Sweep the Nostalgia, Or Why Cobra Kai Does and Does Not Suck

80’s Nostalgia has been going on so long that the teenagers who were doing it 15 years ago are now grown up and have kids of their own. Do they nostalgize their nostalgia? Is there anything else? Are we permanently stuck? Does this whining help? No to all, and the questions have become boring. The culture is stuck, but something that can’t go on forever, won’t. So let’s at least observe and honor a show that connects the past to the present, as opposed to Stranger Things, which could have been set in any time, and is set in the 80’s because of course it is. Cobra Kai is better than that. Better than it needs to be, really, even with it’s flaws.

I wasn’t going to watch Season 3. Season 2 disappointed me so much that I declared myself done with it. I relented, and I’m glad I did, but the exercise of watching it has kicked loose a need to express what I have observed. So grab your gis and give me 20; this is gonna be a long one.

Daniel-San, Show Me Save the Franchise

The algorithims, it is said, dictate our content. That’s the entertainment consequence of the digital age. You can make whatever you want, but if you want it to be seen, you gotta keyword it, and the audience better already exist. And given that everything new that’s come into existence this century has to fight through the noise to find it’s audience, it’s a much safer bet to regurgitate something that people already know and like. That’s why Ridley Scott is farting around with new ways to re-tell Alien. That’s why the most ambitious sci-fi work of this year is going to be the second attempt at a film adaptation of a novel from 1965, because we haven’t had enough space-opera epics Ludovico’d into our drying eyeballs just yet.

And that’s why Cobra Kai exists. I don’t think they spent a lot of time at the pitch meeting. If the whole thing took longer to green light than the words “Dude, they made a Jem and the Holograms movie. Karate Kid is bound to have more legs” took to say, I’d be very surprised. Maybe they had coffee first.

But, and there is a but, the mama birds behind this particular regurgitation actually took the time to stir up a fresh take on the property. Which, they were bound to do, as the creative team behind Karate Kid had already spread the premise thin. There had already been a sequel, and a third movie that was basically the first movie, but dumber, and a protagonist gender-swapping, practically non-canon fourth movie, and a crappy reboot. The well was dryer than the radiator in Mr. Miagi’s Yellow Ford. If the team wanted to get in on the Algorithim’s Munificence, they needed something new.

Which is to say, something new and something old. Cobra Kai is a delicate balancing act between two impulses: a full-on fan-service smorgasboard, which bows to the need of hyperfans to have every part of the Canon Respected, and a partial inversion of the original film’s premise. That’s right, we’re going to Reference All The Things, and tell it from the point of view of the Bad Guy.

As it turns out, Karate Kid worked best when Daniel LaRusso had an antagonist on his level. That’s why Karate Kid Part II, for all it’s charms, ultimately feels odd. There’s no real reason for Daniel to be invested in anything that’s happening on Okinawa; he’s just there. Daniel doesn’t really understand why these people are like this, or how he’s supposed to Not piss off the angry Okinawan Guy. He doesn’t get it; neither do we. It’s Okinawans in the Mist. Good Score, though.

And that’s why Part III is tired. Ponytail Guy (No, I don’t remember his name. Yes, I know the younger version of him appeared in Season 3. I know he’ll be back. I do not care. He’s Ponytail Guy) is a cartoon on a level beyond John Kreese, who always came across, apart form his obvious PTSD, as a very grounded guy. Grunts who came home from ‘Nam nihilistic and anti-social was a trope that was already becoming overdone by 1984, and the number of them was definitely overstated, but they existed. Hence the first movie had plausibility. The third had none. The idea that a successful Mr. Business caricature would concoct some twisted Machiavellian scheme to … win a karate tournament in the Valley, never made any sense, and the movie itself can’t resist laughing at its absurd antagonist (“Waaa…. WAAAAaaaaaAAAA….”). The franchise never laughed at Kreese (and it still hasn’t, to its credit).

Ultimately, Karate Kid is a basic movie about literally fighting back against bullying, with some Zen meditation on the downside of violence sprinkled on top. You can only repeat that riff so many times before it loses its impact, so the only thing to do is play it backwards. Thus, we take a cue from the YouTube Protagonist Inversion Culture (“Why The Rebels Are Really the Bad Guys in Star Wars”), and we dust off Johnny Lawrence, who’s been MIA since the beginning of Part II. The Classic 80’s Movie Bully gets to be the Protagonist, and as soon as it was announced, even people who moan like crucified martyrs about Reboots of Endless Trash admitted that they kind of liked the idea.

The Counter-Culture Rug-Pull

Johnny Laurence is what Generation X wants to remember itself as: free, swaggering, indifferent to trends, making his own way in the wild world, utterly true to himself, a bit down on his luck at times, because he’s just too badass for the world to handle. We were too real, too cool, too beyond this petty world.

Daniel LaRusso is what Generation X actually is: conventional, out of his depth most of the time, and entirely content to sell cars and make dorky commercials in exchange for the big house with a zen garden. Making money and small acts of aesthetic whimsy are the only things we’ve ever understood.

The pattern of the show followed this rug-pull. First Season gives us the promise of a reconfigured Cobra Kai, an upturned middle finger to a softened, puritanical culture. And it largely delivered on that promise. We not only observed a dojo return to existence, we saw the ethos behind it raise its hooded head. Strike First – because if you’re gonna be in a fight, that’s the smart way to do it. Strike Hard – because otherwise, you might as well not bother. No Mercy – because the wicked world has none for you. In Sensei Lawrence’s hands, this mantra is not malice born of revenge on the world, but an honest assessment of what he’s seen and lived. It’s a way to go forward, not merely nostalgize his past.

The whole point is to bring back from the past what was good and useful, and leave what was destructive and unecessary. The Cobra Kai ethos is a warrior ethos, and while it doesnt’ want to admit it, Current Year Culture sees something there it misses. Violence doesn’t go away by disavowing it, and the show puts this point in Miguel’s mouth in Season 3. The implicit challenge to Current-Year “toxic masculinity” fretting is practically counter-cultural, and what made it worth checking out.

But Second Season turned that upside-down, and I hated it. On the one hand, it’s good to not utterly invert the original Karate Kid. It’s become a bit of a meme to sneer at Ralph Macchio, and a “Why Daniel LaRusso is really the Bad Guy” is a YourTube Hot Take that pre-exists Cobra Kai. But it’s garbage (and Macchio is an executive producer on the show, so thank the man, nerds). Daniel LaRusso is many things, not all of them good, but one thing he isn’t is a coward. He earned that victory in the first movie. At the moment of agony, when even his sensei is telling him he can throw in the towel with honor, he refuses. This isn’t about some trophy, Miagi-San. This is about proving to these roided-up clowns and their cult master that I’m as good as them. I will not accept an Honorable Mention. So pull out your Zen Magic and fix my leg, sensei. Victory or Death.

That’s the essence of heroism, as all good 80’s action movies knew. So yes, let’s not flip the script all the way and make him villainous. The back-and-forth between LaRusso and Lawrence is an essential part of Cobra Kai, and interesting precisely because neither of them are utterly in the wrong, but they’re driven by their past to mistrust and antagonism. There’s an element of Faulknerian tragedy to it: two men unable to escape the past. I appreciate not having to despise LaRusso, and appreciate the fact that he’s just a decent guy trying to do the right thing, as best he sees it.

That doesn’t make Miagi-Do’s rise to counter Cobra Kai in Season 2 any more interesting. The Miagi-Do kids are sparkless, frankly, and other than being against Cobra Kai have no reason to be there. The Cobra Kai kids, right or wrong, are scrappers, who join their dojo not to learn Zen mantras but to become strong in a world that has no use for them. This isn’t an educational exercise to them, it’s struggle. No such energy or need is found in Daniel’s boring daughter and the handful of other kids who are only there to fill the card out. Even Robbie Lawrence, the intense wild card of Season 1, angry and quiet in equal measures, becomes a drone under LaRusso’s tutelage.

We have a Structure problem as well. If Daniel’s not the bad guy, then against whom do we struggle? Here the logic of Fan Service imposes itself. You can’t not have Kreese return, so you build him up to be exactly the same character he was 35 years ago, saying and doing the exact same things. This way, you can have both Johnny and Daniel fight against him, and by the end of Season 3, that’s exactly where we are. Cobra Kai becomes what it always was, and the premise of the show cannot be but undercut by this. What’s the point of it all, if in the end, we’re just fighting the same fight we’ve already won? Is Daniel gonna honk Kreese’s nose at the end of Season 4, while Johnny makes fun of Ponytail Guy (“Waaaa… WAAAAAAAA….”)?

{No, probably it’s gonna be Johnny vs. Kreese, on the karate stuff, and Daniel vs. Ponytail Guy on the business stuff. Because we spent all that really interesting time on the business struggles of LaRusso automotive. Or something.}

When you start watching something intriqued with possibilities, only to discover that, some shifts and jumps aside, new ideas don’t really exist, it kills the pleasure. So, watching the Boring Kids fight the Not-Boring Kids, largely because of Who’s Dating Who, and knowing full well that the Not-Boring Kids have to lose, because they’re being made into cartoon villains and/or the pawns of a cartoon villain, left me in absolute indifference. Miguel getting his back messed up was the only thing I didn’t see coming, and I liked it not at all. Miguel is clearly the new Daniel LaRusso, i.e. the mildly ethnic kid living on the wrong side of the tracks who’s new in town and has no dad and needs a Teacher to show him The Way. Miguel and Johnny is the most significant relationship in Cobra Kai, as Daniel and Miagi were in the movies. Miguel’s ability to apply what his sensei teaches him defines his character arc, just as it did for Daniel back in the day. Seeing him broken on the school steps is a blow to the Cobra Kai ethos, and one that, again, seemed like an undermining of the show’s very premise.

In retrospect, I can be accused of throwing the towel in before the third act. TV shows have cliffhangers for a reason. Much as I didn’t like it, the ending of Season 2 effectively created low points for Johnny and Miguel. Watching the both bounce back from those low points, struggle to reconstruct themselves, wasn’t boring to watch (not like the Okninawa Fan Service of Daniels’ arc. I started washing dishes to avoid having to listen to Mr. Miagi Letters. Is there nothing else you can do with this guy than have him pine for his dead teacher?), and both end up stronger for it. So in the end, if the actual Cobra Kai is monstrous again, the functional Cobra Kai (the new Eagle Fang dojo) becomes at the end more or less what it should be, the hungry scrappers we know and love. The hatchet between Laurence and LaRusso seems finally buried, and we can build something new, so that the younger generation doesn’t have to get caught in the wars of their elders.

A Tale of Two Nerds

The struggle to move beyond the past is best exemplified in a set of side characters who’s relationship serves as a leitmotif for the series. Eli and Demetri, two dweebs who befriend Miguel early on, get drawn into the ancestral war of Cobra Kai and Miagi-Do without either of them having any understanding of it. Eli, flinchy and timid, with a scar on his lip from cleft-palate surgery, prefers to hide in negative space, avoiding even being seen. Demetri comments on the social maelstrom around him with that affectation of urbanity that nerds put on to appear above their surroundings. Both are strategies for dealing with their low social status and regular bullying by other boys. Theirs is a long friendship, born of necessity. Miguel, by administering a whooping on the bullies in the school cafeteria, brings these two into the world of Valley Karate.

Neither of them are suited for it, at first. Eli joins Cobra Kai, recieves the nickname of Lip from Sensei Lawrence, and, practically catatonic from humiliation, is told to “flip the script” if he doesn’t like it. This isn’t mere bullying, but Hard Truth, and it works: Eli gets a mowhawk to draw attention away from his lip. Johnny approves, and henceforth, Eli is known as Hawk.

He takes the opportunity to build an entirely new identity to heart. He trains hard, gets a huge hawk-wing tatoo across his back, cheers at the All-Valley Under 18 tournament, and attention from girls for the first time in his life. The script is flipped. Cobra Kai has made a weakling into a warrior.

Of course it goes to his head. Why wouldn’t it? What 16-year-old boy has the wisdom to become suddenly powerful without at least the temptation to embrace the dark side of Strike First, Strike Hard, No Mercy? But other than some very mild hazing of newbies, all of Hawk’s negative actions are at least partially driven by an intense loyalty to his new clan. Cobra Kai becomes everything to him, the locus of the good. All who cross it must be made to pay, by any means necessary.

This includes Demetri, whose pseudo-intellectualized distancing is revealed as a cover for his almost unbreakable learned helplessness and social ineptitude. He’s the Kid Who Won’t Shut Up. The only time I’ve perhaps ever sympathized with John Kreese is when Demetri, wandering into Cobra Kai after hours, runs into Kreese and takes it upon himself to start critiquing the man’s war tatoos. Book Smarts has a habit of dismissing the value of Street Smarts, often in direct proportionality to the degree of intelligence, and so closes the mind off from social awareness. This is Demetri’s problem. He refuses to value anything he cannot learn in school. This makes him the most difficult of the Miagi-Do students, as he won’t stop whining about the difficulty of learning to train his body. Only by infinite patience and extreme methods does LaRusso get through to him.

The parallax of their character arcs wrecks their frienship. Hawk wants nothing to do with anything of his old life, Demetri has nothing but scorn for the new. They fight, they humiliate each other in public, they fight again. Demetri knocks Hawk into the Trophy Case during the Season 2 Finale fight. Hawk breaks Demetri’s arm in the middle of season 3. The lifelong friends are enemies, and barely better off from where they started. Hawk becomes a cartoon villain, Demetri, Miagi-Do’s mildly competent mascot. It was painful to watch.

But again, low points. The show builds both of them back up. Demetri manges to dial back on the helplessness, becomes a good soldier, even slightly cool. Eli spends the third season starting to question what he’s become, as Kreese brings in the very bullies and top-dogs that harassed him into Cobra Kai. He finds himself forced to make a choice about loyalty, and to whom he ought to give it. He makes the right choice, and solves the problem for both him and Demetri.

This relationship, removed a step from the soap-opera spasms of the ongoing LaRusso-Laurence feud (they’re not children or child-substitutes for either man, nor are they romantically involved with any such child), is one of the best things on the show, to my mind, and captures the themes of it. Hawk and Dimtry’s diverging arcs become a meditation on the subject of friendship and enmity. By what criteria do you put someone in either category? How far can you go in defining things like “in-group” and “out-group”, and how much does either matter? We might wish, like violence itself, to watsh these concepts away in a sea of Good Intentions. But that’s unlikely to succeed, because the past has its way of calling to the present. Cobra Kai works in bringing these truths to light, so whatever clownery comes in Season 4, I’ll wait for the last act.

Your Side, My Side, and the Truth

Making predictions is a good way to make a fool of yourself, and if there’s one thing Game of Thrones and How I Met Your Mother has taught me, it’s that I can’t expect to have an ending that fits what I like. But you can’t not wonder what happens next, and every now and again I’m right. So herewith, what I Think Happens Next:

  • Johnny and Daniel Become Friends. Not only has the show been pushing them together and ripping them apart over and over again, which can really only end one way, both of them need it. Daniel doesn’t seem to have many friends, and Johnny’s old Cobra Kai buddies are all distant from him in a way. They’ll head-fake us, and maybe low-key it, but it’ll happen.
  • Robby and Tory Get Redemptions. The kids, they’re kids. They’ve screwed up, but a show that makes the effort Cobra Kai does to show everybody’s side is not going to abandon them to the teachings of Kreese’s Dark Side. I have no idea how it happens, but they’ll find a way.
  • Ponytail Guy Will Cook Up Something Nefarious. Something schemey and stupid, which will involve Amanda LaRusso in some way. It will be the B Plot of the season, to be resolved concurrently with the All-Valley Tournament.
  • Samantha LaRusso Wins the All-Valley. We’ve never had a girl champ before. Miguel already won, so him winning again would be repetitive. Instinct tells me Miagi-Do gets the win this time, although Eagle Fang will do respectably well. No other Miagi-Do kid is important enough (except Demetri, who I don’t see winning), and this completes the Passing of the Torch.
  • Johnny Gets his Dojo Back. Eagle Fang takes over the strip-mall location, completing the arc. The only alternative I foresee is Johnny and Daniel combining their dojos into Eagle Tree Karate or some such. Which could happen, but I don’t know if I want to bet on it.

Who knows, though? We’ll find out at some point. Anyone who has better predictions, drop them in the box below.

Do They Even Have Movies Anymore?

The joke of the year (decade?) is they don’t, and I’ll have to explain to my grandchildren that long ago there were these big living rooms with hundreds of seats that people used to pay half the price of a DVD (what’s a DVD, grampa?) for one ticket, and by kitchen snacks for, and sit with a bunch of people you did not know and listen to them eat and talk on their phones and otherwise interrupt your film. Unless of course, the movie wasn’t popular, in which case you probably wouldn’t see it, or you’d see it in the giant living room and sit way to close to it, because you could, and walk out with a neck cramp. Because that’s what movies were.

But as it turns out, there are still theaters open. Not any in my neighborhood, but near enough that I could get there if the urge was really on me. So let’s see what we’ve got, at a theater less than an hour from my house:

Wrong Turn (Rotten Tomatoes Score: 29%). Hikers on the Appalachian trail do the thing they’re warned not to do, stumble into land that ain’t theirs, get the Texas Chainsaw Massacre/Green Inferno treatment.

The Marksman (Rotten Tomatoes Score: 34%). Liam Neeson takes on a drug cartel on behalf of some migrants. He learned to shoot good in the Marines, though, so it’ll probably be fine.

News of the World (RTS: 89%) Tom Hanks rescues a child kidnapped by Indians, fights the entire West to take her to her kin.

Wonder Woman 1984 (RTS: 60%) Wonder Woman does Wonder Woman things while Evil Mr. Business does Capitalism Things, in a film made by a marketing committee of a major international corporation.

Fatale (RTS: 46%) Hillary Swank goes Fatal Attraction on a dude. It’s meaningful because she’s a cop and he’s black? I got nothing.

Monster Hunter (RTS: 49%) “So what, are we Guardians of the Galaxy now?” May be the most truthful and pathetic line ever put into a trailer.

The Croods: A New Age (RTS: 77%) Low-Rent Flinstones are back for… something. Who cares.

Freaky (RTS: 83%) Serial Killer inhabits a high-schooler in this parody of a concept that actually got made. Good for them.

Come Play (RTS: 56%) Autistic kid summons monster from his phone in the most 21st Century horror film imaginable.

The Emperor’s New Groove (RTS: 85%) A re-release of a film we paid $26 for on DVD, and are glad to have done so, because its not on Disney+ (neither is Enchanted, because Disney enjoys annoying its fans).

This is an odd collection of films, and some might call it even barebones (granted, it’s January). But there’s at least two of those I would actively choose to see if I actually felt like going to a theater. So, it seems there might actually be a pulse on the film industry. I saw the trailer for a Tom Hanks film and wasn’t immediately bored. That’s something.

Things People Care About, That I Don’t.

Anything pertaining to Football. I haven’t watched a game all year. That’s been the case for a number of years, really. Football used to be an entertaining sport before every part of it got dissected like a pregnant frog for television, to be jabbered about by half-wits in ugly suits. The Super Bowl is a social event, really, just an excuse to judge commercial aesthetics, eat pub food, and moan about the half-time show.

Celebrities with Covid. Oh, no, not Larry King, the guy who’s interviews I’ve never watched! What will become of us if I’m not able to have warm feeling about him? If he dies, I just, I just won’t know how I can go on…
I get it. He’s an old man and he’s sick. So let me state for the record that my earnest hope is that he makes a full recovery, so I can be surprised by his continued earthly existence sometime next year. But I’m not related to him, he’s not my friend, I’m not even that familiar with his work. He’s just some guy completely memed by the media into Special Status.

Really, any celebrities. They’re just… not that interesting, as people. What you think you know about them is marketing fluff designed to prime you to consume their next product. I know that sounds communist, but I don’t mean it that way. Consume whatever you want. Just don’t care about the producers. They don’t care about you.

2021. This thing that we do where we treat years like sentient entities was already tired at the end of 2016, and has gotten worse with every subsequent year. Last year was the meme becoming self-aware and launching its missiles at the Russians (that’s a Terminator 2 reference, kids). 2020 didn’t do anything to you, a virus and the government did. Guess what? They still are. Covid doesn’t care that the calendar flipped. The year will be what it is.

The Three Tiers of Aesthetics

A long essay, but worth your time, which dovetails nicely with other things I’ve written on the subject. Our Cranky Professor lays out three “approaches” to aesthetics/beauty:

  • The Psychological Approach – In which one experiences beauty as an individuated response to the appearance of a thing. A Flower is Beautiful.
  • The Rational Approach – An understanding that beauty runs parallel to order. A well-ordered thing is a beautiful thing, whether or not you enjoy looking at it. The Human Brain is Beautiful.
  • The Mystical/Spiritual Approach – The idea that Beauty is rooted in the supernatural, as a reflection of a cosmic truth. The Buddah is Beautiful.

These can intersect (there are those prepared to argue that the Psychological Approach is simply the recognition of what is found in the Rational Approach), but what I like is that it covers the multiple meanings found in the word “beautiful”. Recall when I wrote this:

On top of that, the idea of objective aesthetics sounds to many people like “objective enjoyment” and enjoyment is an emotional response to something. You enjoy something. You cannot make yourself enjoy something that you do not, in fact, enjoy. The Star Wars prequels and David Lynch’s Dune are my personal evidence to that.

Originality is Not Art

This issue is handled by Approach Theory. Something can be “rationally beautiful”, while not eliciting a psychological response. A thing can be beautifully constructed, and still boring. This helps me understand what Camille Paglia was blathering about when she praised the end of Revenge of the Sith as a work of profound art.

The Mustafar duel, which took months of rehearsal, with fencing and saber drills conducted by sword master Nick Gillard, was executed by Hayden Christensen and Ewan McGregor at lightning speed. It is virtuosic dance theater, a taut pas de deux between battling brothers, convulsed by attraction and repulsion. Their thrusts, parries, and slashes are like passages of aggessive speech. It is one of the most passionate scenes ever filmed between two men, with McGregor close to weeping. The personal drama is staged against a physical one: wrangling and wrestling, Anakin and Obi-Wan fall against the control panels of a vast mineral-collection plant, which now starts to malfunction and fall to pieces. As the two men run and leap for their lives, girders, catwalks, and towers melt and collapse into the lava, demonstrating the fragility of civilization confronted with natures brute primal power.

Camille Paglia, GLITTERING IMAGES, pgs. 188-189

Stipulate that George Lucas had all this in mind when he made the scene. Stipulate that Revenge of the Sith is the closest thing to the pony in the pile of turds that is the Prequel Trilogy. It’s still a boring movie to watch, and this scene is only slightly less boring. For one thing, it goes on way too long. For another, the emotions Paglia find in the scene are turned on an off like switches, a problem that abounds throughout theses movies. Suddenly Obi-Wan is in tears, yes, and McGregor does his level best to make it real. But there’s been nothing building to this moment. We haven’t seen Obi-Wans’ face grow in passion. They’ve been staring at each other and fighting for what seems like an hour. I don’t suddenly feel attached to McGregor’s performance. It leaves me cold like everything else in this trilogy does. I understand what Paglia’s saying. I can see truth in her assessment. It doesn’t change my individuated experience of the film one bit, and I’ve watched this scene since I’ve read this book. The prequels are still dull robot-kabuki decanted in a lab.

Thus, adopting an awareness of Approach can go a long way towards settling our various disagreements about aesthetics. It recognizes the subjective and the objective. Read the Whole Thing.

“Tenet” is Bad, “Sound & Fury” is Good

Twitter impresario Mencius Moldbugman stomps on the Last Film in Theaters with both feet.

Apparently Nolan has been utterly corrupted by his early Hollywood success and is now incapable of directing something better than mediocre (which is kind of the vibe I got from Dunkirk). Apparently Tenet is two hours of rampaging nonsense. I don’t know if that is true or not. But I’m even less inclined to see it now.

This is part of a longer Thread of Worse 5 Movies of All Time, which are also somewhat interesting, and relatively obscure, so it’s worth reading, if only to absorb another human’s thoughts about Art. 50 First Dates, is on there, and who can resist Adam Sandler films getting savaged as they deserve?

But why lament Bad Art, when we can discuss Good Art? In the next Shallow & Pedantic podcast, we’re going to be chatting about the nexus of Samurai films and Westerns, and part of that is going to be spent on Sturgill Simpson’s 2019 film Sound and Fury, which is not really a “film” so much as it is, well, honestly, this YouTube commenter summed it up best:

Have you ever wondered what would happen if a respected alt-country star went into surgery and, in its aftermath, refused pain killing narcotics and instead just took a bunch of weed?

Imagine then, in his fugue state, he decides to take a departure from country and produce a crazy good synth rock album. Now imagine he decides to have the entire album animated, writes a vague anime screenplay, goes to Japan, and has some of the top anime artists compete to see who could be the nuttiest in producing his vision. He then puts it all together in a 45 min montage that can only be described the three way love child of Heavy Metal the movie, Akira, and The Wall.

I actually thought this level of unrestrained creative expression from a popular artists had died sometime in the 1980s. Maybe it did but, if so, Sturgill Simpson resurrected it here.

Jeffrey wyshynski 2 months ago

It’s my favorite thing I’ve seen all year, and it’s on Netflix. And I don’t even really like Anime. You should check it out.

Movies are Short Stories, TV Shows are Novels

This is going to seem counterintuitive, but it’s true.

A “Feature Length” film is one 60 minutes or longer, according to the Screen Actor’s Guild. Most movies are somewhere between 80-120 minutes, although some popular films, such as nearly all the Star Wars movies, are longer (The Last Jedi, the longest one, is 152 minutes, or 2 hours and 32 minutes).

So to watch a movie is to take 1-3 hourse out of your day. And that’s usually done in one sitting. Very rarely do you watch a movie, stop halfway through, and then finish the rest later. Halfway through a movie, you’re usually invested in the story, and want to watch the rest. Movies are dense, quick-structured, A-B-C storytelling. They have to be to get you to sit through them.

Short stories, are stories less than 7,500 words. That is a quick read, giving an author not very much time to:

  • Establish setting
  • Establish character
  • Establish conflict
  • Build conflict
  • Resolve Conflict

Hence, short stories are dense, leaving as much unsaid as said, and stripping everything down to the meat. There is no more description, dialogue, or anything else, than their needs to be. Raymond Carver is the exemplar of the form for this reason.

Hence, these are the forms of efficiency. You strap in and you take the ride. You expect the story to reward your attention with immediate payoff. Movies are short stories.

TV Shows, on the other hand, are episodic. An Episode is a self-contained story that takes place within a larger context. Each successive episode reveals more about the characters, because the pressure of writing demands it. Even a TV show that intends to repeat a situation ad infinitum – a “situation comedy”, for example – finds that in cannot. Each episode adds to the character.

In times past, this growth was largely incidental, a process of creating new scenarios for the characters each week. This had more in common with the old penny dreadfuls, in which new chapters were published each week, and writers paid by the word, increasing the incentive to drag out the story and add new characters. TV Shows are kept on the air until their audience starts to leave, then they are given a hurried ending that most people find unsatisfying. See everything I’ve written about How I Met Your Mother for further elucidation.

So the production of TV shows still leads to dragging plots out, but the rise of “prestige” dramas and “concept” comedies yields the concept of an overall arc over a show or a season. The whole of a TV program can now tell one long story, and the episodes are mere chapters. The advent of streaming, and therefore binge-watching, a show, correlates to this phenomenon.

The best way to think of something like Breaking Bad or Maniac is as a visual novel. The problem with this metaphor is that, unlike modern novels produced and sold as a discreet unit, TV shows are ordered by-season. This is a function of cost. A book publisher is willing to take the risk on a print run, because that’s peanuts compared to funding the batallion necessary to produce a TV show. Hence, while a novel is always finished, a TV show will only continue so long as it maintains an audience. There’s a tension between immediacy and narrative built right into the structure.

This explains the aforementioned habit of TV Shows to screw up their finales. Most of the time, as with Seinfeld, a show has nothing particular to say, and so a finale is simply a process of saying good-bye. But when there’s a concept, an overall narrative and arc, the need to give an ending reflecting an audience’s emotional commitment becomes paramount. But it’s impossible to give proper attention to everything, and the longer a show goes on, the more true this becomes. This is why the last season of Game of Thrones felt so rushed, why fans left it so unsatisfied (The tendency to gloss over realities from the published world of the books did not help). There were so many threads left hanging, so many interesting things that they could have done, but which were not.

Thus, my current mood with regard to TV shows. I’m more in a movie mood, so I can enjoy narratives properly built and executed, rather than meandering their way and then getting cut off like a sausage. I’ve born disappointments enough from the attempts to transcend the structure.

What is More Boring, NPR or Sports-Talk Radio?

The significance of boredom, as a cultural force, cannot be overstated in the modern age. Our economy and culture revolves to a strong degree on Entertainment, on the manufacture of excitement and drama. When food is plentiful, and most of the necessities of life available, excitement and drama, outside of the struggle to obtain newer and better forms of these, which is itself something of an artifice, can only be manufactured, or synthesized. Therefore, the failure to create this means something. So I’m not asking the question in my headline in order to be obnoxious towards two things that I have long disdained. At least, not only for that.

I want to know, on an aesthetic level, what makes these two things boring to me. To do that we shall examine them, and to by that, I of course mean, mock them cruelly.

What NPR Sounds Like To Me:

“Hello and Welcome to Book Blab on National Public Subnambulance. I’m your host, Garn Hippleshitz. Today I’m joined by one of my five rotating co-hosts, Felecia Turnblatt, and with us, we’re very excited to have celebrated author Revna Salkanufluffluh, fresh off a highly successful book tour for her new opus, Things I Lost in My Butt, the follow-up to 2017’s Chunkugaya-Award-Winning Tell Daddy I Itch. Powerful stuff, Felecia.”

“So Powerful. So Moving.”

“Mmm, yes.”

“Mmmm.”

This isn’t a new observation about NPR. Their sacred charge to appear absolutely neutral and objective yields a vocal performance that is both deeply pretentious and soporific. Absent any video evidence of their insect-bodies emerging from their humanoid forms, we have to assume that NPR hosts are normal people. But they sound like eunuchs who couldn’t have sex if you dropped them into the middle of a Tri-Delt rager with a lifetime supply of MDMA. NPR appeals to people who stopped listening to new music in their late-20’s and believe that others enjoy being corrected.

What Sports-Talk Radio Sounds Like To Me:

“Hey, this is Norv Wankfol, on the All-SPORTS SPORTS-Talk with SPORTS. Today we’ve Got ANALYSIS and BREAKDOWNS of GAMES and HIGHLIGHTS of OTHER GAMES and questionable RUMORS and obvious TIPS for all you FANTASY players out there. I’m joined by my co-host, Scott Turdsling, who will be doing most of the actual talking, describing all athletic events using a quiver of six adjectives: outstanding, amazing, impressive, large, major, and key, while I chime in to ask for dubious predictions in order to keep the guys hiding from their bookies tuning in. With us as always is Gimp Mosely, who gets duct-taped to the telephone pole if he speaks more than twice every half-hour, as we only let him on ’cause he’s the station-manager’s nephew. Let’s just get into talking about the draft, Scott.”

“Yeah, let’s Norv. MAJOR developments at the Draft yesterday, some OUTSTANDING choices, and some AMAZING surprises. Overall an IMPRESSIVE day.”

This, it must be noted, is an entirely different kind of boring, the opposite end of the Gradient of Dull. Unlike NPR’s soulless droning, this is the boring that comes of endless rhetorical inflation of mundane events. It’s of a piece with the Weather Channel, which used to be a friendly source of local weather and nationwide radar, and is now stuffed full of sub-History Channel dramas about people interacting with extreme weather events, with titles borrowed from B-movies. I can’t tell you who sport-talk radio appeals to, as every time I try to picture someone who enjoys it, my mind touches the void. It’s all gabble and marketing under the guise of “analysis”, which is pointless, as analyzing a sporting event does nothing to change your ability to enjoy the next one. The team with the most points wins. The rest is commentary.

But as it turns out, there’s a very clear idea of who listens to Sports Talk Radio: Nerds. Sports Fans are Basically Nerds:

  • Themed T-Shirts
  • Gathering with Like-Minded Obsessives
  • Attention to Facts and Dates
  • Hatred of People Who Love a Slightly Different Version of What They Love
  • Cosplay
  • Undying Loyalty To Something That Will Never Reciprocate It

But this awareness brings new light. Sports Radio, like a Comic-Con, is boring to me because it amounts to obsessives talking about things that I have, at best, mild interest in. It’s the subject itself that loses me. It’s not anything the sports radio guys are doing. Sure, I can make fun of their witless chummery and lack of formal erudition, but that’s audience-appropriate. If anything, it would be more ridiculous to drop ten-dollar words in a discussion of a baseball game. These guys know they’re subject, they’re passionate about it, and at their best, can discuss it on a level that improves their audience’s understanding of it. My lack of interest is on me.

On the other hand, NPR is talking about things that I do have an interest in: literature, politics, art, etc. I should be a regular listener. Instead, I would rather claw my ears out. Because unlike sports radio guys, NPR hosts act as though they’re observing everything from a great height, like museum curators picking apart a thing long dead. They’re actively making interesting things boring through their performance (yes, being on the radio is a performance). And aside from introducing a few new facts or lukewarm takes into public discourse, none of them have anything interesting to say. There is nothing truly subversive or thought-provoking on NPR; it’s all Approved Narrative, Pravda read into a microphone by WASPS.

It’s one thing not to be able to interest someone in a subject despite your best efforts. It’s another to ruin someone’s enjoyment or understanding by your dullness. NPR is guilty of the latter. They are more boring. So Let it Be Written.

Why in the Hell Does Anyone Care That It’s Carrie Fisher’s Birthday?

Every now and again I like to indulge in the temptation to rail against the mindless repetition of uninteresting facts. I know it will accomplish nothing, and indeed is probably counterproductive, but I cannot help myself. This is stupid and I’m going to tell you why. Cry about it in the comments, nerds.

I could easily be mean about this. I could easily go the Ace of Spades route and declare her a coke-addled void-child of dysfunctional Hollywood nobility, who looked so elderly and fragile in the Sequel Trilogy that I expected her to shatter into pieces like a frozen T-1000 (that’s an old movie reference, kids).

Famous for her catchphrase, “Let’s go fuck injustice up!,” Fisher was known for her young-in-life rebellions and scandals, including her May-December romance with Lorne Greene, and playing Andromedan Whore #6, causing an uproar and national boycott due to her participation in Captain Kirk’s first and only non-interspecies kiss.

After her career in acting slowed, Fisher turned her attention to writing, where she turned in famous-but-officially-uncredited “punch ups” to scripts and books, such as Predator 3: Predators In Paradise and “The Bible.”

Considered Hollywood Royalty since her birth, Carrie Fisher was famously the daughter of Joey Buttafuoco and Amy Fisher.

Ace of Spades, “Carrie Fisher Dies at Age 60”

But one wants to be fair, and the older I get, the more I appreciate what Fisher was able to do with the could-have-been thankless role of Princess Leia in the Original Trilogy. Honestly, her acting in that holds up, and her prickly aristocratic mien makes her role as the Resistance Leader in the Sequels at least plausible, however little she had in the tank at the time. Yeah, it would have been nice if they’d given her more to do in Return of the Jedi, but that’s expecting more of Lucasfilm screenwriting than it’s ever been capable of delivering.

And I can’t escape the notion that if she’d read Ace’s mock obituary, Fisher would have laughed hard at it. Because no one was quicker to send up her own career than she was. I caught one of her spoken-word shows on one streaming service or another, and she had her moments, perhaps not as “OMG, hiLARious” as people are wont to say, but seeing a celeb allowed to be merely human, and wryly comment on this, is always to be saluted.

Nor was this an isolated reality, the joke turn at Comic-Con. This was Fisher’s second career. She wrote a comical pseudo-fiction novel about her life, and had that turned into a movie she wrote the screenplay for, both under the title Postcards From the Edge, which is a pretty good title. Not many people actually have the talent and drive to turn their down-and-out moments into art. She did. Can’t take that away from her.

But she’s not a Saint. She’s not even a Blessed. You don’t know her, and you honouring her Feast Day is creepy.

This is gross. You’re being marketed to by sharps and drones. Her death took literally nothing from your life (if she’d been alive, she’d have done exactly what she did in Rise of Skywalker, which is to say almost nothing). It is human to honor the dead and the great. But celebrity is false greatness, the intersection of momentary marketablity and fragile talent. They are feeding you pap and calling it Spirit.

Stop retweeting this crap. Stop reacting to it (But aren’t YOU reacting to it? Yeah, you got me. Walk away and enjoy how much you totally DeSTrOyeD my point. Nothing to see here, move along). Stop pretending you were a massive fan of the next old rock star who kicks the bucket. Honor your family, your friends. Honor the art that stands the test of time. But stop building emotional cults of devotion to corporate product. None of them will ever reciprocate your love.

I Almost Saw “Tenet”, But Didn’t. Apparently I’m Not Alone.

My wife suggested we go see it, when we had a free evening. I was willing, but not enthusiastic. In the end, we ended up not doing that instead. The film had good word of mouth, and I know Nolan to be a competent director, but the excitement to do it wasn’t there. And according to Variety, my experience is microcosmic:

Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” willed itself past the $300 million mark globally this weekend even as the overall domestic box office appeared to be on the verge of collapse.

Disney’s “Hocus Pocus,” a Bette Middler comedy that flopped when it was initially released in 1993, but became a cult hit on cable and streaming, almost matched “Tenet’s” grosses in North America and beat those of “The New Mutants.” Re-released just in time for Halloween,” “Hocus Pocus” picked up $1.9 million from 2,570 theaters. “Tenet” earned $2.7 million from 2,722 venues, pushing its domestic haul to a paltry $45.1 million. “The New Mutants” eked out $1 million from 2,154 locations, bringing its domestic total to $20.9 million

Variety.com, “‘Tenet’ Tops $300 Million Globally, but Domestic Box Office Is in Crisis Mode

Getting beat by “Hocus Pocus” (a film whose charms have always eluded me), is newsworthy enough, but the deeper question is why? There’s a whiff of a suggestion in the article that the Pandemic is to blame, but I’m not buying it? If people are willing to come out for a re-release of a Bette Midler cult hit, why not a buzzworthy film from a seasoned director? Is this just Millennial Nostalgia choking off the roots of everything else, like a weed?

Or is this the Uninteresting Name factor, as with “John Carter” back in 2012? I for one wondered what “Tenet” was supposed to refer to? A tenet of what? For whom? What kind of movie is this? Arty? Action? Arty-Action? The name doesn’t tell you anything. All we have to go on is director-name-recognition. And it appears Nolan is no Tarantino in this regard.

It might be that the pandemic suspicion is correct, in a different way. It might be that the habit of Going To The Movies is fundamentally altered, and we don’t go to the cinema anymore unless we really feel it’s “worth it”. Things were moving in this direction anyway, and the lockdowns didn’t help. Sure, “Tenet”, whatever it is, might be good, but I don’t know, and do I want to pay $40 to find out? I’ll just wait for it to stream.

The consequences of this are real. If Hollywood can’t sell a big-name director, with a lot of buzz, then their business model is fundamentally flawed.

Entertainment vs. Edutainment: The New Pulp Narrative

In my wild opinionated youth, I was something of a disdainer. Where other readers and writers widely explored what certain genres had to offer; I tended to stick with the first thing that brought me in the door. I liked Star Wars, and never found another sci-fi world that interested me until I read Heinlein. Star Trek was fine, but I didn’t want to converse with nerds about it, so I held it at arms length (yes, the irony of that is breathtaking. It was a different world then). And after reading Tolkein at age 11, no other fantasy write would ever do.

I tried the mainstream ones. Raymond Feist’s work I found dull and lifeless. Robert Jordan had an interesting take before he drowned it in a sea of skirt-smoothings and braid-tuggings. And Martin… Well, we will not speak of Martin. The only other author I held in Tolkein’s tier was Frank Herbert, and even his series got silly before it ended (I’ve never cared for the expansion novels. They don’t have the same feel. The intensity and insight isn’t there).

But there was another side of Fantasy that I haven’t explored until recently. I speak of what is known as “Sword & Sorcery” or “Blood and Thunder”, i.e. the Pulp side of things. And as I have earlier written, I have found prose craftsmanship and strong storytelling in the works of Robert Howard and Fritz Leiber. They may have been Low Art, as these things are defined, but that doesn’t mean they were garbage. Quite the contrary.

The moral quality of art is something of a bugaboo. On the one hand, to the extent art and aesthetics are tied to Philosophy, they are tied to some pursuit of Truth, which has moral considerations. On the other hand, art as a transcendent experience does not fit neatly into the finely-ground gradients that ethics and politics create. There is something to the experience of watching say, Trainspotting, that exists even if you come to deplore the ethos limned therein. Aesthetic quality and moral quality are related but distinct.

And the Pulps, generally speaking, inhabited a moral universe. There may have been gradations between darkness and light (Conan and The Grey Mauser are certainly no Paladins), but overall there was an awareness in each story of who traded in deceit and corruption, and who was honest and forthright. Justice, a Cardinal virtue, involves not just fairness but also honesty, the keeping of ones word. The ability to tell the truth and do as you have promised has always been admired, and it’s opposite reviled, across culture. Human society does not function without it. Violent pulp heroes tended to be those who could and would do that.

What isn’t found here is preaching. Pulps were not interested in subverting, inverting, or otherwise altering the moral awareness of their readers. They acted upon the moral universe common readers were familiar with. The need for art to be at odds with culture, something I’ll talk about in another Ruskin-related post later on, was not present. That was the secret of the pulp’s success, as chronicled in J.D. Cowan’s Pulp Mindset, which I’m currently reading on Kindle.

So far I’ve read Cowan’s summary of pulp history, and how it differed as mass entertainment from 20th century litfic. It has its repetitive moments (you are unlikely to forget how Cowan feels about OldPub, as he calls it), but overall it functions as a discussion of what pulp is, and its overall aesthetic. So it is of use to writers of genre fiction, especially if they want to avoid the politicized slapfights that have plagued SFWA, The Hugos, and suchlike. I look forward to reading the rest.