Star Wars – The Art of Derivation

Star Wars – The Art of Derivation

I watched Rogue One in theaters with my family on Christmas day. I walked away from the experience pretty satisfied, albeit disturbed by the creepy CGI characters. Also, I would’ve been completely hammered if I had made a drinking game out of how many times the word “Hope” is uttered.

Overall it was a fine time. I enjoyed it more than The Force Awakens which is, by all accounts, a perfectly OK film. I think I know why.

All art is derivative. Our best films make no apologies about it (*cough*Tarantino*cough*GuyRitchieRiffingOffTarantino*cough*). Star Wars is notable for ripping the bones straight out of Flash Gordon— and in fact, the entire universe was built around George Lucas not being able to acquire the rights to make that film. What’s more, is the influence from Akira Kurosawa– if Flash Gordon was the bones, The Hidden Fortress provided the meat, fleshing out the style and action sequences of A New Hope. (Lucas also snaked Kurosawa’s infamous side-wipe technique with great effect).

So when The Force Awakens came to theaters, there was one major criticism that pointed out a flaw that couldn’t be ignored. (Hint: it’s the second biggest criticism of Return of The Jedi) The major gripe was that it was essentially A New Hope’s skeleton wearing a Millenial-friendly skin. It makes perfect sense that the screenwriters would do this, to pass the Star Wars brand along from the beloved Original Trilogy to the scrappy newcomers, but after replicating A New Hope beat for beat it still had to introduce a whole new cast of characters creating way too many plot points to give each a decent amount of screen time. As a result, the actual plot of the movie feels almost inconsequential, given that the movie doesn’t even end when the Dea—er, Starkiller Base explodes.

Which isn’t to say that it’s a bad movie. But when the derivative content comes from the same series, it becomes self-referential and when the self references become the primary leg the film stands on, it’s easy for it to teeter towards a redundant, unrewarding viewing experience. (To use a musical corollary, the best hip hop samples outside of its genre, even its own medium).

Narratively, this also cheats the script out of valuable time to accommodate the threads of the story. For all of the various problems that plagued Episode One: The Phantom Menace (shitty kid, poor direction, JJ Binks) perhaps the biggest sin was trying to telegraph too much story in the allotted time of a standard movie. I’ve linked to a lot of videos in this post, but if you watch only one video, make it this one, which shows George Lucas and his team’s reaction to the first screening of Menace. Before he starts to justify it, he looks truly remorseful for shoving too much at once, the same way how I was remorseful last night, shoving both pizza and buffalo wings in my mouth at the same time. (You thought I was going to make a sexual joke right there. Shame on you.) Lucas’s film editor has the best feedback: juggling four scenes at once convolutes the story. Whereas all three films in the Orig’ Trig’ only had to juggle three. (Eg: Empire is cleanly split between Luke’s training, Han and Leia’s shiznoz, and Empire business before it all comes together.)

While Rogue One clearly had references to the other movies, most of these were background easter eggs for nerds to gush about online. (I had a moment myself when I saw a probe droid flutter in the background) Because that’s the Star Wars brand. But the wisest decision this film made is that it sought to derive it’s content from other sources. First, the vibe is more Raiders of The Lost Ark in its first act, with the Arabic architecture, crowded streets, and obligatory show downs. Second, and most notably, Rogue One takes not only a page but an entire iconic character out of Japanese cinema and drops him in the universe. I’m referring to Zatoichi, The Blind Swordsman. Zatoichi is basically Japan’s Bond franchise, featured in 26 films between 1962 to 1989, a television series, and a Beat Takeshi revival.

By going back to the Samurai influence, Rogue One succeeded in creating a standout character that the audience could attach to easily, as his predecessor had cleared the way for immediate familiarity– Chirrut Imwe, a blind warrior connected to the force, but not quite a Jedi, and probably your favorite character of the film.

It might seem exploitative to take a character that’s essentially been screen tested over seas for years but after exporting Transformers and Marvel blockbusters overseas for the last two decades, to the point that their studios are beginning to mimic our brainless cash cows, it’s nice to see tried and true foreign influence in American cinema again.

Read and watch broadly, folks. Fold variegated influences into your work and resist the urge to hit the same beat for every song, movie or story.

Villain For A Day

Villain For A Day

Spoilers for Blade Runner, Westworld, Silence of the Lambs, Ace Ventura, The Dark Knight, and so much more. Basically, don’t watch anything. Or just don’t read this blog post.

I’ve got a theory about the purpose of fictional media and how it relates to the social consciousness of the human species as a whole. First, you could say that it is our social consciousness. Hollywood is the dream machine, and our culture provides the content of those dreams. But the way that we address and view antagonists is particularly interesting to me.

Godzilla (or Go-jira, if you prefer) is the filmic representation of Japan grappling with the horrors of having two cities decimated by Atomic power. It’s a coping strategy. By making the tragedy into a literal monster, the concept was easier for Japanese citizens to digest and then move on. Others have drawn the parallels between 9/11 and Hollywood’s fascination with destruction porn.

Hollywood’s bad guys generally represent what we’re afraid of. Blade Runner comes to mind because it gives us a villain who is so sympathetic and genuine in his fear of death that a sense of humanity is given to him; whereas Deckert’s humanity is questioned. Fast forward 34 years later to 2016, an age that is increasingly concerned about the potential dangers of AI and you get Westworld, a series that portrays “Hosts” with artificial consciousness as the protagonists and self-absorbed, slave-tasking humans as the antagonists. (Kind of). The question remains the same in both stories– How can you deny a being who is conscious the right to be alive– but the values have shifted from sympathetic villain to sympathetic heroes.

Another progression: Silence of the Lambs came out in 1991, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective 1994. The bad guys are a crossdresser (kind of) and a transitioning woman. A lot has changed since then in attitudes towards the LGBTQ community. Now, while I don’t want to defend the portrayals in those movies (which would be easier for Lambs, as Buffalo Bill was based, in part, on Ed Gein and possibly Jeffrey Dahmer), it would be naive to think that Hollywood would’ve nailed those portrayal right out of the gate, because, if you believe our culture creates the media we ingest, at the time, this was (and still is in many parts of the country) a scary, outsider element that we didn’t understand. However, for all of the damage that negative portrayals of certain demographics can incur, there might be a silver lining– in seeing through film that transexuality, at the end of the day, is harmless, audiences can drop their fearful attitudes and embrace more progressive ones.

If you take a look at Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back‘s famous twist (“No, I am your father.”) and sync it up to what was going on in American Divorce Law (1969, California passes no fault divorce, other states to follow in the ensuing decades, changing the structure of what a family looks like). In A New Hope, Luke is a twice-orphaned farm boy who goes up against an iconic evil (Vader). In Empire, we learn that Vader is Luke’s father and the space opera pretty much becomes a melodramatic family soap about the Skywalkers (with laser swords! fwoosh!) after these two near perfect movies. The reason, I think, that the series moved in this direction is because of the de-nuclearization of American families and Lucas and Company striking the vein of familial anxiety, attaching the uncertainty of fatherhood to the biggest badass in the galaxy. Lucas would argue that he had planned it this way all along. Lucas is a bit of a fibber. Vader wasn’t written in as a father character until the rewrites of Empire. By the end of Jedi, Darth Vader has redeemed himself, trading his own life to protect the life of his son’s and restoring a sense of paternal love to the Skywalker’s broken family. Likewise, divorce rates began falling in 1990, 7 years after the film’s release, enough time to digest the redemption message. Or I’m just stretching this. Moving on.

The other major favorite villain in the American pop culture zeitgeist: The Joker. He embodies chaos and in Nolan’s trilogy, playful nihilism. We fear him because he’s unpredictable, and his mind remains a black box, but his actions are at once calculated and random. The Dark Knight came out in 2008, and while a particularly successful politician ran on the platform of HOPE, the ensuing years embraced a darker paradigm, a reinvigorated apathy that put the early 1990’s to shame. 2016 seemed to personify this chaos and a sardonic sense of nihilism became our strategic coping mechanism as our news feeds filled with a relentless stories of death, violence and viral politics.

It becomes a chicken-egg problem as to whether our attitudes are shaped by media, or our media is shaped by our attitudes– but the general point I’m trying to get at is this: what’s scary now, will be the norm in a decade or two. So it merits some thought as to who/what we’re putting into the villain seat. I could also be waaay off base.

Bonus Lightning Round:

Jason Voorhees embodies sexual anxiety during a period of an HIV epidemic. Sexual attitudes relax concurrent with improved sex education. Jason’s relevancy in pop culture plummets. (This can be extended to nearly all slasher movie monsters)

The Terminator is the unflinching march of technology. As I linked to above, we live in a time in which Bill Gates is scared shitless of AI. So as to not be redundant, a different approach to read The Terminator is the shallow aspect of his humanity. His skin is just a thin veneer which he casts aside casually, without pain. This might be a stretch, but part of where our tech march has landed us is in a superficial sphere of human interaction via social media where your (genuine, presumably) human interactions are stored digitally, reduced to cold data to be mined monetarily later.

Voldemort is the embodiment of the fear of death (similar to Vader), a perennial fear that doesn’t have to be pinned down to any particular time in history. It also accompanies wizard racism. I think this is less about how hatred is going to be normalized, but it does speak to a sense of what’s going on in western Europe and America, where fear (in our case, of death by terrorism) is intrinsically linked to outsider hatred (personified as Islamophobia).

Current state of Super Hero movies: Internal fighting, villainizing your teammates (Batman v Superman, Captain America: Civil War, Daredevil vs The Punisher, etcetera) concurrent with the lead up to a divisive election cycle. It’ll be interesting where we go from there.

Happy New Year.

Planning Your Escape

Planning Your Escape

You ask any number of readers (or gamers, or cinephiles, etc) why they read and I’ll bet you a shiny Sacagawea dollar that the number one answer is going to be “being teleported to another world.” (Popcorn flicks – “to turn my brain off for a while”; video games – “veg out and kill shit”; Netflix – “Chillll.”) Some call this “escapism.” I’m not here to judge the value of escapism, because I already know from personal experience that it’s practically necessary for the survival of my sanity. But looking at escapism from the creative perspective and the work that goes into it, there’s a few things I’ve noticed.

In writing circles, there’s a dumb phrase floating around called “World Building,” in which the writer conceptualizes the setting that their story is going to take place.

I’m pretty sure it’s a trap.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to understand the world you’re trying to  convey to the audience. Understanding spacial relationships within the story is important, too. Fleshing out characters, even minor ones, crucial. But I feel that writers often get stuck in this development phase and it’s tempting to stay there.

Consider HP Lovecraft, often considered the premiere cosmic-horror author, and to do this, consider all of HP Lovecraft’s annoying goddamn fans (BYE, NERDS! Don’t let the red X button hit you on the ass on your way out!). Lovecraftian nerds love to piece together an overarching mythology to Lovecraft’s work, because that’s what human beings do– we organize, label, and critique things. But if you start writing a comprehensive universe first, you’re essentially working backwards. My take is that HP built outwards (very elaborately) to satisfy the needs of the stories he was working on. From the Cthulhu Mythos wiki:

The view that there was no rigid structure is reinforced by S. T. Joshi, who stated “Lovecraft’s imaginary cosmogony was never a static system but rather a sort of aesthetic construct that remained ever adaptable to its creator’s developing personality and altering interests… [T]here was never a rigid system that might be posthumously appropriated… [T]he essence of the mythos lies not in a pantheon of imaginary deities nor in a cobwebby collection of forgotten tomes, but rather in a certain convincing cosmic attitude.”

Something to take from this is the likelihood that intricate, pre-fabricated (in the writer’s notebook) worlds can inhibit creativity. Think about it. If you built a world that featured, I don’t know, a fountain of banana flavored pudding, you’re very likely to move the direction towards that useless fountain instead of where the story needs to go. You’re going to feel obliged to show off your pudding fountain; if you didn’t, you would feel as if you’d wasted your time world building. That’s how you write yourself into a corner. Which is how lazy and contrived plot contrivances (eg- deus ex machina solutions) occur. Keeping things open allows for opportunities, forces the writer to make choices, and to arrive at something unexpected– you know, also known as “the joy of writing.” To offer another example, you can figure out exactly when Venture Bros turned shitty– and it’s at the precise moment that the comedic vehicle of the cartoon was exchanged in favor of in-depth story extrapolation. Compare that with Metalacolypse, which always brings its story to the brink of explanation and then blatantly disregards it. Metalacolypse stayed fresh because it stuck with its comedic guns, favored character over plot, and didn’t get stuck up its own ass.

Another take: Much like character sketching, developing values and rule is more important than the details (although the details should imply the values and yada yada yada). HP Lovecraft is not consistent with his “cosmogony”. He is consistent in his themes and paradigms (“the universe is an uncaring, mechanical place,” “true horror cannot be understood by human minds” etc). To offer another example, the Harry Potter universe isn’t the most consistent– except in its subversion of the ordinary (“This boot is a teleportation device!” “There’s a piece o’ soul in this snake!” “School is fun and zany!”) and its overarching themes (“Love is magic, PEOPLE.” “Racism is bad!”) which makes the series charming and feel cohesive.

A third take: Much of the Lovecraftian universe was organized and expanded on by other writers. The current expansion of the Harry Potter universe feels like an unnecessary shill. The expanded Star Wars universe (with the fine exception of KotOR) is an exercise of human futility. Seems weak to me. Don’t write fan fiction for your own story. Don’t write fan fiction. Write your story.

 

And I know what you’re thinking: Tolkien did it. Sure, Tolkien did it, but there’s some caveats to that argument. I haven’t read the Simarillion (fight me, why doncha), but I know that Tolkien included only a mere fraction of his notes in The Lord of The Rings (showing immense creative restraint to convey only enough as was necessary), and that he baked in his Roman Catholic values into the grain of the narrative which guided the story through its paces, instead of offering some kind of railcar tour of a bunch of stuff in Middle Earth. It’s also important to recognize that Tolkien was a philogist— he studied classical languages, literature and their historical context– and a large part of what Tolkien was doing was combining a lot of epic poetry and European mythology into a series more easily digestible by his modern audience.

There’s been a lot of fantasy churned out since Tolkien and a lot of it only goes so far as to mimic his work. But if you study the epic poems Tolkien sourced as influences (well hello, fellow English majors. How come you all look so sad all the time?), you need to remember that they are representing the world as it was– Beowulf was a modern narrative upon its original telling. So was The Green Knight. The world described in those poems is the world that they lived in with the addition of other worldly forces at play. After Tolkien we fetishized his aesthetic as the ultimate expression of fantasy– which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, so much as it has become a tad stale as it may no longer reflect the world we live in.

It seems trite to conclude that the way to combat stale universe development is to “just look outside for inspiration! That’s what the poets of the middle ages did!” But it still has to be said. So remember:

  • Aesthetics are important, but not absolute. Like the way you can change your shirt if you spill nacho cheese on it.
  • It’s about a convincing atmosphere…
  • …which is often rooted in reality and then somehow subverted
  • Stay consistent in values
  • Heavy exposition drags. There’s no goddamn reason I need to know “that it rains sometimes on Klthgbak Mountain, a place our heroes will never visit, but will often think of, as Tostito Mojito’s mother was born on Klthgbak Mountain while it was raining.” You like that? I just made that up. Quit being part of the problem.
  • The Devil is in the Details but just this one time, the Devil is not your friend.
  • I bet you HBO calls me tomorrow hoping to develop Mountain Thinkers starring Christian Bale as Tostito Mojito’s mom because THE WORLD IS BROKEN.