Iron Lensman

Every now and then I have the impulse to do a little literary criticism, although I can usually control it with prescription medication. But the other day I was watching Iron Man II (I really watched the MCU out of order) and a parallel struck me that I haven’t heard anyone else talk about before, so you lucky readers get to hear me ramble on about it.

The Lensman series, by E. E. “Doc” Smith was one of the seminal works of Golden Age SF, appearing in Astounding magazine from 1937-1948, and later reworked in the 1950s as a series of seven novels. Roughly, the titular heroes, the Lensmen, were an organization that fought crime on a galactic scale. Their lenses amplified their psionic powers, and no person who could be corrupted by wealth and power could wield a lens.

The length of the series, the poverty of the plot (which generally just featured the Lensmen going up against more and more powerful foes, armed with ever-more esoteric and larger superbattlefleets) and Smith’s excruciatingly awful prose meant that the Lensman series never saw release as anything approaching a major motion picture, which is on some level a relief and on another a profound disappointment. I always thought the series might have some hope in the hands of a really awesome screenwriter. But the themes he launched were a major influence on Star Wars (incorruptible psionic supersoldiers, anyone?) Other than that, it’s hard to find a direct heir to Smith’s style of storytelling.

And then it hit me that Tony Stark is pretty much a lensman par excellance, updated for the modern world. There are several parallels: like many other writers of that generation, such as Asimov, to whose Foundation series Smith lost the 1966 Hugo for Best Series, Smith’s lensmen are trained and expected to function as scientists, and frequently make discoveries and invent new weapons and vehicles. This whole thing struck me as i watched Tony Stark invent a new element under the guidance of his father’s notes to replace the palladium in his arc reactor heart. Like the lensmen, Tony Stark relies on a scientistic talisman that grants him his power, but it is always clear that his real power is in his willingness to do the right thing. Also like the first family of lensmen, the Kinnisons, Tony Stark gets a big helping hand from his father’s legacy of great genes and connections. Finally, by Civil War we see that Tony Stark is also concerned, as was Smith, with the idea of oversight. There is a major difference here, since the lensman’s source of power was also his shield against corruption. Tony Stark loses faith in himself and his fellow Avengers, but it’s interesting to me that this lack of faith is ultimately shown to be misplaced when he goes up against Captain America. Who also has his own “lens” made for him by Howard Stark, in a sense. The shape is even similar.

Although I really liked the conclusion of the major arc of the MCU, I’m going to miss Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. I hope that another generation of lensmen — whatever they are called — comes quickly.

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Movie Reviews Far Too Late: House. Or, The Worst Horror Movie In The World.

Not the hit TV series starring Hugh Laurie. The 80s horror-schlock film starring George Wendt and some guy who was utterly forgettable as the protagonist.

So, every now and then, I get the urge to do something completely silly. Make random recipes off the internet, see how well I remember the lyrics to whole musicals, vote Libertarian, etc. And one of the things I do is watch old movies on Netflix or Amazon that I thought looked intriguing once upon a time. This is how I came to watch House.

I remember previews for House from the 1980s. It was billed as a comedy-horror or a horror-comedy. I also really like the haunted-house conceit. So I decided to give it a try and see if it was material for a cult classic.

What I found was, in fact, material that I shall use if I ever want to teach a class entitled, “Writing: How Not To Do It.” A brief catalogue of its sins will be listed below, because a comprehensive one would be longer than the film. For the hard-of-thinking, this will contain what would otherwise be called spoilers, but this film is so far gone it really can’t be spoiled.

The Junkpiled Protagonist: Our protagonist is a writer (gosh, wonder where that came from?) who is traumatized by, in no particular order, the fact that he is suffering from writers’ block, possibly brought on by his son who has disappeared from his front yard, his wife who has divorced him because of the missing son, and his Vietnam-induced PTSD. The effect is that this guy has so much shit to deal with that it’s impossible for us to care about any one issue.

The Incoherent Backstory: Apparently, the son disappeared while playing in the yard of the titular House, while I guess visiting there, because the House belongs to protagonist’s crazy aunt, but the whole family was to all appearances living there when the kid vanished. It’s implied that he either or both was kidnapped by people in a car streaking away or vanished from the House’s swimming pool before his father’s eyes.

The Endless Red Herrings: The car streaking away turns out to be only the first of myriad fake clues strewn all over the plot. Also included are Bosch/Daliesque paintings done by the aunt, endless scenes involving a medicine cabinet, a love interest that never materializes, strong hints that protagonist is completely delusional and hallucinating literally everything in the movie, and to top it all off, LITERALLY EVERY MONSTER IN THE FILM BUT ONE.

The Wandering Plot Monster: So we see the protagonist move into his aunt’s House (the same one his son vanished from and that he seemed to have been living in before) right after she has hanged herself, and despite getting fairly convincing evidence that the House is haunted — like, the ghost of his aunt appearing and saying, pretty much, “The House killed me.” — does nothing about it. Just sits and tries to plow on through his memoir of the Vietnam War despite the fact that his publisher has told him it won’t sell, and despite increasing but halfhearted attempts by the House to kill him. The fact that the protagonist looks very much like Ted from Airplane! with a perm does not add to the gravitas of these scenes. Closely related to this is…

The Idiot Plot: This is pretty much the whole film. Our protagonist kills humanoid monsters and buries them in broad daylight in six-inch shallow graves in his backyard. He completely ignores apparitions of his son begging for help. Despite the fact that the House’s clock loudly rings midnight right before monsters appear in the closets, it takes him two or three times to get it. Despite the fact that he’s a soldier, it takes him most of the movie to figure out that he might want to use guns. Despite the fact that his own son vanished in the House, he allows his sexy neighbor to use him as impromptu unpaid babysitting so she can go out clubbing and leaves the kid alone in a room of the House, from which he is promptly kidnapped by shapeshifting spirits, which he already knows the House contains. Through all of this, he continues to behave as though the most important thing is plowing on with his story of how he lost his pretty-much-an-asshole buddy in Vietnam.

The Horrible Climax: In the end, it is revealed that the cause of his son’s disappearance, the mastermind behind the House, is the ghost of his old war buddy, who has never forgiven protagonist for — get this — NOT killing him on Vietnam when he was wounded. Because protagonist went to get help instead, leaving his buddy to be carried away by the VC, who tortured him to death. So his spirit apparently decided to get revenge by invading protagonist’s aunt’s house, and kidnapping the kid to the jungles of Vietnam in another dimension, which can only be reached from inside the House.
So, EVERYTHING else in the House — the creepy distorted woman he killed, the baby kidnappers, the Lovecraftian closet-monster, the animated tools — all of this was just incidental. We never find out how long the kid was kidnapped for. Enough time for a divorce, for great-aunt to put him in a spooky painting, and for her to commit suicide. Of course, she blames the kid’s disappearance on the House from the beginning, so apparently it was haunted before Evil War Buddy Ghost got there? And I guess it was just a great place for him to take over? He’s actually a pretty knowledgeable and subtle strategist, this guy.

The only way this movie ever got made is that it was during the Great Eighties Horror Boom, when studios were desperate to mimic things like Nightmare On Elm Street and Friday the 13th Part Billion. And the production values are so low that I kept expecting to see Made In China stamped on the rubber suits. I’ve literally seen these mistakes made and avoided by high-schoolers. Take these lessons to heart: this film is not “so bad it’s good.” But it is bad enough to learn some lessons from.

A Late Review From Avalon: Ready Player One

So, obviously, what with the huge copyright issues involved and not being an idiot, I expected a whole lot of changes to Ready Player One when I sat down to watch the movie. It was, considered as a thing in itself, not terrible.

But it wasn’t the same story, either. And that was disappointing.

See, what made Ready Player One work for me was never the awesome geekery of the premise. That was always just the icing on the cake. Really cool icing, but icing. What made the story work was Wade’s journey of self-discovery. It was the old story of a loser taking on the system, but most importantly, the way he stopped being a loser and grew from a hurt little boy to a very dangerous man. A man who stepped into the dragon’s lair to steal the prize and walked out again.

All that went away. Instead, the characters pretty much just walked through a cheesy video game solving puzzles that the book’s Wade Watts would have figured out without a second thought.

The subtlety also went away. We don’t get to see Wade and Art3mis slowly falling for each other while trying to outdo each other at the same time. We don’t get to see Aech’s and Wade’s friendship develop. And don’t tell me that this isn’t possible in movies. The book’s source material: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Ladyhawke, The Breakfast Club,  all excelled in weaving atmospheric slow builds of character development throughout their scripts. Hell, even The Goonies did. But Ready Player One is a sprint to the finish, with the outcome never really in doubt.

And as the protagonists were dumbed down, so did the villains have to be. Nolan Sorrento of the book was a dangerous, evil geek, who wrote his own video games and could almost match Wade’s knowledge.* He was a villain that you could respect. The Sorrento of the film is Dilbert’s PHB, dumb enough to leave a ridiculously easy-to-memorize password out where anyone can see it.

In short the movie isn’t a disappointment because it isn’t the book. It’s a disappointment because it’s so much less than the book.

And it didn’t have to be.

*I will admit this was one of the major flaws in the book: the idea that someone of Sorrento’s talents with his resources of literally hundreds of professional geeks would not have won the contest in a walk, but the Rule Of Cool nullifies that.

Movie Review: Ralph Wrecks Himself

The following review contains spoilers for both Wreck-It Ralph movies.

So I thought that the original Wreck-It Ralph was one of the better children’s movies that came out that year. It was smart and funny, with a whole lot of game references that 80s and 90s kids could enjoy. The messages for the kids were on the whole, good (stand up for yourself and for others. Don’t be fooled by those who say they’re excluding and hurting you for your own good) but didn’t overwhelm a good story. And you know, central to that entire good story was that it was an uplifting story told by way of children’s comedy: the good guys do win in the end, and they win by laying it all on the line for one another: Ralph risks his life to save Vanellope, and Vanellope risks hers to save Ralph right back. It’s actually a pretty sophisticated story, too. Here are two people who actually hurt each other to save themselves: Vanellope steals Ralph’s medal, and Ralph wrecks Vanellope’s car to get it back. Their flaws are complementary, but similar. Vanellope steals the coin out of pure desperate selfishness, not caring whether it hurts Ralph or not. Ralph does care that wrecking the car hurts Vanellope, but he does it anyway, choosing to believe King Candy/Turbo in a way that conveniently gets him what he wants. They find out that relying on each other works. Using each other doesn’t.

In light of this, Ralph Wrecks The Internet was bland, message-heavy, and an incredible downer. Rather than a story centered around bringing people together, this story is about how to be a friend when life carries you apart. And while there is truth and value in such a story — even a story for kids — it’s just antithetical to the atmosphere of goofy fun rather than in support of it. We’ve seen Ralph and Vanellope become friends. We want to see them have an adventure together, not get almost ripped apart by it. Essentially, it’s a giant sermon about the dangers of codependence, and the object of that sermon is Ralph himself. Ralph, who doesn’t want to lose his first and oldest friend, is a bad person for this. And the way the story is written, yes, he has it coming for sabotaging Vanellope’s decisions. But we don;t want to see him be this way. It’s like he just backslides and becomes a lesser character rather than a greater one.

Moreover, the film very much makes Ralph the designated asshole of the plot. Its made clear in no uncertain terms that he has no claim on Vanellope’s life. Okay, granted. But despite the incredible work he puts into saving Vanellope’s game for her, it’s only barely hinted that just maybe Vanellope does owe Ralph the common courtesy of telling him that she’s not so sure she wants what he’s doing for her anymore. She lets him go through an enormous amount of pain and work on her behalf, and then, when all the hidden motives are revealed, only Ralph really gets censured for being a jerk. No doubt, he was a jerk. But Vanellope’s deception of omission was hardly less hurtful than Ralph’s.

In the end, the film was a letdown in which it felt like the audience was directed who to cheer for, instead of being given a real reason to cheer for them. And although the ending was happy in that Ralph and Vanellope still had a friendship, that friendship was inevitably diminished, and the characters were weakened, not strengthened by it. They both lost. And I felt like the audience lost, too.

Movie Reviews Far Too Late: The Road Warrior

I decided the other week to fill in one of the holes in my filmography and watch The Road Warrior, which I somehow missed seeing. I feel like I missed a few classic movies in the following manner: Too young to see it when it came out (I was 8 in 1981), too many other things to see to bother watching it when I was a teen, and it seemed old, trashy  and hard to get when I grew up. Thank you public library!

Now I saw Mad Max: Fury Road in theaters and absolutely loved it. It was much, much better than I had expected it to be, and watching The Road Warrior it was obvious that the director had seen and loved it, too. This was the film to which Fury Road was the homage. I mean the parallels between Immortan Joe and The Humungus, and the chase of the big rig are all too obvious to be worth re-hashing. In general, I feel that Fury Road did a wonderful job of staying true to the feel of its source while also elevating it to heights of spectacle and madness that just weren’t possible in 1981.

The one thing that really bothers me about The Road Warrior, though is that I felt the ending suffered from a terrible case of anticlimax, almost as though the writer really could not tell whether Lord Humungus or Wez was supposed to be the “real” antagonist for Max. It seems obvious that the roles were originally envisioned in such a fashion as to be analogous to Darth Vader’s and the Emperor’s relationship to Luke, in that Darth Vader was to be the more personal antagonist, with the Emperor being the ultimate power. In that light, it makes sense that Luke must defeat (not kill) Darth Vader first in order to ultimately defeat (again, not kill) the Emperor.

But in The Road Warrior it is curious that the ultimate death of Humungus happens so quickly. It makes sense, in that Mad Max turns the tanker around and Humungus doesn’t know about (blind hills can be dangerous, kids!) But the fact that timing such a collision would be almost impossible, and that there is further no evidence in the film that Max planned it, really made it feel like the director simply ordained that Max would win. Max is driving a rig, Humungus a car, and Humungus dies. Very unlike the death of Immortan Joe, who is killed more or less in hand-to-hand combat. Killed by a trick with a chain and a car, yes. But killed much more by planned physical violence. Humungus’s death is pretty much an accident. Having Wez die in the same accident — while distracting Max on top of it — only amplifies the anticlimax. The whole thing left me feeling unsatisfied.

I’d love to hear anyone else’s take on it. What was here that I missed?

Black Panther And Infinity War: Choosing Who Dies On Your Hills.

So, to continue my earlier post on Black Panther, I just really want to know what the MCU was thinking when they allowed Black Panther to die as a result of Thanos’s snap.

And here, I’m not talking about the insensitivity toward a whole lot of Black fans felt by MCU making that move. That’s been discussed, in depth, by Steven Barnes and a whole lot of other people better qualified than me to do it, so I’m not bothering to recap it here. Put simply, it was really bad writing that took a dump on a franchise that MCU had obviously tried to elevate.

I mean, in a sense, Avengers: Infinity War really wrote itself into a corner. Thanos is essentially Sauron, trying to get his hands on a six-part One Ring that makes him invincible. The idea that Frodo has to win by first allowing Sauron to succeed is really fascinating. But they have Wakanda playing the role of Minas Tirith, and losing the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. But killing off all of Wakanda’s men, save M’Baku, was really foolish. Firstly, you never alienate an entire franchise’s fanbase. That’s just bad marketing.

Secondly, it really doesn’t matter that T’Challa et al. are coming back. Because now, they can never really be the ultimate heroes. They will always be the ones who had to be rescued by the real heroes. And it doesn’t matter that it was random, or that it was unfair. It’s unfair in sports when, say, a wide receiver misses a catch in the end-zone under double coverage that would have been almost impossible to catch, and then a kicker who makes a 25-yard field goal is hailed as the hero for winning the game. The kicker’s job was MUCH easier. But in sports and war that’s just the kind of unforgiving valorization of results that we have to have. In the end, victory is all that really matters, and anyone who’s ever played a game knows that this is so.

In the end, it’s just bad writing to set up characters to be the kind of heroes that Black Panther’s characters were set up to be and then kill off the main hero. It would have been far better to leave T’Challa alive and the king of nothing. Then he can redeem his failure by resurrecting the nation. And it’s not really fair either to point out that other franchises lost their heroes, too, even though it’s true that they did. Peter Quill died, yes, but in some ways, Thanos’s victory was his fault for spoiling the Removal Of The Gauntlet, so he had it coming. Spiderman died, but compared to the rest of the Avengers, he was a kid, hardly expected to pull his own weight. Only T’Challa was a king.

The only way I can see for MCU to come close to redeeming this is for the defeated characters to somehow be brought back prior to Thanos’s defeat, and being absolutely key to that defeat. In other words, for T’Challa et al. to rescue the survivors of Infinity War right back.

Black Panther, The Oscars, and the Writing of Really Great Superhero Movies

So, Black Panther was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, and I’ll be the first (actually, the millionth) to say that it deserves the nomination, at least as much as Star Wars did in 1978. Whether it wins or not, it’s a stunning film.

I’m going to preface this with a note: I’m pretty sure that I will never feel, on a gut level, how important Black Panther was to Black Americans. My Black friends who care about such things are absolutely in love with the movie, and I suspect, were I Black, I would be, too, and for a host of reasons I can only partially fathom. I think it is an awesome movie.

And yet… somehow, for me, it doesn’t quite measure up to the very best of the best movies in the superhero genre, and it took me awhile to figure out why. There was just something about it that kept me from putting it on the same level as Captain America: Civil War and The Incredibles. Because these are the superhero movies I watch again and again.

I finally figured it out a couple of days ago, and when I did it hit me like a freight train, because I’ve seen the exact same flaw in my own work, and in other unpublished novels. The problem is that it’s hard to explain. The best way I can say it is this: when you are working with complex characters, it is often very tempting to put them on the stage alone, or with only one other character. Doing so allows you to make the audience focus on them. In addition, it is VERY tempting to make especially your villains into ultimate badasses. After all, the more powerful they are, the more glorious your hero’s victory over them.

Black Panther does this with Erik Killmonger. Killmonger arrives, having killed his former partner, Ulysses Klaue — which T’Challa could not do* — and leverages this into a bid for the Wakandan throne, revealing his identity as an abandoned Wakandan prince of the blood.

But unfortunately, this screws with the film in two other ways. Firstly, it forces the film into a scene that is almost purely repetitive. We have to go through the entire “duel for the throne” that T’Challa just won against the Jabari challenger. It forces us to tread over ground already covered. Secondly, it throws the whole Wakandan throne — or T’Challa’s judgment — into question. If the throne is permanently open to challenge, then how stable can it be? It can’t and the film implies that T’Challa, already having gone through the challenge, would have been well within his rights to refuse the challenge. But he accepts, in what I consider to be the weakest part of the film. It actually makes T’Challa less of a hero, because he places Wakanda at risk of being taken over by a monarch who will have absolute power, who has shown the willingness and potential to brutally destabilize the world, and who has no reason, really, to keep Wakanda safe: Killmonger pretty much blames Wakandan inaction not only for his own terrible life, but for the unopposed colonialism and conquest of the developing world. Why does T’Challa do this? Because of guilt at his father’s action? Because he believes he can’t be defeated? Neither is a good reason.

With the admitted benefits of hindsight, I think that there were ways to avoid this. For example: Suppose the coronation itself is interrupted by the need to apprehend Klaue and the stolen vibranium. T’Challa points out that a true king must prioritize the defense of the nation over his official coronation. Then, while having the wounded Ross airlifted out by Okoye and Nakia, he chases down Klaue and Killmonger. Killmonger shoots Klaue in the back, and then proceeds to fight T’Challa and lose. Upon surrendering, he is taken into custody.

Back in Wakanda, Killmonger asks only one favor for his plea of guilt: he asks, as a descendant of the African Diaspora, to witness the Wakandan coronation ceremony. T’Challa accedes to this harmless request. At the coronation, the Jabari challenge. T’Challa wins as we saw in the film (which already hints that the Black Panther must face any and all legitimate challengers). As T’Challa rises in victory, Killmonger reveals his identity as N’Jadaka, before everyone, and claims his right to challenge as a prince of the blood. He is fresh, and T’Challa is tired, but he is within his rights. He has orchestrated the entire situation to be where he is at the right time. It makes him a little less physically imposing, but it makes him frighteningly smart. It makes T’Challa less of a dupe, because how could he have suspected such a plan? His own father unwittingly set him up. And halfway through the duel, of course, Killmonger can start telling him — and showing him — that their “fight” before had been Killmonger deliberately losing. And since it’s all one scene, we don’t have any feeling that this is covering old ground.

Even better, when T’Challa’s mother recovers him and the heart-shaped herb and takes him to the Jabari, it is discovered that Killmonger, in secret, provoked the Jabari to the challenge (we never do get a very good explanation for why they broke their isolation in the film) and used their chieftain as a stalking horse to weaken T’Challa to ensure his own victory. This can be the reason that the Jabari decide to back T’Challa, to avenge their having been played by the usurper.

I think this approach would have resulted in a more streamlined film, which would have made T’Challa more consistent with his awesome portrayal in Civil War, and does not require diminishing any other aspect of this very fine movie. Of course, it’s not going to happen. That’s not the point. The point is that I hope I — and you, if you’re a writer — can incorporate the techniques discussed to improve our own fiction.

*Actually, and this is a wonderful bit of subtlety in the film, he chooses not to to keep his people — and Agent Ross, his ally — safe. Because that’s the awesome kind of king T’Challa is.

Less Is Not More, And Deconstruction Does Not Build.

Last week, my retro review on the film No Country For Old Men got a fair amount of commentary from people (for my blog, anyway), from people who liked the film. One friend of mine said that he found its deconstruction and defiance of tropes refreshing.

Of course, it shouldn’t be necessary (but I admit that it is) to say that anyone can like anything, for any reason. We all have films we “just like” no matter what, either because we think they’re objectively better than most people do, and can defend that on some level, or they just tickle our “cool” centers in all the right ways. And if No Country For Old Men is to your taste, then far be it from me to say you can’t or shouldn’t like it.

But I do challenge the defense of the film on the grounds that it defies conventions. Nothing is good or interesting JUST because it “defies” anything. A raw onion sundae would “defy” the tropes and conventions of dessert. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

For too long, critics and authors who would claim the avant-garde position have used the term “deconstruction” as a defense for works that ignore or leave out major elements of storytelling, and use it to praise them as somehow being wonderfully creative or bold. And I’m sorry, but it’s past time for someone to say that The Emperor Has No Clothes. And I find that analogy strictly accurate. The Emperor’s problem wasn’t that he said, “Hey, everyone, I’ve decided that nudity is the way to go!” No, the problem was that he insisted that everyone admire his “new clothes” and threatened to call them fools if they refused and spoke the truth.

In the same way, works like No Country For Old Men provides less than a traditional story and their writers and admirers insist that they are more. That they are somehow “more real” or “more authentic” than a “traditional narrative” because it lacks what that narrative provides: structure, conflict and resolution. It’s like Raw Food fanatics who don’t cook and insist that they are superior for refusing to. And those are all the marks of a fad, not of penetrating insight.

Now, does that mean that deconstruction is always bad? Of course not. Especially as a writing exercise, it can be very good, because it can point readers and writers to fresh understandings of how and why stories work. Just like tasting raw foods can help people become better cooks and appreciate a wider variety of tastes. But acknowledging and using that fact is very different from plopping some artistically-arranged crudité on someone’s plate and telling them it’s better or more “authentic” because it defies the tropes of cooking.

And yes, of course “traditional narratives” can get old, tired and overdone. But that doesn’t mean that they are automatically old, tired and overdone simply by adhering to conventions of structure, any more than cooking or clothing can become passe by applying heat to food or cloth to bodies. In fact, what is more likely is that the “challenges” to these structures will become passe even more quickly, because they are by definition less complex and more reliant on a single factor to please their audience: the “defiance” of convention. They have little or nothing else to recommend them.

And when these avant-garde, deconstructionist, “challenging” scripts are themselves, in the normal course of things, challenged, too many of their admirers defend them by essentially saying, “If you don’t like it, you’re just too stupid and unsophisticated.” That this is not even an argument, let alone a good one, should hardly need to be stated. And if it is to be contended that the man who can appreciate more tastes is more sophisticated than the man who can appreciate fewer, the limits should be obvious. Certainly, a man who can only eat chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese is no better than a five year-old child. A man who can appreciate lobster, caviar, and balut is likely a passable gourmand. But a man who can appreciate eating wood-shavings and moldy tomatoes is at least flirting with insanity.

Finally, I reject the contention that deconstruction or defiance is necessary to engage with the full range of human experience. Certainly, there is value in pessimistic themes, such as memento mori, or the idea that fate will work against the righteous and support the evildoer. But as I pointed out previously, that was being done as long ago as Oedipus Rex and arguably, Gilgamesh. In fact, Llewellyn Moss’s character in No Country For Old Men bears some resemblance to Gilgamesh: a “hero” who essentially wants to steal happiness and yet finds out that he can’t because fate will not allow it. Therefore it is disingenuous — and in fact objectively false — to argue that the expressions of such themes are somehow objectively “new and refreshing.” In fact, it is just another well-known trope with “the gods” and “fate” filed off and replaced by labels saying “chaos” and “real life.” It is, as I said, Satanas ex machina, with the writers taking the side of the villains rather than the heroes.

Furthermore, were we to hold the sequence of events laid out in No Country For Old Men up to a mirror, with the heroes in the place of the villains, with Chigurh running stupidly after Moss but being thwarted at every turn by the power of the hero’s… well, purity and righteousness (since the only explanation we ever get as to how Chigurh can vanish in the middle of gunfights, and appear noiselessly behind ex-special-forces officers is that he’s a relentless psychopath), the story you’d get would be somewhere between the fantasies concocted by my 9-year old (in which the Rebel Alliance has 5 Death Stars and destroys the Empire with contemptuous ease) and bad anime, where the heroes laugh/sneer at the bad guys while kicking their ass. And people would justly say, that it is puerile and simplistic. But somehow, when nihilism and brutality are held up as the bestowers of supremacy, rather than faith and chivalry, we are to believe it is thoughtful and sophisticated.

And this is simply wrongheaded. It is false sophistication, similar to the college student who sneers at his middle-school brother for slurping down strawberry soda while extolling black coffee and chugging Budweiser. It’s saying, “Look how grown-up I am!” It says more about the critic than it does about the film when what is NOT there, (character motivation, backstory, plot structure) is held up as a virtue. It’s not a virtue. It’s actually less. And it can be a very well-acted/directed “less,” (which I will stipulate that No Country For Old Men is) just as bad anime or science-fiction can LOOK awesome. And of course, it’s possible for that to be more enjoyable. There’s LOTS of “traditional narrative” films worse than No Country For Old Men, just as I’ve had lots of “apple pies” that have tasted worse than a really good raw apple. But a true judgment will be found in comparing the best of both.

 

 

 

Retro Review: No Country For Old Men… Or Anyone Else.

Spoilers Be Here, for anyone who still wants to see it.

So, having nothing better to do while I wrapped presents, I decided to fill in the gaps in my filmography and watch NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN on Netflix, having heard that it was good from… well, lots of places.

Tell me, when did Tommy Lee Jones let people convince him that it was intellectual to appear in movies where nihilism got substituted for plot? For that matter, when did Americans get convinced of that? And can we all finally agree that it’s basically the professorially approved version of the neckbeards who go around thinking that reading Ayn Rand makes them edgy?

This movie is basically The Hunted with two more characters, and a less-satisfying ending, which up until this point I would not have believed possible. But no, we’re not supposed to be disappointed with the ending, in which the supposed protagonist gets killed off-screen by random Mexican drug-lords, the villain walks away from a random car crash, and Tommy Lee Jones literally never sees either of them. No, we’re supposed to admire, as one critic tells us, how “The Neo-Western which builds on recognizable Western imagery to reach a very different conclusion and worldview. ” One in which “We’re left with a frightening interplay of the arbitrary and the inevitable, in which we must fear both moral punishment and the total lack of moral order, yet can’t trust in either,” because Moss the thief protagonist is killed, the sadistic villain Chigurh gets away, and the sheriff never comes close to saving or catching anyone.

We’re supposed to believe that this symbolizes the triumph of chaos and nihilism, and that Chigurh’s ending — that Chigurh himself, symbolized by his coin toss — is a sort of avatar of merciless fate. Which is absolute and total bullshit for any constructed story as a claim. Because there is no structure here. There is no overwhelming weakness of the protagonists that leads to their downfall, nor any strength to the villain that ensures his triumph. The only chaos that is generated is that which the Coen brothers generate themselves. Which is, of course, as all bad writers know, MUCH easier than writing characters. Characters have to have consistent motivations, skillsets, ethics, etc. But Fate can do anything, at any time. Can’t question it; it’s Fate! This is not innovative writing nor is it new. It is a mere funhouse reflection of the old, a Satanas ex machina in which the forces of evil obey the writers’ command to turn everything to shit.

In so doing, the film recapitulates the old saw that gets trotted out in every shitty graduate English Studies department in the world when you dare oppose the orthodoxy of nihilism and the Miserific Vision of the senseless, the brutal, the chaotic world: “It is questioning the idea of meaning.” I remember asking, when I was still in one of those programs myself, “Well, do I get to question the utility of that question?” My professor just looked at me and said, “No.”

And that is why films like NO COUNTRY are symbolic, not of some transcendent truth about the triumph of chaos, but of the infantilization of studies of Literature. You’re just not allowed to question the question. Essentially, the writers of such films get to put their fingers in their ears and scream “I asked first!” and pout at you for not playing their game. But it isn’t a game. It’s not that interesting, because the outcome has been predetermined from the start. It’s Oedipus Rex with the basic goodness and nobility of Oedipus subtracted from it. Instead of a man who wanted to be a hero brought low by the machinations of the gods, we have a low opportunist smacked down by fate and a sadistic hit man elevated because reasons. This isn’t a reexamination, much less an insight, into old themes, it is their parody and degradation. It is, as Chesterton said, “the thought that kills thought.” And as Roger Ebert said of another film, “It is like the story of a man falling off a cliff. There is no possible action but that he continue to fall, and no possible outcome but that he hit the ground and die.” The only difference in this film is that we are made to think that there might be a different outcome for most of it. In other words, NO COUNTRY was a bait-and-switch that robs not only old men of their country, but the rest of us of two hours of our lives.

And the sons-of-bitches who committed it ought to be made to give it back.

 

How Not To Worldbuild: Ep. I, The Phantom Mess.

So, I realize it’s a little late to bash on Star Wars, Ep. I, The Phantom Menace, but I have a good excuse; I have three children. So upon discovering that the prequels existed, which they did by the subtle and clever ability of knowing how to count things in a sequence, they asked me if I would please, please PLEASE check out the prequels from the library so they could watch it despite my wife’s and my strong moral position of not having such filth in our house.

These are the struggles facing those of us who dare to parent responsibly and with discipline.

But yes, I caved.

And I am proud that one of the first questions my son asked was pretty much: “So what’s a blockade, and how come the Trade Federation can just do that?”

Which of course, was one of the questions that Lucas should have asked himself before penning this godsawful mess. See, in the opening crawl, we are told that the whole mess with Naboo stemmed from the taxation of “outlying trade routes” being “in dispute.” Which led to the Trade Federation imposing a supposedly “perfectly legal” blockade of Naboo because…

Because why? Because it was Freak-Out Friday? We know that Naboo and the Trade Federation are both member states of this Galactic Republic. I mean, ignoring the fact that a blockade is pretty much always an act of war, and ignoring the fact that I can’t even THINK of a historical precedent for a polity that would legally allow one member state to straight-up blockade another member state, what possible advantage does this confer to the Trade Federation? Senator Palpatine later says that the “taxation” of the trade routes issue began in the Galactic Senate, but never says who was taxing what, or why, or how the Trade Federation blockading Naboo makes sense as a retaliatory measure.

As a side note, I think the only thing that makes remote sense is that somehow, Naboo refused to pay the taxes, and the Trade Federation retaliated with a blockade. And when Chancellor Velorum sent the Jedi to negotiate, Sidious ordered their deaths and the subsequent invasion of Naboo to prolong the crisis. Of course, this is pretty funny when you realize that the whole thing relies on the Senate being just fine with ignoring the invasion of Naboo, AND YET ready to remove the Chancellor for IGNORING the invasion of Naboo, AND THEN replacing him with the Senator from Naboo, who will not ignore the invasion of Naboo.

Now, I suppose one can always say that that’s a hell of a lot of backstory that’s not very interesting, but that ignores the fact that the original Star Wars painted a completely logical picture of the Imperial Government with just a few sentences in passing:

“Holding her is dangerous. If word leaks out, it could generate sympathy for the Rebellion in the Senate.”

“Send a distress signal. Then inform the Senate that all aboard were killed.”

And later…

“The Imperial Senate will no longer be of any concern to us. I’ve just received word that the Emperor has dissolved the council permanently. The last remnants of the Old Republic have been swept away.”

“That’s impossible! How will the Emperor maintain control without the bureaucracy?”

“The regional governors will now have direct control… fear will keep the local systems in line. Fear of this battle station.”

In five sentences, we have a complete and coherent picture: The Emperor is consolidating control over the relatively-new Galactic Empire, and using the equivalent of nuclear weapons to do it. He and Vader are keeping the inflammatory arrest of a Senator for treason quiet until the Emperor can dissolve the Senate, and the Death Star is ready to back the power play. All of this is reasonable, and it takes maybe three minutes of dialogue. That’s excellent worldbuilding.

Twenty years later, in its place, we have far more dialogue that gets us exactly nowhere. It’s like he just didn’t care.