Aesthetics vs. Prophecy: John Carpenter’s Escape from L.A.

The Boys at RLM Recently did one of their “list” re:View episodes, about the films of John Carpenter. Let the record state that I’m not the biggest fan of this particular format. re:View works best as an opportunity to dust off an old/forgotten piece of cinema, turn it over backwards and front and make a case for why it’s worth looking at. The episode about Freddie Got Fingered is perhaps the pinnacle of the series, in that Mike and Jay argue that Tom Green made an anti-movie, a deliberately nonsensical and ridiculous parody of the entire art of cinema. And while a deliberately bad movie is still a bad movie, giving Green the benefit of inention has merit. This is kind of critical reconsideration is what makes re:View worth watching.

Instead, we get a set of quick commentaries on the man’s entire oeuvre, in the format of a “ranking”. I hate “rankings”. They’re an attempt to impose empirical order on what is by definition subjective, usually justified with un-nuanced blather. The internet does not need to be more like Buzzfeed.

In any case, regarding Carpenter’s 1996 film Escape From L.A., Jay and Rich basically say what they’ve always said, which is that it’s an unoriginal reboot of Escape from New York, with the same plot and a bunch of mid-90’s CGI stuffed into it. Which is nothing more than what the mass of critical opinion on this film has been since the 90’s. Nor am I going to attempt to argue with it. Some may say that Carpenter did this on purpose, which means he degenerated througout the 80’s and 90’s from being Ridley Scott to being Tom Green. And besides, that’s pure conjecture.

But there’s another way to look at Escape From L.A.: as a piece of hidden prophecy. Behold, Brian Niemeier:

In the early 21st century, an American presidential candidate wins a highly unorthodox election by leveraging a national disaster. As the front man for an extreme moralizing movement, he oversees the implementation of sweeping neo-puritanical directives to enforce his sect’s moral vision nationwide. Federal law enforcement is tasked with prosecuting Americans whose speech and actions were tolerated before the election. Citizens guilty of no crime are stripped of their rights and assets without due process and are exiled from society for retroactive violations of the new moral precepts. The government uses an engineered virus purported to be lethal, but which turns out to be a slightly enhanced version of the flu, to coerce citizens.

Meanwhile, mass immigration has overrun American cities, especially Los Angeles, with a plague of poverty and crime. Despite the construction of a wall on part of the southern border, a full-scale third world invasion of America looms.

But enough current events.

Let’s talk about John Carpenter’s 1996 Escape from New York sequel/remake/parody, Escape from LA.

Escape From LA” –

And again, you can argue how much of these things Carpenter intended. But as Niemeier has it, there’s at least as much of a calling-out of the pieties of our age here as in say, Demolition Man. Action movies of this era have no kindness towards secular utopianists, because action movies depend upon the knowledge that achieving the good means fighting for it, that those who would abuse civilization will always be found.

In any case, he’s sold me on actually watching it, which the RLM guys did not do. Advantage Neimeier.

William Shatner, Red Letter Media, and What Everyone Gets Wrong About Fandom

Never meet your heroes.

I’ve mentioned Red Letter Media before. They’re a YouTube channel that discusses film in a serious way, but with lots of jokes – spoonfuls of sugar to make the medicine go down. They’re different from most cinema nerds on YouTube in that they’ve actually undergone the process of making movies themselves – schlocky B-movies, that they themselves do not take seriously. But they’ve done it. They have some understanding of what it involves, so they talk about the nuts and bolts, which for a layman is an education.

Their infamous 70-minute review of The Phantom Menace taught a whole generation why the prequels weren’t working. Yes, they’ve savaged the Disney films as well. They especially made fun of Rogue One, which is the one everyone seems to love. They’re fair-minded and upfront about their perspectives.

They also do a MST3K-ish panel discussion of bad movies, called Best of the Worst, and they’ve had other creatives on as guest stars. Schlock ninja filmmaker Len Kabasinski has been on a couple of times, as has comic artist Freddie Williams, screenwriter Max Landis (before he got cancelled), comedian Patton Oswalt, and Macaulay Culkin, who’s practically a regular at this point.

I mention all of this because they’re a growing brand that is gaining widespread awareness. They hit 1 million YouTube subscribers recently. People have heard of them. Now, two of the three RLM stakeholders (Mike Stoklasa, Jay Bauman, and Rich Evans) are big Star Trek fans (I’m not going to call them Trekkies, for reasons that will become clear later). They talk about Star Trek a lot. They’re critical of the Next Generation movies, but love the show. They have nuanced criticisms of the recent film reboots. They do not like the more recent Star Trek Series, such as Discovery and Picard. But they stood up for one of the least-liked Trek movies, the 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture – a movie I’ve been wont to dismiss as “two hours of blue stuff”.

These two trends explain why RLM fans may have gotten it into their heads that William Shatner might become a guest on their show. They never invited him, but it became a meme anyway. This is an important point I’m going to come back to later.

Now I’m going to let Mike and Jay explain what happened next:

If you don’t want to spare the 20 minutes, Shatner got tired of being bugged on Twitter by RLM fans to be on the show. He was polite at first, if a bit shakey on the definition of “podcast” (which is fine, as “podcast” has a shakey definition). Then he started being less polite, then he started casually dismissing the RLM crew, watching tiny snippets of their videos and picking nits. This being Twitter, the volume increased, until the RLM guys had to stop what they were actually doing to announce that this was all a tempest in a teapot and it should all go away. Mike ends with the words “Leave him alone, because I just can’t take Captain Kirk pulling up pictures of me on The Nerd Crew (a satirical show they do) set, and calling me a moron. I just can’t take it.”

That should have been the end of it, but it wasn’t. That video came on Thursday, (July 23rd). Yesterday (July 27th), Shatner unloaded both barrels at the RLM guys with a article called “The Toxic Empires of Egoligarchies“. If you’re having a hard time getting past the title, I’ll summarize it for you: Shatner didn’t watch the video, even though he used pieces of it, and brings in GamerGate and a host of screencaps to prove that… RLM sent its fans on Twitter to harass him.

In William Shatner’s mind, this is the only possible explanation. Three guys from Milwaukee have a zombie horde of fans that they can turn on and off like tap water. That’s how fandom works.

The absurdity of claiming, in the face of no evidence, in the face of all contrary evidence, that the RLM guys signaled their fans to harass Shatner staggers the imagination. The entire pretentious diatribe (truly an accomplishment for Medium, a platform that specializes in transmogrifying peoples’ shower thoughts into “essays”) has enough circular reasoning in it to flatten a trailer park.

William Shatner knows better than this. William Shatner has had to deal with his own fans being out of control. So has George Lucas. So has everybody who has a fandom. Fandoms (oh, I how I loathe that word) are not armies, sent out into the world like digital stosstruppen to do their master’s bidding. If they were, then Red Letter Media, which is based on fans being critical of product, couldn’t possibly exist. Fans are human beings, and act along the gradient of human behavior. Some of them will be monsters, and some saints.

I’ve been a Star Wars fan since I was small. I’ve never gone to a fan convention. I’ve never bought a lightsaber or any other Star Wars paraphanelia. The only T-Shirts I have were given to me as Father’s Day gifts. I sold my old box of Star Wars toys at a yard sale for $5. More to the point, I think people who do fill their house with junk and go to such conventions are spiritually depleted dorks. Am I still a fan?

Art is a worthy topic of discussion. That’s why I have articles about Star Wars on this blog. But art is meant to be enjoyed, considered, and critiqued, not worshipped. Liking something is not a substitute for an identity. The RLM guys get that, which is why I watch their YouTube channel.

But I would never bother an octogenarian actor on Twitter to be on their show. I don’t understand why anyone would. I think doing that is just brainless schoolyard trolling, of the kind that makes Twitter nothing more than a blood-pressure surge device. Anyone who bugged William Shatner about a YouTube channel he’s never heard of is a waste of a rational soul. There’s no reason for it; you didn’t achieve your goal, and you manufactured the phoniest kind of drama in a world that is filled with real-life, actual drama. You are shrieking gibbons flinging poop and bits of half-chewed berries at the gravestone of our culture.

Now ask me: am I still a fan?

Go ahead, ask me.

Merry Podcasting

I find it interesting how “podcast” has evolved from “micro-radio show on your iPhone” to “people talking into a microphone on YouTube”.

Now this is a satrical podcast, but what it’s satirizing is very real. There are in fact, entire YouTube channels that exist for 30-year-olds to talk like children about popcorn movies under the guise of “nerd culture”. I know I shouldn’t talk, because I’m about to launch a podcast similar in scope, but I’m not a shill for Disney. I’m interested in the art form.

The podcast will be called Shallow & Pedantic, and while it’s aimed at discussing literature, film, and other things aesthetic, our approach is critical, analytical, not Go Out and See The New Thing.

This doesn’t mean Thumbs Down/Thumbs Up is going anywhere. I’ll continue to record episode for it, because I genuinely like it. I haven’t been as committed to creating new episodes as I want, because writing episodes is never as small an undertaking as I want it to be. But with the new school year comes a new focus, and a new commitment to making new content. So on we go.

Things That Are Going to Suck

Picard is going to suck.

It’s a bastardization of the character, reduced to catchphrases and some Borg plot.

The question is, why? Why is it being made?

Because member-berries?

Because the carnival of 80’s nostalgia that’s been gripping us since the late 90’s just Will Not Die?

Because J.J. Abrams ruined Star Trek and no one knows how to make it anymore?

Because we’re all getting dumber?

Because we’re isolated and cut off from each other by the false connectivity of the Web, and we long for entertainments that remind us of a time when that wasn’t so?

Because we haven’t figured out how to make culture in the age that Gibson prophesied?

Because I’m getting old and grumpy?

I Dislike Pynchon So I’m Reading More Pynchon

So I finally finished The Crying of Lot 49, and while I’d like to say the ending defied my expectations, it didn’t. My Goodreads review is as follows:

** spoiler alert ** A series of non-statements and mild suggestions and endless asides which we are supposed to forgive the author because he assigns his characters ridiculous names and makes his protagonist wander about having LSD-style revelations in longish semi-Faulknerian sentences. There’s a conspiracy to do something, and if you want to find out if any of its real, you’re going to have to decide for yourself, as the book merrily refuses to tell you. I guess you could call that a spoiler, but honestly there isn’t anything to spoil, and that’s the point. I want to punch the author for wasting my time.

But. This was an early work, and Pynchon has had a multi-decade career as a novelist. And really, what picqued my interest, as I said, was a viewing of the film for Inherent Vice. So I went to the library this weekend and picked it up.

So far, a chaper and change in, it doesn’t suck. The ridiculousness of the names are toned-down to something approaching verisimilitude, and the loose plot-logic is so far within the bounds of noir. I expect I’ll enjoy this one far more.

And that’s a good thing. It’s fun do damn a book, and even to condescend to an author from a great height, yet it’s also a shame.

Bonus: the Red Letter Media guys review the Inherent Vice movie:

What’s Wrong With Star Wars


Solo bombed. It may not have deserved to (I liked it), but it bombed. The Last Jedi didn’t do nearly as well as The Force Awakens. The narrative has switched from endless-franchise-money-machine to “maybe we have a problem with the fans“.

And they do. Whether or not they want to acknowledge it, they do.

There are many reasons for this. Some of it is Disney’s fault, some isn’t. But it’s a blunt reality that the Star Wars fandom has a lot of anger inside of it. Disney chose poorly treating the SW universe as it did Marvel.

I’m going to put my premise here, and let you decide how well I argue it:

All problems within the Star Wars fandom hinge on the creators of Star Wars not showing the same respect to the story that the fans do.

Compared to Star Wars, the Marvel Universe is an easy lay-up. These are a set of comic book characters that have never been successfully translated to the screen. The bar for a successful Iron Man, Avengers, or even Thor movie was low enough for any reasonably competent film to clear. They cleared them (and then some, as far as fans are concerned).

The exception to this is Spider-Man, which had been a trilogy already, and then rebooted, with mixed results.

Note how this explains the issues the DC Universe has been having. Batman has already had critically and commercially successful film franchises. Superman has, too. You know who hasn’t? Wonder Woman.

See the pattern?

Now translate that to Star Wars, a film trilogy from the late 1970’s-early 1980’s that had a mass of fan canon and even a second, inferior trilogy, long before Disney got its hands on it.

See the problem?

Marvel fans did not have a very clear idea of what good Marvel movies would look like, and so were content to accept anything not horrible (I’m on record has having enjoyed all the Marvel movies I’ve seen, so that’s not me damning them with faint praise). DC fans do have a clear idea of what good movies in their universe look like. Star Wars fans have a very clear idea of what a good Star Wars movie is, and a clear idea of what a bad one is. They are bound to be a great deal more picky, right out of the gate.

On top of that, the fandom has been feeling very disrespected by Lucasfilm for a very long time. Not directly disrespected, mind. Lucasflim loves fan events and fab merchandise and Fan Experiences.

But it’s been a long time since Lucasfilm treated the story with anything like respect, as far as the fans are concerned.

And unfortunately, this goes all the way back to the beginning.

A Long Time Ago, in a Retcon Far Far Away

As The Secret History of Star Wars has it, George Lucas hates writing. The last thing Lucas cares about is flawless devotion to continuity. He based Star Wars on the Flash Gordon-style adventure serials he grew up on, and those things were wild and sprawling and made up on the fly. Star Wars was, too.

Darth Vader was not originally Luke’s father. Princess Leia was not originally Luke’s sister. Both of these were retcons that got turned into Surprise Twists. There really was supposed to have been a Father Skywalker, separate from Darth Vader. Indeed, some early drafts of The Empire Strikes Back has Ghost Anakin training Luke. They were changed because after Obi-Wan Kenobi started Luke on his journey, another father-figure would have been redundant, while the Vader reveal creates a powerful low-point for Luke’s character. There was also supposed to have been a lost twin-sister from Luke, on her own journey, whom Luke was to find, perhaps in the second Luke Skywalker trilogy (there was originally supposed to be nine of them). This is what Yoda’s line in Empire about “There is another” meant. Leia became Luke’s sister in the writing of Return of the Jedi to cover this plot hole up so that Return of the Jedi could wrap the whole story up, as by 1983 Lucas was exhausted from making Star Wars and wanted to do something else.

The fact that these changes made whole scenes of exposition from the first movie nonsense or early Luke-Leia scenes suddenly weirdly incestuous was papered over with silly dialogue (say it with me: “A Certain Point of View?”) in the third film. But Vader being Luke’s father worked for the characters, and Leia being Luke’s sister at least settled Leia’s romantic affections without need for further competition between Luke and Han. So fans shrugged and accepted it.

But Lucas’ takeaway from this was apparently that he could get away with anything. Which he began, it the 90’s, to do.

The Shot Heard Round the Galaxy

In 1997, Lucas re-released the first SW film, cleaned-up and re-edited, under the title “Special Edition”. Most of the changes to the film were unnoticeable. Some, like the bigger Death Star explosion, could even be called an improvement. But none of that mattered when Lucas changed the scene Han Solo-Greedo scene to make Greedo get a shot off first, missing Han at point-blank range, while Han hits from under the table.

It looks ridiculous, and it scuttles Han Solo as a character. The essence of Han is an anti-hero who looks out for number one, thus making his double-back to save Luke from Vader at the end a meaningful turn. Shooting first to shut Greedo up is in line with that. Waiting until Greedo shoots first, hoping he’ll miss, is what Luke would have done. Han is not Luke. That’s the whole point of Han being in the movie.

George Lucas does not care. He even shoehorned in a discarded scene in front of the Falcon with a CGI Jabba the Hutt (initially Jabba had been human) in which Han states much the same dialogue we just heard in the Greedo scene. It ended up on the cutting room floor for a reason. It doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t know. Jabba actually works better as an offstage threat, until appearing in full monstrosity in ROTJ.

And when fans protested the changes, Lucas told them they were wrong, that Star Wars was his, and that he had always intended Han to shoot second, despite the fact that the shooting script, as tweeted by Peter Mayhew, said the exact opposite.

And in a Mini-Truthian turn, the Special Editions stopped being labelled as such and became the definitive versions of the films. You cannot currently buy the versions of the original Star Wars trilogy as they appeared in theaters. Lucasfilm has decided they don’t exist.

This is How Not to Treat Your Fans for $500, Alex. This is Customer Relations 101. You don’t get to memory-hole a movie this popular. This early instance of Lucasfilm showing no respect for the story paved the way for much of the rancor that followed. The fractious relationship between Lucas and fans, leading to a documentary called The People vs. George Lucas had its beginning here.

Fandom Menace

It’s difficult to quantify how much The Phantom Menace divided fans when it appeared in the summer of 1999. Very few people were just okay with it. There were those that loved it, and those that hated it. Time has not been kind to it. Lucas himself has admitted that it was a “jazz riff” on a Star Wars that did not particularly pay off.

The rest of the Prequels are hardly better. Many, including myself, actually think Attack of the Clones is worse, for it’s dreadful Padme-Anakin romance and it’s barely-there plot. But the fans kept buying tickets, hoping that This Time we’d get something like the original trilogy. We never did. Revenge of the Sith was borderline-competent, but still felt flat and uninspired. I spent a long time trying to like them, but I no longer do. I don’t ever watch them. I’ve seen enough of them.

The combination of the Prequels and the “Special Edition” sundered the fandom into TrueFans, who like everything, and Original Trilogy Purists (“Gushers” and “Bashers” as they were known in the 90’s) who really only like the first two movies and tolerate Return of the Jedi. We see a similar dynamic today, between critics of the Disney films and those content with anything after the John Williams fanfare plays. Only the names have changed: from “Bashers” and “Gushers” to “Toxic white male fanbois” and “idiot SJW harridans” today.

The online slapfights of the prequel era were obnoxious, but this was before Twitter, so unless you were specifically logged on to various Internet fan message boards, you would have known little about it. As far as the rest of the world was concerned, George Lucas made some dull CGI-borefests that pale in comparison to the originals, but they made a bunch of money, so whatever. But the schism was real, and never healed, even as the balance of opinion moved slowly in the direction that the “Bashers” were more or less right: the Prequels are inferior. This is not enough. For many, the existence of them is an insult.

In 2012, over a decade after The Phantom Menace premiered, a YouTube channel called Red Letter Media created a 70-minute video dissertation, intermixed with silly, macabre, and gross-out humor, explaining why the movie doesn’t work. It’s something of a masterpiece, if you’re into that sort of thing, but the fact that it exists at all is a sign that the Star Wars fandom was still arguing about it, thirteen years after the fact. Here begins that sense of memory tainted, of “childhoods raped” as the more hysterical ones put it, that sits underneath the nostalgia. Disney had no idea what they were getting into.

You Will Pay the Price For Your Lack of Vision

Even the news that Disney had acquired Lucasfilm in the first place met a divided response. There were those who thought Disney would finally Ruin Star Wars, and those who thought Disney could fixing the saga by showing respect to the franchise. I was in the latter camp, bone-weary with Lucas’ meretricious shenanigans and reasonably hopeful that Disney, at least, knew how to make popcorn movies.

And The Force Awakens met that expectation. I remember thinking, back when I saw the Star Trek reboot, that J.J. Abrams would be a good director for a Star Wars movie, and The Force Awakens vindicated this belief. You can look at the whole movie, with it’s Find-Luke maguffin, as a metaphor for getting back to Old-School Star Wars. I was satisfied, and a great many other fans were, too.

But again, not all. The biggest problem in TFA is the character of Rey. Despite a very charismatic performance by Daisy Ridley, Rey remains too underwritten (so far) to center  the series as Luke Skywalker did. I don’t really know what she wants, other than to sit on Jakku and wait for her parents to return. And that’s fine as a start. But it’s less than heroic, so making her the victor in a lightsaber fight with Kylo Ren comes off as unearned. Luke spends three movies becoming strong enough to hold his own against Darth Vader. The Force is supposed to be something you can access on your own, but must slowly learn to master against someone more experienced than you. This is what the story had told us.

And yes, Kylo Ren isn’t as powerful as Darth Vader. Yes, he was wounded by Chewbacca’s crossbow.  Yes, there’s something to the reveal that Rey is mega-Force-powerful, a Diamond in the Rough. I get all that. But to a disgruntled fandom, it looks like Big Corporation throwing the Rules of the Universe out the window, because It’s Our Story Now.

Which brings us to The Last Jedi, which compounded all of that. I suspect the idea behind this episode was to open up the possibilities of what could happen in a Star Wars movie, by teaching people not to expect what they had expected. And in this respect, it was a hard turn away from the criticism leveled at TFA for being a carbon copy of A New Hope. But to a lot of fans it felt like the universe they knew being wrecked for no other reason than Because We Can. Which, after The Special Edition and the Prequels, carries a whiff of Because Screw You, Nerds.

Now, I liked what the movie does with Luke Skywalker, and the movie in general, for reasons I’ve gone into before. The Disillusioned Old Hero is as much a trope of the heroic cycle as any other. But the combination of subversion, and subversion, and subversion started making people feel like they weren’t watching Star Wars so much as a Star Wars parody made by people who don’t like Star Wars.

And it doesn’t really matter if you think they’re right or not. It doesn’t matter if you think they’re just spoiled nerds who need to get over themselves. It doesn’t matter how goofy and obnoxious it is to get this torqued over a space fantasy adventure.  I’m not here to do anything other than tell you what the problem is and how deep it goes.

The problem is the makers of Star Wars have not respected the story well enough, have not even understood it well enough, to satisfy a large swath of fans. The really spiteful ones, who send death threats to news commentators and chase actors off of social media platforms, they’re just the tip of the iceberg. The real problem is the ones who’ve quietly decided that they’re done, the ones who didn’t bother seeing Solo and may well not bother seeing Episode IX. No amount of internet shaming is going to stop that Irish Democracy (if anything, it will accelerate it). Because you cannot shame people into liking something they do not like. You can only make them withdraw from the conversation, and inevitably, withdraw from you.


Comic Book Post 5.1: The Death and Return of Superman

Pursuant to Comic Book Post #5.

Max Landis, of ChronicleAmerican Ultra, and Red Letter Media fame, parodies the killing and unkilling of Superman in the famous 1993 DC cash-grab. It’s funny, and he makes a salient point at the end about ruining death in comic books (NSFW due to language).


Philosophically speaking, death and life are inextricably intertwined, as mutually exclusive states of being must be. Thus, if death is a state into which one can pass in and out of with a wave of the narrative hand, then the stakes of life are shrunk accordingly. The meaninglessness of Superman’s Death just made him the more boring.

Nerd Culture Abused

This is old, but if you’re sick of the way “nerd culture” has been inflated into a Seriously Important Thing, Red Letter Media is Awesome. NSFW for some crude language.


There’s a second episode:


You might not get this if you don’t hang around on YouTube, but they’ve been making fun of the hysterical dweebery surrounding Disney and Marvel’s Cinematic Universes for some time. And going by this recent Screen Junkies video, it’s already having the desired effect.


The best kind of satire is the kind that makes its targets reconsider things.