Underworld: Awakening and the great gender swap

I finally caught up with Underworld: Awakening, a movie I'd put off seeing because I liked the first two Underworld films so much. Although technically the fourth in the series, chronologically it follows the second (the third was a totally unnecessary prequel), and picks up the story of Kate Beckinsale's Selene after the events of Underworld: Evolutions. Why, if I'm Read more

Blade Runner: crocodile tears in rain?

I'll say up front: this is totally fanboy rambling.  Take it as such. In Ridley Scott's classic film Blade Runner, evil corporate head Elton Tyrell explains to hero Rick Deckard how the Nexus 6 replicants, the closest the company's come to true human beings, have emotional issues since they're born fully adult and live only four years. Tyrell: We began to Read more

High Hopes: is talent finite?

This weekend, I finally listened to High Hopes, the most recent Bruce Springsteen album. Yes, it came out on January 14, and I bought it then, but I hadn't listened to it. There  were many times when I listened to a new Springsteen album multiple times on its release day, and almost exclusively for days after that. But something's happened to Read more

Some thoughts on a Star Trek rewatch

  My oldest son and I just finished watching the first season of the original Star Trek series. We watched the episodes in "production order," meaning the order in which they were filmed. That way, we could see the growth of the show, the way the actors find their characters, and how the Enterprise itself is more and more developed. Read more

Writing on demand for MY BLOODY VALENTINE

Every writer has at least one weakness, something they don't do as well as they'd like. They know it, and their readers know it. Raymond Chandler knew he didn't do plots well, which is why the structures of his novels a) don't bear up to scrutiny, and b) are often cribbed from his previous short stories. Of course, what Read more

Underworld: Awakening and the great gender swap

Posted on by Alex in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

MV5BMjAxMjc0ODk0OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTc5NDQwNw@@._V1__SX1218_SY649_

I finally caught up with Underworld: Awakening, a movie I’d put off seeing because I liked the first two Underworld films so much. Although technically the fourth in the series, chronologically it follows the second (the third was a totally unnecessary prequel), and picks up the story of Kate Beckinsale’s Selene after the events of Underworld: Evolutions.

Why, if I’m such a fan of the series, wasn’t I there opening night? Mainly because of the history of genre threequels.

The litany of sucky third films in SF/Fantasy franchises is legendary: Superman III, Batman Forever, Spider-Man 3, X-Men 3: The Last Stand, Men in Black 3, The Dark Knight Rises. Each of them built on the artistic and commercial success of the previous two films by coming up with shallow, convoluted and ultimately awful continuations. It doesn’t seem to matter if new creative blood came in, or if the same hands continued the series. Something about third films just spells disaster.

Underworld: Awakening isn’t a classic, but it’s a lot better than the mainstream reviewers (who also hated the others) would have you believe. It’s short (89 minutes according to the blu-ray box), and the absence of Scott Speedman’s Michael as a major character throws the story askew. Director Len Wiseman has been replaced by  Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein , two Swedes who apparently directed on alternate days (hey, whatever works).

But it preserves the most crucial thing about the first two films: Selene is the template for the total gender reversal of the male action hero. All those Hollywood nabobs who can’t seem to get a handle on how to approach Wonder Woman need look no farther than here.

I first wrote about this in an earlier blog post, but in Underworld: Awakening the ideas are developed in surprisingly new ways. Selene discovers that she’s a mother: Eve (India Eisley), her twelve-year-old daughter, was born while the humans had Selene in suspended animation. For Selene to suddenly be confronted with motherhood is a fairly brilliant step, and it’s handled very well. It allows her to be even more vicious than before, because now it’s not just her own life she’s fighting to preserve.

Maternity does not interfere with kickassery.

Maternity does not interfere with kickassery.

And it doesn’t come at the expense of her character. Selene still occupies the role in the narrative that has traditionally belonged to male characters. She has agency, self-determination and the defining decisions in the plot. She saves and rescues both female and male characters, the latter filling the traditional “girl” role. Nowhere is that more clear than in a brief scene where Selene tells the handsome, studly young vampire David (Theo James) that she’s leaving with Eve to continue the fight elsewhere. He begs, “Take me with you,” a line that’s so traditionally a woman’s that it should jar us out of the moment. But because Selene has been established so well, and is handled so consistently, it passes seamlessly, and only later do you realize how extraordinary it really is.

UnderworldAwakening-WereTheSameScreencaps97-1

In the Underworld universe, the damsels in distress have five o’clock shadow.

As long as this continues–as long as Underworld continues its trend of total gender reversal without making that the whole point of the story, and thus going from entertainment to didacticism–I’ll continue being a fan. And I’ll continue pointing to it as the least likely, but most accomplished, feminist action series around.

Blade Runner: crocodile tears in rain?

Posted on by Alex in Uncategorized | 12 Comments

I’ll say up front: this is totally fanboy rambling.  Take it as such.

In Ridley Scott’s classic film Blade Runner, evil corporate head Elton Tyrell explains to hero Rick Deckard how the Nexus 6 replicants, the closest the company’s come to true human beings, have emotional issues since they’re born fully adult and live only four years.

tyrell

Joe Turkel as Tyrell.

Tyrell: We began to recognize in them a strange obsession. After all, they are emotionally inexperienced, with only a few years in which to store up the experiences which you and I take for granted. If we gift them with a past, we create a cushion or a pillow for their emotions, and consequently, we can control them better.

Deckard: Memories. You’re talking about memories.

This is established through the character of Rachel, a replicant who believes she’s a human being.

Now, flash forward to the end of the film, to Roy Batty’s famous speech (written by actor Rutger Hauer).

Nope-not-Jared-Leto.-But-possibly-more-psychotic

Rutger Hauer as Batty.

Batty: I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time… like tears in rain.

This is justly considered one of the highlights of SF cinema, and one of the great bits of cinema dialogue, period.  It points up the tragedy of the replicants, doomed to short and terrible lives.

Except…

Tyrell says they give the Nexus 6 memory cushions.

Roy Batty is a Nexus 6.

So…what if these memories never really happened?  

bryant-and-deckard

Bryant (M. Emmett Walsh) and Deckard (Harrison Ford).

In Deckard’s briefing, Bryant says about Batty, “Combat model. Optimum self-sufficiency.”  What better memories to implant in a replicant destined for combat than thoughts of other battles he’s won, or at least survived.  What if Batty has never seen actual combat, but only believes he has?  And that reinforces the parallel stories of Deckard and Batty, especially given what Deckard finds out about himself when he sees Gaff’s final gift outside his apartment.

I have no idea if anyone else has ever noticed this, but it struck me this morning.  Any obsessive Blade Runner fans out there?  Leave your two cents in the comments.

 

 

Some thoughts on a Star Trek rewatch

Posted on by Alex in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Classic_Star_Trek_Title_Card

 

My oldest son and I just finished watching the first season of the original Star Trek series. We watched the episodes in “production order,” meaning the order in which they were filmed. That way, we could see the growth of the show, the way the actors find their characters, and how the Enterprise itself is more and more developed. Here, then, are some observations.

1) William Shatner hits the ground running as Kirk.

It takes most actors a while to find their characters. Leonard Nimoy doesn’t really nail Spock until several episodes in, which is understandable since no one had ever quite done a character like that before. But Shatner is the Kirk we know and love from his first episode, “Where No Man Has Gone Before.”

william-shatner-where-no-man-has-gone-before

The most surprising thing I noticed this time through the first season is how often Kirk loses his temper in a crisis. It’s never an explosion of violent anger, but he snaps at his people a lot. To his credit, he also (usually) immediately apologizes, but for the first time I got the sense that serving with Kirk might not be that much fun.

2)  The Enterprise was not always terribly thought out.

In “The Enemy Within,” Mr. Sulu and his team are stuck on a planet’s surface by a transporter malfunction, in danger of freezing to death. Subsequent episodes reveal that the Enterprise has a fleet of shuttlecraft (they first show up in “The Galileo Seven”), yet apparently at this point no one had thought of them, because simply flying down and picking them up is never mentioned as an option.

320x240

3) Hi-def does the show no real favors.

We watched the episodes on blu-ray, which includes the option for new CGI effects shots. I’m ambivalent about them; they don’t bother me, and they let “modern” viewers (like my son) get into the show without the jarringly grainy, old-school effects. But the non-effects shots are not tweaked. Wrinkles on the paper bridge screen inserts jump out at you, there are obvious stray threads on the costumes, and you can occasionally see Kirk’s command chair shake when someone walks nearby on the bridge.

stunt_doubles_02

This is supposed to be Kirk and Khan. How bad was TV reception back then?

But by far the most egregious thing are the stuntmen. In many fight scenes, Shatner and company are replaced in long shots by professionals; in the 1960s, when TVs were smaller and broadcast signals were analog, this probably wasn’t too noticeable.  But on big-screen TVs, in 1080p, there’s simply no missing it.

And finally,

4) The crew of the Enterprise are adults.

This may seem obvious, but I’m not talking about biological age. There’s an inherent maturity to the characters, in their responses and dilemmas, that marks them as grown-ups. Each of them has chosen their career in Starfleet because they believe in what they do, and want to do it to the best of their abilities. There are few slackers in Roddenberry’s Trek, no corruption in high places, and even when characters disagree and lose their tempers, they do so as adults. Even Kirk’s notorious way with the ladies isn’t depicted as anything immature; he simply likes women and is willing to spend time with them, but only when his job allows. In the whole first season, he has only one real romance; the cliche womanizing Kirk doesn’t show up until much later in the series. Contrast this with the immature, entitled “bro” Kirk of JJ Abrams’ films, who may chronologically be an adult but displays the emotional life of a seventeen-year-old.

TOS-crew_nuTrek_bridge

 

I’m glad my son wants to watch Star Trek; I’m looking forward to starting season 2 with him. It’ll be interesting to see if his opinions match mine (his favorites from season 1 are “Shore Leave” and “The Devil in the Dark,” both respectable choices).

Tropology: Heroes and Girlfriends

Posted on by Alex in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

DrankSpider_comp

It’s a common trope in novel series that the tough-guy hero who solves mysteries and kicks ass will get a new love interest each time out. The gold standard, of course, is James Bond, who often gets several new women in every book or movie. But it goes all the way back to The Odyssey, in which Odysseus manages to rack up time with both Circe and Calypso as he works his way back home to Penelope. Even Philip Marlowe, the greatest literary detective of all, sarcasms his way through a bevy of ladies until, in the unfinished novel Poodle Springs, he finally decides to marry one.

"YOLO, Odysseus. YOLO."

“YOLO, Odysseus. YOLO.”

When I created Eddie LaCrosse, I had two choices: I could make him a womanizer, like these others (although perhaps more in the tradition of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, who was always up front with his lady friends about what they could expect from him); or I could give him a steady partner, a wife or a girlfriend who would be a constant throughout the series.

The James Bond model is attractive, especially as wish-fulfillment. The idea of having the most beautiful girls in the world available with merely a glance is a teenage boy’s dream. And that, ultimately, is the problem: it’s a boy’s view of relationships, a glorification of immaturity. But it’s also the standard trope in detective fiction, which is one of the genres the Eddie LaCrosse novels embody. Luckily, though, it’s not the only trope.

Nick and Nora Charles, of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, are brilliant, funny, and most important, totally devoted to each other. Each makes crucial discoveries toward solving the mystery of what happened to Clyde Wynant (the actual “thin man” of the title), but most importantly, Hammett shows how much they simply love each other’s company. Spenser and Susan, from Robert B. Parker’s series, mirror the creator’s experiences with his wife (even splitting up at a time when the Parkers were struggling), eventually becoming one of the series’ solid, unshakable relationships, and a big reason readers kept coming back.

"Only you, darling. Lanky brunettes with wicked jaws."

“You got a type?”
“Only you, darling. Lanky brunettes with wicked jaws.”

And that’s ultimately the trope I decided to use.

In the first Eddie LaCrosse novel, The Sword-Edged Blonde, Liz Dumont is introduced at the end, although she has ties to the earlier story (you’ll have to read the book to find out what they are). In the second book, Burn Me Deadly, she becomes a full-fledged main character, and she’s there in supporting roles in both Dark Jenny and Wake of the Bloody Angel. Now, in the newest novel, He Drank, and Saw the Spider, she’s back to prominence as a major force in the story, right there beside Eddie with her own share of quips, compassion and action.

I adore Liz. I think she’s funny, sexy, and exactly the kind of woman any man would want at his side. I try to make it clear that Eddie adores her, too, and would never do anything to jeopardize the relationship (which limits me in telling stories where he might meet a new love interest, but as Dark Jenny  showed, there are always work-arounds).

Still, there are issues. Foremost is the Joss Whedon/George RR Martin gambit, the idea that at any point I could kill Liz off as a way to motivate Eddie. That’s a Women in Refrigerators trope; nothing supposedly motivates a hero like revenge for the death of a loved one (or even just a liked one, as in the film version of The Avengers). But beyond any gender issues, that also strikes me as a sign of immature storytelling, as much a wish fulfillment as James Bond’s sexual conquests.

So that’s why I’ve frequently, and publicly, promised my readers this: that Liz will never die simply to motivate Eddie. She will not be killed by the villains, she will not die tragically saving Eddie’s life, and she will certainly not be stuffed in the secondary-world equivalent of a refrigerator for him to gruesomely find. I don’t want readers who, like me, find Liz delightful company to ever dread my next book.

So when you read He Drank, and Saw the Spider, I hope among other things that you enjoy hanging out with Eddie and Liz.  I like them both, I like writing them together, and I hope that comes through.

 

Duck Dynasty and the Quack of Hypocrisy

Posted on by Alex in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

“I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field …. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word! … Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”

Those are the well-reported words of Phil Robertson, patriarch of the Duck Dynasty empire. His remarks on gays and lesbians have garnered the most press, but his comments on race run a close second. And the more I’ve read them (they’ve kind of been unavoidable), the more I thought about my own upbringing in the South. Robertson grew up in Louisiana in the 60s, and I’m a child of 70s Tennessee, but I bet our experiences are similar.

e87df430d

And in this case, my experience was identical: I never saw any of those things, either. And why would I? My school might not have been segregated, but my society certainly was. The moment those school bells rang, black and white kids went their separate ways, meeting only on the bus to take us to basketball games. We didn’t fight, but we also didn’t socialize, mingle, or hang out together.

But unlike Phil, I still knew that that kind of separation was wrong. And when I saw African Americans expressing their anger about it on the news, I understood it. And agreed with it.

Why? Beats me, really. My parents and extended family were prejudiced in that insidiously “benign” way that claims they wish no harm on other races, they just don’t want them around. That let them feel that they had the moral high ground over “real” racists who wanted to beat and kill any African Americans who got “uppity.” It also let them continue to claim to be good Christians. So I’ve seen the kind of society these beliefs create: I grew up in it, and whenever I go back home, I realize it still exists. It’s dying, to be sure, but as this whole Duck Dynasty controversy shows, it’s not going quietly into that good night. There are still plenty of people who want it back, and who think it’s the way things ought to be.

Which brings me back to Robertson’s statement. Did he really not see these things? Probably not. Why would he? He might have been “white trash,” as he says, but that’s still white. In that world, that degree of separation was enough.

But did he know about them? Of course he did. We all did. Which makes him at best a revisionist, at worst a hypocrite.

And what does that make those who support him so vehemently? Because here’s the truth: they know, too.

Jonathan Merritt at the Atlantic Monthly explains this in a more scholarly way.

Happy birthday, Joseph Conrad!

Posted on by Alex in Uncategorized, writers, writing | 4 Comments

405px-Joseph_Conrad

 

Today, one hundred and fifty-six years ago, Joseph Conrad was born in Russia. He was Polish, but became a nationalized British subject in 1886. In 1899, his masterpiece Heart of Darkness first appeared in print, serialized in a British magazine.

Heart of darkness

The edition of HoD I first read.

There’s a simple, almost unbelievable fact hidden in the above paragraph. Conrad was Polish, did not learn English until he was in his twenties, and always spoke with a marked Polish accent. Yet he wrote in English. He didn’t write in his native language and then have it translated, he wrote some of the greatest prose in English, in English. Writing in a second language is hard enough; but to produce masterpieces in it (he also wrote Lord Jim and The Secret Agent, among other classics) is almost too extraordinary for words.

I came to Heart of Darkness via Apocalypse Now, which I saw on my sixteenth birthday during its original theatrical run. While I loved movies, I never realized until I saw this one that movies could be both art and entertainment. My previous experiences with “art” films were that they were long, boring, hard to understand, sometimes (given the video technology of the time) literally hard to see. I assumed there was a dichotomy between entertaining films like (inevitably) Star Wars and more “artistic” faire such as The Seventh Seal. But Apocalypse Now showed me that a movie could be both.

And the movie led me to Conrad’s novella. Briefly, it’s about a steamship captain, Marlowe, going up a river in Africa to find Mr. Kurtz, an ivory trader who has set himself up as a god to the natives. I’ve read it countless times, and like every great book, I find something new to like each time.

I’ve also listened to it on audio, back when I had a job with a commute. It’s been read by many different people, including some (Richard “John-Boy” Thomas) who really should’ve know better. But Anthony Quayle’s version remains my favorite, even though it’s abridged, because he brings it to life in such a dynamic way, as if he were actually telling the story to the people gathered on the deck of the Nellie.

So what’s so great about Heart of Darkness? First, it’s about the nature, and the uses, of truth. It’s also a compelling description of colonialism, written by someone who had been there. Mr. Kurtz is one of the great shadow-figures of literature: like Dracula, he’s talked about much more than he’s seen, and when he does appear, it’s riveting. The structure is interesting as well, a nesting story told in first-person by someone relating Marlowe’s first-person tale to the rest of those on the Nellie.

My favorite line, perhaps because of the way Quayle reads it, remains, “I had immense plans!” and that’s a huge part of the appeal. Kurtz does aim incredibly high, which makes his fall that much more dramatic; when he says, “The horror! The horror!” he’s not kidding. Marlowe’s own position as observer changes with one line at the climax, forcing the reader to suddenly re-evaluate everything s/he thought s/he knew about the character.

But ultimately, what speaks to me (and to a lot of other people for the last century or so) can’t be broken down into simple elements. Heart of Darkness either speaks to you, or it doesn’t. If it does, you know what I’m talking about. And if you’ve never read it, I encourage you to give it a shot. You can read it for free online here.

The apocryphal soundtracks to some of my books

Posted on by Alex in Blood Groove, Burn Me Deadly, Firefly Witch, Memphis, music, novel, pirates, Uncategorized, Wake of the Bloody Angel, writing | Leave a comment

It’s no secret that music is a big part of many of my novels, from inspiring the titles to influencing the plots to being part of the story itself. I’m not alone in this, I’m sure. Recently my friends at Facebook’s Heroic Fiction League, Nathan Long and John R. Fultz, posted “playlists” of YouTube videos, songs that either their heroes would like, or that captured the mood of their books.

My playlist is a little different.  This is the music I wish would play when a reader first opens some of my books.

For my most recent novel, the Eddie LaCrosse pirate tale Wake of the Bloody Angel, I’d love it if readers were blasted with this upon cracking the covers:

 

 

For another Eddie LaCrosse tale, Burn Me Deadly, if you consider chapter one as a “teaser,” this would the perfect music to play between chapters one and two:

 

 

For Blood Groove, my tale of an Old World vampire unleashed in the Seventies, I’d begin with this under chapter one:

 

 

Then, at the moment you finished chapter one:

 

 

And finally, the theme for my Firefly Witch e-book chapbooks, the tune the main characters Ry and Tanna would call “their song” and that, in a perfect world, would play whenever you called it up on your e-reader of choice:

 

 

(I know, it’s the Atlanta Rhythm Section version and not the original Classics IV, but technically this is the first version I ever heard, and about half the Atlanta Rhythm Section was made up of former members of the Classics IV, so it’s not as heretical as it might seem.)

Any suggestions for some of my other books?

 

Interview: Andrew Brasfield, songwriter of Cold Wind

Posted on by Alex in anthology, cover art, creativity, eBook sale, faeries, folk music, interview, music, short stories, tennessee, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

When I began planning Time of the Season, my holiday-themed e-book chapbook, I already had two of the stories. Both the title story and “A Ghost, and a Chance” had been around for a while. But I wanted to write something new, and I’d gotten such a good response from my novel, The Hum and the Shiver, that I decided to write a holiday story set in the that world. The Tufa stories all revolve around music, so I needed a song to form the center of this new one. So I asked around: did anyone know of an original winter or holiday song, one by an indie artist who could grant permission for me to use the lyrics in a story?

Dale Short, host of the roots-music radio show “Music from Home” in Jasper, Alabama, suggested I check out this:


 

The first time I heard it, I knew it was the right song.

I contacted Andrew Brasfield, and happily, he agreed to let me quote from the lyrics in the story.  This is a trickier proposition than it sounds, because a lot of musicians, particularly the ones played on mainstream radio, don’t actually own the rights to their own songs. Music publishers, record labels and other for-profit intermediaries have to also grant permission, and usually require payment to do so. Happily, there’s a whole world of great music being done by people like Andrew (and Jennifer Goree, and Laura Powers, and Jen Cass, and Kate Campbell) who not only own all their own rights, they’re delighted to have them included in a story or used in a book trailer.

Andrew also recorded a new version of the song at AudioCzar Productions, and played all the instruments himself (except for percussion). That version is available as a free download when you buy Time of the Season.

Andrew was also kind enough to answer a couple of questions about the song.

1) What inspired “Cold Wind”?

I used to work in television and was sent out west to Lander, Wyoming for a documentary shoot a few times over the course of 2010. On one of the final trips we set out early in the morning to catch some college students who were waking up for the last of their 21 day trip in the Wind River Range. It was really early in the morning and beautiful and I had some time to think while we were hiking. The wind was very cold and cut through me and I thought, the cold wind is an interesting image. So I came up with the first line then thought of other natural elements. Fire and water were classic images so and made verses to go with all of them. Somehow I remembered those lyrics and committed them to a small Holiday Inn Express notepad as soon as I got back to my room late that evening.

Side note: The cover photo for the song is actually a public domain photo of the Wind River Range that I manipulated a bit.

2) Your cousin Dale Short first told me about “Cold Wind,” and directed me toward the video. I had that same thing happen with the characters in the story: they learned the song from that same video. What’s the story behind the video?

There is no real story to be honest. I knew I wanted folks to hear some of my songs and while they can get a glimpse from the three songs I wrote on the first Motel Ice Machine CD, those aren’t the only songs I have in me and some of those are arranged differently from the way I usually do them. Also, I don’t have the cash to get into a studio whenever I write a new song so YouTube seemed like a more accessible medium. I’ll be certainly be adding more videos soon.

Dale still hasn’t given me all the details on how we are kin, but he is a good guy nonetheless and I appreciate what he does for local musicians through his radio show.

3) What did you think of the story that incorporates your song?

I really dug the way you wove it all together. I actually got chills when I read my lyrics in the story. I’m a big Tufa fan and having the Hyatt’s play my song in their living room is sort of surreal. I read The Hum and the Shiver shortly after it came out and was hooked. I’m (im)patiently waiting for Wisp of a Thing.

 

 

Andrew Brasfield is from a small town in Alabama where he lives with his wife and two daughters. His main axe is harmonica, which he wields in a few different bands including Motel Ice Machine and The Lefty Collins Band. He also plays a bit of guitar, bass and ukulele. He knows a handful of mandolin chords and has a few piano tricks. You can find out more about him here.

The Indy Challenge: Melissa Olson on Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Posted on by Alex in guest blog, movies, Raiders of the Lost Ark, reviews, Uncategorized, writers | 2 Comments

Today the four Indiana Jones films are released on blu-ray, along with a host of special features (including the awesome TV special, The Making of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which I’ve had on VHS for decades).  To commemorate this, author Melissa Olson (Dead Spots) and I have agreed to swap blog posts defending the most maligned entries in the series. At her blog I’ll be making the case for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and here she sings the praises of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. 

 

Greetings, my fellow Alex Bledsoe fans. I’m glad you could join me for this half of the Indiana Jones challenge. Some would say that I’m getting the short end of the stick by having to defend the series’ fourth movie, but I beg to differ. Now, I have no intention of using this blog to argue that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a Great Film. It isn’t, certainly not the way Raiders of the Lost Ark and Last Crusade are undeniably Great Films, which I believe Alex and I would agree on. But the thing about Crystal Skull is, it also shouldn’t be what it has become: an easily dismissed joke of a movie. Because when Spielberg and Lucas set out to make Crystal Skull, they tried something fascinating. And while it didn’t really work, not the way they wanted it to, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is not just another tacky piece-of-crap sequel that came out way too late and was thrown together way too shoddily (I’m looking at you, Wall Street 2 and Basic Instinct 2). There’s a line of reasoning here, a story behind Crystal Skull that you might not know about. It’s interesting. Here’s why.

Unfortunately, you’ll have to bear with me for a bit of history first, because in order to really understand Crystal Skull, you have to go back to what influenced the entire series in the first place. In the late 1970’s/early 1980’s, the US was experiencing a sudden pull towards nostalgia: the 70’s had been such a complex period, politically and socially, that there was a certain anxiety and fear in the air, a general longing for simpler, more fun times. Filmmaker George Lucas managed to have absolutely flawless timing with the release of Star Wars, which gave the people exactly what they wanted. Star Wars combined elements of beloved 1930’s serials with bits and pieces of other traditional genres: samurai stories, war epics, westerns. Star Wars is a really good movie, but it’s stupendous success owes a lot to the perfect timing of supply and demand, a match of cutting-edge technology and nostalgia for simpler stories from simpler times.

A few years later, Lucas and his pal Spielberg were kicking around some ideas for how to do it again: make a nostalgic adventure film that was deeply influenced by the style of the 1930’s serials, but still had the best technology and grandeur that 1981 had to offer. They set it in 1936 to embody the spirit of those serials, and decided to involve the world’s biggest villain at that time: Hitler. They stumbled on the historical fact that Hitler was interested in the occult, pulled in Lucas’ interest in archeology, and ran with it. Raiders of the Lost Ark twists in themes of spiritual exploration, the potential danger in a search for knowledge, the power of faith and trust, and so on. And it featured the same sort of cartoonish stunts and exaggerated facial expressions that made those serials so popular in the 30’s: an enormous pit of deadly snakes, spirits that whip around and melt the faces off the Nazis, a gigantic boulder that almost rolls over Indy, and so on.

Fast forward twenty-some years. Let’s take a moment, people, to pause and pretend that we are the mighty triumvirate of Spielberg, Lucas, and Ford. Collectively and individually, we have more money than Marie Antoinette could spend in twelve lifetimes. In addition to our individual successes, we’ve already made a beloved, timeless trilogy together that (with the possible exception of Temple of Doom, which, in addition to pretty much lacking a plot, is so saturated with obscene female and Asian stereotypes that you can breathe them in and die of bigotry) actually holds up thirty years later. The three of us miss working together, and we miss the characters and themes we built for Indiana Jones. But…we are also older, and to do a fourth film now, when Indy himself would be so obviously changed, doesn’t make any sense. There’s just no way to follow the formula of the first three films with Dr. Jones as an older guy.

But wait. Suddenly, there’s a spark. An idea, if you will. Because after 9/11, and all the political and social turmoil that followed it, wouldn’t audiences enjoy getting back to nostalgia again?  What if we could have it both ways? What if we could return to the spirit of Indiana Jones, but update it for a different age?

There was no way to get around the age problem, of course. Dr. Jones had to be aged about 20 years after Raiders, which put the story in 1957. So Spielberg and Lucas did the exact same thing they did with Raiders: they cast the real-life villain from that time period, which in this case was the Soviet Union – Communists. With that basic premise, Spielberg and Lucas put their thinking caps on. How to update Indy while keeping the same themes of spiritual exploration, the potential danger in a search for knowledge, the power of faith and trust, and so on? How could they revive the series but still bring in something new?

So they did what they did with Raiders: they focused on the pop culture of the period. Only instead of the serials from the 1930’s, they were looking at adding elements from the 1950’s favorite theme: Communists as aliens, aliens as Communists. The public’s biggest fear in the fifties was that the Commies would invade the US and turn good, hardworking American citizens into pod people, drones that were incapable of independent thought or action. And it was reflected in the American fiction of that time: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Thing From Another World (1951), Invaders from Mars (1953), and so on.

You see where I’m going with this, right? Lucas and Spielberg didn’t “jump the shark” by making Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. What they tried to do was the exact same thing they did with Raiders: they wanted to bring in the global villain and the global fear of that time, but still stir in Indiana Jones’s traditional search for truth, faith, knowledge, and especially, spirituality. In each of the first three films, Indiana Jones explores a spiritual outlook: Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity. And in the end, Indy always becomes a reluctant religious savior, a convert, however briefly. His fourth onscreen adventure does its best to continue that tradition, but this time, the religion being explored is knowledge. Stylistically, Crystal Skull does keep the original trilogy’s deference to the serials of the 30’s – the death-defying stunts, the exaggerated expressions, the derring-do – but adds in the themes from films of the 1950’s.  And that, folks, is a pretty damned interesting prospect.

But it backfired, and frankly, that had a lot more to do with us than with them. Go back, for a second, to the outlandish success of Raiders of the Lost Ark, back in 1981. I doubt very much that movie theater audiences in ‘81 shouted and griped at the screen because the boulder trap or the convoy chase sequences were unrealistic and hokey. Or the river raft drop, or the monkey brain dinner, both in Temple of Doom. They didn’t complain because in 1981, the audiences wanted to believe in Indy. They wanted that nostalgia; they’d sought it out. And Spielberg and Lucas delivered. Wild success. Champagne and increased budgets all around.

In 2008 – and today – however, audiences don’t actually want to believe in Indy anymore. We might think that we do, but really, what we want to believe is that we are smart. We are not whores for the man, in this case represented by three rich middle-aged men trying to sell us an Indiana Jones movie about aliens, for crying out loud. We will not be taken in by that bullshit, thank you very much.

But think about it. Setting your personal beliefs in God or aliens aside for a moment, is the fridge-nuclear bomb scene really any less believable than spirits flying out of the Ark and melting Nazi faces? Is a crystal skull (and there is a fascinating, real-life history of those, by the way, go Wikipedia it) any less likely to have supernatural powers than an old chest, some magical rocks, or an ancient drinking glass? Nope. The difference isn’t in the material, it’s in us.

And that is where Spielberg and Lucas made their greatest mistake; it’s how Crystal Skull got put on the geek shit list for all eternity. They misjudged what we wanted. They thought these tumultuous times meant we’d be ready for another return to nostalgia, but what we really wanted was confirmation that even though 9/11, an economic crisis, and the destruction of the planet happened on our watch, we are redeemable because those things have made us smart, shrewd, and skeptical. (Oh, and we’ve also seen an additional twenty-odd-years worth of the best movie effects money can buy, so good luck impressing us, Indy team.)

So. Back to my mission statement: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is not a great movie. But it isn’t a mess, or an epic disaster, or an unholy blight on the face of a much-beloved piece of American popular culture. It’s not even the result of three rich guys getting lazy and trying to squeeze some more money out of something cool they did a long time ago. It’s just a bad call. It’s three smart guys trying to revive something they knew we loved in a way they thought was fresh. That they happened to be wrong doesn’t make it any less interesting. Maybe it even makes it more so. Because if the purpose of art is to hold a mirror up to society, then you can’t call Crystal Skull a failure. It did show us who we are. It just maybe wasn’t who we wanted to be.

 

Maria Scholl, the overlooked great science fiction heroine

Posted on by Alex in heroes, movies, science fiction, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The DVD cover

A while back I wrote about Meg Coburn (Mira Sorvino) of The Replacement Killers, the forgotten great action heroine. Now I’m spotlighting Maria Scholl, the overlooked great science fiction heroine.

Scholl, played by Cox Habbema, is one of the main figures of Eolomea, a 1972 East German (i.e., Soviet-era Communist) SF film directed by Hermann Zschoche. In a nonspecific future, spaceships traveling to and from space station “Margot” begin to vanish. Professor Scholl, head of the space program’s ruling council, leads the investigation, first on earth and then in space. It dovetails with the story of Dan Lagny, a space pilot doing thankless time on an asteroid station, who also has a past romantic relationship with Scholl.

Like Meg Coburn, much of what makes Maria interesting are the things she doesn’t do. As Erich Kuersten says on the blog Acidemic, she is, “shrewd, kind, and able to have a romance with the main cosmonaut Dan (Ivan Andonov) without it clouding her judgment or weakening her authority. She doesn’t overreact or have womanly issues, or pine for something ‘real’ in her life, something ‘better than command… like a child and a family,’ the way she would have to in the U.S. [at the time the film was made.]“ When another council member suggests that her presence on the rescue mission might, ahem, distract the all-male crew, she responds easily with, “The boys have had to get used to many things. They can get used to one more.” And that scene is the only one where it’s implied that her status as a woman is in any way an issue. In everything else, her competence, authority and intelligence are simply assumed.

Dr. Scholl at work…

And make no mistake, she’s a woman. When shown in flashbacks on the vacation where she meets Dan, she’s as free with her sexuality and attractiveness as any other woman on holiday might be. She wears tight shorts, she flirts, and in the one flashback scene where her job does arise, she wears a bikini on a beach while discussing Dan’s duty assignment. The implication is that women in this version of the future don’t have to choose between career and personal life: everything is open to them, and more importantly, no one expects them to pick one or the other.

…and at play, with Cosmonaut Dan.

In fact, Eolomea as a whole doesn’t do what you might expect. The space council is an international organization, and you see more faces of color that you’d ever encounter in an American SF film of the era (or heck, even now). The moments that would seem obligatory, such as the first declaration of love between Maria and Dan, or their reunion scene toward the end, simply aren’t there. The scenes that do exist imply these other scenes happen, but it’s as if the editors (and they’re ruthless: the film is only 80 minutes long) decided that they were too obvious to leave in. The antagonist might look like Blofeld from You Only Live Twice, but his nefarious plan is really…well, I don’t want to spoil everything.

East German cinema isn’t exactly known for its masterpieces, and in the popular Western mind, Soviet-era science fiction begins and ends with Solaris. But Eolomea deserves to be more appreciated, and thanks to a great DVD release (and its availability through Netflix), now it can be.