What Joy?


A few days ago, I watched the first three or four episodes of AMC’s Into the Badlands–yes, I know I’m late to the party and that the show premiered in 2015. I’m uncool. Bear with me.

Into the Badlands, a modern take on the 16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en, seemed right up my alley: A cross between post-apocalyptic survival, martial arts, and political intrigue among the feudal barons with a strong aesthetic that manages to combine elements of kung-fu cinema, Westerns, and even a 1930s/1940s vibe. Sign me up!

Daniel Wu as Sunny.

Except . . . besides being visually stunning–which it is–the show is unremittingly dreary and depressing.

It’s another one of those TV shows where everyone is serious all the time (the acting is pretty stiff, actually), the world is run by the ruthless and the power-mad who will kill anyone who gets in their way, the rank-and-file seem hopeless and similarly bash each other senseless in order to curry what little favor they can, and save for one subplot there doesn’t seem to be any such thing as romantic love.

No thanks.

I know that these are standard tropes of the post-apocalyptic genre, and that nihilism is a hallmark–see, there’s not always hope! Maybe lots of people like this. To me, however, this trend has gotten really old and really flat. In short, it’s kinda beige.

We are what we consume. I’d rather not consume hopelessness, thanks.  Continue reading “What Joy?”

Hail Action!

I ran a poll recently. It was arguably the most important poll in the history of Western Civilization:

Bloodsport vs. Road House vs. Point Break vs. Commando. Who ya got?

Commando won, but each movie got some love. I also got a lot of great reactions about all four films.

In short, these four mainstays of the 1980s/early 1990s action movie genre remain memorable despite of–or maybe because of–their alleged “cheesiness.”

Maybe they’re cheesy. All I know is that I, along with millions of others, love these four films to death.

I have written about Road House before, and Patrick Swayze’s character Dalton’s recommendation to “I want you to be nice . . . until it’s time to not be nice. He also say stuff like “Pain don’t hurt” and “You’re too stupid to have a good time.”

Lines like these are other reasons why the four movies I polled people on remain popular. I mean, Commando is pretty much one big one-liner. Even Point Break has some classics, with “Vaya con dios,” and “Utah! Get me two!”

Bloodsport is a little light on the one-liners, but I still chuckle whenever Ray Jackson, played by Donald Gibb, tells the Federal agent–played by Forrest Whitaker!–“I ain’t your pal, dickface.

Yeah, I’m mature.

But the one-liners aren’t the only reason these movies remain so beloved, or watchable.

Scratch that. They’re not just watchable, they’re re-watchable. Is it because they’re “so bad they’re good”? Kind of. I think it’s deeper than that. I think they are actually well-made movies that do what they set out to do: entertain.

Movies–how do they work? Continue reading “Hail Action!”

If You Really Want to Change the World, Go Into Entertainment

People like stories. People like movies. People like songs that are catchy and stick in their brain.

What sticks in their brain is the important thing.

This is where I have changed my opinion on what some call “message fiction”: fiction (or any medium traditionally called escapist) that sets out to make a sociopolitical point as opposed to being pure entertainment.

You know what? Being against “message fiction” is why those of us who have messages counter to the post-modern rot infecting every artform don’t get anywhere.

The question about message fiction isn’t whether or not to produce it. It is instead whose message is being pushed?

If you want to change minds, you have to engage with the arts. This is where those who in any way run counter to post-modernism, radical leftism, and identity politics always fail.

As time passes, I realize my thinking is more in line with my friend, author Rawle Nyanzi: it is a question of temperament:

Art is not immediately useful; it neither grows your food nor supplies your energy. Except for a handful of megastars, art is low-paid. Most artists rely on either a job or on other people to support them in their endeavors; “don’t quit your day job” is a cliche for a reason, as is “starving artist.” It requires the mind to break with conventional modes of thinking and spend much time speculating on bizarre possibilities. Art requires one to focus on emotion.

This is as far from the conservative mindset as one can get.

If you are actually good at creating music, or fiction, or movies, or art, you’re probably not a run-of-the-mill “conservative.”

I’m pretty traditional and well-ordered in my personal life, but I’m also pretty artsy-fartsy, I would encounter so much knee-jerk push-back from my conservative friends and family a lot of things: the clothes I’d wear, the music I’d listen to and produce, the people I’d hang out with, the movies I’d like, even the way I’d do my hair.

“You listen to that band?! They’re blah blah blah.”

“You liked that movie?! The director is blah blah blah.”

“You liked that book?! It’s so weird and the author is blah blah blah.”

“You’re friends with that guy? Yeah, he’s a good guitar player, but he’s so weird!

And so on. To paraphrase Brian Niemeier, this is why we lose.

One thing conservatives are good at is preserving tradition. This is important–I’m an Orthodox Christian, for crying out loud.

But one things conservatives–or maybe just a certain type–are bad at is appreciating or creating anything new or different or innovative.

I think that this is just how some people’s mind works. It’s a double-edged sword. “New” or “different” = bad and dangerous to many. Maybe it boils down to the idea that society has been burned by new ideas before that have turned out to be disastrous.

But when it comes to art, this can hamper the creative process, as creativity is often making connections between things that other people don’t see.

The leftist’s problem is that his initial reaction is to automatically embrace the new and different and not only replace the traditional, but outright destroy it.

That is insanity.

Personally, and this is how my mind works, I crave novelty, but I like trying to fuse it with tradition. This is why I can’t see “message fiction” as a dirty word anymore. Politics is downstream from culture, after all. Why would anyone opposed to what they see in the arts unilaterally disarm themselves by being outrightly dismissive of the arts?

Yet that is exactly what the self-professed “Defenders of Civilization” have done for decades.

“We’re too busy working real jobs,” they snark smartly. Oh, go to hell.

What these clowns don’t realize is that the message doesn’t even have to be political. It can be something as elemental as “good exists and should be protected.” Hell, intellectual consistency and equality under the law are messages that could be woven into a story in such a way that the reader won’t even realize that they’re imbibing a message. But the message will stick with them, because that’s what art does. Continue reading “If You Really Want to Change the World, Go Into Entertainment”

Institutionalized Entertainment

Institutionalized: “to make into an institution . . . give character of an institution to . . . to incorporate a structured and often highly formalized system . . .”

Presented without comment:

The Walt Disney Company is so huge that, absent a formalized structure, it wouldn’t be able to get anything done. But Disney is just an example of how this idea institutionalizing everything, including the content, is a firmly entrenched part of nearly every form of entertainment or escapism that you partake in. This idea of gatekeepers giving a patina of quality to something that has gone through some sort of rigorous, formalized process is pervasive in nearly every facet of life, and not just entertainment.

After all, a doctor who went to Harvard for medical school is clearly superior to one who went to, say, one who went to the Sanford School of Medicine at the University of South Dakota, right? I mean, just on paper, it’s axiomatic, isn’t it? Who cares about the doctor’s actual history of results, you know?

And so it goes with what you watch, read, and listen to. It’s all been filtered through a big machine in order to get a big, fat, institutional stamp of approval. And everything without that stamp is clearly inferior.

It’s obvious, isn’t it?

Of course it’s not. As author Brian Niemeier is fond of pointing out, the gatekeeper-controlled model in publishing is a dying proposition:

The power of big New York publishers to hand out golden tickets capable of turning struggling authors into millionaires is an artifact of the 20th century. Now? As Moe Greene would say, they don’t even have that kind of muscle anymore.

If you were an aspiring author trying to break in prior to the 1980s, New York publishers were your best shot at the big time. Since 2006, indie has stolen tradpub’s thunder to the extent that you’re now four times more likely to make seven figures by going indie than by signing with a traditional publisher.

But old habits die hard, and industries that are still making money, without realizing that they’re surviving on legacies of past greatness, will continue to follow the old ways. Disney will keep churning out stuff with the Star Wars label slapped on it, year after year, heedless of the negative financial consequences due to viewer fatigue and failing product quality.

The music industry will keep reproducing the thing that’s selling records now ad infinitum for the next five minutes, until people get so sick of that cookie-cutter thing that they move on to the next cookie-cutter thing to fill the silence for the next five minutes.

The book industry, particularly in the science-fiction and fantasy realms, will continue pumping out massive doorstop-sized tomes of “epic” fantasy that will never be completed, as long as the stories are soaked in post-modernist thinking and contemporary political right-think.

As long as the wrong-thinkers get shut out. Because the stuff they make is bad. And it’s bad because it doesn’t have our seal of approval.

Continue reading “Institutionalized Entertainment”

Kid’s Stuff: Children’s Entertainment Doesn’t Have to be Bland

My son likes cartoons and books and movies. Who doesn’t?

Here’s the thing: I can often tell the quality of the product by how often my son talks about it when it’s over and how much he laughs.

I will use two cartoons to illustrate this point: Doc McStuffinsand Masha and the Bear.

Doc McStuffins is one of the most bland, anodyne, and actively beige cartoons I have ever seen. My son likes it because he’s interested in medical stuff, but there’s nothing there. The main character is perfect, the conflicts are utterly trivial, there are lessons shoehorned into every single aspect of an episode, and the humor is non-existent. I mean, the show is not funny at all, not even good for a chuckle. The mark of a funny children’s show isn’t how often an adult laughs at it, but you’d think a kid’s laughter would be a good indicator.

But nope. When he watches Doc McStuffins, he just blankly accepts what comes on, and then is on to the next one. He doesn’t talk about it after the fact. The show feels carefully crafted by a committee of bean-counters tick points off a checklist. It’s just another widget churned out by the institutionalized entertainment factory that is Disney. I should be careful criticizing them too heavily, though, since Disney will soon own every single piece of entertainment that you read, watch, listen to, or otherwise experience, including this blog. It’s a hungry mouse.

Contrasting Doc McStuffins with Masha and the Bear is pretty eye-opening. Masha and the Bear is a Russian-produced animated show loosely based on Russian folklore about a hyper-energetic, slightly destructive though ultimately well-meaning little girl named Masha and her adventures with, and slight terrorizing of, a big friendly brown bear. The bear doesn’t talk, communicating in gestures and grunts. In fact, none of the other animal characters talk, just Masha and occasionally her cousin Dasha.

Anyway, all Bear really enjoys doing is gardening, hanging out at his house playing chess or reading, and reminiscing about his glory days as a performer with a circus in Moscow. Masha, of course, has other crazy ideas, which always leads to some form of chaos that is ultimately resolved. In the process, Bear and all the other animals are exasperated to the near breaking point, but things work out in the end (hey, it is a kid’s show, isn’t it?).

Unlike Doc McStuffins, Masha and the Bear has actual conflicts: Bear’s battle against the black bear for the lady bear’s affections, Masha’s rivalry with Bear’s panda cousin from China, Masha finding a penguin egg and forcing Bear to take care of it, and so on. The episodes are short, snappy, chaotic in the old Warner Brothers tradition, and funny.

There are sight gags that have my son erupting in side-splitting laughter, and I’ll admit: My wife and I get a kick out of it too. It’s nothing intellectual or snarky or anything like that. It’s just dumb cartoonish slapstick akin to what you’d see Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck engaging in. There’s a reason why the classic Warner Brothers shorts are still held up as the benchmark for cartoons to be measured against.

There are lessons in Masha and the Bear, but here’s the distinction between them and other Disney-fied pablum: the lessons aren’t rammed down the kids’ throats. Instead, they are demonstrated through the characters’ actions. In other words, the show shows and doesn’t tell.This is storytelling 101, and kids absolutely pick up on that. Continue reading “Kid’s Stuff: Children’s Entertainment Doesn’t Have to be Bland”

Do the Thing

As I continue to work furiously at finishing up my novel (any novel; and yes, a different one than before–I’ve been doing this stuff forever!) an interesting thought crossed my mind: when is it ready?

(NB: As I’m planning to self-publish, this might not all directly relate to traditional publishing.)

  • Is it when an editor gives you the go-ahead?
  • Is it when you’ve reached a certain consensus among your beta readers?
  • Is it when you can’t find any more typos?
  • Is it when elements of your story meet the checklist for the market you’re trying to sell to?
  • Is it when you personally are happy with the result?

The answer, of course, is that you’re never fully finished with anything. Love him or hate him, Star Wars creator George Lucas embodies this philosophy, as seen with his different versions of both the original trilogy of movies and the sequels. Some might call this tinkering unnecessary–I am among those–but to be fair, they’re his movies: where we see masterpieces, he sees flaws.

Frank Zappa did similar things in the late 1980s, much to the chagrin of fans–again, myself among them–by replacing the bass and drum tracks on several earlier albums where he thought the performances were poorly recorded, poorly played, or both. He also remixed a lot of albums, with mixed results.

Which brings us to books. Sometimes authors correct errors, such as later editions of some earlier books in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series. Believe it or not, J.R.R. Tolkien did the same with his books, correcting a few inaccuracies in later editions.

And authors like Stephen King have even Reese’s expanded and unedited versions of previously released books; The Stand comes to mind, which is either better than the original or a bloated travesty, depending on who you ask.

But aside from fixing typos, us regular folk are probably not going to be in a position to remaster and rerelease brand new shiny expanded versions of prior works, mostly because we’ll be too busy working on the next one. But I digress.

Anyway, when are you done? What are the indicators to look for? Continue reading “Do the Thing”

Hating What Everybody Likes

What is it about consensus that makes so many of us recoil? Why does going along with the crowd rankle?

I tweeted a question recently about which band or artist that seems universally loved that people can’t stand just for fun. But it got me thinking about why this is so.

I can speak from experience: sometimes consensus makes me dislike something more than the thing itself, even if I actually kind of like the thing.

There are two reasons for this, I think:

  1. Previous experience of being burned by trusting consensus; and
  2. The Dunning-Kruger effect: “Of course I’m smarter than everyone else!”

I can give you some personal examples of both of these, some musical and others not.

On the musical front, I resisted the appeal of The Strokes, even though the songs I heard when they first came out really appealed to me. What bugged me was the types of people who were pushing them: New York hipsters and the Pitchfork set. Blech.

A similar thing happened with some other, non-hipster bands. It took me a while to get into Coheed and Cambria, who I am now a huge fan of, because they were associated with emo. And I could not stand emo.

And yet I fell for the lure of the bands Vampire Weekend and TV on the Radio. I suppose I was trying to keep an open mind at that time, and trusted those who I thought knew better. Now, after realizing “Hey, these guys suck and I don’t actually like them!” I never listen to those bands. Live and learn.

I resisted the Harry Potterbooks for quite a while, but read them around the time the final book came out and quite enjoyed them, recent history notwithstanding.

Regarding Harry Potter, I suppose I had committed the youthful mistake of thinking I just had better taste than 99% of people in America. That’s arrogance, and it’s amazing what a little humility will do for you.

(I was totally right about the Twilight books, though. And to be fair, there is not always wisdom in the crowds. But I digress.)

Art is subjective. But peer pressure is incredibly powerful. What to do? Continue reading “Hating What Everybody Likes”