Thursday, November 23, 2017

A Burroughs Thanksgiving

So I'm alone for Thanksgiving. That's fine, I have my TV. I want to watch a big, fancy, spectacular fantasy adventure movie-movie! And I want it good old-fashioned way-out-there nonsense like I used to read about, and I don't want anyone to insult my intelligence by trying to make it look realistic. 
Ah, just the thing! John Carter!
This truly fun picture lost money at the box office because it was old-fashioned and stupid (that's bad?), and also because some idiot decided "John Carter of Mars" wasn't as good a title as just "John Carter," so nobody knew what it was about, and didn't come to see it.
I liked it, I liked all the retro silliness of it, and the 1920s style alien technology, which helped remind me, the viewer, that it was the 1920s and I was reading this from a pulp magazine. And it was fun that Deja Thoris was a scientific prodigy instead of a mere damsel in distress. But the pulp magazine melodrama was preserved without apology.
I notice a lot of people are discovering this film lately, the way people eventually discovered other box-office sleepers like Blade Runner.
Anyway, John Carter sits on my Old Time Scientifiction Fun shelf, along with The Fifth Element, which I love because it's gaudy and wacky and irresponsible like those old Jack Vance books.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A long pointless rant on "Realistic-ness"

I'm sick of Dark and Gritty.

The proliferation of superhero comics movies (an economic necessity for the theater business) has brought a tedious sameness to the action on the big screen.

"Dark and Gritty = Realistic" has become an aesthetic law that cannot be broken.

This juvenile approach to seeming mature, has completely taken over mass media, probably because comic books have taken over mass media, and comic books are where the Dark and Gritty movement started.

Okay, before I go any further, let's backtrack and admit that Dark and Gritty had two, completely independent, origins, though both were basically technical advances.

One was in the comic books of the 1970s, beginning with Frank Miller's The Dark Knight. 
These stories, previously juvenile adventures with lots of action and not much depth and rendered in bright poster colors, underwent a change that was more than just looks. While the look of comic books changed from primitive four-color to full process color, allowing a far wider (and darker) range of values, the stories also changed from juvenile cowboys-and-bad-guys punch-em-ups to pseudo-adult fiction which owed more to the downbeat, cynical pulp detective fiction of the 1940s than to the comics of the past.

The other origin point was in the development of computer graphics.
Early computer graphics were technically crude, and could only render smooth surfaces that could be mathematically described. So shiny robots and glossy machinery were the first computer graphics people saw. Only much later were sophistications like wireframe sculpture and texture mapping developed, enabling organic shapes to have organic surfaces as well. It was not long before "Dirty = Realistic" was the Word of the Day for those striving to achieve a look of realism in computer graphics. Artists were encouraged to "dirty it up" when they created backgrounds for computer games, in order to make them more believable and look less like plastic toys.
The increasingly punk, film noir, underground look of second-generation computer graphics sat well with young men who fancied "tough" pulp detective fiction, Westerns, cops-and-robbers and war stories, which all take place in a "man's world" of beat up cars, abandoned buildings, and battlefield destruction. This sort of "Grunge-World," glamorizing wear and decay, was a perfect setting for the fantasies of young boys trying hard not to be kids anymore. Grunge World was the polar opposite of Playskool World.

Since there was a lot of crossover between fans of comic books (geeky young men) and computer graphics hobbyists (geeky young men), there was going to be some synergy, and sure enough, the two fields drew together to create a new aesthetic. Thanks to Miller, Moore, et al, the superhero comic books were adapted into the new aesthetic with mixed results. Some superhero stories, like Batman, seemed well suited to the Noir treatment. But others … juvenile stories, with simplistic good-guy-vs-bad-guy ideals, didn't fare too well with the new visual cynicism. But does constant darkness, glorification of exaggerated violence and mayhem, grotesque characters, and the expulsion of more bullets than there is lead in the entire solar system, really deserve to be called "realistic?"

Centuries of aesthetics went out the window, and "Ugly Is Beautiful" emerged triumphant.
Even spaceships, those slick shiny relics of the Art Deco era, became ugly, tarnished, and haphazardly built (Star Wars and Alien).

It's a manchild's version of realism, and is actually a subset of an older movement, the "hyper-realism" of fantasy art, in which late Renaissance painting techniques were revived and a fetishistic obsession with fine detail, texture and completely sharp focus were employed in an attempt to force an artificial believability onto fabulous creatures and impossible places and events. The goal of hyper-realism was to evoke the unnatural clarity of visions and the heightened state of being in a higher plane from ordinary reality, and was inspired by Medieval religious icons and the paintings of Hindu and Chinese gods and heroes.

The dirt-and-grime chic of so much of today's mass art is actually based in the same principle as hyper-realism: that sharpness of detail is everything (an old idea the Impressionist and Expressionist movements of the early 20th century refuted).

I like to call this aesthetic "Realistic-ness," to distinguish it from realism, which is a sincere attempt to evoke reality.

Grunge-World and Fantasy-World are divided along sex lines. Boys like dirt and scratches and random detail like rust, and darkness and deep shadows. Superhero movies. Girls like lots of color variety and eye-catching patterns and general fanciness. "Frozen" and "Ever After High." Both are "realistic-ness" in that they each, in a different way, exaggerate details and focus to make an imaginary dreamworld be more convincing than life. It's a form of visual overacting.

Okay. That's all well and good, but shouldn't people move on? 'Dark and Gritty' has become trite and corny, just like any other art movement eventually does. I, for one, don't quite buy the idea that Batman is "more realistic" than "Elfquest" or for that matter, "Sofia the First." That idea belongs back with the Superman vs. Mighty Mouse argument, in the playground.

Meanwhile, there is a place on the screen where bright colors and expressionism still triumph, right alongside darkness and shadows. In anime!