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?”

Cultural Traps, Part IV

America is a funny place. And Americans are a funny bunch (when we can actually agree on what the hell being an American even means anymore, but I digress).

As time passes and more strangeness unfolds, I realize that the older I get, the more that criticisms of this country that would have rankled a younger me now see valid and very well-founded. It’s not that my love of this country has diminished with age. It’s that my uncritical, unthinking love of this country has diminished with age, as has my uncritical, unthinking love of ANYTHING.

Music, philosophy, politics . . . you name it. Things are different now, and assumptions have to be examined accordingly. That’s what my Cultural Traps series is all about. That said, let’s look at a few more of those supposedly unshakable American tendencies that either make no sense, or trap you in a harmful way of thinking that doesn’t let you fairly and accurately examine all sides of an issue.

Now, I know every culture on Earth has its own traps and foibles, but I’m an American, dammit. So I’m focusing on ‘MERICA!

Here we go.

Being Immune to History. I read an article the other day on The Federalist by a gentleman named Jesse Kelly–normally a pretty funny guyabout his preference that the United States peaceably split. A “divorce,” he calls it. It’s an interesting premise, and one has to rid oneself of the typical American tendency–discussed here–to have a hysterical, knee-jerk reaction to even the merest utterance of an idea in order to appreciate what Kelly says that’s deeper than “we should have an amicable split”:

Anyone who thinks this is a radical idea has an extremely narrow view of history. If you don’t believe me, go try to book a plane ticket to Czechoslovakia, or look at a map of Europe from the year 1600, then look at one today. See any differences? Borders move. Countries split and change hands. They do this for a myriad of reasons.

A rebuttal on the same website, written by one Lyman Stone, calls this idea dangerous and impracticable, if you’re interested in reading the counterpoint. I’m not here to debate the merits of this idea. But I do think Kelly raises an interesting point when he says “Anyone who thinks this is a radical idea has an extremely narrow view of history.”

By and large, Americans have an extremely narrow view of history. We seem to believe that history began in either 1963, if you ask Mr. Larkin, or five minutes ago, if you ask anyone born between 1997 and 2000.

Get “woke.” Get on “the right side of history.”

Those who wish us harm have very long memories and even longer time-horizons and visions for the future. Remember, the Chinese still smart over their humiliation at the hands of Western powers some two-hundred years ago, and ISIS and al-Qaeda and their ilk are still mad about the Crusades . . .

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Meanwhile, we here in America are totally convinced that we can eliminate all crime by disarming the populace or something.

Worse, we’re absolutely convinced that everything will continue the way it has just because. Bad things never happen here, nor will they ever. Our way of life will continue in perpetuity, and America will always be the Top Dog because of some undifferentiated belief in “Freedom!” no matter how many stupid, short-sighted policies are shoved down our throats.

Concurrent with this trap is the inability to even conceive that something may at some point change, or that maybe the way we do things isn’t the best way to do things. Who knows? Maybe this country will split someday, or some of the bigger states will break up into smaller, more representative states. Or maybe some states will want to leave entirely. Or maybe the United States will not remain the world’s only hegemon, either militarily or economically.

Hey, it could happen. But no one wants to talk about it.

Stuff like this “sneaks up” on us because we are blind to its possibility. Nothing occurs “just because” or “for no reason whatsoever.” Effects have causes. By being blind to this, thinking that America is truly the peak of civilization obviates the need to improve and leaves you with stagnation and rot which will really bring the whole thing crumbling down.

This tendency, this false sense of security, might be the most tragic aspect of the whole American experience. Which brings me to the next cultural trap in this discussion. Continue reading “Cultural Traps, Part IV”

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”

When the Novelty is Gone: Triggering for Triggering’s Sake

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I understand, appreciate, and even applaud the instinct to stick it to the man. There’s so much sanctimonious, stifling, joyless politically correct nonsense around today that it deserves a good poke in the eye. Several, actually. If the brittle and clearly disturbed champions of the new “decency” are so mentally fragile that they can be broken by a damn politician, then they deserve all of the triggering they get.

It would be fine if people like this weren’t telling the rest of us how to live our lives all the time. But they do. And that’s what I object to.

That said, doing something for the sole purpose of pissing off the “right” people is just dumb. Dumb and counterproductive.

It reduces any actual movement, as it were, to a parody. Mere trollingA novelty act.

Spiteful posturing is the province of adolescents. It’s similar to the worst of the hippies back in the 60s, who wanted to tear everything down because they didn’t want to be “square,” which really meant (a) not getting drafted (which I can understand), (b) not wanting to work, and (c) “free love.”

Now, there’s a similar desire to say and do things just to send the morality crusaders into an admittedly amusing tizzy of rage.

But beyond that?

If there’s nothing underneath the controversy, it makes you look unserious. And being unserious is actually serious business.

If there’s no intellectual heft behind your “triggering,” no steak beneath the sizzle, it becomes a gag, and a gag only works once. Continue reading “When the Novelty is Gone: Triggering for Triggering’s Sake”

Pop Culture Is All We’ve Got

Pop Culture Shirt Under A Suit

Why do people care so much about big blockbuster movies and pop music and comic books and video games and television and sci-fi and fantasy books and all other pop culture? This stuff is junk. This stuff doesn’t matter. This stuff just isn’t that important, right?

But it is.

High culture is dead. It died a long time ago and is firmly in the “smells funny” phase. Pop culture matters because pop culture is all we’ve got.

Culture helps transmit values. This used to be the province of myth and story, painting and sculpture and poetry and music.

We are talking things that are shared by a people. Things that are enjoyed for their portrayal of truth, their embodiment of beauty, and the pleasure they bring to the eye or to the ear or to the mind or to the soul.

Maybe these things are cliched, but some things are cliche for a reason. They are cliche because they work. Hence the continuing popularity of narratives that show the struggle of good triumphing over evil.

“That’s not realistic!” many say. “It’s simplistic!” they criticize. But that’s the pointGood doesn’t always win, but that doesn’t mean human beings want a culture that reinforces the worst case scenario all the time, one that embodies and exalts the nastiest parts of being alive. It’s not in our nature.

Back to high art: Quick! Name a modern “serious music” composer who matters! Or a poet! Or a painter!

You can’t.

But I’m sure you know who Taylor Swift is. Or what Star Wars is. Or what team LeBron James plays for. Because pop culture has become our culture, for better or for worse.

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This is why people argue about movies involving aliens and laser swords. Or books taking place in fantastical realms with dragons and magic. Or television shows about zombies. These stories reflect and shape who we are as a people. This stuff matters. Continue reading “Pop Culture Is All We’ve Got”

Movie Review: Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017)

Movie poster for Star Wars: The Last Jedi movie poster

I was going to write more about The Last Jedi. A lot more. I was going to get into the plot points and offer various, in-depth critiques.

But screw it.

I will give this movie the level of effort and care that it showed to the Star Wars franchise. Forget the original movies, The Last Jedi even manages to piss all over the previous installment, The Force Awakens.

For the record, I liked The Force Awakens, especially after some re-watches with my son. I think it’s a good movie that’s a few tweaks from being a great movie. J.J. Abrams at least understood what Star Wars was about: heroic characters, diabolical villains, space battles, lightsaber duels, and yes, moral conflict. Yes, there were some sops to Current Year; but it didn’t seem fully converged.

Or maybe I’m just not as attuned to that kind of stuff as others. I don’t know. But while The Force Awakens might have been a bit of a re-tread, but it did what it had to do for the new trilogy of films. It served up a nice fat one right over the plate for Rian Wilson and the rest of The Last Jedi‘s crew to knock out of the park.

And they whiffed. Spectacularly. As though intentionally. While flipping off the audience.

Continue reading “Movie Review: Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017)”

Pulp Rock

Pictured: No rock.

I care about rock n’ roll, perhaps too much. Like Pete Townshend said, “Rock is very, very important and very, very ridiculous.”

Look at the charts now, read a magazine, or flip through the radio, and you’ll see that rock is done as a cultural force. Totally dead. 

Sure, there’s Rolling Stone, but what young people really care about that?

Guitar-based groups are niche old-people music at best, and I lump myself into this group. Rock is just kinda-sorta still here because of nostalgia. Rock is an Anglo-American thing, so we’ll keep it around for tradition’s sake. 

No one cares about it. It doesn’t capture the imagination anymore. Kids aren’t growing up dreaming of playing guitar. They want to rap or dance or sing pop stuff. And that’s fine. Everything changes. But it still makes me sad. 

Of course rock is still there. And of course there is still “good”‘stuff. The barriers to entry are low and, thanks to the Internet, you can find whatever kind of music it is that you’re into. So it’s there, but it doesn’t matter. 

Aside from the legacy “bigs,” who cares?

Why? How’d it get to this point?

I contend that it died from self-inflicted wounds. Like many forms of entertainment, a stultifying combination of political correctness, commoditization, and technological disruption ruined it. The freewheeling, anything goes 60s and 70s gave way to the slick 80s, the faux-rebellious 90s–reeked of manufactured authenticity–to the pretension-soaked indie 2000s and now the the whatever-you-call-them 2010s (the dead zone?).

Every big movement came from the ground-up: Acid rock. Punk. Prog. Hardcore. Grunge (at least, the Melvins). Hell, even the much-derided emo thing. 

But one thing rock couldn’t do was escape its own ass.  Continue reading “Pulp Rock”