Continuing one of the items in the last post. Thanks for all the comments about your family sayings, keep ’em coming. Here’s a few more from Casa de Moore:
“Nice haunches he’s gettin’. Beautiful.” From Babe, used whenever something is turning out nicely.
“Anyone else want to negotiate?” From Fifth Element, used whenever the discussion has reached a conclusion, especially if that conclusion was reached via some physical action.
“Right again guys! Group hug.” Galaxy Quest.
“But who cares?” Ruby Rod, Fifth Element. Needs to be said in the insane Ruby Rod voice.
“That’s a good rule. But this is bigger than rules!” Babe.
“Phasers on stun!” Sometimes I will harken back to Bloom County and say “Phasers on deep fat fry!”
“The trees are really quite lovely” Princess Bride. Trying to find the good in a bad situation.
“I shall be very put out.” Princess Bride. Whenever expectations are not likely to be met.
From the distant past: every time I’d change a diaper, I’d say, in my most serious voice, “I can change you. But you have to want to change.” The wide eyed look on the baby’s face always cracked me up.
This is pretty endless. I’m sure I could come up with dozens more if my daughters were still around – they were into musicals (and my eldest has a freakishly-good memory for dialogue) so we’d have a constant stream of bits from Oklahoma and Singing in the Rain and Hairspray.
One of my weirder habits I passed on to them: just breaking out in song at the drop of a hat, most commonly in an over-the-top showtune belting style. Showtunes and jazz standards, for the most part. I bet my kids were looking for a place to hide when their weirdo dad started in singing in the kitchen….
Just watched a video where visual effects artists critiqued the CG and practical effects on some show called The Boys.
Well. So this is what the kids are watching these days. Further evidence they’ve lost their minds.
I turned 12 in 1970, so, in some way, movies from that decade were among my first experiences of grown up story telling. This one movie I remember from early in that decade had an antihero who casually murders or leaves to die a number of people. The one that sticks: some woman was gagged, bound, and thrown into the trunk of a car; the protagonist walks away as the car rolls into the water and sinks.
12 year old me was shocked. I might have missed what that women did in the movie that might explain the antihero’s actions, but I couldn’t fathom just letting her drown.
And so on, movie after movie. Between the lack of patience I developed from attempting to watch irrational TV shows and the horror I felt at some movies, I all but stopped consuming those media. When my then girlfriend dragged me to see Star Wars in 1977, I went only because she insisted. The last movies I can remember seeing in a theater before that were Andromeda Strain (1971); 2001 (1968); Towering Inferno (1974); Afterwards, I caught Close Encounters (1977) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and I think I saw Rocky (1976) later. As far as I can remember, anything else I saw from the 70s was on TV or in an arthouse at later dates.
You probably noticed that I skipped all the supposed classics from that era., sometimes called the greatest era of movies in history. Some were easy to miss, since I didn’t drive for the first half of the decade and so was limited in my opportunities. But even after I got my license, movies were way down my list unless they had an interesting Sci Fi premise or tie-in. I just didn’t find ‘serious’ portrayals of casual murder attractive; hated it, in fact.
Star Wars did blow my mind. Given the level of dreck passing for great movies – oops, I mean, cinema – at the time, my expectations were below low. But it delivered, visually stunning (we forget how awesome it looked. Jaw dropping.) with characters you cared about and a story that, as a fairytale, made sense.
Yes, millions of people die in that movie, mostly on Alderaan and the Death Star, but plenty get shot or otherwise disposed of. But, in keeping with the fairytale style, you know, where a hundred perfectly fine princes can die trying to rescue the princess before the *right* prince comes along, death is treated rather impersonally. Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen are hardly spared a glance of mourning, for example. Hey, Luke has a beanstalk to climb! No time for emotions! And the deaths are mostly highly sanitized, again, after the fashion of the genre. No spurting blood or long death agonies; no twitching storm trooper corpses.
Recently rewatched Rocky (picked up a DVD for $1) and it was kind of painful. The pacing is odd; in between the fairytale, dark stuff is going on. But – when I first saw it, I was excited – the good guy has a satisfying moral triumph, loyalty and effort are rewarded, we even get a little true love. Beautiful. The contrast with the usual 70s fare was enough to elevate it for me.
Basically, my movie tastes have not changed since then, except that I’ve seen A LOT of kids movies: I want cool premises, characters I can care about, and, well, stuff that blows up. I don’t want nihilism, bad guys that are just misunderstood, and definitely don’t want ambiguous or our and out evil endings.
So, back to the video. The Boys contains several spectacular scenes where – heads explode. Lots of heads explode. In gruesome, exquisitely-filmed detail. Of course, I have no context, and, of course, these scenes were chosen for the quality of their effects, not their morality. But it’s hard to imagine a context that would make them any more palatable. Part of what makes the scenes shocking and horrifying is their otherwise pedestrian normalcy – a woman is having a calm discussion with two other people – and her head explodes; there’s some sort of town hall meeting taking place when, one after another, heads explode, blood and flesh are plastered all over the people and walls…
Exploding heads were not the worst of it. The most horrifying scene these visual effects artists reviewed was of a protest rally, thousands of people in the street with signs, etc., protesting, it seems, the extent these superheroes/ supervillains use their superpowers to do stuff outside any control or rules. So, in flies the local Superman-equivalent, in red, white, and blue, planting his landing right next to a woman being heckled by the crowd. Somebody flips him off. He reacts by using his laser visions to slice the guy in half – and to mow down hundreds of protesters. The camera lingers on the mangled, bloody corpses. The VFX dudes admired the artistry of it all.
Utterly shocking. That insult would be met with mass murder is one thing, but the moral inversion is even more stomach-turning, if possible. Making the clean-cut white guy dressed in the colors of Old Glory slaughter people on a whim is another type of fairytale, a demonic one. Like the Handmaid’s Tale (which I have only heard about) and V for Vendetta (which I saw in the theater. Silly me.) the writers invert and project. What was the last time in the West religion used the power of the state for wide-spread persecution? Cromwell? Or perhaps the English persecution of the Irish that lasted well into the 19th century? That one is a bit off base, since it was one nationality/religious group persecuting another nationality/religious group, not Religion beating up on reasonable people as moderns imagine themselves to be.
In the fevered imaginations of the Left, the Spanish Inquisition looms large. Yet, over its whole centuries long existence, the Inquisition didn’t kill or torture as many people as Pol Pot, Mao, or Stalin did in a routineday. And that was centuries ago. Unless we want to consider Communism and its conjoined twin National Socialism as religions – I would be down with that – religious persecutions in the West are ancient, comparatively minor (e.g., Salem witch trials), or both.
But such religious persecutions are the norm under our enlightened betters. That whole liberté, égalité, fraternité crowd were sure into killing people for their religious beliefs. The French Revolution thus set the standard for our self-appointed betters, for how those who worship Reason (at, least, say they do) treat those who worship Truth.
This is not news to anyone likely reading this blog, and, in fact, this sort of moral inversion was well established in Sci Fi by the time The Matrix made it cool. Lest we forget, those ‘lots of guns’ were used to mow down the innocent guards in an office building lobby, and the equally blameless soldiers. We know, because the movie goes out of its way to tell us, that those who are not with us – quite literally, those who are not woke – are the enemy, even if they don’t know it. Thus, guards and soldiers plugged into the Matrix, with no way to know it or even suspect it, are gunned down in cold blood without a second thought, with all the gee-whiz and cool the artistry of the filmmakers can bring to the scene.
Thus, for decades now, with only brief interruptions such as Star Wars, we have been bombarded with efforts to make us see how cool it will be when the good guys gun down all those mean people who don’t agree with us. What started as a casual disregard for life in the 70s has become positive glee at killing off those whose beliefs don’t match ours. And it ain’t the Right doing this.
Brief update before this unrelated post: revised, and revised again, the outline for the proposed book on Catholic education, and began to revise and expand the bibliography. There are maybe 20 core books, and 2-3 times that in more peripheral stuff. Yikes – what have I gotten into? Both the outline and the bibliography will become permanent pages on this blog, to be updated and revised as I progress. But let’s talk about movies as propaganda first:
Maybe my overactive imagination is getting off leash again. Maybe not.
A few years back, I made a few comments on the movie Lincolnhere and here. At the time, while bending over backwards to give the man Lincoln every benefit of the doubt in a horrible and horribly complex situation, I complained:
Certainly, Lincoln was in a tough spot no matter which way we slice it. And, since we all seem to agree with his gut feelings about what is right, we tend to overlook how dubious his logic is in many places. The important thing, we say, is Justice: slavery was such an overwhelming injustice screaming out to Heaven that Lincoln – or any man – is justified in whatever he may do to end it. As the speech above suggests, Lincoln would ‘catch at the opportunity’ even if the mechanism by which he justifies his actions are questionable.
In the hands of a man of deep morals and honor such as Lincoln, perhaps we can hope the powers seized will be used only for good, or at least only toward some ultimate good like ending slavery. But the same concepts, having shed the rhetorical splendor Lincoln vested them in, lurk in the claim: “We can’t wait for Congress to do its job, so where they won’t act, I will.” This is the anthem of the rule of men, not law.
That quote within the quote above is, of course, from Obama, who was sworn in on Lincoln’s personal Bible. (1) This movie came out just as he began his second term, during which, in continuation of the precedent established during his first term, he routinely ruled by executive order. Funny timing, huh?
The entire movie is about the four months leading up to the passage of the 13th Amendment on January 31, 1865. Historians evidently refute much of what is presented as Lincoln’s motivation in the movie, where he is shown as desperate to get the 13th Amendment passed in order to ensure the end of slavery once fighting had ended. The Emancipation Proclamation was just an expedient enacted under the President’s war powers, and could, the movie states, be reversed once the South surrenders. So, Lincoln had to do whatever he had to do to get the Amendment passed, including a bunch of stuff that, if the end did not justify all means, would be considered patently immoral and illegal.
But Lincoln is a secular saint, and it all worked out, right? So no harm no foul. Everybody wants to think the evils to be addressed are just like slavery, obvious and vile, and that the guy who violates law, morals, and all propriety to right them is another Lincoln – like Obama, right? It doesn’t even occur to them that he might be more along the lines of the H-man, or even just a Franco, or a Pinochet handing out free helicopter rides. Unlike Messiah-O, those three guys DID face situations as desperate or worse than what Lincoln faced, and did take action to right the wrongs as they saw them. Yet, we very correctly have our reservations, to say the least, about not just their methods, but – and this is critical – their assessments of the problems and required solutions. But I don’t suppose a movie about a well-intentioned hero trying to do the right thing by making a mockery of law and morals, killing people and blowing stuff up along the way, only to have everything turn out just as his opponents warned him would, leading to a situation much worse than where he started, would sell many tickets.
I’d go see it.
The framing stories are of Lincoln’s disregard for the law when it was, in his sole judgement, antithetical to justice. He tells this story in the movie:
Back when I rode the legal circuit in Illinois I defended a woman from Metamora named Melissa Goings, 77 years old, they said she murdered her husband; he was 83. He was choking her; and, uh, she grabbed ahold of a stick of firewood and fractured his skull, ‘n he died. In his will he wrote “I expect she has killed me. If I get over it, I will have revenge.” No one was keen to see her convicted, he was that kind of husband. I asked the prosecuting attorney if I might have a short conference with my client. And she and I went into a room in the courthouse, but I alone emerged. The window in the room was found to be wide open. It was believed the old lady may have climbed out of it. I told the bailiff right before I left her in the room she asked me where she could get a good drink of water, and I told her Tennessee. Mrs. Goings was seen no more in Metamora. Enough justice had been done; they even forgave the bondsman her bail.
(Aside: I observed a similar coincidence when the NYT published an article defending and even praising Tammany Hall for its “honest graft” right around the time a few hints that not all Obama-era actions were strictly speaking composed entirely of sweetness and light. Thugs beating up people and holding the government for ransom are OK, the Times informs us, so long as it makes sure every Paddy get a job as a cop right off the boat – even if it’s some other Paddy that gets beaten up. Well, logic has never been the Left’s strong suit.)
In my extremely fruitful efforts to waste yet more time, I watched the trailer for the latest installment in the very successful Kingsmen franchise, of which I have seen none and have no intention of seeing any. In it, the Kingsmen are explained: “We are the first independent intelligence agency” and “preserving peace and protecting life” and “While governments wait for orders, our people take action.”
Hmmm. Now, while the vigilante theme is as old as comic books and The Shadow, this takes it to a new level: a CIA-like (intelligence agency, remember?) group of spies who answers to no government, but takes action to preserve the peace and protect lives by blowing things up and killing people, it would seem. Of course, it fun and British and all that, but the underlying concept – that the people who protect life and preserve peace can’t be beholden to any government – seems, I don’t know, strangely appealing to certain groups just at this particular moment in history.
“Reputation is what people think of you. Character is who you are.” The CIA and its punk little brother the FBI, long having enjoyed the reputation among the non-comatose as, effectively, evil little empires with all the morality and respect for authority of J. Edgar Hoover, are now being framed up as the last, best hope of saving us all from Trump and The End of the World as We Know It ™ (see Severian’s latest for a terrifying yet humorous take on this). Just now, we get a series of movies based on the premise that we need saving and can’t wait for governments to do it! But our freshly scrubbed and loyal and patriotic ‘intelligence community’ can save us! Never let a crisis go to waste!
There’s no telling what people will find fascinating. A while back, I mentioned Hieronymus Bosch, who is for me a little like a train wreck – can’t justify looking at him, but can’t stop looking, either. Many people these days are fascinated by Bosch’s weird and disturbing pictures, but evidently not as much or any more than his contemporaries. It seems Bosch’s works were copied, and those copies displayed all around Europe. Many of his works were intended as personal devotionals, not big public displays. Public demand to see them evidently led to their being widely copied and publicly displayed.
Bosch died in 1516. That means he was a contemporary of Dürer, Botticelli, and Raphael, among other objectively superior artists. Those artists were copied plenty, too, surely – but people dedicated many hours to copying Boch as well. Bosch, though no slouch, possibly was easier to copy, as Dürer is one of the very greats draftsman of all time, and Botticelli and Raphael are Botticelli and Raphael. Be that as it may – really? You’re an art student or practicing artist, and it’s Bosch you’re going to painstakingly copy? Okey-dokey.
But it wasn’t just the copyists. Artists went there because it was where the money was. Contemporary reports are that people flocked to look at those copies. Maybe the local cathedral provided all the needed beauty to calm their beauty jonesing, but the gargoyles failed to meet the demand for the disturbingly hideous?
I mention this to illustrate that popular taste being inexplicable is not a new thing.
Spending too much time on Youtube. There’s this Russian band that covers songs by the band Chicago. So? Couple of things: Chicago is not an easy band to cover. The musicianship of these Russians is excellent, and their enthusiasm is off the charts. They don’t fake anything – they have the full horn section, a string section, excellent backup vocalists, killer lead guitar player and an awesome drummer. These things alone make them unusual for a cover band. Check this out:
They do Chicago better than Chicago does Chicago. (1)
Leonid, the mastermind, and the guy who has transcribed all the parts for the players, retired 4 years at the age of 60 in Moscow and decided to do something for fun. So he started getting together with his friends and covering 1970s pop tunes from an American band. As you can see, the ages range from at least their 60s on down to kids in their 20s if not younger – in other videos, the crack string section has some pretty downy-faced kids in it.
This is not the project of some young, self-identified ‘ironic’ punks. What we have here are people – highly skilled people – spanning three generations, many of whom grew up in Soviet Union, dedicating A LOT of time and energy into mastering the music of of an American band popular when Brezhnev ran the show.
I admire and have affection for these people. They look a lot like my relative. In fact, you could stick me in a family photo with most of those guys, or them in mine, and we’d fit right in. I suppose the music of Chicago might strike them as embodying everything that’s cool about the West. You could do worse. Their clothing – English language t-shirts, jeans, and the drummer’s ball caps – he even sports an LA Dodgers’ hat – suggest the music of Chicago isn’t the only Western thing that appeals to them.
But still, very Russian. I amused myself fantasy casting a Russian revolutionary era film with these guys – you got convincing Bolsheviks and peasants galore, party officials, thugs, an Orthodox priests or two. You’d need to find some stern Russian matrons somewhere. That one chick singer (‘chick singer’ is a term of art) is almost a parody of Slavic beauty, she’s so gorgeous, and so Russian! Obvious double agent/love interest.
Raining on this love parade – really, just a light drizzle – was the thought that all this care and artistry lavished on some pop tunes is a bit like those souls who carve accurate copies of the Statue of Liberty out of a grain of rice. Or those who copied Bosch. Fascinating, I suppose, but – why? Wouldn’t it be much better if, inspired by Chicago, they spent their efforts creating some kick-ass Russian pop music? Assuming pop music is their thing. Maybe aim a little higher? These folks come from the people who built things like this:
While it would amuse me to no end if kids in America became obsessed with Russian pop music – a ‘Russian Invasion’ we could live with – I’d be much happier if we instead imitated them in a mania for building over-the-top cathedrals.
I’m still mulling over the claim that Western culture has effectively stagnated since the late 1980’s, with nothing truly new and life-altering either in the arts or technology. We just make copies and tweek things around the edges. The whole generation gap idea came about when there really were life altering changes between each generation. One generation was the first to grow up with cars, a revolution in personal travel that marks the line between before and after. Before, people lived at home and rarely traveled more than a few miles in a day, and even then, were limited to destinations along train routes. After, people could travel hundreds of miles in a day to an exponentially greater number of places. It’s routine. Same sort of thing happened with telegraphs and phones, airplanes and trains, the green revolution and computers. One generation could only communicate slowly if at all, the next is wiring messages near instantly to nearly anyone around the world.
Now? Despite all the claims of ever increasing progress, this generation has nothing much dramatic to separate its routine experiences from the last generation’s. (Note I’m not convinced here, but this is the argument.) Phones, cars, video games, CGI – all we’ve seen is improvements around the edges. Even the internet is over 20 years old, meaning it already existed when the last generation was coming of age.
Be that as it may, what is clear is that we live in the Age of Cover Bands. Hollywood is legendarily cannibalistic, or, perhaps more hip: they recycle diligently. Pop music is a formulistic wasteland. New houses are these weird Frankenstein’s Monsters of stitched-together traditional parts – and they’re better than the new commercial buildings! At least the so-called Renaissance often did a better job copying better examples. After they slandered the true creative genius of the middle ages, they simplified back down to what they fancied to be Roman and Greek examples, while incorporating Medieval advances without footnotes.
Among the most successful sources being copied today are comic books. I understand that we are not to look down on them, as they contain (or until recently contained) strong stories with dealing with the eternal themes of good and evil, weakness and strength, and beauty and ugliness laid out in a popular, easy to digest format. And comic book writers, for the most part, were inspired by the classic epics and tragedies, so that works derived from comic books could be said to be derived second hand from very great sources. But still – we are not strong enough to demand our very own epics and tragedies written for adults?
Finally, I am reminded of the curious fate of Bach. By his death in 1750, the classical music style (not ‘classical music’ as a general term, but specifically music written after the fashion popular from the early 1700’s until Beethoven’s death) had taken over, and Bach, with his dense baroque fugues and cantata, was dismissed even by his own sons as being an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy. Note that until the later works of Mozart, classical music did not get within the ballpark of how sophisticated and adventurous Bach routinely was. Instead, the new classical style introduced during Bach’s lifetime was a simplification, structurally, harmonically, melodically, and emotionally much less complicated than Bach. Early classical music tends to be more emotionally sunny, sometimes relentlessly so. Compare the works of his sons with Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in d-minor. While beautiful, the early classical works do not compare for emotional depth. All that counterpoint and elaborate structure in the Bach are not there to show off. Themes come around again and again, never quite the same, building, like the working out of the soul’s salvation. Awesome is an overworked word. Too bad – that’s what this work is.
Bach took what he found as the current state of music, and did not set out to refute it, but rather to push it to its ultimate perfection. Bach might roll his eyes hard at that last statement, or maybe punch my lights out (that boy had a temper on him!). He might have put it: I am a musician. By the grace of God, I will do the best I can. It just so happened that he was one of the very few truly great musical geniuses in all history, so that his best was really, really good.
Bach’s fate was to be disparaged by his own kids and forgotten by his contemporaries, only to be rediscovered by – the great classical musicians! Hayden and Mozart each studied his Well-Tempered Clavier; Beethoven had it down by the age of 11. (I’ve been working my way through it off and on for the last few decades. At the current rate, I’ll have Book I complete by around 2050! Have I mentioned I have very meager musical talents?). These giants were working off hand-copied manuscripts – the WTC was not published until 1801!
It’s so common to think of Bach as – correctly – this giant, this colossus tower over the world of music, that it’s sobering to think he was once dismissed and nearly forgotten. Part of the great legacies of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven is that they would not let him be forgotten.
So, there is hope. Hollywood could have a revival by simply rediscovering the pulps, which tend to share the story-telling and moral clarity of comics, but with more room to expand on them. Or, more likely, Hollywood could be put out of business by others who rediscover them.
The curious pointed often missed about Bach: by sticking to what he loved about music and ignoring the current style, he paradoxically become one of the most creative artists of all time. Musicians are always marveling over the harmonic and melodic twists he routinely comes up with, not to mention his ability to stealth-structure things so that they always sound perfectly complete and satisfying, even though it’s hard to say why, sometimes. Sometimes, to look at it, a piece seems an increasingly complex fugue going round and round and round, not going anywhere. Then you hear it, and it’s perfect. This experience makes complete amateurs like me strongly suspect that when I don’t get Bach – there are some long minor fugues in the WTC that seem a little amorphous, for example – that I’m just not smart enough.
The lesson I get from all this: stick to your knitting, do what it is you do as well as you can, and, not only will you, by the grace of God, produce good and worthy work, you might even end up being very ‘creative’ and ‘original’ without trying! If you’re a genius, that is.
The late John Taylor Gatto assures us that genius is a common as dirt.
Wouldn’t it be great if I would follow my own advice?
The reason they do Chicago better than Chicago does Chicago is that they patently LOVE this stuff – those people are having a blast. I seriously doubt Chicago could muster that level of enthusiasm after a few years of playing these songs in concert over and over and over again. Assuming enough of the band is alive and able to try. Train does Zeppelin better than Zeppelin does Zeppelin for the same reasons.
Upfront, I admit this silly video, The Privates, which is my current favorite among the Sci Fi shorts I watch by the dozens on Youtube, may not be to your taste in humor. Me, I’ve laughed out loud each of the half dozen times I’ve watched it so far.
Why? If you’ve ever been in a garage band (I’ve been in several over the years), you will recognize the personalities and dialogue. The drummer in particular avoids being a stereotype while ringing completely true.
The over-serious sci fi elements just make it funnier.
“Do you have any idea how many Kelvins we must be generating to do something like this?” long pause. “A lot.”
“Short term, more like for Friday, what are we dealing with, survival wise?”
“Us, or the crowd?”
Watch this, and I’ll put my comments below.
SPOILER-ISH STUFF BELOW
The clueless lead singer is something almost every band deals with. That there’s one person who actually knows how the equipment works is another. The drummer, operating on an alternate plain of existence is yet another, as is the one worry-wart. What makes it great is how they nail each role, but in an unexpected ways. Having an over-serious woman rhythm guitar player be the tech geek, a hard rocker, and be totally detached from the possibility they might accidentally kill people – brilliant. Bass players tend to be the 2nd most out-there people in bands, after drummers – so making Ben the responsible one – smart.
Max, the lead guitar player/singer just wants to rock, has little interest in and no idea what’s going on, but he’s also the guy always calling “band meeting” and poling the others. Max’s role reversal with Ben at the end is a hoot. Ben, worried about safety and ignored by everyone else, is also a familiar riff – there’s always one guy in the band who, in the opinion of the others, overthinks things and worries too much.
There’s always a Pool Party Eddie, a guy who can get you gigs, even if they’re terrible gigs. The ‘nobody came’ refrain – rite of passage for every band. It doesn’t feel good.
The final scene, where Max is finally convinced something is wrong, while Ben is jazzed out of his mind, to hell with safety – awesome. The panic moment when they don’t see Roka, the drummer, is a small but critical touch. You get it that the band members care for each other, which adds a note of feeling that keeps the film from just being slapstick. (A tiny detail I didn’t catch until like the 5th viewing: Roka and Kep are sisters.)
Roka stumbles in carrying her cymbals and a smoldering backpack, explains how she and “sound guy” had to escape the fire by crawling out the bathroom window, but then says
“That was the best show ever. that’s the most fun I’ve had since probably Kep’s birthday party.”
“That was a good party.”
“It was the best party.”
Max sums it up:
“OK, who wants to keep going and see about burning this house down on Friday?”
Maybe you had to have been in bands, I don’t know. Cracks me up.
As part of a 14 year old’s birthday party, saw Black Panther last night.
It was pretty OK. Beautiful to look at and very well acted (if you ignore what I suppose is supposed to be everybody’s generic ‘African’ accent). But I got up at one point to use the men’s room, and all I seemed to miss was how the Himalayas ended up in central Africa. (Really – isn’t Kilimanjaro the only peak in equatorial Africa that ever gets any snow? Or did I miss a geography lesson? Or are we hiding major mountain ranges now?)
Viewed as mythology, the Black Panther is fascinating. I’m not much of a comic book or classic pulp guy, most of what I know I got from movies and hearing other people talk about them. Take that into consideration here.
It seems that the archetype for an American hero is either a vigilante fighting as much against a corrupt system and against bad guys, or a tragic yet honorable character who finds himself the possessor of mystical powers. With of course some overlap. Batman versus Superman, I suppose. Or The Shadow versus Spiderman. Philip Marlowe versus the Cisco Kid? Either way, a lone man, or a lone man with a tiny support team, takes on Evil for the sake of Justice. In Superman’s case, that would be defending the innocent. In Batman’s, part of the tragedy is his love for a city full of the not-so-innocent. Both are good men, motivated in the end by a desire to do good. They are only accidentally public figures.
The Black Panther isn’t one of these. He’s a king, and not just a king but an absolute monarch. His kingdom depends on his virtue for its survival – and not just his, but his ancestors back for thousands of years! The only thing holding him in check are tradition, especially ancestor worship, and some sort of mysticism. The only laws shown to constrain him at all were laws of ceremonial combat – which merely determined who got to be absolute monarch.
As if that isn’t enough fantasy for one movie, it is also imagined that this little nation that could have easily conquered the world given its massive tech advantage, didn’t because something something. Instead, they use all that tech to hide so that, evidently, Wakandans can buy colorful hand-woven baskets from each other in open markets when they’re not inventing nanotech.
(Aside: were the war rhinos a nod to Jared Diamond? He speculates in Guns, Germs, and Steel that the Zulus, who for centuries had better steel tech than contemporary Europeans, might have conquered Europe if they’d only had domesticable mounts – he even used rhinos as his example!)
In real life, African mysticism has never constrained Africans from slaughtering each other, in the same way neither Buddhism nor Christianity have succeeded in stopping Asians and Europeans from slaughtering each other. But we accept it, somehow, like we accept Superman’s race being super just and peaceful when they’re not blowing up planets (as mentioned above, I’m fuzzy on the details here.) It makes the Black Panther and his people as alien in this respect as the natives of Krypton.
Clearly, Black Panther is meant to some extent as a departure from American superhero stories. I think the better comparison goes back much farther. Camelot leapt to mind as a better match. Not perfect, by any stretch, but better.
Arthur is a king like no other. He seeks first Justice, and the reform and improvement of those around him. His mythical kingdom is an island of high ideals in a sea of brutality and bloodshed. Fabulous and magical weapons are everywhere. The land he trod is in some sense hidden and impossible to exactly locate. His downfall and the downfall of his kingdom is due to his personal weaknesses as embodied by Mordred.
And that’s about it. With the Gawain from the Orkneys and Palamedes the Saracen, Arthur’s court was symbolically drawn from the ends of the earth, not a monoculture hidden in secret. Arthur came from flawed parents and left a destroyed kingdom behind him – no mythology of millennia of practical perfection.
Yet we await the Once and Future King, who will be God’s chosen instrument to set things aright. That’s the core mythology that Black Panther shares. His inhuman moral strength contrasts with Arthur’s clear personal failings. The vague mysticism that somehow guides T’Challa to seek justice and refrain from exercising his absolute monarchy to his personal benefit contrasts greatly with the concrete demands of Arthur’s Catholicism which Arthur concretely fails.
Of course, people are mostly talking politics. I have my doubts: an absolute monarchy that bans all refugees and refuses all trade with the outside world? Talk about border control. The happy ending isn’t a scene where millions of impoverished Africans cross into Wakanda and are welcomed and taken care of, but rather Wakanda sending way-cool aircraft to Oakland and delegations to the UN. Ummmm – what?
The best part: a black boy is deprived of his father and inheritance and grows up to be a psychopathic mass killer. The man, a king, no less, deprives this child of his father then abandons him to his fate when it was well within his power and was his duty to care for him. This act of betrayal ends up almost costing that man his own son and almost destroys his kingdom. N’Jadaka is pretty much Mordred, in other words. That all this begins in Oakland is almost too broad. The message here would be?
Possibly the weakest part of the movie is N’Jadaka’s sort of reconciliation with T’Challa at the end. We are given the ‘this is a bad, bad man’ scenes that make N’Jadaka not just a bad man, but an insane, evil man – he simply kills his lover in cold blood to get at Klaue and shows not the slightest remorse over this or any other of his dozens of kills. Yet, he gets almost soft at the end. Next to the fantasy elements of an absolute and absolutely virtuous monarch of an invisible country, this deathbed conversion of sorts is the least realistic thing about the movie. That, and the Himalayas.
Anyway, rough outline of what’s going through my mind at the moment. Subject to revision as my loyal readers point out just how crazily I missed EVERYTHING about this flick. 😉
Somebody check my meds – over the last few days, I have written about 2,000 words on GotG II, and would need another 1,000 to finish off where I was going. This, while I’ve only finally gotten back to the stories I was writing after my week-long business trip.
And it’s not even a big deal – a relatively minor point raised a couple times by Malcolm the Cynic set off my hair-trigger ‘must EXPLAIN!’ reaction, and BOOM. Sheesh.
So, going to try to cut it down and be done with it. This is it – no more overthinking this popcorn flick for me. (BTW: I have about, I dunno, 15,000 words on the Matrix in a folder someplace. It has some philosophical implications, ya know? I have issues.)
However expertly the filmmakers have worked this – and it’s good! – I find myself after the fact wondering about it. That’s not good.
The esteemable Malcolm the Cynic and I agree, as can be seen here, that upping the emotional stakes was the only way to go – you’ve already saved the galaxy once, if all you do is save it again, that’s unlikely to be very satisfying. BUT – if our heroes can resolve or at least make progress on their terrible family issues *while* saving the galaxy again, that’s something! That’s what the filmmakers did, and did very well, so well that I paid to see this movie twice.
Let’s reframe my only issue with this by means of a story I read who knows where years ago, told in order to give advice to writers:
A pulp editor was buying a series from a new promising writer, where an adventurer named Flanagan (something like that, work with me) got into and out of a series of tough spots, with each instalment ending with a cliffhanger which was resolved at the start of the next.
One week, the editor gets an episode that leaves off with Flanagan really stuck – he’s been left in the bottom of a deep pit, with razor-sharp spikes lining the walls, and has nothing with him except the clothes on his back. How will he ever escape?
The editor is eagerly waiting for the next installment, dying to see how, this time, Flanagan escapes. When it arrives, he quickly reads until he reaches the part where it is written: “With a mighty leap, Flanagan leapt out!” At which point, we can assume, the manuscript hit the wall.
So, is it wrong for a hero to leap out of a deep pit? The answer is ‘it depends’. If the hero is Spiderman, Superman or the Hulk, no – they leap (or fly) like crazy. The problem in the case of those heroes is that everybody knows they can leap out of a pit, so it’s really not a cliffhanger unless the writer adds other things to the scenario: the spikes are kryptonite, or Bruce Banner is feeling particularly melancholy for some reason, or Spiderman knows that Mary Jane gets it the second he gets out.
Being trapped in a pit is only a problem if something like the normal human rules apply. Batman or Indiana Jones are not leaping out of a deep pit – their escape would have to be set up in some other way.
In short, we have expectations, that the rules set up by the writers will be followed. Hulk can throw a tank, so having him throw a mountain is really not that much of a stretch; Superman can shove a planet, because he can pretty much do anything. But Batman can’t survive a 200′ drop onto pavement without changing the rules. He’s a rich man in a cool suit, not a superhuman.
Here’s the point I’m trying to make: what leaps out of emotional hell are we willing to accept? Is the leap plausible enough not to ruin our suspension of disbelief? I say: in GotG II, in the moment, the leaps are believable, but upon reflection, at least some are not. Further, to believe them upon reflection, I contend that one must accept the modern lie that the abandonment, manipulation, torture and use as tools *of children* isn’t all that big a deal – you can leap out of it. Like a hero falling 20 stories, you just dust those kids off and send them back into the fight. No harm done.
This – the abandonment, manipulation, torture and use as tools of children – is the heart of the divorce and hookup cultures. This is the world – Hollywood, everywhere – in which this movie is viewed. Instead of victims of such treatment being horrible outliers, they are instead everywhere. They are the norm. To recognize how profoundly traumatic divorce and abandonment are makes the emotional leaps in the movie contrived and insufficiently convincing, as if Spiderman could suddenly turn invisible or Batman had laser vision.
How is it supposed to work? Here’s Ed, from City Slickers, describing his best day ever:
I’m 14 and my mother and father are fighting again. You know, because she caught
him again. Caught him! This time, the girl drove by the house to pick him up.
I finally realised he wasn’t just cheating on my mother. He was cheating on us.
So I told him. I said “You’re bad to us. We don’t love you.”
“I’ll take care of my mother and my sister. We don’t need you any more.”
He made like he was gonna hit me, but I didn’t budge. Then he turned around and he left. Never bothered us again. But I took care of my mother and my sister from that day on. That’s my best day.
What was your worst day?
City Slickers is an interesting parallel: friends, each suffering wounds in his personal life, accept a journey that turns out more difficult than they could have imagined, both in terms of physical challenges and self-discovery. An unlikely emotional leader emerges, then dies. Wounds are reopened, yet, through the love and heroism of friends and the catharsis of achieving their mutual goal, great progress is made.
The difference: in City Slickers, everybody (well, except maybe Curly) is a regular human being, and so regular human being rules apply. In GotG II, nobody is a regular human being – yet, this isn’tSolaris, we’re supposed to relate to their humanity however packaged. The path to healing and recovery must be something a regular human being could do, otherwise, it’s an emotional Deus ex Machina.
Here are the emotional journeys I find unconvincing upon reflection:
Peter: Peter is abandoned by his father, but raised by a loving mother (and her family) for about 10 years. By modern standards, that’s almost idyllic. In reality, Pete’s is probably already a somewhat emotionally messed-up dude, but not in a way he couldn’t normally overcome with the love of others.
Then, his mother dies in front of his eyes when he’s still a child. He is kidnapped, bullied (somewhat, at least) and used by Yondu for about 24 years. Those would be pretty scarring experiences by any measure. And, they do scar him: he grows up to be a free-wheeling playboy adventurer without much of a conscience. During the opening sequence of GotG I, we learn he’s willing to betray Yondu, risk the life of the blue girl whose name he can’t remember and who he’s brought along as a bang buddy.
Despite being untrustworthy in these comparatively small things, is the stuff of heroes.
Believable? Well, maybe. Part of the drama between Gamora and Peter turns on him being a charming scoundrel willing to do plenty of evil if it works out for him – the ‘a little of both’ line at the end of GotG I cements this. So, do we buy that? Upon reflection?
The stakes are raised by increasing the emotional damage. The father who abandoned him returns, talks nice, but is ultimately revealed to be more than willing to hurt, use and even kill Peter, to have used and killed Peter’s mom and be willing to kill anyone else who gets in the way. And to destroy the universe to remake it in his own image.
On an emotional level, is this not exactly the way divorce looks to a kid ? In any other context, it stands beyond even Greek myth in its horror, more, perhaps, like Hindu myth in embracing the unreality and ultimate meaninglessness of the universe.
So Peter turns on his father and kills him with the help of his friends. He gets a little kids’ revenge on the parent who destroyed his life. He discovers that his foster dad, who had himself been horrible abused as a child and likewise used and abused him, is nonetheless his real daddy, willing to die for him.
Believable? No. In the real world, kids do not have a cathartic experience of killing off daddy that makes it all better. This is not so much exploring Peter’s emotional journey as it is acting out 70% of the audiences’ revenge fantasies. As a revenge fantasy, it works. As a plausible plot point, it fails – upon reflection.
Gamora and Nebula: These are the two characters who, under just about any believable scenario, should end up raging sociopaths or curl up and die. Perhaps they had a few years deeply and unconditionally loved by their parents before Thanos murdered their parents and proceeded to torture the girls into becoming killing machines? The problem here is if the girls were raised well enough by their natural parents to have any reserves of decency, love and morality, Thanos would not have been able to turn them into remorseless assassins. He would first have to destroy any residual goodness.
Nevertheless, like Finn in SW:TFA, each woman has reserves of goodness that no amount of trauma, torture and mistreatment could destroy, even as they act as assassins, even as they fight daily. While they are both cripples, they nonetheless can be launched on the road to healing by a little loving, by a boyfriend and by a sister. Harkening back to the divorce and abandonment culture, the relationship between these sisters is also horribly common – you can’t take it out on daddy or mommy, so you take it out on your sibling. Once you can come to grips that your mutual hatred is really simply redirected hatred of your parents, all is good! You only ignored and mistreated your sister because daddy was so mean to you! How could you be expected to notice the physical and emotional destruction – he’s turning sis into a machine on both levels – when daddy is being so mean to you?
All that’s left is to get revenge on the parents…. That’ll have to wait for a future episode.
Again, perfectly functional as a revenge fantasy. But upon reflection, not a plausible plot point. Emotional fantasy.
Yondu and Rocket: We are informed that they are each other. Where Yondu got his moral compass is unknown – again, maybe he had loving parents before his capture and molding into a soldier? But Rocket’s is pretty much inexplicable except by assuming his makers toyed around with giving him a conscience? If they could do that, why not make him obedient and docile?
Really, Yondu is the same as Nebula and Gamora, not Rocket. He just managed to escape earlier, and use his skills to become a captain – of pirates.
(All the pirates seem to be cut from the same mold – damaged children. None, certainly not Taserface, come off as the bloodthirsty psychopaths real pirates of necessity tend to be. They seem, rather, to bumble about like the Lost Boys until one captain or another executes them. It’s Pirates of the Caribbean all over again: they have heavily-armed ships and a homicidal code of honor in order to pick pockets and do a little light burglary? Yet, they’re the *good* guys, like Peter, just a little rakish.)
A 90-second heart-to-heart spot between Yondu and Rocket sets up the grand finale – Yondu’s heroic self sacrifice to save Peter.
Really worked well in the moment. Believable upon reflection? No.
Unless you like pretty pictures of food and second thoughts on Guardians of the Galaxy, there’s no excuse for this post, and no reason for you to read it. Just being upfront.
A. Did get a bunch of reading in last week, will do a couple more book reviews soon. I could get used to this. In addition to the client visit/long plane flights/boring evenings in hotels providing opportunity to read, I felt well, which reinforced how not well I have been feeling since about November. Nothing in particular, just draggy, sleepy, unfocused. Might be blood pressure meds – but those have been the same for years. Will be seeing the doctor soon, but, as usual, I always feel better after making an appointment. (If only this worked for dentists – chipped teeth and decaying fillings just heal themselves once you’ve got a date to get them fixed. No?)
B. Saw Guardians of the Galaxy II a second time because it’s Father’s Day, it’s 105F outside, and my younger daughter had not yet seen it. Gotta say: as goofy as the action is, as unnecessary 90% of the (slight, I’ll admit) potty talk is, this movie works so well on an emotional level it’s shocking. Yondu steals most scenes he’s in, manages to convince you you’ve misunderstood him all along, and gets you crying (well, I, at least, had something in my eye) near the end – and then they ratchet it up from there – and it works. One of the reasons I wanted to see it again was exactly that: had I just fallen for cynical manipulation the first time? I kind of think not – I think they really understood that the only stakes worth raising were emotional stakes, and they went at it with everything they had, and it worked.
C. Speaking of pretty pictures of food: this year, my basil crop has been and continues to be outstanding. If you’ve got basil, make pesto; if you have fresh homemade pesto, make pasta; if you have homemade pesto pasta, you must bake fresh bread. I do understand that wasting people’s time with pictures of food is lame. I’m making an exception this once (well, except for my daughters’ cakes – but those are art) because my family kept going on about how beautiful this particular loaf of bread was:
So, yea, it’s a picturesque loaf, I’ll grant. It’s the simplest loaf of yeast bread I know how to make – this one just came out particularly beautiful after the manner of its kind. Tasty, too.
D. On the flight back from Atlanta, got to see lots of snow. There was plenty in the Rockies near the New Mexico-Colorado border, on into Utah (especially considering I was on the right side of the plane heading west, meaning I was mostly looking at south-facing and thus less snowy slopes) .
The real snow action was the Sierra:
Hetch Hetchy, I think
Southern Sierra, looking north from roughly over Yosemite.
We seemed to be flying right over Yosemite, so my view was of Mono Lake (too low for snow, just north and east if Mt. Whitney and just north of the Long Valley Caldera), Hetch Hetchy, which is the valley on the western slopes just north of Yosemite and which contains San Francisco’s main reservoir, and the high granite domes which make up the bulk of the high southern Sierra.
Lots of snow, even in mid-June. Several ski areas have announced that they will be open through August! The pictures are too small to see this, I suppose, but even from the air you could see areas above 8,000 or 9,000 feet just buried in snow. Along the western side, I could see white-water waterfalls coming off those high granite domes down into the valleys, and all the rivers were likewise white until well into the foothills. Spectacular.
E. My son asked long ago for me to make him a shield. After googling around, I decided to try fiberglass. Just because I’ve never done it before. So I made a hardboard form, if you will, gave it three coats of varnish to seal it, had my son apply 4 coats of wax to it. I’d attached some 3X2 boards along the sides, screwed in a couple big hooks, had my son lean on it in the middle, them wired between the hooks to get the curve:
Then we applied the world’s sloppiest gel coat – hey, it was our first time! As soon as we can get 2 uninterrupted hours, we will put on 4 layers – 2 mat, 2 cloth – and epoxy in a handle and adjustable strap. Then let cure over night.