Metropolis Maria

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

In Defense of Bad Genre Fiction, or why I like The Mummy 3

I love bad genre fiction. I enjoy movies like National Treasure and the Mummy franchise, as well as the subpar movies based on comic books and other big-budget, low-rent script CGI-fests. I also like the purple prose of stories from the pulp era of the 1930's and '40's that are long on action and short on logic.

By all rights, this shouldn't be the case. My degree is in film and television production, and I enjoyed classes in film and television criticism.  But I still loves me some low-brow entertainment.

Why is that so? That's a valid question and one I really couldn't answer exactly until after the premiere of the third Mummy movie with Brendan Fraser.  Then, someone who I don't normally agree with actually helped me crystallize my thinking. To be clear, I don't agree with his conclusions, but in modifying his approach, I came up with the following theory: we were wired to enjoy a little visual junk food every now and again.

My theory is based on the idea that we were created with three aspects about us.  This is known as the Tripartite view of man.  This view is founded on scriptures like Matthew 22:37, where Jesus answered, "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.'" (NCV)

My interpretation of this idea holds that the 'heart' (or 'body') is the physical and visceral part of people, where we have the senses to help us process the world around us, the 'soul' represents the spiritual side of man, the ability to connect with God on His level, and the 'mind' is the intellectual ability within think and reason through everything. In Wesleyan Methodism, there is an analysis of how we can know things called 'the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.'  The four 'sides' of the quadrilateral state that we know things based on Scripture or Revelation, Reason, Experience, and Tradition. Three of these sides also support this theory.
Popular culture has been slammed on all sides: the Intellectual community slams it because very often, there is very little to challenge the mind. The religious community rejects it because it often doesn't ask the deeper questions about God, or challenge people to know Him better.  

I enjoy reading short stories written during the pulp era of the 1930's and 1940's. They really have little to no intellectual content. Often, they were written quickly and sold on the basis of word count. But they are a lot of fun to read, and for many writers, they were the springboard that launched them into deeper oceans of literary credibility, once they had learned their craft working for pennies-a-word payments.

It is also true that occasionally one struggles to find deeper meaning within works of popular culture.  But I maintain that if one looks hard enough, you can find something to think about, and rewardingly, something that resonates with the hopes and dreams of the culture we live in, however imperfectly realized.  It is an awful lot like 'junk food.' Look on at the nutritional information on a bag of chips. Yes, they may be high in calories, and disproportionately low in nutrition, but no junk food is totally devoid of something good.  One does not, and in fact cannot make a steady diet of junk food without doing irreparable harm.  As a preacher I heard say, "Don't get drunk on the Kool-Aid of popular culture." But at the same time, one can find grains, and even sometimes nuggets of truth even in the cheesiest of media offerings.

But the reverse is true. We should not refrain from treating ourselves to a story that gets our blood pumping as well as filling our minds with ideas and causing our spirit's to long for an awareness of God's presence. After all, God made us completely human, and this includes the body.  It's nice to have a treat once in a while. When we focus on the intellectual over the others, we get dry academic snobbery. When we focus on the spiritual too much, we get either people who are "so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good" or we get a Pharisaical attitude that drains the joy out of what should be a joyful experience. We need all three. When we have all three in one story, I think those are the stories that we can point too as true representations of the Epic. they They fulfill the needs of every part of our being.

Earlier, I referenced the Brendan Fraser MUMMY movie franchise.  When the third film premiered, it was laid low by the critical press. But my wife and I enjoyed it. I can admit that if you've seen one MUMMY film, you've seen them all - the plot is pretty threadbare and similar in all three.  So why do we enjoy it so much? I think its because of the visceral nature of the fun. In this case it is like a favorite amusement park ride: you know every curve, climb and drop. And yet, you still stand in line to experience it all over again. I don't generally like amusement park rides, so I guess I substitute these stories in their places.

I believe those who don't appreciate movies and fiction that serve no other purpose but to be fun have an underdeveloped or even an undeveloped theology of play, as long as one doesn't make a steady media diet of them.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Accountability update

So I'm a little late in my quarterly review of the resolutions I made on New Year's 2013.  But I haven't given up, and again, I want to be accountable, so here we go.  For review's sake, Here is the original post of my Goals and Resolutions, and my first update.

1.  Lose at least 15 pounds. There is good news and bad news here. The bad news is that I didn't really begin walking like I said I would a few months ago, and as a result, I'm not nearer my 15 pound loss goal.  The good news is that I did begin this past week, and I have refined my reasons for pursuing fitness as a goal:

  1. In my everyday life, we move every 3-5 years. We are in year 4. I want to be stronger for the next time we move, and therefore better able to lift boxes without doing myself potential harm.
  2. We are planning an educational tour to the Holy Land in early 2014. I want to have stamina while on the tour so that I can enjoy what I'm learning.
  3. I want to look a little more like the guy my wife fell in love with 20-some-odd years ago

I've also done some things to improve my odds. To that end, I've been watching my diet and being more intentional about exercise, so I've started using apps like fitocracymyfitnesspal, and blogs like nerd fitness and geek fitness and the Jedi workout article on I started added strength training in addition to just getting slimmer.  I'm really, really sore but am determined to keep going.

2.  Read through the Bible in a Year. I'm still running a little behind in my reading through  Word on the Street   But I have been posting passages I found meaningful on Facebook and it is gratifying to see other people finding those passages helpful to them. So, with I'm even more motivated to keep going.

3.  Be More Creative. Still writing, but I need to be more intentional here as well.

4.  Our Dream Vacation. While the dream vacation is on hold, as I mentioned above, we are planning on traveling to the Holy Land on an educational tour. So, that will be fun.

5.  Be more intentional in my faith. Still thinking about the tripartite makeup of man, and will be writing more on that soon.  But as I mentioned in my Bible reading goal, I have been sharing more on Facebook those passages I've appreciated. I do have some other books I want to read that will help in this regard, so those will be going into a reading queue I'll be starting soon.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Thoughts on Podcasting

I love podcasts.

There. I said it.

I enjoy listening to other people's thoughts on subjects near and dear to my geeky little heart. I am thrilled when I agree with them, and disappointed (and occasionally nerdraged) when I don't.

I listen to podcasts when I travel in my car. They have taken the place of traditional radio when I drive anywhere for the most part. I do have a musical playlist of tunes that I love, but I don't listen to them as often as I used to.  In all fairness, I have a pretty good collection of Old Time Radio (OTR) shows I love as well, but its the podcasts that have pretty much locked up pride of place in my listening habits.

I once tried podcasting myself, back in 2007. I produced two episodes of what I called the Geek Orthodoxy podcast, which was designed to explore geek entertainment through the lens of faith.  I had some good ideas, and had basically plotted out a third episode, but Everyday Life interfered with my lofty goals and I let it slide by the wayside.  My most favorite episode was the second one where I identified what I considered the "Patron Saints" of Geek Orthodoxy. These were essentially people of faith who had a major influence on geek culture. The list included the obvious, Tolkien and Lewis, and also Madeline L'Engle and Larry Wall, the creator of the Perl programming language.

I wouldn't mind taking a stab at it again. My degree is in Radio/Television/Film, so I do have an affinity for the format, as well as some experience. But if I ever did, I would have to have a solid concept to wrap my thoughts around and better discipline in recording and editing schedules.

Who knows? I might even try videocast, and take it to the next level....

(Related Post: Recommended Podcasts)

Friday, July 12, 2013

[Review] The Lone Ranger

On the 237th anniversary of American Independence, my wife (who I lovingly refer to as the Princess Bride) and I saw The Lone Ranger.  I had very high hopes for this film, based on the articles I had read and the trailers and other promotional items available.  There were a couple of things I wasn't crazy about prior to the film (like the scene with Silver in a tree wearing the Lone Ranger's hat, and Tonto saying "Something very wrong with that horse"), but for the most part, I was excited.

In a previous post, I discussed the idea of the Western as an "American Fantasy genre," (an idea I credit to the guys at the Strangers and Aliens podcast) and I consider the Lone Ranger character as a highly venerated member of that pantheon.  

A little history is in order at this point. The Lone Ranger began life on the radio. in 1933, on radio station WXYZ in Detroit, The Lone Ranger debuted. It was part of a trio of radio adventure series developed by Fran Striker and George Trendle (Challenge of the Yukon (later, Sgt. Preston of the Yukon) and The Green Hornet, being the other two). It ran on radio for over 20 years and was spun off into other media, including film, television and comics.  In 1981, a disastrous attempt to resurrect the character premiered to dismal reviews and box office failure, and is now only barely remembered.

The bare bones of the story is that a company of Texas Rangers were in pursuit of the notorious Butch Cavendish and his gang, when they were ambushed in a blind canyon, betrayed by one of their own.  Nearly all were killed, including the leader of the group, Captain Dan Reid, who is the Lone Ranger's brother. The only survivor was John Reid. He was rescued and nursed back to health by Tonto, a member of the Pottawatamie nation.  Tonto recognized John Reid as the same person who rescued him at the time his tribe was massacred when they were both children.

What I liked:
  • Storytelling framing device - It was a fun way to tell the story from Tonto's point of view. It initially reminded me of one of favorite movies of all time, The Princess Bride. I had hoped that the young boy in the frame would be revealed to have other connections to the story, but I was wrong.
  • Humor - I loved the funny lines. I thought it made for a fun popcorn experience, but there were times that the humor didn't work or made things pretty confusing from a storytelling point of view.
  • Costuming/makeup - I loved the costuming, and the Lone Ranger's outfit looked better in this film than even in the TV series, which I grew up on. I know some folks were not crazy about Johnny Depp's makeup or headdress, but I think the film explained it pretty well.
  • The villain casting - James Fichtner was perfect as Butch Cavendish. For all of the knocks against Johnny Depp as Tonto, I loved his performance.  I thought it worked well.
  • The use of the William Tell Overture - You HAD to have the William Tell Overture in this film. If its not written into Federal Law that any portrayal of The Lone Ranger on radio, TV or Film must utilize the William Tell Overture, it should be. In this film, it was written into the score in just the right places.
  • Using most of the canon, while parts they didn't use made sense to me - For example, I never understood that Tonto is part of the Pottawatamie nation. In my research, I learned that the Pottawatamie lived in areas that are now within the states of Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin. This is not within territory where you would find Texas Rangers normally. However, it makes more sense that Tonto would be a Comanche, which lived in the plains states, including Texas. Also, as the name Tonto in Spanish means "Stupid," it fits in with the character arc in this film (apparently, according to Wikipedia, the name in Pottawatamie means "Wild One."). I also like the "origin story for Tonto." I did appreciate them sticking to the canon for the origin of the Lone Ranger's Mask.
  • Same actor in Lone Ranger and Green Hornet - Tom Wilkinson played Britt Reid's father James in the 2011 movie and was the railroad industrialist Cole in the Lone Ranger.
  • The look of the film is gorgeous - it is a wonderful homage to John Ford-directed Westerns.

What I didn't like:
  • Anachronistic dialogue -  There were two that I recall that completely took me out of the film. The first, and possibly most egregious, was the scene where the Lone Ranger and Tonto are in Red's office trying to get her to tell them if she's seen the Ranger traitor that led the company of Rangers to their death. Really  They had to threaten her with health code violations???
  • Portrayal of all Christians as narrow minded bigots - In fairness, there were a lot of caricatures present (except that, on reflection, it appears that the other Comanches were portrayed much more deeply and sympathetically), so I guess I should just get over that. 
  • John Reid rejecting religion in favor of the "laws of man" - I find it especially problematic that he seeks justice while rejecting the God of justice (see the Lone Ranger Creed)
  • The kid in the framing device wasn't named Britt Reid - I really think that would have made a nice tie in to The Green Hornet. In the Green Hornet radio series, it is revealed that Britt Reid is the nephew of the Lone Ranger.
  • No tie in to Green Hornet - However, Green Hornet did have tie in to the Lone Ranger. Don't recall it? In Britt Reid's apartment there is a Lone Ranger poster on the wall.
  • Johnny Depp as Tonto meant that they couldn't get a stronger actor to play Lone Ranger - Armie Hammer was likable, but played John Reid too milquetoast to be believable. 
  • They didn't really explain why silver bullets - In the original canon, it was a reminder that every life is precious. If they changed the explanation to reflect the Macguffin in the film, then Tonto melting the Ranger star to make the first bullet doesn't make sense.
  • The tag scene during the credits was confusing - Tonto walking away in silence seems to indicate that this is the end of the story. It anticipates nothing, or sets up any possibility of a sequel.
Please don't get me wrong. I didn't hate the Lone Ranger. I actually enjoyed it. But the above list are the problems I had with it. There were times it really didn't seem to know what it wanted to be.  Some are calling it a "Pirates of the Caribbean in the Old West," or a kind of "The Lone Ranger Begins". I think it should have picked one and gone with it.

All in all, I would give it a grade of a B-.

As a bonus, here's a neat, short video review from a couple of other guys.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

[REVIEW] Nickel Children

(Note: this is a review I previously recorded for The Spirit Blade Underground Podcast with Paeter Frandsen)

The Western has been considered by many people as an American mythology.  It features very archetypal tropes like good versus evil and law and order versus crime and chaos. 

In 2010, writer director Kevin Eslinger produced the 16 minute short film titled Nickel Children (not to be confused with the 2005 feature film The Nickel Children), which could be variously called a steampunk or a weird western film.  

The basic plot is that in the late 1800's Kansas, a young orphaned boy is held captive with other children for the pleasure of adults. The boys are forced to fight each other while the grown ups bet on the winners and losers; the girls dance with heavily made up faces to entertain the men.

For a 16-minute indie film shot in only five days, Nickel Children has a lot of promise.  The costuming, sets and effects place it squarely in the steampunk/weird Western realm. Acting is perhaps the biggest weakness of the film, which should not be too surprising since children are such a major focus of the film.  The only exception is with the dancing girls with their painted faces. Even beneath the makeup, Eslinger manages to capture a genuine look of lostness that still haunts me.

Paul Green, who put together the Encyclopedia of Weird Westerns, reviewed Nickel Children for his blog and said how much he appreciated a Weird Western film that wasn't about vampires or zombies. Some viewers might have trouble with a story about child exploitation and trafficking, but I think it makes you really care about the characters that much more.

I wold love to see what this film would look like with more resources and a longer running time, but for now, I'll give Nickel Children a 4 out 5.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Westerns as American Fantasy

(NOTE: I previously recorded this as a response to the "Westerns: The Original American Fantasy Genre" episode of the Strangers and Aliens Podcast)

I never thought much about it before listening to the episode. As a Texan, I grew up with a great appreciation for the Western as a genre; that probably started with reruns of The Lone Ranger and other shows on TV.

Speaking of The Lone Ranger, it started off as an Old Time Radio program. The creators also launched another  OTR program that featured the great grand-nephew of the Lone Ranger: Brit Reid, also known as the Green Hornet

As an adult, I've developed a fondness for the "Weird Westerns," which are Westerns that have been "nerd-troped" by taking the classic Western and adding supernatural, horror, sci-fi and straight up fantasy elements. The best examples of this are The Wild, Wild West TV show and Cowboys and Aliens.

Looking at Western movies, especially those of John Ford, they emphasized the mythic nature of the Western. This plays to the American Monomyth, an interpretation of Joseph Campbell's study of myth based on the American experience.

Italy and Greece have their myths, the Nordic peoples have their Viking sagas, the Middle East has their 1001 Nights, and the British Isles have their tales of King Arthur and Robin Hood.

The US has the Western, which is a celebration of those individuals who left the comforts of civilization to brave the the wild frontier and tame it.

It has also been noted that the Dungeons and Dragons game has more in common with Western tropes than it does with those of Medieval Europe.  In fact, Western tropes find their way into other genres, the most famous example of which is Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai. Kurosawa took tropes from the American Western and applied them to the samurai films of Japan.  His attempt was so successful, it was easy to translate the tropes back into the American Western The Magnificent Seven.  Another film that has taken the Western tropes and imported them into a film that reflects its native culture is Korea's The Good, the Bad and the Weird. It is a great Western fantasy, just not an American Western fantasy

If you want to check out one of the earliest forms of the literary Weird Western, go to the PulpGen website  navigate to the list of authors, and find the Lee Winters stories written by Lon Williams.  (start near the bottom of the page and continuing on for the next couple or so)