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?”

The Pinnacle of Flatness

Maybe it’s just me, but everything is starting to look the same.

Not just look, but sound and feel the same as well.

Kind of weird lament from the guy who just warned against excessive individualism, but hear me out.

This thought struck me as I was driving with the family last weekend, and my wife and I got to talking about what kind of car we might buy next. Looking around the highway, seeing the vehicles on the road, and comparing them to what we already had, I shrugged my shoulders and thought, “What’s the difference?”

I know what you car-types are thinking now: There are huge differences in engines and transmissions and overall quality and so on. But I’m talking from a design and aesthetics perspective, because these things do matter.

Extrapolate this line of thinking to cities and towns the world over. I’m sure you’ve noticed that Toronto looks like London looks like Los Angeles looks like Berlin, and so on. Not identical, but close enough. Modern architecture is but one way in which ideas of design seem to be converting on something universal…and kind of beige.

And then there’s urban sprawl and the explosion of squat, concrete strip malls, fast-food joints and gas stations, and big box stores everywhere. It seems like that’s all some towns are.

And this, of course, goes for the arts as well. Movies all feel the same, screenwriting formulae aside. Music, books, television shows, education, pop culture…the list goes on.

Is this just where things always lead? Is there an “ultimate design” that we as human beings have finally reached? Or is it the natural consequence of a society that embraces Adam Smith’s “capitalism” while rejecting the “guided by moral principles” part of the equation?

In other words, is function driving this sameness, or is commerce? Or is something else? Continue reading “The Pinnacle of Flatness”

Beige Evil

Nobody sets out to be evil. And nobody thinks that they’re evil. But would we even recognize evil when we see it?

I’m not just talking cartoonish, Pennywise the dancing clown evil, but the more insidious kind that often comes wrapped in the mantle of goodness and virtue.

I’m no Hannah Arendt scholar, but she is the philosopher who coined the phrase “the banality of evil.” In interviewing the architects of the Nazi’s extermination of the Jews and other undesirables, she was shocked to discover that these people weren’t the garishly sinister figures she expected. Instead, they were ordinary, nondescript, and even kind of boring.

Weird, right? But then again, so few set out to be the villain. Other people use that term. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” might have been a stupid thing to say after 9/11, but it actually describes how people see themselves.

(Now, taken out of context and as a blanket generalization, ignoring questions of who or what is actually right and good, the statement is obnoxiously relativistic, but I digress.)

Evil seeks to come in two main varieties: cartoon evil and beige evil. The former is rare and easier to detect. The latter is, sadly, far more common.

Cartoon Evil is big, bold, and knows it’s causing–and reveling in–mayhem and bloodshed. Think ISIS. Of course, they think they’re doing Allah’s work or whatever, but they totally enjoy the killing and the torture and the rape. Hey, they’re just doing what their Prophet says, so why not have fun?!

The thing is, most functioning human beings recognize ISIS for the evil that they are. They’re an easy one. Both the Nazis and the various horrific communist regimes (Russia, China, Venezuela, Cambodia, North Korea, Cuba, and so on) are a bit trickier to classify because they cloaked themselves in a mantle of faux-sophistication and academic-sounding justification. But they’re still evil.

Beige Evil, on the other hand, is creepier. It worms its way into you to eat you from within. And Beige Evil is usually pushed on you from without. Comedian George Carlin commented that when fascism comes to America, it’ll be in “Nike sneakers and smiley shirts.” He was on to something. Continue reading “Beige Evil”

The New Beige

You like fun. That’s why you’re here, right? That’s why any of us are.

But not everybody likes fun. Recently, filmmaker and Internet celebrity James Rolfe released a video at his website Cinemassacre. In it, Rolfe, a self-avowed fanatic of the Ghostbusters franchise, gave a very reasoned and subdued explanation why he will not be seeing the new Ghostbusters movie.

YouTuber and filmmaker James Rolfe of Cinemassacre, best known as the Angry Video Game Nerd
James Rolfe

Rolfe made his decision based on the movie’s trailer: The jokes fell flat, the effects didn’t impress him, and he didn’t appreciate its makers using the goodwill of the Ghostbusters name to put out yet another remake instead of coming up with a unique way to revive the franchise. Therefore, he won’t spend his money on the movie.

Mild stuff, and a very reasoned critique. In fact, isn’t that what millions of people do? Decide whether to spend their time and money at the movies based on the trailers?

However the problem for Rolfe, at least in his critics’ eyes, is that the main cast of this movie is female.

Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Kristen Wiig, and Leslie Jones, the cast of the 2016 remake of Ghostbusters.
l-r: Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones

The reactions were swift but, to any student of our outrage culture, sadly predictable. Rolfe–one of the least political Internet personalities out there–is a misogynist, a sexist, a whiny manbaby, a loser, and so on. And even celebrities got in on the act!

To be fair, the bulk of tweets I saw were in support or Rolfe, which is a good sign. But it’s important to highlight the disproportionate level of vitriol directed his way.

Here’s the thing: Rolfe did mention the all-female cast, but only to wonder if, given that the movie has the same name as the 1984 original, people are going to refer to it as “the female Ghostbusters.” He finds this absurd since, in his opinion, the movie should have a different title to differentiate itself.

If Rolfe actually said something derogatory about women like “Women can’t act,” “Women aren’t funny,” or “I won’t see this movie because it has women in it,” I could see the reaction. But his video was as mild a criticism as it gets, and focused more on the editing abilities of those who created the trailer than anything else. So what gives?

The whole thing is absurd, but it goes to a bigger point: Rolfe’s sin was not enjoying what The Powers That Be deemed must be enjoyed in order to be a “good person.” Continue reading “The New Beige”