Thursday, March 27, 2008
The first Star Wars movie was, as we all know, but one fraction of the story George Lucas says he wanted to tell, yet it was a completely satisfactory moviegoing experience. It took us into a completely new universe that was at once strange and familiar at the same time. The story had a beginning, a middle, and an end, a backstory, a broader universe, and a conclusion and resolution. It did have an open ending, unfinished business, but one could write one's own ending. The foreground conflict had been completed.
The second movie continued the story and developed the characters that we had grown attached to in the first movie. It took us to new places and we learned new things about the characters and the universe in which they lived. But it was not the end of the story. The conclusion, as it were, was merely the set up for the climax to the greater story arc, which would come in the next film.
The third (and some thought, the last) film wrapped up the great drama, but gave us very little that was new. It made a few choices, answered some questions, but for all the sound and fury, thrill and excitement, it was really little more than a juiced up rehash of all the elements that made the first movie so new and fresh.
Yeas passed, and the technology of film making improved. Star Wars had become a cultural phenomenon that redirected popular culture. Yet eventually there were adults who had not been born when the first movie was released. A “special edition” of the Original Trilogy” was created, in which Lucas allegedly gave us the Film He Always Wanted to Make. But part of the brilliance of the first film was how he had made so much of so little. Many of the additions to the original film were quite unnecessary.
Finally, Lucas decided to tell the backstory. Sure it what we all wanted to see, but would it still have the magic?
Sadly, no. Was it the dependence on CGI? Was it that George had lost his touch for writing and directing? Was it the political incorrectness and sheer annoyingness of Jar-Jar Binks? I'll let everybody decide for themselves. The succeeding films continued to give us more lightsaber fights, more space dogfights, more alien races, and so much CGI that a rumor was spread that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would categorize it as an “animated” film.
This does not even take into account the comic books, comic strips, radio show, novels, fan fiction, Ewok adventures, Droid cartoons, and the notorious and infamous “Holiday Special.” Let's face it: we loved that original movie so much we just couldn't get enough. Fortunately the Star Wars franchise shattered Harlan Ellison's rule: less than 90% of it was crap.
So now there is almost no more room for debate, or creativity with regards to the Star Wars universe. We no longer have the freedom to wonder what made Luke's father go bad, who is that “other hope,” what happened to the Empire after the Death Star went kablooey, or even how one measures The Force. All these questions have been answered. The first movie was so brilliant for giving all these little hints and little mysteries, and we all could create our own little answers to all those question, much like the way that one would imagine the face of someone described in a book.
But lets face it, we want to see more stormtroopers in white plastic armor. We want to see what the Clone Wars were all about. We want to see a young, virile Obi-Wan face off against the future Darth Vader. We want to see Luke and Leia's parents. We want to see And we want to see our favorite badass with a purple lightsaber. Look at the prequel trilogy again. Doesn't it show you all those things you wish you had seen in the original trilogy, they just didn't have the budget to give you?
We were lucky with that first movie. It is not easy to make a perfect fantasy adventure movie, as you can tell by looking at “Battle Beyond the Stars,” “Deathstalker,” “The Sword and the Sorcerer,” “Star Crash,” even the various versions and chapters of “The Lord of the Rings.” Sometimes the best we can hope for is that the film is well produced and enables us to forget our world for a while. And instead of having to watch that same movie over and over again, we now have a large and ever-growing library of adventures in that universe, so by having established a universe we are familiar with, we can explore further concepts in that universe. We don't have to create a whole new universe for every new story.
So is it necessary to have a never-ending, ever developing universe based on a modestly produced but wildly successful sci-fi fantasy film from the 1970's? No, but it sure makes life more pleasant.
Friday, March 21, 2008
RIP Dave Stevens
Back in the early 1980's comics as a means of self-expression became much more viable with the growth of creator-owned comics properties. Companies like Pacific, First, Warp Graphics, etc gave us a whole host of new characters, all owned by their creators, in stories that were frequently more mature than the typical superheroes that dominated Marvel and DC comics. Graphic novels showed that occasionally, sequential art could tell a story no less meaningful and sophisticated than any book or movie. And most importantly, many very talented writers and artists got to do the work they always wanted to do.
In this brave new world, stepped Dave Stevens, blazing with talented, the ability to tell a story and draw women that were realistic, yet unbelievably sexy. He gave the world The Rocketeer, a dashing, heroic adventure in the tradition of the Saturday matinée serials of a bygone age. I spent many hours drinking in each page of the carefully crafted comic. I only learned later how much time he took making sure every panel was perfect, when it all looked so smooth and natural.
And of course that comic brought fetish icon Bettie Page to a new level of popularity. I had heard of her before, but to see her in these adventures made her seem like a real person. That pin-up model from the old black & white photographs was now in full-color glory. And I could easily understand poor Cliff Secord being in love with her.
The Rocketeer was eventually turned into a movie that was one of the most faithful comics-to-film translations ever (even though Bettie was replaced by a character played by Jennifer Connelly – still beautiful, but without the famous bangs).
Dave's perfectionism explains in part why there were very few issues of the Rocketeer comic book beyond the original graphic novel, which is a shame. That kind of adventure captured a spirit of fun and innocence of a bygone era, an era where pluck and courage, the conviction of doing what is right, would see a hero through against the greatest of adversity. Stevens' art and storytelling told that adventure in a way that was effective and accessable like no other had. His passing to Leukemia at age 59 assures us that there will never be any more, at least, not by his hand, and that is a tragic loss.
You can post your tributes to Dave Stevens on his website at http://www.davestevens.com/
Saturday, March 15, 2008
When I was much younger I was into role-playing games and wargames. I was also very concerned about the threat of nuclear war. A friend of mine told me “The Road Warrior” was the most awesome movie ever, but I was too young to go see it on my own, and my mom wouldn't take me. Then I found the game Car Wars. And I thought that this must be what the Road Warrior is about. Then finally I was old enough to see the movie in a revival theater in a double feature with Blade Runner (which I had also never seen).
I was totally blown away. This may have been my first post-apocalypse movie ever, and it was certainly the most exciting. Who knew the end of the world could be so exciting? The fast pace, the sense of speed, the production design, the action, it all left a very big impression on me. I watched that movie every time it came to the revival theaters (this being years before owning a VCR. I hunted down every bit of information I could fins about it,and when I was at a friend's house who had cable, snuck down to the living room to watch Mad Max for the first time.
I can quote chapter and verse on those movies. I would talk about nothing else for years. I even adapted Shakespeare's MacBeth to tell the story of the Nightrider. At one time I had three different Road Warrior T-shirts. My girlfriend called me her “Little Road Warrior.”
I then hunted down post-apocalyptic films like a fiend. 42nd street gave me “Warriors of the Lost World” “Warriors of the Wasteland,” and “Steel Dawn.” Revival theaters gave me”Night of the Comet,” “A Boy and his Dog,” and repeated showings of “Mad Max” and “The Road Warrior.”TV gave me “Damnation Alley,” “Dead Man's Walk,” “The Day After,” and “Weeds.” Videotapes gave me “Defcon 4,” “Radioactive Dreams,” “After the Fall of New York,” “Wheels of Fire,” “Six String Samurai” and many more. I still have yet to find a copy of “No Blade of Grass.” I would judge every movie by how realistic the post-apocalyptic landscape was, how believable it was that the world had gone to hell, and how exciting it was compared to “The Road Warrior.”
In time, the Cold War ended and the fear of nuclear holocaust faded. With it, the post-apocalypse genre fell out of favor. Recently, however, it has come back with a new scourge: zombies/plague.
I am not the sociologist/historian to fully analyze the whys and wherefores of this development, but I suspect it has something to do with th acclimation of the world to the AIDS epidemic and the popularity of the zombie movies created and inspired by George A. Romero. There is probably something about the purity of zombies as an adversary: they have no soul so there is nothing wrong with killing them (again,) they are unstoppable, and they are ugly; like vampires without the sex appeal. Thus they can appeal to horror fans who don't want their terror interfered with by soul searching and sexual tension.
There is also something appealing about exploring the story of last survivors of mankind. They pick through the ruins of the old world, using familiar items in unfamiliar ways. Stylings frequently have a s&m/punk/heavy metal look, which is exciting to look at. There is usually a lawlessness that resembles the Old West, and who doesn't like a good western? There is also the opportunity to explore fright and terror, as with the collapse of civilization, there is nothing stopping the rampages of the truly depraved.
So put the appeal of the post-apocalypse film together with the modern concerns about disease and the popularity of the living dead, and you've got a new genre of film, the zombie/plague post-apocalypse film, who's most notable entries include “Land of the Dead,” “I am Legend,” “28 Days Later,” and the “Resident Evil” series.
Now put all these films together into one, and make that film not quite as good as the best of them,. And you've got “Doomsday,” which I saw last night at a midnight screening. Just about everything in it is borrowed/stolen from another movie. All of Scotland in quarantined due to a plague, like New York in “I Am Legend.” 20 years later, the land is scorched, like in “Reign of Fire,” and the plague appears in London, like in “I Am Legend” again. A team is sent in to Glasgow to find the doctor who had stayed there working for a cure, like the search for the last fertile woman in “After the Fall of New York.” They travel in large armored vehicles like the ones in “Damnation Alley” with a crack military team equipped with two-way video devices, like in “Aliens.” Also like in “Aliens,” most of the team is killed and their vehicles destroyed early. The survivors are led through a “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” type culture but escape, and find another society living in a recreated medieval culture (one of the few bits I could not place the inspiration of). There is a “Gladiator” fight scene, and then our heroes escape again, which leads to a “Raiders of the Lost Ark” type storehouse, which leads to a highway battle scene that is straight out of “The Road Warrior.” There is also a subplot involving the government that echoes “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” and “Dr. Strangelove.”
In the near six decades since the post-apocalypse film first appeared, action, horror, and violence in films has seen a steady increase in intensity. This has been due to improving technology, makeup technique, and the drive to one-up each previous film. “Mad Max” and “The Road Warrior” were breakthrough films in that regard, and future car chases and post-apocalypse action films were all compared to them, frequently failing.
“Doomsday” does not fail in trying to be harder, faster, and more intense than any similar film before it. Where earlier movies may have tastefully or strategically looked away from a beheading or a body on fire, this one showed it right on screen, front and center. With the fast pacing and quick cuts of the car chae, the pace was made even faster and the cuts even quicker. However, this extreme graphic violence and frenetic camera work and editing did not really improve the film. Instead it distracted from the story and sometimes made it too confusing to know what was going on.
I must especially say this about the car chase scene in the end. Several notes that were hit in “The Road Warrior” were blatantly copied, but were either lost in all the chaos, or were simply not done as well or were too obvious.
The thing that I thought was most specifically interesting was the medieval culture. As a well-known medievalist, I of course dug the idea of a post-apocalyptic society that chose to bring back an age of chivalry. However this culture was not one of goodness and hope that the heroes had been looking for. Instead it was ruled by a cynical madman, and ultimately was just as ruthless and evil, in its own way, as the Glasgow cannibals. Whereas in every medieval movie you would see a skeleton in a cage hanging from the castle walls, in this one, you actually saw people on the verge of death in cages right next to them. The cruel Darwinian philosophy of the ruler of this kingdom was just an excuse to kill, in as entertaining a way as possible, outsiders. The modern primitive tribal punk s&m-styled culture in Glasgow also killed outsiders in as entertaining a way as possible for them, they were merely more simplistic about their reason, their hatred of the outsiders.
So the film gets point for effort, and for showing that they know what they were trying to do, and the film did not lack pace. But if there was a lesson in there, something about a warning for the future and about how it is bad to kill people, or even let them die, that in that way we lose our humanity, but it was kind of lost in the graphic violence and hyper-kinetic editing.
Sunday, March 9, 2008
The lead character, Hank Hill, is the “anti-Simpson.” A reviewer pointed out that he, and the show, genuinely represented middle-class virtues. This is true. The man works hard in one of those jobs that you never think about but society as we know it could not live without. He sells and delivers propane. He believes in his product, and doing his job well. He accepts people for who and what they are, warts and all. He tries hard to see the good in people, no matter how little he understands them. And he genuinely appreciates things that he likes because he likes them, not because it is “cool” or “hip” to like them.
In tonight's episode, Hank's wife Peggy sells a house in a largely Mexican-populated neighborhood to a “hipster.” This hipster had wanted a house that was “real,” in other words, a neighborhood with no white, non-ethnic people, much like the neighborhoods I have moved into every time I have moved since I was 18: Harlem, Williamsburg, and Greenpoint. This, of course, was immediately followed by a wave of young people with questionable fashion sense playing kickball, skateboarding, and opening art galleries.
It seems that “real,” meaning “non-white” implies that there is a phoniness to white culture. That you can only be “real” is you are in a minority Perhaps this attitude is in the tradition of middle-class teenage rebellion against the apparently stifling limitations of middle class culture, against the emphasis on moderation and predictability that the suburbs became when WWII veterans came home, got married, and started raising kids. They felt that by moving into an “ethnic” neighborhood, the could get more “real.”
The truth is that, yes, suburban life is limiting. The culture that has built up there is largely a product of commercial marketing. But if you want to find a place to live that is not so much, just moving into one with no white people is not the answer.
The tradition of young people with artistic inclinations moving into ethnic neighborhoods can be traced to the American Bohemian movements of the 20th century. Artists have always lived on the edge of poverty, and thus have sought affordable housing, and showed a willingness to “rough it” in exchange for cheap living space. These spaces frequently turned out to be abandoned industrial and blighted ethnic ghettos. In the 1950's and early '60's, this took them to neighborhoods of New York City like Greenwich Village. In the '80's it was the East Village and TriBecCa. In the '90's it was Williamsburg, etc., etc. What would happen then is the process we now know as Gentrification.
Gentrification is the process by which a “real” neighborhood becomes a product of corporate capitalism. First come the artists, who hold events in the loft spaces of converted factories, etc. Then come the coffee shops and stores set up to serve the artists. Next come the wealthy people who want to see what the artists are doing. Then come the children of rich and middle class people who want to be artists. Then follow the entrepreneurs who open more fashionable coffee shops and boutiques to serve the reich people coming to see the artists and the children of the rich and middle class. By then the landlords have realized that they are sitting on a goldmine and start raising the rents, pushing out the original tenants and the first wave of artists, who now can no longer afford to live in the neighborhood they “revitalized.” By the time that's done, the only businesses who can afford to open there are large corporate chain stores like Starbucks and Victoria's Secret.
This process has become so efficient, streamlined, even, that it can bypass some of the steps, such as the artists moving in, and go straight to the children of the rich and middle-class wanting to live like artists, and that is what happened in this episode of “King of the Hill.” And looking at this particular story, that is what I find annoying about hipsters. In their worst manifestations, they are not really artists, they don;t really want to be artists, they just want to live like them.
There are three types of people. There are those who do things, like artists, cowboys, and recreational bowlers, for instance (doers). Then there are those who think it would be interesting or fun to do these things once or twice (tourists). They take art classes, go to dude ranches, make a date with friends to go bowling. Finally, there are those people who think it would be fun or cool to be the person who does these things. Those are hipsters. They are annoying because the ruin it for the rest of us, the doers and the tourists.
Doers can respect tourists if they have an interest in setting up an industry for them, That's why art classes and dude ranches exist. They take the tourists' money, give them what they paid for, and everyone goes home happy. Then the hipsters come in.
The hipsters walk into a place and say “Look at me! I'm being hip because I am doing this!” without truly digging what it is they are doing. The bad haircuts, aggressively out of shape bodies, and thrift-story little league t-shirts that don't fit are all symptoms of this. Real artists don't have time and money to get haircuts, work out, and buy clothes, that is why they look the way they do. By imitating this look, they are practically insulting the artists, as well as driving up the price of second-hand t-shirts. When they take over the ballfields to play kickball, they are not doing it because they really enjoy kickball over any other recreational sport, it is because of the irony of playing a kids game as a grown-up. They are not saying “I love this game,” they are saying “I love being being the person that plays this game.” When they do suburban middle-class things class things like set up lawn chairs and drink beer and have Tupperware parties, it is not because they are seeking the serenity that comes from a satisfying suburban middle-class lifestyle, ti is because it is fun to be ironic, and it is ironic that these “rebel artists” are doing suburban, middle-class things. And when they moved into the Mexican immigrants neighborhood, it was not because it was all they could afford, it was so that they could say “Look at me! I'm cool enough to hang with ethnic types and I'm bringing hip culture with me!”
Hank was in the neighborhood because one of his co-workers wanted him to say some words about his daughter on the occasion of her 15th birthday (a celebration in Mexican culture). There he discovered the best fish tacos he had ever tasted and other aspects of Mexican immigrant culture that he really liked. However, the hipsters had come in, acted like they were “bro's” of the locals, and playing their weird, depressing music in the local cantina. Then their presence raised the property values, and Hank's friend had his rent raised.
When Hank discovered that the fish taco he had enjoyed was now replaced with salmon, he realized that his wife's success as a realtor was spelling the end of a way of life of his friend. Peggy realized her mistake and together with their friends, they made the neighborhood appear as white and normal as any normal, white neighborhood. They showed up at the doorstep of a hipster couple with a casserole saying “welcome to the neighborhood!” They put on sweatsuits and went walking for exercise while pushing a baby carriage. They had their middle-aged white guy in an undershirt act like he had just bought the house next door. Soon the hipsters packed up their lawn chairs, art galleries, and kickballs and moved out.
That's the sort of outcome that could only happen on television.
Thursday, March 6, 2008
The world that we in the fantasy fan community enjoy, one in which wizards and warriors, elves and dwarves, magic and monsters and yes, dungeons and dragons are common parlance owes a great deal of debt to the man who placed a dragon in a wargame.
When I was 11 year old I had heard of D&D, but had never actually seen the game. Then someone in school brought out the three books and the half-dozen dice and started a campaign. That was it. Everyone in 7th and 8th grade was hooked. Every spare moment of time was taken up by D&D adventuring. Eventually this expanded into Traveler, Boot Hill, Gamma World, Time Tripper, Car Wars, and more games that I can remember. In that school being what we would call today a “geek” or “dork” was cool. It was hip. Social status was based on being the first one to have a new game, or the best game that week.
We designed our own character sheets. We drew up our own characters. We created our own gods and monsters. “The Emperor” was the All-Powerful-Force of Evil (yes, inspired by Empire Strikes Back), “Enigma” was the All-Powerful Force of Good (from the Micronauts comic book, I think). I thought of creating an All-Powerful Force of Neutrality, but kept on going back and forth on it. My character got turned into a Gollum and stretched out to 7 feet tall on a rack. Someone created an assassin with an atomic bomb. Someone else tried to use a saving throw when the bomb went off.
We drew maps. We designed weapons. We collected miniature figures and placed them on graph paper. We designed dungeons. We collected dungeon modules and dice. Our imagination was stoked and our social interactivity was very, very high.
When I left that school and moved to a public high school, I found the social situation there very different. I never was able to get back into gaming, though I still collected everything about Car Wars for some years (as I was a big fan of post-apocalyptic movies like The Road Warrior). Eventually I found the Society for Creative Anachronism and was able to live a historically-based, live action version of D&D, and for a time sneered at those who rolled dice to gain their skills, while I actually worked for it.
I never saw more than a few minutes of the D&D cartoon, but I followed the comic strip advertisements in the backs of comic books in the early 1980's. When the Dungeon and Dragons movie finally came out, I was very excited. For decades there had been films and TV shows that, to one degree or another, I felt were trying to bring the D&D world to life, and I, in turn, had tried to turn those movies into games (you can see a list that includes many of those movies at http://www.geocities.com/historicalmovies). Now someone was actually going to make that movie for real. The movie was poor, but fun. Though the acting was uneven, the writing corny, and the Wayans brother character the most politically incorrect ethnic stereotype since JarJar Binks, it was great to see all the swordfighting, the flying dragons, and lets admit it, Thora Birch in those fantasy costumes.
There was a sequel to that movie, however, Dungeons and Dragons, the Wrath of the Dragon Gon, that finally did it right. A team of adventurers was assembled to go on a quest to retrieve a magic item and save the kingdom. Each character represented a different race or class of character. There was problem-solving, trap avoiding, magic using, and exciting battle action, sometimes all at the same time. Characters of differing alignments had to learn to work together. Some did not make it, but those who did found they had grown and gained skill, treasure, or power. Gygax was interviewed in the “special features” of the DVD of that film, and admitted that he was happy with the way that film turned out.
Although he lost control of the game and company that he founded, he kept active in the industry, and obviously loved creating games. Role playing games have brought many of us together, given us a common social bond, and in many cases, enabled us to get valuable life experience. Though some make the joke about how D&D geeks are socially atrophied nerds who can't deal with the real world, it has given many lived, and our culture, a richness and vitality, a passionate escape, a source of pleasure and cause for social gathering that the world would be poorer without.
Now the father of those games is gone, and we are poorer without him.
The latest in a series of immortal adventurers is John Amsterdam, eponymous hero of New Amsterdam, a new series premiering tonight on Fox (Channel 5 in NYC). It seems this fellow saved the life of a Native American girl back in 1642 and was granted immortality as a reward. The further gimmick is that he has not left the colony he was living in at the time since then. That means he has seen the city now known as New York from its earliest days as a Dutch colony to today.
As a New Yorker and a history buff, I think this is a great opportunity to show the history of New York, which is fascinating, if not exactly glorious. I'm certain we will see flashbacks to Five Points since tho popularity of Gangs of New York, but I would love to see the 1950's of West Side Story, the late 1970's birth of Punk, the British occupation during the Revolution, and the corruption of Tammany Hall. It will also be interesting to see if they portray Robert Moses and the way he changed the face of the city.
Since this also reminds me of those other previous TV immortals, I am reminded how similar those two series, Highlander and Forever Knight, were Both had a centuries old immortal who fought agains injustce, had historical flashbacks, and a large car from the 1960's Both had a goofy sidekick and a female co-star in a profession not traditionally occupied by females. Both of these shows came out at the same time and as the years progressed, both wound up moving from one network to another, from one showing time to another, until eventually they died.
I wondered if the similarities were based on what the writers and producers thought the audience wanted, or if it is just a natural balance that such stories are supposed to have. Let's see what this show has, and hope that it does well.