Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Veronica Mars And The Movie That Should Have Been

When you make a sequel, or a revival, or a new anything, there’s always a careful line to walk. On the one hand, you want to make fans of the original happy. These are your most dedicated fanbase, and therefore the people you really don’t want to piss off. But you also, as a bigshot movie producer or director or writer, want to appeal to new fans as well. You want to bring in people who probably would like the original, but just haven’t heard of it.

This is your biggest hurdle, the tension between these two goals. Because, let’s be real, if you only manage to appeal to one side of the fanbase, your movie (or book or television show or broadway revival or whatever) won’t be a hit. Sadly, that’s just the way it works. The only real way to make sure that your project appeals to fans both new and old is to figure out why it’s popular in the first place, and then work from there. Not the superficial things that are fun, but not necessary, no, I mean that core of the project. What is it about? Why does it matter? Why do people love it?

I mention this for a few reasons. First, news has recently hit that there will be some kind of Pushing Daisies revival. That’s awesome, because Pushing Daisies was a freaking brilliant show full of incredibly talented people. But I also mention it because a few weeks ago I was stuck on a plane, bored out of my mind as I usually am on planes, and ended up rewatching the Veronica Mars movie. That movie? Didn’t know why people loved it.

I covered this a while back, but I do have to admit that at the time, my brain was kind of fogged by the intense powers of nostalgia and joy wafting up from the project. I love Veronica Mars, in the kind of uncomplicated way that one loves a female-centric, original, clever show that happened to be airing during one’s high school/college years. In other words, a lot. I was waiting for this movie with baited breath and more than a little anxious hyperventilating. So obviously when it came out, I failed to be objective.

Not that I really think objectivity is humanly possible. I tend to believe that there is no such thing as an objective report. But that’s a larger, more philosophical point that we’re not going to get into now. Anyway.

Upon a repeated viewing, months later, I have to admit the truth. It’s not a very good movie. Sure, it serves its purpose pretty well, as long as you believe that its purpose is to remind everyone of how much they liked the show, and appease the Veronica/Logan shippers. If that’s all you wanted, then bravo! That’s pretty much all you got.

But the movie lacked something crucial that the show had, and without it the movie suffered. It wasn’t very good. It could have been better. The thing it was missing was simple, but vital: class tension.

Now, this might seem like kind of a weird point to make, since class tension was never explicitly the point of Veronica Mars. The show’s premise - teenage girl private eye solves murders in a film noir California town - was weird, but pretty straight-forward. I wouldn’t be surprised if the class (and race) commentary in the show was largely accidental. Just a sort of thing that happened as the show was going along. However it happened, though, it did, and it was great.

While the arc-plot of the first season dealt with the death of a rich, beautiful, privileged teenager and the luxurious lives of her potential murderers, the real subtext dealt with a meatier topic: race and privilege in a community with an extremely wide income gap. Veronica and her father, having once been considered part of the upper crust but now fallen to the lowest of the lows, were perfect exemplars of this, and Veronica even went so far as to openly address her former privilege. In the voice over she talks about how she never noticed the poverty around her until her family was the one struggling to make rent.

But it’s not just about Veronica versus her former friends. The show also opens up a variety of conversations on race and class issues. There’s her friend Wallace, a lower middle-class African-American teenage nerd who has a job at the school and thinks about money issues and loves his family but worries about them sometimes. There’s also the local gang leader, Eli Navarro (Weevil), a Latino high schooler who frequently refers to the racial discrimination he experiences at the hand of the police, and points out that there really isn’t a whole lot for him to do in Neptune that isn’t crime.

Or we could talk about Mac, Veronica’s very intelligent friend whose low-brow, low-income family feels like a foreign planet to her. She finds out at one point that she was actually switched at birth, and should have grown up in a cultured, rich family. Mac understandably struggles with this, but eventually comes to realize that while her family is codedly lower-class, they’re also good, and she loves them.

Heck, there’s even an entire episode in the first season about class passing. That same episode? Has Weevil accused of stealing, a bunch of white rich boys banding together to implicate him, and several frank discussions of race.

What I’m saying is that while class tension wasn’t technically the point of the show, it became clear early on that it was the focus. No matter what story Veronica Mars was telling, class and race became vital aspects. Which is good. Class and race inform huge amounts of our lives, and this combined with the show’s unflinching portrayal of rape narratives is a huge part of why we love it.

And a huge part of why the movie didn’t work.

See, when the writers adapted the Veronica Mars show into the Veronica Mars movie, they got confused about why we love it. Instead of giving us a hard-hitting narrative about police corruption and racial tension and class warfare, we got a scandalous story about yet another dead rich girl and her super rich boyfriend and some rich people doing rich stuff. Worse still, Veronica was no longer our working class heroine of the poor, but a rich lawyer lady who can actually afford to push her plane tickets back indefinitely, clearly isn’t hurting for a job because she’s willing to turn down a good offer, and just generally seems to have no memory of how the other half lives.

That’s a problem. It feels like the writers figured that all we are looking for in a Veronica Mars story is a load of quips, Veronica deflecting sexist remarks (which is great, don’t get me wrong), and some juicy juicy murder. But that’s not what we (what I) want at all. What I want is Veronica Mars, avenging angel of the downtrodden. Veronica Mars, who understands rich people but can never be one of them. Veronica Mars, who sees the corruption in the police force and burns it out like the fires of justice. While being cute and quippy.

This Veronica Mars, the one we got in the movie, was less of an avenging angel, and more of a marshmallow. She was very witty, of course, but her wit lacked the necessary punch of justice. Veronica was kind of cranky, but not righteously pissed off about something, and I would argue (am arguing) that Veronica is at her best when she’s really really angry. She just is.

Imagine with me for a second the movie this could have been. Instead of getting a phone call from Logan Echolls asking for help, what if Veronica received a call from Eli Navarro, her former-gangbanger friend, asking for her investigating help to clear him when he’s accused of trying to mug Celeste Kane, in what is clearly a police frame-job. As a sidenote, this is actually a subplot in the movie, it is way more compelling than the main story.

Weevil’s been shot by Celeste Kane, simply for going up to her car window and asking if he can help her with her car. Weevil’s turned his life around since high school - he’s married now and has an adorable daughter. He hasn’t been on a motorcycle in years. By all accounts, Eli Navarro is a success story, the tale of a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who managed to put his life of crime behind him and live straight. But all of that gets changed by a white lady with a gun and a police department happy to plant evidence and “clean up the streets”.

This movie could have been amazing. Veronica’s left her seedy life behind her, but as she’s interviewing for a major position at a major firm (where they coyly ask about her gangland associations in the interview), she gets a call from an old friend in trouble. And Veronica never was one to turn down a person in need.

So she flies all the way across the country, bailing on her boyfriend and her job prospects in order to help a lower-class Hispanic man with a juvenile record. That? Is a much stronger story. And as she uncovers pieces of the crime, she finds that Neptune’s sheriff’s department is at the center of a web of racial discrimination in law enforcement. That the department is taking bribes from white developers who want to “reclaim” the waterfront, and so are targeting the Hispanic community and trying to drive them out of town. What if Veronica had a cause, and pursuing it forced her to go straight up against the sheriff’s department?

That would be an amazing movie. She gets shot at, she gets framed for crimes, she tries to go public, they retaliate against her father and her friends, Veronica has to sacrifice heavily, etc. Weevil, in the face of a criminal trial and the loss of his legitimate job, has to go back into a life of crime. His relationship with his wife is strained. He's afraid of what will happen to his daughter. It’s a story with much more gravitas than what we got, and frankly it’s just more interesting. Veronica’s interactions with Weevil were always more compelling than her with Logan, for all that she and Logan had sexual tension coming out of their ears. Weevil’s interesting. This story is interesting. And timely.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing here is how easily it could have been this. Because there were little moments in the movie that hinted at a bigger story. When Veronica first comes to town, she and her father are driving at night when they stop at a police checkpoint. Ahead of them, the cops are searching a car with several Latino teenagers in it. They find a can of spraypaint, and decide to taze and cuff the guys right there. When one of them protests, they hit him.

But Veronica’s father is on this. He gets out of his car, holds up his phone, and announces loudly that he’s filming. He then uploads the video to the cloud (so it won’t be destroyed if his phone is “accidentally” broken) and calmly gets back in the car as the officers let the boys go.

It’s this little moment that hints at a much more important plot. How casually Keith deals with the situation. How unnerved Veronica is by it. How fearlessly brutal the cops are prior to realizing that they have a white audience. It’s powerful and one of the best moments in the film. 

Look, I’m not saying that the Veronica Mars movie isn’t entertaining. It is, definitely. If you love the show, you’ll enjoy the movie. But I am saying that it’s not the same. It’s not as good as the show, because it fails to recognize what the show was about. 

It may have seemed like Veronica Mars was always about scandals and soap operatic plots and Veronica outsmarting everyone, but it was really about identity, and class, and race, and all that messy junk that comes out when people are put under pressure. It was about a teenage girl forced to reckon with her place in the world, and her determination to make this world a more just one for everyone.

That’s the Veronica Mars I love. Accept no substitutes.

Adorable.

17 comments:

  1. I cannot believe you just did that to me.

    A Marshmallow friend of mine said she liked the movie, but didn't like the movie and she couldn't quite explain why. And now you have explained it for her. And now I can't unknow what I know. That breezing over of Weevil's plotline disappointed me when I saw it, but I was so happy to be back in Neptune that I let it slide. "Uggggh.Thanks Deb," he said facetiously.

    Honestly, you're genius but I'm wondering now if you aren't an evil genius. Is there anything you don't get? What happens when one of your posts changes the perspective of one of your readers? Do you proclaim to the heavens, "Mwahahaha! They've kissed my Wonder Woman!!!" And then lightning flashes (KRA-KOOM!).

    I just...I just need a minute

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    1. MWAHAHAHAHAHA!

      Not gonna lie, I definitely have a touch of evil in me. Ruining things is just so much fun! And apparently I sound like the Wicked Witch of the West when I laugh...

      Take all the time you need. :DDDD

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    2. What's great is that :DDDD is a solid interpretation of your wicked, wicked smile

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    3. Yesterday I smiled and my students actually physically cringed. It was awesome.

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  2. So much this. I was a faithful Kickstarter, but the flat feeling the film left me with after all the emotional reunions can be very much traced back to this dissonance - Rob Thomas and his team clearly forgot that Veronica Mars was about Veronica Mars and her balancing act in Neptune, rather than about that other character who always made a much better antagonist than he did a romantic lead. As a Weevil/Veronica shipper, I wondered if all the schmaltzy LoVe moments had skewed my perception of the wider product, but I was happy to see Weevil grab the sort of life he deserved; his devotion to his wife and child were very much in line with the family oriented character we knew him to be. But the mystery we were served (Logan accused of murder again? Which high lawyer should he hire to effortlessly get him off this time?) simply did not hold my interest - not something that ever happened in the TV series, when even the lost dog case knew exactly how to harness the basic tension in Neptune. And when we turned to the police corruption storyline, I sat up and got interested again, only to feel they saved the strongest storyline as a teaser for movie we probably won't get to see.

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    1. I forgot to mention this in the article, but I was actually really baffled by the fact that Veronica never told the law firm what precisely she was doing out there. If she had mentioned that she, a potential lawyer for their firm, was in exclusive talks with the defendant of one of the trials of the century, they might have been a bit more lenient on her start date. But that never came up. Even when she was auditioning lawyers.

      More than that, though, I feel like the film was just confused. It didn't get the point of the show, and it really suffered for that. It also really suffered for not being able to make Leighton Meester come back as Carrie, because she has an oomph that was desperately needed.

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  3. Totally agree. The class thing, the under-use of Wallace and Mac, plus the fact that there is no known universe where the characters of Veronica and Piz would be together at that point in their lives. But mostly, the class thing.

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    1. Yeah, Piz? Um, no. It would have made a lot more sense to introduce some random new dude than to bring back the blandest bland to ever bland. And, for that matter, what's with Buffy and Veronica Mars and Gilmore Girls all having their heroines go off to college and then get super dull college boyfriends? Weird trend.

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    2. You leave Gilmore Girls alone, Deborah Pless! I mean it!

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  4. I can see this, but I give the movie a lot of slack because of several things. One, it was a movie, written by people who are more experienced doing serials (and better, or even BEST, at serials, as I am also a total freakshow marshmallow), so they are going to do something a little too big for a 90 minute flick (which is drop in a huge sub-plot about police corruption and racial profiling and class, class, class before just switching back to moo eyes with Logan. Which I enjoyed, but totally see the flaw in it as well). And two, they are going to work towards recruiting the lowest common denominator as an audience, because that is a necessity when trying to make a blockbuster that will make enough money to spawn a sequel; ie: murder mystery suspense with romance, rather than anything that smacks of progressive politics.

    Also I love this movie, so any objectivity (as if, dude) is out the window. I admit it! I have no shame when it comes to VMars.

    I never could get in to Gilmore Girls. So many people tried to encourage that bond, but it just never took. No idea why.

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    1. It's interesting, because I totally did squee over the movie when it came out. It was a very much needed drink of water after seven years of drought, and I appreciated it thoroughly. It's only recently that I've been able to step back and actually think critically about this movie.

      I'm greedy. I want it all. I want a movie that's brilliant and well-written and deep and profound and addresses social issues, and I also want to watch two characters smooching.

      I refuse to believe that I cannot have it all!

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    2. Also, I love Gilmore Girls because I always related far too much to Paris, Rory's insane best friend, and because I wanted to grow up and be Lorelai.

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  5. I think what I'm missing about the VMars movie, is what the money situation was. I agree about appealing to the lcdenominator in order to get movie and spawn a sequel, but didn't this movie equate to a crowd-funded indie project? I mean they could have made any movie they wanted to right, and then just crowd-funded a sequel. They still can, right? I'm not sure about how Kickywood (Hollykick?) works but I felt like they had a LOT of wiggle room and sequel appeal

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    1. It was kinda crazy, from my scant understanding; basically, the crowd-funding resource was matched by Warner Brothers, who also bit it with same-day distribution of the online movie as the theater release and paid for all the marketing. So it was kind of (less than) half-funded by Kickstarter (the fans), with the hope that the numbers of people willing to contribute to making it would indicate the number of people who would pay to go see it once finished. It wasn't strictly indie, really, which would've been more awesome in my opinion but probably would've had a smaller fight scene :)

      There was some 'magic number' Warner brothers was looking for in revenue that would indicate whether or not they would fund a sequel, but I'm not sure it was ever revealed to the public or whether the movie made enough scrilla to meet it. Who knows? I think this film is obviously begging for a sequel (and deliberately so) but I'm also not sure how many backers (or the makers of this film, for that matter) would want to go through the process again. It sounded pretty bonkers.

      But a girl can hope, right?

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  6. Having now seen both series and film for myself...

    No matter what story Veronica Mars was telling, class and race became vital aspects. Which is good. Class and race inform huge amounts of our lives, and this combined with the show’s unflinching portrayal of rape narratives is a huge part of why we love it.

    It seems like the film sacrificed its class analysis to its rape analysis. The film's collection of victims and subordinate perpetrators are rich kids being blackmailed over what could have been a commentary on their entitlement, irresponsibility, and unwillingness to face consequence. But all that was buried under the more deliberate malice of their (lower class) blackmailer, including rape by extortion. So the final - and by implication worst - villain was the poor kid victimising his "betters." It's not like this couldn't have been a good case for the series, along the way, but as a main plot of the film, it upends half the series' themes.

    Meanwhile, the causally violent racism and classism Veronica witnesses became throwaway incidents serving little more purpose than to be a dark backdrop.

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    1. Yes! I think you're spot on there. It's like they had intersectionality and then stepped away from it because they were worried it was too complex for a movie audience or something. And I think just in terms of scale, this was a story more suited to television. This was like a three episode end of season arc, and that's about it. As a movie plot it lacked sufficient oomph.

      And if there's one thing I hate in movies, it's the inclusion of racism and classism for gritty tone while ignoring the actual societal implications of those problems.

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