July 6th, 2013

eyes black and white

Alongside Night, the Movie

At Porcfest X last month, J Neil Schulman treated us to a screening of his own movie adaptation of his 1979 novel "Alongside Night". I admit I came with low expectations, but I was happily surprised: it's actually a movie worth watching — and I speak as the guy who didn't hesitate to walk out of half the last few movie screenings I had paid to attend. The movie certainly wasn't as easy to watch as your run-of-the-mill Hollywood blockbuster, but it also has perks none of the cookie-cutter Hollywood stuff has; it doesn't try to fight the big studios on their own terrain, and instead compensates limitations of the budget with creativity.

On the plus side, the story will be a delight for all libertarians, yet still quite enjoyable for everyone as a decent action flick: indeed, a positive energy radiates from the movie, that is contagious, despite all the shortcomings. Libertarians will of course particularly enjoy not just the general plot, but also the hundreds of small jokes and references in the background; this background humor alone makes the movie a must see for all libertarians. But everyone should be able to enjoy the action thriller, with a love story, the political mystery, with plenty of humor, the economic exploration, with insight. The action scenes are not artificially spectacular and stretched as in a John Woo movie, but short and to the point, and realistic; this will rejoice actual amateurs of guns and military technology.

Reading the novel, I remember it had given me the impression of having been written with a movie in mind; the adaptation into a movie script was therefore probably easier than for other novels; still, it's a different medium, and the adaptation went rather well. Actually, the movie format works much better for the plot, which I think isn't that solid, since in a movie you don't have time to think too much about the weaknesses as the action unfolds. It's not that the story has big holes in it, but more that the bad guys make for a rather weak opposition; I expect real world bad guys to be both individually not as competent yet collectively stronger, making shallower plans that have more redundancy, thanks to much more robust networks or allies and henchmen, that, when they disintegrate, lead to much more chaotic and decentralized violence.

Now, there are many ways that the movie betrays its being an amateur production, but the worst was the acting. The lead actor, in particular, was not up to his role: by and large, he failed to convey the surprise and marvel, the worry and fear, the enlightenment and commitment, and other emotions that his character goes through. Even other actors deliver but a slightly better than mediocre performance overall; it's not quite as bad as I feared it could have been, but still a far cry from any kind of method acting. And there, I blame JNS: whether as an author, a director or a producer, he just didn't put enough thought into the emotional life of the characters. That's admittedly a failing common among the "rationalists" (NT on the Myers-Briggs) who constitute most libertarian intellectuals, and I readily admit to sharing the trait — but still I express my disappointment at Schulman, who would better have asked for help from someone who cares.

Other signs of amateurism are with the camera lens work or lack thereof. There again, JNS' team does a better job than you'd expect from amateurs, yet a job that falls short as compared to work by real professionals. Understandably, JNS could not afford large movie sets, and he resorted to narrow camera angles or computer-aided editing; but the result just isn't compelling: the camera framing sometimes make me feel crippled or claustrophobic, and the editing wasn't always convincing; the central Mall scene, for instance, is both enlightening and downright funny as far as the script goes, and the acting is mostly convincing for once, yet at the same time the editing and background sets are just bad.

In the end, "Alongside Night" is far from a perfect movie; but it's still a lot of fun, and a movie worth watching. And in the end, that's what matters: I know a whole lot of big studio movies, with much more production value, or at least production cost, for which I wouldn't say as much. Importantly, J Neil Schulman pulled it off without much help, going against the Establishment — for that he deserves not just our congratulations, but our admiration. Hats off, JNS.