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?”

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!”

Would John Wayne Approve?

Guys are funny, right? And immature. Definitely immature.

You’d think this if you see nearly any movie with a male protagonist. He’s an overgrown man-child, always there with a quip or an obnoxiously immature pastime that holds him back, while the kick-ass riot grrl rolls her eyes and does all the real work, maybe letting the dude accidentally do something right or lift something heavy.

Maybe it’s be a male character full of power and competence who still has to be funny. Because serious people–adult males, especially–are boring!

Or so hundreds of Hollywood screenwriters would have us believe. Not just screenwriters, but novelists, TV writers, and those in the comic book business.

Jamaul over at Jamual Writes discusses this in a great post called “Always Be Funny.” The new God of War video game, and its strong, silent, and brutal male protagonist got him thinking about the phenomenon:

So, I was just on Twitter talking about the new God of War video game, which I’m watching via YouTube.

I love this damn game. It’s amazing.

But I did notice something about the main character – Kratos.

Dude is uber serious. Never crack jokes. Never smiles.

Even Wired wrote a piece on Kratos – and his appetite for violence, claiming that’s he’s toxic.

I disagree. I think Kratos is just a personality type. Strong, but silent type. A warrior. And that’s the thing with the personality type – they don’t think, they just do. Tough, stoic.

Much like the John Waynes, Clint Eastwoods of the old Westerns, which I love.

These characters don’t talk much, quick to anger, disagreeable, grumpy, strong, leaders, and blaze their own lane.

They’re my favorite type of characters. Which seems to be a relic, nowadays.

The pathetic state of video game journalism aside, imagine a world where a quietly bad-ass character is considered “toxic.” Throw out all your old John Ford westerns and Mickey Spillaine noir thrillers, I guess! Nope, men have to be seen as non-threatening, cute, cuddly teddybears.

I think what Jamual is noticing is that male characters used to have some kind of danger to them, an edge, an element of unpredictability that could erupt at any moment–and here’s the important part–against the bad guys.

Charles Bronson wasn’t mowing down the innocent in Death Wish. Clint Eastwood wasn’t abusing women and children in Dirty Harry. Richard Roundtree wasn’t beating down the righteous in Shaft.

These guys were just bad mofos doing what had to be done. Even Han Solo, grumpy and quippy himself, was competent, and his humor fit the character and his swashbuckling way of life. Which is masculine. Which is why, I think, our cultural elitists in charge of making this stuff need to neuter the men. As Jack Donovan is so fond of saying, strong men acting together are the biggest threat to the nanny state. So the “gang,” if you will, must be broken. Continue reading “Would John Wayne Approve?”

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”

Actions “Versus” Introspection: A Defense of Literary Fiction

Action! Adventure! Romance! Inner turmoil!

Wait, what?

Yeah, you heard me. These are things I personally like in stories. And I don’t think I’m alone. Otherwise, explain why one of the biggest tenets in prose fiction screenwriting is create conflict!

This seems self-evident. After all, what good is a story where everyone gets along and everything is perfectly fine? That’s the realm of children’s books, which serve their purpose.

And let me say, as the parent of a young child, the above description actually fits baby books more. You’d be amazed at how soon some form of conflict enters into kids books. Look at Dr. Seuss books, for example. The Sneetches were basically at war! The bitter butter battle was a battle! That dastardly Grinch was out to ruin Christmas!

Even kids need to see conflict be overcome.

Which brings me to an interesting conversation held with several writing friends on Twitter. It started out with Gitabishi’s excellent post about “hard” versus “soft” sci-fi and veered into both the introspective and the ridiculous before Jill Domschot said something that struck me:

I’m inclined to agree with her, hence the use of quotation marks around the word “versus” in the title of this post.

The upshot of the conversation was that everything is a writer’s tool, and the writer uses the appropriate tool for the task at hand. But that’s a bit wishy washy, so I’m going to do something a little against the grain when it comes to action-packed fiction writing, and stick up for a much maligned genre of novel: literary fiction.

Yup. I’m a fan. Take a guy like John Irving, for example. Sure, he has a creepy fixation with characters engaging incest, as well as characters losing limbs (including a certain male member), but it’s not just his prose I enjoy. His situations are crafted to come to a head at the critical point, and his set-ups are expertly foreshadowed and deftly executed in ways that only seem obvious in retrospect–including the unfortunate inadvertent amputation of a man’s body part (I’m looking at you, The World According to Garp).

Or a writer like Michael Chabon. There’s a bit too much affectation in his characters–Telegraph Avenue was particularly painful at times–but their inner dramas are exquisite, and I like how he makes them intersect with the plot’s external conflicts, in explosive and often hilarious ways. .

My goal when I write is to take this approach, and just have more sword fights and explosions. Continue reading “Actions “Versus” Introspection: A Defense of Literary Fiction”