Thursday, April 28, 2016

My Thoughts on "Mad Max: Fury Road"

            Another of the movies of 2015 I did not think I would have the spirit in me to actually review but I found the resolve.  Though most of this is not a review but a deconstruction of the movie….

            “Mad Max: Fury Road” is the most visually interesting film that came out last year.  Every vehicle, costume, and location shot oozes with visual personality.  It won basically all the Oscars related to visuals and sound and deserved to do so.  Its tone is consistent, its action primarily made of real people doing real stunts with computer effects used to ramp up the splendor instead of replacing it.
            The world is imaginative with a sort of fantasy logic applied to a post apocalypse allowing for plenty of mental flow, the evil king in the tower with the captured princesses must be saved by the knight (Furiosa), the ranger (Max), and the soldier (Nux).  I don’t know how but the movie manages to stay grounded even while the reality of it is heightened.  It is a good movie that I think lots of people should watch and appreciate.

            With that all in mind I am going to write something that will make me sound like a loon.  Maybe I should consider it part of a series of social commentary blogs along with the “Ghost in the Shell” one from earlier this week.  Either way, go see the movie first because SPOILERS beyond this point.

You know, I have seen “Mad Max:Fury Road” described as a feminist movie, but I actually find problems with that.
The main villain, Immortan Joe has founded a religion, has a functioning stronghold, produces enough food and water to commoditize them with the other surrounding city-states of Gas Town and the Bullet Farm, and clearly has some technical knowledge evidenced by how much machinery he has lashed together to make a working civilization in the middle of a desert.  Most of which appears to be muscle powered by lots and lots of people working the gears by walking on them.
Joe ostensibly operates on a meritocracy based system (outside of his own sons being given preferential treatment), as his second in command is a handicapped woman whose leadership is not questioned or commented upon (her gender is never commented on).  A woman with one arm was taught by someone to drive and fight and rose to a position of honor and authority in his military.  That can’t even happen in our society.

Though our society doesn't have such sweet cyborg parts either.
By contrast the god guys of the movie, the Motor Grandmas were unable to maintain the green environment they started with, and aside from a satchel of seeds have no resources of value.  The grannies make a living baiting and robbing people in the desert.  They build and contribute jack all to the world and actively take from others who have something to take.
And while Joe is sexist in many ways (not the least of which being keeping a god-damn harem) the Grandmas are also sexist.  When one of the brides worries that they will give birth to another warlord, rather than saying something like, "he or she will grow to be who you raise it to be" the grandma instead says, "Maybe it will be a girl".  I don’t know why that character automatically assigns such motives to a gender, but there it is.  No background about their menfolk abusing them, or causing the issues that destroyed the green place, no story about the loss of the men of their culture in a war.  They just say it and it hangs there in the air.
Ultimately the Grandma’s plan is to drive off in a random direction in hopes of finding something before running out of food.  They have no armies, no fortress, no food, no water, and no goals.  If it were not for the titular Mad Max they the story would have ended on that ambiguous (but certainly downer) note.  Instead Max’s idea is, “Why don’t we just slip in and usurp Joe’s ruler ship?”

"So the plan is to NOT wander off in a random direction till dead?  Could that work?"
They succeed in taking over what can only be described as post-apocalyptic Castle Grey Skull.  But there is something important at the end: these people have no idea what they are doing.  The movie shows them giving away the one resource they have a monopoly on and destabilizing the economy the whole thing was built on.  Water and food is what they have, and having murdered (rightfully in self-defense) the leaders of Gas Town and the Bullet Farm, and blocking out all of the best troops, weapons, and vehicles they have no way of holding onto what they have.

Joe could have definitely worked on a better way of distributing it to the masses.
They now have nothing to sell or barter with as they are now just giving it away.  And having killed what is effectively the War Pope of the wasteland they have no ability to keep the army fighting on their side.
 Joe was an asshole who kept slaves for his own enjoyment, but he was also a nation builder.  His designs had much more long term promise at rebuilding humanity as a species than the grandmas' governance promises.  Is that the point?  To end on a note of, “maybe it will all work out?”  It is undoubtedly happy, the bad guy is dead and his evil minions are scattered in hostile territory but this is not a substantive or long term victory.  There is no clear, “Men bad women good” message and there isn’t any, “men and women equal” message either.
I got this fresh perspective from a discussion of another post-apocalypse, water is important, and conventional morality applies less in these instances: the “Fallout” franchise.  In “Fallout” there is an evil organization called the Enclave and… Asshole has a point.  This video goes into greater depth, but overall it made me question “Fury Road” because of the settings.

And on a related note, but separate from my themes discussion: where does Max think he is going to go at the end of the movie?  He has no car, just gave a lot of blood, and he just walks off into the amassed throng of peasants.  Max, buddy, you should maybe at least take one of the motorcycles and a side car full of guns and water before you go.
(I actually got a “Conan: The Barbarian” vibe off the ending, like the wizard Mako starts narrating, “In time, Conan--- Max, I meant Max.  In time, Max would become a king by his own hand, this story shall also be told…”  Which is fine, I like that movie.)

Somehow, no fan art exists of Max sitting on a throne looking bored.  Get on that internet.
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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

1,000,000 Words, Year 3

            Three years ago today I started a personal project to write 1,000,000 words.  This was inspired by the adage that, “the first 1,000,000 words is practice”.  Since that time I have logged movie reviews, half-finished novels, random bullshit, and lots of grad school assignments.  I have thru this time kept a log of how many I have written.  Starting at first with a goal of 500 words each day, under the reasoning that some professional authors write as much as 1,800 words each day.  That was optimistic in the extreme.

            I quickly fell behind and even as I banged out huge assignments at school and tried to write down something about more and more of the shows I watched less and less stuff interested me as targets and I personally felt less creative in a lot of ways.

            My first year doing this I logged 139,441 words.  This doesn’t include facebook statuses, tweets, or comments in forums (unless I later turn those into blog entries).  It is work that I either put out into the world to be evaluated via school and this blog, or it was work that I wanted to one day put out in a grander form to be evaluated.  This worked out to 382 words each day.  Close to the 400 words a day I have seen recommended by Neil Gaiman an author whose work I hold in great esteem.

            In the second year I kept up the pace for the most part.  134,511 words.  Much of which came from a single massive assignment to complete my first Master’s degree.  A lot more math was required at this point, with hours of time spent hammering out projections and breakdowns as part of a political evaluation for my degree.  Writing was less a priority and less a part of my day to day functions.  Overall this was a step down, but was still in the same range of 368 words each day.

            This last year has been less a step down and more of a ladder down.  I didn’t feel nearly as creative; most of my school work was doing basic learning in a foreign language or using mathematics, mapping, and design tools; and even the yearly movie reviews I typically do just to drive up my word count… I didn’t feel the drive to put them out there as most of the movies I saw last year fell into the very grey middle for me and hardly required comment (though there have so far been two exceptions).  I was and still kind of am mentally burnt out.  I only wrote 46,886 words in the last year.  A third of what I have done in the past.  128.5 words each day… Except that is wrong, it was only 128.1 because I have to include a leap day.  This is only the 5th blog I have written in 2016 and it is April.

            Now that isn’t the whole story, I have been writing more in forums, discussion sections, and comments on various websites so that lets out a lot of ideas before they have fully developed.  Maybe those pasts are letting out too much creative energy and I should give up on that talkative aspect of my online self.  Maybe those posts are good enough to consider as real writing effort and I should start counting longer or more in depth posts toward my log.  I will probably compromise and start turning more of them into blogs, the one from yesterday is an example of that.

I have also stopped counting the fiction I write until it is finished, which means that a dozen chapters of a novel that will never get done, those thousands of words go nowhere.  I have also not been sharing or measuring stuff for when I write a setting for Dungeons and Dragons, which can translate to thousands of words.  Maybe I should start putting out lots of stuff related to my Dungeons and Dragons imaginings.  Perhaps my actual word count is not as bad as I think.

            It is not like the exercise is not doing its job.  My writing is much better than it was.  I rarely need a second draft, and aside from the numerous typos I feel that my thoughts are coming thru in clear waves to those who read my stuff.  Heck, before I started logging my word count I was blogging in the note section of my facebook in a deliberate effort just to hammer out more words for fear that I would be too glib for success in graduate school (some of those old entries are on here, upgraded a small amount, artifacts when I only wrote about comic book characters).

            Oh, for the halcyon days when a 1,345 word blog about Black Panther was the longest I had ever written.  Compare that to the 6 part epic I did on the Florida Legislature and the need for a new Parliamentary system to combat Gerrymandering.  Or if you want to stick to comics the 8 part series I did on just making up 3 different teams of DC superheroes to be Justice Leagues.

            What I am saying is, I have most definitely met goals of improving both the verbosity and virtue of my writing.  Though I am sure many of my Professors remain unimpressed.

            I do hope that in the future I get a job that requires regular writing as part of the job’s function.  I feel that prodding is important, and being paid for writing is the right sort of positive association that will keep me writing recreationally.  And maybe this next year I will be able to push myself to write something with enough substance that even if it is not great in volume it will be greater in quality.

            For now I will just have to keep writing.  And get thru this patch.

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Monday, April 25, 2016

Whitewashing and "Ghost in the Shell"

This will be a fun topic.

 I am a big fan of the Japanese animated series called “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex” a series I have mentioned before in this blog though in a very different context.  The show is set in Japan, decades from now in a dystopian cyber punk future in which people have so augmented themselves with robotic parts and computerized thought processes that the ability to hack into the minds of others and alter their memories and perceptions has caused many to question what it is to be human.  It has a lot of action, with battles between futuristic tanks, cyborgs, and terrorists, but punctuated by deep discussions on what the nature of intelligence, individuality, reality, and the number “0”.  It is one of my favorite shows.
The woman with the Purple hair is the source of this blog.
They are making a movie starring Scarlett Johansson, the biggest female action star in film currently as the main character.  And this has caused some controversy because the main character is a Japanese woman, and Scarlett is not.  To be fair, in the context of “Ghost in the Shell” the main character is actually a cyborg, with only her brain as the biological part of her and she could function in the body of a white woman, a black man, or an Asian person of ambiguous gender.  The fluidity of self is a part of the show.

However, there are not a lot of opportunities for Asian actors in Hollywood to star in a big budget science fiction action film, and considering the setting and origin of the story, to have a movie that could be the break out role for a young Japanese actress and cast of Japanese actors to instead go to a star that is already huge seems to be a problem that I can understand and appreciate.

I do find it strange that a movie set in Japan about Japanese characters is being cast with white actors, but I also know that cannot really be avoided.  Max Landis, who at this point seems to be more a person who complains about the movie industry rather than functioning as a writer in that industry spelled out in his vlog how important having a star in this kind of movie is.  And what he is saying makes sense.  It is a self-fulfilling prophecy, you need a star, there are no Asian stars, you don’t use an Asian star in the movie, there continues to be no Asian stars because no one will take a risk on trying to make one.

I would propose a compromise, it would be prudent to do what they did with "Edge of Tomorrow".  Localize the material by changing names and locations.  “Edge of Tomorrow” was originally a Japanese novel called “All you need is Kill” (the stupidest name ever) and they changed the setting from Asia to Europe, the star is now an older white movie star rather than a young Japanese man, and (I say this having read the book) the story is far more coherent and streamlined (though still not perfect by any stretch).  For “Ghost in the Shell” make Tokyo into San Francisco, Kusanagi becomes Kathrine, and Section 9 becomes Section 9 because somethings don't need to be localized.

And if they did localize the property they could also Americanize some of the designs rather than slaving themselves to remaking those found in the original property which often times scream of being overly sleek and stylized.
The story of "What is human in a world of cybernetic augmentation and robotics" is not a new one (I have talked about "Bladerunner" in this blog before, along with "Deus Ex: Human Revolution", and “The Matrix” too for that matter). Saying that the story is somehow inherently Japanese and incapable of being adapted in such a way is meaningless. I've seen all of "GitS: SAC" and the idea of government officials being manipulated by a pharmaceutical company for massive profits at the expense of people's health is a pretty universal story in the US too.

I would go further to point out that Japan has adapted American stories like Spiderman to suit their needs in the past, and we have done the same with Sentai in the form of Power Rangers.  Many anime are based in Europe (or Europe-esc areas) like "Fullmetal Alchemist" and "Attack on Titan" and Japan has cast Japanese actors in their live action adaptations of these movies. This sort of racial compromise is seen as necessary because there are not a lot of white people in Japan for them to make the movie with, just as there are not a lot of Japanese actors in the US to make movies set entirely in Japan.

This actor portrays a guy named Eren Yeager.  Cause I guess he was the most German looking person to show up at casting.
I suppose the industry could compromise and cast "Asian" actors in the various roles, most people in the US wouldn't notice the difference between someone who is Korean or Chinese playing a Japanese person, but those who do would find it offensive I am sure.  This has happened in the past (though I didn’t notice until told) with John Cho, a South Korean actor being cast a Lt. Sulu in the new “Star Trek” reboot, replacing George Takei, a Japanese actor.  But then Takei voiced a Japanese man in “Mulan” a movie that used many different actors of different races to play parts in China.

But, maybe they are doing the worst possible compromise, by keeping the setting and the names and just using white actors, which is white washing, even if there is a canonical explanation as to why a Japanese brain could be in a white looking body.  If they use a white actor to play a character that has in all previous instances has been Japanese, this echoes a practice of casting white actors in roles where they portrayed minority characters, though in those past instances it was done without class and is frequently the blemish that keeps movies of the past from holding a place in the modern cultural lexicon, for instance when John Wayne played Genghis Khan. In general studios should avoid such practices when adapting properties by taking care with adaptation and casting decisions.

Let’s talk about a movie that has done the opposite of this and cast a black actor in a traditionally white role: Idris Elba played Heimdal in Marvel’s “Thor” Franchise.  Heimdall was described as “the whitest” in Norse mythology, a mythology that is entirely composed of white gods, for a white people.  The stories were adapted by a white artist/author (Jack Kirby) for an overwhelmingly white comic industry to sell to a white audience.  He is played by Idris Elba, who if you are unaware, black guy.  So why am I so okay with this?  A number of reasons.

In the Marvel Universe the Asgardians are aliens that inspired the Norse myths.  In my mind (as in this is my explanation, feel free to ignore it, but I think it works pretty well)… In my mind the Norse people saw the Asgardians, saw them as gods, and as the legends of them passed into myth people started to re-write the legends to better suit how they wanted them to be.  In the Marvel cinematic universe, the Norse people white washed Heimdall to be a white person so that they could feel that they could claim to more closely resemble their gods.

Heimdall as he might have once been imagined.

And let's also be clear, having a cast that looks like the international audience they are trying to attract is helpful to recoup all that money they spent on special effects.
 In the real world, the Norse gods are not real.  They are stories and we as the story tellers are free to picture these fictional people as however we want.  As aliens, as gods, as people who did exist and have since been elevated to godhood in myth (like how Abraham Lincoln hunted vampires).  BUT, “Ghost in the Shell” is not about aliens or gods, it is about Japan.  It is about people who look a certain way and live in a certain place.  If you want to take the thematic trappings of that story and put them in another setting with people who look different in a different place that makes sense.  But to put a white person in a story where she is Japanese is downright silly.

Cyborg or no, watching Scarlett tear her own arms off trying to break into and disable a tank would be a rather interesting thing to see.
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Facebook, and otherwise distribute my opinion to the world.  I would appreciate it.