I’m a big fan of the SyFy Channel series “Face Off,” where movie makeup artists compete in a reality series format. (And yeah, I hate calling it SyFy, but whatever.) I’ve seriously enjoyed every episode up to now, though not all of them are equal quality. As a lover of movie monsters in every form, I enjoy seeing the way concept can become reality. Sometimes, the results are sheer genius.
But the format lends itself to exposing enormous faults in the movie industry’s overall self-image and structure. The show’s transparently cynical marketing placements are gross, but goofy little fans like me do enjoy seeing videogame tie-ins now and then. There are times, however, when it all goes horribly wrong, wrong, wrong. That’s how it went this week, resulting in the worst episode the show has ever aired.
But it wasn’t just a bad challenge, with icky results. This week’s episode blatantly displayed the lack of respect Hollywood gives to animation as opposed to live action. The show itself is not to blame for that, of course; hell, make-up artists are another one of the professional categories that rarely gets its due in Hollywood. The show itself goes a long way toward remedying some of that, and as such I applaud it every damned week.
But “Face Off” can be blamed for its own crimes of quality, which are legion in this episode.
“Face Off” committed an assault on Dr. Seuss, asking its competitors to spawn — I’m not making this up — human hybrids with Seuss characters from The Sleep Book. Because of the show’s habit of shameless product placement, I assumed that meant The Sleep Book is currently being adapted into a (sure to be bloody STELLAR) live action film. As far as I can tell, it is not. How did they settle on The Sleep Book? At first I thought must have dozed off or suffered a psychotic break, ’cause I missed it. It’s a weird, weird choice for a Seuss book to adapt, but who knows? This is low-budget TV, after all. Maybe that’s the most widely-known Seuss book they could afford the rights to, I thought.
No, it turns out The Sleep Book is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary, having been published in 1962. Does that make the choice seem less random? Not really. Maybe one of the producers is a dedicated Seuss fan and spends all their waking hours thinking about The Sleep Book. Maybe it’s like me and Lou Reed or something. Maybe The Sleep Book is the ”Love Makes You Feel” of Dr. Seuss books, or that weird lengthy instrumental guitar and piano coda that was on the original cassette commercial release of Berlin but not on the vinyl, or the lost VU-era lyrics to “Ride Into the Sun.” Or maybe The Sleep Book is just way more popular than I’m giving it credit for. After all, I’m basically a “Walk on the Wild Side is pretty cool” type of fan when it comes to Seuss.
Anyway, the “human hybrid” concept is equally telling. “Face Off” routinely lapses into science-fiction cliches, and the “human hybrid” idea is a favorite of the producers. I can only imagine it comes from a spirited argument around the producer’s table. Someone wanted humans, someone wanted Who’s…”Let’s do hybrids!” It feels like that happens a lot over at SyFy.
The “hybrid” results on this week’s “Face Off” are…grotesque. And not in a good way.
Perhaps these people forgot that Seuss himself was involved with a brilliantly weird live-action film, 1953′s The Five Thousand Fingers of Dr. T. The title is more than just a saucy euphemism for the increased libido experienced by some female-to-male transsexuals upon first initiating hormone treatment. It refers to the eponymous mad scientist’s plot to make five hundred boys take piano lessons whether they like it or not. (And the headgear!!!)
While it was far from a perfect movie, the visual concepts in The Five Thousand Fingers of Dr. T represented a bewitching import of Seuss’s brain-bending illustrations to the real world. The sets were cheesy, but they were adorable. Most importantly, they felt honestly inventive. Any attempt to bring Seuss to life should take a page from this campy, weird slice of cult history. But no live action Seuss film thus far seems to give a damn.
Dr. Seuss’s illustrations, by their very design, violate every conceivable law of physics. In fact, it is that violation that provides much of the humor and gives Seuss’s work much of its inspiring quality. Trying to make movie make up and costumes do that seems like a noble endeavor, but it’s not. It’s a slap in Seuss’s face, because in purporting to love him, it hates him. It’s like the stereotypical Mom who loves her truck driver son, but always wonders why he didn’t go to med school like his cousin. If Seuss is a genius, great. But woudln’t he be that much more of a genius if his work existed in the “real” world?
Well, he’d certainly be more profitable. And Hollywood’s conceited fat-cats’ money wouldn’t have to be “trusted” in the hands of animators, who have always been treated like a weird, untrusted wild card in Hollywood.
I’ve long been irritated at Hollywood’s increasing need to take beautiful art and bugger it up. It’s been getting worse in recent decades as the money resulting from a successful movie gets huger and huger, leaving other art forms in the dust. And because live action films make more money than animated films, Hollywood tries to shoehorn things into a live action format that simply don’t belong there.
I find this a bothersome enough tendency when it comes to superhero films, but at least there’s a lengthy history of bringing superheroes from comic books to the big screen. And superhero comic books are not Dr. Seuss. Superhero books have their own unique physics, but it operates at something like a forty-five degreen angle to normal physical laws.
In the world of Dr. Seuss, on the other hand, the laws of physics perform a series of pirouettes, nose dives and force-starts. Keeping up with them would be more than a make-up artist (or The Doctor) could begin to handle.
Plus, my objections are more emphatic to superhero movies than Dr. Seuss films because several of Marvel’s recent offerings are actually acceptably watchable films, even if others are not. They follow the basic tenets of storytelling and don’t seem to think the appeal of their source material boils down to juvenalia — far from it. Even when superhero movies screw up royally (and so many of them do), they’ve got a sense of self. They can end up being watchable even when they suck. recent ones often seem not just to be dishing out fan service, but to integrate it…at some level. I’m not saying Marvel’s recent films are great, but they’re…movies. The revolting live-action versions of The Cat in the Hat and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas…well, I’m not entirely sure what they are. They’re not genuinely creative adaptations, that’s for sure. My kinder self says maybe they’re just cinematic fuck-ups. If I let my blood get boiling, I’d say they’re puerile insults to the motion picture arts and sciences.
This is not just me blowing a gasket because I don’t like a given film or genre. I see Hollywood’s prejudice against animation as an infective hubris spread by financing. Such live-action adaptations send the message that illustration and animation are not “real” art forms — that an animated film is one thing, but it takes “real actors” to make a “real” movie.
Stuck-up Hollywood idiots get enough smoke blown up their asses, and apparently that smoke has a laxative effect. I think one of my favorite shows just took a steaming one all over Dr. Seuss. I sure hope the Cat in the Hat can loan them his steam-powered riding-majigit to help clean it up before next week.