Tag Archives: JJ Abrams

David Saunders, Minerva winner

Daniel Saunders won a recent Minerva for his answer to a Minerva essay contest. It’s a really good answer but for some reason I forgot to post it.

Here, then, is Daniel’s answer to the question: "JJ Abrams and Joss Whedon, compare and contrast."

I’ve figured out what’s special about JJ Abrams: he’s the master of taking things away. He makes the kind of stuff I love most, which is genre fiction that is not stupid and childish. Of course genre’s roots are in the simple-minded and child-oriented, e.g. pulp magazines, comic books and action movies, so the first thing you have to do is to clear out a lot of the crap that comes with it. This usually includes racism and sexism, depending on how far back you’re going, but also the crushing repetitiveness of genre that makes it easy to parody. JJ Abrams realizes that if the audience knows exactly whats going to happen next, why not skip it?

I really noticed this skipping past the boring in a clever scene in MI:3 where Tom Cruise is going to do a complicated, time dependent heist in a building. I could feel myself start to go to sleep, but then was grateful to realize we were just seeing the outside of the building from the van – and then Tom Cruise sprinting the hell out of there. And there are countless other examples of that in Abrams’ stuff. Not only does it make you feel smart, and not deadened, but you’re more engaged, because your imagination is doing a lot of the work. You do get quite a few glimpses of the monster in Cloverfield, but most of the time you’re imagining what it’s up to and what it’s like – things are rarely overexplained. This is closely related to JJ Abrams devotion to creating a sense of mystery, that is earned, which he talks about in his TED talk, something that has led to great rewards in his non-franchise works like Lost and Cloverfield.

The limitation of JJ Abrams is that when you clear all the boring the crap from old cornball genres, you should have something to replace it with. You should be doing more than they tried to do. In fact, you should use that free space to create art: something that expresses a little of your worldview and ideas about life. I’m not convinced that JJ Abrams has those. Lost is actually, scene for scene, very sharply written, largely avoiding cliches and letting us connect the dots. But it’s a failure (as of partway through season 3) because it doesn’t have much to say. This is especially clear in the flashbacks that occupy half of an episode, which are a perfect storytelling venue in a way: peek into the soul of someone, learn the secrets of their background they don’t want you to know. But in practice, though they are well acted and all have little twists and surprises, they are stultifying, because they don’t add up to anything, they have no perspective on human nature. Some broader themes are emerging in the series, to do with authority and control, but they’re out of focus, and the flashbacks rarely contribute to them. Those flashbacks are truly just killing time. And the emptiness is extremely apparent in Cloverfield and MI:3 whenever they slow down for a second (which, fortunately, they rarely do)

So I will never care about JJ Abrams half as much as I do about Joss Whedon. Whedon clears out the crap, and in its place puts in urgent convictions about the world. Buffy is about growing up, Angel is about guilt and vengeance and negotiating with evil, Dollhouse is about desire and the desire to control others. Among many other things. Everything he’s done is packed full of rich themes, even the 45 minute Dr Horrible. I just read this today about Speed, by David Edelstein:

"Remember: Jack and Annie are on a runaway subway train heading for the end of the line, and she’s handcuffed to a pole. He tries to free her but can’t. Instead of leaping to safety, as she pleads with him to do, he settles down and hugs her tightly as they hurtle towards certain immolation. This might be the most romantic moment in any action picture, and it’s only because Jack is a risk-taker who faces death with stoicism."

Could this also be the cause of the other obvious difference, that his characters are far more loveable and memorable? Maybe it’s not enough for a character to be "well written"; maybe there has to be a point to them. Even Jack – even a Keannu Reeves character! – expresses something interesting about how you might approach life.

JJ Abrams might actually have the edge on some measures – the lack of heart might make it possible to be more streamlined and surprising. I will certainly check out everything he makes, as one of our few incredibly talented and successful genre writers. And I’ll bet there are themes out there that he could speak to deeply. James Cameron doesn’t understand people very well but made some of the best films ever about technology and the techno-warrior mindset, two things he does understand. Until then I doubt JJ Abrams movies will be  more than skillful and creative amusement park rides.

Daniel Saunders grew up in Victoria, B.C., studied Computer Science at the University of Waterloo and he is now a graduate student in Cognitive Psychology at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.

JJ Abrams versus Joss Whedon, your CCO assignment

Here’s your assignment.

JJ Abrams and Joss Whedon, compare and contrast.

One way to study our culture is to compare the roughly comparable.  Nothing comes of the wildly different.  It’s all contrast, no shades of grey.  

No, what we want is a common ground from which Instructive contrasts can then emerge.  

JJ Abrams and Joss Whedon are roughly comparable. Both were born in the middle 60s.  And in the world of popular culture, both were well born.  Abrams’ mother and father were TV producers. Whedon is a third generation TV writer.  Both have changed the face of television, Abrams with… well, now I’m doing your work for you.

What I want is a brief essay, no more than 1000 words.  Let’s stick to their TV work.  Point out the similarities between these two fellas, and then their differences.  Show what they mean to popular culture.  Compare Felicity and Buffy.  Or Lost and Dollhouse.  It’s up to you.  Tell us how their TV has changed our culture.

Keep it short, crisp, intelligent and illuminating.  The winner will receive the winged bird you see above.  I like to think of her as the Owl of Minerva from Greek mythology.  We have been searching for the right statuette for years now.  Ana Domb found this one in a museum catalog. (Thank you, Ana.) Officially, this is the Chief Culture Officer Award.  Unofficially, we will call her the Minerva. 

The Minerva is really heavy.  (I have held an Oscar and I’d say they are about the same weight. It was Julie Christie’s Oscar if you must know.)  It will look good on your desk or bookcase.  When friends and strangers say, "what’s that?"  You can say, ever so distractedly, "Oh, that’s my Minerva.  I won it for something I wrote."  There will be a small pause as your friend recalculates your standing in the world and considers now whether reverence should perhaps replace the impatience with which they now generally regard you. 

Our last contest, Betty White versus Karen Black, has a winner.  It’s Tim Sullivan.  See his excellent answer below.  Congratulations, Tim.


McCracken, Grant.  2010.  Betty White versus Karen Black, your CCO assignment.  This Blog.  May 11.  here.

McCracken, Grant.  2009.  Chief Culture Officer.  New York: Basic Books.  Available on Amazon here.  (Citing this book in your essay will curry no favor with the judges.  But really, if you haven’t bought a copy, please do so now.)

Previous Minerva winners (now immortal)

Juri Saar

Brent Shelkey

Tim Sullivan

Reiko Waisglass

Tim Sullivan’s answer to the Betty While versus Karen Black assignment

Betty White v. Karen Black

This is a story of generations and media and sex, and the nostalgic value we place on them.

White: born 1922, lived through the Depression—actually arrived in California because of it, and started her career in radio in 1939, followed by TV in the 40s.
Black: born 1939, on the verge of being a Boomer. Trained in theater in college, moved to off-Broadway productions, and then to movies.

White: Since the ‘50s—with her show Life with Elizabeth—she’s had a devilish glint in her eye. She’s played against type: the pretty, sweet, slightly befuddled “girl” who secretly knew exactly what’s going on.
Black: Her first big hit is Easy Rider, 1969, a generational touchstone, cementing her place as a Boomer touchstone. In Five Easy Pieces, she’s plays the easy-to-dupe and pregnant girlfriend—no glint in her eye there. Myrtle Wilson, a variation on a theme, follows in The Great Gatsby.

White: Her medium is TV, in our living rooms every day, especially since her hit shows went into syndication. Some of us ate snacks with her after school or after work. Comforting, familiar.
Black: Lives on the Silver Screen. We visit her once in a while, and we usually don’t much like her—even when she’s determined and focused. By the late 70s and beyond, she had moved on to schlocky sci-fi and horror combined with art house pics.

White: Comedy (i.e., hard work) made to look easy. Sweet, smart, and sexy in our living rooms every day.
Black: Drama that feels hard, a little overwrought, spilling over into a genre that gets no respect.

White: She persists, she’s controlled her own destiny. In fact, with Life with Elizabeth, she was the first woman to have complete creative control over her own show,
Black: The characters she’s best known for were not people we would want to spend time with. Her affect is forced and demanding.

White: Another blow to Christopher Hitchens, who told us, infamously, in the pages of Vanity Fair “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” The reaction to that article, and the respect that female comedians have garnered before and since, culminate in the current celebration of Betty as a model for the current crop of successful women.
Black: Celebrated by the fanboy horror community, but b-grade horror flicks have little chance of breaking out into the mainstream. She’s painted herself into a corner. We can’t be nostalgic for her because her early career represents something about relationships between the sexes that we now eschew: the testosterone driven man chewing the scenery while Black’s character tries to create space for herself. She’s pre-Title IX.

Looking forward: A continued move away from and against the Boomers, as we as a society look for icons who create a foundation for Boomers, X, and Y alike through shared media.