Friday, May 21, 2010

Punks that Could Work

No, I’m not talking about rebellious youth or rock music, I’m talking about settings like steampunk which simulate futuristic technological capabilities using technology that couldn’t possibly produce them. Steampunk is a setting that is embarrassingly popular at this point, much to its misfortune. Steampunk has become so common, even in mainstream films like the upcoming and inevitably terrible Jonah Hex, that it has lost all of its originality and novelty.

It’s a real shame, though, because as overused as it is, steampunk is an aesthetically interesting setting, and carries a really cool tone when you handle it well. Well, it is possible to freshen it up, though, since there are plenty of untouched historical periods to work with, and while the industrial era does evoke a sense of budding technological wonders, here are some others that are worth exploring.

Bronze Punk
While the Roman Empire easily surpassed Ancient Greek civilization in terms of the practical application of technology, the Greeks had a certain edge in terms of the bizarre and theoretical, with great philosophers wax ing about advanced pseudo-scientific wonders like Aristotle’s elements or Archimedes laser weapons. Imagine a setting where flying machines ran on the simple machines augmented by burning pitch, flying amid a world of ancient paganism and Spartan warriors.

Dark Punk
The Dark Ages aren’t an immediately intuitive setting in which to incorporate incredible technological capabilities, but that’s kind of what makes it a perfect age for it. Just incorporate whatever random technology you want and mention that it was “made by the alchemists” or “from the East”. The Dark Ages are rarely used in fiction because they have a reputation for being static and boring, which they were, but maybe they’d be interesting if you incorporated alchemical death rays, and it would be a nice alternative to quasi-Tolkien-esque generic pseudo-medieval fantasy.

Stone Punk
Of course, you can always take this to it’s full conclusion and put ludicrous technology capabilities in the hands of stone age proto-humans. They could use massively intricate stone carvings to make powerful machines and power them by intense physical effort. Of course, basically this is just The Flintstones.

So, maybe Stone Punk isn’t great, but I guess the point I’m going for is that, while steampunk is kind of done, there really is no reason why more historical punks can’t be used. I mean, it’s not like floating steam-powered death stars are any more believable than Fred Flintstones foot-powered car, so why can’t we get out of the fake Victorian era and experience history’s full bounty of fake eras?

Well, I think we should. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go plot a fictional setting where advanced technology exists in the 1980’s: moronpunk.

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Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Pointless Hero

In the days of Ancient Greece, the concept of a ‘Hero’ was predominantly unconnected to morality: if you were good at war, you were a hero whether you were Achilles or Hector.

A few thousand years and a few Joseph Campbell works later, civilization put the Hero to work…it wasn’t enough to just murder more and better than your colleagues, a true hero did so to exemplify his culture’s value. That’s not to say he did so intentionally, but Aeneas was heroic not for overcoming obstacles, but for doing so with the Roman values of community-spirit, sacrifice, and pietas…even if Roman culture didn’t exist in Aeneas’ fictional lifetime. Superman’s alien nature gave him superhuman strength and laser vision, but that’s just how he wins, WHY he is that he had the pure heart and crystalline morality of small-town Kansas…well, that is to say the pure heart and crystalline morality of what small-town Kansas likes to pretend it is.

The process isn’t limited to ‘pure’ heroes either. An anti-hero like Sam Spade triumphs through the values of keenly analytical cynicism and predatory amorality, which were values of Dashiell Hammett’s America even if they weren’t the values of Harry Truman’s. Even the nameless journalist protagonist of Citizen Kane, who has no character beyond the bare frame necessary to create a framing device for the explication of Charles Foster Kane, functions as a kind of American avatar, put into the place of an archaeologist of his own civilization, unpacking the mystery of the epic titans of media who loomed over the whole of civilization like a cross between a pharaoh and a living god. Or Batman, who is victorious through the American values of punching guys who are bad.

Of course, at this point I’m really just reiterating points made better in The Hero with A Thousand Faces. Where I’m going with all this is that there’s a new hero type emerging, and if heroes exemplify cultural values, then there are some very interesting implications in the prevalence of the Pointles Hero.

The modern prevalence of anti-heroes has made it possible for heroes to have non-heroic qualities, but there has still traditionally been a general idea in fiction that the hero is capable of succeeding in overcoming the obstacles before him and ultimately defeating the antagonists, even if he did so for less than heroic motives or only as a byproduct of a truly villainous cause. Or, in the case of a lot of anti-heroes, being completely moral and heroic but scowling a lot.

There is a present trend, however, for heroes to not only not exhibit outwardly heroic traits but for them to be physically and mentally incapable of accomplishing anything meaningful; heroes like Rusty Venture, Kick-Ass (Particularly in Millar’s original version) and Woody Allen in the ahead-of-its-time Sleeper who are characterized primarily by their utter inability accomplish do anything meaningful and secondarily by their lack of any desire to.

They are often still protagonists, but if they do save the day it was probably just because they’re getting pushed around by people of actual merit, much in the way that Woody Allen’s nebbish avatar in Sleeper saves the resistance simply because he got pushed by handsome and capable rebels into the middle of a the government’s main base and happened to find out that the fascist leader was already dead, and then just wandered out, heralding victory for the resistance while cynically predicting that the next regime will be just as unpleasant.

One might say that my logic is flawed since I’m just pointing out characters that aren’t heroes and yet saying they’re a subversion of that category, but I think these characters are still heroes even if they don’t do anything heroic. Going back to my original mention, I think these neurotic non-heroes are heroes because they exemplify values of the culture that spawned.

The endlessly fantastic series, The Venture Brothers, derives a huge amount of its stellar comedy from contrasting the gee-whiz optimism of the baby-boomer years and the rebellious anarchism of the 60’s and 70’s with a modern era that seems to have taken those values, determined that neither can fix the world, and quietly resigned itself to cynicism. Its not just that we reject their ideals, its that we reject the very concept of having ideals

There is something incredibly comforting about a heroic figure who doesn’t accomplish anything, and that’s because I think my generation has come to the general belief that sticking to traditions is bad and yet heavy and radical actions are just going to make things worse. Still, though, we’re tormented by our feelings that we’re lazily not doing anything, and so, just as Superman comforted the Golden Generation by convincing them that their single-minded application of the American Way to problems was going to carry the day, we’re now starting to see heroes who carry the day, or at least the narrative arc, by the sheer power of their pointlessness.

It’s all undercut a bit by the fact that these works tend to mock the failures that these heroes are, but I think that all ties to the fact that the shame directed toward these characters is a part of their overall heroism…being mocked is part and parcel of being unheroic because the unheroic kind of deserve to be mocked, but the laughing just goes to further assert that it’s all a big joke.

Even if Pointless Heroes are increasing in number, examples are still relatively rare, partly because most people aren’t quite as cynical as me…still, if you want to hear a prediction from me of future events, it’s that we’re going to be seeing more as time goes by and people finally get sick of Jerry Bruckheimer and continuous efforts to lower the common denominator.

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Monday, May 3, 2010

Everything's Better Without Ninjas

The internet often creates an inescapable feedback loop, drawing in a somewhat funny or interesting idea, which then multiplies itself, repeating ad nauseam and mixing with other memes like the backwards residents of a Louisiana bayou.

Nothing is quite so subject to this pop-culture inbreeding as the ninja, that poor-Japanese-peasant-spy-turned-superhumanly-athletic-wizard. The internet seems to toss ninjas into just about everything, and people seem to think that dropping the mere word seems to add a level of random anarchic wit that completely ignores the fact that it's a joke only slightly less common than “Why did the chicken cross the road?”

So being now, as always, a determined iconoclast, I will act in defiance of the overblown popularity of dropping ninjas in place of actual humor. I think I will take a step into my time machine and try to spin this trend backwards, by taking great scenes from classic movies and demonstrating why:

Everything is Not Better With Ninjas!

North by Northwest

One of the most iconic scenes in cinema history, here we see Alfred Hitchcock and Cary Grant each at their absolute best. A plane swoops in after a man on foot…a truly masterful use of tension. We take it for granted that planes exist not only far away in the air but, in a sense, on something of a different kind of existence…the idea that it one could actually run you down is bizarre and yet strangely possible. And it’s all brought to excellent fruition by Hitchcock’s near perfect cinematography, showing us the plane as it slowly grows from a speck in the background to a devastating weapon in the foreground, slowly encroaching on Grant.

Now, imagine how a ninja would ruin this scene. What could one possibly add? The mastery is all in a plane you can see and how it moves and appears, but a ninja would have to move invisibly…it just wouldn’t carry any of the same tension or atmosphere. Not to mention that this isn’t set in Feudal Japan.


What can be said about this great film that hasn’t been said before?

It isn’t just the tremendous presence of Bogart that helps this film so much, it’s the tremendous range he portrays; the way he transitions so smoothly from the cold intensity of his first appearances to the warmth of his Parisian flashbacks to this heart-wrenching moment of heartbreak.

Why would you even consider adding a ninja to this scene? It isn’t even an action sequence. Here you have an excellent moment of character-driven drama and all a ninja could do is distract from that, not to mention that you’d have to draw the camera back to get him properly in shot and that would reduce the effectiveness of this amazing close-up. And, to reiterate, the appearance of ninjas would have not only been inappropriate in a pre-occupation WWII Parisian train station, but would have likely represented a gross misapplication of Imperial Japanese tactical resources.

Throne of Blood

Akira Kurosawa was quite possibly the greatest director of all time, and his adaptation of Macbeth is not only a fantastic rendition and treatment of the material, but a revelatory example of how to extend and utilize film as a medium. His gorgeous panoramic landscapes set a scene of a castle overlooking a kingdom that is at once vast and yet closed in by an ephemeral wall of solid fog, and the evocative expressions of master actors like the immortal Toshiro Mifune merged film with the classical appearances of Noh theater that are at once terrifyingly human and yet fascinatingly inhuman.

In this final scene, the woods rise from the fog and appear to march upon the castle, revealing the true nature of the witch’s prophecy and inciting the lord’s soldiers to turn on him. Hundreds of arrows fly from the mass of soldiers, slowly enclosing the lord in a rain of death. Mifune’s fear radiates through the silver screen as the stark lines of the arrows strike through the air. It is a thrilling climax that does justice to the Shakespearean text, the master actor, and the legendary director.

And yet even in a story set in Feudal Japan, a ninja would only make things worse. First, in practical terms, a ninja would probably sneak in and kill him swiftly and easily…it would just be boring and lose all the claustrophobic tension of the hail of arrows. Second, you wouldn’t even see it…it would just be an off-screen fatality in the dark.

So, what have we learned: Ninjas just aren’t theatrically sound from a story or visual perspective. So…can we all just get over this already?

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