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D&D Will Kill You: That One Alarmist Comic is a Movie Now

In Games, Movies, Religion on August 27, 2014 at 3:15 pm

If anyone sits down and watches Reefer Madness nowadays, chances are they’re probably stoned. The 1936 anti-marijuana movie, if it’s viewed at all, is generally only watched by aficionados of the very substance that it’s attempting to decry, viewers reveling in retro irony.

Pictured: Game night at my place, every Tuesday

Pictured: Game night at my place, every Tuesday

Dark Dungeons, a forty-minute film released earlier this month, calls back to Reefer Madness’ unintentional kitsch by being a faithful adaptation of one of the most infamous religious comics ever made. You’ve probably been handed a Jack Chick Tract at some point. The small, black-and-white comics handed out by street preachers and self-appointed missionaries warn of hell and damnation for listening to rock music, doing drugs, being a member of the Catholic church, and, memorably, playing Dungeons and Dragons. The Dark Dungeons comic is a tiny screed against fantasy roleplaying games. According to Chick, if you roll dice and pretend to be an elf you’re on your way to dealing with black magic, worshipping Satan, and killing yourself. The only way out is to trust Jesus and burn your fantasy novels. Really. Read the comic. It ends with a book burning.

The short screed is very much a product of its time. Heavy metal, Satanism, dark magic(k) and imagined occult conspiracies were a persistent bugbear of the 1970s and 80s. Bands bedecked themselves in “Satanic” imagery in order to look edgy, and Beatrice Sparks (the literary charlatan behind Go Ask Alice) “discovered” a (fake) diary about a kid who’d supposedly gotten involved with the occult. Dungeons and Dragons, a game where kids pretended to be magical people who cast magic and sometimes worshipped fictional gods, was the source of a healthy amount of pearl-clutching, and Dark Dungeons is the apex/nadir of all of the hype and hoopla of that era.

Two things happened, though, that soon destroyed America’s obsession with the dangerous, imagined occult. The first is that grunge and gangsta rap unseated pentagram-strewn hair metal as the dangerous genre du jour. Soon, being edgy wasn’t about invoking demons or screaming about hell. Being transgressive was about drive bys, drugs, and not giving a shit. By the middle nineties, the panic over kids worshipping Satan seemed ridiculous.

The second thing (related to the first) is that popular culture gradually realized that people who are obsessed with demons and elves are fucking dorks.

This wasn’t exactly a secret or a revelation, of course. This is Spinal Tap is all about how metalheads who sing about Stonehenge are sort of doofy, and even if more genuinely dangerous music hadn’t showed up, the whole metal/occult/Satan thing would have probably drowned in its own excess anyway. Anymore, bands that steep themselves in sword and sorcery type imagery do so in such a way that acknowledge their inherent ridiculousness. Any pretense of actual edge takes a back seat to deliberate kitsch.

The point is, a cultural wave that was previously perceived as dangerous very quickly turned into a source of ridicule, and the shocked masses of that era look not so much like they are clutching at pearls, but straws.

The Dark Dungeons film does not need to be a spoof of 70s and 80s moral panic. In fact, it is officially licensed by Jack Chick, and every single line of dialogue from the comic makes it into the movie. Make no mistake, the folks who made this movie are a bunch of gaming dorks with cameras who completely disagree with the source material, but the filmmakers are smart enough to know that they don’t need to wink at the audience very much, if at all. Chick’s words and ideas about how D&D will lead to demon-summoning and suicide are their own, best counter-argument. The movie isn’t a masterpiece (there’s some Cthulhu stuff in there that feels sort of forced) but does work as a sort of reverse-engineered Reefer Madness. The only people who are ever going to watch it are dorks like me, but when I saw it I got a bit of nostalgia for a time that, admittedly, I was a bit too young to take part in.

I looked around at the other gaming people in the room and thought. “Hey guys, remember when the preachers and moms were afraid of us? Remember when we were dangerous? That was kind of fucking cool.

Rocket Punch International: Go See Pacific Rim

In Movies, Science Fiction on July 15, 2013 at 8:28 am

245941id1b_PacRim_1sided_120x180_2p_400.inddOne of the best parts of the Toy Story trilogy is the opening sequence of the third movie, in which Andy imagines fanciful scenarios wherein his plastic friends do battle. The piggy bank isn’t just a bank, it’s an evil scientist with a spaceship. Woody and Buzz have to stop him from causing a train wreck. There’s a dinosaur. Aliens. Action. Hijinks. We see inside the head of a kid thwaking his disparate toys together and imagining scenarios where they all go “PEW, PEW, PEW,” spout cornball dialogue, and team up to save the day. The sequence works beautifully. Just about every kid has played with their toys in exactly that fashion.

Pacific Rim is like watching a big version of Andy play with his toys in the best way possible. Throughout the whole robots-versus-monsters slugfest, I kept imagining Guillermo del Toro as a hypercreative kid playing with his various action figures. He picks them up, gives them whimsical names, and then provides shape and narration to the imagined conflict. This toy robot? Its name is Gypsy Danger. It used to be a big deal, but then one its pilots died and now no one knows if its up for the fight. This plastic monster? Its name is Otachi, and is one of the largest monsters ever to attack human civilization. Oh no! Otachi is attacking Hong Kong! Can Gypsy Danger save the day? Keep talking, kid. We want to see where this is going.

For a movie ostensibly about death, destruction, and the potential doom of Earthly civilizaton, Pacific Rim is a refreshingly bright movie. It’s bright in its colors, tone, and, most of all, in the feeling of togetherness and cooperation that pervades it. For humanity, repelling the Kaiju is an international effort that takes a diverse array of Russians, Chinese, Australians, Americans, Japanese, and, well, everybody. Nations seem to exist in Pacific Rim, but nationalism and jingoism don’t, really. Cooperation, both international and interpersonal, is ultimately humanity’s key to combating the monstrous kaiju. It takes two mind-melded pilots to operate the gigantic robotic jaegers. It takes a gigantic crew of diverse people to keep them up and running. One more than one occasion, characters say “let’s do this together,” and they mean it. It’s hokey in a Benetton or Captain Planet kind of way, but compared to jingoistic, racist movies like the Transformers series, its refreshing to see a film mainly set in Not America where people of differing races, nationalities, and native languages all get together and be awesome together.

It’s not a perfect movie, by any means. Many of the story beats are mostly perfunctory, the characters are mostly flat (albeit very well-defined), and despite being a fairly diverse movie there are only two female characters, one of whom barely registers. The diversity can also be fairly superficial. The Russians and Chinese (who are portrayed in such a stereotypical way that they would look at home in a Street Fighter game) have barely anything to do, and the main character is a conventional white guy. But, at least the movie cares enough about pluralism to implicitly say that international cooperation is an awesome thing right up there with rocket punches and giant swords. The idealism behind Pacific Rim‘s vision of cooperation isn’t realistic, certainly, but it is heartfelt and endearing. Guillermo del Toro, playing with his toys, also imagines everyone getting along, which is pretty damn laudable. Most other action movies don’t bother.

Go see it. It’s fresh, energetic, fun, and isn’t another damn sequel, reboot, or adaptation. It’s enthusiasm writ large. It’s the most imaginative kid you know playing with his toys. It’s everyone on Earth getting together to kick Cthulhu’s ass. It’s zoomy and colorful and colossal, It is, in other words, pretty much everything a blockbuster should be.

In Which I Finally Watch Requiem For a Dream

In Movies on January 5, 2013 at 10:10 am

Requiem_for_a_dreamLast night, recovering from a nasty week of being sick, I stayed in my apartment and watched Requiem For a Dream. I’d never seen it, and it’s been on my to watch list ever since I’d seen Aronofsky’s (utterly hilarious) Black Swan. I didn’t know anything about the movie, other than it was about drugs and that Jennifer Connelly was in it. Having seen Aronofsky’s goofy Pi and chuckle-inducing Black Swan, I expected Requiem to be as broad and silly as his other work. It wasn’t. Not really. Requiem For a Dream is almost, but not quite, camp or exploitation. It goes up to the line, but doesn’t cross.

Spoilers for a twelve year old movie ahead.

Aronofsky can’t resist the building blocks and stylistic flourishes of camp. Requiem For a Dream abounds with fast edits, sped up footage, slowed down footage, fish-eye lenses, high emotions, exploitation, and a even a little bit of speechifying. Several of the scenes scenes involving hallucinations veer almost into the comical- a refrigerator opens to reveal several jagged teeth, a character imagines watching herself on television, and people jump from a television set and into a living room. There’s also a dumb scene with an imaginary pie. At the end of the movie, the four main characters, all drug users, meet grisly fates worthy of an after school special. One is jailed, one is in a psychiatric ward, one becomes a prostitute and another gets his arm sawed off. Say no to drugs, kids. You’ll become a crazy one-armed hooker, and then you’ll go to jail.

And yet, I don’t think Requiem For a Dream is camp or exploitation- it works as a genuine drama.  Most of the credit for that goes to the actors- the four principals all play their roles straight. In the midst of Aronofsky’s goofy (but enjoyable) direction they seem like real, actual humans rather than the overy stylized meat puppets that inhabit most camp or exploitation movies. I’d go so far as to say that the actors save the movie- the story is basically “don’t do drugs,” the director seems to busy playing with lenses and footage speed, and the soundtrack (can’t believe I haven’t mentioned the soundtrack yet- it’s really overbearing, but also kind of great) sounds like it comes from the opening credits of a daytime soap opera. The performances, though, don’t clash with the over-the top style. Rather, they balance it out. They’re like the cool tonic and lime to Aronofsky’s harsh, spiky gin. The four actors ground the movie, and in hammier, more scenery-chewing hands, the film would have been a frothy, hokey disaster.

After watching Requiem, I couldn’t help but think how much better it was than Black Swan, and how much more I was on board with it, goofy elements and all. I enjoyed Black Swan a good deal, but not really as drama. I liked it as an exercise in excess, and I’m not sure if that’s what the filmmakers wanted. At the end of Black Swan I thought “that was absurd and entertaining.” At the end of Requiem, I actually felt something for the characters.

Aronofsky seems to be one of those artists who shouldn’t be allowed to do whatever he wants. He needs something, be it a budget, a producer, a person he knows, to call him out on his excesses and tell him when to reign it in. Requiem demonstrates that he can make a great film, but Swan shows that, if left to his own devices, he probably won’t.

Gotham City, DPRK: The Big, Thumpy Politics of The Dark Knight Rises

In Comic Books, Movies, Politics on July 22, 2012 at 3:58 pm

Here, everyone. Have another post about Batman!

Major spoilers ahead. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, go away, see it, and then  feel free to shove this post into your eyeballs.

This isn’t a review. I greatly enjoyed The Dark Knight Rises, though thought it had some pacing problems. Despite being almost three hours long, it felt a little rushed in some places, and there were a few plot holes that just had to be waved away by saying “because Batman.” It wasn’t as good as either The Dark Knight or Batman Begins, but still excellent. If nothing else, I loved how amazingly gigantic Nolan made the final chapter of the trilogy.

The Dark Knight Rises is a hugely ambitious movie that definitely wants to be about something. The film acknowledges the existence of poverty again and again with scenes of an orphanage and Selina Kyle’s impoverished friend. We’re also reminded of the decadent corruption of the corporate class when we see Bane initially working with Gotham’s business elite. The Dent Act, the thing that put thousands of criminals behind bars, is based on false pretenses. At the outset of the film, the social order is not ideal. It is ripe for upending. However, the shape that that revolution or reform takes is of vital importance. Bane, storming into Gotham, offers a new way. Over the course of of the movie, the various characters cavort and bellow in front of the camera, and I couldn’t help but think of which real-life political figures the characters were most like. For instance:

Bane is Kim Jong Il

Bane is a tyrant with a horde of dedicated followers who clearly adhere to a kind of cult of personality. He values martial strength as a virtue in and of itself, and the society that he leads, occupied Gotham, is bereft of any kind of infrastructure, culture, or way of being not directly related to its own militant self-perpetuation. Like almost all totalitarian regimes, Bane takes power in the name of “the people,” exploits popular discontent with the existing system, and gives his militaristic rule only the barest patina of rule of law (One of my favorite parts of the film was the Scarecrow playing the part of Robspierre).

The fear of nuclear annihilation is the trump card that keeps the rest of the world from streaming into Bane Jong-Il’s impoverished hermit kingdom. The bridges of Gotham echo the perpetual standoff of the Korean DMZ, and past an arbitrary line known as a “border” Bane can preside over decay as he pleases, parading his dystopia in the face of the world.

Catwoman is George Orwell (kinda)

I will admit this is something of a stretch, but bear with me for a moment. Orwell was a socialist who hated communism. He longed for change, equity, and greater fairness in the political and economic systems of his time, but when he saw Communism distort the ideals of him and his fellow leftists, he denounced it as tyranny. Selina Kyle is not happy with the inequality or unfairness of Gotham, and says as much to Bruce Wayne. (By the way, I absolutely loved Anne Hathaway as Kyle- she nailed it. That being said, I did think her “storm is coming” speech was a tad too heavy-handed.) However, she rejects the false populism of Bane, knowing that even though an unfair social order has been upended, it did not happen in the right way. Catwoman blowing away Bane with the guns on the Bat Pod was as potent a denunciation as Orwell gave to Stalinism in 1984.

Batman is George Washington and/or Nelson Mandela

Nolan ends the series with Bruce Wayne faking his own death, hanging up the cape and cowl, and disappearing. He willingly gives up power, prestige, and position that others would clamber and fight over, and bequeaths the identity Batman to another at the end of the film. Both George Washington and Mandela did a great service to their respective countries by willingly giving up power. Both of them could have held on to the title “president” for the rest of their days, but neither of them had an interest in their person being synonymous with the ideals of their country. Batman also does not want his legacy to be entangled in the person of Bruce Wayne- he wants it to be universal. This puts him far away from the Kim Jong Ils, Fidel Castros, Moammar Qaddafis and Mao Zedongs of the world. He’s more in keeping with Washington or Mandela who declined to make a position explicitly personal, and therefore potentially more tyrannical.

All that being said, I don’t think that The Dark Knight Rises had a singular political thrust to it. It wasn’t Animal Farm. Instead, it used various political fears and attitudes as backdrop and coloration for the story it wanted to tell. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Nolan’s trilogy very much is of its time, and very freely uses characters and people as broad representations for things that he knows are sources of anxiety for the audience.

(Case in point- the Gotham City PD. If the Nolan movies were actually “realistic,” as people seem to be fond of calling them, several of the cops would have probably joined Bane’s thugs. When freed, they probably wouldn’t have strode bravely into battle- instead, they probably would have wandered about filthy, broken and malnourished. However, I didn’t see them as representing literal cops. The big, final street battle was all about the rule of law finally confronting tyranny. Nolan’s movies are as sleek, stylized and unrealistic as anything from comics- that style is simply better at passing itself off as realism.)

I wonder how much of Nolan’s trilogy will look dated in ten or twenty years. Or, I wonder how much of it will be seen as a kind of time capsule for our era. Either way, the trilogy is mainly about the politics, crime, fears, terrors, and social welfare of a place called Gotham City. It does not necessarily work as a human drama or as a series wherein superheroes are put into a “realistic” environment. What makes it work, though, is that it makes visible very real, often unformed fears of terrorism and tyranny. The trilogy gives its hugeness the room it deserves, allowing its characters to be broad avatars who parade loudly before us as inspiring or terrifying symbols, the most prominent of all being Batman himself.

My Completely Unsolicited Ideas About The Next Inevitable Batman Movie

In Comic Books, Movies on July 20, 2012 at 11:33 am

Via: http://davedrawscomics.blogspot.com/2008/08/batman-robin-and-nightwing.html

Like most of America, I’m going to see The Dark Knight Rises this evening and am quite excited about that prospect. Given that Batman is an intellectual property that basically prints money, it’s inevitable that Warner Brothers is going to reboot the series in a few years in some way, shape, or form. Retreading the Nolan movies would be a mistake- if they try to out-Nolan Nolan, it’s just going to be embarrassing for everyone involved. If they try to go all Adam West on us, fans will rebel. If they rehash Batman’s origins, that will just be boring.

What to do?

My wholly and completely unsolicited idea: Make it all about the Batman/Robin dynamic.

We’ve already seen Batman become Batman, fight dudes, brood, all that other Bat-stuff. One thing we haven’t seen him do yet is be the Bat-dad of the Bat Family. Seeing an actually good movie where Batman has to deal with having a partner, working with people, etc., would be a something new. Here’s the pitch-

Act I:

Dick Grayson grows out of his role as Robin, and takes up the Mantle of Nightwing. Grayson goes out on his own, punches some dudes, and has a great time being a vigilante without any help from Dad/Batman. Meanwhile, Bats is still in Gotham, feeling kind of like an empty nester and, despite his insistence otherwise, isn’t dealing with the loneliness well. Meanwhile, a young photojournalist/hacker/Robin wannabe named Tim Drake is spying on Bats.

Act II:

A villain (someone uncomplicated- let’s say Killer Croc) messes up some stuff in Gotham. Bats gets clobbered, but is saved at the last minute by Tim Drake. Who insists that he’s the new Robin. Batman grumbles and makes lots of cantankerous old man sounds, but eventually gives in accepts the new kid. He’s also secretly relieved, because he knows that he actually needs a partner in crime(fighting).

Meanwhile, Nightwing uncovers an Evil Plan and realizes that he alone can’t stop it. He contacts Bats, and they make a plan to stop whatever evil MacGuffin is about to happen.

Act III:

Batman, Robin, and Nightwing get together and punch evil.

I’d love to see a movie like this. It would be necessarily different in tone from the Nolan movies (sort of a necessity when you have Robin), wouldn’t be about Batman’s origins or lonely struggle against evil-ness, and the plot wouldn’t be villain-driven. Like The Avengers, the central conflict would be about the heroes negotiating their relationships, overcoming their own conflicts, and then coming together. It would be fresh, new, and would potentially make up for that other horrible Batman and Robin movie. It could be great. (And yes, I know it doesn’t have Jason Todd. Let’s just stick to the actually good Robins.)

So there’s my idea. If anyone at Warner Brother is reading this, you now owe me five million dollars. You’re welcome.

Shut Up and Show Me

In Movies on December 27, 2011 at 10:19 am

One of my favorite movies of all time is the director’s cut of Blade Runner. The director’s cut is a moody, dark tone-poem that lets the stark beauty of its setting and characters speak for itself. The theatrical version, though, is terrible. It’s a far different movie for one very important reason- the theatrical version of Blade Runner features voice-overs that explain precisely what is happening on screen, and it utterly kills the mood that the sets, music, costumes, and the rest of it try so hard to create. The theatrical version tells, and fails. The director’s cut shows, and succeeds.

Walk into any writing class and one of the first things that the instructor will tell you is show, don’t tell. That’s repeated over and over again to the point where it’s become somewhat of a hackneyed phrase that everyone says, and few people actually think about. However, it is utterly and totally true.

Yesterday I saw The Artist, a film about a movie actor in the late 1920s and early 1930s who weathers the transition from silent films to talkies. The central self-aware gimmick of The Artist, is that it itself is a silent movie (mostly). Most of the characterization is told with the exaggerated, broad body language of the silent era. The lead does a heroic amount of acting with his eyebrows and mustache, affecting the sort of big, visible facial expressions that can convey emotions without saying a word. The film is gimmicky, but it’s deft and charming enough that it works. Despite the leaden-sounding title and potentially highfalutin’ concept (being a modern silent film) it’s actually extraordinarily light on its feet and charming. It’s a movie that revels in the action thrillers, swashbuckling hijinks, and undiluted showmanship of old Hollywood. Give it a watch. (Bonus: One of the characters is probably the best movie dog I’ve ever seen. Normally I can’t stand animals or children in movies, as they are not presented as developed characters, but rather as emotional cheap-shots. The dog in The Artist, though, is an adorable little micro-badass with awesome comic timing.)

Coming out of The Artist, I immediately thought of Wall-E and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Neither are silent movies in that they have title cards and whatnot, but, like The Artist, both are films that tell a substantial part of their stories through body language, facial expressions, and action. Wall-E features nonvocal robot characters, and Apes features, well, lots of apes. Like The Artist, both films are also excellent. They show, they don’t tell.

Another two examples I’ll mention: I’m currently playing through Shadow of the Colossus, an extraordinarily empathy-ridden, sad video game that has practically no dialogue. I also recently re-watched Toy Story 3, and was brought to tears by the scene at the end where the main characters bravely stare death in the face, but don’t say a word. The dialogue in the Toy Story movies is extremely well done, but at that emotionally pivotal moment the screenwriters and director knew that the right thing to do was to not say a word, and let Woody  and Buzz’s encounter with death speak for itself.

What makes all of these media good is that they know that they have multiple ways of communicating with the audience. Everything I mentioned above all uses character design, movement, a cocked eyebrow here, an agape mouth there, to say something. What’s more, the media in question trust in that communication style. They don’t show a smiling guy and then have someone say “he looks happy” or add any kind of intelligence-insulting exposition. They don’t attempt to validate nonverbal communication with wordy explanation, or impede on the emotional environment by spelling out what’s going on.

Media that show rather than tell are confident, witty, and have a diversity of ways in which they connect with the audience. Media that do that are better, and more interesting, be they films about movie stars or stories of sentient robots. Whatever genre, they take the advice of every college writing instructor ever, and it turns out to not a tired truism, but utterly worthwhile.

Hate Twilight? Good! Hate Ariel, Too.

In Movies on November 19, 2011 at 8:47 am

I’ve never consumed any of the Twilight media except for the first movie, but since I don’t live in a dilapidated shack at the bottom of the ocean, I now know a good deal of the plot and character details because so much of it has bled into the pop culture effluvia. And, if the first movie is any indication, then I doubt that the series becomes anything other than hackneyed, misogynistic virginity-porn that is chiefly driven by a fierce hatred and fear of female sexuality. Here’s the thing though- if you hate Twilight then, to be consistent, you should probably loathe The Little Mermaid as well.

When I was growing up my sister loved this movie, so I had it shoved into my brain multiple times as a kid via VHS. I didn’t really like it that much, but from sheer repetition and exposure it does occupy something of a nostalgic niche in my heart- particularly the number Poor Unfortunate Souls, which is probably the best of the Disney villain songs. The Little Mermaid, though, is cut from the same cloth as Twilight. (Or rather, Twilight is cut from the same cloth as it.) It’s about a teenage girl who, instead of getting hobbies or doing anything interesting with herself, wraps up her identity in finding and marrying some dude.

Ariel is a sixteen year old girl in this movie, who presumably does not have much or anything in the way of sexual experience (just like Bella), encounters a handsome guy from a world not her own (just like Bella), gets obsessed with him and his world (just like Bella), throws away her established life filled with the things and people that are meaningful to her (just like Bella) and gets married at an age where most people aren’t old enough to have graduated college (just like Bella). Again- she’s sixteen. There are moderately priced bottles of whiskey older than her. If anything Ariel’s transformation is even more dramatic. She transforms herself into a human so she can get hitched to this dude she just met. They’ve never even met up for coffee, and Ariel abandons her entire life in the sea so she can get with Eric. That would be like an Earth-person permanently moving to Alpha Centauri so they could possibly get all matrimonial with an extra-terrestrial that they met for five minutes.

Ariel’s beau, a square-jawed piece of nautical beefcake named Eric, is a neutered cipher who functions as an unthreatening object of barely pubescent desire. Eric and Edward are handsome blank Ken dolls of vacant non-masculinity, and the female protagonist’s consummation with them is not any kind of moment of spontaneous sexual passion, but a wedding. (Yes, I know Bella and Edward have sex after they get married, but it’s sex bookended by marriage and pregnancy. It is not sex for pleasure, passion, or any kind of romantic bonding. The intercourse is only there so it can be placed within it’s proper confines of an exchange of rings and a propagation of the species.)

Lots of people justifiably hate Twilight, but Twilight only says explicitly what one of the more beloved Disney movies says implicitly- that for teenage girls to feel fulfilled, it’s primarily important to find a nice boy and then get married. This is utter balderdash, of course. Teenage girls should cultivate hobbies, do activities, study, date lots of boys (or girls, or both), go to school, find a job they’re interested in, have a broad and supportive social circle, do interesting things like rock climbing or calligraphy or kung-fu or clarinet-playing, perhaps get in a long-term relationship with a guy (or girl, or whomever) and then, after years of love and trust and sexual compatibility and mutual support, get married. Or not. Whichever. But you know that already, because you’re not an idiot.

Twilight and The Little Mermaid both hate women and women’s sexuality because they eject that whole middle part (the bit with the rock climbing and sexual compatibility) and just get to the bit with the pretty white princess dress. While it’s great that lots of people call out Twilight for being execrable filth, it’s worth noting that this kind of misogyny suffuses many other parts of popular culture as well. Twilight is not unique in its sex-hating sexism.

Whew! For a moment there I felt like I was back in a college sociology class, getting all angry at the patriarchy. That felt good. The point is, if I were King Triton, or Bella’s parent, or any daughter’s parent I’d tell her this: No daughter of mine is getting married and first finding out who she is, and what she really wants. If I were to catch her watching Twilight, I’d probably say “Sweetie, you know that’s not how relationships work, right? Don’t listen to Ariel of Bella. Here’s a better role model for you- her name is Buffy.”

A Small Observation Re: Spinal Tap

In Movies, Music on November 12, 2011 at 12:09 pm

Yesterday was 11/11/11, and to celebrate the august palindromic occasion, a local theater pub was playing This is Spinal Tap at 11:11 last night. I and several of my friends went to see Nigel and company’s rocking misadventures, and a fun time was had by all. Spinal Tap is an utterly intelligent and hilarious film. While watching it last night, though, I noticed something that I hadn’t before: Nigel and his rocking compatriots spend the entire film sober.

Watch for it the next time you fire up Spinal Tap. There are no shots of them doing lines of cocaine, shooting heroin, smoking joints, or even swigging on bottles of whiskey. There are a few oblique references to drugs, but there is nothing explicit. For a band that’s supposed to be bombastic and over the top, they spend a remarkable amount of time not getting high, drunk, or both.

This actually works in the movie’s favor- had the guys in the band been constantly inebriated, they wouldn’t be nearly as likable. As much as it’s about a heavy-metal band all of the musicians in the movie are, as a friend of mine put it, big softies. Their slack-jawed expressions and general doofiness become endearing personality quirks, rather than a side effect of rock ‘n roll excess. It also liberates Spinal Tap from having to confront any issues regarding, say, heroin or alcoholism, and allows the film to retain it’s light-hearted tone. It certainly would be a nastier movie if we were to see Nigel drowning his sorrows in a bottle or sticking a needle in his arm.

As much as I don’t like whitewashing issues or self-censorship, I thought that this was a very deft choice on the part of the filmmakers. Spinal Tap, after all isn’t really about sex (though there’s a hint of that) or drugs. It is, first and foremost, a hilarious movie about rock ‘n roll.

The Frontiers of Empathy: One Reason Why I Love Science Fiction

In Movies, Science Fiction on October 24, 2011 at 10:44 am

One more thing relating to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, then I swear I have something positive and interesting to say about Occupy Portland. Really. I have not forgotten about that.

At this point, George Lucas has lost nearly all of his credibility as a creator of science fiction. Anymore, he’s thought of as one who despoils wonder as opposed to creating it. I’ve got plenty of antipathy towards Star Wars for lots of reasons, but the thing that made me personally stop looking up to George Lucas as a science fiction creator came just after my senior year of college.

I came home, and a roommate and several of his friends were watching Attack of the Clones. For whatever reason, they had decided to watch it with the commentary on, and Lucas was talking away about whatever happened to be in the frame at that moment. At the point where I came in and idly watched it with them, R2-D2 was flying through a large industrial facility and being pursued by several insect-like aliens called Genosians. Giant gears, conveyor belts, robotic arms, and other factory bits swooped by as R2-D2 evaded his pursuers. On the commentary Lucas said of the Genosians that they were “basically giant mosquitoes.” One of the flying aliens got stuck in some gears or other piece of machinery, and was crunched to death. The scene was played for slapstick-y laughs, and we were supposed to root for R2, who was suddenly able to fly for some reason.

I do not have a philosophical opposition to comic violence, animated mayhem, or laughing at fictional deaths. However, in that moment, I did find Lucas’ attitude towards his alien creations to be flippant and almost rather offensive. I found it astounding that he could imagine the Genosians intelligent enough to create modern industry, but not deserving of empathy or consideration when it came to feeding them into machinery. Certainly Lucas wouldn’t have sent a human careening into gears as a punchline, or called homo sapiens “basically naked monkeys.”

I love science fiction not just because it’s a genre filled with lasers and spaceships (though there is that) but also because it, more than any other form of genre fiction, can challenge and bolster our sense of empathy towards our fellow beings. Rise of the Planet of the Apes was excellent in that the filmmakers had the confidence to get the audience to empathize with a nonhuman protagonist, and a nonhuman cast of supporting characters. While James Franco might have gotten top billing, the real star of the film is Caesar, the CGI ape whose body language and facial expressions were taken from Andy Serkis. Yes, Franco does a fine enough job of being a likable handsome scientist, but the character development that the audience is most concerned with throughout the film belongs to an intelligent animal who says almost nothing. Caesar’s mind, body, and point of view are all unlike ours, yet I found myself deeply interested in the story and emotional life of an intelligent ape, and expanding my definition of who and what I considered a fellow being.

Science fiction does this all of the time. One of the reasons why I maintain that Star Trek will always be superior to Star Wars is that, as cheesy and indulgent as Trek might get it retains a more expansive heart and mind. Spock, Worf, and Data are all nonhuman, yet are among the most beloved characters of the series. They all, for different reasons, have bodies, minds, and emotional lives that our different from our own, yet we are asked to value them as people. What’s more, their different points of view are presented as being inherently valuable, rather than just curiosities. Kirk may disagree with Spock frequently, but he gives the Vulcan his highest regard because he knows that a point of view different from his is often a valuable thing.

Star Wars did have R2 and Chewbacca, but too often they were played only for laughs and never given stories of their own. What’s more, several of the aliens are presented first and foremost as set-dressing. What, after all, does Nien Nunb ever actually do? The emotions that we are most often asked to feel regarding Star Wars’ aliens is nearly always related to their anatomy. We feel disgust at Jabba’s obesity, are impressed with Chewbacca’s strength, and look around with unease at the denizens of the Mos Eisley cantina, a hive of scum and villainy. Seldom are the aliens the source of tragedy, drama, or pathos.

All of our investment and empathy is with Luke, Han, and Leia. Almost never are we asked to reach out in any challenging way to a character not like ourselves. The one major exception is Yoda. Luke must accept him as a Jedi master in the exact same scene that the audience must accept him as something other than comic relief. If George Lucas could have approached all of his aliens with the same humanity that he approached Yoda, I would probably like Star Wars a whole lot more.

Watching Rise of the Planet of the Apes the other night, I was reminded of the heart and mind of science fiction that has continually inspired me to love things like Star Trek, the robot stories of Isaac Asimov, and the wonderfully silent apocalyptic landscapes of WALL-E. Being able to journey to space, or the future, or alternate dimensions is all well and good, but SF, when it has the courage and confidence of its convictions, can also allow us to feel that the Other is not so other, and that even though their communications, trappings, and biology (or lack thereof) may be incomprehensible to us. We must still engage with them as full-fledged players within a drama, and for that time their reality is equal to that of any human character on the page or on the screen.

Going home from Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I started thinking about real chimps. In particular, I remembered a This American Life story about a chimp who was raised by humans and then had to integrate herself with chimpanzees. I wondered about the real scientists who had to work with animals that very nearly are intelligent, do form emotional connections with lab workers, and are capable of self-recognition. The chimp who played Cheetah, Tarzan’s companion, apparently enjoyed watching his old movies and could recognize himself on screen. I thought about what it would be like to actually work with animals like that, and what the ethical obligations would be. I don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about animal rights or issues at all- but that night it was on my mind unavoidably.

It is a wonderful thing that science fiction can do that to us. It can inspire our minds and emotions to suddenly engage in real world issues relating to science, ethics, or philosophy. And it can do so because, at the best of times, it expands our minds rather than merely inflames our emotions, and lets us be magnanimous with our empathy. I suddenly cared about chimps because I cared about Caesar.

If we can care about the alien, the robot, the mutant, or the genetically altered intelligent animal, then we can surely experience empathy towards another human being whose national origin, religion, or ideology is different than ours. If we can find ourselves engaged with the issues of, say, apes, then we can find ourselves engaged with the issues that are of concern to our real-life neighbors. That may sound idealistic, and it is. However, I believe in the power of fiction, and know that it can do much more than simply entertain.

"You’re Tearing Me Apart, Lisa!"

In Movies on July 14, 2011 at 10:40 pm

The Room is a terrible movie.

It’s developed something of a reputation as one of those movies that is called, variously, the worst movie ever, so bad it’s good, and the ultimate midnight movie, etc. It’s gained in popularity with late-night screenings that occasionally have the writer/director/producer/star Tommy Wiseau in attendance. It’s one of those bits of pop-culture ephemera that for some time I knew only by reputation and hadn’t bothered to consume. Recently, though, I had a few folks over to my place and, aided by various brain-killing beverages, we gave the movie a watch.

Most movies that are known for being terrible are known for their awful special effects and horribly contrived genre conventions. Plan 9 From Outer Space is emblematic of the kind of B movies that are traditionally known as the Worst Ever.

You get the idea- badly delivered lines clustered with cheesy sci-fi jargon, costumes that are impossible to take seriously, and storylines that reach for epic status and fall woefully short. That’s the traditional kind of Worst Movie Ever. The Room is not like that at all. The Room is more like this:

It’s like they only rented the flower shop for thirty seconds, and only did a single take.

The guy speaking, by the way, is Tommy Wiseau, the writer/director/producer/actor auteur behind The Room. He is like that in more or less every scene, and his line reads and terminally awkward demeanor are what make The Room a truly weird and awful movie. Here’s his most famous line:

The plot is mainly a love triangle between Johnny (Wiseau’s character), Lisa, and Johnny’s best friend Mark. Lisa is engaged to Johnny but has fallen out of love with him, and subsequently starts boning Mark because hey, why not. After that, bad things happen. There are a number of other plot lines as well- Lisa’s mother at one point reveals that she has breast cancer, and a friend of Johnny and Lisa’s apparently owes money to loan sharks because he has a drug problem. These plots never show up again. Not even in the scene they’re in. Take a look:

Did you see all that exposition? All that backstory? Did you catch that big dramatic reveal “I definitely have breast cancer”? That’s it. That’s the entirety of that storyline in The Room. None of that information is ever important ever again. Breast cancer floats in, says hi, and then is never heard from again for the entire run time. The same thing happens with drugs and loan sharks- stuff from which a whole plot can make just floats into a scene and then dissipates into nothing.

And then there’s the sex…

The Room is front-loaded with sex scenes, first between Johnny and Lisa and then between Mark and Lisa. Even with ample nudity, the sex scenes manage to be utterly and completely unsexy and completely devoid of anything that could be coherently construed as erotic. The sex scenes are set to hideous nineties R&B songs and lacy curtains hang from bedposts. Red candles flicker in the background, roses figure prominently, and it has a weird stilted softness that suggests Tommy Wiseau might not actually know how making the beast with two backs actually works. It’s as if he’s gotten all of his ideas about sex from soap operas, soft-core pornography, and romance novels. It’s all about as sexy as watching someone clack Barbie and Ken dolls into each other while playing Celine Dion in the background. Having my eyes and ears assaulted by Tommy Wiseau’s notion of strangled, plastic eroticism made me glad that I had a trusty bottle of Ninkasi nearby- the beer was far more physically pleasurable than anything going on in the film seemed to be.

The romantic relationships in the movie fall apart, dramatic shouting happens, and eventually there’s something like a climax and the movie’s over. It’s all terrible and bad and awful but, really I sort of enjoyed The Room.

It’s fun to watch because it is utterly singular. There are other bad movies out there, but they’re bad because of their production values or cliches or because they’re merely studio cash-cows. The Room, though, is bad because Tommy Wiseau doesn’t seem to really have a handle on how actual human beings talk, act, have sex, do things, or even buy flowers. He doesn’t seem to know how to act like any version of a convincing human being, and seems to live in a world slightly askew from ours. He may very well have some kind of mental disability (which would make me feel bad for laughing at him) but it’s sort of diverting to see the world from such a weird perspective.

The Room is not something that I’d recommend watching alone. Get some friends, stock up on beer, and prepare for an incoherent mess. It’s bad, sloppy, weird, and amateurish- but at least it’s also somewhat interesting. That’s more than you can say of a lot of films.