Thursday, April 19, 2012

At The Tone, Leave Your Name And Message....

By Jay Stringer

I think studio execs clearly read DSD. Just this week, in that 'Hollywood' that they have now, somebody read Dave's post on Tuesday and said, "hey, shit, they're talking about PI's, somebody get me a PI." Then, after an inevitable comedy mixup involving a seance, Charlie Chaplin, and some pastry, they found they were very short on ideas.

So then they read the comments section, and the exec shouted, "they're discussing whether the PI genre is stuck in the past. Somebody get me an old one." And they wheeled out their beta max hooked up to some cathode tubes and decided that Jim Rockford would be their saviour.

Rejoice. Or not.

Here's a few things I should get off my chest. Firstly, I love PI fiction. I love the idea of it. I love the tradition of it. I love some of the shining lights of it. Many of the finest books I've ever read have been ones that would loosely, one way or another, fit into the PI genre. also, I've written a book that would, loosely, one way or another, fit into the PI genre. I don't choose to discuss it in those terms, and the protagonist wouldn't really feel comfortable hearing it labelled that way, but there's no mistaking that the PI genre is in OLD GOLD's ancestry.

As much as I enjoy the genre, I never really feel the need to get too much into debating it's relevance or health. I'd rather discuss character, plot, all of that jazz and leave other folks to decide which label to put around the story. I think often times discussing crime in terms like "PI," "Gangster," "Mystery," is to do a disservice to the writers and characters. Which isn't aimed as a jab at those who do like to return to the topic often, it's just simply not the aspect of the conversation that really interests me. But in light of Hollywood stealing our ideas, I did think it was worth revisiting a few aspects of the case.

I'm a big fan of Rockford. It's one of my favourite TV shows of all time. It's very much of it's time, and many aspects of it haven't aged well, but it was written with wit, made with love, and is an important touchstone in the development of the PI. When I'm judging good PI characters, I tend not to compare them to Chandler, Spade, Archer or Spenser. The Mount Rushmore that I let characters stand or fall by is carved of Jim Rockford and Matt Scudder.

But I'm not inclined to take a hatchet to news that Vince Vaughan is to play Rockford in a movie. It doesn't offend me in any deep way, and my blood doesn't boil at the thought of someone else playing my man. Let them do it. Let them use an existing property to let some committee of screenwriters get a few paychecks, and let the films inevitable moderate success spawn a new generation of people willing to examine the show with fresh eyes. A common denominator when I tell people of my age or younger how much I love the show is a smirk. Many people find it quaint or funny, because it's been stuck in afternoon rerun mode for most of our lives, just another show that old people watch at 3pm. If the film comes out and gives the property a degree of hip or cool, even if it's in some silly "ironic" way, then that's no bad thing. New fans are new fans.

And as far as the casting goes, I think this is a role that Vince Vaughan could do very well. He doesn't quite have the easy-going charm of Garner, but he can do chatty underdog and will slip very well into a pair of cheap shows in a sea front trailer. Nathan Fillion is someone who could do Garner quite well, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan could probably bring the beat-up charm.

So if the existence of the film project doesn't offend me, and the casting feels like a decent choice, then why am I writing about this?

Well, because it frustrates the hell out of me.Especially in light of the (interesting) conversation Dave started on Tuesday. One of the central questions was why are PI's stuck in the past? Is it the writers or the readers? One of the simplest but most refreshing things about Russel D Mclean's THE GOOD SON was that he was willing to put a telephone in his PI's hand. In Britain PI's are more relevant than ever with the tabloid phone hacking scandal, yet we often seem slow to drag the fictional version up with the times. One of the key elements of Rockford was that he was the PI for the time. The makers examined the tropes and cliches and either updated them, inverted them or disposed of them. They took the idea of the PI and decided what really made him tick and what really was relevant, and in doing that they created one of the greats.

It seems to me that if you want to honour the memory and meaning of The Rockford Files, you do it by not remaking The Rockford Files. Not out of any sense of fanboy angst, but because the whole point of the show was to do something new with the PI. Give us something new, give a writer a chance to craft something lasting. There have been shows that have tried. Terriers had a crack at the modern PI. Angel and The Dresden Files played around with the concept by putting traditional PI tropes into a different genre. I haven't seen Veronica Mars, but people keep telling me I should, and that it was a fresh and fun PI show. Going back longer than that we had Moonlighting and Remington Steele, which showed the with and freshness of Rockford in different ways (and to varying success) whilst playing around with the PI.

On the big screen, where Rockford is now headed, we've had some interesting examinations of the concept. The film Twilight (the Paul Newman one, not the glitter sexy time vampire shite) was very interesting. Gone, Baby, Gone remains one of my favourite films of the past decade for playing around with the PI and applying some stylised realism to the screen.

I just get the feeling that each and every one of these projects, even the ones that maybe lacked in quality, honoured the original spirit of Rockford far more than any Rockford remake can. And that makes me sad. That makes me look back on Dave's questions from Tuesday and wonder, who is it that's stuck in the past? Why can't we ever seem to break free of it?


Dana King said...

Terriers was a much under appreciated show. The beloved Spouse and I miss it.

Paraphrasing Chandler here (who better to steal from?), but any genre that can give us the likes of Rockford, Moonlighting, Remington Steele, Newman's Twilight (another underappreciated gem), Gone, Baby, Gone, Sam Spade, Elvis Cole, Ray Dudgeon (I hope Sean Chercover isn't finished with him), and on and on is almost infinitely flexible and should have something to say in any time.

If done well.

Well, that's the catch, isn't it?

Gerald So said...

It seems most difficult to hit paydirt with a P.I. movie. That may be why the big studios lean toward proven commodities like Shaft (Remember the 2000 movie with Samuel L. Jackson and Christian Bale?), Charlie's Angels, and now Rockford. I agree studio bosses may be stuck in the past, but the economy is part of the reason.

You can take more chances on TV--leading to innovative shows like Angel, Veronica Mars, and The Dresden Files--but TV is also ratings- and budget-driven. See how quickly Veronica Mars and Dresden were canceled.

Books still stand the best chance of producing fresh takes on any genre.