08 December, 2017

I. . . Wait. What?



WHY DOES HER FACE LOOK LIKE THIS



WHAT DID YOU DO TO HER FACE



WHY DID YOU DO THAT TO HER FACE

03 December, 2017

Your Buddy Dahmer

A REVIEW OF MY FRIEND DAHMER (2017)

True crime is having a moment. Online there's Serial and Criminal and My Favorite Murder and White Wine, True Crime, then there's Mindhunter (directed and partially produced by a guy famous for serial killer movie). I talk to ex-girlfriends about murders. I can’t sit down at dinner with my folks without Forensic Files coming on (mind you, this is after Frasier, who is also having a moment). It's only natural that Jeffery Dahmer would finally get his turn in the spotlight. 

My Friend Dahmer is an adaptation of the graphic novel of the same name. As a film, it’s a compelling blend of a portrait of a young madman with a regular horny teen comedy. And while those things sound anathema on paper, as you watch My Friend Dahmer you realize that these two things are actually closer fits than you might realize. That they might actually belong together and that the strangeness doesn’t come from the juxtaposition, but rather from the fact that nobody ever thought to pair these two things together in such a straightforward, forthright manner. More than that, the true horror of My Friend Dahmer isn’t how unusual a serial killer can be, but rather how perfectly mundane this man can be.

My Friend Dahmer performs an incredibly balancing act. It manages to make a sicko like Jeffery Dahmer into a sympathetic character without isolating him from the monster that he will become. You can feel sorry for the monster without feeling sorry for his monstrosities. It does not so much ask you to feel a certain way as it makes you aware that there are things in this world that are unknowable. There is never going to be a truly satisfying answer for a man like Jeffery Dahmer. The triumph of My Friend Dahmer is that it turns the annecdotal-- a year in high school-- into a project that is much more meaningful.

My Friend Dahmer is clever in that it never seeks to be clever. It simply is. Unlike the epic odes to ornate serial killers from David Fincher or the Millennium Trilogy, My Friend Dahmer is as straight forward and as po’ faced as can be. That’s too it’s credit. Marc Meyers and his cast and crew take what could very well be a crass or a cliched piece of entertainment and they made something unique and interesting that I cannot stop thinking about. It doesn’t hurt that every performance from top to bottom is pitch perfect. It's this careful combination of light and dark that allow the movie to be a simple story about a screwed up kid in high school, but also a study of Man's darkest urges.

My Friend Dahmer is a movie that is about cruelty by casual and active, both intentional and unintentional. In places, it's also really funny, and occasionally, it's even a little touching. It’s a movie that doesn’t judge and doesn’t preach and doesn’t bother to tart up what is already an incredible story. It simply stands there and shows life as it was. As it should not have been. Looking at the world, looking at movies now, sometimes you don’t need to explain everything. Sometimes the world enough is its own explanation.


James Kislingbury is a writer, a host, and a convicted criminal. You can listen to his news podcast. You can listen to his cult movie podcast. You can donate to both podcasts. But, seriously, don't try to blow up Margaret Thatcher, guys.

02 November, 2017

Some Words About That New Jackie Chan Picture

A REVIEW ON THE FOREIGNER (2017)



This year has been a real whirlwind when it comes to delivering on trailers. On the one hand, there were pleasant surprises like Logan and It, as well as Blade Runner 2049, a movie that had no right being as excellent as it was considering the expectations behind it. On the other end of the spectrum, there were movies like Atomic Blonde and Alien: Covenant, both of which failed to deliver on my ever-so-finnicky expectations. Unfortunately The Foreigner falls into the latter half. It had a great trailer, a great director (Martin Campbell), and a solid cast. Despite that, the end result is a middling, dull in parts, and, most frustratingly, it does not deliver on the magic of its premise. 


I mean, how do you make a movie about Old Man Jackie Chan beating the fuck out of the Irish Republican Army? In what world does that fail to be the best movie ever made? Hell, if they handed the script off to another director and called for a do-over, I'd pay to see it all over again. 

The Foreigner is most interesting when it hints at the world of politics and the world of terrorism and law enforcement being a constant struggle of compromises. It presents the murky world of British governance and old Irish grudges as being two worlds, intertwined. With the IRA it presents a world where difficult ideals are easily undercut by radical purists and where even the finest of beliefs can be undone by expediency. On the other hand, you have the "Brits," who only care about results. And then you have Jackie Chan, who can build bombs. Which is nice. I kind of wish they made the movie about him.

That, ultimately, politics is a business of relationships, and without an underlying trust and affection, it does not matter what your end goals are. Nor do your tactics. In the world of The Foreigner, character is destiny. In all of this, Jackie Chan’s mourning father is the only man of pure purpose and of pure drive and, as such, he’s the only one who seems to walk out of the movie unscathed (of course, not literally, mind you). Of course, that’s the movie’s problem. That Jackie Chan beating up dumb paddies with a step ladder isn’t the main draw of the film. It's Irish internecine politics. The fact that I, James Kislingbury, do not care about a movie where in the complexities of modern Irish radical nationalism is on display is a problem.

And, frankly, it beggars belief to take the IRA seriously in any way, shape, or form in the year of our Lord 2017. Maybe it plays better in the UK and in Ireland, where these stories hit much closer to home. Maybe they even play better in China or in Asia where the IRA is just a series of letters. But who knows? 

The IRA always felt like a safe stand-in for more deadly international terror groups (and more controversial ones). Don't want to piss off the Palestinians or the Saudis? Throw the IRA in there. The Red Army Faction doesn't exist any more? Throw in the IRA. De Gaulle is out of office? Throw in the IRA. Get Sean Bean on the phone or some poor dead toe-rag from Game of Thrones and call it a casting session. I mean, whose feelings are we going to hurt? Plus, everybody knows who they are. Easy-peasy, lemon squeezy.

Plus, how bad can the IRA be? They tried to blow up Margaret Thatcher. That's a noble endeavor. It’s arguably Alzheimer’s one saving grace.

Ultimately, The Foreigner seems to be caught between several different movies, each of which succeeds where this one fails. You have the staid, idealist Boy Scoutery of Patriot Games and its IRA villains. You have Campbell’s own Casino Royale, which is a perfect film on every level. Lastly, you have Old Jackie’s chef character reflected in Clint Eastwood’s Best Picture winner, Unforgiven. Then, lastly, there’s Edge of Darkness, a movie so close to Martin Campbell’s heart, that he made it twice, once as a mini-series in England and another as a feature in America (staring Ray Winstone and slightly pre-freak-out Mel Gibson). But the problem isn’t necessarily that this movie isn’t as good as those. The problem is that each of those movies is great because they succeeded in being unique and being good in a unique way.


The Foreigner isn’t bad enough to be depressing. If it looks like anything, it looks like itself. Its broken, grey shape is best reflected in its titular character, brilliantly played by Jackie Chan, as a broken down, hobbled old man who had one good thing hidden inside of him. The one difference is that Jackie Chan and his character actually came through.

James Kislingbury is a writer, a host, and, unfortunately, a protestant. You can listen to his news podcast. You can listen to his cult movie podcast. You can donate to both podcasts. But, seriously, don't try to blow up Margaret Thatcher, guys.

30 October, 2017

Alright, gimme this movie, too

03 October, 2017

On Tom Petty

This one hurts. Tom Petty is one of my favorite musicians of all time. He's right up there with Nick Cave and David Bowie and Johnny Cash and a whole bunch of other people I don't even want to think about right now. Hearing that he’s gone, that there won’t be any new songs or concerts hurts. That’s it. Done. More than any other artist, it hurts, because Tom Petty was a part of my life in a way that nobody else ever was. More than anyone ever will be.

But, I’ll start with a lighter note: The first time I ever consciously heard Tom Petty was on The Simpsons. You know the episode. Homer’s waiting for his background check to clear so he can pick up his gun. Whatever it was about that song, it stuck with me. Eighth grade, I didn’t
There was something about this Tom Petty guy.

The first concert I ever went to was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I went with my friend and my older sister and it was amazing. And not amazing because, oh boy, a concert! Because I hate people and I hate concerts, but it was amazing, because holy shit, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers could play.

The real reason I love Tom Petty is that he probably saved my life.

It could be that I’m overstating that, but Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is anchored to one of the worst times in my life. Looking back on it, I don’t think I was ever in any serious danger of going off of the deep end. I don’t think I would have killed myself or gotten into drugs or made any rash decisions and I don’t think I would have lost control of my life in any serious or irreversible way. But back then I didn’t know that. It was a bad time.

Tom Petty made that time manageable. It made sense of things and it managed to make them into four-minute stories about love and loss and Los Angeles and a lot of other things that I didn't quite get at the time. But Tom did. The Heartbreakers did. It made them real in a way that nobody else had taught me up to that point. I could deal with that. I could see it. Tom Petty knew what I was going through in a way that I don't know that anyone else did. And I don't mean that I related to his music. I mean that he understood what I was going through. I mean that literally. I don't know how or why or by what means, but I know it's true.

I got over it. I figured things out. I forgave some people. I forgave myself. I realized what I had done wrong and what I could do better. And day by day, I got over it. And I realized that it wasn’t so bad and I got back on my two feet and I moved forward.

Looking back on that time, I can’t imagine it without Tom Petty. Not “How could I have done it without him?” No. It could never have happened without him. It’s like looking back on a memory and wondering what it would be like without oxygen. Maybe Tom Petty didn’t save my life, I don't know. What I do know is that the person that I am now, the guy that got through all of that bullshit and came out the other side does not exist, cannot exist without Tom Petty.

There's a lot of stuff I can exist without. Tom Petty is not one of them.

An even lighter aside: I’ve only ever done two drugs. Weed and salvia. Weed is fine. Salvia is not. Salvia sucks. It’s like weed, but with a stronger kick up front and a longer headache out back. It’s bad. There’s a longer story here, but I’ll cut to the relevant point: Riding out a bad salvia high, I decided to go to bed early, walking from a friend’s apartment through rain that may or may not have been imagined and crashed on my bed. Instead of letting the bad vibes get me, I did the only thing I could think of doing: Listened to Tom Petty.

It’s what I’m going to do right now.

It’s what I was planning on doing anyways.

It’s what I’m still going to be doing in the future.

There’s a quote from RZA that I think of every once and a while, half as a joke, half as a way to get into a joke, and it goes like this “How can hip-hop be dead if Wu Tang is forever?”

How can Tom Petty be dead if his music is forever?


14 September, 2017

Gimme Them Movies

Just give 'em to me now. I don't care if Ridley Scott has been burning me one movie after another for the past ten years, I want them, I want them now.



08 June, 2017

This too is The Aesthetic





I JUST WANT TO FEEL NICE THINGS AGAIN HELP ME OUT GENTLE JAPANESE CARTOONS!

02 May, 2017

KONG, VIET KONG

KONG, VIET KONG
Or "I Lost a Lot of Friends in That Ape Movie"


I’ve been thinking about Vietnam lately.

Not that it’s ever far from my mind, but I’ve really been thinking about it recently. I put my iPod on shuffle and Johnny Cash’s “Drive On” came on and all of the sudden, a well-spring of memories popped back up for me. I remembered Platoon. I remembered that Ken Burns has a documentary coming out this year. I remembered the first two years of college where everything seemed to somehow point back to the 1960's (even though most of our heroes from that era seemed hell-bent on escaping their current time frame). And I remembered Kong: Skull Island. And I remembered that Kong is an opportunity to talk about war, art, and movies. In short, Johnny Cash reminded me of something that was never far beneath the surface.

It’s been a long while since a Vietnam War movie has been in the theaters. The last movie I can even remember mentioning Nam by name was No Country For Old Men and that was only in passing and ten years ago (and even then I might be confusing that with the book). We’re overdue for a Vietnam War movie. We’re also overdue to talk about the damn thing. I’m glad Skull Island came along. It’s a reason for me to talk about Nam and it’s also a reason for Nam to surface in the culture, again.
Jordan Vogt-Robers wears his movie nerd credentials on his sleeves. Mark Kermode mentions it in his review of the film. Hell, Vogt-Roberts says as much in this interview (which I highly recommend that everybody read, because, man, that boy is a nerd). Even a cursory view of the trailer and its Huey choppers choppers silhoutted by the sun summon up memories of Apocalypse Now (or at least its poster). Beyond film allusions (beyond it just being a reboot of a remake of a remake), the film directly quotes from the Vietnam War. Brie Larson's character is an amalgamation of Catherine Leroy and Dickey Chapelle. If Vogt-Roberts is willing to bring Pokemon into the text of his film, then I believe he is also willing to put the work into discussions about the actual war he's making a movie about.
  
The director chose Nam for a reason. He had something to say. Yes, Skull Island is a monster movie, but even the loweliest genre film can say something about our society at large (example: Godzilla, Monsters, every single really bad and really good zombie movie). It matters because it speaks to our wider culture, our wider society. 

Giant Monster Movies have always existed to speak to something larger and more important that the existential threat of giant monsters. The original Godzilla spoke to the trauma of nuclear war and the two most recent Godzilla's spoke to environmental disasters and government inaction (or both).

Skull Island is mostly about a giant ape wrecking shit, but it also isn't a coincidence that it is centered around one of the great clusterfucks in American history-- one that we still haven't learned the right lessons from. I mean, look around you. Look at the news. You think we've learned a goddamn thing about dropping bombs on places that we don't understand in the past sixty years?

It also indicates that we’re officially at the point where we can just throw giant apes and space people at this tragedy and nobody is going to cry foul. Kong goes a step further in that it isn’t Vietnam War imagery, it is literally the Vietnam War (or, you know, a film version of it. Let’s not split hairs here, Borges). More than that, as rich as the art design of Rogue One (another film that took cues from 'Nam), it doesn't quite work. There is a dissonance there. Kong: Skull Island succeeds where Rogue One misfires, because Vietnam War imagery and symbolism is succinct, meaningful, and perfectly applied to the story that it is trying to tell.
  
It’s not only a morally grey war (with a morally grey conclusion), it means everything. Kong does a good job reminding us of the fact that Vietnam War comes with a lot of cultural baggage above and beyond the actual war itself. It literally blares the subtext out of loudspeakers at the audience.* It blares "THIS IS A FILM ABOUT FILMS ABOUT VIETNAM. ALSO IT IS ABOUT VIETNAM. KIND OF A HEADFUCK, ISN'T IT? BUT YOU'RE JUST LISTENING TO BLACK SABBATH, SO FUCK IT."

Vietnam isn’t Vietnam. It’s The Beatles. It’s Bob Dylan. It’s Richard Nixon. It’s Hunter S. Thompson. It’s MLK. It’s RFK. It’s Indian’s Rights and Women’s Rights and Jane Fonda posing on an AA gun. It’s John McCain being captured (and coming back and running for president). It’s Donald Trump dodging the draft. It’s The Wonder Years. It’s Jimmy Carter forgiving our draft dodgers. It's the Things They Carried. It's the things they carried. It’s my alcoholic uncle that didn’t see 60 because of what he saw over there.  It's forgetting and remembering and rediscovering these things. And it's a metaphor. And it's in our bones whether we know it or not.

Vietnam is a choice and it’s a choice that is reflected in the substance Kong: Skull Island. In that film, as in Vietnam, there are very few actual good guys. There are bad guys with problems, problems that might be good guys, a bad guy that becomes a good guy (off screen), and people that have bad things happen to them. There are also natives that, thankfully, aren’t bizarre caricatures. Like Vietnam, there are no winners, only survivors.

It’s why seeing Vietnam War imagery in Rogue One struck me as being so dissonant. Star Wars has always been a tale of black and white morality, with big, clear lessons to be learned. Good Versus Evil. A fantasy. Vietnam is about nobody being the good guy. Nobody being the winner. It’s a signifier that is at odds with the foundations of Star Wars.

Kong has no such baggage. It’s a property that exists in a genre that was specifically created to serve as a metaphor. It would be more uncharacteristic to be about how awesome giant monsters are than it would be for it to be about Vietnam. Metaphors and metatext and all of that jazz are what these movies were meant to be. They’re the pill wrapped in a piece of cheese. The message is hidden in the medium, but also the medium is the message.

I saw a Marx quote from one of my good commie friends on twitter. Marx says:

And by the same token the whole principle of socialism is concerned only with one side, namely the reality of the true existence of man. We also have a concern with the other wise, i.e. with man's theoretical existence, and make his religion and science, etc, into the object of our criticism.

What Marx is saying is that when you look at society, when you try to work on what it is and how it works, it isn’t enough to just change the economy or the politics. It’s important to talk about the underlying factors. In this case, art. More specifically: Monster movies. All of these things are there. It's the movies that help us remember. They're our myths. They're what sparks old memories inside of our heads and helps us remember. Sometimes a giant ape is what it takes for us to talk about something that we haven't ever bothered putting into words.



 * With the added bonus of allowing some really good diabetic music to entertain us. Because, I don’t care if it’s cliché at this point, hearing CCR blast out of a Huey gunship is always going to get my heart pumping, and, as Bruce Dern said to me recently, “I’d call that rock n’ roll”).

James Kislingbury is a writer and a podcaster. He does a movie show called "A Quality Interruption." He does a "news" show called "World's a Mess." Both require funding, which you can help out with. He also has a series of stupid tumblrs, which are all linked on the right hand side of this page. So that's fun.

07 April, 2017

SOMEBODY THINK OF THE CHILDREN

SOMEBODY THINK OF THE CHILDREN
Or, How I Finally Got My Hands on a Copy of Domu: A Child's Dream

Domu: A Child’s Dream was always one of those books that I was curious about. Lurking in the back pages of issues of Dark Horse Comics, I was always struck by the abject creepiness of the thing. It was Japanese. It was somehow related to Akira (a name I knew, but, at that point, not a film that I had seen). And it involved

 Luckily, after one of my podcasting partners went blind, I managed to fall into a spare copy of Domu. Among other things. It was well worth the wait. I mean, definitely not worth Alex going blind, but here we are. What are you going to do?

Written and drawn by Katsuhiro Otomo, Domu tells the story of a series of strange accidents and suicides at a modern public housing complex in Japan. It bounces around various residents of the housing complex, ranging from a newly arrived little girl to a local latchkey kid and on to the local detectives trying to make sense of this case (and to figure out whether it's really even a case at all). Eventually culminates in a sequence of urban destruction that only Otomo can pull off. Unlike Akira, one of the great epics of the medium, one of Domu's strength lies in its brevity. It's short, bloody, and brutish. And it's a damn good comic.

Me opening my Twitter feed.
Otomo, for lack of a better phrasing, is doing some next level shit. We're thirty years past this comic book coming out and it still looks like something out of a different sub-set of space and time. It’s like hearing violin music your entire life and then suddenly hearing what an orchestra sounds like. Otomo feels like he’s working from a different tool set than the rest of humanity. It’s amazing that a human being—a living human being, no less—can use a pen and pencil to pull off the things that’s he’s pulling off.

Usually when people describe comics as being "cinematic" it's because they secretly don't respect the medium*.
Personally, I find it kind of irritating. It’s reductive of the work itself. It’s a compliment that states that the work isn’t complete until it is something else (and something completely different). In the case of Domu, I’m not sure if that’s an insult (especially when you consider that Otomo has worked in film for the past thirty years).

These aren’t discreet drawings. They are a continuity. There is a flow from one image to the next without any visible or conscious break. It's a flow that moves beyond the mere aesthetics of Domu. There is a pacing of the panels, and a willingness to intercut between various plot threads that lets gives the impression of movement-- more than that, that the thing has energy. It has a pacing and a heartbeat that, again, I don't know that I've ever seen accomplished on this level. Part of me wonders if there is just something special about Otomo that I love or if Otomo is just working on that high of a level. Either is equally possible.

It accomplishes what film is supposed to do, which is transport you from your world into another world using the illusion of movement. With pure draftsmanship and design, Otomo has managed to do this with six panels to a page instead of twenty-four frames per second. In all of the important ways, Domu out cinemas cinema.**

OTHER THOUGHTS:

  • Otomo is the best at drawing. He's just. . . Why the fuck does anybody else even bother?
  • Man, I haven't seen this many kids killed in a thing since Logan. Not that I'm complaining!
  • There is a sparseness to setting up the premise of the story that is almost invisible in how incidental it is. There is no wasted space in this comic. Both artists and writers could learn something from this dude. I know I can. So, again: It's cinematic. It's packing a lot into a little and he makes it look so easy.
  • I kind of want to hunt down a bunch of single issues from the original run on Dark Horse. I kind of want to huff those sweet, old comic book pages. I know that makes me a sick person.
  • Man. this comic is so goddamn good.
Unfortunately, it looks like Domu is back out of print. The rights moved from Dark Horse to another company and, now, like a lot of obscure works, it’s been relegated to the second-hand (and marked up) market. But it’s so good, damnit. It’s so damn good.

Domu is a compact, succinctly beautiful book that deserves to sit next to Akira as one of the great (Japanese) comic books of all time. It’s got beautiful art. It’s got a great story, with wonderful characters. It’s has horrific ultra-violence. It’s everything you want in a comic book. I mean, you know, if you like good comics.




*Though. I'm no hardliner. "Camera angles" makes a lot more sense than "panel angles." Camera, at least, gives off the sense of three-dimensionality. A panel, though? That's a flat picture. Let's not lose our minds in our search for purity.

 *And, as it turns out, Domu is being adapted into film. Along with Jordan Peele being in discussion to direct a long-awaited live-action Akira, Otomo has been having a nice little year).

James Kislingbury is a writer, a podcaster, a newscaster, a doodler, and a crank. If you are so inclined, you can support his endeavors at his Patreon. Or at the very least, rate, like, and subscribe to what you can. It's either this or re-dedicating myself to my eBay account.

10 March, 2017

This is The Aesthetic

Good news-- They made another movie for me.



You're welcome.

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.