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. 

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.