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September 12th, 2008

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02:05 pm - Musings on pulp, violence, and the latest Indiana Jones film
Yesterday evening, teaotter, hereville, xtricks, and I all went to see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The first 20 minutes were pure 50s pulp – in that relatively short segment we had space aliens, atomic bombs, rockets (or at least a rocket sled) and fighter jets flying overhead. However, the film was basically worthless fluff. There was effectively no characterization at all, and it looked far more like a video game than a fun pulpy film. None of this was helped by the fact that nothing at all was explained. Using all the data we have about the aliens, I can construct two completely different and unrelated explanations as to what was going on with the multiple flying saucer crashes, the actions of the aliens at the end, and the fact that they clear didn't defend themselves and flying saucers didn't start showing up when someone stole the crystal skull 500 years ago. Of course, making coherent stories from exceptionally limited data that wasn't initially designed to support any sort of coherent story is part of my job (at least when I do licensed adaptations of various media to RPGs), and it's clear to me that no one bothered to see if the film made any sense (up to & including Indiana Jones mysteriously getting his job back at the end). No characterization + no coherent plot = bad film. I've seen worse this summer, but this has been a summer of deeply wretched action films. So far, Iron Man has been the only exception (I haven't see The Dark Knight yet).

In any case, after the film, Becca and I talked about pulp as a genre. We both like it, and it's definitely a useful antidote to the far too common modern trend towards vile antiheroes and unremitting grimness. However, there's one problem with a lot of pulp, and especially every piece of pulp George Lucas has ever produced – violence, or more specifically mass death.

One common approach to pulp is, that George Lucas seems particularly fond of is the idea that it must have lots of big & impressive fight scenes. In practice, this means a whole lot of casual death and casual murder of villains, and I'm simply not OK with that in media and haven't been for a while. This film had PG-13, low gore violence, but underneath that, it was yet another highly violent George Lucas film.

If you want pulp with lots of fight scenes, there are ways to do it, the most obvious being having the protagonists fighting mindless zombies or robots, since such creatures are far more like things than people. However, there's really only so much you can do with this. However, there are alternatives that are more broadly applicable. District B-13 (which I discuss here) was a pulpy action film and had large segments of non-stop breathtaking action, but the body count was quite low, and in fact compared to many films the level of violence against people was also quite low. Also, the big villain was killed by his associates, not the protagonists. Also, my favorite is pulp adventure where solutions do not involve violence. Some of Andre Norton's SF fit into this category, but the most well known example are various TV shows and films done by Gene Roddenberry. There was no shortage of episodes of Star Trek (discussing mostly the original series) that were pulpy SF (as well as episodes that definitely were not pulp) and yet in most of these episodes, the solution was not violence. The characters regularly used minor violence (including a whole lot of punching, judo-throwing, and Vulcan neck-pinching opponents on the way to a solution, but problems were generally solved through understanding &/or communication (as well as occasionally destroying a hostile computer system, which were typically not intelligent). Yes, characters regularly died in original series Trek, but in the vast majority of cases these deaths were regarded as meaningful by the story and the characters and that makes a vast difference to me.

Most modern actions films have cut back gore compared to similar films from 15 to 20 years ago, but they are no less violent and murdering villains is still done often and casually. Instead, the violence is simply far less gory, and this is especially true in the pulpier action films. I'm definitely not a fan of this trend.

On a vaguely related note, while it's very definitely not pulp, I also admire Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles for their treatment of violence and especially killing. In that show, killing is either something done by the worst villains or something that has serious consequences and which is to be avoided and prevented, at least by the characters who are shown to be the moral centers of the show (Sarah Connor, and to a lesser extent John Connor).
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful

(6 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:September 13th, 2008 02:44 am (UTC)
I wish Peter Jackson or another really good director would film any of Spider Robinson's novels. Spider's novels are full of enlightenment and compassion, while featuring plenty of action and conflict. He's like Heinlein crossed with the Bhudda.
[User Picture]
Date:September 13th, 2008 05:01 am (UTC)
That would indeed be very cool. Either Stardance (I liked both it and Starseed a lot, although I didn't think Starmind was very good) or Mindkiller (which is brilliant).
[User Picture]
Date:September 13th, 2008 02:59 am (UTC)
BTW, go see The Dark Knight right now! Vaya vaya vaya!
[User Picture]
Date:September 13th, 2008 11:24 pm (UTC)
I have a feeling you will loathe "The Dark Knight" on the subject of characterizations of women, and, in my opinion, it taps into that violent bleakness of spirit that you dislike so much. The film does have its good points, and it's worth seeing. Just be warned that there are some things in it that you probably won't approve of.

On the subject of pulp, have you heard of the tabletop rpg "Spirit of the Century"? It's a very simple pick-up game system in the pulp genre. I helped play-test it before publication. My friends and I like it because it's very easy to run a fun one-shot game with no preparation whatsoever. This post made me think of it because every time I've played, we've had a lot of action but a low (human) body count. I don't know if that's a function of the system, or just how we like to play.
[User Picture]
Date:September 14th, 2008 01:00 am (UTC)
What can I say? I approve of the casual murder of villains, provided their guilt is adequately ascertained or they represent acceptable collateral damage.
[User Picture]
Date:September 14th, 2008 05:35 am (UTC)
You really ought to see The Dark Knight already -- that and The Incredible Hulk are the only two action/adventure blockbusters I've bothered seeing, and I was not disappointed in them.

I'd already rated the IJ fourquel to be a lost cause, even if only from the shoehorning-in of Shia LaBoeuf as a transparent PoV insert for the younger audience that Indy himself isn't relating to anymore (i.e., the exact same thing that Michael Bay did with Transformers instead of capitalizing on the TF fandom's existing identification with the non-fleshling characters). Iron Man, actually was not even in the running for movies I wanted to see before their release, though I may watch it sometime for the sake of seeing what others have seen in Robert Downey Jr.'s acting.

For all my nostalgia for Star Wars and the first Indiana Jones trilogy (I was well and truly grossed-out by Temple of Doom in the theatre), I willingly assert that George Lucas is a hack when it comes to the morality of mortality, having no issue with legions of 'faceless' (impliedly soulless) aliens/stormtroopers/clones being cut down even as he basks in the pathos of each good-guy/designated-innocent death. When The Phantom Menace and Send in the-- pardon me, Attack of the Clones were released, there were some apt comparisons in reviews to the situation vis-a-vis the Middle East, and the ease of visibly designating both aliens and 'aliens' as the enemy, de-investing real-life foreigners (of the Arabic persuasion) of their personality and any taboo against mowing them down en masse.

Ever seen the ecard with the forlorn Stormtrooper sitting in his livingroom? "I had friends on that Death Star..." is the caption.

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