Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Avatar, Fringe, and the Pulps

“Do not duplicate the masters, but seek what they sought.”
- Basho

My review of both "Avatar" and "Fringe" is linked by a single thread: if something was truly done in the true style and spirit of pulp fiction, it would be absolutely unrecognizable as “pulp” unless you really look deeply.

Things that duplicate the accoutrements of pulp – slouched fedoras, wisecracking private dicks, leggy dames, (and on the pulp science fiction side of the fence) water-cooler robots, Ming the Merciless style bwa-ha-ha Saturday afternoon serial foes, (and on the hero pulp side of the fence) over the top doomsday devices and square jawed he-men – if these were done today they’d be camp, a joke…it would compromise the very sincerity, the very real seriousness that is the strongest element of the true pulps. Something that takes pulp seriously wouldn’t have these elements, so it would be hard to identify them as truly in the pulp spirit.

Here’s the extraordinary thing about pulps I don’t think people realize: 1) they were very state of the art to the point where viewing the most crucial thing about them as period anachronisms does them a disservice; and 2) unlike with the comics, there was an emphasis on plausibility. Doc Savage’s world was exaggerated and “bigger than life,” but most of his stories could have really happened. It’s easy to get a cheap chuckle out of the sheer ludicrousness Doc Savage defeating a polar bear with his bare fists (at least if you hear about it out of context), and forget that The Polar Treasure actually explained how he could do it in a way that made me go, “a-ha! That…actually makes sense. That could happen in real life.” What’s more, it’s worth pointing out that all of Doc Savage’s gadgets…all of them…either existed at the time the stories were written, or came into existence 10-20 years later. I minored in Geology, and after reading “The Man Who Shook the Earth,” I really wonder why that earthshaking device didn’t work in reality.

Even the Shadow, easily the most over the top and weird of the pulp heroes, had extremely subtle, muted abilities, to the point that (and I know how this flies in the face of common wisdom but I’m being dead serious here) I have never been entirely, 100% convinced that the Shadow even had any real powers at all. Some of his abilities were pretty weird, but the most interesting thing about the Shadow is how opaque he is to the reader, and so this gives everything he does some ambiguity. Ordinary hypnotism, gadgetry, sleight of hand and stage magic may do just as well to explain his headscratching feats. After all, there are some people that think David Blaine and Houdini had real powers.

This is why I think a lot of efforts to reproduce the pulps have been monstrously insincere. Too much attention has been paid to making worlds that look like Frank R. Paul Amazing Stories covers, and too little attention has been paid to the crucial fact that what was important here wasn’t the design sense, but that people actually thought this is what the future would really be like. Wouldn’t it be more in the spirit of the science fiction pulps and their sense of wonder to try to honestly conjecture what the future would really be like based on state of the art information we have now, and it would violate their spirit to just copy the pulps’ outdated penis-rocket designs for nostalgia purposes?

A while back, I was a member of an internet forum about Pre-Crisis Superman comics, a character that I have always been a fan of. Here’s the link, since they were cool enough to link to my blog. The major reason I eventually stopped posting there was because of the creeping realization that what defined Pre-Crisis Superman for these people wasn’t a certain style of storytelling, characterization or continuity, but superficial, nostalgic irrelevancies – unimportant and at times embarrassing elements they defend to the death. Why? Because for them, Superman is in fact, all about the wrapping paper, not the package: Super-Pets, and goofy duels between Superman and Hercules for the hand of Lois Lane.

(Dave - I know you read this, and I don't mean you, because of your capacity for critical thinking.)

I didn’t get the appeal of barely-there non-elements like Beppo the Super-Monkey, embraced by others for the same smarmy reason fans of the 80s decade get misty-eyed about the “Superbowl Shuffle,” so consequently there was an extremely unfair attitude that I failed the purity test and therefore did not "really" like Pre-Crisis Superman. (That, and the fact I'm really not crazy about Al Plastino.) What I think was wonderful about the first Superman film, and what made it so groundbreaking, is that that movie was totally convinced it could happen. The first line in the film was, intentionally, “this is no fantasy.” The tagline was “You will believe a man can fly.”

Incidentally, I also expect to have someone say that since I don't care for rockets shaped like dicks or Ming the Merciless, that I'm not a "real" pulp science fiction fan either.

With the science fiction pulps, only the bad stories were formulaic. When we think of pulp science fiction, we think of the same wish-fulfillment John Carter of Mars/Flash Gordon story over and over. In fact, the science fiction pulps were very innovative and unpredictable. Take A. Bertram Chandler’s “Giant Killer,” published in 1945. You don’t realize at first that the story is told from the perspective of rats inside a spaceship that have acquired intelligence. Then you have arguably the greatest novel of the Golden Age, Jack Williamson’s “Humanoids,” which is all the more frightening because the evil robots actually win in the end – no comfortable, cheeseball Hollywood victory here. My favorite science fiction novel of all time, A. E. van Vogt’s 1940 “Slan,” did have a lot in common with the traditional yarn about the Wesley Crusher-esque boy genius that saved the day with gadgets, but it is still read today because it is an anti-prejudice story told from the perspective of a persecuted outsider. Who the hell today reads formulaic tripe like Gernsback’s “Ralph 124C41+?” Even the Lensmen, at one point considered the greatest science fiction serial of all time, have been mostly forgotten!

The ultimate point here is this: if the pulp spirit is innovation, wouldn’t it (ironically) kill that spirit, to try and excruciatingly duplicate the typical pulp clichés like the wisecracking two-fisted scientist and the breathtakingly beautiful native Chieftain’s Daughter?

Here’s the thing I think needs to be remembered about things that drew on the movie serials: Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark were actually nothing at all like the Saturday afternoon serials. They made an effort to create unique and fleshed out characters, tell unique stories, and they strove to be unpredictable as much as possible. The Star Wars universe was made with the thought it could actually exist. They were hardly throwback or “retro” projects. There was a sincerity behind them that wasn’t found in other serial-inspired work, and there is a reason “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” is nowhere near as beloved as “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Nostalgia is the enemy of real creativity.

All of this (finally!) brings me to Avatar and Fringe.

“Fringe” is a pulp series and nobody even knows it – it eschews the fedoras for the things that actually made the pulps “pulp.” The first episode begins with a horrifying and mysteriously unexplained infection on an airplane that turns people into fleshless skeletons. This, by the way, is the beginning of something like 30 Doc Savage novels. Fringe is about G-Men, the most pulp of all professions, who investigate cases of science misuse so lurid and horrific I keep expecting the Spider to pop up somewhere. “Fringe” goes for bleeding-edge science developments to justify their unusual cases, another example of the pulp era’s main tools to suspend disbelief: cutting-edge technology and the appeal to plausibility. One of the main characters is a mad scientist, another pulp staple, but in the tradition of the pulps, who tried to be innovative, the series shows what a real-life mad scientist would actually be like.

“Avatar” excited me because James Cameron obviously read the same science fiction I did and was inspired by very much the same things. This is John Carter of Mars, but a story that ditched the reactionary and backward attitudes and actually embraced a conscience. It embraced scientific plausibility and actually gave an explanation for why giant flying monsters are possible (short answer: low gravity and a thick atmosphere) and created a realistic ecosystem. It’s the smartest science movie since “Jurassic Park.” The irony here is that when they actually do make “John Carter of Mars,” people are going to say what a rip off it is of Avatar!

At the end of the day, the pulp tradition is alive and well: not as fossilized and ossified “retro” or nostalgic material, but as a living, breathing thing that continually adapts and changes to its environment and context. Changing to one’s environment doesn’t destroy pulp: it IS pulp and always has been.


David said...

Great article, Julian, and I agree that the beauty of the pulps was in their headlong, even reckless race to rush out new ideas and concepts to constantly outdo last month's issue, and this month's competition. You never knew what would happen next, but you knew it would be interesting. Those dizzy, breathless thrills aren't really possible, as you say, when there's the parallel emphasis on nostalgia, because now you're trying to do two jobs at once; tell a wild story AND give a knowing wink at the audience ("Weren't the 30s a quaint period, folks?"). If you're being all "cute" with the retro designs (like Sky Captain), then yes you're holding back, hedging your bets trying to be precious instead of just telling a story.

I share your belief the Shadow had no super-powers and was probably just really good at illusions, the escape arts and psychological warfare, like his spiritual progeny Batman and his magician creator(and Houdini pal) Walter Gibson. I do take issue with your description of him as the weirdest and wildest of the pulp heroes, though. That distinction would have to go to Norvell Page's "The Spider", a bona-fide nutjob nearly as crazy as the fiends he battled, and certainly tortured enough to give even Spider-Man's psychiatrist a nervous breakdown.

Anyway, now I know why you abandoned the Superman site. Sorry to lose you, but rest assured the door will still be open when the arteries harden and you get set in your ways...time is on our side. :-) At the very least, you could peak in at the blog now and then; my reviews are sheer genius.

Julian Perez said...

Don't get me wrong, doing something as "period" isn't automatically a sign of insincerity. I for one was disappointed that Spielberg didn't set his "War of the Worlds" in the 19th Century.

I actually liked "Sky Captain" (especially Angelina Jolie's cool character, who was far too interesting to have received as little screen time as she got), but it was typical of everyone learning the wrong things from the pulps.

I do take issue with your description of him as the weirdest and wildest of the pulp heroes, though.

Yeah, but you know what I mean: the Spider was a weirdo, but we knew he was a nut in makeup whereas it was harder to say with the Shadow, who might or might not have had supernatural abilities.

I actually have visited the forums since on a couple of occasions, usually for a specific purpose.

For instance, I showed up to see what the reaction was to Heath Ledger winning the Oscar and the very moving acceptance speech by his mother and wife (zilch!) and most recently, to see what the reaction was to "Avatar" (also zilch).

I was disappointed because I expected "Avatar" to do to the STTA crowd what Captain Kirk's logic riddles do to alien supercomputers.

On the one hand, it was made after 1980, so it must be terrible.

On the other, it was based on and inspired by the pulp science fiction of the 1940s, so it must therefore automatically and uncritically be considered good.

Zzzzz! Zzzzz! DOES NOT COMPUTE...(sound of smoke and explosions)

David said...

I remember being totally psyched by the "Sky Captain" trailers, but when I actually saw it, my reaction was "Meh..." I'm not sure why it didn't come together for me, really, because it had so many things I like: giant robots, zeppelins, Gwyneth Paltrow, mad scientists, aerial combat, Gwyneth Paltrow...

Something sure went wrong,though. Partly I think it was casting Jude Law (who I like elsewhere) as a hard-bitten, grizzled veteran American pilot when he's too young, too thin and too British to be any of that. This should have gone to a Bruce Willis or, if made today, a John Hamm type. Also it just got too confusing for me: P-51s that "fly" underwater, a Noah's Ark rocket...whatever. The whole thing felt like an "in" joke only fully understood by the guys who made the film and their families. Sort of a student film with a blockbuster budget. The most entertaining part of the whole thing was the "making of" stuff on the DVD that showed nothing was real but the actors themselves.

I can't speak for anyone else at the site, but I had no reaction to Ledger's win because (1) I don't follow the Oscars and (2) no one on Earth thought he wouldn't get it, so the suspense factor was zip. Also I haven't discussed Avatar because I haven't seen it. Going to the movies is a drag these days (not so much because of the movies, just the rest of the experience) so I'm down to one or two a year. "Titanic" soured me on Cameron, not just because it was a lousy movie (which it was -- two and a half hours with over a thousand people on a boat and all we see is one love story between the two least interesting characters. Even "The Love Boat" managed three stories an episode in a third of the time!) but also because once it made money, the writing was on the wall: all any self-styled "auteur" needed do was tell the studio, "Cameron got $200 million, so I need it, too" and sure enough here we are. Now he's upped the ante even further and thrown 3-D in the mix, insuring countless copycat epics equally uninteresting to me. And of course Lucas is going back to pick the corpse of Star Wars one more time with a 3-D makeover. Blehh.

I'll get to it eventually via Netflix, and watch it on my non-HD, 16-inch TV. If it still impresses there, I'll know it's special.

Julian Perez said...

I can't believe I'm saying this, but the one thing about "Sky Captain" that actually worked for me was the romantic comedy/love story interplay that gives most of the proceedings real humanity. In fact, despite the emphasis on the special effects, the part that won me over were great little details like how his sidekick chewed gum and read comics like the all American boy, and how Gwyneth Paltrow tore her skirt to run or how Sky Captain drank milk of magnesia in a shotglass.

I didn't have a problem with Jude Law's casting. I never got the feeling he was supposed to be some hardbitten Robert Meechum type: he was what he was, namely a dashing, good looking pilot. In that regard, he was well cast, and Jude Law is...not too supercharming, so scenes where he laughs at Gwyneth Paltrow for losing her camera have a bit of a surprisingly nasty edge.

It bugged me they didn't do the research. For instance, I grew up partly in Brooklyn, and I'm racking my brain where a place with snow covered mountains could be within driving distance from the city. Montauk, maybe?

This goes back to what I'm saying...only really BAD pulps screw up that bad. The good pulps did their research and didn't sacrifice exoticism and great imagery to believability. I could always tell which Doc Savage pulps were Lester Dent's and Alan Davis's because if they went somewhere in the world, they got their facts right: you could learn a lot about other cultures from the better Doc Savage pulps.

The worst error that I think was made in Sky Captain was how burned out on wonder we all got eventually. Almost every idea was just gratuitous: there are dinosaurs on this Totenkopf island, right? Why not do something with them? Why are they just in the background? Come to think of it, why are they there, anyway, did Totenkopf make them?

If you go to Shangri-La...do something with it! Don't just leave it in the background and then move on to the next thing. You have to stop and develop an idea.

Any one of these could have been the theme of a Doc Savage novel: Shangri-La with ruined genetic experiments ("The Green Master") and an island with dinosaurs ("The Land of Terror"), and a crazy scientist that believes mankind is too sick to survive (take your pick!). But the amazing part was, Doc novels usually BUILT to their fantastic central idea and set the beginning part of each book in an ordinary, real-world place, so when the objects of wonder appeared, they were actually impressive and miraculous as opposed to commonplace.

This is what I mean when I say that one lesson from the pulps that must be learned is the emphasis on PLAUSIBILITY. "Pulp" is a byword for cheeseball fantasy the same way "soap opera" is a byword for histrionic melodrama...and it seems those that try to imitate the pulps learned about the fantasy elements, and not what made them actually work.

Julian Perez said...

I apologize if I go on about Sky Captain, but this is absolutely emblematic of my entire point, about how people don't take the pulps seriously enough.

I mean, even if you look at the science fiction pulps, most of them oustensibly set in the "modern day world" are centered around ONE departure from reality.

One departure that is thoroughly explored and developed by the story, like someone discovers a way to use a machine to see events in the past anywhere, a remote-viewing machine. (If you really stop and consider it, that would actually totally destabilize society!)

Here, you had tiny animals, robots, Shangri-La, dinosaurs, giant crab robots, the SHIELD Helicarrier...any one or two of these things could have been the theme of a film.

Bai Ling played a dangerous female assassin, but we don't learn anything about her - which is a shame cause I think she's way sexier than Paltrow, who always seemed to me like a gay man's idea of the perfect woman. Boba Fett got way less screen time in EMPIRE than Bai Ling did, but there, he established himself as cunning and crafty, immortalized as the Bounty Hunter that outsmarted Han Solo. The difference is in CHARACTERIZATION.

By the way, if Totenkopf could build an armada of robots, why would he need to steal parts?

The answer is that Sky Captain didn't really believe in the reality of its own world, whereas the pulp writers did. For instance, in the rocketship that has two of every species...why is there, for no reason, a giant cathedral sized room with a statue of an archangel? Who is that for? There aren't supposed to be any humans on the rocket. And isn't space supposed to be on a premium on rockets, to say nothing of one carrying two every animal?

There are not petty nitpicks. These are all signs that Sky Captain didn't learn what was really important from the fiction it was based on.

And speaking of creativity, where was there on display any actual innovation?

Speaking of the STTA forums...there were a lot of conversations where someone or other talked about how one thing they liked about classic Superman were "wild ideas." And I agree on that score...but the things they pointed to were things that, frankly, weren't innovative or original at all:

A girl version of a male hero;
A magical imp;
An evil duplicate;
A pet with powers;

And so on.

The thing is, these things aren't really original ideas at all! Hell, Otto Binder did them first with the Adam Link stories long before Captain Marvel. Adam Link even had a robot dog!

Here's an ACTUAL original idea instead of just a formula cliche: Star and Stripey, created by Jack Kirby, had a teenage hero with an ADULT sidekick.

See? That is real creativity. A teen hero with an adult sidekick changes everything about the entire sidekick/hero relationship. Giving a hero a boy sidekick isn't real creativity at all, as it is just plugging new numbers into a formula.

The things in Sky Captain weren't actual innovations or new ideas. They were a collection of pulp cliches: the lost island with dinosaurs on it. I still can't believe they got away with using the SHIELD helicarrier.

Julian Perez said...

Correction: Star and Stripey were created by Jerry Siegel, not Kirby.

But my point stands. There is a difference between a truly original and innovative idea, and just doings something according to a formula, which Sky Captain didn't really grasp and the pulps (the good ones) often did.

David said...

I hear you on the "everything including the kitchen sink" complaint. That's what I was getting at saying "Sky Captain" feels like a student film. It's like the guys found themselves with funding and said, "Let's throw in everything we ever wanted to see in a film," whether it all went together or not. It's two hours of special effects in search of a movie.

As you say, if you don't root the wilder stuff in a real world, then who cares what happens any more? So what if the bad guy gets what he wants? Even if this world is lost, it's no skin off my nose, since I don't live there, or anywhere remotely like it.

I laughed at your remark about Paltrow, but then I realized I don't know why. What does it mean, "a gay man's idea of the perfect woman"? You mean she's what a gay guy wants in a woman, or what a gay guy thinks a straight man wants? If the latter, wouldn't Pam Anderson be more apt, and if the former, Loni Anderson? I think those Anderson girls have it sewn up.

It was the Star-Spangled Kid and Stripsey. Kind of fun as the Kid was a spoiled rich kid (Sylvester Pemberton...perfect name!) and Stripsey was his chauffeur (talk about job security...fire me and I'll reveal your identity!). But once you got over that initial brainstorm, it was kind of a damp squib of a strip. Poor Siegel never did manage to find that magic a second time. (His other "innovation" was The Spectre: a hero who's killed off in his first adventure and spends the rest of his career as a ghost, his "secret identity" being the animated corpse of his former self!)

Anyway I'd still call that tinkering with an established formula rises rather than "innovation." However those guys started, soon enough they settle into the routine of bopping bank robbers and dodging snoops. It's like the Bond films of the Brosnan era, always trying to "shake things up" with changes that didn't matter. Hey, what if the bad guy is a fellow double-oh agent? What if the Bond girl is the bad guy? Answer: it's interesting for about 5 minutes, otherwise it's like every other movie in the series.

As for Superman, I was more impressed with the creation of concepts like the Phantom Zone, Kandor, the Legion and Imaginary Stories, all stuff that opened up new avenues for storytelling and made the mythos something bigger and more rounded than what, say, Green Arrow or Aquaman got. Of course ultimately this huge super-mythos collapsed under its own weight, but for a while it was awesome. The only thing to match it was Lee and Kirby's run on the FF, which if anything created even more characters, locales and concepts to create any even more sweeping mythos. Any strip has that exciting period of genesis, where it feels like the ground rules are still being sorted out and you haven't yet settled into routine; SA Superman and the FF just managed to drag that phase out a lot longer than most.

Julian Perez said...

What does it mean, "a gay man's idea of the perfect woman"?

I mean the kind of woman you'd go for if you have zero sex drive for women so you can't tell the difference between an actually sexy woman and a woman that has, I guess, things in common with attractive women.

I'd also include Posh Spice in this analysis though as always your mileage may vary.

I once described A.I. as a movie a robot would say it likes if it was trying to convince us that it wasn't a robot. People laughed but weren't sure what I meant there either...but A.I. was so phony in all of its manipulative emotional stories (Mommy, cute teddy bears) that it became a type of pornography for the emotions. If you're trying to pretend you have feelings, it's a common place to slip up.

I'm a little disappointed that Star Spangled Kid was nowhere near as interesting as the idea implied. I guess Siegel figured, "I came up with an original idea here. And you know...that's enough. That's all I've got to do."

As for breakneck innovation in the comics, this goes back to something else I've always talked about: there's a difference between real innovation and just doing something new.

One of the really frustrating things about reading comics made before 1970 is that it seemed like the entire universe had a case of attention-deficit disorder. Ideas are introduced and then forgotten about and left undeveloped.

For every really game-changing story like "Flash of Two Worlds" or the introduction of Supergirl, the overwhelming majority bring out ideas the writers never return to. For instance, I just picked up Superman Archives 1, and almost nothing here was ultimately important to the history of Superman, except the introduction of the Fortress.

There was one story in the first Flash/Green Lantern team-up about a parallel earth that exists in a different dimensional plane than ours that can be reached at certain times. To the best of my knowledge, this world...that we never even really saw...has, in 50 years, never been seen or mentioned.

And that's with Green Lantern, a comic that is usually very good about remembering the details. People introduced as background GLs back in the first ten issues are now still making regular appearances in the comics, decades later.

This is opposed to 1950s Superman, who joined the army (!) in one issue and it was never mentioned again; Lois Lane frequently gained powers and they were immediately removed by the end of the story. You mention Imaginary Stories as interesting...I guess I can understand why lots of people would; in a static world where every change is undone conveniently at the end, it's obvious that these expressed the desire of people for stories that are really dynamic. Every Superman story should have the energy of an imaginary story. Nothing should be "safe" or unchanging.

This is why I feel that the period of Superman's history where they just threw out idea after idea is by far the least interesting part of the history of the character.

All this ties into Sky Captain, which had idea after idea that it just didn't use or develop or incorporate into the story.

This is why there has to be follow-through or the idea is irrelevant. There has to be consistency, a degree of continuousness from one story to another so that we can feel stories have consequence. A degree of continuousness...or, "continuity," if you will (wink).

The great part about the Phantom Zone was that it wasn't forgotten; who was in the Zone was regular and consistent. People wrote in letters asking about the Zoners and what they were doing - that's how real all this stuff felt to people.

David said...

There seems to have been a school of thought in the Golden Age that your audience this month is not the audience from last month or the next. So yes, they threw out lots of "wouldn't it be cool if" stories that only had to work for that one issue, then forgot about them.

It was only in the Silver Age -- with the realization that semi-organized fandom actually existed -- that we started seeing real efforts at continuity (or "consistency" perhaps). What I found interesting about Superman's Silver Age was not so much the sheer number of concepts introduced, but the fact that so many were aimed at expanding the mythos and giving writers new avenues for storytelling. If you accept as a given that "real" changes will never happen -- Superman will not die or marry, Lois will not lose her legs under a train -- then the next best thing becomes introducing new elements. Hey, look a city in a bottle! Ooh, a "prison" full of "ghosts"! The trouble, as I said before, is that eventually all this stuff piles up and becomes as unmanageable. It's like a friend of mine who dealt with depression by buying new stuff all the time; sooner or later you just have more junk than you can deal with, and a debt you can't get out from under.

I wouldn't say the ideas introduced in SA Superman didn't matter, or that they weren't used. If anything, they ended up overused. The thing is, they weren't "real change," which I know is important for you (not always so much for others of us). The problem, as ever, is how to keep an old character interesting in an industry that seems unable to create new ones worth spit. Either you keep piling on "important changes" until the character is unrecognizable (and gets a reboot) or you keep things static until he becomes irrelevant. Depending on who you ask, Superman has somehow managed both.