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The Life of P

Tag: film

The Myth Factory


Human beings are storytelling creatures, as we are oft told.  Usually this is about the narratives through which we interpret the events in our lives, but on a larger scale stories tell us from where we came and allow us to conceptualise our place in an increasingly large universe. Over time our most sacred stories transitioned from oral folklore and mythology into codified religion and, in doing so, they gradually lost their mutability to become dogmatic truths. As a species, we lost something in this shift.

In 2009, Disney made a surprising acquisition of Marvel for $4.29 billion. Now, with billions of dollars in revenue from the monumentally successful Marvel Cinematic Universe, it makes perfect financial sense. But in 2009, we were only two films into what Marvel termed “Phase One” of the MCU following the breakout success of Iron Man. The only other release, The Incredible Hulk, had a lukewarm reception. It can be viewed as a shrewd commercial gamble but I think that misunderstands their intention. Disney’s real motivation only became clear to me several years later when, in 2012, it purchased Lucasfilm, ostensibly paying $4.06 billion for a single franchise, Star Wars. Unlike Marvel at the time of the acquisition, everyone knew that the Star Wars label was essentially a licence to print money, so few questioned the business decision. Most of the scrutiny came from fans concerned about the consequences for a fictional universe dear to their hearts. At the time I pointed out those fears were misplaced given the expert curation of the MCU following the Marvel acquisition and George Lucas’ own inability to manage his creation. Disney’s stewardship has been more uneven in respect of Star Wars (quite aside from mixed reactions to the films, the dearth of videogames following an exclusive licensing deal with EA is a travesty), but the acquisition builds to the same goal.

For several hundred years, the most retold stories outside of religion were fairytales, be they the Germanic tales we associate with the Brothers Grimm, the Middle Eastern tales collected in One Thousand and One Nights or the countless folk tales from Africa, China and beyond. These continued the oral tradition of being retold and altered, with each storyteller imparting something of themselves. These are the stories upon which The House of Mouse truly built its empire, moving from amusing cartoons to stories with deep societal roots which then became synonymous with childhood. Although I may dislike the “Disneyfiction” of darker tales, such retelling is perfectly in keeping with their folk story origins.

In the 20th century, comicbooks were a major disruptive force. With DC and Marvel at the forefront, we saw the creation of a new mythology of alien gods and human heroes. This mythic nature may be clearest with Marvel’s literal translation of the Norse pantheon into the Asgardian race, but is equally true of super-powered mutants and those caught in their wake. These were also mutable characters who could change with the times, routinely killed off and resurrected to reflect the values and needs of each decade. The core elements of the characters remained the same, but they provided a lens through which to perceive rapidly changing times. It is no accident that their rise occurred alongside increasing secularisation, because for many these were allegorical stories that served a similar purpose as religious teachings in calibrating our moral compass through lessons like Spider-man’s familiar, “with great power comes great responsibility”. And if you question the cultural impact that comics had before the rise of their colossal movie franchises, consider 2007’s mainstream US press coverage and backlash to the “unpatriotic” decision to kill Captain America in a post-9/11 story arc.

Amazing Fantasy #15, Aug. 1962

These mythological intentions are even clearer with Star Wars. George Lucas has overtly espoused his appreciation for John Campbell’s seminal work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he examines what he terms the “monomyth”, a single overarching story that humans in unconnected societies have been telling one another around the world and across the ages, a story that appears fundamental to what it means to be human. He identifies all the points of commonality and maps out “the hero’s journey”, which Lucas slavishly used as a template to craft Luke Skywalker’s adventure. The extent to which the resulting story resonated with its audience can scarcely be described.

This, then, is what Disney has been acquiring beyond its original foothold in fairytale and folklore: the sources of modern mythology, control over the central stories that we tell (and retell) outside of religion. We see now the culmination of the MCU’s ten-year story in Avengers: Infinity War, drawing together characters it has spent a decade establishing. Even within that timescale we can see societal shifts emerge and become incorporated, such as Black Panther upending the perceived wisdom that a black blockbuster could be a financial success, whilst also posing searching questions about racial identity and responsibility or Civil War’s (underdeveloped) questions about identity registration and the nature of a society’s sense of security.

Many are baffled by the success of the Marvel and Star Wars films. This may be because they seem childish when compared to more serious fare or because it is easy to view them in the same way as forgettable action flicks. They are fantasies and they are silly. For several years my advice has been to approach these films specifically with the concept of mythology in mind. When we read the stories of the Norse gods, we don’t decry the ridiculousness of Loki’s children including a large wolf, a gigantic snake and an eight-legged horse, or that Odin keeps the severed head of wise Mimir alive by using some herbs and singing. These sorts of stories are not bound by that kind of cold logic. Rather, it is the shape of the story, and individual interactions, from which we learn  a few truths about the world, what it means to be human and, perhaps, ourselves.

Short Post of No Consequence

Recent posts have been infrequent and, as a result, lengthier once I have both something about which to write and the time to do it. This means I have been reluctant to pad them out further with the usual assortment of links and asides that I’ve stumbled upon in my online travels. So here are the latest in a light-hearted Short Post of No Consequence.

  • The rotund plumber that still captures gamers’ imaginations, the original Super Mario has recently been reimagined both with modern sound effects and with a first person perspective.
  • Modern Times is a quietly pensive, attractively rendered, futuristic short.
  • Thwart facial detection with make-up (note: this trick doesn’t just prevent accurate face recognition; it prevents detection of a face at all).
  • The hilarious ninja-filled Nexus S unboxing video may the best one ever. After the video scroll down to grab the red ninja’s nunchaku…
  • Yes, it’s just a marketing video, but Corning’s A Day Made of Glass video is a gorgeous representation of technology that is, in many cases, virtually here. As soon as Microsoft finds a way to sell me that Surface table, anyway. While Corning naturally favours touch interfaces, I’ll admit apprehension at the loss of buttons in a car, since operation while moving will require taking one’s eyes of the road for far longer.
  • If you’re rocking one of the latest web browsers, using the HTML5 canvas to screw around with content on any site has become a recent trend in either Asteroids or Katamari flavours (the latter accompanied by the requisite ridiculously cheerful music too).
  • And finally, a Barbershop rendition of the Ewok celebration song. Because I can.

I take no responsibility for procrastination caused by the reading of this post.

Digital Wash Up

Will the Secretary of State look back in history and see what happens to legislation that gets pushed through the House quickly, without consultation? It looks as though we could push some measure through – perhaps there will be a little stitch-up between the three Front-Bench teams – but out there, ordinary people, many of whom have only begun to realise the repercussions of the Bill, will feel totally let down by Parliament, just before a general election.

-Kate Hoey MP, House of Commons debate on the Digital Economy Bill

She is, of course, absolutely right. But she also puts me in a difficult position in that I have no desire to see the current Labour Government re-elected but, locally, she is exactly the sort of rebel MP — willing routinely to vote against her party when appropriate — that I wholeheartedly support. The party political system irritates me more each year.

You already know I support good 3D cinema and deplore poor, “cash in” 3D. The latest culprit is Clash of the Titans in which the post-production 3D was shoehorned in even less time than Alice in Wonderland. Critics have universally slated the 3D elements as greatly detracting from an otherwise — well — average film. What effect this will have on consumer tastes is uncertain since Titans certainly made a lot of money.

This all made me rather curious about the discovery that the fourth Resident Evil film (it’s become quite the franchise), Afterlife, is in 3D. Which sounds awful. Except that it’s been done properly from scratch, utilising the Fusion camera system pioneered by James Cameron. The quality of the film itself is still up in the air: I consider the first one fun videogame fluff, the second awful, and the third a surprisingly impressive atmospheric post-apocalyptic ride. I’m happy to let curiosity get the better of me when this one breaks out.

I don’t often embed videos here, but this is a rather pretty “trailer” for the forthcoming Charles Vess illustrated book of Neil Gaiman’s poem Instructions from his Fragile Things collection. It’s actually Neil reading the entire poem with an animated version of Vess’ artwork.

Films and Food, Wine and World Domination

Terminator Salvation

For an entirely unplanned weekend, it ended up becoming rather alliteratively full as our title suggests, with two films, two meals out, four friends and a spot of casual world domination. Rav decided that we needed to see Terminator Salvation, a prospect to which I was not wholly averse, while being vocal in my confusion as to why exactly we need another Terminator film. The third, to refresh people’s memories, was a largely neutered teen-friendly product with the sole saving grace of its unexpected ending in which, despite the protagonists’ best efforts, Judgement Day occurs anyway. This time around we rejoin John Connor in the middle of his near-future war against the machines in what would prove to be an even more unnecessary film than the third. It has virtually no plot to speak of, nor does it advance the overarching mythos or universe. What it does do is throw up a series of amusingly careless gaffes — the apparently recoil-free shotgun which a teenager can fire one-handed with perfect accuracy or the inexplicably redundant glassy touch-screen text-based user-interface in the machines’ HQ. Overall the action is competent and the film is perfectly watchable. I’m just not sure what the point was.

Following that, a good curry and a great bottle of Malbec at Indian Moment in Clapham and then back to Rav’s for drinks and warmongering in a protracted mission-based session of Risk. I haven’t played for many years, but if ever a game were designed for me, this is probably high on the list. I was pleased to see I still haven’t lost my ruthless touch. Equally important as martial strategising is the technique of naming any lone soldiers defending remote outposts of the empire. Invaders soon learned to fear the venerable one-man armies of Chuck Norris and Quentin Tarantino. The best defence is a good offence; the second best defence is a good name. Waking late on Sunday we had an early afternoon brunch (I am reliable informed by Maurita that it’s still brunch until 4pm, at which point it becomes brinner) at Aquum.

Synecdoche, New York

Film #2 was Synecdoche, New York from Charlie Kaufman, his first outing as a director as well as writer. Frankly trying to form an opinion on it after a single viewing is almost an exercise in futility. Rav encapsulated it rather well in his first comment, “the decade was nearly over without a Twelve Monkeys.” The difference is that while logic and time are fluid concepts, given free rein Kaufman has produced something overambitious and rather self-indulgent which doesn’t necessarily hang together. There is much to enjoy and appreciate within smaller scenes or sections of the film but it will certainly take repeat viewings to decide whether it is less or more than the sum of its parts. It could be art, it could be bad storytelling without another director to make sense of his script. Time will tell.

And lastly, two great t-shirts from Despair Inc., which seems to be branching out from pessimism into general social commentary.

"Civilization now depends on self-deception. Perhaps it always has."

(CC) BY-NC 2004-2024 Priyan Meewella

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