What Joy?

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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!

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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?”

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”

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”

Leave Sgt. Pepper Alone…For Civilization

With all the stupidity in America, you’d think there’d be no shortage of writing material. And you’d be right! While I never wanted this blog to be one of those things that just reacts to current events, some things are just too important not to be addressed. 

Things like The Beatles.

Check out this recent beauty from Salon:

Here, Amanda Marcotee uses the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album to blame men for…something. 

I mean, look at this: 

“…and that wasn’t a good thing.”

“…serious fare for serious guys.”

You can hear the condescension. And it’s insulting to men and women. 

First they came for video games, and I didn’t say anything. 

Then they came for comic books, and I didn’t say anything. 

But now they’ve come for The Beatles, and it’s on

It’s The Beatles. They were not only talented composers and brilliant performers, but they aimed for the cheap seats. Their intended audience was Earth. How can one be so deluded as to think there are no hardcore female Beatles fans, or rock fans in general?

Oh. The author is Amanda Marcotte. 

This is all so dumb. According to the zeitgeist (German for: “collective insanity”), men have had it too good for too long and now they’ve got to pay. 

Forget that nearly everyone likes The Beatles. 

Forget that rock and pop as we know it wouldn’t be what it is, for better or for worse, without The Beatles. 

Forget that The Beatles made music for men and women alike. 

Forget that there are hundred of artists pre- and post-Sgt. Pepper that appeal primarily to women. 

Forget that it’s The friggin’ Beatles we’re talking about here.  Continue reading “Leave Sgt. Pepper Alone…For Civilization”