Geek Punditry #19: Mad Scientist Storytelling

When you hear the word “experiment,” you usually think of something scientific: a guy in a lab coat mixing multicolor liquids from test tubes over a Bunsen burner, electrifying that corpse he’s got strapped to the table, or kidnapping strangers and throwing them into a deathtrap together to see how they react. Or maybe not, I don’t know what your high school science classes were like. But experiments don’t have to be  scientific. In the arts, experiments can be a way to drive in new directions, inspiring new waves of creativity, and transforming storytelling. Movies were once an experiment: a melding of theater and photography to create something that had not existed before in any meaningful way. Repeating the experiment but replacing photography with hand-drawn art invented animation. Virtually every kind of story and every way a story can be told was an experiment at first, and that’s what makes it worthwhile to try. And while it’s possible to take chances within your art – in the message, in the characters, in the story itself – what I’m interested in today are those creations that take chances with the form of art, something that is created in an unusual way or presented to the audience in a fashion that they aren’t used to, because that kind of Mad Science Storytelling is what I find really inspiring.

Pictured: How Nicholas Sparks imagines himself.

The thing that brought this topic to my mind this week was Dracula Daily. Once a Tumblr blog and now a free Substack, Dracula Daily is presenting an old, familiar story in a fresh new form. The original Dracula by Bram Stoker was an epistolary novel, a story told through documents composed by the characters in the story. This can take lots of different forms – diary or journal entries, personal letters, newspaper clippings, police reports, and so forth. In a way, it’s kind of the grandparent of modern found footage movies. It was a highly popular format in Stoker’s time, and although not as dominant anymore, it still exists today.

What the team behind Dracula Daily is doing is taking the original novel and breaking it down by the dates on the “documents,” then sending those chunks out via email on the corresponding date. The earliest part of the novel chronologically, for example, is a journal entry by Jonathan Harker dated May 3, and Dracula Daily began up on that date, emailing Harker’s journal to everyone signed up for the list. This went on for a few days until May 9, when Mina Murray sent a letter to her friend Lucy Westenra, which was that day’s installment, and so forth. It’s a fun way to experience a familiar story, and if that sounds interesting to you, there’s plenty of time to catch up – only eight short installments have been sent out as of this writing, and the project will continue until the story’s end in November.

“Dear Diary: The Count is soooooo dreamy. He looks just like the guy from Leaving Las Vegas.”

Dracula Daily brought experimental stories back to my mind, but the notion has hovered there for a while because of a few other experimental stories I watched earlier this year. The thing about experiments is that sometimes experiments can…well…fail. And as the point of this blog is to celebrate what I love, I didn’t want to talk about just negative examples without having positives as well. I’ll get back to a few cool positives in a bit, but first let me tell you about the two things that, in my opinion, fell a little flat, but at the very least, were interesting.

First was a movie from last year called The Seven Faces of Jane, starring Gillian Jacobs. This is a film attempt at creating an “exquisite corpse:” Seven filmmakers were given an opportunity to make a chapter of the story of Jane, played by Jacobs, over the course of a long weekend after she dropped off her child at camp. The experiment interested me, as did the fact that one of the chapters was directed by Jacobs’s Community co-star Ken Jeong and also featured another Community alumnus, Joel McHale. Community being one of the greatest TV shows of the century, I’ll peek at literally anything people involved in that show are up to. However, Jane uses a TRUE exquisite corpse format, meaning that the filmmakers had no idea what the stories being told either before or after their segments would be. As a result, we don’t really get a movie as much as seven short films starring Gillian Jacobs and a blue car. There’s no consistency, nothing to adhere the segments together. The segments come from different genres, have clashing tones, and the primary character seems to be a completely different person from one minute to the next. Anthology movies can work, but there’s usually some sort of unifying element or theme that the film rallies around. In this movie that’s supposed to be Jane, but the segments are so different from one another that it’s impossible to accept it as a unified weekend from the life of a real person. For God’s sake, there are three separate segments about her briefly reconnecting with the long-lost love of her life, and it’s a different long-lost love every time. That’s a hell of a weekend. 

The other experiment that falls a little flat I’m going to be a bit kinder to, as I haven’t watched the whole thing…but if I thought the experiment was working, I would have watched it by now. I’m talking about the Netflix miniseries Kaleidoscope. The series tells the story of a heist, and heist movies are fun. The high concept, though, the thing that makes it experimental, is that the episodes can theoretically be watched in any order. Each episode (with a color-coded name, as befits the idea of a kaleidoscope) shows a segment in time relating to the heist, from the “Violet” episode set 24 years before through the “Pink” episode, six months after. When you hit the play button, Netflix randomizes the order of the episodes, with the only constant being the “White” episode – the story of the heist itself – coming last. 

It’s a fascinating concept, and nonlinear storytelling is certainly an interesting thing to experiment with, as the thousands of film students who have worshiped Quentin Tarantino for 30 years will vehemently attest. But the problem is that by randomizing the episodes, you’re also pretty much requiring every single episode be a good jumping-on point for the story, and that’s what didn’t work for me. I was randomly assigned the “Orange” episode (three weeks before the heist) as my introduction, and I just felt lost. I didn’t know who the characters were and, much worse, I didn’t care. Having a confused audience isn’t necessarily a bad thing as long as they’re  compelled  to follow along until the confusion is alleviated. I wasn’t compelled. 

To date I’ve only watched the one episode of Kaleidoscope, and it’s possible that further watching would change how I feel, but with so many other TV shows competing for my time, I need a really compelling reason to give a second chance to one that left me so flat. In the interest of fairness, though, there are a lot of people who disagree with me. I can say that the Orange episode isn’t a good place to start, which in and of itself seems to indicate that the randomizing option isn’t entirely successful, but a quick Google search will show you that virtually everyone who has watched the entire series has a different opinion as to which is the best order to watch the episodes in. For the life of me, I can’t figure out if this proves that the experiment was a failure or a success that I’m just not seeing.

As experiments go, these two kinda Britta’d it.

So after those two duds, I was really excited about experimentation, but I needed to find better examples. Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch came to mind, as it’s an “interactive movie” which requires that the viewer make decisions for the character at various points in the story, leading to several possible endings. It’s a fun movie and well-made, but ultimately it’s a filmed version of one of those old Choose Your Own Adventure books that 80s kids like me grew up loving. Yes, it’s an experiment, but it’s kind of an old one, like growing a bean in a paper cup in elementary school science class. It’s fun because it’s new to you, because it’s your bean, but it’s not something that you can really point to as innovative. 

I asked friends on social media to suggest other experimental works, and the one that kept coming up was Mark Z. Danielewski’s novel House of Leaves, which is an examination of a documentary that doesn’t exist unless maybe it does about a house that…well, it’s complicated. But the book is pieced together in a very unorthodox way, in a semi-epistolary format that also plays with things like the color of the printing and the orientation of the page. Because of these elements, it’s the sort of book that you can’t read on your phone or a tablet, you have to have an actual physical copy on hand, and it’s mainly for that reason that I haven’t gotten around to finishing it yet. In fact, I haven’t even got far enough into it to make an educated statement about its effectiveness either way. I’ve got a five-year-old son, people, what do you want from me? I promise I’ll try to read it eventually and, when I do, I’ll tell you what I thought. 

Then another movie came across my radar, a little indie film called Jethica. Directed by Pete Ohs, this quick movie tells about a pair of old high school friends who reconnect after several years. One of them tells the other about a struggle she had with a stalker, and how that trauma is following her, quite literally. I don’t want to say too much more because I don’t want to spoil the movie (available on the Fandor app or to check out from Hoopla), but also because as good as the movie is, it’s the way it was made that really fascinates me. I learned about the film when Ohs was a guest on The Movie Crypt podcast, and the description of how the film was made blew my mind. Ohs brought his cast together and rented out a trailer for two weeks,  went there with a rough outline of the first half of the story, and then the five of them got together once a day to work out what the next scenes to be filmed would be, how to tell the story, and write a script as a team. Halfway through the shoot they took a day off from filming to figure out the rest of the story, then repeated the process to get to the end. 

As a writer and as someone who has directed theater productions (although never a film, I concede), this is one of the gutsiest things I’ve ever heard of. First of all, the fact that he began making the movie without even knowing the ending blows my mind. I’ve often said that when it comes to writing I’m more of a gardener than an architect – I plant seeds and cultivate them rather than planning out everything in advance – but I still have to have an idea of where it’s going to go before I start. I’m willing to take detours and change my mind along the way, but I still need some endpoint to march towards.

Second, the degree of collaboration is astonishing. I love collaborating with other creative people. I feel like I’m at my best when there are other artistic types around me, that the creative energy allows us to feed off each other. But the degree of trust that Ohs had in his cast is truly next level. The film’s script is credited to Ohs and the four members of the cast, all as co-writers, and that’s darn near magic.

And as if that wasn’t enough, Ohs then explained that this is how he always makes his movies.

Mind blown.

No, the name of the movie is Jethica. You thought that was a typo, didn’t you?

The guts to try something different is really the essence of experimental storytelling. If you’re not taking a risk, after all, where’s the experiment? And that brings me to the last example I want to bring up today, Kyle Higgins’s excellent superhero comic book from Image, Radiant Black. The story of a disillusioned young man who comes into possession of a mysterious and powerful suit of armor has been a big hit for Image and has even launched a new shared universe, both with spinoffs of Radiant Black and through crossovers with other books like Ryan Parrott’s Rogue Sun (which also did a sort of “Choose Your Own Adventure” timey-wimey issue a while back). But all of that stuff is standard in superhero comics. What makes Radiant Black an interesting experiment is the degree of connectivity Higgins has with his audience, finding ways to surprise the reader and make them involved that mainstream comics don’t often do.

The first time I noticed Higgins taking a chance with the book came in issue #15, in which Radiant Black discovers a movie crew making a fan film about him. A cute concept, one that I’m a little surprised that I hadn’t seen in comics before, but the surprise came on the last page where there was a QR code. Scanning the code brought you to a YouTube video, an animated short of the film that was made in the comic you just finished reading (and featuring the voice of Batman Beyond star Will Friedle). It was a clever way to bring the readers into the world of the comic, make it a little more “real,” and include them in the process.

But in the most recent issue, #24, he did something much more surprising, which is kind of spoilery, so if you’re reading Radiant Black and you haven’t caught up yet, go catch up before you read the rest of this.

This comic cover doubles as a spoiler buffer. See? EXPERIMENTAL.

Alright, if you’re still reading I assume either you’re caught up or you’re not worried about the spoiler. It’s on you. Radiant Black pulled a bait-and-switch a few issues in, where the main character, Nathan, was put into a coma and the armor was passed to his best friend, Marshall. Marshall was Radiant Black for a while until Nathan awoke from his coma and they discovered the ability to pass the armor back and forth between the two of them. This has been the status quo in the book for some time, leading up to the end of issue #24 where a proclamation is made by one of those cosmic-type beings that occasionally make proclamations in comic books: the armor can no longer be shared! Nathan and Marshall must choose which of them will be the sole Radiant Black from now on! 

And in the middle of that last page…ANOTHER QR CODE. This one takes you to a webpage where you vote on which of the two friends will be the permanent Radiant Black. 

Again, it’s about the writer having guts. No doubt he has plans for both characters, an idea of where the series is going to go no matter which way the vote goes, but think of the implications of that. This means Higgins has taken the time to map out and develop two different storylines, having the faith that both of them are worthy of telling and knowing that one of them will have to be abandoned. It’s hard enough to come up with one story that you believe in enough to tell. Doing two with the intention of junking one? Mr. Higgins, I salute you.

Now this isn’t the first time that comic book fans have voted on the fate of a character. There was the infamous Batman: A Death in the Family storyline from 1988, in which the second Robin, Jason Todd, was caught in an explosion after being beaten nearly to death by the Joker. Fans were asked to call a 900 number (ask your parents, kids) to vote on whether he would survive or not. Fans chose “not.” (This book, by the way, also inspired a Choose Your Own Adventure version, the Death in the Family animated movie, which came out a few years ago. You see why I couldn’t call Bandersnatch a proper experiment on its own merits?) 

More recently, Marvel has used the internet to poll fans for the last few years to occasionally realign the lineup of their X-Men characters, having the readers vote on the final member of the team. And of course in the ancient times (by which I mean the 1960s), DC Comics allowed fans to mail in their votes for the leaders of the Legion of Super-Heroes. None of these are as gutsy as what Higgins has done, though. In the case of the Legion, the question of who was technically leading the team at the time rarely had relevance to the stories being told – it was simple to swap out one for another as the story demanded. The same goes for X-Men – with so many characters in the book, having wiggle room for the last one isn’t problematic. Whether Robin lived or died, of course, was a much bigger deal, but Batman was also a much bigger book and then came with a smaller risk. You know Batman and the X-Men aren’t going to be canceled. The writer might get fired, sure. The book might be overhauled or renamed or it may start over with a new first issue because it’s Wednesday and they haven’t had one in a while, but one way or another that book is still going to be published next month.

Fun fact: In comic books people who are legally dead CAN come back and vote. In comic books and Chicago.

Radiant Black, like most Image titles, is creator-owned, and if it crashes, that’s kind of the end of it. But Higgins isn’t just a good enough writer to launch a new popular superhero title in a crowded landscape with a dwindling audience. He’s a confident enough writer to do it in a unique, creative, and risky way that still entertains his readers. It’s that confidence, I think, that impresses me the most. “Confidence” seems to be his middle name. It’s mine too, but in my case it’s preceded by “Complete Lack Of.” 

People have been telling stories for so long and have found so many different ways to do it that it seems almost impossible that there are any methods still waiting to be found. Even when an experiment doesn’t quite work, like Jane or Kaleidoscope, the people who tried it get my respect for the attempt. But when something new does work, that’s when a creator is going to make me a part of the audience for the long haul. 

Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. He is accepting suggestions for other experimental stories all the time. Let’s have ‘em! What should he be reading or watching? He swears, he WILL get around to House of Leaves one of these days.


I Rank the Universal Monsters

Today I watched The Invisible Man’s Revenge from 1944, and with that, I have FINALLY watched EVERY movie featuring one of the classic Universal Monsters. I have no excuse for the fact that it has taken so long. I have deep, deep shame. But hey, I did it! And now that I’ve FINALLY absorbed every film in their assorted franchises, I’m going to rank them from my favorite to least favorite. Absolutely nobody will care about this ranking except me, but I’m going to share it anyway:

1: Frankenstein. Not a surprise, I’m sure. Everyone knows how much I love Boris Karloff as the monster. Many people probably also know that I consider Bride of Frankenstein to be Universal’s finest monster movie. And anybody who has ever talked to me for more than 17 seconds has probably heard me ramble on about the fact that Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is one of my five favorite movies of all time. Of course this was going to be on top.

2. The Wolf-Man. Lon Chaney Jr. only got one solo film as the Wolf-Man, but he went on to play the character in several “monster rally” films. He’s the only Universal Monster to have a consistent performer throughout the entire franchise, and he’s a wonderfully tragic figure at that. He’s just such a great character.

3. The Invisible Man. Pound for pound, the Invisible Man films are really entertaining, and the special effects are wonderful for the time period. The franchise is hurt a bit by the fact that there is NO consistency in the performer, that most of the films make no attempt at continuity with one another, and that two of them (The Invisible Woman and The Invisible Agent) make no pretense at being monster movies at all, but rather a romantic comedy and a World War II action movie, respectively. But the ones that are good (that would be the original, The Invisible Man Returns, and The Invisible Man’s Revenge) are REALLY good.

4. Dracula. This series would be higher than the Invisible Man if I was only judging by Bela Lugosi’s performance, but Lugosi only played the count twice: in the original and in the aforementioned Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The other actors who played the Count in the other films (even the beloved Lon Chaney Jr.) were…lacking. However, the franchise does get bonus points for the other 1931 Dracula film – the Spanish language version that was made on the same sets as the Lugosi movie at night after director Tod Browning wrapped for the day. The Spanish crew watched Browning’s dailies and made adjustments, often improvements, when filming their own scenes. The resultant film is not as well-known as the Lugosi movie, but may be even better.

5. The Mummy. I must stress here, I am ONLY speaking about the original series from the 1930s and 40s, not the Brendan Fraser series. That would be higher. But while The Mummy series started well, it got very repetitive very fast. The writers also got lazy after a while, not really trying to keep the films consistent with one another. For example, the Mummy rises from the grave after “decades” in two subsequent films, yet they still all took place in the 1940s. Then there was poor Lon Chaney Jr., who played the Mummy in the final few films and, frankly, was sleepwalking through them.

6. The Creature From the Black Lagoon. I should tell you, in case there is any question, that there is no Universal Monster I actually dislike, but somebody’s gotta come in last. The Creature’s trilogy is a fun burst of energy from Universal in the 50s, one last success at creating an iconic character long after the other franchises had been put to bed, but it was never as compelling to me as the others. The Creature comes across as more mindless, driven by pure instinct. It’s neither a beast driven by anguish or anger, and as such, I never really felt for him. It wasn’t until The Shape of Water (not an official Creature film, but come on, we all know) that this archetype really hit for me.

So that’s what I think about these guys. I love ‘em all, I do, and I’m terribly sad that Universal’s various attempts to bring them back in recent years have all fallen flat. I’m going to say it again: the best thing to do would be to bring back Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz as the O’Connells and use them as the cornerstone of a new Universal Monsterverse. But what do I know? All I did was watch all the dang things.

Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure seriesOther People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. There are ghosts in it, if you like that kind of thing.