First off, read this brilliant analysis of 80s Action Movies by Max Gladstone. It is fantastic, especially if there’s any amount of literature geek in you at all.
Done? Okay, let’s proceed.
While I might quibble a little bit about Gladstone’s division of heroes into those who are gifted knowledge by destiny and those who earn metis by grit and cunning (I feel they are the same story operating by the same plot points, the same Campbell-ian elements, the same departure into and escape from the ‘special world’, etc..), the identification of classist divisions in different heroic stories is well done. Our heroes often exist on a series of hierarchical planes, and the stakes over which they struggle likewise change depending on this classification. Neo becomes the One whereas John McClane just gets to save his wife; Riddick rules the necromongers while Ripley escapes with Newt in dreamless sleep. The division there is real; both are heroic journeys, but the ‘elixir’ they return with (to use Campbell’s description) are of a fundamentally different nature. The two worlds they are destined to master are different.
That brings me to the topic of this post: the vaunted mythological provenance of the ‘Cops and Robbers’ drama. There are scores and scores of these stories - I scarcely need name them – but here we go: Lethal Weapon (all four), Beverly Hills Cop (both), Die Hard (and sequels), 48 Hours, Another 48 Hours, all the Dirty Harry flicks, Speed, the Rush Hour franchise, and so on and so forth ad infinitum. From The French Connection to Hot Fuzz to The Heat, people turn out to watch the boys in blue chase down the bad guys and bring them to justice. We eat it up, frankly – car chases, pithy dialogue, gunplay, and so on. It’s more than just that, though – all of those things I just mentioned can be found in a Bond movie, for instance, and that is a very different animal.
No, cop movies and the Cop Hero is all about class (or the lack thereof). The police officer is the everyman hero by definition. Even the crazy elite ones (Martin Riggs, for instance) exist within the realm of achievable ability. You – yes you – can become a cop. A cop’s job is to protect the innocent against the wicked and unjust. They are, by definition, heroic. Even though we understand intellectually that not all cops get to do such things and that the realities of police work are very, very far from glamorous, there is still a connection there you do not feel when watching James Bond or Harry Potter. These are not the elite masters of the Earth nor are they the mystical chosen one ordained by Providence to earn victory. They’re regular guys. They’re just like us.
Elements of the Cop Hero
There is more to being a Cop Hero though, than just fighting evil. All of them, to varying degrees, ascribe to the same basic archetype. Though fairly broad, this archetype is pervasive for a reason. Let me elaborate:
Problem With Authority
The Cop Hero does not feel it necessary to defer to those of higher rank. They possess the truth through the hardness and breadth of their experiences, and those above them have lost touch with such things. Whether they begin brazenly defying authority or they learn to do so over the course of their journey, in either case the result is the same: they have a higher calling than just following orders. For them, the fight to protect the streets is a passion more than simply a vocation – it is who they are. This is important to us as viewers in that it mirrors our own wishes to escape the bureaucracies that compromise our passions and deeply-held beliefs. We wish for the courage to call inept managers or superiors out on their nonsense. We hope to be bigger people than our mere job title permits. In the Cop Hero, we see potential in ourselves.
Troubled Personal Life
The Cop Hero might not be alone, but they are certainly distressed in their personal endeavors. Many are drunks, some are suicidal, almost all have poor relationships with women. Some rare few are harried by their wife or significant other or, perhaps, overcome with the responsibilities of familial life. If they have a daughter, she gets kidnapped; if they are married, their wife is threatened. Their home is literally and figuratively a battleground, whether it is due to the complete lack of domestic hygiene or because they do not and cannot control the behaviors of their family. This is, yet again, a call to the everyday and the commonplace. The battleground of the modern working adult is the work/life balance between career and home. It is an unwinnable struggle, however. As the modern man/father/woman/mother seeks to be their best selves in both places, sacrifices are inevitable in both arenas; this is a phenomenon mirrored by the cop drama, only with it magnified to extremes. The birth of the Cop Hero as we understand it arrives in synchrony with the fast-paced modern world of the mid-20th century in America, and this is no accident. Their struggle is the metaphoric extrapolation of our own.
While this is a trait broadly applied to almost every hero, part of the Cop Hero’s identity is caught up with the choice he has in his work. The Cop Hero always has (or appears to have) a way out. He can give up, go home, and let the ‘authorities’ handle it. He has a job, a pension, a desk, and so on – he does not need to do what he does. His suffering comes as a result of his own decisions, not because fate has foisted them upon him. John McClane can surrender with the other hostages and let the Feds outside do their duty; Axel Foley can stay in Detroit, put his nose to his work, and write off the death of his friend as the result of a lifetime of bad choices. Unlike other heroes, their ability to Refuse the Call is unequaled. Something, however, keeps them going even though, by all outward appearances, their decision is self-destructive and pointless. Accordingly, fate rewards their stubbornness: McClane realizes later that all the hostages would have been blown up without his interference; Axel Foley is rewarded for his ingenuity and dedication with new friends and the vindication of his suspicions. The appeal of this behavior is fundamentally tied to the underlying myth of our culture: the American Dream. The pursuit of the illogical and audacious in the face of overwhelming negative reception and contrary evidence is sacrosanct to our country’s self-image, and the cop hero – everyman that he is – embodies this idea in his quest.
So it is, then, that we have heroes with badges standing up to corruption and evil in our modern world. That they fight criminals is almost incidental; the criminals, like the heroes that combat them, are largely metaphorical anyway. The Cop Hero is the embodiment of the modern American struggle itself and, therefore, it will always be with us and relevant. That we have moved away from it in some sense (as described by Gladstone) should come as something of a warning. If we cannot produce more of Riggs and Murtaugh or Axel Foley or John McClane, one wonders whether we have either resolved the problems that plagued us as a society in the past or whether we are simply forgetting who we are.
Say you had a time machine. Not a Delorean, but a real, honest time machine under your control with no strings attached. Say it just makes doors from the modern world to whatever time you like – you can pop back and forth, like commuting. Also, given that time is not linear, you don’t actually have to worry about altering your current timeline if you go back and, say, step on a butterfly or something. Quantum theory accounts for all that stuff – if your timeline gets messed up for whatever reason, you can just travel sideways in time. Time, no matter what the Doctor says, has no fixed points we know of.
Anyway, say you had one: where would you go?
Time machine stories usually answer this question by sending their protagonists to a point in time that is crucial to their character development. Marty McFly winds up in the 1950s because his unresolved issues with his parents are what is holding him back and preventing him from reaching true maturity. The Time Traveler of HG Wells goes to the distant future because the Time Traveler is an Upper-class British Imperialist sent to witness and experience the (proposed) endpoint of the British social system and imperialist doctrine if extrapolated through the aeons. None of this, of course, really helps us in making our decisions. Ultimately, where each of us goes would be a facet of our psychology and personality, perhaps settled upon by factors we are not even consciously aware of.
For my part, I always think about going back to the Middle Ages and becoming a wizard.
I don’t mean to say that I think magic is real – of course it isn’t – but science and technology sure are real and would appear to be as magical as anything else in the context of medieval Europe. Now, mind you, this plan is almost certainly a bad idea. The dangers are tremendous – disease and violence alone would account for most of the reason not to go. Even assuming you weren’t murdered by a bandit or burned as a witch, you’d probably catch something nasty, like the Plague or Smallpox, and wind up in pretty deep trouble. Now, granted, you’re just one short time-machine trip from the good old 21st century, but still it would be a pretty crazy risk. Even all of this stuff wouldn’t be much help.
It would be cool, though, right? To see a medieval tourney, to walk the streets of medieval London, to see the castles when they were still operational – all the stuff of fairy tales. Of course, you’d see the ugly side of it, too: filthy people, suffering and starvation, barbarism and ignorance. You’d be pretty badass, though, with your layer of high-tech body armor under your robes, a stun-gun up your sleeve, and a whole bunch of scientific and technical knowledge to impress the locals. Once you learned the language, you’d be a pretty important and dangerous guy.
Me, I’d build myself a tower off in the wilderness somewhere. I’d fortify it against attack (reinforced concrete, steel doors, tear gas emitters, strobe lights, etc.), stock it with all the supplies I’d want, and let the rumors of my existence spread. I’d be a legend. Hell, even at my age (mid-30s), I’d be pushing old age anyway. I’d get to entertain knights and priests, peasants and kings. I’d give them wise counsel, impress them with my ‘magical’ knowledge, etc.. Perhaps they’d write legends or stories about me.
Of course, at this point in my little fantasy I usually realize something: man, how self-centered! Is my only reason for travelling back to this time to exercise my ‘power’ over the people of that era? Is it all about me? Wow, talk about egocentrism. One might think I don’t feel powerful enough in this world so therefore I’d feel the need to go to another better suited to realizing my ambitions. Its purpose, ultimately, is an ego-boost.
Come to think of it, is such egotism all that far from the vast majority of time-travelling stories? I mean, even if the time traveler eventually realizes he isn’t superior to the people he meets in the past (or future), all too often the storyline involves the feeling of superiority or, at least, of a higher level of cool. Marty McFly is cooler in the 50s and also cooler in 2015 than those he meets there. Sylvester Stallone is superior to the future he encounters in Demolition Man and Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is the story of a guy who goes back to the court of King Arthur and modernizes the whole operation (even if, in the end, he regrets doing so). One wonders, given the prevalence of such a theme, if the very idea of time travel itself is, essentially, egotistical. We, the blossom of modern humanity, wish to travel back (or forward) to a time and place in need of the enlightenment we can bring them and, in turn, hope to receive the adulation of the benighted masses. No imperialist or colonial power of any era could have goals any more selfish, right?
So, on second thought, let’s scrap the time machine idea for the nonce. Let’s see if we can’t clean up the now before we go prancing off to the then.
Putting on the gamer hat today – hold on.
So I ran a one-shot adventure of 7th Sea for my friends the other day. It was lots of fun, but it also drew attention to certain problems and challenges inherent in the one-shot format of role-playing games. See, unlike a session within a longer campaign, the one-shot has certain restrictions, chief among which is the fact that the entirety of the story needs to be completed within a single sitting. This, among other things, makes the art of the one-shot an aspect of game-mastering I have yet to…well…master.
Problem the First: Pacing
Telling a complete story with five of your friends fleshing it out and landing it all within a 5-hour window is a lot harder than it sounds. Try as I might, my one-shots always, always run long, and this is as much my fault as it is the players. See, I want to tell a complete and interesting story. I put in sub-plots and multiple, complex villains. In my head, it’s all paced like a screenplay – three acts, a couple action sequences, and one big finale. Should work fine, but it doesn’t. The players are always tugging off on various subplots, things always take longer than they should (I should learn to stop asking players to dictate what supplies they purchase – utter waste of time), and combat always takes too long. Despite my claims and assertions that the game will run long, somebody inevitably has to leave early, which is lame for them, lame for us, and can throw off the final scene.
Problem the Second: Rule Systems
Most games are not designed for one-shot play. They have complex rule systems that take time to teach/master, run combats at a slow pace, and basically delay the resolution of action for the sake of die-rolling. 7th Sea, as it happens, is chief among these: no duel takes less than an hour to resolve. Throw in players unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the system and you keep hitting delays – people look up rules, people hemming and hawing over their decisions, etc., etc.
Problem the Third: The Inevitable Bail-out
With these things, somebody who say they will come inevitably doesn’t show up. It happens all the time, and though I should plan for it, it usually screws things up for me. This happens because the person who always bails is the person upon whom I’ve pinned much of the plot and whose absence is the hardest to cover for. Also, this isn’t even accounting for the folks who show up late (which I’ve taken to be a given at this point), which only exacerbates the pacing issues discussed above.
Well, seeing how it’s rare that I manage to run a ‘perfect’ one-shot, I’m not certain I’m the guy to give you the answers here. I do, however, have a couple things I try to keep in mind when running such games. When I follow my own advice, things often go well.
Solution the First: Be Less Ambitious
Your players don’t really need Goodfellas or The Godfather when The Untouchables will do. Drop the sub-plots. Flatten out your villains. Cut the action to quick moments with only one major battle. Your players, like as not, will fill out the empty space with their own ideas. If you are good thinking on your feet, you’ll be able to give the plot the attention it needs while still exploring sub-plots and good ideas.
Solution the First, Sub A: Be Willing to Change!
One thing you can also do is, if the game is running long, drop certain conflicts you had originally counted on. Take out things, consolidate other things, and your players might never know the difference.
Solution the Second: Pick the Game Wisely!
Certain games are custom-made for fun one-shot adventures. Classic D&D fits this mold, as does Call of Cthulhu, Feng Shui, and some others make characters or play a game with very simple character generation systems (Danger Patrol comes to mind). Don’t sit down with every Shadowrun sourcebook known to man and expect to make characters in an afternoon *and* play a game. Forget it.
Solution the Second, Sub A: Rules, Shmules!
In a one-shot, nobody should look anything up in a book ever. Who gives a crap if you get a rule wrong? Make up a serviceable house rule on the spot and move on. If you’re wrong, it hardly matters – you’re only playing this game this once, so there are no real repercussions of screwing something up. Likewise with some other things players get obsessed with: give the players whatever equipment they want with a minimum of fuss. Tell them they have enough money to do whatever sensible thing they’d like to do. Don’t ever ask them the question ‘is there anything else you’d like to do?’ when you want a scene to end. Just finish it. Tell them their brilliant plan works and move on with your life – you can’t spend fifty minutes role-playing out a shop scene. Waste of time.
Solution the Third: Pick Your Players
If you’re like me, you know a lot of people who like to play RPGs and are asking you about playing in them. Of this grand company, there are perhaps only 3-5 who you can rely upon to appear when they say they will. These are the people you game with. Those other folks are great, and by all means invite them, but don’t make them central to the game. That may sound harsh, but hey, if they have a habit of never answering their phone and being perpetually forty-five minutes late, it’s on them, not you. I’m an adult and so are they. If they want to play games with me, they have to demonstrate that they want to play games with me. This is typically demonstrated by showing up on time and being good at communicating with others. This, by the by, is the rule I am absolutely the worst at obeying myself. Ah well.
So, there you have it – a rough and ready guide to a single night’s geekery. Hopefully it’s helpful! Thanks for reading!
This weekend I watched the last episode of the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and, as I did here for Season 1, I’m going to give a rundown of the best episode and worst episode of the season (in my opinion) for your enjoyment or, I suppose, rage.
First off, let me just say that the second season was a vast improvement over the first one. Here the show found its stride and started to look more like the Star Trek I remembered and loved, rather than its poor, unsophisticated cousin. Many of my favorite episodes were here, including “A Matter of Honor” (Riker among the Klingons), “Loud as a Whisper”, “The Icarus Factor” (Riker’s dad), and others. Even Doctor Pulaski, who I never much cared for, served to be a pretty reasonable character. Miles O’Brien starts to get lines (though he’s still not much more than a sketch), Worf gets significantly cooler, and so on.
The Worst Episode: “Shades of Gray”
Now, there were a lot of silly episodes in this season to pick from. There’s the one where Wesley falls in love with the shape-shifting pretty girl and her big hairy nursemaid tries to kill him (“The Dauphin”), which very nearly made the list (I remember yelling “Furry Monster Showdown!” at the television screen several times). There’s the one with the space Irish (“Up the Long Ladder”), which was vaguely insulting to the Irish. There was the one where Lwaxana Troi tries to marry every man aboard the Enterprise as a side effect of Betazoid menopause (“Manhunt”). Finally, there was the one where Troi has a mysterious space-baby (“The Child”) and which would have been the worst episode of the season were it not for Worf’s clear desire to incinerate an infant with his phaser, which somehow made the entire episode more palatable (well, at least not everybody is okay with this nonsense).
No, the worst episode, by a nose, is the season finale, “Shades of Gray.”
This should be pretty brief: Riker gets a cut, it gets infected, and then he has dreams. Dr. Pulaski saves him by giving him bad dreams. The end.
I’m serious, that’s it. Oh, well Troi cried, but that’s to be expected – she cries in at least 50% of the episodes.
I have grown used to a world in which the season finale is something spectacular, something shocking and amazing – something that makes me sad the show will be gone for a few months. I forget that such was not always the case in the old days. In some shows, the season finale just meant the writers were tired and didn’t have any more ideas. What are a bunch of overworked television writers to do? Well, run a clip show, obviously. How do you do that? Ah, yes – an extended dream sequence.
So, that was basically it. Riker has a neural infection that is killing him and falls unconscious. While Troi weeps incessantly at his side (seriously, lady, if it’s that upsetting to feel his dreams, LEAVE THE ROOM), Doctor Pulaski alters Riker’s brain chemistry to repel the infection (don’t ask). This means he dreams about stuff. What does he dream about? Well, all the episodes he’s been in during the last two seasons.
This leads to us watching stupid clips from the worst moments of the last two years. Want oil slick monsters? You got it. Want Riker making out with women in knit tank-tops? Check! Want Riker getting beaten up by an old man possessed by a bug? Will do! All of this while the frame plot plods along at a slow pace towards its inevitable, absurd, and predictable conclusion. Riker is saved! Yay! How Dana Muldar and Marina Sirtis were able to stand in that room and spout exposition and technobabble to one another for that long without cracking up is beyond me. Overall, this was arguably the laziest episode of television since that time the producers of ALF pretended to have Alf sub-in for Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show and the whole episode was just a long joke about how the pope was in the bathroom while they showed random clips sprinkled throughout the show’s run.
The Best Episode: “The Measure of a Man”
If you don’t remember this episode or have never seen it, you cannot say you are a Star Trek fan with any accuracy whatsoever. I mean that.
This is the episode wherein Data’s identity as a real, living, sapient creature is established in Federation and Starfleet Law. It is a courtroom drama, demonstrating the flaws and elegance of our modern adversarial method of justice while, at the same time, exploring truly profound moral issues that are being and will continue to be debated from now until there is a real Data sitting in a courtroom across from a real scientist who wants to take him (it?) apart. There is nothing I don’t like about this episode. The dialogue is tense, the acting superb, the concept interesting, and the outcome incredibly satisfying. Patrick Stewart gives a stunning performance, delivering his defense with all the subtlety and skill of a true Shakespearean. Yeah, maybe I’m waxing slightly hyperbolic, but I challenge you to watch this episode and not feel the same way.
As we move closer and closer to creating true artificial intelligence, the debate about the rights of such a creature are going to become more and more important to consider. This episode explores the issue deftly and efficiently, and I applaud it for that reason. If you haven’t seen it recently, go and watch it now. If you can’t be bothered, watch this clip:
I dare you to top that performance. I double dog dare you.
Fair warning: if you play a game against me – a game I like and enjoy – I will come for your blood. I don’t mean it personally, but I like to compete and I particularly enjoy winning. I can get unreasonably interested in even very trivial competition. A ‘casual’ game of Trivial Pursuit is nothing of the kind to me. I will crush you. No offense.
Granted, age has taught me how to ratchet back my competitive response in certain situations. I’ve learned to do this habitually now, but I always have that moment where I need to pull back on the throttle, lower my blood pressure, and tell myself ‘it’s only a game – calm down.’ So, essentially if you play a game with me, you get two versions of myself: one who doesn’t seem that invested in the outcome, and one who is very, very invested in the outcome. No middle ground.
There is something to be said for competitiveness as a positive trait, though. It keeps me coming back for more even in the face of defeat (pretty crucial for a writer). It means I work well under pressure and that I thrive in competitive situations (which, let’s face it, are common). It means I tend to keep myself as my best self whenever I can. These are all good things. I wholly believe that competition and competitiveness is, on balance, good for everybody. It’s good for society, the economy, personal fulfillment, and so on. There’s no need to be a jerk about it (sore losers and sore winners are real louts), but testing your worth is an important part of life.
This brings me to this article by Lynn Shepherd on the Huffington Post, in which she appeals to J.K. Rowling, asking her to stop writing. Shepherd insists that Rowling “sucks the oxygen out of the room” in the publishing industry, making it hard for new novelists to get started. She adds:
By all means keep writing for kids, or for your personal pleasure – I would never deny anyone that – but when it comes to the adult market you’ve had your turn.
So, basically, ‘go away, Ms. Rowling, as your success is enough and you should be done now.’ To which let me now add my response:
The fuck is this?
Okay, let’s breeze past the part where she belittles an entire genre of literature because it’s for young adults and, therefore, somehow worthless: I’ve discussed this before, and I think the sentiments contained therein are as applicable here as there. What I really want to discuss is the supposition that, just because somebody is successful, they should stop doing what makes them successful so other people can have a chance. What a load of bullshit.
Look, I understand the frustration of being passed over or ignored in favor of more established authors or voices. I completely understand reading books and thinking to yourself “hey, I write way better than this! Why aren’t my books getting published and sucking up so much attention?” Believe me, I’ve been there. That, however, is no reason to demand (or even politely suggest) that an author should stop publishing just so you can get a chance.
First off, this seems to be a misunderstanding of how the publishing market works. Do you think quality has anything to do with which books sell? Like, if Rowling weren’t there, people would somehow magically gravitate to your book because they’ve heard how great it is rather than, oh, not reading anything at all! Seriously, do you know why people read The Casual Vacancy? Because JK Rowling wrote it, that’s why. It has nothing whatsoever to do with their inability to see other authors behind Rowling’s aura of popularity. It’s because the aura of popularity is the only damned thing they’re interested in. People didn’t read A Casual Vacancy because they thought it was a good book – hell no! – they read it so they could say that they read it. They wanted to be seen at the beach with it poking out of their bag. They wanted to have their nose stuck in it on the train so that other people could look at them and say to themselves “my, there goes a lady who’s got her finger on the pulse of publishing today! My, my, what a peach!” The millions of people who buy Rowling’s books are not waiting in the wings to buy other people’s books. They are waiting to buy what is cool, not what is good.
Yeah, sure, there are people who are just plain Rowling fans and read the book to support her, but a book doesn’t just sell that many copies based solely on literary merit. Perhaps it ought to be that way, but it obviously isn’t. Look at Dan Brown. Stephanie Meyer.
Dave Barry. ‘Nuff said, right?
My second point is this, and pardon me if I wax a little Klingon here: Are you a coward? What kind of meek, squeamish writer are you that you balk in the face of challenging the best sellers of the day? Do I need to dig Vrokthar out to give you a talking to? I don’t want the mega-selling authors of the day to quit their jobs just to make room for me – no fucking way. I want to beat them. I want to get my own hordes of howling fans by the merit of my own prose, not because of the absence of somebody else’s. Will I fail? Yeah, probably, but I’m going to take a swing at it anyway. I don’t want my success handed to me; I want to earn it. I want to claw it, tooth and nail, from the cold, hard clutches of the publishing industry. I want to hold it up in my blood-soaked hands and display it to the crowd – my victory, my trophy. I don’t want Rowling to go anywhere. I, rather, want to write books so unspeakably awesome that someday, when I’m at a conference somewhere on some panel or other, JK Rowling herself comes up, shakes my hand, and says “Mr. Habershaw, I’m a huge fan of your books.”
And you know, if I fail, if I never pull it off, if JK Rowling never hears my name and no fans of any number ever congregate anywhere to discuss my work, it will still be worth it. I won’t cry about not winning; no, not me. Win or lose, though, I won’t stop trying until they nail my coffin shut. I will leave you, now, with one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite people of all time, the inimitable Bruce Lee:
Do not fear failure - not failure, but low aim is the crime. In great attempts it is glorious even to fail.
Get out there. Fail gloriously.
And don’t you dare complain.
It all starts in a tavern. All pointless stories start there, since that is the place we can easiest imagine meeting others and doing something interesting, despite the fact that meeting in taverns rarely leads to anything more interesting than intoxication. There’s an elf and a dwarf, and let’s say an orc. Or ork – whichever. Everybody’s drinking ale (which is more interesting than beer) and the barmaid has an irresponsibly plunging neckline. Let’s presume she works for tips.
This is the point in the story where somebody runs in from outside, breathless and bloody. Or where some loud-mouth starts spouting off about ‘the only good orc is a dead orc’ or whatever. Perhaps some lunk gets handsy with the barmaid. Maybe somebody mysterious posts a note on the bulletin board. It says the following:
Wanted: 1 Warrior, 1 Thief, 1 Wizard (Elves, Priests, and Dwarves optional)
Meet the Creepy Stranger in the Inexplicably Empty Back Room
Maybe all of these things happen. The point is this: what happens next is a bar fight.
Why? Evidently such things are fun. Heroic music plays, as is fitting for acts of criminal vandalism and assault. The fight rages on, and heroes emerge. Why are they heroes? Well, they’re winning the fight, of course. They find in each other a ready ally, a surprise to no one save themselves. Maybe, at the end of all this, they rescue a princess in disguise (she was slumming it, you know. Why drink in the palace when there’s a perfectly good dive down the road where you might get assaulted by a dwarf?). Whatever happens, the drunk under the table never notices; he rises, alone, and is delighted to find free beer.
I mean ale. Sorry.
So begins a tale of adventure. High drama. Endless banter. Derring do on every other page. Maybe, by the end, the elf and the dwarf and the orc become friends. A little tear forms in the corner of our eye, but we refuse to ever acknowledge its existence. The tear is undercover, you see. Top Secret. Hush-hush.
I bet you were rolling your eyes up there. Chuckling, perhaps? Sure, and why not – cliché is so banal, it’s comedy. Then again, though, there’s something to be said for mindless fun. I recently read an article by Adam Sternbergh in the NYT magazine considering the worth of so-called ‘guilty pleasures’. I enjoyed it immensely and enjoin you to read it.
Why do we feel so bad about liking things considered low-brow? I mean, isn’t it okay to have fun – even dumb fun – on occasion? Must everything be so deep and serious all the time? I confess to feeling the pressure myself. As an academic (or pseudo-academic, given that my terminal degree is not a PhD but rather an MFA), there is a certain pressure to make what I write and what I enjoy somehow important. Not all of it is, though, no matter what I do to it. When I confess to liking Armageddon or Army of Darkness, there isn’t much that can be said to give such works merit. Likewise my hobbies: despite its sophistication, there is nothing truly artistically redeeming about Warhammer 40, 000 unless you put far more effort into painting miniatures than I do. And even then it’s suspect.
So what, though? I think sometimes we spend too much time decrying the frivolous, forgetting just how important frivolity can be. As much as being serious adults is important, it isn’t the only game in town. We also need to have fun. We also need to do things that are easy. All work and no play makes Homer…something…something…
Right then – let’s go to the tavern. I’ll buy you an ale. Later, when we’re riding dragons to save the King of Thumbershire from the Daemon Princess of Xoon, you’ll thank me. Dwarf’s honor.
I’ve been watching Sherlock lately, making good use of the doohickey my wife got us that lets us stream stuff over the television. I love the show, and I particularly love Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, a ‘high-functioning sociopath’ who’s particular hobby horse is the resolving of mysterious crimes. Were I to meet this Sherlock in real life, however, I would almost certainly find him intolerable. He’s an ass, simple-as. Granted, we might see him as somehow psychologically damaged, but that doesn’t absolve him of his ass-itude.
I find it interesting how much the anti-hero has become the standard in recent years. Between Sherlock, Walter White, Dexter Morgan, Frank Underwood, and others, we who watch television dramas bear witness to a veritable who’s-who of antisocial behavior and destructive personality complexes. Let us cleave through the fawning praise of their abilities for the moment (though they are extensive): these men are broken, psychologically unsound, and often amoral or immoral. By many measures they are bad people. People we would not like to know, with whom we ought not really sympathize, and whom are both dangerous and unstable. Really.
So why the love? Okay, yes, the antihero is an old trope. There is fascination to be had plumbing the depths of our dark souls (look at Macbeth, Othello, Medea, and so on), and no argument there. Walter White’s descent is compelling drama, like all good tragedy. What I wonder at sometimes, however, is the lionization of these characters in popular consciousness. By all accounts, Dexter Morgan should make us uncomfortable. His brand of ‘justice’ is cruel and without the ennobling spirit that the word ‘justice’ implies. Dexter would be killing people, one way or another, so he may as well kill people society deems reprehensible. We shrug and say ‘well, they were bad people anyway – who cares if they’re cut up and sunk in the Gulf Stream.’ We are okay with him. Similar with Sherlock – he is cruel to people, he is disinterested in the public welfare, he is gleeful at tragedy. Still, we admire his power and his intelligence and forgive him his (substantial) faults.
This should be concerning on a social level, if not a moral one. What does it say about us that we admire these creatures? I wonder this as I read student papers analyzing a hero of their choice – many of them choosing Dexter or Walt – and applying no more stringent criticism of their behavior than to say ‘they might seem bad, but they really care about their family.’ This, I suppose, makes it okay. Dexter is a serial killer who on a couple occasions murders people who do not deserve it, but we forgive him this by dint of the fact he throws birthday parties for his infant son. For the most part, my students apply words like ‘strong’ and ’determined’ and ‘smart’ to these characters and leave it at that – such qualities are sufficient to secure admiration, regardless of context.
Context, though, is crucially important for considering what these characters indicate about the audience they appeal to. Without exception, all of them are powerful. For all their failings as people, as devices they are perfection itself. Perhaps this is evidence of the divide our society has placed between one’s life and one’s work (if you’re screwed up in life, you aren’t a failure so long as you are successful at work). Perhaps it means we have a broader understanding of worth (the world takes all kinds, yes?). Perhaps it indicates a certain disenchantment with the absolutism of moralists (this guys isn’t ‘good’, but look at all the good he does!). Any and all of those are potentially interesting threads of analysis. Still further there is another one, but it gets a little meta: the hero’s journey as satire. We love Dexter, but we’ve been suckered into it. The writers have stacked the deck, have given us a window into the mind of the ‘monster’, and now taunt us with it – you are cheering for the murderer, for the jerk, for the liar, for the criminal, you fools! Perhaps we should be taken aback by our enthusiasm.
Regrettably, I am not certain that is the case. I think it, perhaps, more likely that many of us have come to expect ugliness from our heroes just as so many have come to expect ugliness from our world. Our heroes are cynical ones, broken just as we, perhaps, are. We travel with them in the hope that somehow, by some artifice we have yet to devise for ourselves, they can find their place in the sun, warts and all.
Once more the mewling cries of fat, indulgent southlanders have disturbed mighty Vrokthar the Skull-feaster, Scourge of the Northern Wastes, and compelled him to respond. Even now, the iron rails of his battle-sledge are being oiled in the liquefied fat of his vanquished enemies by the trembling hands of his many slaves. When my team of great dire wolves is ready to venture forth, the howl of my displeasure will eclipse their own, and then you fools will understand fear.
Until then, I will explain my displeasure in mighty detail, so that you shall know your weakness before you vacate your pitiful, tiny bowels at the sound of my coming.
The magic box of light in my yurt has glowed these past months with the many and varied curses you fling upon the gentle snows and mild temperatures of your pathetic southron winters. It would appear as though the prospect of frozen water falling quietly from the sky is enough to make you quake in terror. Vrokthar would say he was surprised at this, but no – he is well aware of how weak and impotent you so-called civilized people have become. Barely a day may pass before Vrokthar must endure the wailing of some new milksop, no doubt fresh from his mother’s fleshy teat, moaning to his non-existent gods that he must dare walk an entire twenty yards in the cold air. Are you children? Have you not beards? If you lack beards, can you not weave scarves from the beards of those you have slain? What manner of delicate creatures are you? Vrokthar has known songbirds to endure better than you have. Even for weakling southlanders, surely you must be mocked for this fragility? Were I your co-worker, I would cleave your head from your body and leave it steaming in a snowbank if only to prove how long it takes for a mammal of your puffy, indolent proportions to cool.
Here, in the Northern Wastes, we have but four seasons: June, July, August, and Winter. In Winter, the cold is a gift. It tests our strength as a people and weakens our enemies. As the icy arctic winds scrape across our exposed skin, we delight in the ceaseless pain it causes us. Who needs ears, a full nose, and all of one’s fingers and toes? Surely no true tribesman of Vrokthar’s people has need of such indulgences! We are strong! Those who cannot survive winter’s embrace have no need of life. We use their bodies to feed our wolves and their skins to make our capes, as it right and just.
You fools have no conception of true winter. Have you seen men drown in snow so deep it has no bottom? Have you been forced to thaw your eyeballs by dipping them in boiling water? How often have you licked the bloody blade of your sword, only to have your tongue stick in place and then been forced to fight the remainder of the battle killing men with your sword-tongue? None! You skip from your heated homes to your heated cars or trains to your heated offices, bundled in so many offensively-colored fabrics that you appear to be a pack of overweight circus performers, and yet you moan. “I’m going stir crazy from being inside,” or “I can’t stand shoveling this snow.” Bah! How can you have survived so long? How have not the squirrels and the alley cats not culled your hapless population? Cannot go outside? Are you an infant? Are you the descendant of tropical canaries?
Yes, yes – weep over your so-called hardships. Vrokthar comes for your soon. He will stride across your salted, shoveled property with ease and drag your sniveling carcass into the hot winter sun of your land. He will laugh, shirtless, and he strips you of your many layers of ‘fleece’. You will know cold then – oh yes – but not from your ‘winter.’ It will instead be the icy chill of my cold displeasure, come at last to find you.
We have at this point had enough actors play Superman that we can have a conversation about who did it best, much as is done for James Bond and Batman and (for some reason) Jack Ryan. For me, the order goes like this:
- Brandon Routh
- Christopher Reeve
- Tom Welling
- Dean Cain
- Henry Cavill
- George Reeves
I’ll accept argument about the lower four, but not the top two. Chistopher Reeve owned that part – it was part of his being, much like Sean Connery will always be Bond and Johnny Weismuller will always be ‘the’ Tarzan. Brandon Routh, though, gives us the most interesting and balanced performance, bar none. His movie is the best Superman movie. When I think of Superman, I am either thinking of #1 or #2 on that list.
Superman Returns gets a bum rap. People seemed to have not liked the movie, and I don’t quite understand why. To be fair, Routh is simply playing Reeve playing Superman to some extent – it’s the exact same character in the exact same plot continuity – but excised of a lot of the stuff that made Reeve’s movies silly. Instead of a fairly flat tale of Superman flying around and saving people, we get an in-depth character drama circling around one of the more interesting love triangles in superhero-dom. Oh, and we have Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor, and I don’t think anybody can seriously suggest anybody did it better than he did. Even Gene Hackman pales next to Spacey’s sharp, witty portrayal.
Anywho, in Superman Returns, Supes comes back after being gone for five years – he journeyed to Krypton to see what was left. When he gets back, the world has moved on without him. Most interestingly, Lois Lane is now engaged and has a kid. Lane is the same high-octane reporter and no-nonsense girl, Clark is the same befuddling goofball, but now we’ve moved on from the will-she/won’t-she anticipation of the Superman/Lane relationship. This is good – it was a bad idea for a relationship, anyway. Clark, though, isn’t quite willing to let go.
Enter the other man. Lane’s fiancée is (surprise!) a nice guy. A good guy. He’s handsome. He’s tall. He has a job. He’s good with the kid. He’s kind to Lois. He is a completely, 100% decent human being deserving the girl he’s got. I LOVE that about this movie. I am so very, very tired of the old superhero trope that reserves the affections of certain women (named Vale, Watson, Lane, Potts, and so on) for their specific heroes, as though they are some kind of franchised and licensed appendage to the male lead. No, bullshit – Lois Lane didn’t wait for Superman. Why should she? Some jackass flies off for five years and, what, she’s gonna just hang around? Not her. Oh, and the movie also gives her the respect of assuming that an intelligent, capable, and strong woman like Lois is able to pick a guy who isn’t a jackass, a liar, a jerk, or any of that crap. She doesn’t need to be rescued from her own life by some guy in a cape. Sure, she needs to be rescued from a crashing jumbo jet and a sinking boat and what-not (she isn’t a superhero), but Lane has her life figured out. She’s living it. She doesn’t need Superman. Well, almost certainly not.
That, right there, is the central conflict of the story: Lois might not need Superman, but does she want him? Clark may not have her, but should he get her back? Yes, yes – Lex Luthor is in the midst of a dastardly plot and Lois gets mixed up in it and Superman has to stop him – but the purpose of that plot is to demonstrate and explore Clark and Lois’s feelings for one another and their new relationship. This is interesting on a number of levels, not the least of which is this: the writers realize that the only conflict interesting enough to sustain Superman is one that he cannot punch his way out of.
Did any of you get bored in Man of Steel after the 45th straight minute of indestructible people punching each other? I did. I mean, jeez – they are invulnerable superbeings. Throwing them through a wall isn’t going to do crap. They know it. We know it. Everybody knows it – why do we go through the motions? Man of Steel seemed fueled by the juvenile and visceral enjoyment involved in destroying large portions of real-estate with immense special effects budgets. Yeah, it’s fun, but it lacks a certain trueness to the character. Brandon Routh safely stopping the crashing jumbo jet from smashing into the baseball stadium and then setting it on the field was iconic. Every part of that scene was quintessential Superman – the guy who is so good he can’t be from this world. That’s what it’s all about.
Cut back to him and Lois, we are watching a genuine moral dilemma. Superman possesses the power to get Lois back – nobody doubts that, not even Lois. She still has feelings for him and could probably be convinced, as much as she might not want to be. In the end, though, Superman doesn’t get her. Lois chooses the other guy. The other guy distinguishes himself as a hero in saving Lois. Superman backs off, knowing this is for the best. It’s a little bittersweet, but we feel good – this is the right decision. That, to me, is what Superman is all about. He is about making the right decision. He is about taking the high road, despite his feelings. No movie or show has ever told his story better than Superman Returns. Not that I’ve seen, anyway.
Unfortunately, such subtlety seems to have been lost on movie-going audiences. They much prefer the near-genocidal violence of Man of Steel and a character who is less ‘super’ and more aloof and detached. Cavill’s Superman is a stock hero – he’s Wolverine in different underroos, he’s Batman with laser vision, he’s yet another version of the ronin, the disgruntled knight errant. A good character, sure, but not who Superman is. Superman is the Paladin. The incorruptible, unachievable paradigm. People seem to think that’s boring, but I disagree. People just don’t seem to think hard enough about how interesting and difficult journey it is to do the right thing for the right reasons at the worst times.
Albert Einstein once said,
Gravitation cannot be held responsible for people falling in love. How on earth can you explain in terms of chemistry and physics so important a biological phenomenon as first love? Put your hand on a stove for a minute and it seems like an hour. Sit with that special girl for an hour and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.
Our concept of time is, essentially, illusory. In this respect it is not very different than anything else – our perception of space is no less malleable and theoretical, and our understanding of each other is even less substantive. We are all, essentially, making things up as we go along. We are trying to appreciate the Mona Lisa through a keyhole.
The other day a student of mine started complaining about public transportation, bemoaning how long it took her to travel from her house to school. This struck a nerve with me; I laid into her. “If you hate it so much, why don’t you drive?” I asked.
“It’s so expensive and so hard to park around here!”
I grimaced. “Then stop complaining.”
It was harsh of me. I probably shouldn’t have given her so much crap about what is, essentially, an innocuous complaint so commonplace as to be almost cliché. Everybody bitches about the MBTA. Never mind that it is the cheapest, most convenient, and most reliable form of transportation in Boston outside of a bicycle or your feet. Rain, snow, hot, cold, the T gets you there for a substantially smaller amount of money than anything else. It’s slow and uncomfortable and sometimes you get delayed or stuck in a tunnel. Sometimes it takes you 90 minutes to travel five miles and sometimes you have to stand on a cold platform in the winter with a crying baby and curse the inefficiencies of the system.
But it costs you less than $70 a month (or less!), you never get a parking ticket, and if it breaks down, you aren’t stick with the repair bill. Nobody can steal it, you don’t care if it’s interior is scuffed up, it rarely gets in an accident, you never have to gas it up, it’s good for the environment, and, if it breaks down, somebody comes along in a bus to take you where you’re going without you needing to do anything.
All you need to do is wait.
Modern society is terrible at waiting. Terrible. We are incredibly, stupendously spoiled when it comes to getting what we want, when we want it. I’m as guilty of this as anybody. If a website takes more than thirty seconds to load, I probably won’t bother looking at it. If my pizza takes more than 45 minutes to arrive at my front doorstep, I get pissed off.
This decline (and I do think it is a decline) is a side-effect of advanced technology. We are so used to having our demands met, we are frustrated when they aren’t. We bustle about, chained to our wristwatches (ah, I’m dating myself here – our smartphones, excuse me), so convinced that if we are ten minutes late to (wherever) that this somehow represents a failure of the world worthy of vocal and elaborate disdain.
Certainly, punctuality is important and respectful of others – if you are late, apologies should be in order and we must take measures to prevent habitual tardiness lest we tarnish our own self-image. We must remember, however, that the world is not always at our command. How arrogant of us to assume that a regional rail network will instantly obey our travelling whims. How petty of us to condemn a website for it’s inability to instantly react to our commands. I might regale you here with tales from yesteryear, but consider this: how many more paragraphs of this blog post are you willing to read? I’m betting it’s not much more than three. I will finish this well shy of 1000 words, but most of you have already started skimming. Why? You lack patience. Go and look at a 19th century novel. Weigh it in your hands. Consider that what you are holding was likely considered ‘light reading’. Reflect.
Nothing has taught me patience quite like the act of writing. I send things out into the world, and I wait. I cannot badger editors to respond to me, as much as I wish to. I cannot push publication schedules any faster than they will move. I must simply bide my time and reap my harvests when they ripen. For all its aggravation, there is wisdom in this.
I worry for us. I worry for a species that cannot or will not read more than 1000 words on any subject. That seems to imply that there is nothing – no concept, no work of art – that cannot be encompassed by 1000 words. If such exists, we do not wish to see them. We live forever with our hand on the hot stove and forget the long, silent gaze of a world as special as any woman.