Behind the Scenes of a Serialized Intertext
by Jason Mittell — Middlebury College
May 25, 2012 – 07:47
One of the reasons I most enjoy studying the fan culture side of media studies is that fans can come up with some fascinating stuff, a boggling array of creativity discovered through the contraints provided by the source texts. I document some of the most interesting examples I’ve found in my chapter on “Orienting Paratexts,” ranging from The Tommy Westphall Universe Theory to The Wire‘s D&D alignment chart. I’m always on the lookout for the type of creativity that only exists in intertextual relationship with another pre-existing text, like the legendary play (and underrated film) Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead or brilliant television series Slings & Arrows, both of which write in the margins of Shakespeare to redefine our notions of “originality.”
Yesterday, a friend tweeted a link to a fascinating example of such an original intertext: And The Man Next To You. While the source material is not quite Shakespeare, the project has a similar investment in intertextual playfulness – as the site’s subtitle aptly explains, “The Tragic Backstory of Everyone Killed in Under Siege.” The Tumblr-hosted site is a serialized slow-motion walkthrough of the fairly forgettable Steven Seagal movie, freeze-framing each death and offering a brief account of each victim’s pitiable fate, as with this entry from 70 minutes into the film:
His parents worshipped at the church of ‘no’. He heard the word so often he mistook it for his name. Banned TV and confiscated music and friends he wasn’t allowed to see were supposed proof of their love for him, and the weight of their disappointment kept him pinned down in his bedroom until he was sixteen. Then he stole everything in the house that’d fit through the door and never looked back. His first ‘yes’ was to a tattoo, small at first, but he soon gave more and more of himself over to it. Back, ribs, shoulders, and heart. Now he just regrets not dying in a knife fight with his shirt hanging off him in ribbons. He wishes everyone could see what he’s become.
The concept seems like a clever idea on its own, kind of a McSweeney’s style high-concept experiment that you could imagine spending ten minutes reading. But it goes on and on as a piece of experimental fiction, accumulating bodies for months. It just struck me as both oddly fabulous and fabulously odd, achieving weight as it piles up. So I wanted to know who was behind it – and was happily surprised to discover that the author was actually my friend who tweeted it: Martyn Pedler, an Australian writer, screenwriter, and media scholar whom I know from conferences & the internets. I couldn’t resist digging into the site, and Martyn agreed to engage in a brief conversation to try to figure out what exactly this site is all about. I hope you enjoy reading both Martyn’s accounts of these tragic deaths, and what made Martyn discover more about the victims.
JM: This project started in October 2011. How did it come to be?
MP: I’d just finished a long slog through a draft of a novel, and the constant rewriting to find the right tone had bled it pretty dry. So I wanted write something in bite-sized chunks, something with enough scope for play, something I could put online regularly to keep myself writing with rolling deadlines. That’s the boring answer.
The more interesting one is And The Man Next To You was kind of inspired by two things. One was an early story in Grant Morrison’s comic The Invisibles, where out of nowhere they dedicated an entire issue to the life of a random guard who’d been unceremoniously killed by the heroes. And the other was, of course, the “calling up the loved ones of a dead henchman” joke in Austin Powers. They both really stuck with me.
JM: So why Under Siege? I’m curious because you could see this as a work of experimental fan fiction, but I don’t know what your relationship to the film is – are you motivated by any affections and/or hostilities to it? Of all the action films you could pick, why this one?
MP: I have a lot of affection for Under Siege. (I remember seeing the sequel at the cinema!) But I have to admit it wasn’t a movie I watched obsessively in my youth like I did Die Hard or Robocop or The Running Man. I just remembered that of all these late ‘80s / early ‘90s action films, Under Siege had a particularly nasty bodycount – both of good guys and bad.
It’s been strange seeing it again, so closely, with new eyes. I purposely didn’t rewatch it before starting this project. I just sit down, wait for the next death to occur, stop the film, and start thinking about that man’s last moments. I don’t have a final tally of the dead for a finish line. (Freezeframing it for screengrabs has also shown me that one actor plays multiple villains, killed one after the other, but I couldn’t quite work out how to fit a “twin brothers turn to crime!” piece into my self-imposed word count.)
JM: What are your word count or other rules for each victim?
MP: I’ve been very strict about word count – at least until the most recent, eighteen-men-die-at-once ‘Very Special Episode’, anyway. They’re all 120 to 130 words, and keeping it between those numbers forces me to edit carefully. What else? No names. Present tense. And I try not to judge.
A few times, there have been men who don’t actually die on screen – they’re just left injured, or hanging upside down, or whatever. I struggled with what to do with these examples at first. I came to the conclusion that they must die, even if we don’t see it. Casey Ryback wouldn’t walk away from an enemy unless he knew that man was already dead.
JM: I’m interested in the serialized nature of the project – in reading it, I go through waves of feeling like it’s getting old, then getting fresh through the oldness, as the accumulation starts piling up. Have you maintained interest in it, or does it feel more like a burden?
MP: It’s stayed surprisingly fun – for me, at least. I wouldn’t speak for anyone reading it. There are certainly entries that I feel don’t sing like others do, or take a lot longer to force out. But part of a serial project like this is letting each entry be as best it can be at the time, and not working it to death before letting anyone see it. I keep myself entertained by finding variations and letting the tone shift wildly. Some are quite dreamy and lyrical, some odd and funny, some short scenes of backstory.
Fighting the feeling of repetition only goes so far, though, because it has to be about that repetition, you know? If it’s ever going to feel like more than the sum of its parts, it’s through the sheer number of deaths and stories. It wouldn’t work with just a handful of men picked at random. There wouldn’t be the same weight to it.
JM: That leads to the readership question – have you gotten much feedback? Are people reading it? And how does it feel to do such a serialized experiment without a clear community engaging with it (at least that I can see)?
MP: Barring people I know and the occasional appreciative stranger on twitter, I have no idea who’s reading it. I like to pretend it has a legion of silent admirers. And The Man Next To You feels more like writing a book in public than anything else. Interest and feedback are great when they come, but you can’t rely on them to motivate you – or at least I can’t.
JM: So has this project changed the way you consume action movies? Do you see an unnamed henchman get taken down and start mulling on his hopes and dreams?
MP: I can usually keep my delicate sensibilities in check to enjoy some cinema violence – but not always! I like the idea that every story is a massive collection of undiscovered Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns. If we veered away from the steely-eyed hero for a while, maybe we’d find a hundred other characters worth exploring. Everyone’s the star of their own story.
JM: That reminds me of one of my favorite parts of Run Lola Run, as the random people she encounters get flash-forward potential lives (which change based on her actions, so it’s still quite protagonist-centric). Speaking of random people – the title. I see it’s a quotation from the movie. Did you remember that quote before starting the project, or did it strike you as you were watching?
MP: I was going to call the project Cannon Fodder, but it was already taken, so I looked through some Under Siege quotes online. I didn’t remember that line, but it jumped out at me – and now I can’t think of anything more perfect. In the movie it’s a threat – “we will kill you and the man next to you”. For me, it’s now a suggestion that whoever’s standing beside the hero has a story, too.
JM: Final questions: how does this end? You said you haven’t watched the film ahead of time to chart the deaths, so you may hit the final one without knowing it. Any way to prepare for that? And once it is done, are you planning on doing anything with it beyond just letting the Tumblr persist?
MP: Oh god. I hadn’t thought of that! I’ll have to trust my memories of the film and familiarity with action beats to guide me. I do have something planned for a final entry, though. A kind of spiritual coda that’s been in my head from the very beginning.
As for once it’s done, I might format it as an ebook and give it away, or maybe print a small amount of books if anyone’s interested. In a perfect world, I’d love to organise a screening that pauses for each death and flashes these stories up before starting up again. The film would probably run for five hours or so – but it’d be worth it, right?
JM: Definitely. I’d watch that – or you could do a special edition of the film which freeze frames on each death with actors reading your stories in voice-over. Thanks for the conversation!