Thursday, October 1, 2009

Hang A Lantern On It: The Origin Story

Reposted from Box Office Weekly - the explanation of our peculiar name.

As a fan of vintage television, I cannot resist WILD WILD WEST reruns. Episodes come in two basic flavors - black and white and color. The difference isn't just cinematographical either. The black and white ones were weird but logical, an attempt to fit a James Bond character into an American western sensibility. The color ones, shot as the sixties became psychadelic and the writers ran out of reasonable ideas, were often illogical, implausible, and delicious.

Last night's rerun on local television boasted Ricardo Montalban as a legless former confederate officer, who hated James West and harbored a Kahn-like desire to avenge his lost limbs. His plan was to marshal mystical powers to travel back in time, and kill General Grant DURING the civil war thus upsetting the balance of power and allowing the South to prevail. Oh, and somehow kill West in the process. And he almost succeeded but his newly restored legs were crushed by a bookcase

Even by WWW standards, it was half-baked. Montalban compensated by over-overacting, that is, overacting at twice his usual level. But anyway, at the end of the show West and Gordon are filing a report of the incident, Gordon wants to tell the truth. He starts to summarize the episode, and they both conclude that it would be better to just lie about it.

It's what they call "hanging a lantern on it."

From the Kung Fu Monkey blog:
"hang a lantern on it": Instead of trying to hide a script/credibility problem, address it in full measure, so it can be dealt with and discarded. "How does she break into the base?" "Hang a lantern on it, how tough it is to get the codes, but that makes her twice as cool for pulling it off."
Other examples of this script trick include dialogue like "Imagine finding an exact double of you right here in the city! It's almost impossible!" and "Atmospheric conditions in outer space often interfere with transmissions." It's a way of telling your audience that you knew this is stupid and don't worry, you're taking care of it. If you ever watched ALIAS you may remember Marshall, the gadget nerd? He had a full time job hanging lanterns.

A few lanterns, judiciously placed, go a long way toward helping the audience suspend disbelief and just enjoy themselves. Maybe afterwards you may think, "almost impossible?" But by then the show's over.

Incidentally, the Wild Wild West was also frequently guilty of another writing crutch, which Kung Fu Monkey calls "Sucking the Day-Player Crack Pipe" but I think we can address that at another time.

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