Shared Universe Thoughts

Expanding on what I said below on The Mummy, I would be all in favor of a new Universal Horror shared universe, but only if it were actually horror. You know, creeping dread, unsettling suggestions, icy fingers down your spine…any of this sound at all familiar? Then you could build up to having big set-pieces where the monsters run amok with each other, but always grounded in more immediate horror. Dracula isn’t scary when he’s wiping out armies single-handedly; he’s scary when he’s lurking about outside someone’s house, calling them to come embrace their own destruction.

Interestingly enough, I think Freddy vs. Jason (odd how often I return to that film) did this pretty well; the film is fast-paced and basically a comic book, but to their credit the filmmakers actually took their time and at least tried to scare us in the film’s early stages. Like when you see Jason is hanging about outside 1428 Elm…then one of the characters discovers the back door open. We know perfectly well what he’s capable of, but we’re not sure what he’s going to do here. Or the scene at the police station, where the heroine suddenly finds herself all alone, with a lot of ‘Missing Child’ posters. In other words, though the point of the film is the big, action-packed set piece, the filmmakers never forgot that this is first and foremost supposed to be a horror film and did their best to scare people as well and entertain them.

That’s really the big problem with most of the shared universe films that are trying to ape Marvel: they’re in such a rush to cash in that they throw everything they have in at once. Marvel took its time: it had five films under its belt laying the foundation before The Avengers, any one of which could more or less stand on its own (except Iron Man 2, which was of course a sequel). The DC films jumped immediately into bringing Batman and Wonder Woman into things (not to mention Doomsday and the Death of Superman a mere two films in), while Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman all had cameos, then they backfilled some of the villains in Suicide Squad with Joker, Harley, Deadshot, Killer Croc, and so on. The fact that almost all these characters fell flat only adds to the sense of desperation. Meanwhile, the horror films seem so desperate to be a tentpole franchise that they’re throwing in all this stupid CG action that neither works as horror (half the movies that come out have some major landmark destroyed in almost the same fashion: it’s not scary) nor, from the looks of it, as pulpy adventure (as in the Stephan Summer Mummy movies).

Actually, the only such shared universe that seems to be working is the kaiju-verse, and surprise! They took their time, with standalone Godzilla and Kong films before the two are scheduled to meet in the big crossover event. Moreover, the standalone films don’t seem like they’re just there to set up a big crossover; they actually feel like real films that someone wanted to make for their own sake.

Anyway, no one’s touching Marvel’s achievement for a long time to come, and DC’s failures only make Marvel’s triumph that much more impressive. Now if they could only do something about fixing their comics department, and by ‘fixing’ I mean ‘cleaning house with a flamethrower.’

Saturday Sundry

-Been back from California for a few weeks, trying to make up my mind how to proceed. I’m leaning towards a year or so of paying work and self-production before I invest thirty-five-thousand-plus-expenses for a degree in filmmaking, but I’m not sure.

-My reaction to terrorist attacks are pretty much the same: horrified, angry, sad, but not in the least surprised. You know the old pacifist line “What if they gave a war and no one came?” Well, basically this is what happens: one side shuts its eyes and repeats “If I’m nice to them, they’ll be nice to me” while the other gleefully massacres women and children. Arm yourselves and stay alert; this is going to get worse before it gets better.

-As usual, Larry Correia has an amusing an insightful point of view on current events.  A lot of different subjects covered here, but my favorite quote: “My 150 IQ daughter who wants to become a biochemist hates Bill Nye so much that she wants to someday win a Nobel Prize just so that she can insult him during her acceptance speech.”

-So, I saw that someone from Newsweek posted on Twitter about how the latest ‘Bachelorette’ is a Black woman and wondering whether ‘America is ready for interracial romance.’ Meanwhile, Stanley Kramer directed Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn in Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, which saw their daughter being engaged to Sydney Poitier and which made buckets and buckets of money…fifty years ago. That probably would have been the time to ask if America was ready for interracial romance, which, judging by the box office, it was (also judging by the probably hundreds of successful films, shows, and books featuring interracial romances that have come along since). The fact that leftists in the media (but I repeat myself) are so ridiculously out of touch on this issue would be hilarious if it weren’t so insulting.

-Saw Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 yesterday, and thought it was good. It’s definitely darker than the first one, and I’m not sure how I feel about some of the themes, especially in the context of this day and age (let’s just say that I think ‘Daddy issues’ sums up a lot of the defining aspects of the contemporary world), but on the whole I liked it. There’s some good character development, especially regarding Rocket, and these are just really appealing characters, for all their crudity. Like the first film, it’s a good, solid space opera with some genuinely interesting sci-fi concepts blended in with all the silliness.

-I just realized the next film this summer I’m actually looking forward to is Spider-Man: Homecoming in July. In June we have Wonder Woman (the DCAU is going to have to work hard to win me back, and I don’t really even like Wonder Woman that much as a character, so probably not), The Mummy (because all good horror needs massive city-wide CG destruction. Don’t think this one will make anyone forget Boris Karloff, or heck, even Brendan Fraser. I admit Russel Crowe’s presence as Doctor Jekyll is intriguing, though), Cars 3 (because after Cars 2 turned out to be Pixar’s first real failure, why wouldn’t they keep going?), and Despicable Me 3 (I didn’t even really like Despicable Me one). Oh, well; tickets are expensive anyway.

 

California Impressions

As a lifelong film buff, California has, to my mind, a rather mythical air. Not because that’s where films are made, but because, by and large, that’s where they’re set. Walking around California, therefore, feels rather like walking around in a movie, if you know what I mean. Arriving amid the palm trees, Spanish-style buildings, and mountains, I feel like John McClaine; “****ing California…”

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Thus, though I go in with a prejudiced opinion of blue states (overtaxed and undercivilized), I also went in with a keen interest to actually see the place, or at least as much as a three day trip with no car would allow. My impressions thus far are:

-It’s very beautiful. The weather is more overcast than I expected, but the landscapes are lovely, and it’s nice to see real (though modest) mountains. I am also rather partial to Spanish-style construction. I should definitely like to come back to visit more thoroughly.

-It’s expensive. I checked out some apartment listings; the cheapest one was $900/month, and I’m told that’s very cheap for this part of the country. Plastic bags cost an extra ten cents. Again, “****ing California…”

-There seems to be a lot more effort put into the design of the place, which I appreciate. For instance, on the way out of San Diego, there are just these kind of towers on the off-ramps. Pretty cool.

-The San Diego train/bus station is a converted Church, which is a little sad, though certainly preferable to just having a bland box of building. The ‘SAN DIEGO’ sign on the roof is kinda tacky, though.

-There’s definitely a sense of “We’re CALIFORNIA!” A self-conscious desire on the part of the location to live up to its image. California could not be any more California, if you know what I mean, and it’s well aware of the fact. There’s a whole style and tone to the place that is definitely its own, though in something of the self-conscious manner of a theme park (though nowhere near to the extent of, say, Las Vegas). In any case, the sensation is much more of being in a different country than in just being in a different part of the same country.

My overall impression is that Southern California is basically a giant movie set, complete with hyper-leftist directors and stars. Certainly a cool place to visit, but I doubt I’d care to live there.

Gushing about Cyrano on CatholicMatch

Cyrano de Bergerac is one of my favorite pieces of literature, and today I got to write about it. Okay, actually I wrote this piece several months ago, but it was published today and that’s all that counts. 

Yet the truth is that Cyrano exaggerates his own predicament. His other qualities more than make up for his physical appearance in the eyes of women, as well as those of most of men. A poor serving girl is smitten by him like a teenager swooning over a movie star. His comrades-in-arms look to him as their leader and the hero of their regiment. When he performs some great feat of gallantry, as when he marches off to fight a hundred men single handedly, he receives fervent admiration from everyone around him.

Even his enemies, such as the proud Comte de Guiche make little or no mention of his nose, but of his gadfly-like tendencies and willingness to insult them with impunity. It is his own vanity and preoccupation with his perceived disfiguration that is the source of his failure: not his nose.

You see, by playing to his strengths, Cyrano is able to make his defects recede into the background. His wit and courage inspire admiration and envy far more than his nose invites ridicule, if he could only see it.

The Passion and the Fall of Humanism:

At the Passion of the Lord, we see the true futility of humanistic hopes. Here is assembled representatives of the best humanity has to offer: Roman Law, Greek Philosophy, Jewish Faith, and they all utterly fail.

The Law that was the bedrock of the Roman Empire, and indeed of all human institutions, proves impotent. Pilate knows Jesus is innocent; he declares him innocent. Yet he has him crucified anyway. Why? Because “a riot was breaking out.” The Law only works when people obey it; in the face of mob violence, it becomes impotent. This is a fact that has been demonstrated time and time again, from Jerusalem and Alexandria to Ferguson and Berkley; however strong the law is, a mob of angry and ignorant people is always stronger.

There is no hope in the law.

Greek Philosophy breathed into Roman life and created the sophisticated society that now ruled the known world. It had begun as a search for truth…but now, with Truth staring him in the face, Pilate, the representative of that society, can only ask, “what is truth?” The very idea of discovering the truth simply doesn’t make sense to him, at least compared with the need to deal with the political situation facing him.

No hope in Philosophy.

Jewish religion was the most advanced and developed faith in the ancient world; the one true faith that worship the one true God. Yet here are its chief representatives utterly failing to abide by their own religion. Not only do they fail to recognize the Messiah, but they then proceed to prostitute their faith to political convenience with a sham trial and the shameful declaration “We have no king but Caesar.” Nor does pagan faith fair any better. Pilate is warned by his wife not to have anything to do with Jesus, for she’d had a dream portending great evil. But he dismisses this omen and proceeds on cold political calculation.

And right there is the common thread; the reason why humanism fails. Because anything that is not focused on God ultimately will be focused on the self, or on some extension of the self. Humanism will always boil down to mere politics, politics to the will of the mob, and the mob to unreasoning emotions. Humanism fails because humans are not what they would be. We aren’t as clever or as rational as we would like to think ourselves. As St. Paul says, “What I would do, I do not, and what I would not do, I do.”

That is the true horror of our situation, which Christ came to rescue us from; we are rational beings that cannot behave rationally. We see what we ought to be, but cannot be it. Even if certain individuals achieve a rough approximation, they remain outliers unable to do anything to save the larger community from itself.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the result of original sin.

 

Why Guys Like ‘My Little Pony’

Recently, after hearing it praised again and again, I watched the show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. To my slight amazement, it quickly became one of my favorite animated shows. I mean, I have very broad tastes in entertainment: I can view a romantic comedy, musical, or a Disney cartoon with as much real interest and enjoyment as a John Ford film, an action flick, or a horror movie. I would think nothing of watching Aliens and Emma in the same day. Even so, I didn’t expect to fall in love with a show about magical talking ponies directed at grade school girls.

Now, my taste is fairly unique, and like I say, I have extremely cosmopolitan views when it comes to fiction: if it’s done with quality and care, and has an at least decent moral premise, I don’t care what the premise is. But I’m not alone when it comes to this show: it has a huge male fanbase, and many of them are thoroughly obsessed with it (I wouldn’t call myself a ‘Brony’ because I just think it’s a good show, but there’s a lot of other shows and stories I’m more interested in). That raises the question of why? What’s the appeal?

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Yes, raw cuteness is a factor.

Part of it is sheer quality: it’s simply a very well done show with appealing animation, great characterization, intelligent writing and often gut-bustingly hilarious humor. The leads are not only all likeable, but remarkably vivid, three-dimensional characters with believable passions, virtues, flaws, and foibles, sketched with great care and skill and brought to life by some wonderful voice actresses.

Despite being aimed at younger audiences, the show actually tackles some rather complicated themes in surprisingly intelligent fashion. For instance, an early episode featuring a conflict between settlers and natives allows both sides to make good points and ends by suggesting that the natives have ultimately benefited from the spread of civilization. How many kid shows – or, heck, adult shows – do that?

So, it’s a good show; miles better than anyone would expect. But it’s still a show aimed at little girls, and there are a lot of good shows out there: why do so many grown men, like me, find it so appealing?

I don’t think we appreciate how girls come across in a lot of media, especially stories aimed at girls. There’s a sense that the story is of girls triumphing over men, and where the ideal man is one who is supportive, but otherwise content to take a secondary position. See Kim Possible, for instance, or Zootopia or Moana on the big screen. I like all those stories to a greater or lesser degree (for what it’s worth, the ranking would go Kim, Zootopia, Moana), but many of the themes found in them trouble me.

The thing is, this sort of thing is fine once in a while, but become disturbing after seeing it time and again, especially in conjunction with other, more virulently misandric attitudes that we hear all around us, from movies, shows, books, teachers, people in the news, and on and on, all talking as if women were in competition with men, that men are stupid slobs who need to just get out of the way of women, that women need men like a fish needs a bicycle.

‘Unisexuality,’ the idea that men and women are and ought to be fundamentally the same, is a very popular idea these days. We live in a time where it’s actually considered good advice to write female characters exactly the same as male characters, and considered a compliment to say that there was nothing to distinguish the heroines from the heroes. I think, having been raised on horror stories of male sexism, that most people believe it to be a compliment to women to portray them as being basically the same as men, with only trivial or superficial differences. This has become more or less the standard practice of our day; female characters are to be written as male characters, only with an extra dose of resentment from being ignored and oppressed by men. Would Moana have been fundamentally different if the lead were a young man instead of a young woman? How about Rogue One, or The Force Awakens? How many times do we have to hear the heroine complain about the male characters trying to protect her, or not listening to her, or treating her different because she’s a woman?

After a while, this ceases to be original or charming and just becomes annoying. Female characters who aggressively reject being feminine, who treat the men in their lives with brittle resentment unless they fully support them, and who are fundamentally no different from the male characters except for having a nicer shape and a chip on their shoulder eventually become a chore to sit through, even if we don’t want to say anything about it for fear of appearing sexist.

In such a world, finding a show about a group of intensely and cheerfully feminine characters who don’t act like that, who are mostly focused on their own lives, but who show no animosity towards the men around them, and who, by and large, bypass the whole question of feminism, and who are also visually appealing, well-written, and funny, comes as a breath of fresh air. Even guys who agree with feminism must get tired of it after a while and want to spend time with girls who have better things to worry about.

That’s exactly what My Little Pony gives us; intensely feminine characters who are interesting in their own right without feeling like they’re trying to one-up us guys. The characters aren’t just self-possessed, confident, and brave, but they actually have real personalities and interests that they care about for their own sakes, rather than being preoccupied with how they are perceived or what social message they’re sending. In short, it’s a series that embraces normal human emotions about the sexes; that men and women are different, and that they generally like each other that way. It does this simply by allowing its female leads to be unapologetically feminine.

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Plus it has stuff like this. That helps.

For instance, you could argue that, say, Rainbow Dash is an atypical feminine character, since she’s obsessed with sports and winning, but the way she’s written is that she cares about excelling for it’s own sake, not for the sake of being a ‘woman who excels.’ Significantly, she has just as much admiration for men who excel as for women. Besides which, Rainbow’s a tomboy, but she’s still feminine; she enjoys gets dressed up for a fancy party, coos over adorable creatures, and occasionally showcases her nurturing side. The point is, she’s still clearly a girl, even though she’s a highly competitive athlete.

Another thing I don’t think we appreciate enough is how much guys like girls as girls: that uniquely feminine flavor to personality, attitude, and perspective. It’s at once mysterious, amusing, and charming, but in the rush to make girls ‘strong’ I think a lot of female characters have lost their particular girlish charm. So, when it is used, it has all the appeal of relief.

This particular appeal stands out especially strong here, where the characters are completely de-sexualized (not that that’s stopped some people in this day and age, but never mind that now). They’re cute, and we accept that they are meant to be attractive ‘in context,’ but it’s their personalities that are the main source of their appeal. The sheer girlishness (not to be confused with ‘girliness’) of the characters, untainted by either the bitterness of feminism or the crudity of sexual desire, stands out in all its beauty.

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It also has John de Lancie. That helps too.

In other words, the show gives its male fans something they don’t get very often in today’s world: a chance to spend time with unashamedly feminine girls who are perfectly comfortable in their own skin and who don’t have any kind of grudge against their male counterparts. The male characters are almost all relegated to secondary roles, but that’s simply because that’s the kind of story it is, not because they’re being deliberately sidelined or subordinated. The heroines get along fine with their male co-stars, unless there’s a real reason they shouldn’t.

For instance, when, in an early episode, Applejack argues with her brother about whether she can handle the harvest herself while he’s recovering from an injury, it’s not because he’s a boy and she’s a girl, but because she’s stubborn and proud, while he’s more level-headed and practical. Amazingly enough, the whole ‘sexism’ issue is completely bypassed in favor of a more universally applicable lesson about not letting pride lead you to bite off more than you can chew. This isn’t just more enjoyable, but it’s better writing, making Applejack a three-dimensional character with believable flaws rather than a bland ‘strong woman’ roll-model. Again, the show gives us well-written and cheerfully girlish female characters without imposing tedious feminist shibboleths.

The show gives us this, plus engaging and well-crafted storylines, plus vivid and memorable characters, plus intelligent writing, plus some side-splitting humor, plus catchy music and appealing animation.

No wonder it’s so popular.

New Federalist Essay

My latest piece is up at The Federalist, using King Kong and Godzilla to describe the human condition. Because I do that sort of thing.

Sample:

I say an anti-war message doesn’t suit Kong because, especially as depicted in this film, Kong is a warrior, and really doesn’t have the option to not fight. His presence is the only thing that allows the island’s natives to live in a cartoony utopia (that, for some reason, doesn’t include smiling) and possibly prevents the rest of the world from being threatened. Godzilla was in much the same position in the previous film, as the only thing standing between humanity and destruction by the electricity-draining MUTOs.

In either case, the image is of a world that is only allowed to continue in whatever state of peace or safety it has because there’s a ferocious warrior standing guard, ready to push back the things that threaten to destroy it. “Godzilla” made this link explicit by casting soldiers as its human leads (in fact, “Godzilla “was the closest thing to a pro-war, or at least pro-warrior, movie I’ve seen in a long time), while “Kong” has its chief human warrior character as an Ahab-like antagonist.

The good news is that “Kong” has more than enough sheer creativity and enthusiasm for the material that makes it worth sitting through tired anti-Vietnam agitprop. Also, the medium undermines the would-be message. The very nature of a kaiju film like this forbids any kind of triumphant humanism. In a world where monsters the size of buildings stand guard against creatures that can shut down a city with a single move, there really is no room to hope that mankind has the wherewithal to end the perennial ills of the human condition.

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