Friday, 2 November 2007

In Defence of Howard the Duck

The AV Club, touchstone of US pop culture criticism for hipsters everywhere, is currently running an excellent feature called My Year of Flops, where Nathan Rabin reappraises movies that failed miserably at the box office and didn't even get to have a cult following afterwards. It's been very entertaining, and I will miss it when his year is up, though I reckon he's stretched the parameters where necessary. I'm sure 1941, Mystery Men, Wicker Man, and Hudson Hawk have some kind of a following, and The Fountain surely will as time goes by and people realise what a fascinating, beautifully crafted film it is. I sometimes disagree with some of his conclusions (especially Hudson Hawk, and the haters can bite it right now), but he can often enlighten. This week he discussed the hyper-violent roller-skating classic Heaven's Gate, and though it's been years since I've seen it (back in the day I loved it and watched it repeatedly, which means I lost a lot of days to it), I reckon he might have nailed it.

However, there is one film I'm certain he will tackle soon that will annoy me no matter what, because I just know he will give it a Failure rating. That movie is Howard the Duck, or, as it was called in the UK following its miserable showing at the US box office, Howard: A New Breed Of Hero. Just a quick explanation of his rating system; Failure is a film that has little ambition and fails so badly it doesn't even achieve those minor ambitions, Fiasco is a movie that aims high and sadly falls short, and Secret Success is a movie that has a terrible reputation that is undeserved. Like Hudson Hawk. (Keep biting it, hater nation!) Now, I can safely say he will think HTD a Failure (though I will come back and edit this if he surprises me), and even though I watched it again recently and was saddened by how badly it has dated, I still think it has merits as a movie (though not as an adaptation; I'll get back to that later).

Yes, the slapstick is annoying, and yes, Tim Robbins' big movie debut is pretty terrible too, and the tone is all over the place, and the duck costume looks risible, and Lea Thompson is pretty annoying too, and the parts of the soundtrack that are performed and written by Sylvester (Airwolf theme) Levay and Thomas (Blinded Me With Science) Dolby sound like a medley of all that was wrong with 80s pop music, and a lot of the jokes hit the floor with the splat of a dropped duck egg, but still, I cannot hate on it. Mostly because I was so invested in it when I was a kid, as invested as I am now with Lost, and that's all down to the wonderful comic by Steve Gerber.

Sadly, most people's knowledge of Steve Gerber's bizarre creation is restricted to having heard that that George Lucas movie was a big flop ha ha ha, and as a result they're missing out on one of the funniest satirical creations of the 70s. When I were a nipper who had been fortunate enough to stumble across the character, I may have missed the majority of the jokes about, for example, Reverend Jun Moon Yuc (his followers are the Yuccies), and the evil accountant-wizard Pro-Rata and his castle made of credit cards (not to mention the arc where Howard runs for President), but even so, there were enough spoofs of superhero conventions that even I could get at that age, such as the introduction of Turnip-Man.

As silly as it all sounds, there is a palpable air of melancholy running through it, partially due to Gene Colan's oddly apt art, which manages to be both absurd and dramatic at the same time. Mostly it's down to the central conceit of the character; who better to point out how ridiculous our society is than an alien. I can imagine Gerber was influenced by Walter Tevis and Nicolas Roeg's versions of The Man Who Fell To Earth, another bleak satire.

Whereas that was unleavened by humour, Howard the Duck is often hilarious, but at times it still manages to be unusually dour. Though Howard is lucky enough to find a companion in Beverly Switzler, he is otherwise utterly alone. Already a depressive individual, his accidental exile on earth makes him even more forlorn. For every joke the comic had, and for every absurd character like failed journalist turned super-villain Doctor Bong, there was usually some interlude with Howard having a nervous breakdown or furiously falling out with everyone and sending himself off on long dark nights of the soul. It's a much more affecting read than you would imagine, considering the high levels of wacky. I mean, seriously. Look at Doctor Bong. He's a magnificent bastard!

My love of the character meant I was primed to be thrilled by the existence of a movie, especially one produced by Lucas. Of course, that means little when it's actually written and directed by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz. Okay, so they wrote American Graffiti, and that's a stone-classic, but they also wrote Indiana Jones and The Almost Franchise-Killing Broad Comedy Nonsense (aka Temple of Doom), and they were solely responsible for Best Defense, which was a true soul-sullying nightmare. Howard the Duck is nowhere near as bad as that abomination, but it does its level best to ignore the potential of the character, eschewing the satire and gloominess and concentrating simply on the heelarryus reactions of humans to, get this, a talking duck! They also get rid of his hat, which is unforgivable.

So why do I still defend it? A lot of the soundtrack is terrible, but musical genius and trip-hop hero John Barry provides some excellent themes that give the film a lot more gravitas than it deserves, especially considering the performances. Huyck seemingly said to everyone that the broader the performance the better, which means most of the characters shriek and gurn and gesticulate as if their arms are on fire. It's hard going, sometimes. Only Jeffrey Jones comes out of it with any credit, at first playing things as deadpan as possible and then going all out when his character, Dr. Jenning, becomes possessed by a Dark Overlord of the Universe. He's very very good. I guess you'll have to take my word for it.

However, it does feature some of the best pre-digital effects work in ILM's history, filled with bizarre animation, cutting edge rotoscoping, and a truly remarkable go-motion monster by Phil Tippett, not to mention the first use of digital wire removal. I'm a whore for good effects, which is possibly one of the reasons I will watch any old sci-fi crap; i.e. just to see what crazy shit those guys get up to. All of those B-roll documentaries about the making of movies that got shown on ITV on Sunday afternoons would be taped and watched and rewatched ad infinitum. As a result I would get excited by FX technician names turning up in credits: Dennis Muren, Hoyt Yeatman, Joe Johnston (now a director of middling-to-good movies), Ken Ralston, John Dykstra (creator of the DykstraFlex), Richard Edlund...

I also sought out various stop/go-motion animators: the great Ray Harryhausen, Randall William Cook, David Allen, Tom St. Anand. My favourite, though was Tippett, who animated the AT-AT Walkers in The Empire Strikes Back, Vermithrax Pejorative in Dragonslayer, and thousands of bugs for Starship Troopers. His best pre-digital monster, though, had to be the Dark Overlord. Pictures don't do it justice.

Considering who silly the rest of the movie is, when it turns up it's genuinely shocking, although Tippett has to have it do dumb things to keep the tone light. Otherwise kids would freak out. Part crab, part scorpion, part God-knows-what, it steals the film with ease. It has such personality, and moves with such speed and grace, that you totally buy into it. Post-CGI I can imagine people would think it looks clunky, but to me it's a thing of beauty. It's one of the best movie monsters, and yet it's stuck in a movie no one cares about. Unless you count the Furries. [ETA: From that page I note that the failure of the movie forced Lucas to sell ILM's fledgling CGI arm to Steve Jobs. They later became Pixar. Thanks, Howard the Duck!]

Perhaps the worst thing that could be said about the effects are that it seems like they belong to a different, better movie, but somehow I think the team were trying to emulate the crazy over-the-top art of the comics. In fact they manage to create something completely new and different; the energy animations are totally out there. In addition, some of the scenes, especially those set in a diner full of murderous rednecks, it seems Jenning has been matted into a shot with different lighting, which gives him an even more otherworldy quality than the make-up effects and rotoscoped electricity. It all added up. My little child brain was blown to smithereens by the invention of the animation team.

Of the many indignities visited upon the movies, most egregious is the Razzie Award for Worst Special Effects. Bullshit. That gets me madder than Crash winning Best Picture at the Oscars a couple of years ago. ILM's work on Howard the Duck was just phenomenal, but got overshadowed by the poor reputation of the rest of the movie and then disrespected by a bunch of snotty jerks with stunted senses-of-humour. ::seethe:: I'll be honest, a lot of the opprobrium heaped upon it is deserved, but it's different, filled with bravura effects sequences, and is often quite imaginative. Which, I'm fully aware, seems like the faintest praise possible, until you watch most of the cookie-cutter sci-fi/fantasy movies coming out at the time, many of which are less ridiculous but are horribly derivative and display none of the bravery Lucas, Huyck and Katz exhibited in making a movie about a talking duck saving the world.

I guess the main reason I get upset about it is that the character of Howard is a marvellous creation when handled right, and still has the potential to be used brilliantly, especially in a crazed modern era like the one we're attempting to survive. Marvel have recently started rehabilitating the character, firstly with a Max mini-series a few years back, and now again with Ty Templeton and Juan Bobillo setting him in the modern era, with all of its attendant satirical fodder. Sadly, Templeton is a good writer, but doesn't have the anger that Gerber had, so the first issue of the latest mini is certainly brash but not quite as biting as it could have been. That said, it does feature the best couple of panels I've seen in a long time, with Howard imagining he's playing poker with a series of Marvel grotesques, including Man-Thing, whose touch burns if you feel fear.

Let's hope the character can shake off the crap surrounding it and be used as an astute commentator on the nonsense of modern life, especially since Warren Ellis stopped writing Spider Jerusalem.


Anonymous said...

Ahhh, another fan of the 'Howard' film!

You might get a kick out of my 'Howard' site, then...featuring major downloads, everything from clips from the film to original PC games, screensavers and a 'sequel trailer' I created...;)


Admiral Neck said...

Thanks for the link to your site, K, that was an excellent trip down memory lane. The HTD Commodore emulator page you linked to took me way back. Good to see fans of the film still around.