Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A digital watch in a Western

I had an interesting conversation a while ago with a friend, where we saw together a godawful vampire movie set in the Old West, Bloodrayne 2: Deliverance. It was sheer masochism on my part: I heard Ewe Boll was bad, but I wanted to see how bad.

I don’t think I’ll be surprising anyone by saying that it was in fact, as bad as everybody says.

For example, in one scene, there’s an extra that quite visibly is wearing a digital watch. A digital watch in the Old West! The guy wasn’t even hidden in the background, either: he was front and center and the watch was unmistakable.

Something about that error just pissed me off even more than ordinary goofs, because it was the kind of sloppy mistake that’s made when the people making a film just don’t care.

A friend of mine that watched the film with me was baffled by how much the watch thing got to me and laughed it off. “So what, baby? It’s a movie about vampires, and you’re on about a digital watch being unrealistic?”

That comment totally took me totally off guard. Implicit in it is the idea that as something is a vampire movie, a crass error made in it is somehow less of a crass error.

That comment is also symptomatic of a mentality that science fiction and fantasy fans frequently suffer from: underestimating the importance of suspension of disbelief. Suspension of disbelief is like trust: it can be broken, and it is hard to regain when lost. Like trust, suspension of disbelief is never just “given” away, and must be earned. The more we are convinced of the reality of a story, the more we’re emotionally involved. The more we’re emotionally envolved, the more moving and entertaining a novel or movie experience is.

1. If an error is unacceptable in any other type of fiction, it shouldn’t be acceptable in science fiction or fantasy, either. SF and Fantasy shouldn’t be treated differently from any other genre, or held up to different standards than any other genre. No one should ever say “he acts that way because it’s science fiction.” Characterization is just as important in SF (and for that matter, action/adventure) as it is in regular fiction.

2. Science fiction and fantasy have an even greater obligation to be “realistic” than so-called “realistic” genres. In “plausible” espionage fiction, legal thrillers, or detective stories, suspension of disbelief is easier because the story could happen. SF has to work harder because it features elements not present in everyday life. For another example, in superhero comics, just because characters wear costumes and fire proton beams doesn't mean they're exempt from the responsibility of plausibility.

3. Science fiction and fantasy work according to rules and those rules are just as important as the rules of the real world. If having a watch in a Western is sloppy and takes a person out of the reality of the film, then having multiple versions of Atlantis existing simultaneously with totally different properties (as happened in DC during the sixties) is every bit as bad.

For a somewhat more contentious example, having Yoda fight with a lightsaber, as he did in the prequels, is a mistake every bit as bad as the digital watch, because Yoda was never shown as having a laser sword all through his appearances in the original movies, never trained Luke Skywalker in the use of a lightsaber (all those other things were more important) and as Yoda was a wise, spiritual teacher that taught the Force as something wondrous and beyond the physical, having Yoda fight with a lightsaber contradicts the very essence of the character. Just because Yoda is a fictional character and a fictional alien in a fictional galaxy doesn’t change the fact that going against his nature is a very, very real error.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

An inconvenient historical truth

"Ok who's ready for a new federal law? How 'bout this: "No one may run for President of the United States after previously only being elected to a state legislature and U.S. Senate with no chief executive experience."

How a federal law will change the Constitution I don't know, but that law would have disqualified Washington, Adams (both John and John Quincy), Jefferson, Madison, Monroe...and even in modern times: Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and George W. Bush.

Okay, we get it, Republicans: you don't like Barry. But this petty temper tantrum against American history has to stop.

This is why, honest-to-goodness, I'm not actually worried about 2012 in the least. The best they've got is the recycling of an old line from the 2008 McCain campaign. After all, the only thing that McCain really had going for him over Barack Obama was that he had a resume.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Cary Bates's "True Believers"

When it was announced that Cary Bates, one of my personal heroes, was going to do a miniseries for Marvel called “True Believers,” I wanted to check it out.

Bates has always been an idol of mine and I’ve always thought of him as THE Superman writer…but in general it always seemed like Superman was his most unusual work, the odd one out. One of the central themes running through his work, from his introduction of the Illuminati in Gargoyles to his work in the New Universe to his paradigm shifting and sensational work with Captain Atom…was the idea of secrets, of conspiracies, of powerful people keeping things hidden. Bates’s work is fundamentally anti-authority and anti-control. A series like “True Believers” sounded like something up his alley.

What’s more, when I read the pitch to “True Believers” I liked it right away, because I always appreciate anyone who tries to write and think of the superteam in a new way. For instance, I appreciate the effort and intent behind Busiek’s DC book “Power Company,” where the hero team was treated like a law or business firm, with members as Partners and Associate Partners, hired on commission.

There’s no way to put this delicately, but when you’re dealing with a writer from a previous generation, there’s a concern that they’d write a very ho-hum book that doesn’t speak to modern times – Chris Claremont, for instance, is a great writer but he just keeps on doing the same old thing over and over. Bates heads that critique off by writing a very “current” book that doesn’t have the heroes fighting Nazi Robot Submarines, but instead talks about things in our culture: it talks about pirate signals, computers, information warfare, and the power of “alternative media” like blogs and the moral questions they bring up. One of the annoying problems with adventure fiction in general is its fundamental conservatism and that goes triple for superhero comics, where tropes like the chieftain’s Beautiful Daughter and the Evil Asian Genius are still recycled even after the entire world abandoned them. As a result, except for the occasional genius like Steve Englehart, comics are often irrelevant and don’t speak to the world around them. I actually have no idea why this book wasn’t that successful.

This book is a totally adult book…adult in the sense that it is mature and deals with adult problems and there are no kids or wisecracking robots. If anything, I’d say the audience for this is much higher than the teenagers that usually read comics; it could be an adult drama. This totally dispels the idea that Bates can’t write a “modern” book – heck, this stuff makes even currently “hot” guys like Mark Millar look downright juvenile. It's interesting that a guy that was famous as a writer in the seventies can be more hip and relevant than anyone else working today.

The one problem that I anticipated this book having turned out to not be a problem: the idea that the heroes would be presented uncritically and sanctimoniously as heroic rebels standing up to power. The book heads that off by having characters bring up some of the big questions about alternative blogging: nobody controls it or is held accountable, and revealing the business of other people is a pretty slimy, voyeuristic business. Likewise, the fact that the heroine sees herself as constantly “in the right” and with tons of righteous indignation is actually presented as a problem.

“Kick-Ass” is a movie about technology, and how it changes us and turns us into voyeurs, and there’s something about that that has a sickening effect on the human spirit. This book, too, is about how technology changes people.

Likewise, even though it’s a new team, Bates actually shows a real understanding of how to set a book in the Marvel Universe and how to use the Marvel Universe…something that, say, Gravity and Runaways didn’t, where the fact both books were set in the MU was something of an afterthought.

One thing kept me from liking the book, though. It spent so much of its brief run arguing for what the book is about, the idea of the book – heroes as counterculture information warriors that seek the truth and oppose the powerful – that it forgets to slow down and characterize the heroes and give them personalities. By the third issue I couldn’t think of a single word to describe any of the characters. The idea of the book is not as interesting as whether we like these characters or not. For that reason, I would not recommend it. Characterization is indicational, told not shown, with personality traits as informed attributes learned with characters saying “I am all about righteous indignation” or “weird how of all of us, Ozzie would turn out to be the calm, rational zen guy.”

To a certain extent, this is actually little alright with the supporting cast heroes, because the book isn’t about them, so if they’re a little underdeveloped it’s to be expected. The book is actually mislabeled a team book when really it’s about one character – Payback. I expect it started out as a pitch for a solo hero book, and somewhere down the line Bates grudgingly changed it to a team book, but kept the focus on Payback. And some credit is deserved for giving Payback powers that not only tie into the Marvel Universe’s lore (she has a variant, mutated version of one of the spider-symbiotes), but give her a power-suite that is genuinely unique. I always disliked the idea of “Energy” Superman, but I thought his electromagnetic powers were a very exciting idea.

Only one of the characters is downright unlikeable to me: Ozzie Tanaka. We’re introduced to him in one of the most alienating ways possible. He “field-tested” an experimental SHIELD weapon in an massive multiplayer online game with anonymous strangers. This shocking lack of secrecy came off as downright childishly immature, but the book actually expects us to sympathize with HIM as a counter culture rebel and SHIELD as a bunch of authoritarians for kicking him out over a security breach that huge! Instead of a rebel nonconformist, which is what Bates probably intended, he came off as an unreliable, childish person.

As great as Payback’s origin was, the team's weaponized wi-fi character had an underwhelming one: he wore an experimental tinfoil hat that was hit by alien lightning. Yes, really. And the “best” part for an origin this goofy and inappropriate in a book like this is that it was all done with a totally straight face.

Another problem is the absence of a strong villain. Denny O’Neil once gave the advice that if you can only do one, forget your hero and concentrate on your villain. The thing that made the first few issues of Young Avengers so readable is that they didn’t spend all their time with the “new” heroes: the initial story arc was first and foremost about Kang the Conqueror. This book doesn’t give us a villain.

Finally, the ending of the book was a little flat, because it involved a revelation that an organization in the Marvel Universe that has a reputation as dishonest and conspiracy-prone…might actually be involved in dishonesty and a conspiracy! (Shock!) Considering all the dirty tricks pulled in Civil War, the revelation is not only anticlimactic but also something that is entirely expected. What's more, the person behind everything is someone that when they're first and briefly introduced you distrust them immediately.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

If you want to know what palpable evil looks like, check this out

This guy believes that Uganda's anti-homosexuality laws are both Christian and "more American than America."

Note that nowhere does he go into what it is the law actually says. According to the Uganda anti-homosexual law:

  • Any free speech or anyone that rallies in defense of homosexuality is punished with 5-7 years in prison;
  • Anyone that knows anyone that is homosexual and does not report it within 24 hours receives up to 3 years in prison, including friends and family;
  • A conviction of homosexuality receives a life sentence in prison;
  • It redefines homosexuality to include "any touching with homosexual intent;"
  • Provides the death penalty for any homosexual that engages in relationships with anyone under 18 or the disabled;
  • Creates an extradition provision, meaning that any Ugandan convicted of homosexuality living abroad can be returned to Uganda to face trial. This includes non-citizens, so an American that speaks out on gay rights can be extradited to face trial in Uganda.

Whatever a person's feelings on homosexuality, it is obvious the law is monstrously inhuman. To defend it - in the sanctimonious name of Americanism, Christianity and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a perversion of the American spirit and the Christian ethos of compassion.

The great evil of this video is made possible by the belief that morality is determined by authority instead of by reason and examination. Why is homosexuality wrong? Because the Founding Fathers and the Bible don't like it. Nowhere is the natural follow-up question asked...why is it that the Founding Fathers and the Bible didn't like the gay?

What's more, the culty veneration surrounding the Founding Fathers has gone entirely too far. Sure, George Washington didn't like gay sex, but he also didn't believe in women voting and owned slaves. He was a man of his time who believed in many just and unjust things alike. Central to an understanding of history is a sense of moral progress: the notion that as a civilization moves forward our moral understanding increases and immoral practices fall by the wayside (prohibition of mixed-race marriages, slavery, colonialism, child labor, etc.).

Also, I am particularly ticked off by various distorted and untrue things mentioned in his video. For example, his mention of King Mwanga made me very curious about the history of Uganda, and so I decided to look him up. Turns out he had seventeen wives, and the 22 Catholic Martyrs died....not for refusing his gay advances but for their religious beliefs (Mwana was anti-Catholic and the martyrs refused to renounce their faith on pain of death).

His mention of how liberals believe in multiculturalism offends me at a personal level, because there are many occasions where those on the left have spoken against attitudes that should be changed in other cultures. Feminists are always the first to speak out against machismo and anti-female sentiment in Latino, Middle Eastern and Asian cultures, for example, and against the horrific practice of female genital mutilation. Just because a culture believes something is moral does not mean it is or that it is worthy of being defended, or that it is immune to attack.

Finally, his mention of Pastor Rick Warren brings up the role that American evangelicals (even so called moderate evangelicals) played as enablers of this horrific and savage law, and the subsequent cowardice and desire to distance themselves from the savage history their influence helped create. Rick Warren's book, the "Purpose-Driven Life" is read widely in Uganda; according to one Ugandan, almost every Pastor in the country had a copy inside the book. Rick Warren, in Uganda gave many anti-homosexual comments. In other words, he had a great influence.

Here's another example: non-licensed "therapist" Richard Cohen's book, which claims homosexuality can be cured (something no true psychologist believes), is widely quoted by Ugandans. He was brought to task by Rachel Maddow here for producing junk science that Ugandans take seriously.

A traditional tactic of the Right is to enable and empower crazies and then run away from the Frankenstein they created. The textbook example would be the McCain campaign, who featured staffers and used innuendoes that Obama was a stealth Muslim plant with the middle name "Hussein." It was a perfect strategy: McCain stays classy and's just staffers on the campaign that McCain hired that bring up the Muslim and birth certificate rumors. It's a real crying shame that McCain, towards the end, got desperate and fought dirty.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Israel: Threat or Menace?

Well, the J. Jonah Jamesons of the world are at it again, wondering if Israel is a threat or menace after the latest encounter with a Gaza Flotilla. Supposedly the ships were there to give humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza, which is great, except that plenty of access already exists, provided by Egypt and Israel....too bad that both Israel and Egypt are both dedicated enemies of the terrorist organization Hamas, guys who dislike Israel for obvious reasons and Egypt because of its secular, non-theocratic Muslim government.

The fine folks that put the flotilla together were not exactly your friends of humanity. The people that organized the flotilla were the Turkish organization Insani Yardim Vakfi, who have extensive and copious links to not only Hamas, but the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Queda. Heck, one of their activists, Izza Shahin, was arrested for providing hundreds of thousands of dollars to Hamas directly. When you have an organization that is known as a supplier of anti-Israel terrorists, you have an absolute commitment to getting them to stop sending weaponry and other devices....especially when they're going in a circle around the traditional aid route.

Israel's response was rational and cautious. It warned the flotilla that if they wanted to deposit aid, they could dock at Ashdod and do it from there. Even so, the flotilla refused to turn back even after being warned the commandos would respond with force if necessary. Even so, when commandos hit the deck on the ships, they were attacked by firearms, firebombs, and there is even video footage of one of them going overboard. It was a lousy situation to be sure, but one that that was entirely the creation of the Insani Yardim Vakfi and the freighter passengers.