man’s Chest and World’s End, Bruckheimer went on the defensive, pointing out both films made about a billion dollars worldwide and claiming the the media didn’t understand those movies as well as the audience did.

Dear.  God.  Almighty.

There’s nothing like citing economic performance to defend the quality of your work.  Sure, you can say that if people were willing to pay to see something, that there must have been some value inherent in the piece.

Then again, there’s lots of money generated in porn, and no one is daring to claim that anything in that genre is inherently better than To Kill a Mockingbird or The Sun Also Rises

The point is, how much money you can get someone, anyone, to give you for your work is not the final arbitrator of the quality of your work.  All it really tells you is that you have a product in demand; it may not be the best thing you’ve ever done, but boy did you move a lot of copies of that piece.

Frankly, the fact that someone decided to build a movie around an amusement park ride, and managed to make it work, is pretty amazing on so many levels at once.  That the producer decided to build on an established work of fiction finally* means someone may have had a moment of either brilliant clarity or clear brilliance.

We’ll know for sure in about two weeks, then…





* With regards to Powers’ novel, I have been desperately looking for a copy the last few weeks, without success, to read up on before going to see the film.  I could have sworn I had one, about three apartments and several book divestitures ago, but so far I’ve got zilch.  My guess is, there might be an unadulterated original manuscript being made available soon as a close tie-in, which I’m going to read to get a comparison between the two.  If nothing else, it’ll be an interesting exercise to see how much of Tim Powers survives Jerry Bruckheimer…


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Going on the Account: RED JENNY Part Ten

Part Ten of RED JENNY AND THE PIRATES OF BUFFALO in now up, and may be read here.

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