19 February, 2017

Some Thoughts on Rogue One Part 2 (of One Trillion)

(Continuing my thoughts on Rogue One, as promised, here's my second article. This one really isn't about the movie at all. I don't know that any of them really will be. Talking about the actual movie doesn't seem terribly interesting to me. What gets me, what makes me think, is all of the things that got put together, that had to happen, to make a new Star Wars happen. Because it isn't so much that it did happen, it's how it happened. This is about that. I guess. Also, you know, Rogue One is pretty cool.)

1313, GRIT, AND THE TROUBLE WITH ANSWERED PRAYERS

Before George Lucas sold his eponymous company to Disney (and its eponymous head in a jar), there once was a corporation called “Lucas Arts.” They made, among other things, Star Wars games. Coming hot off of the heels of third-person adventure games like Uncharted and Gears of War, the Lucas people decided that they wanted a slice.

Pictured: Space-bums.
The game they came up with was Star Wars: 1313. It was to be their gritty answer to the current video game market. It was to be a gritty take on the Star Wars universe as we know it (so, not like the prequels). While the Jedi populated the cleaner, more council-based part of Corusicant, you would live in the part of the planet that used astromech droids as hobo fires.

The game was never to be. When Lucas sold his company, Disney axed Lucas Arts, and with it 1313. The game got cancelled because Disney knows here was more money in the licensing business than there is in actual video game development (which is why they literally own everything now).

1313 is one of those “What could have been” moments. The concept was solid. The tech was there. And, most importantly for what I am about to get into, the concept was there. It was what people like me have been pining for since that poor schizophrenic kid shouted “Yahoo!” We grew up and Star Wars did not. 1313 was to give us something that we had wanted for years: A grown up Star Wars, one that was more Boba Fett than it was Ewoks.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the long-awaited fulfillment of that promise. Star Wars was always a lived-in universe. One full of rust and sand and heat stroke, but at the edge of all of that is a type of mythical magic that you only get from fairy tales and, hell, the Bible (at least for me, as a kid I had both of those books next to each other on the bookshelf. I'm sure Joseph Campbell would approve). Rogue One is a step farther in the direction of grit than the franchise has ever gone. It's a move that carries on the spiritual legacy of what 1313 was supposed to be.

While The Force Awakens seeks to recapture that old magic, Rogue One exists as a clear, if safe, counter-point to that. It’s something new, but not too new. It’s something people wanted, but not something that people didn’t know that they wanted. But, it's also still recognizably Star Wars. It’s something that I’ve wanted to see for decades.

Or at least I thought that I did.

"Great kid, don't get cocky!"
Having walked out of Rogue One, as good or as bad as it is, represents how sometimes what you want isn’t actually what you want. I thought I wanted an updated, gritty Star Wars movie. I thought I wanted The Big Red One with even more Star Wars in it. I was wrong. What I actually wanted, after years of supplementary materials and video games and books and the prequels, was just more of that Star Wars magic. What I actually wanted was The Force Awakens. I wanted something full of wonder. I wanted a John Williams score that mattered, damnit! Grit wasn't what drew me to Star Wars all those years ago.

We already exist in a world full of grit. Right now, the world appears to be this incomprehensible mess that seems to gain strength vacillating between distant confusion and local horror. Over here we seem to have actual Star Wars villains running the show and, elsewhere, we have people running around committing acts that would give the Sith pause. Maybe this wasn't any different in the late 1970's. Maybe it's me. Maybe I don't know any better. Even during the height of the War on Terror, when the Prequel Trilogy concluded, it didn't ever seem this bad.

And maybe that's why Star Wars worked.

It came out at the height of New Hollywood's decadence (detailed in Raging Bulls and Easy Riders). Famously, it crushed William Freidkin's Sorcerer*, an even grittier remake of The Wages of Fear. Only in hindsight would this be seen as the death knell of New Hollywood (culminating in other high budget bombs such as One From the Heart, and New York, New York, and, most importantly, Heaven's Gate). To say that Star Wars ended the gritty, adult films of the 1970's is an oversimplification, but it does speak to the idea that good doesn't always mean "adult." This isn't to say that Sorcerer was a bad movie. I choose to see it as a statement that Star Wars was a good movie. People made their choice and they made it in droves**.

These things work in cycles. I'm sure Joseph Campbell would probably have something to say about this. . .

There's something to be said about us changing, about the fans changing, and not the series itself, though, maybe that's another issue entirely. Back to the issue at hand. . .

"Let me tell you about the original
Luke Skywalker. . . His name was
Jesus Christ."
Star Wars always existed as this mytho-poetic counter-part to reality. As much as it commented on fears of the Nazis or about Ronald Reagan's own Star Wars Program, George Lucas' baby always belonged to the older, safer spheres of people like Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell. They weren't bold innovators. They didn't take risks. They were people that dug in and turned inwards. For Star Wars to boldly go where no Star Wars has gone before is, almost, a betrayal of what Star Wars stands for. It's why The Force Awakens worked and it's why I'm nervous about The Last Jedi. What makes "new" Star Wars movies work is that they're a counter-balance between old stuff that works and, well, old stuff that's dressed to look like you've never seen it before. Rogue One is fairly new in a lot of ways and that's where I think it fails. It's both not different enough to stand out on its own and any changes that it has in its structure just highlights what made A New Hope and Empire so good in the first place.

Star Wars is about the past. It's a reflection of both civilization's mythology and it's, most annoyingly, about our own mythology. I pity the poor daughters and sons of bitches that have to make a new one-- Especially if they want to make it good. That must be a nightmare.

As good as it might be, Rogue One is a perfect example of why you should be careful what you wish for—Especially if you’re a fanboy. The reality of the thing is not always what you imagined it to be. In short, sometimes a fantasy is better off as just that: A fantasy.



(See? Even the logo had grit!)

FOOT NOTES:

*Apparently Shane Meadows is working on a remake of Sorcerer. Because apparently he wants to personally torture my friend Eric Bryan, long time Sorcerer fan and enemy of Shane Meadows. And, also, appropriately, it's going to be coming out opposite a new goddamn Star Wars. Because, sure, what the fuck. Why the hell not?

**Yes, I'm aware that Rogue One has made a billion dollars world wide. I'm not arguing against that. I'm arguing about my enjoyment and the wider meaning of turning a kid's saga into a war story, and that this is something worth thinking about whether you're a big fan or not! Pay attention, you plebe!

James Kislingbury is a writer and a podcaster. He also sends harassing letters to public officials. If you'd like to support his endeavors, please check out the Patreon for his podcast production squadron.

31 January, 2017

War, Genre, and the Reds

Johnny Red: The Hurricane
Garth Ennis, Keith Burns, with Jason Wordic and Rob Steen.

Forgive me if I’m being redundant or a bit obvious, but nobody does war stories like Garth Ennis does war stories. Which is is also to say that nobody else actually write these stories (well, almost nobody. . . ).

Johnny Red falls firmly within Garth Ennis' wheelhouse as a writer. It's the story of an RAF pilot stuck behind Soviet lines and pushed into a near no-win situation against the approaching German army. As such, it involves RAF banter, Stalingrad, bad commies, good comrades, the Nazis, and at least one decent Jerry. In short: It's a Garth Ennis war comic. (Also, it might fall within Keith Burns' wheelhouse, I'm not entirely sure. It sure looks like it does, though). What impresses me is that Ennis can still tell different stories and different kinds of stories using the same setting, the same tropes, and the same basic tools. 

I’ve talked about this before with Fury (and probably some other Garth Ennis comics somewhere. . . And Star Wars, come to think of it. . .), but when it comes to World War II stories there are a few distinct sub-genres* Though, that is distinctly different from sub-genres.

The ones that pop most readily to mind are navy movies, resistance movies (Carve Her Name With Pride, Army of Shadows, Army of Crime), POW movies (The Great Escape, Stalg 17, Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence), tank movies (Kelly’s Heroes, Fury, Sahara), and then, naturally, the plane movie (Battle of Britain, 12 O’Clock High, Memphis Belle).** I talked about this in my first piece on Rogue One.

What is impressive about Ennis and his arististic collaborators (this time, it’s Keith Burns, who, unlike a lot of modern artists, really nails the grit and ugliness of the war) is that not only is he using certain settings and tropes over and over again, but that even within these sub-genres, Ennis is telling different kinds of stories.

My favorite of these is Enemy Ace. Enemy Ace takes its cue from one of DC's many ancient and under used properties from War Stories (which includes the Haunted Tank, The Losers, and Sgt. Rock). It tells the story of a classic Prussian officer (and WWI ace) who is forced out of retirement by the Nazis to fight a war that he doesn't like and can't win. If you can hunt down a copy of this book on the cheap, I would highly recommend it. It also makes an interesting companion piece to Johnny Red.

It's also interesting to note that, while Ennis has never been short on enmity for the Nazis or the German armed forces in general, both Enemy Ace and Johnny Red demonstrate that he's capable of portraying the enemy with some semblance of nuance (even if it involves Ennis hitting the same basic tropes that he almost always hits). 

Actually, scratch that, hunt down all of Ennis’ war books. Between Keith Burns, Carlos Ezquerra, David Gibbons, Goran Parlov, and about a dozen other of the best cartoonists in the business, you’re in for a treat. Or an existential horror show. I mean, it’s a winner either way.

What was I saying about Johnny Red? Oh yeah. It’s good. Burns nails the art and Ennis does what Ennis does (write war stories about capable men and women that don't put up with any bullshit). Johnny Red is part adventure story, part fighter pilot story, part Red orchestra, and, most interestingly, a paean to the men and machines that beat back the tide of fascism. It's a classic Ennis story and, along with Burns, proves why he's the best war writer in the business.

Not much more to say than that. I mean, other than to remind you that Ennis is a goddamn treasure and it kills me that he isn’t allowed to just make these stories at his own pace, at his own time, whenever he wants instead of this depressing, piecemeal situation. He does good work. His artists do good work. They’re making stories that matter more than most comics matter. He should be rewarded for that. Everyone should be.



*This is true of any genre. There is no such thing as a static genre. These things move with time, with setting, with creators. With Film Noir you move from the classic hardboiled period in the late 30’s through the early 40’s, then, in the 50’s, after noir lost its allure in Americsa the French, newly liberated discovered these films and made their own noirs (which is wear the term comes from. Leave it to the French).

**I realize that I’m talking about movies not comics. Sorry. That’s just where my mind goes with these things. Also, to talk about the WWII comic over the past 20 years is to talk of Garth Ennis and his collaborators.

James Kislingbury is a writer, an artist, and a podcaster. If you like this well enough, then check out his Patreon or just do whatever. 

20 January, 2017

Current Mood:

For some reason this scene is becoming more and more topical as time goes on.

16 January, 2017

Thoughts on Rogue One Part 1 (of Whatever)

(For the next few weeks, I'm going to be pumping out articles on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Originally this was going to be one, big essay, dropped all at once, but as time went on, it became unwieldy. This is what happens when you don't have an editor. Or deadlines. Anyways, here is a portion of my thoughts. It's also one of the more important points that needs to be made about Rogue One, as well. Not that anybody asked me. . . )

CARVE HER NAME WITH LASERS:
Resistance, the Empire, and the DNA of Star Wars

The core of the Original Trilogy of Star Wars is based around the Second World War. As many other influences creep in (Flash Gordon, Akira Kurosawa, Sergio Leone, and Joseph Campbell, to name but a few), the iconography is clear. The language is clear. Star Wars is not just a war story, it's a World War II story.

Rogue One carries on that basic concept. It also, more importantly, moves it forward in several specific ways. Namely, Rogue One is based around a very specific kind of WWII movie. This is done deliberately and understanding where Rogue One comes from is to better understand what it's trying to say. At the very least, it can give you a better appreciation for the kinds of WWII movies that don't involve John Wayne hucking grenades at the Japanese (though, those are a lot of fun, too).

As David Edelstein mentions in his review at Vulture:

Instead, it rehashes the plots of about a thousand World War II and/or Western films in which a brave squadron — a Magnificent Seven, a Dirty Dozen, a Force Five — prepares to sacrifice itself in the name of a greater cause.

From the Imperial uniforms to the use of the word "stormtroopers" to ripping off shots wholesale from The Dam Busters and Triumph of the Will, the Big One is embedded in the DNA of Star Wars. What I find interesting about Rogue One is that it continues the legacy of Star Wars beings about WWII, but it also shifts that theme forwards in two ways.

One is the specific kind of WWII movie that Rogue One is drawing from. The second is that Rogue One is still about war, but it's moved forward into a different war (which is a point that I'll get into in a future entry. . . hopefully). Rogue One is a resistance movie. Even though it's science fiction, even though it belongs to a mythological saga, and even though it was created to pad out Disney's cash reserves, it belongs in the same pantheon as Army of Shadows and Carve Her Name With Pride* (though, admittedly, somewhere towards the back).

A New Hope draws from much louder and more bombastic World War II movies and events. It is as much The Battle of Briton as it is A Hero of a Thousand Faces. It even stars Alex Guinness who would probably be best known for his role in Bridge Over the River Kwai if it wasn't for George Lucas (to Guinness' chagrin).** It's a film that's much more rooted in more fun, more comforting war movies. That is in stark contrast to the kind of film that Rogue One is. By the nature of the genre that Gareth Edwards and his crack team of writers and producers chose, Rogue One has to be a different kind of film, even if it does share a common lineage.

Instead of pilots or soldiers, Rogue One is about resistance agents. Just as you could switch out most of Gold Squadron with anyone from 12 O'Clock High, you could pretty much swap out anyone in the eponymous Rogue One with anyone from Army of Shadows (except for the robot and Saw Gerrera, who is a character that I'll get to in the future, as well. . . ).

So, let's take a look at what makes a WWII movie into a resistance movie, and then let's see how Rogue One compares. Come on. Don't be shy. It'll be fun.

The protagonists aren't professionals.

First and foremost, resistance movies aren't about citizen soldiers. They're about people with their backs to the wall. It's about people that are either out to survive or people that are forced into a fight (which parallels films about collaborators, which is a whole other article).

That's exactly what Jyn Erso is. She doesn't have a choice. While the rest of her team kind of does, none of them are in a position to do the right thing. They have to do it or they'll die. Or somebody else will die. A lot of somebody elses. . . Even Rick in Casablanca fits this mold. None of these people want to be here. The drama comes from the fact that, unlike the American GI in WWII, there is no rear to fall back to. They have to be here, because:

The film takes place in occupied territory.

The enemy's ascendancy is a fait accompli. There's no stopping the invasion. It already happened. This is true of movies about Denmark, France, and Czechoslovakia (you could also get into Eastern Europe, but at that point, you're talking about partisans, which is slightly different. . . I'm getting off topic again. Sorry).

In A New Hope, as much as it takes place within the Empire, the main battle is on Rebel territory (Yavin IV, which appears in Rogue One, along with the B-roll of A New Hope). It also takes place on the frontier, which has Imperial soldiers, but you never get the sense that Tatooine is owned by the Empire. This never happens in Rogue One. They're under the Empire's flag from minute one. The Empire dominates every scene. Which leads to the fact that:

The deck is stacked.

Of course the deck is always stacked. Dramatically it has to be. It also has to be as a matter of course. The bad guys hold all of the cards. They can kidnap your dad, blow up a planet, put you to work in a slave labor camp. They're the Empire, fuck you. We have Darth Vader and a Dracula (we used to have two, but anyways. . . ). What do you have? That's right. Nothing. Fuck you.

The resistance (in this case the Rebel Alliance, not to be confused with the Resistance of The Force Awakens) doesn't have their shit together enough to put up an actual fight. As a result they have to chip around the edges. They have to recruit fighters. Assassinate important Imperial personnel. And when they do fight-- if they do fight-- it's an all-or-nothing proposition. This is true of both the command structure of the Rebels, as well as the individuals that have to go and do the actual dying and fighting.

And, speaking of fighting and dying:

People are going to die.

This isn't always true (I already mentioned Casablanca). But, it's usually true. Resistance members die. It's what they do. You can't build a cause without martyrs and you can't have martyrs without bloodshed.***

There is a lack of romance to a lot of these films. This is perhaps because many of these stories are based on real events. Carve Her Name With Pride is the most obvious example that I can think of. It's the real-life story of Violette Szabo, a British widow that was married to a French soldier. After her husband was killed in combat, she was recruited by the Special Operations Executive to help, as Churchill put it "Set Europe ablaze." She was caught in occupied France and summarily executed by the Germans. Not exactly blockbuster material.

The same goes for other resistance heroes (and secret agents) like Noor Inayat Khan (who doesn't have a movie. Guess why that might be).

In Rogue One-- spoilers-- everybody dies. That's because of who they are. They aren't Star Wars heroes. They're resistance members. You can't beat city hall. And you sure as shit can't beat the Death Star. But that's hardly the point. Which, leads me to the last qualification:

Sorry, but the good guys don't win.

Rogue One is firmly planted in the tradition of Army of Shadows, Uprising, and Carve Her Name With Pride. It takes its influence from those that fought the good fight and lost. In these movies, our heroes don’t end up killing Hitler (usually). They die and not just the veteran on his last tour or the machine-gun loader with a heart of gold or the guy with a girl back home. The heroes will die. All of them. Hard.

Again, this reflects reality (or, at least, the reality of film). For a lot of the resistance, victory wasn't something that they got to see. While equating Star fuckin' Wars with the real-life sacrifices of the men and women of various resistance organizations is glib, it does at least show that the writers behind Rogue One know what they're doing. Violette Szabo was killed. Noor Inayat Khan was killed. So were many others that don't have books or movies based on them.

These people died in the hope that others would outlive them and see their wishes fulfilled. They took risks and died so that somebody else could finish the fight. Rogue One isn't about victory. It's about hope. If there is an untapped vein of WWII sentiment it is that even in the darkest night, at some point dawn will arrive.

Another quote from Winston Churchill, that speaks to the end of Rogue One (and the beginning of Star Wars):

"This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end, but perhaps it is the end of the beginning."

There is only glory in death. In myth. They don't build legends around people that stick around long enough to disappoint you. The real heroes are dead. In that way Rogue One ties in with Joseph Campbell even more than the Original Trilogy. It's a film that is not only about the legends that Campbell talked about. It's a film that is about the myths that we've built up around WWII. . . It might even be a film that's based around the myths that we've built up around George Lucas.

So, go watch some of these old movies (and some of the new ones) and let me know what you think. Or just skip over me and go watch Rogue One with a slightly new appreciation of the movie. Or, you know, the biggest war ever fought for human liberty.

There's another quote I saw today. It doesn't quite fit into all of this. Maybe it's the wrong place for it, but I couldn't pass it up. Because it has to do with how fiction can give us a key into wider experiences. We'll never fight in WWII, but maybe watching movies-- even fantasy films like Star Wars-- can help us understand what that's like. Even a little. That's important. That, arguably, is what art is about.

So, here it is, from President Barack Hussein Obama:

"I found myself better able to imagine what was going on in the lives of people throughout my presidency because of, not just a specific novel, but the act of reading fiction."


FOOTNOTES:

*Fun fact: Carve Her Name With Pride is one of Michael Caine's first screen roles. He plays a POW. He has no lines.

**I'm not sure what the cinematic parallels are for The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi, but I'm sure I won't have to dig for long to find something. Funnily enough, the first movie I can think of that compares to the events in Empire is Dunkirk, which isn't even out yet. Huh. Then again, we also have Atonement, which features the Dunkirk Evacuation and that of course starred-- that's right-- Queen Amadala's stunt double. IT'S EVERYWHERE YOU JUST HAVE TO LOOK FOR IT!

***Strangely enough, this made me think of the Zealots. Resistance movies are almost always WWII movies. This is a result of the fact that rarely in the past two-thousand years have white people (or white-adjacent, like the Jews) ever been in the position of being an underdog except in the case of WWII.

They were a resistance to an evil empire. And the more I think about it, the more badass I think the Zealots were. . . Not that anyone should get carried away about that sort of a thing.

OTHER THOUGHTS:
Also, there's a lot of crossover between movies about resistance and movies about spies. There are also a whole of differences that goes beyond what I want to talk about here. The one main difference that I'll make-- and this might not matter with Rogue One-- is that movies about resistance are almost all

Where as spy movies can take place during any era (and just about any era can involve spies), you don't often

Speaking of related sub-genres, I mentioned movies about collaborators and movies about partisans. Again, there's a lot of similarities and saying that one isn't the other is what the Dutch would call "ant fucking." It's almost too granular of a point, even for me. Even right now. But, since we're here, I think it's important to say why these films are different (if not how). This is simply because WWII, as being one of the most dramatic events in all of world history, is a rich and complex series of world events. To lump movies about the French resistance with movies about French collaborators and to then lump it in with Danish royalists and lump them in with Belorussian partisans is to run roughshod over the actual real-world events that these people went through. As important (or self-important) as films can be, they're often our view into a world that we don't understand. So, even though most people aren't ever going to see Lacombe, Lucien or Come and See, if they do, they can see them knowing that there's a lot more to world history and the human experience than The Guns of the Navarone (which, incidentally, is boring as shit).

Hold on, I’m looking something up. . .

Yup, some asshole used the phrase “Rogue One puts the WARS in Star Wars.” Fuck that guy. And fuck his editor. The weaklings.

James Kislingbury is a writer, a podcaster, and a collector of very specific arms and armor from 1941-1945. If you like this and want to support things like this, take a stroll on over to his Patreon. It supports his podcast and, in turn, supports him. Think about it, why don't you?

04 January, 2017

Naturally, Germany

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before

It was last spring and I getting hammered in a basement bar in Germany. The place was located underneath a hostel named after a Gunter Grass story I had never heard of, much less ever read. I was sitting next to this Australian guy, because I was in a foreign country and of course I was. Of course all of it. I wasn’t ever going to spend a night, alone in Germany not trying to figure out whether or not their beer was better than ours (it is).

And of course Gunter Grass and of course it’s an Australian because it’s always an Australian. I have this sneaking suspicion that if I finally ever got over there, south of the equator, I’d find the entire country emptied out except for a bunch of Aborigines desperate for you not to remind the world that Australia is there and empty. They’ve had a bad run of that before.

And of course we get to talking about politics, me and this Australian (can’t remember his name for the life of me. Feel kind of bad about that, especially nowadays). Despite every reason to come at me (we’re drunk and on his home turf, a bar), he doesn’t. We talk like human beings and we have a good time and get to know each other and understand each other in a way that only two drunk strangers in the middle of nowhere can ever get to know each other. And he brings up Trump. Or I bring up Trump. Because you can’t not bring up Trump. He’s this thing. The Great Orange Juggernaut.
I start talking to him about the whys and hows of it. Not apologia, just yeah, this is us. Not all of us, but us. We’re family. Families can be fucked up and fight and hate each other, but we’re all of a single bloodline for better or for worse. One nation. E plurbus. All that Latin stuff. Don't ask me what any of it is in German.

And I tell him, if we get Trump, we deserve it. Not out of sadism or snideness or because I don’t understand what him or his cabal (then only hypotheticals, boogeymen of the lowest order) want to do to my fellow Americans, but because if we get him, it’s because America is too idealistic to see this shit coming or to stop it. Because of course somebody will see the light of day and do the right thing. Because we’re Americas. Except that, of course, we’re Americans. Fucking up stuff is what we do. Not seeing things coming is what we do. We're the nation that gave Jackass three movies.

So, yeah, of course we got Trump. Of course of course. The American experience is built on the belief that we should get better than we deserve. Whether its your great grandpa escaped the Cossacks or your grandma coming north for work or my own dumb family looking to get into mining or for some place with enough space to pop out ten kids at a go. We’re dreamers. We believe that all of the Indian killing and slaving and civil wars and basic depredations that we inflict on each other aren’t our character, rather that they’re somehow exceptions. And maybe they are (but probably not).

So, of course Trump. Because that’s the world we built. I don’t know if this bullshit has come home to roost, but it’s gotta go somewhere. It's what happens when you don't plan for the future. When you don't see these things coming. When you've heard this story before, but you refuse to remember how it ends. Maybe. I don’t know.

Thinking on this, I started thinking on something else that’s been going through my head this past year or so and I hate it almost as much as I hate the fact that the next time I’m blotto in a subterranean biergarten I’m going to have to either apologize and beg for forgiveness. It’s a quote from True Detective Season 2 and I hate that it makes more sense to me than anything Latin that I’ve heard in the past five years.

“I strong suspect we get the world we deserve.”

That bullshit cowpoke was right. We get the world we deserve. We always do. Even if we don’t see it. And maybe that’s the most disappointing thing in this whole goddamn mess.

Except it isn’t.

And it wasn’t. I woke up late with only a bit of a hangover. Just enough to want to sleep in a bit longer. After that I got a breakfast of hardboiled egg and Redwall-esque lunch meats and got a street car down to the Reichstag. I had myself a balmy walking tour. Saw the Rhine. Saw the Holocaust Memorial. Saw the wall. And I was walking along, the feeling of deja vu suddenly hit me like a brick. It was like I had walked over somebody's grave. As it turns out, it was Hitler's. Because of course it was. Ugly apartment building. Crowded with tourists. And the Fuhrerbunker. Because of I accidentally walk into one of the most evil places in the world (which, as I recall, had a tennis court across the street).

Then I moved on. I met up with the friends that I was looking for. I got a coffee. I saw Checkpoint Charlie and I moved on with my life and walked all the way back to Mitte to my hostel and proceded to start drinking again. Because, fuck it, I was on vacation.

Sorry. You’ve probably heard that one before.


30 November, 2016

Warobouros

THOUGHTS ON CALL OF DUTY: INFINITE WARFARE

Whoever decided to make Call of Duty into an annual franchise is a madman.

The most interesting thing is how Activision-- in conjunction with three different studios-- has persistantly forced themselves into making the simple art of murder into a new and fresh experience year after year. Considering the rivals they seem to have left in their wake (and the rivals that seem to struggle to compete year after year), it's amazing that we're still here, in the year of our Lord 2016 still talking about these dumb games. Plus, Osama bin Laden has been dead for years, so trying to tap into whatever anxiety college-age males have about society is also an interesting endeavor in amatuer psychiatry.

With that said, I am a madman, as well. I've played through every single one of these games since Modern Warfare in 2007 (in fact, it's the primary reason that I bought an X-Box 360). As often as I say "I think I'm done with these games," November rolls around every year and I find myself with a six pack of Kirin Ichibans staring at a Red Box.

So here we are again. I played through Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. It's pretty good. Here are more thoughts about it-- Then again, maybe I'm not the guy to consult. After all, I'm the idiot that liked Ghosts.
In space there will be generic white dudes.

SO SAY WE ALL

I didn't think that Battlestar Galactica would be the direction Call of Duty would head in, but I'm glad they did. Because Battlestar Galactica is dope as hell.

Instead of ripping off Tom Clancy or the exploits of Richard Marchinko, this time around, they've decided that late 2000's sci-fi is the way to go. It's a good fit. Space is an appropriately dangerous and grim place. It's an environment where a pin-prick hole can kill you just as quick as automatic gunfire. But also there's both. There's no room to fuck around. . .  But also space is a really fun place to fuck around in. While BSG was never about the joy of duking it out in space, Infinite Warfare does convey the high-stakes thrills of pulling off something as impossible as not dying from literally everything at once. . . in space.

Unlike BSG, Infinite Warfare actually has a strong ending. A poignant one. Maybe too poignant. I haven't felt this way about the ending of an FPS since Medal of Honor-- Again, that is a distinction that nobody else has probably drawn about this game or any other. There is a grimness to Infinite Warfare that goes beyond the previous CoD games. Yeah, they've nuked you and shot you and shot you and blown you up and shot you again, but there is a diminishing returns to all of that. Infinite Warfare is different. Like BSG, the horror of war in space isn't set dressing, it is a thesis. It says, in a way that needs to be restated, emphatically, ever so often, that war, war is a real son of a bitch.

So say we all.

IS THAT APPLESEED?















Yeah, that's an Appleseed.

Good work, Infinity Ward.

Good work, Ethan.

Anyways, I mention this because the art design of these games has been all over the place. Specifically, Treyarch and their Black Ops series (especially II and III) seem to have all of the wit of a mid-90's CGI football commercial. Everything is all bulk and pads. The few robots that they had in BlOps II and III were ugly, boxy messes in the same vein (personally, I thought the robots in BlOps II looked like the juggernauts from the Warhammer universe, but without being some kind of hell-rhino, which, arguably, is the entire appeal of the Warhammer juggernauts).

Even the knives are needlessly complicated. Just look at how dumb these things look.

Who decided to complicate what knives look like?

I mean, besides the bad guy from Cobra.


Also, how come nobody had fucking sleeves in Black Ops II? Ugh . . .

Infinite Warfare* is a break away from that. They went whole hog into the future and they designed a world that both makes sense on an aesthetic level and makes sense on a mythological level. It's a consummate world that looks really neat. It's a world that fits in more alongside something like Deus Ex than it does Modern Warfare.

I'm also glad that I get to talk about Appleseed in public.

Next up: My opinions about Battle Angel Alita.

GHOSTS OF GHOSTS

As I said earlier: I was the guy that liked Ghosts. If anybody ever asks you "What kind of an asshole liked that game" you can tell them "It was James Kislingbury. It was him. Let's go stop him."

I liked it. But, again, see above: I'm a madman. But, before you burn me at the stake, hear me out (I mean, you've come this far)--

There are two main things that I liked about Ghosts. The first is that it took place in Southern California and the American West.

Maybe it's a masochistic kind of narcissism, but it's cool to fight a bunch of enemy militia members in a location that's less than a mile from my work. It's also nice to see Santa Monica get blown up, because fuck Santa Monica. Also, that game had a dog. You had to drag that dog to a medevac. I loved that little guy.

What's interesting is that it presaged the direction that first person shooters. Games have moved on from the "modern warfare" end of things.  The market has been saturated for a good ten years and groups like ISIS are too real to have fun with (and, again, we shot UBL years ago and it was awesome). Less successful imitators like Spec Ops: The Line and the Medal of Honor reboot have also probably pushed developers into safer markets.

So, they've gone in two directions: The Future (see Titanfall 1 and 2, Destiny, DOOM) or The Past (Battlefield One, Verdun, Wolfenstein: The New Order) or both at the same time (see: Black Ops II). This isn't a perfect analysis, but you see my point?

Then there was Ghosts. Ghosts came out on current gen and previous gen systems. It was split. So were its themes. It couldn't break away from the series' previous trappings, having neither been futuristic enough or stripped down enough to really matter. It was a game that

Infinite Warfare completes this loop. We're finally in the future. Black Ops II and III didn't quite do it and Ghosts was too trapped in the past. Now here we are: Space ships. Space marines. Orks. Mars. Lasers. You know, the future-ass future. And it's kind of neat.

THE TITLE

It's a really good title**.

Fight me.

SHOOTING PEOPLE IS FUN

Yeah, some ten years since the first Call of Duty, it's still fun to murder fools over the internet. It's also fun to murder robots. And robots pretending to be people. And people pretending to be robots. . . You get the picture. As a shooter, Infinite Warfare comes through and delivers the kind of top notch polish and shine that you expect out of a Call of Duty. While that sounds like damning with faint praise, consider how tight Modern Warfare felt when it first came out. It still feels good.

As much as I love Titanfall 2 (which is my go-to for multiplayer this season), that's a game that just doesn't quite have the fine sheen that this game does. Which doesn't so much ruin one game or make the other as it does make me appreciate just how much money Activision poured into this game. It's there. It looks like it. It feels like it.

If nothing else, the economics of Infinite Warfare should leave an impression.

SO, WHAT ELSE?

What I think is going to be fun is seeing what the hell they're going to do with the next installment (which falls on Treyarch this time around). It isn't like they can go even farther (further?) into the future and any half-steps at this point better be well thought out, because nobody is going to go back to the farm after they've done a double-jump into a wall run.

Personally, I'm hoping for some kind of historical remix weirdness. Sending soldiers through quantum tunnels to fight in alternate historical time lines with modern weapons. Like William Gibson's The Peripheral, but vastly dumber. Or go back to Nam. I'd be okay with that. Or cyberpunk. You know, like those other William Gibson novels. All of this works. I'll even take a game with a difference engine in it.

Gimme that dumb stuff, Treyarch. I know you can do it.

Give me Space Reznov. And, for that matter, Infinity Ward needs to bring back Captain Price. Space Price. Thawed out to beat up the future, because they don't build MEN like they used to. Or mustaches. The aliens took our mustaches and we need 'em back Price.

At least somebody give me that dog from Ghosts back. Can't be that hard. . .

James Kislingbury writes, draws, and makes podcasts. He also hates updating his log line. That's what this is, right? Aw, who cares?

*The more I think about it, the more I realize how cool of a game Advance Warfare was. That game did a lot of really neat things that I don't think people appreciated. At least not that I noticed. I tend to stay off of the internet, because it's a freaking full-time nightmare zone.

**I mean, yeah, it's kind of a "Fuck you" to Sledgehammer and Advance Warfare, but what are you going to do? Infinity Ward was there first and it's a really good title.

08 November, 2016

An Addendum

The monster won.

Hate won. Ugliness won. Lying won. Spite won. Fear won. Desperation won. Revanchism won. The wrong person won. A lot of bad things are coming with him.

There's a lot of things that we could talk about now. Why such a man could get so many votes. How it came as a surprise. Why she didn't win. I don't know. A million other things. Frankly. I'm at a loss. Smarter people than myself are at a loss and I don't think they're as many beers into the evening as I am (I'm working on my third and it's Stella, so I think I'm good).

I am at a loss.

Still, I stand by what I said. Tomorrow is going to mark the beginning of a long project. It's not the project that's going to be about fucking up this man and his hostility towards basic human rights and democracy. That is only one aspect of what we have to do. We have to help out our fellow man. Not just the ones that vote like us, but all of them, because obviously they're hurting too. They're going to hurt worse by the time this thing has run its course. And it will run its course. We have to get to work building each other and our country back up as much as we have to tear down the things they're going to build to destroy us. And they will try to destroy us. We're going to survive and we're going to do it by being smarter, wiser, and better.

And I don't know.

We're all in this together. All of us. E plurbus unum. You know this.

Things will change. The anger will die off and his supporters will be left out in the cold again. Spurned, used, abandoned. It is what he does. When the tables turn and they learn what they have elected into office, we have to be there to bring them along with us. It's a long road and we're going to get there together. I believe that. I have to. Because if I don't, then I don't know what I stand for. I don't know why I am against this man. If we don't believe that we're together, only then does he really and truly win.

As I said before, they do not get to win.

Tomorrow, I am going to get up, hungover and with dread in my gut and a bitterness knowing that in the other room my dad is actively cheering on the destruction of the country he proports to care about. And I am going to get to work. I am going to find charities. I am going to find organizations. I am going to talk to people that need my help (or don't need my help or don't even want my help). I am going to get to work. That's just me. That's what I have to do.

I'll be looking, but I am all ears. I'm here to learn. I'm here to help.

I swear I'll get to

Upsidedown States of America

As of my writing this, neither side has lost. Neither Trump has lost, nor has America lost. Not yet. It isn't looking good.

I am tentatively holding on to the delusion of hope. I'm clinging to it. Not that Hillary will win. Even if she does, she still has to contend with 40% of America that are okay with a profoundly unstable and ignorant man in office (to say nothing of his more specific biases). I'm hopeful because this is still America.

And in America the bad guys do not get to win.

Even when this ends, and if it looks like it's over, nothing is over. Even if it's over, it isn't over. As Barack Obama said tonight, "The sun will rise in the morning." And it will. And it will again and again and again. There's a hope in that. There has to be. For as long as the decent people of the world, on every side of the political spectrum draw breath, we can still fight this cancer that has slowly spread across this country. Despair won't beat it. Despair is what built it.

And fuck that. To quote somebody else, long lost to the Internet's interlocking spheres of re-purposing, it isn't fair that Donald Trump can look in the mirror and feel good about himself and you look in the mirror and you feel terrible.

There's another quote, one we all cling to, one built into the myth of this country's fourth estate. Or at least, it is amongst the pantheon of liberal America. It's from Edward R Murrow. It's from a longer speech, which you can easily watch on your own. The line that sticks out to me, though is this:

We are not descended from fearful men.

It's a beautiful sentiment. It's also a fantasy. Of course we are. We are descended from Indian-killing, witch-burning, slave-driving, segregating, lynching men. We are also descended from men that stood by the wayside for centuries while these things went on.

We are also descended from heroes. Great men and women of all shades, all genders, all religions, all sexualities. People like Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman. Clifford Clinton and Abraham Lincoln. Audy Murphy and Joshua Chamberlain. Harvey Milk and Mary Harris Jones. There are victims, as well. Names and places and people that are too numerous to name. They do not deserve to be lumped in with the stains that cover our history. But the fearful men's blood is in our own. It's alive tonight. It's speaking to us.

Elections have always been carnivals of horrors. They rarely seem to be civil, they only ever seem to be less terrible. The past two elections were rather tame compared to 2004. Especially when compared to 2000. The fearful men were at work there, as well. It's always been this way. From LBJ back to Andrew Jackson. Fear and loathing is an intrinsic part of the American process.

Which is why the American experiment is so expectional. It is that despite the worst of the worst being allowed to live amongst us and occasionally rule over us, we prosper. What makes America exceptional is that despite

Donald Trump is not strong enough to break our Union. Neither is his lapdog Mike Pence. Nor are the cowards in congress or the criminals advising him. He does not get to do that. They do not get to do that. Neither do his supporters. To us liberals it might seem like the United States has been turned upside down. It hasn't. It's doing what it is always doing. It is carrying on. It is continuing an ugly, uneven legacy. Despite that, it will work.

Tomorrow the sun will rise. We will know the kind of men that live among us. And then we get to work.

We donate. We volunteer. We march. We picket. We demonstrate. We become allies. We vote. We fight. We act like decent human beings. We tell ourselves that we might be descended from fearful men, but we do not have to be.

Because this is America, damnit.

That means something.

It is up to us to determine what that means.

18 October, 2016

Stomping His Way Back Into Your Heart

It's nice to see that Godzilla is back. Besides the 2014 Legendary Pictures version of Godzilla (which apparently exists in the same universe as their new King Kong movie, because shared universes is what films have been missing these past one-hundred years. . .), we have a new Godzilla from Toho Studios in the form of Shin Godzilla. It's about damn time. In this world stacked to the brim with dystopian fiction and escapist superhero movies, it's nice to see the grandfather of all anxiety pictures back.

It's also nice to see Godzilla back to his original form: A mix of existentially terrifying and sublimely ridiculous.

Shin Godzilla plays out as a healthy mix of Dr. Strangelove and United 93 if they were both about an atomic war-god raised from the sea. It's as much a political satire as it is a drama of procedure. . .It's also about a giant lizard fucking shit up. These three themes bounce back and forth off of each other, making big laughs in dramatic scenes and ratcheting up tension in what amounts to an impenetrable board meeting.

But also, man are those board room scenes good.

Shin Godzilla is a lot of fun and you get the sense that the people making it had a lot of fun as well, which is how it should be, because why should being involved with Godzilla ever be boring? It should be joyful, damnit.

One of the ways that the film manages to have fun, but also convey the byzantine inanity of the Japanese government is with the amount of super-imposed job titles it throws at you. Every character in the film is introduced (in very large typography), who they are and why they are there. This happens again and again and, considering that they're on screen at the same time as the subtitles, it's a decision that is clearly meant to baffle more than it is meant to elucidate. This distinct sense of confusion adds to the drama, as we have about as much idea about who these people are as they have about what Godzilla is (we, of course, know exactly what Godzilla is). Fighting Godzillas, as it turns out, is a confusing and terrifying existence.

What's more interesting is that the film feels like a live action anime (which makes sense considering Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi made their name working on Neon Genesis Evangelion). It's a film cut through with rapid insert shots that energize its scenes and B-roll that give it a sense of place, which comes in handy when those places start blowing up and catching fire. 

Yes, it has scenes where tanks impotently fire at Godzilla for 10 minutes
It even seems to use the same font as Neon Genesis Evangelion. Say what you want about that series, it had a bomb-ass font.

Shin Godzilla is a film that manages to be funny in the way that you want a kaiju film to be, but doesn't ever tip over into camp. While a lot of fun is had at the expense of old Japanese politicians shouting "Way to go, USA!" as American B2 bombers flatten entire sections of Tokyo, you still actually manage to care about the action going on on screen. You want people to get out okay. You want Godzilla to be destroyed. You want your POV characters to do the right thing. And in all that you also get a lot of good laughs at the expense of everything but the film itself.

It's a complex move to pull off and a lot of Godzilla movies don't pull that off. Even as a fan, a lot of Godzilla and kaiju movies are movies you laugh at. They're schlocky, silly B-movies that seem to have been primarily built with psychotropic users in mind. They're rarely ever good films. What makes Shin Godzilla stand out, though, is that you can watch it and laugh at how ridiculous this situation is without actually laughing at the film. Instead, you feel for these characters and this world and you want to see more of it, because nobody should have to live through anything as surreal as a Godzilla attack-- Nor should they have to suffer through a Japanese ministerial meeting. It's a testament to the film's direction that it can play both of these cards at the same time. I mean, that's what movies are supposed to be, right?

I mean, as much as I love War of the Gargantuas, sometimes I want to watch a good movie about giant monsters fucking shit up. I'm sure everyone can agree with me on this one.

Ultimately, if Shin Godzilla is about anything, it's about grace under pressure and not buckling to perceived wisdom. It's an argument against doing the easy or the obvious thing. It's about how heroics is less about who hits the hardest or the fastest and more about who has the resolve to stick around and make the hard decisions. It's a pragmatic lesson that I would cast as being a very Japanese solution if I didn't think that we could use more of that in America right now. . .

Speaking to my friend (who lives in Japan), it's become clear to me that there's a much more literal connection of Godzilla to the real world. Namely, Shin Godzilla is a satire write large of the Japanese government's reaction to the Fukushima Meltdown. While that seems obvious in hindsight, it is a testament of the quality of the film that you don't need to know the specifics to get something out of the picture. Like the original Godzilla, there is something strangely universal about seeing a giant lizard blow up Tokyo.



James Kislingbury is a writer, podcaster, and giant monster enthusiast. You can listen to his movie podcast here. You can listen to his "news" podcast here. He's still looking for a working Marklin Rifle. Anyways, enjoy.

07 October, 2016

BLADERUNNER 2049 NEWS

Is that. . . Is that a new Blade Runner gun on the left? Next to the M2019 PKD Detective Special?



YOU TELL ME

25 September, 2016

Maybe this isn't the best time, but. . .

I was just thinking: My birthday is coming up.



And this can be yours for the low, low price of 447 Confederate dollars (plus Lincoln's cut).

Just putting that out there. . .

05 July, 2016

Science Fiction That Doesn't Involve the Predator!

I'm sure I've said this before, but, considering the amount that I drink and how rarely I write on this blog, maybe it needs restating-- We're living in a goddamn golden age of science fiction. I mean, that can be said of media, in general (with the possible exception of movies, which seem to be stuck in Saturday morning cartoon mode, but anyways. . .), but it can be said especially of science fiction comic books.

Between Low, East of West, Wild's End, and Prophet, the past few years have been very good for nerds like me. Foremost amongst those comic books though, is the Fionna Staples and Brian K. Vaughn vehicle Saga.

Just read that book. Go. Do it now if you haven't already. I mean, unless you're a kid, in which case, you should not be reading this comic. Or this blog. Go play Minecraft. What are you doing? Get out of here.

Man, Saga is really, really good.

Saga works because it seems to be having fun with the world that it has built. It's got magic, wooden space ships, and seal boys with giant axes. It's a silliness that also gives the book gravitas when it shifts gears into darker, uglier subjects. It's a back and forth that never feels out of place and never throws the reader off balance. It is a silly world where terrible things happen and despite the smart-ass liar cats, it's a world that reads as true.

What it doesn't take for granted or play around with is how seriously it takes its characters. There is a real care taken to how the characters interact with each other and how they sound and how they read. The same can be said of the art. Staples and Vaughn are knocking this book out of the park with every issue that they complete.

That is not to say that Saga is not an intensely silly book. Because it is. It's very silly. It's about kids and has an immense amount of sex in it. I could not think of two things more diametrically opposed that can bring the same amount of levity. Because, man, kids are pretty dumb and adults are even dumber.

Saga has a life to it that few other comics of any genre have, and I cannot wait until Volume 7 comes out in trade paperback. At the very least, it'll help me get through another miserable family holiday.

James Kislingbury is a writer and a podcast. You can read him on this dumb blog and you can listen to him here.