Thursday, December 30, 2010

What Haunts Me About Firefly

We all know what 'Firefly' is about, right? Mal was one of the Browncoats, who fought a failed war against the Alliance and, after it was over and his cause of freedom was lost, he went out to the frontier to live free like a person oughta. The Alliance and "civilization" are slowly encroaching on his wild frontier, but he's determined to defy them any way he can.

It's a great story, one that feels authentic because it is authentic. Joss Whedon took his inspiration for his "space Western" by transplanting a lot of the causes of the original "Wild West" to a different setting. The original American frontier got its reputation for lawlessness due to an influx of Confederate veterans who felt frustrated and bitter living in the Reconstruction South. They migrated westwards, where they used their military skills to carve out a living however they could. Until, of course, the federal government moved west as well, taming the new frontier.

So the Browncoats are basically the Greybacks. Which is what haunts me...because Joss Whedon never really says why the war started. What was the cause the Browncoats fought for? Mal and others say that the Alliance "meddled", but that was the basic attitude of most slaveowners as well. Mal certainly doesn't seem to show any socially unpopular attitudes--he's friendly to Book, to River, to pretty much everyone as far as a misanthropic cynic like him is capable of being friendly--but what did he stand for? What made the Alliance say, "No. This cannot be tolerated, not in a civilized culture"?

I wonder. And I wonder if maybe Joss Whedon didn't intend me to wonder, just a little.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

John Scalzi and the Myth of Inerrancy

I recently decided to pick up John Scalzi's book 'Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded', based on the fact that I'd heard good things about him as a blogger. I did feel a little trepidation doing so, having already read his 'Rough Guide to Science Fiction' and found myself more than a little irritated by a few of its claims, such as "You're not a true science-fiction fan if you don't like 'The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai'!" (a claim right up there with "You're not a real gourmet unless you can appreciate the subtle flavors and distinct aroma of yak vomit," or "The true automotive enthusiast loves the classic lines and dynamic handling of the AMC Gremlin.") But on the whole, I found myself greatly entertained by the book, and thought Scalzi was generally pretty clever and insightful.

Except for his column on Star Wars, which takes a few good points and weaves them together into a wild mess of incoherent fanboyish speculation that bears no connection to the worlds of art, commerce, film theory, mythology, and quite possibly chemistry and physics as well. I'm aware, of course, that despite Scalzi's repeated assertions that he's not particularly famous, his fame relative to mine is similar to George Lucas' relative to his, but nonetheless I feel bound to reply, knowing he'll probably never see this. (Which doesn't mean I plan to insult him just because I don't think he'll answer back. My policy when blogging is never to say anything I wouldn't say to someone's face. Which should tell you something about my lack of social graces, looking back...)

Scalzi's basic assertion, for those of you who couldn't be bothered to follow the link, is that the reason the prequels weren't any good (he takes it as an article of faith that you'll agree, but I don't mind that, because the prequels really weren't any good) is that Lucas doesn't actually have any talent as a film-maker; he's obsessed with detailing the mythology of the Star Wars universe, and anything good in the movies is either (to quote Scalzi) "unintentional, achieved through special effects, or is the work of hired guns, notably Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett".

This statement tells me something pretty important right off the bat. Namely, it tells me he hasn't actually seen the movies in a long time. Fan opinion has a tendency to petrify in the absence of occasional connection with the material; over time, the actual feelings you had about the original work slowly get leached away and replaced by the discussions you had with other fans. Everybody "knows" that 'Empire' is the best Star Wars movie, because we all talk about it all the time at conventions and we all agree on it.

In fact, Empire is pretty damn awful. It's a long, shaggy-dog story that starts with the Rebels having established themselves in a very stupid position with no logical explanation, and then proceeds to make an entire plot of, "Will our heroes get away?" Which is a problem, as the answer can never be anything other than, "Well, yes, of course." (Except for Han, who gets captured in a weak attempt at a cliff-hanger; it's funny fans excoriate 'Return of the Jedi' without ever considering the fact that it's forced to spend a half-hour extricating itself from the plot cul-de-sac left at the end of 'Empire'.) Most of its reputation rests on the fact that "it's dark" (never underestimate the attraction to grown-up fanboys of a "darker, more adult" version of something they liked as kids), the romance between Han and Leia (which was rightly eviscerated by Jeanne Cavelos as the moment when Leia stopped being a strong female character and started being a shrill, whiny stereotype of the Girl Who Just Needs a Man In Her Life) and the "I am your father" bit, which was good but not nearly good enough to rescue the movie. The actual great movie is the original, always has been, but it's become fashionable to hate it because We're Too Grown-Up For That Now.

The point is, the second I hear, "The only good one was 'Empire'," I immediately know that this is going to be someone who is discussing the fan orthodoxies of the Star Wars movies, rather than the movies themselves. And Scalzi doesn't disappoint. He makes the entirely correct point that Lucas has nobody who can gainsay his opinions when making the prequels, nobody who can edit him, but then goes on to make the claim that this means that we're seeing undiluted Lucas, without the filters of talented people making him better, and that this just shows how inept Lucas really is without others there to save his bacon.

Now this isn't just stupid, it's disappointing. Scalzi is a very intelligent man. He knows the value of a good editor--hell, he extols it elsewhere in the same collection of blog entries. But somehow, he completely forgets that film is a collaboration and that strong editorial voices make your work better when he has the chance to take a baseball bat to someone he doesn't like already. Of course, Lucas' work isn't as good when nobody can tell him where he's going wrong! Twenty years off from writing and directing probably didn't help much either. But to suggest that this means that the movies were good despite Lucas, not because of them, shows an absolutely staggering ignorance of the basics of film-making.

Yes, Lucas hired other people to do important work on the movies. That's kind of the nature of film-making; the number of movies that can be made by one person can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand. But his role on the film was to provide guidance and direction to the "hired guns" that Scalzi apparently thinks did their work in the dead of night, having possibly tied Lucas up to prevent him from interfering with their attempts to rescue his film from mediocrity. Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan didn't turn up with a finished script for Lucas to delight over, then hand off to Irvin Kershner to film; at every stage, from the initial script conference to the two-page brief to the outline to every single draft of the movie, they got copious notes from Lucas on what he wanted changed. And when they finally got around to shooting, it wasn't like Kershner did his work in a vacuum, either.

Lucas was responsible for everything that happened in the Star Wars movies, because that was his job. The man created an entire new company, staffed it, and helped them revolutionize the entire special effects industry because he had a very specific idea of what he wanted his movie to look like and the technology wasn't there yet when he started filming, and we're supposed to believe that the end result of the original 'Star Wars' was "unintentional"? (And anyone who says, "It just had good special effects" misses the point so completely that they've pretty much disqualified themselves from the conversation. 'Star Wars' created a whole new standard for special effects based on the visual aesthetic that Lucas wanted to create--it wasn't just that they were "good", it was that they created an immersive effect that no other film had tried to create before. They were an artistic decision, not merely a technological innovation.)

Ultimately, I feel like there's something fundamentalist in the assertion (not unique to Scalzi) that the Star Wars movies were good despite Lucas, not because of them. The fan mentality simply cannot cope with the idea that the same people responsible for works of staggering genius like the original trilogy can make something so staggeringly inept as the prequels. So in order to preserve our belief in a Towering Auteur Figure Who Can Do No Wrong, we make the brilliant genius someone else in the process and insist that it's them who did all the great stuff. (Which may be the other reason why 'Empire' has become the Official Good Star Wars Movie...although you don't exactly hear people lauding Kershner's other films like 'Never Say Never Again' and 'Robocop 2'.) We don't like our creative idols to have feet of clay, and we don't like to think that studio interference makes movies better, not worse. Lucas' reputation is a casualty of that mindset.

Or, if none of the above convinced you, I can put it another way...Scalzi's essay is the equivalent of arguing that the 'Sandman' comics wouldn't be nearly as good if Neil Gaiman didn't have any editors, and if he drew it all himself. Sure, it's true, but it's meaningless, and anyone who would actually try to present it as an argument for a lack of talent on Gaiman's part would be an idiot.

Sorry, better Scalzi that up a bit, just in case he reads this. "Would be a spastic lemur with the brains of a syphilitic toad." Hope that's a little more entertaining.

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Brief Recommendation

I am given to understand that Tom Tomorrow has released another collection of cartoons, "Too Much Crazy", available on Amazon. I strongly suspect that Tom Tomorrow needs my help promoting books like Arnold Schwarzenegger needs Woody Allen's help moving a couch, but for what it's worth, "This Modern World" is the best political comic going today, by a country mile, and it's always filled with humor and brilliantly incisive wit that perfectly skewers everything wrong with politics today. Tom Tomorrow has the ability to cut through the bullshit like no other, and I include "The Daily Show" in that.

So yes, "Too Much Crazy". I recommend it sight unseen, and I look forward to getting it myself.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Debunking Myths About The "Amazing Race" Finale

Amazing Race 17 is over, and we have another million-dollar winner! (Yes, I actually care about The Amazing Race. Indulge me for a moment, here.) But before we start looking forward to Amazing Race 18: Unfinished Business, we should take a look back at the finale to the last Amazing Race and briefly debunk some of the myths circulating around the events of the last leg of the race. This is spoiler-heavy, so if you're one of those people that waits a few days to watch, wait a few more days to read.

With that in mind, let's move on!

Myth #1: It was bad race design because there was no chance for the racers who were behind to gain on the leading team.

Actually, there were two big chances and one small chance for racers to swap positions. At the float road block, teams that made mistakes could and did lose time on the racers who did it right the first time. (Although I would agree with anyone who pointed out that usually, the judge at a "assemble this thing" challenge doesn't point out what the racer did wrong, only whether or not they did it right--without that advantage, this would have been a third big chance.)

After that, the puzzle represented a huge opportunity for one team to take the lead. If anyone had known the answers to those questions without having to look it up, they would have jumped ahead. And one team did come up with a speedy, clever way to look up the answers without having to drive out of their way, giving them a huge speed advantage over the other two teams. Unfortunately, it happened to be the team already in the lead. Likewise, the "game show" memory challenge could have been a huge stumbling block to any of the three teams, allowing the other two to pass. It wasn't, but it could have been.

Myth #2: It was unfair because one team got a bad taxi, which lost them the race.

Jill and Thomas didn't lose the race because they got a bad taxi. They lost the race because they let their taxi drive around aimlessly for long periods while shouting, "Do you know about the Internet? Can you Google something for us?" instead of just saying, "Take us to the nearest hotel," or "Take us to the nearest Starbucks." By the time they did realize that the cabbie was not going to look up the answers to their clue for them, which was officially Way Too Long, they were in full-on panic mode and just started stopping at random places hoping they had Internet access. I'm not saying they were stupid, or bad racers--just that they had a brain-lock moment at the worst possible time. The taxi driver had very little to do with it. "Taxi roulette" is real, but it's not what lost Jill and Thomas the race.

Myth #3: If the teams are going to have a puzzle clue, they "shouldn't be allowed to look it up on the Internet".

Technically, this isn't a myth, it's an opinion. But it's an opinion that doesn't take into account the facts, which makes it worth debunking anyway. The fact is, any kind of puzzle clue that actually takes local lore into account (which they should, being Amazing Race clues and all) is probably not going to be one the racers know off the top of their heads. Which means either asking locals (and replacing "taxi roulette" with "knowledgeable stranger roulette") or going someplace to look it up. At that point, you might as well send them to the local library and put the clue there. (And technically, Nat and Kat called the local library, making their strategy more in line with the supposed ethos of the "puzzle clue" than either of the other two teams.)

Myth #4: The Race was "stacked" this time around to allow a female/female team to win.

This myth centers on two arguments: One, that they allowed an "unusual" number of female/female teams, and two, that they purposefully chose "weak" male/male and male/female teams so the female/female teams wouldn't be challenged. As to the first...there were eleven teams racing, same as usual. There are three possible gender combinations: male/male, male/female, and female/female. Four teams out of eleven is about a third, and a third of the teams being one of the three gender combinations is perfectly sensible. And as to the's a circular argument, and a sexist one to boot. How do you define a "weak" team? If, as many commenters seem to be doing, you define it as "a team that loses to a pair of GURLS!", then by definition any female/female team that wins is beating a "weak" field of competition. Whereas in fact, Nat and Kat beat out several teams that had as good a chance as any to win. Some of the teams were obviously DOA, but the same is true in any season of the Race. Nat and Kat won because they were smart, and because they stayed calm under pressure and didn't make mistakes. And as a result, they're each $500,000 richer. Good for them!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Underrated Movies: Jason X

Naturally, as all those of you who follow Feng Shui know, this is the story of renegade Buro supersoldier Jason X and his struggles to overthrow the tyrannical government of 2056. They took a few liberties with the source material, but--

No. Wait. This was the movie that actually got parodied before it got made, on MAD TV. The concept of "Jason In Space" was so inherently silly that most fans didn't even watch it. The few that did, though, got a surprisingly sly and silly horror comedy that gleefully sends up the tropes of the science-fiction genre by sending them up against Jason, one by one.

For those of you who haven't seen it, the basic premise is as follows: Having gotten thoroughly sick of trying to shoot, stab, incinerate, detonate, and strangle Jason Voorhees, the government decides to freeze him until someone can figure out why he's so damned unkillable and finish him off. Due to a wacky accident in the cryogenics process, a top expert on Jason's mutant physiology got frozen along with him. (And let me say that I just love this straight-forward, common-sense extrapolation of what we've seen in all the previous movies. Oh, and David Cronenberg makes a cameo in the beginning.)

Fast forward a few hundred years, and a group of Archaeology students are taking a field trip to the ruined world known as Earth. They find Jason and the expert, take them on board, and revive her...little knowing that Jason is pretty self-reviving. Just as soon as two teenagers start having sex, he's off and running!

What follows is a hilarious sci-fi slasher mash-up. We get holodecks, Space Marines, sexy lady androids (the sexy lady android gets all the best lines and the second-best moment in the film) and basically every sci-fi cliche, all of whom get hacked, beaten, and in one spectacular scene, frozen solid in liquid nitrogen and shattered. And speaking of holodecks, the holodeck does provide the single best moment not just in this movie, but the entire Friday the 13th series. There are times when you're not sure that you're supposed to be laughing at what you see on the screen--the film boldly straddles the line between "camp" and "so-bad-it's-good"--but you will have fun the whole time.

Given that it has a Rotten Tomato rating of 21%, I'd say it definitely qualifies as "under-rated".

Monday, December 06, 2010

An Apology, and a Personal Goofy Idea

First, the apology. I know that my posts are getting delayed to the point where I've actually missed a couple in the last couple of weeks; the long-story-short is that after four months of being unemployed, I lucked into a job that is not only offering full-time work at a decent wage, but is actually offering unlimited overtime. It's a golden opportunity to catch back up on my finances, but it's cutting into my free time and energy something wicked. Rest assured, though, that I have no intentions of quitting. My wife wouldn't let me, for one thing.

So today, I'll share one of those little ideas that I might someday pursue, if I someday luck into a lot of money and get to do my own thing without worrying about whether my business is all that successful. I'd like to buy an old movie theater.

Now when I say "old", I don't really mean that old. I'm thinking one of the multiplexes that they overbuilt back in the 90s, when the movie theater business geared up for a huge expansion and found out the hard way that the studios were passing all the losses for crappy movies like 'Godzilla' and 'Waterworld' onto them. A lot of them have been repurposed or demolished, of course, but I like to imagine I could find one. Then I'd transform it into a revival theater. Not one that shows art-house movies, but one that shows classic popcorn flicks--my ethos, plain and simple, would be that it's just more fun to see movies in the theater.

The concessions stand would serve real food--either I'd subcontract out to local restaurants or I'd hire a good chef, but it'd have actual yummy fast food like burgers and fries and stuff instead of just popcorn and nachos. (And yes, I know, movie theaters have expanded their menus a lot lately. That just shows it's a good idea.) I'd also have an arcade in the theater--not just a few video game machines in the corner, but an actual arcade. And the movies...

Every month would be themed, with movies that fit that month's theme and a published schedule for them. For Valentine's Day, for example, the theater would be split into two halves--the "Romance" side would feature flicks like 'The Princess Bride' and 'Say Anything', while the "Anti-Romance" side would feature movies like 'Heathers' and 'Heavenly Creatures' (although some might call that really romantic. After all, nothing says "love" like killing your mom.)

October would be huge; nothing but classic horror flicks all month long, culminating in a Halloween "lock-in" where one double-price ticket buys you as many flicks as you can stay in the theater for (and yes, sleeping bags would be allowed.) And we'd show the complete Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Halloween series.

And every Friday night at midnight, we'd have the Midnight Movie Cage Match--two movies play in two different theaters, and I keep track of attendance. Winner stays, loser goes. (Rocky Horror Picture Show is not invited to this competition, because I think that too many people would go to it simply because "we always go to Rocky Horror!") Films like 'Little Shop of Horrors', 'Shaun of the Dead', 'Slither', 'Clue', 'Grindhouse', 'From Dusk Till Dawn', 'Army of Darkness', 'Mars Attacks', 'Return of the Living Dead', 'Doomsday', 'Donnie Darko'...two movies enter. One movie leaves.

I'm aware that this is not a major money-making proposition. It is, in fact, probably a money-loser (although I like to imagine it wouldn't hemorrhage cash.) But I think it'd be a fun place to work and spend time and run, and that's almost more important than money. Assuming you have money to burn, which I don't at the moment, which is why I'm working sixty hours a week. Which is why, to bring it all back to the beginning, I'm apologizing for the slow update schedule of late.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Meet 'N Greet #7

Today, ye scurvy dogs, we be talking about another City of Villains character I made. This sea dog were once another ordinary pirate like you and me, until he ran afoul of cursed treasure that forced him to sail the seven seas for all time, doomed to search endlessly for the man he stole from so that he can return it!

His ailment, Cursed Treasure Syndrome or CTS, strikes a pirate every thirty seconds. CTS is the single largest cause of undeath for pirates, swashbucklers, privateers, and buccaneers across the Spanish Main. The CTS Spokes-Pirate is stealing, maiming and killing to raise awareness of CTS throughout the Rogue Isles. Your involuntary donation could help remove an unlucky seagull from around a sailor's neck, return cursed gold to its rightful owner, or just let an unlucky pirate have a night on the town (inasmuch as he can, given his inability to taste real food and drink.)

CTS can strike anyone at any time. So please, give before it hurts.