A Too Long Post About Remakes And Reboots

A while back I was talking with some folks about movie reboots and the merits (or lack of merits) thereof. People hate reboots, because we love continuity. That’s understandable. We invest ourselves in these stories and we want that investment to be repaid. This is something of an absurd expectation. First and foremost, it is infinitely easier to consume works than it is to create them. I don’t mean that in the disparaging, “Then you create something,” way that self-proclaimed artists will defensively scream. I mean that purely and simply consumption is easier than creating. Consider: which is easier, cooking a perfect omelet, or pouring ketchup on it and eating it with a glass of chocolate milk?

The conversation that inspired this was about movie reboots. Specifically Robocop. There are two complaints I routinely hear leveled against them. First is that there is no need to reboot, just continue the story, or tell a new story. The second, and this one is deeply troubling, is that the reboot is somehow cheapening your experience of the original. There is a part of me that understands the first concern. However, it’s ultimately a manifestation of a really deep seeded fear of every art lover, “there is nothing new under the sun.”

This is true, in the broadest sense. There is no novel story to be told. I will concede that. Everything is a variation on a theme. However, that’s roughly equivalent to saying, “Well we’ve discovered 4/4 time, so music is done.” When Hunger Games came out people decried its similarities to “Battle Royale”. I consider these people lazy, because you could have gone really literary, and claimed it ripped off the story of Theseus and The Minotaur. It works just as well, and you get to show off that you read The Classics. The fact is, when you boil it down, and humans have been boiling it down since at least ancient Greece, the only thing that really matters, is telling the same old stories in an interesting way.

If, though, we are willing to accept Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey in iterations ranging from Jason and The Argonauts to Lord of The Rings to Star Wars, why is it that we are unwilling to accept true remakes? “They’re not true enough to the original,” is a complaint I often here, except that people universally panned Gus Van Sant’s almost shot-for-shot remake of Psycho. This was primarily because it either didn’t bring anything new to the story, or because stories themselves are unique phenomena that cannot be recreated. I agree with this thought, for the record. It seems apparent to me that every story is the sum of its constituent parts, and that should a single variable change the outcome may be something entirely different.

It could also be noted that remakes don’t sufficiently differentiate themselves from the original. For this I will point you to Rob Zombie’s Halloween. Like Van Sant’s experiment in shot-for-shot remaking this movie was panned. Fans of the original rent their garments and gnashed their teeth over the addition of backstory for Michael Meyers. Their reaction is not unfounded, the addition of backstory takes a monster that in its original incarnation was a homicidal force of nature, and turns it into an understandable broken human being (albeit with super powers).

So, in at least two examples, the problem with remakes is not that they are either too faithful or not faithful enough to their originals. So then, it seems as though the problem is that there is something inherently difficult about remaking/rebooting. I submit that the difficulty here is that stories tend to be intricately tied to the times they are created in. Lord of The Rings for instance, bathes in European mythology and was written during largely during WWII, when need for national pride in England was incredibly high. Godzilla was created as a means of dealing with the intensely traumatic experience of having multiple atomic bombs dropped on an island smaller than California. While Lord of The Rings has a sort of baked in advantage by following the tropes and rhythms of myths we are familiar with, Godzilla reboots, especially the awful American attempt, fail because we simply do not have that fear to tap into. However, past failures do not mean that it is an impossible task. The Fly and The Thing are both great remakes that are arguably better than their originals. In both cases they take their originals and update them. The Fly uses the evergreen concept of science gone wrong but presents it in a way that many critics identified with AIDS )The connection is fairly easy to see, a foreign DNA makes its way into a human body and replicates, replacing human DNA until the host dies). The Thing updated a classic 50s allegory for The Red Menace (The monster could be anyone! ANYONE!) and updated it with gore and the bitter nihilism of a country still in the grips of the Cold War. The movie literally ends with two people watching the other die of freezing.

Robocop was a movie born out of Reaganomics. Amid decreased corporate regulation we were given a parable about Detroit, a city built on industry, being bought and run by Omni Consumer Corp. The villains are crooked executives who have literally turned a human into a working machine better suited to labor subserviently and follow directions more completely. The movie ends with the exposure of the lone crooked executive and the robotic labor reestablishing his humanity. This, it seems, could be readily remade in the same way that The Thing and The Fly were. I don’t know that it will be successful, but to dismiss it out of hand is extreme, I believe.

Now the more problematic claim. The idea that somehow a reboot or a remake negates your earlier experience is patently absurd. Unless your argument is that the existence of a new iteration of something completely supplants extant iterations of that thing, that is to say, the most recent G.I. Joe movies completely erase from existence the comics and cartoons that came before them, then the idea that somehow your experience has been cheapened by it is complete bunk. Your experience with media is an internal phenomenon. For instance, I find the new Ninja Turtles cartoons to be terrible. I also know that they are different from the Ninja Turtles that I used to watch, and that somehow does not impact my enjoyment of those old cartoons.

The other part of this idea that bothers me is the assertion that somehow there is one true iteration. The idea that my Ninja Turtles is somehow the correct one is absurd, especially since by the time it was a cartoon it had been through several major changes already. This insistence on slavish devotion to what we consider the original or the pure is not only silly, but often serves as a kind of barrier to entry for possible new fans. When I was a kid, Rocky and Bullwinkle went through a revival of sorts. In 1992 the idea of the Evil Russian Empire was simply not a cultural touchstone for me. As a result, what I now realize were interesting commentaries on culture were just stupid filler in between Professor Peabody and Sherman and Fractured Fairy Tales. My father would tell me it was good, but it wasn’t, because “good” is subjective.

That’s the crux of it really. We want people to know what is good, because agreement validates our taste. Disagreement on the other hand, instead of offering a chance at self-reflection, causes us to wonder what the hell is wrong with other people and why is it that they like shitty things? It’s not pretty, but it’s human, I think.  Regardless, the immediate hate for reboots and remakes seems to be based more on a kind of kneejerk reaction than considered and measured examination of the possibilities of the remake itself. So relax, enjoy your memories, and if you really think a remake will be that bad, don’t partake.

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A few thoughts on Russia as a vector for the paranormal and ghostly.

Russia is a strange place. Or rather, we want Russia to be a strange place. Over Twitter the other day my guy Martin Clemens (@ForteanWriter) was telling me that a story he wrote for the Mysterious Universe megasite was one of his most popular pieces. I include a link here: http://mysteriousuniverse.org/2014/01/arkaim-russias-stonehenge-and-a-puzzle-of-the-ancient-world/

What followed was a discussion about the prevalence of paranormal stories from Russia. The Dyatlov Pass Incident, the Tunguska Event, The Radioactive Domes of Siberia’s Valley of Death (A personal favorite, you can read about it here http://www.abovetopsecret.com/forum/thread544351/pg1 ) and even creepypastas (online horror stories) like The Russian Sleep Experiment, depend on Russia to set their tone. Why does a story about Russian researchers pushing humans to insanity work better as “The Russian Sleep Experiment” better than say, the “New York Sleep Experiment”?  What makes Russia special?

If I have an area of expertise in English (I don’t), it would be in the cultural transmission of stories. There are, I think, several things at play here that make Russia perfect for mystery.

1)      Russia is suitably remote

2)      Russia is a mutually intelligible culture

3)      Russia is still evil

In medieval European travel narratives, the farther one got from England the more bizarre things got, (until of course one reached the holy land at which point everything became exactly as God intended, but that’s not incredibly pertinent.) If you traveled far enough from England, Wonders of The East would warn you of chickens that looked the same as upstanding English chickens but would immediately cause you to burst into flames should you touch them.  There where countless things that looked almost human but were terribly dangerous and aggressive. It is safe to say now that there never were chickens that would cause a person to immolate, and that nowhere in Africa are there a tribe of people who have no heads and faces in their chest but these were real to medieval readers. Without getting too deeply into the strange notion of medieval Truth, it’s safe to say that what made these tales believable is that they came from areas that were remote.

Make no mistake, Russia is remote, at least the parts of Russia these stories come from are. These stories come from Siberia or the Ural mountains. Even “The Russian Sleep Experiment” happens in the remoteness of 1940s Russia. While not geographically remote there is almost no argument to be made that information flowed freely out of Russia in the cold war. This remoteness, geographical or communicative, allows curiosity to flourish.

Curiosity is one of the most dependable traits in all of the human experience. So is fear. Both of them are in abundance here. It’s a cliché to say that humans fear what they do not know or understand. There is undeniably truth to the sentiment, though. Russia allows that perfect darkness in which monsters may thrive.

There’s another important piece here. Russia is a mutually intelligible culture. That is to say, we understand Russia in a fundamentally better way than we do, say China. China is, of course, equally more remote. Its vast deserts and huge swaths of sparsely populated land are fairly comparable to Russia’s. The difference is that China is far more alien. While major chunks of Asia and Africa may remain suitably remote to hide monsters, the culture makes them unsuitable for the purposes of easy story transmission. We can fake Russian culture. We can create a reasonable facsimile of what Russian history must look like based on half remembered lessons from world history classes. That’s the key. We understand them well enough make convincing stories up about them. Russia is the geopolitical equivalent of that town in New Jersey where you can buy a wallet made of human skin.

Finally, Russia is still evil. Our attitudes toward Russia have never recovered from the cold war. “The Russian Sleep Experiment” worked because it’s believable that Russia would put their citizens through horrible science experiments (Lest I be called an American Exceptionalist I may remind you of The Tuskegee Experiment). It’s believable that they have some kind of radioactive dome farm in Siberia because they let Chernobyl happen. It’s believable that they have alien technology because, at least on some level, we love the idea of bad guys with super weapons.

That secretive evil of the cold war government seems to have seeped into the land. We believe that the history and climate and fauna of Russia are equally secretive and evil. It’s a natural thing that humans seem to do with The Other. It’s strange to consider Russia The Other, but that’s essentially what’s happening here. That’s why the stories flow and what gives them a strange kind of immediate believability. It’s a believability that rarely stands up to rigorous examination, but rigorous examination is not really what spreads stories. Russia’s stories are good, juicy. They exist as a kind of perpetual friend of a friend. Nobody knows the story first hand, but everyone is pretty sure they’re true.

An Appeal for Fun Comics

I’m not a blog-savvy enough writer to know how to make that more concise, but those are necessary for where I’m about to go.

John, (or Hitlerpuncher, or Mr. Wolter, whichever he prefers) is pointing out a glaring blind spot in comics from The Big 2. First a caveat: I am aware that outside of DC and Marvel there is a rich tradition of escapist literature and oddball narratives but I’m going to be dealing with The Big 2 because that is the extent of comic book exposure for the vast majority of people.

My sister has a literature class this semester for which the entirety of the reading list is graphic novels. The list has one comic. Two if you count V for Vendetta (I do not). The lone superhero comic on the list is Watchmen. Watchmen is a great comic. It is also possibly the single most destructive influence in recent comic book history. Watchmen came about in a time when the standard tropes were exactly what was proposed above as a “crazy idea” Watchmen wandered into a world of pure escapism and adventure and showed heroes and villains as largely broken individuals playing a game amongst themselves that used people as props. It brought grit and reality into comic books. Between him and Frank Miller and his work turning Batman into a violent, goal oriented sociopath, comics were changed.

The problem is, I don’t think they changed for the better. A generation later comic books are now written and edited by men (the sexism of the comic book industry is one I’ll have to cover some other time, because that’s a sickness that could be its own book.) who grew up thinking Miller and Moore were the apogee of comic book writing. They grew up on, and in turn perpetuated the grit of the comics they loved. Batman became more ruthless, more utilitarian. Superman died and was replaced by others who fit that bill. Wolverine became Wolverine, a hero whose gimmick included literally sustaining mortal wounds willingly and repeatedly because he would just come back from them. Death and violence and sex took root in comics and the shift from adolescent wish fulfillment of golden and silver age comic books gave way to angry, unwelcoming power fantasies.

Let me be clear about this, I have no problem with some comic books being dark and gritty. I also do not believe that the golden and silver age comics were without issues. Wonder Woman was largely based on bondage and an amazon princess falling in love with an all-American man, and as a Chicano, I was completely unrepresented. But those books were fun. They had a kind of whimsy that at some point we decided to eschew in favor of garishly muscular men solving their problems through violence and using their brains to come up with more efficient means of committing violence, and hyper-sexualized women who existed as either lust objects, or characters to be paired off and passed around the male characters.

These are the comics I grew up on. These are the comics I was forced to explain to my sister as I took her to the comic shoppe to get her books. It needs to stop. In short there is no use for it anymore. Batman uses terrifying surveillance measures and superman destroys a city in order to stop the bad guy, who Superman kills. Let me reiterate that, Superman KILLS someone. Superman, defender of life, liberty, and the American way. Superman, whose life has been made a living hell by Lex Luthor for literally decades, Superman who is (if you buy this analysis) supposed to embody the height of humanity, kills someone.

There are no heroes. There are only outrageously powerful enforcers of morality with whom we happen to agree. Well done, comic book world.

What John “Hitlerpuncher” Wolter is suggesting is a kind of Radical Orthodoxy. A world where heroes are heroes not because they are granted some kind of superpower that they exercise to fight villains, but because they are human. In World War II Captain America fought Nazis. He fought Hitler. I assume most children knew that there was not a literal Captain America literally punching Hitler in the head, but it was good to have, because World War II plunged the world into a sufficiently fucked up circumstance that a little escapism was ok. You know what, I’d venture to say we’re there now. Our government is operating surveillance at a never before seen level, we’re locked in a War on Terror that is literally unwinnable because the enemy is an abstract concept, and the likelihood of becoming wealthy is smaller for us than it was for our parents.

I’d venture to say that maybe this is a time when we need heroes, no?

But we have none, because the inmates are running the asylum. We don’t know how to make them anymore. Instead we split up Peter and Maryjane, we split Clark and Lois. “Married characters don’t resonate with readers!” Cry the editors, “Married characters aren’t compelling” moan the writers. We welcome new readers into a world where women are afterthoughts and women writers are sorely lacking, “Who do you want us to hire? What women comic book writers are there?” Reply editors. What woman wants to write for a universe where women are shiny baubles for cover art (God bless you, Gail Simone for consistently shaming most other writers with your talent and output)? What parent wants to hand their child a copy of Batman where Joker has his face carved off with a razorblade and Harley Quinn cartwheels around in a skirt that’s nothing more than a particularly wide belt and what appears to be a strapless sports bra?

Those books are fine. The plots can be entertaining. I enjoy them. But you know what I miss? Heroes. I miss the simpler times when heroes found a way to be heroes. When Batman, gruff and ready-to-fight as he was, was still, fundamentally, a good person. Of course every book would be a wink, wink, nudge nudge, agreement with the reader. Of course we would know that it was mildly cheesy, of course we would know that this was not the real world. That’s ok. Fun is ok. When it comes down to it, and I may have missed the mark, that’s what those tweets are about. He, (we) want fun comic books again. I want silly morality plays that let me rejoice in the triumph of Good over Evil. I know that doesn’t happen in the real world, I don’t care. I don’t read comic books for verisimilitude. Is that why you read them?

Why I like Hansel and Gretel Best.

The prevailing wisdom is that fairy tales are engines of morality that indoctrinate children into the rules of polite society. That’s a pretty clean narrative. It’s also lazy. Fairy tales are incredibly violent. Their justice, if we may use “Snow White” (in which the stepmother is forced to dance to death in red-hot iron shoes that are fastened to her feet) as an example, involve what might be better described as pure vengeance. This is somewhat compounded by the fact that many characters in fairy tales are downright terrible. Jack, of beanstalk climbing fame, commits breaking and entering, larceny, and then homicide. We’re ok with this because he kills a giant and as we all know, according to morals that fairy tales teach us, it’s totally understandable to both fear and terrorize those who are alien. (There is of course the notable exception of Beauty and The Beast, but that was a French tale whose point was specifically stated as being to teach subservience to virtue.)

The Grimm’s tales are collections of older stories that had been floating around for quite some time beforehand. It’s important then, to remember that they come from times when child abandonment was not an enthusiastically employed option, but was still employed in order to protect the viability of the parents, who could make more children. It was also far more common that things like starvation would take incredible tolls on populations. It’s not, then a wild assumption to believe that rather than living in a strange state of ataraxia, the children who heard these stories were not using them to deal with the Freudian fears of developmental stages, but rather confronting legitimate fears that were not only possible, but fairly common.

It’s this tradition that spawned my favorite fairy tale. Hansel and Gretel. We start with the first peculiarity. It’s not a stepmother. Hansel and Gretel starts with a father and mother discussing their eminent starvation and the fact that abandoning the children might give them just enough to make it through the hardship and make new children. So it is that an ineffectual father badgered by a shrewish mother into leaving his children in the woods. Twice. The children hear them talking about the plan as they pretend to be asleep and Hansel devises a brilliant plan in which he sneaks out, collects shiny pebbles, and leaves a trail home. The father is overjoyed when they make it back and the mother is understandably upset as they will now all starve to death. The second time, and this is important, it is a repeat of the first except that Hansel’s brilliant plan is to leave bread, which is immediately consumed by birds.

There’s a couple fun things here. First the father is terrible and Hansel is a dolt. It’s probably a fair assumption to think that Hansel would be aware of the staggering propensity of wild animals to eat bread. Neither of these, though, compare to the candy cottage episode. Hansel and Gretel find said cottage and of course, starving, begin to eat it. What’s interesting is that when confronted by the witch who lives in that cottage they lie. The witch asks who is eating her cottage, presumably because the sound of someone literally ripping your house apart is quite loud when you’re inside it, the children tell her it’s just the wind. This is about as believable a lie as one would expect a child to come up with. The witch, however finds it less entertaining and imprisons Hansel in a cage of bones while forcing Gretel to do chores. Hansel, for his part manages to stay alive by convincing the witch that a bone is his finger and that he’s not fat enough to eat yet. Again, Hansel puts together a solid plan with a definite long-term payoff. Meanwhile, Gretel comes up with a plan that involves pushing the witch into the oven and killing her. The children of course find a wealth of gemstones in the now dead witch’s house and they rejoice with their father (their mother is gone, no mention of why) and live happily ever after.

What makes Hansel and Gretel great, is that while other stories rely on learning some lesson or finding performing a mystery task for a higher power, Gretel carries the day by discovering and exercising her own agency. That’s what makes it unique. There is no prince to save them, there is no divine providence, and there is no fairy. There is only the relationship of a young brother and sister surviving based largely on the strength of their cooperation. Ultimately though, it is Gretel (weaker than Hansel at the onset of the story) who saves the day. It is Gretel’s initiative that kills the witch, presumably saving future children. It’s an oddity among Fairy Tales in that way. It doesn’t teach morality, unless you consider pure utilitarianism and theft morality. It doesn’t have a magical curse, broken by virtue or love. It doesn’t have a fairy godmother. Instead it has a simple narrative of children in peril, which concludes with the discovery of one’s own agency. It’s a narrative as old as Perseus and the Minotaur and as fresh as The Hunger Games, because it works. Hansel and Gretel though, simple and quick, will always be my choice.

Why I’m not a bigger fan of Lovecraft.

Let me start with what I believe is the fundamental assumption of storytelling. Every story tells you something. Every story tells you something about the writer, but more importantly, tells you something about the reader.

Ok, that’s out of the way. It is something of an accepted truth that H.P. Lovecraft is at least partially responsible for laying the foundations of modern horror. That’s not incredibly arguable. His use of Cosmic Horror are interesting and undeniably influential. That being said I dislike him. Let’s set aside the more overtly racist stories (Just think about that sentence for a second). I preferred when his monsters were monsters and gods, not aliens, but that is admittedly a personal issue and not a failing of the writing.

However, there are failures in the writing. In almost every story there are events that are “unspeakable” or “indescribable”. This is bothersome because he’s a writer. Literally his only job is to relate events in a manner that is entertaining and compelling, to describe things. The counter argument is that it allows the reader to come up with one’s own monsters. It hides the beast from the reader in the same way that great horror movies hide the monster until the end. However, if this were true then one would expect for him to hold that true on all counts. He does not. He describes Cthulhu in ample detail, and so presumably, the more mind shattering things are left out because he couldn’t come up with something acceptably frightening or mind warping.

Also annoying is the fact that those heroes whose sanity breaks are all so incredibly WASPy. WASPy in the effete, aristocratic, Ivy League way that we caricature now with transatlantic accents and ending sentences with, “mmm yes.” One is left to wonder then, how stern a stuff our protagonists are made of. This is perhaps unfair, but it is undeniable that Lovecraft’s heroes and victims (at least those with whom we are to sympathize) are practically Victorian in terms of ability to accept the out-of-the-ordinary. That is to say, I wonder whether those groups who Lovecraft had no love for would not have fared better in his stories precisely because they were more unrefined. I suppose, though, that that is his legacy. Poorly described dangers destroying the minds of the soft, educated, upper crust.

Let’s then see how that translates into the future. Present. Lovecraft’s future, our present. There seems to be a trend to write nihilistic horror stories. Horror stories where the protagonists lose and the monster continues on, free to destroy others. The problem with this is that where once it was groundbreaking and edgy, it is now passé. What worked for Lovecraft was the idea that we lived in a universe that did not care about us. It is the horror extension of Stephen Crane’s “Open Boat”. The difficulty in writing this kind of story is that you still need to have characters that readers can invest in. That’s why The Walking Dead lost me. Arguably the best example of the nihilistic trend, the comic kills characters at an incredible clip. They’re replaced by new ones, of course, but after about 24 issues the damage was done. Rather than being entertaining, I found myself divesting completely, because emotional investments simply didn’t pay off.

So my question is what do you get from nihilism? If we accept my assertion that it tells us something about both the writers and the readers, then what do we make of a story where the hero not only fails, but doesn’t have a chance? It’s a special kind of hopeless. No Country for Old Men, for instance, is not this kind of story because there is no hero. There is a thief, being chased by a force of nature, all over some blood money he stole from a crime scene. Slasher movies, for all of their sexism and formula, have survivors. The monster comes back, but there is a chance that someone will survive. What do you get from denying this prospect?

The answer, I suspect is a kind of thumbing of one’s nose at convention. However, it all too often comes off as petulant rebellion. Rather than assessing what the story says by killing its protagonist and giving darkness the win it is done with little thought because “That’s what the world is like, man. Like it just fucking chews you up and spits you out!” That is a fine premise, but it needs fleshing out. Lovecraft’s nihilism was in service of and a result of the increased awareness of the cosmos and the sudden undeniable smallness of humanity in the ever expanding cosmos.

That’s the dance then. Trying to figure out when your hopelessness serves a greater purpose and when your hopelessness is simply a method of shitting on your characters. That’s a fine goal to pursue, but then remember, why should I care about your story. What do you offer me, in return for my emotional investment? All too often with Lovecraft I find that the whole story is gag whose payoff is cosmic horror but whose subtext is that the world is dangerous to the well-mannered and cultured gentleman.  I suppose that’s the appeal to the academic world, who lavish attention on the works. It’s functionally a body of work that examines what would happen if academics truly encountered the knowledge they were seeking. In a sense it makes their pursuit dangerous! Which is, if we are being honest, the academic’s fear. That deep down the world will see how soft and coddled they (we, if I am being honest.) are. After that gag is paid off though, they ring a bit hollow and become stories of interesting ideas, well crafted, but lacking in substance.

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