website, blog and vanity nexus of writer R F Brown

District Nothing

District 9 (2009)

The late sitcom star/Shakespearian thesp Robert Reed was reputed to spin in fits worthy of Richard III over bad Brady Bunch scripts.  In one such memo to the show’s producers sent after walking off the set Reed wrote:


To Sherwood Schwartz et al.

Robert Reed

Notes: Robert Reed

There is a fundamental difference in theatre between:

6.Satire &

They require not only a difference in terms of construction, but also in presentation and, most explicitly, styles of acting. Their dramatis peronsae are noninterchangable. For example, Hamlet, archtypical of the dramatic character, could not be written into Midsummer Night’s Dream and still retain his identity. Ophelia could not play a scene with Titania; Richard II could not be found in Twelfth Night. In other words, a character indigenous to one style of the theatre cannot function in any of the other styles. Obviously, the precept holds true for any period. Andy Hardy could not suddenly appear in Citizen Kane, or even closer in style, Andy Hardy could not appear in a Laurel and Hardy film. Andy Hardy is a “comedic” character, Laurel and Hardy are of the purest slapstick. The boundaries are rigid, and within the confines of one theatric piece the style must remain constant.

Why? It is a long since proven theorem in the theatre that an audience will adjust its suspension of belief to the degree that the opening of the presentation leads them. When a curtain rises on two French maids in a farce set discussing the peccadilloes of their master, the audience is now set for an evening of theatre in a certain style, and are prepared to accept having excluded certain levels of reality. And that is the price difference in the styles of theatre, both for the actor and the writer–the degree of reality inherent. Pure drama and comedy are closest to core realism, slapstick and fantasy the farthest removed. It is also part of that theorem that one cannot change styles midstream. How often do we read damning critical reviews of, let’s say, a drama in which a character has “hammed” or in stricter terms become melodramatic. How often have we criticized the “mumble and scratch” approach to Shakespearean melodrama, because ultra-realism is out of place when another style is required. And yet, any of these attacks could draw plaudits when played in the appropriate genre…

The most generic problem to date in “The Brady Bunch” has been this almost constant scripted inner transposition of styles.

1. A pie-throwing sequence tacked unceremoniously onto the end of a weak script.
2. The youngest daughter in a matter of a few unexplained hours managing to look and dance like Shirley Temple.
3. The middle boy happening to run into a look-alike in the halls of his school, with so exact a resemblance he fools his parents [Rowe: what that’s never happened to you?].

And the list goes on.

Once again, we are infused with the slapstick. The oldest boy’s hair turns bright orange in a twinkling of the writer’s eye, having been doused with a non-FDA-approved hair tonic. (Why any boy of Bobby’s age, or any age, would be investing in something as outmoded and unidentifiable as “hair tonic” remains to be explained. As any kid on the show could tell the writer, the old hair-tonic routine is right out of “Our Gang.” Let’s face it, we’re long since past the “little dab’ll do ya” era.)

Without belaboring the inequities of the script, which are varied and numerous, the major point to all this is: Once an actor has geared himself to play a given style with its prescribed level of belief, he cannot react to or accept within the same confines of the piece, a different style.

When the kid’s hair turns red, it is Batman in the operating room.

I can’t play it.


This may seem an odd place to start on Distrcit 9, but my principle dislike of the movie is akin to Reed’s rage on The Bunch.  At first posing in the format of verite documentary, mixing news video, contemporaneous subject interviews, and ex post facto expert analysis, District 9 depicts a near-future, first-contact event.  A colossal space ship has double parked over the city of Johannesburg, South Africa.  Its passengers, the Prawns, are a million plus alien refugees, who, despite possessing incredibly advanced astrophysical technology, get herded into vast terra firma concentration camps.   Enter, proscenium our principle subject/character Wikus Van Der Merwe, a goofy corporate stooge, placed in charged of evicting the now twenty year resident aliens of District 9 into the apparently even more concentrated District 10.  The eviction team leads a point-of view camera into a series of violent scenes that include Van Der Merwe’s ingestion of a mysterious alien fluid.    Slowly he beings metamorphosing into an alien hybrid.  Van Der Merwe also transforms from puppet of the corporate-state apparatus into a hunted fugitive.  Betrayed at every turn, Van Der Merwe is forced into ally with the Prawns.  Also, as a necessity of this narrative the movie morphs from pseudo-verite documentary into traditional genre as the initial point of view is no longer working.  Eventually, Van Der Merwe climbs into a Transformers style robot power-suit to help his new found Prawn friends escape from their oppressive circumstances on Earth.

The faux reality-tv camera has become a kind of genre of its own in recent years, executed successfully in films like The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, and Paranormal Reality.  Part of the appeal of this genre, at least for film geeks, is the challenge of keeping-it-real, or keeping “reality” real.  District 9 starts in this place and then eventually has to move into a more traditional narrative structure.  Why?  I’m not sure.   The commentary here is that quasi-fascist states act evil.  Is this a revelation to people?  I’ve read that the film is an allegory to the xenophobia and social segregation of South African apartheid.  A serious subject, no doubt, and still fresh enough, I think, to address head on.  I’m not even sure the CGI and other fx in this movie mark any new territory.  But ultimately my suspension of disbelief is too tortured to stick with the assembly line action-movie story.  If District 9 is supposed to be a social commentary, I find it pedestrian.  If it’s supposed to be a sci-fi action thing I find it boring.  Is District 9 bad pseudo-documentary, is it sci-fi buddy action, or it just a mess?  I can’t play it.

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