Sunday, 22 November 2015

Rambo, Thirty Years Later: Well, That Could Have Been Worse

I was in kind of a silly mood last night, so I watched Rambo: First Blood Part 2 on Netflix, and it reminded me of why 1980s action flicks were so great.

Rambo's such a big part of 80s culture that it's easy (at least for me) to overlook the fact that Sylvester Stallone made only three of those films in that decade, and just two of those are actually what we think of when we hear the name "Rambo" - the first one takes place entirely in the US, and is remarkably bloodless, apart from some accidental collateral damage. It's also surprisingly nuanced and heartfelt, in that it's all about someone coming back from war to find that he doesn't fit in at home anymore. I won't say I was disappointed, exactly, when I saw it a few years ago, but it's fair to say that wasn't the film I'd been expecting.

Rambo 2, on the other hand, must have filled the pockets of fake-blood merchants quite considerably. It's pretty unapologetic about what it is and what it wants to accomplish, and does it with a reasonable economy - no pissing about, he's in Asia within ten minutes, and shooting people full of arrows by about the halfway mark. It's got double-crosses (dishonest politicians, of course), doomed love (in the shape of his Vietnamese contact who gets blown away somewhere in Act 2) and a nicely histrionic but still straight-forward approach to action scenes.

One of the things I lamented most about action movies in the 90s is that they all became a bit too self-aware, which led on the one hand to certain (mostly French) directors trying to make them operatic, and on the other to the effects-heavy approach pioneered by the Matrix.

(You could argue that action movies had a similar evolution to rock music: it got crazy and filled with excess in the 70s - ie Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones - which turned into a parody of itself in the 80s - Styx, Whitesnake - and then was all swept away by grunge in the 90s.)

Rambo also has some pretty questionable politics at its core, which another hallmark of 80s action flicks. When Rambo's being told about his new mission, his only question is, "Will we get to win this time?" I think I get where they were trying to go with that (veterans' sense of betrayal and shame), but it just landed too close to the "stab in the back" accusation that the Nazis used to explain why Germany lost WWI.

Godwin's Law aside, its portrayal of the Vietnamese is not particularly flattering, and when the Russians arrive (in the form of perennial baddie Steven Berkoff), you get the sense that it's some big wish-fulfillment for those asking why we couldn't just go blow up the Russkies and have done with it.

At the same time, though, the slightly less intellectual parts of my brain were just reveling in the sheer ridiculousness of it all. I mean, you have to have a cold, dead heart indeed to not appreciate Rambo shooting a bazooka through the broken windshield of his helicopter to destroy his nemesis, or blowing up the Vietnamese officer with a grenade arrow.

I guess the silliness becomes a little more apparent when we're 30 years off from those days - all I knew about Rambo in the 80s and 90s was that my parents wouldn't have approved of me watching those movies, and that Green Lantern Guy Gardner's love of the character was shown as the worst excesses of Reagan-era right-wing politics.

You could argue that the current crop of Republican candidates shows that things have changed for the worst, but it's hard to imagine a summer tentpole action flick taking on geopolitics so obviously. Although a lot of folks loved American Sniper, which by all accounts was even more reprehensible, so maybe that kind of filmmaking has moved up into the prestige category?

What I'm trying to get at, in any case, is that as awful as the movie and story were, we're far enough away from those days that we can appreciated just how dumb it all is, and revel in that stupidity. In his travel book about the Pacific, Paul Theroux holds up Rambo as the thing that's ruining traditional cultures in the region, but I find it hard to see what all the fuss is about now. I mean, compared to the coups that the CIA was instigating throughout the global south, Rambo seems quite straightforward and broadly harmless.

I don't mean that to negate my political/philosophical objections from a few paragraphs ago - but it's not exactly Birth of a Nation, is it? First Blood Part 2 is violent, brutish and stupid, but unlike, say, Zero Dark Thirty, it doesn't try to glorify the shitty things done in our name - it just presents a simple, black-and-white view of the world. It is entirely itself, without apologies or equivocation, and that's why it works.

Hopefully Rambo III will hold up just as well, though I'm not getting my hopes up.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

The Good and Bad of Comics in the 80s and 90s

As my search through my old boxes of comics continues, I came across a few more oddities and other stuff yesterday. The one I was really happy to find was my set of the Giffen-Bierbaums Legion of Superheroes from 1989, which carried the "Five Years Later" story arc - somehow this turned out to be my first initiation into the Legion, and so all subsequent (and even previous) versions have kind of paled.

To make a long story short, the idea behind it was that the Legion, a super-team in the 30th century, is now disbanded and scattered throughout the galaxy - some members are dead, others have retired and one or two are still trying to do good in limited ways. Aesthetically, Keith Giffen's art in those first few issues is the grimy middle-style he adopted at the turn of that decade, and is redolent of the "used future" aesthetic that George Lucas employed for Star Wars.

Giffen had his weird visual tics at that time, including the seriously over-used shot of someone in profile, looking up, but beyond that he used some really neat techniques, including framing a single view with the traditional nine-panel grid to act as both establishing shot and give the sense of movement.

I'm not sure who influenced whom, but his technique in those books is very similar to that of Charlie Adlard in The Walking Dead, which is one reason why I've also always loved Adlard's work.

Story-wise, I don't know if I can say that those Legion books influenced me that much - certainly not in a very overt way - but I've always loved that kind of long-form story where characters are separated and fighting their way back to safety, or to another objective. Another comic that did this well was Chris Claremont's late-80s work on the X-Men, when they weren't anchored at the school anymore.

It's a type of story I've always wanted to tackle, but haven't gotten to - though I hope to do it someday!

On a less positive note, I also found a Superman annual from a couple of years later. This was from 1991, during DC's Armageddon 2001 crossover event (there was a time, weirdly, when the crossover events by both of the Big Two were limited to annuals rather than the regular monthlies). Now that we're nearly 15 years past that iconic year, it seems quite quaint, but the story was that in 10 years a superhero would go mad and take over the world.

This caused one man to undergo an experiment to turn himself into the time-traveling Waverider, and use his powers to imagine possible futures for each superhero. It was a pretty clumsy way of doing it, and probably didn't need to be done as a company-wide crossover (DC did it right a few years later, where each book got the Elseworlds treatment, showing alternate takes on the characters).

This particular issue was Waverider's second look at Superman's future, and ended up being mostly - even nauseatingly - positive. In short, Superman ends up becoming president of the US, and absolutely nothing goes wrong. There are hints here and there of trouble, but are either brushed aside or never developed:

Lex Luthor (who at the time was masquerading as his own son; long story) gets arrested within two pages of Superman's election. Rogue Green Lantern Guy Gardner takes issue with Supes' agenda, and tries to fight him, only for Superman to take his ring and get him drummed out of the Green Lantern Corps. When Superman's offered the ring, which would make him even more powerful, he hands it back without much soul-searching. And then, when Superman's looking at all the work he's accomplished, some of it by intimidating his fellow world leaders, and is worrying about how to ensure his legacy, the story ends.

It's probably 20 years since I read that story, and with each page I kept waiting for something to go wrong: assassins shooting kryptonite bullets, someone killing Lois Lane, Superman himself taking an expansionist line and intimidating the rest of the world into kow-towing to American interests. But at each point I was balked.

I actually quite like Superman stories, because when they're told well, they're a good look at how that specific character interacts with the world around him, mindful of how easily he could destroy everything. This wasn't a well-told story, though. After he was rebooted by John Byrne in 1986, after the Crisis on Infinite Earths, Superman fell into the hands of a bunch of not particularly distinguished writers (and artists), who completely took away all of the charm of the character.

It made me, in fact, want to revisit Superman: Red Son, Mark Millar's Elseworlds story looking at what might have happened if Kal-El had landed in 1930s Soviet Russia instead of Kansas. Millar had a lot more pages to work with there, and he made them count: instead of positing a completely nightmarish vision, which we might have gotten in the 1980s (or from Frank Miller), he adds the conflict of two men both trying to do good but from different viewpoints, while also examining how Superman's powers worked with the built-in authoritarianism of the USSR.

The "Five Years Later" Legion and the post-Crisis Superman make for an interesting contrast, as the former represented a spirit of risk-taking and innovation that DC hasn't recaptured. Other examples were the "Bwah-ha-ha" era Justice League (which Giffen also co-wrote), as well as books like Sandman, Hellblazer, Grant Morrison's Animal Man and Mike Grell's Green Arrow. Those first three were among the books that formed the basis of Vertigo, while Green Arrow, along with Dennis O'Neil's run on the Question, took a more mature-readers approach to the less fantastical heroes - and Grell's work now is a big influence on the Arrow TV series that I love so much.

That era's Superman, on the other hand, kind of stands for a lot of what DC did later - using gimmicks to try and spice up badly handled characters, which led to an arms race of terrible stories that were intended to top one another and only resulted in making things more confusing. It's no wonder they keep having to retcon everything.

The poor old Legion has also suffered this fate, since it was rebooted after the Zero Hour crossover. But it also served another function for me: whenever a property is rebooted or retconned into something unrecognizable (and shit), I can remember that the old stories are still there, even if they aren't canon anymore.

Or as Alan Moore said in "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?", his farewell to the Silver Age:

This is an imaginary story... Aren't they all?

Saturday, 7 November 2015

How Ads in Comics Have and Haven't Changed

Since I started watching the CW's superhero shows, Arrow and the Flash, I've not only started buying new comics, but have also revisited some of the older books I picked up when I was in high school or college. And in doing so I've rediscovered one of the finest pleasures of reading old comics: the ads.

I feel like it's a cliche that old comics were full of stuff like Mike Marvel and Charles Atlas ads for bodybuilding (so much so that Grant Morrison based his Flex Mentallo charactor on them), along with the small ads for useless crap you could send away for, like X-ray glasses or magic tricks. But if it's a (slightly broader) cliche to note that it was a different world, it's also interesting to see how long some of that stuff lasted. For example, the picture below is from a comic that came out in 1992:

Elongated Man Europe '92 #1

That Atlas Body ad in the top right appeared in comics going back to the 60s, but you feel like you can almost trace Charles Atlas's shifting fortunes by the form the ads took. From the full page ads promising books to teach you sex appeal, the ads went smaller and the address would change. By the 90s, the address is a PO box in Madison Square Station, which suggests rather straitened circumstances.

It's not a million miles off from this page, grabbed from Justice League of America #46:

JLA (vol. 1) #46 (copyright DC)

The model ad at the top is charmingly of its time - I guess if you were a boy your options were sports or models, or visiting crappy amusement parks in New Jersey. What's striking is how wordy it all is: the word balloons nearly crowd out the art because the kids are so busy relating how great the models are. And turning to the one at the bottom, I love how $0.85 must have seemed a princely sum to kids in 1966 (who were, let's remember, paying $0.12 for this issue). These days a trip to Six Flags sets you back at least $33. And you can't see it very well, but I've always been intrigued by what kind of ride the Caterpillar must have been (bottom left).

Another thing you'd never see now is this:

JLA (vol.1) #138

This one's from 1977, which was almost as fertile a year (judging by this issue) for neat ads. There was another one for Slim Jims that made prominent reference to werewolves, because if I recall correctly horror was big in comics at the time. But I like this one because it's kind of the last gasp of comics as a thing for all kids, rather than just the nerdy ones. What could be more all-American than BB guns?

I could go on. For this blog I actually lined up six comic books and took a picture of what I thought was a nicely representative ad, though admittedly the later ones are a little less interesting visually - in The Authority #11, from March 2000, ads were all full-pagers for video games or apparel. One from JLA #1, which came out in 1997, is hawking a video box set of Michael Jordan's greatest moments.

Nowadays, unfortunately, I don't know what ads are being published, because I only buy trade paperbacks, and I suspect my local shop wouldn't like me taking photos of their wares on my iPhone without buying them. I can only presume the ads aren't as charming as these old ones, though - even in that Elongated Man one, looking at that array of notices and ads told you that there was this network of fans and mail-order stores nationwide.

This is, of course, one of the reasons I love old comics, and old stuff in general. I've always been fascinated with what the world was like before I was born, and it's poignant seeing that some of those aspects survived into my own times, even though I didn't notice then. It'd be interesting to find out what happened to all those old advertisers, though...

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Ladies in Blockbusters

Funny how when you take your (work) laptop on vacation, you imagine yourself engaging in all sorts of productivity, but then it mysteriously never materializes. Before I left for London I thought I'd do some writing, do some blogging, etc etc, but no, I should have been a tad more realistic.

The upshot, then, is that I've got a bunch of stuff to go over, which I'll do in a number of posts. It's all been simmering in my brain for about a month now, so hopefully it'll all make sense.

As you can maybe tell from the title, I've been thinking about women in summer tentpole action movies. This is because I used my flight time wisely and watched a number of summer tentpole action movies that I'd missed when they were in theaters. On the flight to London I caught Terminator: Genisys, and on the flight back I caught Jurassic World, Ant Man and part of Furious 7. I also watched Inside Out, though maybe that's a little less relevant?

Anyway, the point is, some of the movies tried to have good roles for women (but failed), some didn't try and some acknowledged that they didn't but faced up to it. SPOILERS, btw.

The one that tried but failed was Terminator, funnily enough. You'd expect, after T2 and this installment's return to basics (ie, Sarah Conner), that it'd be full of badass ladies blowing shit up - especially when we learn that the timeline's been messed up even further and now Sarah's the one saving Kyle Reese and telling him "Come with me if you want to live".

Part of that is because they cast Emilia Clarke as Sarah Conner. Emilia Clarke is a fine actress, but I don't think she sells the "hard-as-nails lady" character as well as Linda Hamilton did - and it didn't help that the filmmakers further undermined her turn as that character by having her show up all cute and delicate and small in the mugshots when she, Reese and Arnie are arrested by the SFPD. There were probably producers' notes insisting on stuff like that, and on nude scenes for her and Jai Courtney (Reese), but it's a shame that they ruined that part of the character for me, as otherwise I thought the film was pretty good - a fitting follow-up to T2, even.

The one that didn't bother trying was Jurassic World. Another fine movie (as these things go, I suppose. I mean, I'm not reviewing My Dinner with Andre here), and they didn't undermine any of the character archetypes: Chris Pratt plays the two-fisted hero, Bryce Dallas Howard plays the emotionless woman who learns how to love, etc, but they also don't deviate from these archetypes at any point. It might as well have been an action movie from the 80s. In fact, amid enjoying all the dinosaur-based carnage, I kept imagining what the movie would have been like if they'd switched the two characters around: had the badass dino-wrangler be played by a woman (say, Gina Carano) and the spineless administrator played by a man (Thomas Lennon). That would have been pretty clever, right?

Ant Man also didn't really make much of its female roles, but at least had the good grace to look a little embarrassed about it (oddly, like Jurassic World it also had Judy Greer playing The Only Other Female of Note). I suppose I get that the original character's called Ant Man, rather than Ant Woman, and the American film industry in the 21st century still relies on straight white men to carry films, but there was actually not much good reason for why they had to put Paul Rudd in the costume, rather than Evangeline Lilly. At least she gets her own shrinking armor at the end.

Oddly enough, possibly the only one of these action flicks that came close was Furious 7, because of Michelle Rodriguez's badass character, and the fact that the hacker being rescued by Vin Diesel et al turns out to be a woman. Although I didn't get to see if it passed the Bechdel test, because my flight was coming to an end.

The point is, it's a shame that we're stuck with these kinda regressive gender depictions in films, and even more of a shame that we seem to be going backwards. I mean, Linda Hamilton was blowing shit up and looking tough back in 1991 - it's hard to imagine her taking selfies, as Emilia Clarke was doing.

For shame, Hollywood! Get your act together.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Back in London

After what felt like an eternity of waiting, my vacation for the year has finally rolled around and I'm back in London for a couple of weeks. It's been a tough one to wait for, since I booked the trip back in March (!) and hadn't actually left the US since September of last year (when I went to Singapore). That officially makes this the longest stretch I've spent in any one country since I went back to the US for graduate school eleven years ago.

Since arriving I've made the most of my time here: traveled on the Heathrow Express, visited the British Museum, bought a couple of books (including one at the brand-spanking new Foyle's) and watched Match of the Day. I haven't seen any friends yet, but that cycle of hanging out with people begins today, and continues pretty much unabated until I leave. 

As far as what I still want/need to do while I'm here, well, I've promised my sister a visit to one of the bars in the Shard, and there's a bunch more books I need to pick up, particularly at Big Waterstones on Piccadilly, which remains my favorite bookstore ever. I've also penciled in a visit to the BSFA's monthly meeting near Old Street, so I can hobnob with more SFF writers (something I've been sorely missing since I moved back to California).

And then I get a week totally offline in Italy, where I'm going for a cousin's wedding. So I might not be blogging as much as I'd like, but hopefully I'll be able to come up with the odd bon mot to keep folks entertained...

Sunday, 13 September 2015

A Catch-up on Writing Goals

At the beginning of the year I listed a number of writing related goals that I've set for myself, with the idea that if I set a lot, I'd be more motivated to accomplish them. I'm happy to say that I'm mostly right, but it's also worth noting how naive some of that was.

I never got around to properly revising any of my movie treatments from last year, for instance. But I have finished a first draft of a full screenplay with a friend back in London, so I'm counting that goal as broadly done. And I've been thinking of ways to expand these old outlines (or, um, finish the one that I didn't complete last year...), so that I can actually write them into full screenplays.

As far as the new screenplay treatments, I'm well on track with those. I set myself the goal of doing three, and as of mid-September I've done two. They aren't necessarily the ones I planned on at the start of the year, or as long as I was thinking, but they're done, so this goal is pretty comprehensively on the road to completion.

The comic's been a bit more difficult, in part because I haven't really looked at how to write comics in almost 15 years. It also doesn't help that I got through a version of the first issue and then re-imagined the entire story, so I'm effectively a month behind with this one. On the plus side, because it's the same story as one of last year's movie treatments, it means I'm moving ahead with revisions on that one, too. #winwin

And then there's the 90,000 word novel I planned to write. I blogged about my progress on it a couple of times, but never did part 3 of my progress reports - but suffice to say, after a blinding start in April, where I was routinely knocking out over 1,000 words in a night, progress came a lot slower for the next couple of months, and although the story ended, I didn't come anywhere near 90,000.

This isn't necessarily an arbitrary goal, by the way, as DAW requires books to be at least 80,000 words, and Angry Robot's guidelines specify 90k. This means I'm left with two choices - either expand it by at least 35,000 words, or pare it down and turn it into a novella. I'm leaning toward the former, as I don't know if a market for fantasy novellas even exists, but probably my main focus for right now should be just to get on with revising. And the first step of that would be putting the 136 pages I printed out the other week in order - always remember to put page numbers on stuff!

The final goal I listed was submitting stories 20 times, for which I've reached the halfway point as of last night. As I mentioned at the start of the year, this required some revisions and rewrites, as I had two stories ready for submission; I've sent a couple of others, but the revising and rewriting remains beyond me, to some extent. This is probably an action point for me, of course - learn to revise properly so that I can actually get a few more stories out the door...

I mention all of this to illustrate a point made by Tim Ferriss in the Four-Hour Work Week (which he was citing from elsewhere), that tasks expand to fit the time allotted. For me the best example was the novel. In previous years, with previous novels, I wouldn't exactly set myself a deadline, I'd just write -sometimes I'd get to the end, and sometimes I wouldn't.

This time, following suggestions by Stephen King in his book On Writing, I set myself the goal of finishing the first draft in 3 months, and I'd say it helped. I let myself off the hook from all other writing during those three months (except for the blog, of course!), and just got on with it. Sticking to 1,000 words a day may have been a bit too ambitious for someone working 9-5, but on the other hand, my problem ended being too concise, rather than not having enough time...

The other thing that benefits from all these goals I set is consistency: because I had a million things I wanted to do this year, it meant I pretty much have to do something every day. Sometimes it takes hours, and sometimes it's just 15 minutes, but I'm finding that in the last couple of months I've had fewer days where I didn't do anything at all. I broke everything down into quarters, months and then weeks, and from there I just got on with it.

So my recommendation is to be ambitious with your goals... within reason. Or to put it another way, set a bunch of small goals, rather than only a couple of big ones. Break them down into smaller goals with clear milestones, and set deadlines. And then don't get discouraged (as I often have to remind myself) when you don't meet one or two goals - after all, writing is subjective, and you're relying on a lot of factors you can't control to make you successful.

And after you've set all those goals, get to work!

Sunday, 6 September 2015

The Importance of TV Theme Songs

I was listening to my TV themes playlist on Spotify the other day, just to make a change from the usual routine of my 80s playlist and the ones I've set up with notable songs from 2014 and 2015 (current total: 15). Somehow this inspired me to go looking on YouTube for the video depicting all of the themes from Star Trek shows, from TOS to Enterprise, and it struck me again how important a tool the opening theme can be in setting the mood for a show.

In this case, the main idea was around the two themes that Deep Space Nine had during its run. For the first two or three seasons, the theme was very stripped down and stately - you hear the opening fanfare as we pan across the field of stars to where the station itself sits, alone in the night. The music rises only when we see the station in its entirety, and when the dissolve arrives we launch into the tune, with a single horn underlining the theme of being alone and far from home.

It's probably the most understated Star Trek theme, and my favorite. And then in Season 4 they ruined it all.

The second version, which also appears on this video, is sped up considerably from the previous one, and doesn't sync up as well with the visuals. The reveal of the station occurs a bit earlier in this new version, and then once we go into the main theme the single horn has either been joined by others or has been mixed considerably higher. And the rest of the orchestra, which in the previous version maintained a noticeable but very subdued presence, is almost intolerably loud here.

I mention this, not just to bitch for the umpteenth time about how my favorite theme got ruined between one season and the next (seriously, it was about eight years ago and I'm still traumatized), but also to underline my point about the opening music's importance in conveying the themes of the show.

Deep Space Nine was different from the others, by virtue of not being set aboard a ship with a crew that was exploring space. This meant that the writers could explore more political themes, such as war with dangerous new enemies (the Cardassians and then the Dominion), as well as the fact that your allies back home aren't necessarily on your side any more than the enemies in front of you are.

It's a pretty complicated set of ideas for Star Trek, and I can understand why they felt the need to add a new ship, the Defiant, and add a fan-favorite cast member in the shape of Michael Dorn, to keep it going. But in changing the opening music they basically threw all of those ideas out the window, which I think is unwise if you're trying to get your views in the mood for your show.

Another example would be the themes from the first two seasons of True Detective (I haven't embedded these videos, because it seems HBO has asked people to disable that function when they post them on YouTube). When I wrote about Season 1, I highlighted the opening song as an important intro to the themes the show was exploring. By laying religious and sexual imagery over the silhouettes of the characters, the show's producers were making a comment on how unreliable memory can be, and how easy it is for people to obscure the truth from one another.

The second season of True Detective was generally less successful than the first, and its opening music is no exception. We still have the silhouettes of the actors overlaid with scenes from the show's settings (California's forests and highways this time, replacing the bayous and refineries of Louisiana), but here they don't make the same kind of sense as in the first season. At the same time, the song, Nevermind by Leonard Cohen, doesn't have an obvious relationship to the show's visuals or themes the way Season 1's song did.

Which isn't to say that it's a bad song. But as I watched the second season, I realized that the producers were using industrial landscapes of Southern California in the same way they'd used rural Louisiana - where in Season 1 the landscape shots were meant to show how nature creeps up on us and gradually covers over the past, Season 2's shots of freeways and refineries were in keeping with the themes of how power and money flow, and also represented how the characters built their identities over traumas and other aspects of themselves they wanted to hide.

Or, put another way, it showed how we try and control nature (or our own natures), but that in doing so we replace it with something ugly, artificial and stifling. The problem is, almost none of this is evident in the theme (to me at least; your mileage may vary).

The point, again, is that a well-done theme sequence is meant to do a good job of explaining what you're about to see, and get you in the right frame of mind to take in the messages the show wants to convey. Good theme songs, like for True Blood, the Wire or Season 1 of True Detective, are evidence that the producers have a good handle on what they're trying to say. Even if, as in the case of True Blood, they eventually let it all get out of control and go a little silly.

On the other hand, silly isn't always bad: