Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Joss Whedon, The Black Widow and Why You Shouldn't Care

SPOILERS AHOY! I will ruin the movie for you if you haven't seen it yet. You have been warned.

Sure, it's big and loud and crowded.
Did you see the other one? Why
even bring something like that up?
Just look at the poster.
I was too busy this weekend hosting the Avengers: Age of Ultron premiere at my movie theater to get online. It was more fun to hand out Thor’s hammer, Cap’s shield, and my vintage Hulk hands for people to pose and play with as we snapped pictures in supplicated offering to the Great God Social Media. Everyone at my theater had a grand old time, as the pictures attest to, and everyone loved seeing their children and friends on Facebook.
Now, I’ve got this sour ball of ire in the pit of my stomach. It started on Monday when I learned that Joss Whedon deactivated his Twitter account. Then I read the messages he was getting, and I understood why. If you don’t know what this is about, you’re very lucky, and I’m probably going to ruin your day. Here’s the list of some of the tweets Whedon got all weekend. Feel free to scroll quickly lest some of the bile spew onto you. 

Whedon has since come back on to say that the rumors he was forced offline by the barrage of hatred and threats was, and I quote, “horseshit.” Okay, Joss, whatever you say. But he did get a few licks in on his detractors before he resumed media silence. You can read those shots here, and he’s one hundred percent correct:  The crack about the snake eating its own tail is very prescient.

With the Interwebs in flames, I had to know myself what was going on. So I checked it out, and not only ran afoul of this poisonous group of outraged people, I ran into a second group of poisonous people: the Geek Critics who are now throwing super hero movies under the bus.  The whole thing has turned into “The Black Widow Controversy” and it has mired me in dark thoughts and anti-internet screeds for two days. 

I’m going to try and parse this out as succinctly as I can. Bear with me. There’s three levels of problems that need to be addressed, here. There’s the real world level of problems—the world you and me are walking around in right now. Then there’s the fictional world level of problems. This is stuff in the movie that may or may not make your collective tumors throb. Finally, we have the meta-fictional level—the commentary about the thing that we’re talking about. I’ll start with that level, first, as it’s the easiest one to understand.

We’re eleven movies into the Marvel Franchise, and fifteen years down the road from the invention of the modern super hero film. What’s now a part of the “tentpole” strategy to prop up the summer, these movies cost ridiculous amounts to make and generate ridiculous amounts of revenue. It’s not a fad, anymore. It’s a thing. It’s a given. And being that it’s a given, super heroes (and even comic books) have lost a lot of their outsider status in the wake of millions of new fans who never had to justify their reading habits from inside a high school gym locker. For some, that’s unacceptable. For others, it’s perfect time to employ the Contrarian Flip, the signature finishing move of the modern Urban Hipster. Now that everyone else likes it, I have to pick it apart to keep my Indy cred. 

This article by Slate Magazine writer Andrew O’Hehir is the encapsulation of that attitude. And while this piece is steeped in a puddle of self-loathing and smug, squinty asides designed to show just how Above-It-All he really is, he’s not alone. Most of the actual film critics are calling the movie problematic but still entertaining. Meanwhile the rest of the critics who eschew violence in movies, who don’t like anything with a car chase or an explosion, are dog piling on the film’s perceived problems.  

What else is new? Go pick any big movie from the last ten years—no, last twenty years. Go look at Titanic, if you must. Read the reviews. There’s always that guy, writing for the East Haverbrook Free Weekly, who has to point out historical inaccuracies and claim that if Cameron can’t bother to do his homework, then the movie deserves to fail. Nowadays, there’s literally hundreds of the East Haverbrook Free Weekly Movie Snob. And they all have very specific axes to grind when it comes to action/adventure movies, horror films, science fiction movies, super hero films, martial arts movies, or any other sub-genre of the Blockbuster Movie category. 

Who listens to them, anyway? It’s all static. It’s white noise. It’s Star Trek Enterprise Conduits—GNDN. Goes nowhere, does nothing. But, you know, by pointing out the absurdities of modern cinema excess, they’ve done their part, fighting the machine, and blah blah blah blah blah… Yeah, whatever.

So, what’s the fix? If you’re a critic, do us all a favor and just stop reviewing the thing you hate, especially when what you hate is popular and you aren’t part of the crowd. 

If you’re a consumer, just stop reading and watching reviews for the big blockbusters. Cut them all out. You know your mind already. You’re smart. You’ve seen the trailers, maybe read some news online. You already know if you’re going to see any given blockbuster movie, and whether or not you’ll be inclined to like it. You probably know within thirty seconds of seeing the trailer for the first time. Why listen to intentionally negative criticism? The world moves too fast to collect boat anchors.

Now, about these…well, I’m going to call them feminists, I suppose, but I’m not entirely convinced they are who they say they are. I think they THINK they may be feminists, but I’m very leery of hashtag activism because it’s way too easy to just jump in without thinking and get caught up in the swirl of the digital mob. It’s the online equivalent of a feeding frenzy, and I never want to be in the middle of one of those, either. Anyway. Let’s see if I can correctly summarize their concerns about Age of Ultron and Joss Whedon’s portrayal of Black Widow in the writing and directing of this movie.

I admit it, I had my doubts about
Scarlet Johansson. But she won me
over and is now one of my favorite
characters in the franchise.
1. Black Widow should never be kidnapped, because that’s misogynist, lazy writing.
2. Black Widow referring to herself as a monster and implying that she can’t have kids undercuts the entire basis of the character. By implying she’s not human because she can’t reproduce, that’s misogynist, lazy writing.
3. Black Widow is now the mother of the group, tending to Hawkeye’s wounds, calming the Hulk down, and picking up Cap’s shield, with a comment to match. By forcing her into the traditional role of caregiver, that’s lazy misogynist writing.
4. Black Widow would never be attracted to Bruce. Not with Hawkeye and Cap around! Come on, that came from left field. It’s not lazy, misogynist writing, but it’s just dumb because I wanted her to be with (fill in the blank), not that she needs that to define herself as a woman, or anything. Um, yeah. So.
5. Tony Stark’s rape joke. Whedon put a rape joke in the movie. By writing a rape joke into a movie, that’s misogynist, lazy writing. And you’re an asshole, Joss Whedon.

Okay, that’s about the size of it, I think. There were also a few comments about him being a racist, too, but mostly, it's about Black Widow. Those are the big complaints. Starting with number five, and working backward, let me confess something: I’ve seen the movie twice, and I missed the line they are talkingabout completely. It zipped right by me. Then, when I saw the term, I had to go look it up. I know a lot of weird, useless information, but that archaic term was new to me. And I’m a smart, well-educated person.

Let me assure you, if I had to go look up the term, then no one in my audience got the term or even understood its meaning. And so I say it across this great big stupid country of ours. In the Buzzfeed article above, there’s a snippet of the scene with a different line, and does it work better? Yeah, sure, but let me make this clear, here: that’s all in-character banter that is completely in context with the scene and the characters. No one, not the imaginary characters, nor the real actors and director, are advocating for the return of the monarchy. To suggest otherwise is naive at the very least, and willfully cognitively dissonant at the most. 

You didn’t like the way Black Widow and the Hulk nearly got together? I don’t have an answer to that, except maybe that’s what fanfic is for these days; redressing those supreme wrongs and claiming some kind of ownership of the characters for yourself. I thought it made good sense, since she’s obviously the one who did the Manchurian Candidate-style programming to calm the Hulk down to the point that it triggers the change. Of COURSE she’d be the one to administer it, just as she’d be the one to program Banner. That’s what she does as the super spy and master manipulator. Whedon has her explain her attraction to him and it works just fine—maybe a little bit rushed, but we are three to six months past the first Avengers movie at the start of the film. And really—WHO CARES? It doesn’t come to pass, anyway. Talk about a non-issue.

Black Widow isn’t the mother of the group. I think she’s decidedly a Jill of all Trades. Performing field triage on her best friend isn’t mothering. It’s good soldiering. Recovering Cap’s shield to help him regain the tactical advantage is good teamwork. And let’s be clear, here: she wasn’t “kidnapped.” She was captured after making the sacrifice play that allowed the Avengers to pry the Vision away from Ultron. As soon as she got to where she was going, she sent a message to Hawkeye telling the Avengers where she was. You know, master spycraft stuff. 

That crack about being a monster? Please. Her jacket is red, she says in the first movie. She was a Russian assassin for years. The fact that she was sterilized meant she didn’t have any distractions, like kids. If anything, it was an attempt to rob her of her basic empathy, her humanity. Killing without any remorse is what makes her a monster. 

At least, that’s how I see it. Then again, I have a blog, where I can type a complete thought using more than 140 characters. One of the huge problems I have with hashtag activism is that a great many of these subjects require a more complete thought in order to be discussed in a meaningful fashion. 

But some of these reductive, black and white statements about the movie ignore the other ten Marvel films that came before this one, and also especially the other movies in which Black Widow is featured. There’s no audience goodwill, no context regarding the character’s arc. No mention of the new Avengers at the end of the film, where Cap is suddenly the minority player on a team that includes two women and two black men. None of that is even alluded to. There’s only this weird, vicious pile-on because you didn’t like something—wait, scratch that—because you CHOSE to interpret something in the most narrowly-defined, reductive, and insulting way and that offense has spilled out across the Internet in the form of hate-speech and threats. Talk about seriously undercutting your own intentions. 

He's probably thinking about how he can most effectively
piss off a huge swath of his own fans in one fell swoop.
Oh, and I’ve said this before, though I never thought in a million, billion, trillion years I’d need to say it about the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: putting a sexist remark in your work does not make you a sexist. Writing misogynistic dialogue in a scene doesn’t make you a misogynist. And showing violence done to women onscreen is not an endorsement for rape. In what high school or university are young people being taught that plot, characterization and dialogue all speak to authorial intent? It’s so weird how people miss the subtext inherent to a scene and simply invent their own, based on a literal reading of the dialogue. Who does that? Please, tell me how that is now a thing. Regardless, if you go through life expecting only to consume fiction and popular culture in all of its various forms that only conforms to your internal barometer for what you consider to be good and right and fair and just, let me tell you, you're in for decades of rage and disappointment. Sooner or later, you're going to have to learn how to deal with something you don't agree with.

We used to play this game in the 1980s—during the time when the ultra-right-wing of the church was actively campaigning against heavy metal music, Dungeons & Dragons, and Warner Brothers Cartoons. There was this dictum that Pat Robertson used to employ that boiled down to, “if it’s not For God, then it’s against God.” We got pretty good at taking anything commonplace and by the transitive or associative properties of language and numbers, proving that it was, in fact, satanic. Jello? The most popular color is red. Red is the color of the devil. It jiggles when you shake it. Much like how the body shakes while committing sin. But the real proof? How many letters are in Jello? Five. How many letters are in Satan? Five. That can’t possibly be a coincidence. Thus, if you like Jello, that’s Satanic. 

It’s a fun game. You should try it. Maybe some of you already have. Instead of Satan, look for misogyny. Or racism. Trust me, if you want to find it, you can. 

 Avengers: Age of Ultron does have its share of problems. Of everything on the list above, I think the Stark line of dialogue about being a firm but fair ruler is better than his line about Prima-Whatever and will likely be changed for the DVD. It’s problematic. And yeah, I agree, there should be room for a Black Widow movie of her own. It’s conspicuous by its absence. The romance certainly felt a little rushed. And yes, Jeremy Renner’s apology for calling Black Widow a slut was douchey and not at all helpful and it was obvious he wasn't sincere. All valid points of criticism and certainly worthy of rational discussion.

So what’s the fix? I think it’s imperative to redirect the conversation onto firmer ground. I also think it’s probably a good idea to assume people aren’t trying to put you in manacles with their movie project. I think everyone needs to take a deep breath and a step back. We’ve lost some things in this politicized, polemic world. We’ve lost context, and weirdly, also nuance. I don’t know if this comes from living and consuming pop culture both ironically and also sarcastically, but it’s an epidemic. 

Reducing everything to 140 characters isn’t better speech. It overlooks gobs of information. This need to slap a label, to pigeonhole, and worse, to damage with terms like racist and misogynist, is a trend borne from anonymous cowards and we need to seriously consider why we’re online—to what purpose—and if Twitter is taking up that much time in your life, I’d look at that as something to work on.

Catwoman and the minion approve of Natasha's Heel Toe Technique.
Finally, we get to the real world problem. This is a picture of my Black Widow action figure. I have it displayed in the big case in my theater. It’s a cool figure. Here, you can see she’s stomping the hell out of some Hydra goon. And it looks like Scarlett Johansson, too. This was a figure that came out last year, with very little fanfare, as part of another toy line. Thankfully, I got it from a retail store, instead of on the collector’s market, where female action figures fetch a higher price because there is always only one per case. That makes the figures harder to acquire, naturally.

The stores are full of Avengers toys, again, and some of them are pretty cool. In addition to the action figures and Legos, there’s the clutch of “role playing toys.” Cap’s shield, Hulk fists, Iron Man gloves and helmets, even Hawkeye’s bow and arrows. These kids today are pretty lucky. If there had been an Iron Man helmet I could wear as a kid, I would never have taken it off.  But you know what they don’t have on toy store shelves? 
You guessed it: No Black Widow wrist rockets, no Black Widow light-up Electro-Sticks, no Black Widow on motorcycle toys, no Black Widow anything. It sucks. It’s stupid and short-sighted. And do you know why (oh, you’re going to love this one). It’s all because of Disney.

Yep. They really don’t think that girls want to play with boy’s toys. I’ll let that statement sink in so those of you who are angry can shift focus. Disney did this with Gamora during the Guardians of the Galaxy merch-blitz last year. Now they are doing it with Age of Ultron. There’s a token figure of the Scarlet Witch, but of course, all of the collectors are pouncing on them and so you won’t find them if you have kids who are fans. Not without paying that collector’s premium. 

The reason why is the part that makes me legitimately angry, and if there was ever a need to rally the troops for a concerted campaign, it’s this: Disney bought Marvel because they wanted to sell product to boys. They consider Marvel a “boy’s line” and the “girl’s line” of characters is, of course, the Disney Princesses. That’s the danger. That’s the great Satan at work, right there. 

This article is a great call to action that succinctly explains what’s going on in retail right now.  I think it’s incredibly important that these characters, these stories, this fandom—which is an American art form and should be treated as such—deserve to be all access. We need to be okay if boys like Wonder Woman. We need to be okay with girls liking The Hulk. They are characters. Stories. Fantasy. American Myth. And now those myths, those ‘intellectual properties,’ are in the hands of lawyers who consider them to be dollar-generating concepts that they control. Where’s your Internet outrage now, Twitter? There’s the fight. There’s the opponent. Let’s go get them! Let’s start talking action and activism! Let’s change the landscape! 

Of course, in order to do that, you’d have to stop texting “Fuck You, Joss Whedon” and complaining about the Hulk/Black Widow relationship. That may be asking too much of some people. I heard the term Manufactured Outrage and while I don’t think it’s always the case, BOY do I think that about this particular instance. Someone put a little blood in the water, and everyone’s nictitating membranes slid right down over the eyes so that they could feed without getting blood in their eyes.  

Maybe Whedon made some choices you don’t agree with. Okay, fine. But remember this: that film was made by committee, and you have no idea what forces were in play during all of it. The fact that Whedon is taking a break because he’s physically exhausted should say something about the process of dealing with Disney. Anyone who chooses to take a line of dialogue so seriously that they flip out like a ninja on social media needs better priorities in their life. 

But the threats? The Name-Calling? That's not acceptable. It wasn't acceptable during GamerGate, and it's sure not acceptable now.  You're doing it wrong.

There, now that everything is all sorted, here’s another article on another website about movie criticism. It’s a cogent, well-articulated call to action. For those of you wanting things to change on the meta level, this is a very good place to start.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Backlist Project is Nigh Complete

Possibly the most anticipated book
I've put out so far. The other half of
the Sam Bowen story. Ta Dah!

I love that word, "nigh." It's so delightfully Biblical to me. But that's not what we're here to talk about. Bowen's Bluff, the second Sam Bowen volume, dropped this weekend in paperback form. I'll have the ebook figured out soon. That leaves only one book: The Third and final Con-Dorks volume, One in a Million.

I've needed to rescue and resuscitate my backlist for years now. I was all set to do it a couple of years ago, but I went and wrote a bunch of comics that, as it turns out, will never see the light of day. Ah, well. Sometimes you back the wrong horse, you know?

 Once One in a Million drops, next month, that'll be it. I had seven books that needed to be reprinted and updated for ebook consumption. There's eight because Fight Card collection, The Adventures of Sailor Tom Sharkey, slipped in there when no one was looking.  Not that I'm complaining. I love the book and I'm happy those stories have found a collected home.

Coming soon: the final chapter
in the Con-Dorks Saga and it's
a doozy, I tell you what.
I never started this project to make money. Well, let's back up: I didn't publish all of these books to get rich. I fully expected to make a little dough off of the endeavor. And so far, that's exactly what's happened; a little dough. Twenties of forties of dollars. A couple hundred and change, truth be told. I did it so they would serve as a backdrop for other, more recent work coming out this year (and hopefully next). I've got NEW books, see, and they will need some love. But in the meantime, let's see what we can do about this stuff, shall we?

Let's do a contest: I've done some review trawling from you before, but now I'm upping the ante with genuine loot from the past. Collectible, interesting stuff, at that. 

I'm a once and forever member of Clockwork Storybook, a writer's collective that was founded by four people: myself, Matt Sturges, Chris Roberson, and Bill Willingham. We started out as a writer's group to work on our prose, and quickly decided we'd get a lot better, a lot quicker, if we learned how to write fiction in front of a live audience. So, we created a fictional city, San Cibola, and made a shared world out of it. The "online magazine" was updated monthly, and sometimes more frequently, as we were prone to pulling a lot of stunts like 30-day Novel challenges and the like. Our goal was to eventually transition into a print medium, and in this regard, we were only about 10 years ahead of the trend.

Yes, that's Bill's art on the cover. He also illustrated his
story, too. It's very cool.
One of our first projects was a series of chapbooks, designed to get our beaks wet for page layout, printing, and all of that complicated stuff. Our first one was called Offline Volume 1: Mythology, and it featured an original prose story from each of us, not available on the website, with illustrations by our friends. This was our calling card as we started making the rounds at Texas conventions. We sold hundreds of these things. Not thousands, but definitely hundreds.

Now they are all but gone. I've got five spare copies of Offline Volume 1: Mythology to give away and I will do just that. All you gotta do is pick one of my books that you have read over this past year and post a review somewhere that you can point me to it. Amazon, Good Reads, wherever there's decent traffic. That's it! I'll pick my five favorites and send you a rare piece of Clockwork Storybook history. I will even sign it, if that's your bag, baby. Once you have the review up, shoot me a Tweet or an IM or however you get ahold of me, and point me to where it is. I will in turn contact you for mailing instructions.  How does that sound?

Just to sink the hook a little deeper, here's the Table of Contents:

Mythology by Bill Willingham
illustrated by the author

Persuasion by Matt Sturges
illustrated by Harold Covey

A Port in a Storm by Chris Roberson 
illustrated by Doug Potter

An Encounter at Leed's Point
by Mark Finn
illustrated by Mack White

Okay, that's all you need from me! Review! Review for your lives!

Friday, March 27, 2015

Comic Book Misogyny: an Origin Story

I figured out where all of the misogyny and bald hatred in the comic book industry is coming from. I'm ashamed to say, it's coming from my generation, Generation X, the fans in their forties and thirties. Oh, it's possible, just possible, that there are a few twentysomethings piling on--Gen Y entitlement can be palpable and for some doughy white guys in the suburbs who might still be living at home with indulgent parents waiting on them hand and foot, these "attacks on freedom of speech" might actually seem like that and not what they really are: a widening of the communal pool. But I digress.

I figured it out. I figured out where it started. Because it had to start somewhere, right? I mean, there was a time when we were all new to this, and the world was a much larger, more inclusive place. We used to be innocent, if not ignorant, and all of these conventions were full of fellow fans. We could make new friends from other cities and states who liked the same things that we liked. If only there were girls here, too, that would make it all better. That was myth number one, right there.

There I am, on the right. We were so young. So hairy. Reading comics, drawing comics, talking about comics. It was our life. 

This is my friend, Melisa. She was one of us. An artist, really talented, and into movies, comics, art, and all of the other things we liked, too. She was one of us in the "Let's Make a Loving Cup!" kind of way. We adopted her and she starting drawing with us on Sundays and hanging out and painting and going to movies and conventions and it was just not a big deal. This is her with Forrest J. Ackerman. Her hair is over one eye because she was too freaked out to say anything to him. She was a huge fan. This was taken in the early 1990s, by the way. Before the dark times. Before the Empire.

I mentions Melisa only to show that there were, even back then, Pre-Internet, women in the hobby, if not the industry. And you could be friends with them and nothing bad would happen to you.

Sometime around 1992 or 1993, the lawyers started patrolling San Diego ComicCon with suitcases full of money. Comics became Big Business. About the same time came the professional convention booth staff. Booth Weasels. Sometimes known as "Booth Babes" or "Booth Bunnies." These are the people who smile, greet you, and then give you the knickknack or the spiel that they were told to hand out to everyone who walked into the booth. It's a professional gig, like waiting tables or hospitality and hosting. They get paid to do it.

There's just one problem. These people--these women--were at a comic book convention. And so, to make sure that these media companies and Dot-Com companies and fly-by-night comic book companies and movie studios had the full attention of the doughy white guys in attendance, they staffed their booths with attractive women and put them in go-go boots and mini-skirts. Skimpy outfits that let the cleavage hang out. Because men are pigs and easily distracted, see.

Now, I'm sure not everyone who noticed this phenomenon thought for one second that these people were anything other than Booth Weasels. Some of us, in point of fact, were a little bit insulted. I mean, how immature do you think we are? Well, they knew something that we didn't, because a lot of man-children still have swag in their collections from companies that never made a single TV show, or comic book, or, hell, anything, before they went under as the Dot-Com bubble burst.

But the Booth Weasels remained. And I'm willing to bet you a million dollars here and now that every single one of these freaked-out, doughy, entitled, white guys who are braying like sea lions about Social Justice Warriors and women in costumes, and political correctness and all of that other meaningless bullshit--every one of them--made a pass at one of these booth weasels and got shot down, told that they weren't into comics, or just simply politely refused in some way. Much like what happens when one goes to, say, a Hooter's and tries to pick up the waitress, and gets told no, as well.

I promise you these whining slugs are still nursing the sting of rejection from some perceived slight that goes back to a convention experience circa 1994-1998. They were so busy being angry that the cheerleaders turned them down that they didn't notice the room filling up with band geeks behind them. Now, whenever they see a costume with cleavage, or see a woman saying they love comics, they react like Frank Burns on M.A.S.H. "Oh, ha ha, very funny!" when in fact, no one made a joke. No one was teasing them. But they don't see anything outside of their personal hurt and shame.

That's what all of this sounds like to me. Nattering nonsense from jilted man-children who tried out their A-list Monty Python impressions on the out-of-work-actress hired to be Catwoman at the San Diego ComicCon DC Comics booth in 1995 and she don't know who Monty Python is, and so now ANYONE dressed like Catwoman must be just like the one woman who said no to them once. They're like Dwayne Wayne from Die Hard. They're like Dickless from Ghostbusters. They can't change their narrative because they can't see the world any other way.

By the way, the electronics conferences are now banning "Booth Babes" and guess who's all up in arms about it? Yep. The same doughy white guys.

I'm ready to begin my campaign of publicly shaming any man who is still stuck in the 90s comics scene. It may not change them, but it'll at least give them something new to hate on, so that maybe we can get back to all moving forward into the 21st century.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Oscars Don’t Matter & Are No Longer Relevant And You Should Stop Caring About Them, Too

I watched the Oscars this year with the same sense of irony and agony that I do every year. It’s torturous to me because, much like Neil Patrick Harris, I love movies. I still do, even though I work in the industry now on its lowest, and least respected, rung. It should have beaten me, but it doesn’t, and it likely never will, because when a movie is very good, it’s inevitably a triumph of personal vision and teamwork in a way that has nothing to do with its draconian and graft-riddled delivery system. Thankfully, I can separate the two quite nicely and hold a seemingly hypocritical concept in my head that while I hate Disney Studios and always have and always will, I can love Toy Story, The Incredibles, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Fantasia without missing a beat.

But I digress. I watched, too, the fallout from this year’s Oscars: someone always hates the host and thinks they did the worst job ever; someone complains loudly that the movie they wanted to win best picture didn’t win; someone always mocks the whole process, from the dresses some women wore to the lack of diversity, or lack of equality, or lack of whatever this year’s hashtag activism would have us tsking about. Usually, these articles can all be found on (I kid, I kid...mostly).

Even if I agree with the general consensus that, for example, Birdman shouldn’t have won Best Picture over something like Boyhood, I’ve stopped feeling real emotion over it. Sure, my predictions this year were in the toilet—they always are. I tend to be very egalitarian with my choices, much as if I were actually voting. I won’t heap every award on the flavor of the month. Instead, I ask myself what best fit each category and let the chips fall. Example: is there anyone in the room who didn’t think Birdman would win for Best Cinematography? Right, didn’t think so. But in the category of Best Picture (read it as “Best Production,” and remember it’s the producers who come up to take the award), Boyhood was robbed. That production was 12 years long, and never looks patchwork or disjointed. Linklater filmed several movies in between doing Boyhood, and each time he came back to it, he had to pick up where he left off. On screen, it’s a very subtle magic trick, and he should have been rewarded for it.

But the voting body instead chose to recognize a movie that spoke to them on a very personal level: a movie about ego, fear of failure, lack of relevancy, fantasy, and the perils of fame. In other words, they chose to recognize themselves. And why not? It’s their award show, right? I mean, did you get to vote? No, that’s the People’s Choice Awards, not the Oscars. And the foreign press award? Nice, but, it’s the award given to you by your peers that matters the most. It’s the grudging respect that you earned, if not the outright “Screw you, man,” from your fellow actors and actresses. That’s the award you savor.

Make no mistake, here: the Oscars have ceased to be relevant to American Culture, and will probably never be relevant again. Oh, they used to be, a long time ago, back when the studios were in charge of everything. They made the Oscars a big deal through canny promotion, lots of glamor, high fashion, and pageantry. Also, remember this was back in the day when newspapers, magazines, and radio ruled the roost. TV was in its infancy. The message was carefully controlled. There was an aura of mystery about the whole thing. Those images of stars walking the red carpet was one of the few pictures you’d see of them outside of their film roles. And, also, there were fewer movies, fewer categories, and less competition all around. It wasn’t perfect, and I’m not saying it was, but that’s the myth that the modern Academy Awards have been trading on for years: the glamor of Hollywood.

Talk about a fairy tale. Twitter and 4Chan have replaced newspapers and magazines. Memes are generated faster than they can be absorbed. Scandals break in seconds, are over in minutes, and linger for days, like when you overcook fish in your house. We see these people All the Bloody Time, thanks to the Internet, the Talk Show circuit, and whatever else they may have going on that has sucked up bandwidth for the day.

This is just one of the memes that was
generated about John Travolta. Again.
This is the world in which the modern Oscars exist, and it’s poisoned the well completely. Here’s why: Hollywood reads tweets. They scour blogs. They say they don’t, but someone in the organization does. When we as a people are displeased with them, they hear it loud and clear. Granted, they hear it much in the same way that the Plebeians shouted at Nero that he was overdoing it, but they DO hear it. And it totally influences what they do, even if they say it doesn’t.  That’s where the opening monologue and other material comes from these days. Gone are the Billy Crystal song and dance numbers where he does a Mad Magazine style summary of the movies nominated for best picture. Just about everything out of N.P.H.’s mouth was a wink and a nod, if not an outright apology to, all of the criticisms levied on the ceremony from social media.

This is how they used to do the Oscars. Ballots would go out to all of the voting members, and they would check of their picks in every category. They send them back. Someone, probably Price Waterhouse, tallies them up and from that aggregate list they take the top several in every category and that’s the nominations list. That list went public, and while the boys in Vegas set to making odds on who would win, the voting members would again choose their favorite—or maybe they’d switch it up, depending on who they just talked to at the country club or the studio—and the votes would go back to Price Waterhouse and the winner would be announced on Oscar Night and everyone would clap and cheer and there you go. The next day, around the water cooler, the women would discuss who had the best dresses and married couples would vow that if the best picture winner, which they missed when it was in the theaters because of the family vacation, ever came to television, that they would definitely watch it. Sometimes, there would be a gross mistake, a whoops, that the voting body would correct next year.  These were usually pointed out in articles written by syndicated columnists like Gene Siskal or Roger Ebert, taking a break from reviewing movies to express an opinion on what went wrong that year. And sometimes it would be a good enough argument that there would be a kind of discussion about it, and it might get filtered back to Hollywood, and appropriate steps would be taken. Maybe it would be in the form of a Lifetime Achievement award next year, or maybe it would be to vote in this year's snubbed actor for his next performance, which was nowhere as good or as meaningful as the movie he was in last year, but anyway, here’s your statue.

This is how they do the Oscars now. Ballots would go out to all of the voting members, and they would check of their picks in every category. They send them back. Someone, probably Price Waterhouse, tallies them up and from that aggregate list they take the top several in every category and that’s the nominations list. They make a big point about releasing the nominees in an early morning (for them, remember, the West Coast is three hours behind New York) press conference, and while the boys in Vegas set to making odds on who would win, the Internet explodes with faux outrage and disbelief that, ONCE AGAIN, there’s no movies about people of color in the Best Picture category, or that they CAN’T BELIEVE that this geek-nation favorite didn’t get nominated for every single award, or that So-and-So was good in that movie, but certainly not Best Supporting Actor Good in that movie, and so on, and so on.  The 24-hour news machine and every late night talk show ramp up the usual jokes, and the list is sifted over with a fine-toothed comb, analyzing it in every direction as if a subjective choice made by spoiled millionaires actually means something about our society at large. Oh, and every one of those spoiled millionaires sees and reads those comments, because they can’t help but look.

Now the final ballots come back to the voting members would again choose their favorite—and now they’ve most assuredly switched it up, depending on what the temperature of Twitter is at the moment. Then again, maybe they don’t; there are a few of them who no doubt double down, vowing not to be influenced by a bunch of screaming 20-somethings on social media. Those votes would go back to Price Waterhouse and the winner is announced on Oscar Night and while everyone is clapping and cheering, the Internet is exploding with more fake rage or praise, depending on what cause was name-checked in the acceptance speech. The next day, the Internet is full of how stupid the Oscars are and how horrible that dress looked, and every gay man under the age of fifty and teenage girl under the age of twenty has logged in to snark at the singing or the musical number (well, maybe not this year), and Hollywood in general gets sullen and angry and closes ranks for a couple of weeks and tells itself that it doesn’t matter what people in Kansas and Arkansas think about them because THEY are the taste-makers, not the city commission of Little Rock.

And we wonder why they’re in a bubble.

I won’t go so far as to suggest that the Oscars are tainted, because that’s giving The Internet and the New Media Machine too much credit, but I will suggest that because of the Internet and the New Media Machine, they can go back to being a private local award, given out to members of the club, and we don’t have to care about them the way we used to. Old Hollywood is gone. We’re saturated with stars and celebrities in a way that is frankly suffocating. And really, how many of you are using the Oscars to determine your Netflix cue these days? You know after opening weekend if it’s a movie you want to see. Your friends have cross-posted interesting blog articles about the film, or written thoughtful critiques on FaceBook. You don’t need the Oscars for anything, except maybe to dictate your choice of classic films before 1970. The Best Picture list (and its nominees) are still a pretty good barometer for those.

But now? With Rotten Tomatoes in place? Pfft. Forget it. You don’t agree with the winners most of the time, anyway. For a lot of us, the Oscars are a backboard to slam against, a whetstone for our wit, and not any kind of standard for excellence. This is sad, because that’s what the awards were meant to be in the first place.

The best barometer for what movies will stand the test of time is, in fact, time itself. For every injustice heaped upon films at the Oscars, the passage of years (and film studies classes around the world) has a way of evening out the score for us.  Let’s look at a classic example from the 1980s.

Exhibit A—Best Picture Category, 1981
Here are the nominees:
Raiders of the Lost Ark

(I’m not including a hyperlink for Raiders of the Lost Ark because if you need to know what that movie is about, I want you to stop reading this blog and don’t come back until you’ve watched the movie. I’m serious. If this is you, go. Go now. I ain’t playing.)

And the winner was...Chariots of Fire.

I’ll let that sink in.

Now, regarding Chariots of Fire, On Golden Pond, and Reds, these are the kinds of movies you see all the time at the Academy Awards. Thoughtful movies, compelling dramas, great actors and directors... and so, if they are all so great, how many of them have you actually seen? Most Gen X-ers and Baby Boomers have likely seen three or four of them. But there’s one movie that we’ve all seen, and it sure as hell ain’t Chariots of Fire. If you know anything about Chariots of Fire, you know the song in the movie was re-used in National Lampoon's Vacation when Clark and Rusty are running in slow motion up to the gates of Wally World. That's it. That's the sum total of Chariots of Fire's contribution to your life. And that lampoon tells you everything you need to know about Chariots of Fire. It's about running in slow motion. 

But them’s the breaks.

It happened before, as well: Annie Hall beat Star Wars in 1977. My Fair Lady beat Dr. Strangelove in 1964. The Best Years of Our Lives trumped It’s a Wonderful Life in 1946. And we know it’s happened since then. It happens a lot.

The whole list is here, thoughtfully hyperlinked, for your perusal: Academy Award for Best Picture. Go for it. See how much of a film buff you are. Or, better yet, if you’re not a film buff, see how many movies in that category you’ve actually seen since, oh, I don’t know, 1994. That was Pulp Fiction’s year to lose. Start there and go forward. Whether you agree or disagree with the winners, how much of your personal taste is reflected in the nominees?

So, that’s it. I don’t need these awards anymore. They don’t matter to me like they used to. I still enjoy the movies, and I love seeing good ones and turning people on to films they’ve never seen before, and watching the light come on in people’s eyes when they talk about their favorite movie. And as much as Hollywood seems to want to involve me in the process, it’s really through a three inch thick pane of safety glass. They are in the bubble, and it’s a closed feedback loop. They hunker down over the Internet like an oracle and try to discern what the masses are revolting about, and for 90% of it (or more), I just don’t care. All I want is for people to do their best work and make an interesting story that’s well written and well acted. If it’s a giant spectacle, that’s cool. If it’s a quiet character piece, I like that, too. And if something I like is something that everyone else likes, too, then that’s okay with me. But I’ve never really watched movies based on what other people say I should watch, and neither should you.

My challenge to you is this: Next year, skip the Oscars altogether and just rewatch Raiders of the Lost Ark. I promise you, it’ll be more fun than the whole awards ceremony. Any highlights you miss will be streaming the next day, and you can catch the ten meaningful minutes of the three hour show and be just as caught up as the rest of the world.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Old School Gaming and the New Shiny

My rebuilding of my old campaign continues apace. I'm doing it in fits and starts, as I can grab a half an hour or so to myself. I am vacillating back and forth between dusting off old components and bringing them up to new 5th edition rules, and fleshing out 5th edition to meet my campaign's specific needs. For example, in my world, there are five city-states that wield considerable economic and political power. And one of the themes for this new/old campaign is territory expansion, along with warmongering. Because of the emphasis on this environment over say, a Middle Ages King and court, I wrote a background for Bureaucrat. It's a good background. I may post it later. I am working on a background for an exterminator, as well. Another necessary function of city government that could yield an advantage in a dungeon party.

Whilst I was looking over my old notes, drawings, and books, I couldn't help but notice the artwork in the original first edition AD&D books. I know that we consider the early stuff to be crude and unrefined, especially in the wake of what came after. I mean, by any criteria you care to apply, this is a beautiful piece of artwork.

It's well composed, makes good use of light and shadow, employs intelligent color choices, and is well painted and nicely rendered. It's a great piece of artwork. Really nice. And the fifth edition game is literally festooned--gloriously festooned--with hundreds of color plates. We live in an age of bountiful riches, we do.

And nice as the artwork is, and I don't want to hear any dissent from the lot of you, for it IS nice, I can't help at the same time feeling that the goblins are...what? Informed by popular culture? Maybe they feel like guys in suits? I don't know, exactly, but there's something in this realistic treatment that settles in on my brain rather than opens it up.

Which brings me back to the first edition artwork, and specifically, those artists who contributed so much to the three core books. Diss it all you want, sure, there may have been some pieces that were rough around the edges, but there was something also evocative to the work that I found stimulating rather than limiting. I did then, and I do today.

Here's just a few of my favorite pieces from the books. Granted, these aren't very big; back then, they didn't have to be, the way we pored over every square inch of those pages like they were actual magical tomes.

 I came late to the party where Erol Otus was concerned. His work had a slickness and a stiffness that I didn't understand at the time. Now I look at it and I think he was a genius. This is the standard troll from the monster manual, but drawn in scale with humans and in a setting that would make him infinitely more terrifying. Note the use of texture on the loincloth, the armor, and the hair. Otus was a master at that stuff.

Speaking of texture, this is a frontispiece by Jim Rosloff. He did a lot of the illustrations in the Deities and Demigods books. Remember that amazing picture of Thor fighting the Midgard Serpent? Rosloff. I love this pen and ink treatment here, and the dragon head is also really nice and stylized without being definitive. I mean, we don't really know what color dragon this is. Could be red. Could be gold. It's a mystery. But that's what makes this so cool.

Jeff Dee, along with Bill Willingham, came right after the initial clutch of hardcovers, and they brought a super hero sensibility to their artwork that really resonated with me. I won't post any of Bill's old work because he hates it when I do that, but Jeff is actively trying to recreate his stuff, so good on him.

This piece was unsigned in the Player's handbook, but this is exhibit A when someone says there was no good artwork in the early days of TSR. This is a beautiful penciled piece with dwarven adventurers encountering a magic mouth spell in the dungeon. First of all, look at the cool hallways. Now check out the dwarves. Or are they gnomes? A halfling? I dunno, but it doesn't look like anything I'd seen prior to discovering Dungeons and Dragons.

The new crop of halflings in the 5th edition book look a lot like these fellows. That's probably not an accident.

Finally, no discussion of the early AD&D artwork is complete without mentioning Dave Trampier. This guy was a machine, and he contributed so much to the books that you can't really comprehend it all. Small pieces of art, flavor pieces, you name it--oh, and only three fourths of the Monster Manual. Tramp did it all, Jack. And this piece, in the middle of the Dungeon Master's Guide, is a favorite of just about everyone. We join our adventurers in mid-scene, with this guy just riding through town, setting people on fire. What the hell? This guy is a dick! But hey, when you name yourself "Emirikol the Chaotic," you have to maintain a certain standard for yourself.

Apart from that, this piece gives us a lot of contextual clues to help us build a dungeons and dragons town. Brick buildings, flagstones, thatched roofs, covered archway, etc. This town setting that Emirikol is hell-bent of messing up became the basis for the city of Greyhawk, and later, my own towns. I used the Green Griffin as a go-to tavern name so much, they were like a Starbucks franchise in my kingdom.

There was something fun, something evocative, about this rough-around-the-edges first edition artwork. A kind of rustic charm, like woodcuts, that gave you enough information to allow you to understand what you were looking at, but not so much that it supplanted your own imagination.

We're a different world, now, and the production values. Kids these days, with their fancy new roller skates and their Jazz records, have different needs than us old timers. And so, we go for full-color, painted dreamscapes and why not? Now the company can afford to produce such a product. I'll never complain about the upgrades, but for my money, in my secret heart, I still prefer Rosloff's goblins to the new guys.