Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Why is it the parodies are better than the real thing?

Normally I shy away from simply posting links, but this was simply too transcendent to ignore. It is, essentially, one of the most well-produced metal music videos I have seen. Full of sorcery, monsters, mighty armies clashing, exotic harems hareming, and absolutely brilliant animation.

It's also a Merry Melodies short.

It's like Korgoth of Barbaria and the time South Park had Cthulhu guest starring: sometimes, parodies manage to capture the soul of their lampoon target more than supposed "straight" adaptations. This short manages to encapsulate the hyperbolic majesty of high-magic settings in animation previously only achieved by Fire and Ice and Heavy Metal, just as "Coon & Friends" was a more faithful depiction of the Lovecraft Mythos than all the professionally-made Lovecraft adaptations out there, and Korgoth of Barbaria managed to be more authentically Howardian than every supposed Howard adaptation combined, squared and multiplied.

Maybe that's the way to get things done: claim something's a parody or affectionate homage.

Hey, this is an excellent opportunity to post Korgoth, isn't it?

It amazes me this show wasn't picked up.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Science Fiction vs Fantasy, or, Optimism vs Nostalgia

It's a common argument that I see: science fiction is intellectual, productive, inspirational, innovative, optimistic, and emphasises everything good and worthwhile about humanity.  Fantasy, however, is superstitious, nostalgic, stagnant, and emphasises the glorification of the past over hope for the future.  It's one I utterly disagree with - what of dystopian science fiction, for example, and those fantasy stories which open up realms of insight and supposition normally the domain of science fiction - but the dichotomy usually favours science fiction as being "good" and fantasy being "bad."  It's a dangerous stereotype, and one you'd think the supposedly higher-minded SF fans would recognize and avoid.

Well, I think I've found the ultimate example of that argument. Enter Science Fiction vs Fantasy by Ryan Somma.

Friday, 23 September 2011

If you like flashes of brilliance hidden amidst filth and smut, we recommend

WARNING: DO NOT CLICK ANY OF THE LINKS IN THIS PAGE UNLESS YOU HAVE NO ISSUES WITH NUDITY, SEX, GORE, PROFANITY, FILTH, OR ACERBIC WIT. I'M BEING VERY SERIOUS. THIS MEANS YOU, GRAN.* is a webcomic which features some genuinely brilliant humour, but it's definitely not for the faint of heart. Full of frank depictions of nudity, sexual acts, gore, profanity and mild peril, it's still a webcomic I brave every so often.  Sometimes you get something truly inspired, like the tale of Kronar's son, which takes the idea of a gay Conan (the very idea of which was a reason for De Camp's strict control over pastiches) and runs with it, even though Kronar still ends up being pretty masculine in the process. No doubt the silly people who accuse Conan and Howard of homoeroticism will feel vindicated, but I find it fun to just think their misplaced jibes are projecting things that aren't there. But, as was the case with Your Highness, I guess I'm just too much of a prude to have much stomach for this sort of thing on a regular basis.  Ah well.

A recent(ish) comic, "The Weird Woman," features a pastiche on Howard's "Worms of the Earth," making it one of the most perceptive examples of Howard humour out there, considering most attempts at it tend to be repetitive jabs at the 1982 film or the fact Conan shares his name with a popular talk show host.  And best/worst of all, we get an endorsement/backhanded compliment if you move the mouse over the image: "If you like high fantasy or xenophobic jerks, we recommend "Worms of the Earth" by Robert E. Howard."

It's difficult to tell whether they're referring to Bran Man Morn as the xenophobic jerk - frankly, I think he's well within his rights to have a problem with the Romans who are invading his lands, torturing his people and threatening to conquer his home - or Howard, but either irk me.  Something tells me it's not meant to be taken too seriously, but given how long Howard fans have been railing against the popular conception of Howard, it smarts even in jest.  The sad thing is, it does seem like the sort of thing a DeCampista would write.  Still, I get the distinct impression that the folk of are entirely irreverent, and no-one is sacred to them, so I shouldn't expect any special treatment in regards to Howard. Or perhaps I'm misreading the thing.  Who knows.

*You can, however, look at some of the safe for work comics which show off the sort of delightful humour I love about the comic: Magic Fish, Fountain of Death, Skulls!, Wolf!, King-Shaped, Princess, A Very Deep Chasm, Northerner, Human Women, Labyrinth, Sharks vs Jets, Changeling, Frog 3, Blanket, Use Item, The Huntsman, Scheherazade, Weeping Woods, Kindly Hunter, Gorek the Magnanimous, and the above Fountain of Doubt. For those who don't mind a bit of nudity, there's Ulric the Just, which might be my favourite on the whole site. JUST DON'T CLICK NEXT/PREVIOUS/HOME if you know what's good for ya!

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Something of the glamour of a crusade...

One of the more contentious aspects of The Blog That Time Forgot (well, me) is my propensity to go on crusades to enlighten, correct or otherwise address people that get things wrong.  In the past, I've been criticized for it - "The Blog That Does Nothing But Whine" being a zinger that still zings a bit to this day - but I've been doing my best to bite my tongue unless I find something that has to be dealt with.

Luckily, I'm not alone in this. Damon Sasser of Two-Gun Raconteur has regularly commented on these situations on the 'Net, and my Cimmerian Blog compatriot Brian Murphy goes for the jugular when it comes to J.R.R. Tolkien, as evidenced by two recent posts, one addressing a Class 3 Camper, another barely containing his irritation at Evangeline Lilly's latest comments.  I must admit, I tend to grit my teeth whenever I see Evangeline Lilly at the best of times, so I can sympathise. However, there's been something of a backlog building up with People Who Are Wrong On The Internet, and rather than dedicate a number of posts to any one of them, perhaps it would be better to deal with them in one place.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

The Blog That Time Forgot: Bite-Sized: Exploitation and Shock Value

Since I'm still on the mend, but feeling awfully guilty about not keeping up to date, I'm trying out a new concept: little quick posts where I keep you all up to date on what I'm doing.  (I swear, one of these days, I'll comment!  I mean it!)

So, I watched Children of Men. How's this for a contentious, blanket statement: Children of Men is an absolutely beautifully directed film with masterful technical directions and magnificent visual design, which is regrettably bogged down by some of the most exploitative, blatant, backbreakingly unsubtle political pretensions I've seen in a film. There's a fascinating science fiction story at its core about a world where humanity has become infertile, and indeed it does dwell on some of those great questions. It also has some strong ideas. Unfortunately, it's also one of those films that just doesn't know how to do subtlety. From the choice of songs (want something to be poignant? Why, pick a melancholy tune to accompany it! Want an ambiguous and politically motivated ending? Go with John Lennon!) to the dialogue, it's a film that holds your hand all the way through, not daring to allow the viewer to make up their own mind.*

It's also one of the most galling exploitation films I've seen in a while.  People die in brutal and matter-of-fact ways, rows of shrouded bodies are seen, crying innocents are packed into what are obviously concentration camps, surrendering protesters are gunned down whilst waving white flags. This seems to be a thing for Mexican** filmmakers: Cuaron's compatriot Guillermo Del Toro did the same in Pan's Labyrinth, where he had no qualms in showing acts of brutality which make it difficult not to hate those enacting them - it's just unfortunate it's done in such a cartoonish and obviously exploitative manner.

It's like having your villain kick a puppy or shoot a kitten: you're obviously going to hate him by default, unless you have a particular aversion to kittens.  Thus it's easy to make a villain hateful when he does something so monstrous.  It's the same thing which bothers me about A Serbian Film: it's just so easy to shock people with profoundly shocking images, but it doesn't make you think about the characters, film or themes, you just can't help but think about the image. Or, more succinctly, it's like the jump scare. Surprising someone is easy, you just say boo and make a scary face, but that doesn't make you a grandmaster of horror - in the same way, showing a man committing unspeakable acts doesn't make the man despicable, just the act.

Speaking of which, it's not the violence which I found the most exploitative (though it was very exploitative).  No, what was worse was the politixploitation.  As surely as sexploitation is filled with scenes of carnality and blaxploitation is suffused with black stereotyping, this film is full of pandering to a particular viewpoint .  The British government is shown as the most odious caricature liberal Britons think of the goose-stepping conservative Middle Englanders: the police are brutal and aggressive thugs; the news is the sleaziest this side of Fox News.  In contrast, the heroes are composed of long-haired ganja aficionados, New Age holistic midwife, and a young black woman who is the Saviour Of Our People.  Not a single one of them felt like a character, so much as a proxy for a designated political argument.  Michael Caine is defined by his love of marijuana and little else; Pam Ferris is a caricature of alternative medicine adherents. Only Clare-Hope Ashity had anything resembling depth, and even then, her accent was barely tolerable.

Now, I'm not getting into the politics of this, but this film was so obtuse about its political leanings, and particularly its duality (one side is wrong and the other side is right), that I felt insulted by it.  Half the dialogue was clumsy exposition, the other half political filibusters.  It's frustrating, because even ignoring the nauseating political "subtext" (or, rather, supertext), Children of Men is a really good film.  I just wish the script was handled as well as the direction.

*I'm going to get into spoiler territory here, so you might want to watch out here: the film just doesn't understand the idea that viewers might be able to get things for themselves without redundant clarifications.  For one thing, there's a certain revelation which turns the film's narrative upside down, and the ramifications of said revelation are right there. Here it is:

All through the film, the heavy handed commentary on immigration is hard to miss, so when it's discovered that one such refugee is pregnant, the most obvious irony is clear: the key to humanity's salvation lies in a woman who would normally be rejected entry into the last functioning society.  It's so obvious that you'd think it speaks for itself - but no, because the writers assume viewers are idiots, they actually have one of the characters point out that very irony in dialogue.  It was effective as an unspoken idea, but having a character outright say "isn't it ironic that the first person to be pregnant in 20 years would be a refugee?" removes all the eloquence and power, pushing it right into preachy, pretentious melodrama.  It's like "did you get it audience?  Do you see what we did there?  Oh, my stars, aren't we clever clogs!"

**Kike kindly points out that Cuaron & Del Toro are in fact Mexican, not Spanish.  I have no excuse, but I have an explanation of sorts.  My train of thought was mixed up, since Pan's Labyrinth was set in Spain and Y Tu Mama Tambien had Spanish characters: ergo, because I tend to make leaps like that, I mistakenly "remembered" that both directors were Spanish.  I knew it was one of the two, I swear!

Thursday, 15 September 2011

The Beast Within

You may have noticed I haven't been about lately again, but this time, my explanation is of a medical nature.
As I type, I'm still experiencing the monstrous tearing and ravenous gnawings of some inconceivable terror from beyond the ken of man.  Doctors claim that it is simply a viral infection which will pass in due course with the right medication and procedures, but I know better: truly, some alien being has taken up residence in my abdominal cavity and enjoys nothing more than to wrench my organs and gizzards like a crone twisting dripping towels over a bucket, or chewing at my intestines like a teething puppy.

Hopefully this fiendish horror will vacate the premises sooner rather than later, but until then, I'm returning to reading. I gave Fritz Leiber another go, feeling that he deserved another chance.  I still dislike "Ill-Met in Lankhmar" (and I'll probably have to explain myself one of these days) but then I read "The Circle Curse," which I found a pleasant change in pace: gone were the weird sentence structures and overly-flowery prose (considering the authors I like, that's saying something), and instead the tale was imbued with a strange, eerie atmosphere.  A true Weird Tale. 

I read on to "The Jewels in the Forest."  Now THAT'S what I'm talking about!  A fantastic story chock-full of adventure, thrills, mystery, invention and ingenuity.  I loved the supporting characters, the enigma of the Jewels was compelling, and the reveal of the Guardian was a good enough twist that I was pleasantly surprised, though not thrown out of left field.  Best of all, I could finally understand why the rapport between Fafhrd and Mouser was so beloved.  Finally, I think I'm "getting" it.

But then, I read "Thieves' House"... and was blown away.  This is a story I'd happily place alongside such favourites as "Kings in Darkness," "Black God's Kiss" and "The Charnel God" as my favourite non-Howard Sword-and-Sorcery stories.  It's one I might perennially re-read, it's that good.  It's unmistakably Leiber, but everything is tempered so precisely and perfectly that it's somewhat transcendent.  Then I read "The Bleak Shore," which was a beautifully dark and appropriately bleak tale reminiscent of Hodgeson or Clark Ashton Smith's dark fantasies, and after that "The Howling Tower," which was another grim, stark tale.  This is the side of Leiber I was looking for, the one that balanced out the comedy with the realism, like the early Discworld books (and it's clearer more than ever just the extent Pratchett's debt to Leiber was in those days).

So yes, I'm finally getting Fritz.  In addition, I've been re-reading The Land That Time Forgot, which is always giving me something new to ruminate over, and I'll likely be having a gander at some other books.  Hopefully whatever's practising their plaits with my guts will tire eventually, and I'll be back in business in due course.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Undeath of the Author and the Vagaries of Sub-Creation

So, of course, the internet is all in a tizzy as it transpires that George Lucas is continuing to monkey around with Star Wars by inserting new sounds and effects to the trilogy in a seemingly never-ending quest to tinker and fine-tune something which many people was fine the first time around. Most of it revolves around this scene:

While I love Star Wars, I don't have quite the same attachment others have to the series, likely because I was much older when I first saw it than most of my contemporaries. Besides, I'm a Trekkie, I'm honour-bound or something. Yet at the same time, I easily sympathise with those who object to these sorts of changes: even if you're not a massive fan of the films, altering such a dramatic, pivotal scene as Darth Vader's redemption by adding a big NOOOOO completely destroys the impact of the scene. Instead of being an understated, wordless, powerful image, it descends into cheesy melodrama. So why does Lucas insist on making changes that undermine the strength of his own creation?

There seem to be two main points of view in all this.

The first is that George Lucas is the creator of Star Wars and so it is entirely within his creative rights to alter his work as he sees fit. If he wants to add in stupid things like CGI beasties wandering in front of the camera or adding screams that ruin the understated power of scenes, then he's well within his rights to do it. Just as Harlan Ellison and J.D. Salinger were well within their rights to demand that their unfinished works be destroyed upon their death to stop posthumous collaborations. After all, he's the author, creator and artist, so who are we to decide what he should or shouldn't do to his own creation?

The second is that once a work has been exposed to the world, it ceases to be the sole propriety of the artist, but belongs to all of humanity. When a painting is displayed in an art gallery, or a book is published, or a film is released, then it has become part of the cultural landscape. It, in effect, belongs to everyone. George Lucas can thus be considered the creation of Star Wars, but in a sense, it no longer belongs "exclusively" to him, but to everyone.

It's an interesting dilemma with many ramifications.

Friday, 2 September 2011

A Tale of Two Remakes

A very interesting little link that perfectly illustrates what I'm talking about when I say Conan really needed more than Grog, Girls and Gore to succeed.  This article talks about the differences between Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Conan the Barbarian: obviously I don't agree with everything, but it's still very well thought out, and the description of the form in particular rings true.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is really more of a “reboot,” to use the preferred terminology of an entertainment industry that has real trouble coming up with fresh ideas, and has therefore taken to devising a whole new language for retreads.  Actually, since Tim Burton already tried rebooting the Apes franchise with his lavish but unloved 2001 film, this is technically a re-re-boot.  It makes a few cute nods toward the original films through repurposed dialogue, but it sets up an entirely new version of the POTA universe, which was originally (spoiler alert for those who somehow missed the earlier films!) a massive temporal paradox.
Despite its copy-of-a-copy pedigree, the new Apes film is terrific, because it found something fresh and original to do with its venerable material.  The rise of the Apes is now a result of bio-engineering run amok, rather than time-traveling chimpanzees giving birth to their own predecessor.  Within this framework, tough moral questions are asked about the nature of loyalty. 
James Franco gives his best performance to date as a scientist whose enduring love for his father, and resulting determination to cure Alzheimer’s, leads him to cut some corners that should not have been cut.  He’s right and wrong, admirable and worth of censure, in equal measure.  In fact, all of the human characters in the story make the epic mistake of underestimating a technology that has the power to rewrite not just DNA, but history itself.
This technology leads to Caesar, a hyper-intelligent chimpanzee brought to life with an astonishing motion-capture performance from Andy Serkis – the undisputed grand master of an entirely new form of theatrical performance.  Caesar’s loyalty to the humans he sincerely loves is pitted against his sense of duty to his species, and his growing hunger for personal dignity. 
What results is a tragedy that becomes all the more powerful because it seems so horribly inevitable.  Great special effects and stunt work are placed in the service of a solid, thoughtful script.  It’s great science fiction, because it takes a single hypothetical – and not entirely implausible – bit of technology, and weaves an entirely believable story around it.  

This is exactly what I'm talking about. The trailers for Rise of the Planet of the Apes showed a compelling story: the tale of good-intentioned science leading humanity down the road to hell; the battle an oppressed minority wages in order to achieve dignity, equal opportunities and fair treatment; a man realising the unforeseen consequences of his work. You wanted to know what happened to the characters you see; you want to know how the story will unfold, even if you know it'll eventually end with the Apes dominant; you are invested, interested, piqued by what you're seeing. And that's just the trailer!

Again: who saw the Conan trailers and thought "wow, I wonder how this story's going to end up?" "What's Khalar Zym's story, what does he want, what will he do?" "What is this movie about beyond the lizard-brained thrills of Grog, Girls and Gore?"  It sure wasn't me.  If there were, then all power to them.  But I wasn't seeing any. This is as much the fault of advertising as it is the film, of course.  When you think of the many ways a Conan film could be just as provocative and meaningful to modern times as Apes - think about how the barbarism/civilization dynamic could be applicable to the modern world, how the treatment of faith could be mirrored by modern interfaith dynamics, how Conan himself could be a different kind of hero - it really drives home what a colossal failure Conan was from a creative standpoint.

It's perhaps inevitable I'd find issue with their discussion of Conan, but although they're there, most of their criticisms are entirely valid.

There was no need to retell his origin story.  This was not a franchise that needed its own Casino Royale or Batman Begins.

On the contrary, I think it did - because the 1982 film's origin story is completely and utterly different from what Howard told us.  Conan's village was never wiped out, his parents never killed, there was no quest for revenge against an evil warlord, he never had some special sword, he was never trying to retrieve his father's sword - virtually anything that the 2011 film shares with the 1982 film has nothing to do with Howard's work.  The Conan franchise needed to start from the ground up and completely forget about the 1982 film, incorporating the elements that Howard DID mention.

Imagine a Conan origin film that doesn't have a revenge plot at all, where Conan isn't enslaved - be it literally, or metaphorically - nobody kills Conan's parents or destroys his village, nobody steals his father's sword, he doesn't have to learn some ludicrous riddle or mystery of steel.  What about an origin story that's nothing like the 1982 or 2011 films, with young Conan breaking a wild bull's neck, hunting mountain-beasts with a spear, slaying chieftains, climbing the cliffs and crags of his homeland, culminating in the battle of Venarium; then going north to fight alongside the Aesir, being captured and escaping the Hyperboreans, experiencing the civilized wonders of the Hyborian Kingdoms, and ending up in Zamora in time for "The Tower of the Elephant." Then imagine how the barbarism/civilization dynamic comes into that, as Conan goes from a near-feral barbarian boy to a curious and awestruck thief.

Obviously I would prefer an actual adaptation of one of Robert E. Howard's fantastic stories than yet another origin story, but considering the 1982 film is so contradictory to Howard's creation, a new origin would establish once and for all that this is new, different and not a remake.  Pretty much like what Rise of the Planet of the Apes did.  Sadly, that wasn't the film we got, because Avi Lerner and Joe Drake are imbeciles.

She can scarcely hold her own against Conan’s bland love interest… who would have been a voluptuous damsel in distress in a real Conan story, but feminist Hollywood has strict rules against those, so she’s soon taking down the front-line warriors of the ancient world’s most formidable army.

Or she would be an actual action heroine like Valeria, a female warrior who's the closest anyone - man or woman - in any story comes to Conan's equal. Or she would be a dominant, independent, strident queen who's mistress of her domain like Yasmina or Yasmela. Or she would be a cunning, intelligent schemer like Belit or Zenobia... You get the point. Even the voluptuous damsels like Olivia and Sancha manage to be proactive: those two actually save Conan's life at some points in the story. Howard was actually very ahead of his time when it came to female characters.

Rather than any of those, Tamara was that most odious of modern action cliches, the "faux-action girl," where she's only as competent as the script demands.  If the script calls for her to be badass, she kills foes left and right: if the script calls for her to be captured, she screeches like Willie Scott and does nothing to save herself. In one scene, she's taking down entire groups of soldiers with clear finesse in her swordplay: in another, she's cowering in a corner in terror. No consistency.

Another strange aspect of the new Conan’s bloody, but bloodless, adventure is the decision to jettison its fantastical religious trappings.  One of the most memorable scenes from the original film was Conan’s up-yours prayer to his grim war god Crom, but the new film makes a point of having the villain declare that Conan’s people have no gods.  The Lovecraftian demons who frequently orbited Howard’s tales decided to take this adventure off.

The new film says the Cimmerians have no priests or churches, not that they have no gods.  You hear Ron Perlman say "by Crom."  It's true Conan never discusses his spirituality in the film, but at least he doesn't do it in a contradictory manner like the prayer to Crom (Howard's Cimmerians didn't pray: they figured any god worth their salt gave a man all they needed to prevail at birth, and that asking for further aid was a grave insult and sign of weakness and dependence). It would've been nice for him to say Crom at least once, though.

"Caesar the chimpanzee got a reboot, while Conan the Barbarian got a retread."

That, sad to say, says it all.