The Superversive in Film: The Last Starfighter

We return once more to that period between the late ’70s and mid ’80s when that last flourish of old-school pulp sensibility arose in the form of feature films out of Hollywood done by then-rising names in the business. This time, it’s The Last Starfighter, another Space Opera made possible due to the success of Star Wars.

This film, like Tron, falls into that “Boy’s Own Adventure” style of adventure where our hero–although an adult–still speaks and acts like the boys this film is intended to entertain. That means the film’s style of presentation is in harmony with that audience also: earnest, sincere, and uncomplicated- but not simple.

The reason this is superversive is that this film’s story, as with many stories aimed at boys, is about the necessity of accepting responsibility- not just for yourself, but on behalf of those depending upon you. For an emerging generation of boys, soon to become men, this learning how to face difficult and dangerous realities even when you would rather run because if you don’t no one else will.

A careful review of the story’s narrative shows this to be the case. The critical events that make our hero into the titular character comes about due to succumbing to that very fear and running from the responsibility that his previous actions–qualifying as a Starfighter gunner–put upon him. Today some would cry about this being unfair,
or unjust. That doesn’t matter; it’s a job that men need to do, like it or not, because not doing it means far, far worse for everyone- man, woman, and child. Stories like this are necessary for boys, because this reality is their future as men in one form or another.

Which brings up another, understated but no less critical point: at no point does our hero get dumped on for taking up his burden and doing his duty. The others that benefit by his actions appreciate what he risked for their sake, and it is this acknowledgement that completes the superversive elements of this story. No one wants to risk life and limb for ingrates, and no society so ungrateful benefits from such deeds for long as it subverts that fundamental institution of any healthy society and culture. The audience of the day rewarded this handsomely, making it one of the latter day classics with lasting influence. It still holds up today. Recommended.

The Superversive in Film: The Black Hole

In 1979, Disney release The Black Hole. This science fiction film got released during the time between the original Star Wars of 1977 and the first sequel (The Empire Strikes Back) in 1980. It was a blatant, and honest, attempt to cash in on the renewed interest in science fiction as an adventure film genre and as such held true to certain old-school sensibilities that George Lucas’s Space Opera revitalized two years prior.

It’s sometimes derided as a Haunted House movie in space, but that’s not fair. The actual speculative element–the titular black hole–literally makes it presence felt in the first reel, drives the plans (and motivations) of the antagonist, and plays the singular role in the climax of the film. For those science fiction fans looking for something scientific to talk about, you’re not disappointed; there is no story without the black hole, so don’t worry about the trappings of gothic horror used throughout.

What makes this a Superversive film is also laid out straight away: the defiance of logic, reason, and good order in favor of reckless and obsessive pursuit of a passion to the point of madness and degeneracy of character. This is symbolized by the antagonist’s reliance on robots and automation over human crewman and proper navel procedure, a symbol made literal at a critical turning point in the plot when a revelation good enough to come out of a Cyberman episode of Doctor Who hits, after which things go increasingly bad for our heroes.

At no point is the antagonist–a precursor to the ethics-lacking “science” Establishment of today–portrayed as anything but a softer Colonel Kurtz-as-a-Mad-Scientist. Each of the cast who succumb to the antagonist’s scheme do so due to critical character defects overwhelming them and compelling the doomed to their demise, while those who endure to the end do so because their fundamental decency shields them from the antagonist’s attempt to seduce them into following his scheme.

The real achievement, for you younger folks out there, is that the horror of the antagonist’s evil gets shown to the viewer without any gore whatsoever. This film, being one of the last of the old-guard Disney films, never lies to or insults its audience (or their parents) by talking down to them or relying on cheap tricks. The heroes win (as much as any hero in a tragedy does win) by being both right enough to withstand temptation and skilled enough to withstand retaliation. The antagonist is utterly undone by his own hand, learning well the price of hubris, and our heroes escape that same fate- if barely. (This is where the tropes of gothic horror get most applied, after their aesthetics.)

This is not some “villains win because Good is suck” story. This is not some excuse to parade degeneracy and moral abomination as the New Normal. This is a well-told story, where heroes are heroes, men are men, women are women, and robots are interesting (for fair and foul reasons), that (if not for the special effects) you might expect from a film 10 years prior.

Much like the Mohicans, The Black Hole was part of the last generation of a Disney (and a generation of film professionals) that faded away in the 1980s (with Tron being the last gasp). The Disney of today may, at times, echo that lost era but it is not Walt’s house anymore. Recommended, especially if you want to know why Disney rarely even tries to do this sort of thing anymore.

The Superversive in Film: Tron & Tron Legacy

In 1982, Disney released a second science fiction film during that six-year period where the original Star Wars trilogy made its mark on world culture. That film was Tron. (The first being 1978’s The Black Hole, which I’ll get to another time.) As with many science fiction and fantasy films of this era, it became a cult classic and made a big impression on a generation who’d come of age with personal computers and (later) the emergence of the Internet.

I didn’t have “superversive” to describe the original film when I came back to it as an adult. At the time, I called it a “Boy’s Own Adventure” film because–despite the protagonist being an adult, and the subject matter being quite serious–how the film went about telling this story clearly aimed at an audience of boys either early in or coming up on adolescence. It has a fairy tail quality to it, a sincere and earnest quality, that those who’d seen earlier films (such as The Computer That Wore Tennis Shoes) would find familiar and comfortable.

Yet this film most certainly was Superversive, and even now that’s clear as day. The villain (Edward Dillinger) is a thief, albeit a cunning one, and a rival to the hero (Kevin Flynn) as a creator; the villain’s creation (the Master Control Program, “MCP” for short)has surpassed him and now threatens to go out of control, trapping the villain by his own hubris. The hero succeeds thanks to his friends’ aid (as well as that of their creations)- most notably being the title character, the program Tron. The virtues of courage, fortitude, and loyalty win out over the treachery and despair that the villains wield as much as the discs this film is famous for. Kevin’s fortune is restored, and the promise of a better tomorrow for all is put before us at the end. Its story is simple, but well-done, and still holds up today.

The sequel, Tron: Legacy, seems a subversion- a deliberate pozzing. Yet it is not; it is as Superversive as its predecessor. People mistake the darker tone and mood for subversion, when it is a clear extrapolation of the exact mood evident at the end of the original film. Again, the flaw at play here is hubris; Kevin exhibits a clear overconfidence in the original film, which is what got him in trouble initially and stymied his efforts to get back at Dillinger then. As the sequel shows, this flaw was not tamed; the overconfidence consumed Kevin and drove him to madness that he did not realize until it was too late and–like Dillinger–the creation (Clu2, Kevin’s System Administrator) got out of control and threatened even worse.

That seems like a shallow excuse to remake the original with a new case and fresh effects, but to its credit Legacy went beyond that. The narrative clearly shows the consequence of Kevin’s hubris on every single character in the film, trapping Kevin into despair and non-resistance- a trap that takes the heroine (Quora) with him.

Unlike the first film, the new hero (Sam Flynn, Kevin’s son) doesn’t blindly repeat his father’s adventures. He challenges his father’s assumptions, telling him how his utopian visions resulted in dystopian dysfunction out in the real world. This gets amplified by Kevin realizing the root of Clu2’s hatred for him: parental abandonment, as Clu2 (without ever saying so) resents Kevin for favoring Sam over him (using his argument about his purpose and mission as the proxy). For Kevin, this film is a tragedy of his own making and he owns up to it in the climax.

For Sam, the film is not just saving his father, but superseding him as he succeeds him- taking Quora with him into the (again) promised better tomorrow. To get that ending, he had to face–and fess-up–to his own despair-based behaviors and change his ways accordingly. In other words, Sam had to man up, and in so doing got his father to man up also. By the end of the film, she looked forward to a new world full of light and life at Sam’s side.

Hollywood in general, and Disney in particular, have had a serious problem with undermining the culture with their films and television for years now. These two films are exception; they don’t lie to the audience in the course of telling their stories, which is likely why we won’t see another like it for many years to come- not without popular support backed by related sales. Watch these films; you’ll be glad that you did.

Miyazaki Retrospective: “Spirited Away”

So here we are. The last film of the Miyazaki retrospective, at least up until Miyazaki’s next film comes out. And this movie was saved for last for a reason.

In some ways, it’s pointless to debate Miyazaki’s best film. The man is such a chameleon, who can work in so many varied styles, and is so consistently brilliant, that when you talk about the top of the pile you’re talking about little more than personal preference. I have seen – seriously – “Princess Mononoke”, “Nausicaa in the Valley of the Wind”, “My Neighbor Totoro”, “Howl’s Moving Castle”, “The Wind Rises”, and “Kiki’s Delivery Service” ALL ranked at number one on some list or another.

With that said – I think it is safe to say that “Spirited Away”, the only Miyazaki film ever to win an Oscar, is the film most commonly cited as Miyazaki’s masterpiece – and not without reason. “Spirited Away” is an astonishing film, absolutely packed with imagination, incredible visuals, memorable characters, and an engaging plot. There’s scene after indelible scene, all underpinned with a metaphysical and philosophical depth that the average director can only dream of, and an attention to detail that’s nothing short of astonishing.

I’ll start off by talking about the dub, something I generally ignore but that is worth being commented upon in this case. All of the Disney dubs are good, and some are even great, but “Spirited Away” is absolutely perfect, easily the best dub job I’ve ever heard. The real coup here is the casting of Daveigh Chase, best known as the voice of Lilo from “Lilo and Stitch”, as Chihiro. Chihiro is a difficult and demanding role, and without an excellent voice actor the character could easily come off as bland, but Daveigh Chase is simply perfect. She nails every aspect of the character, and if not for her brilliant performance the movie would never have worked as well as it did in English.

The opening to “Spirited Away” is one of my favorite scenes of all time. After arriving at a mysteriously empty amusement park, Chihiro’s parents, against Chihiro’s advice, eat piles of food sitting in an abandoned restaurant stall. While they eat Chihiro wanders the park, discovers a magnificent Japanese bathhouse, and encounters a boy named Haku, who warns her to cross the river separating the amusement park from the outside world before sunset. Chihiro tries to leave, but the river is flooded and too deep to cross; worse yet, her parents, having greedily eaten food that didn’t belong to them, have transformed into literal pigs (and in this case, particularly hideous ones), a take on the mythological theme of avoiding the food of the fairies – for a classic example read the myth of Hades and Persephone, and for more modern examples take a look at Ruff the dog in John C. Wright’s “Moth and Cobweb” series, or even Edmund eating Turkish delight in “The Chronicles of Narnia”.

The scene where night falls on the park, and the spirits come out for the first time, is a truly stunning sequence, a wonderfully animated setpiece bursting with fantastic imagery. There’s so much to love about this scene – the detailed animation, the fantastic creatures, the score, the way Miyazaki somehow creates a believable fairy world that also comes across as alien and otherworldly, the creepiness of the whole thing, the way he puts us effectively in Chihiro’s shoes and helps us identify with her terror…all of it is simply amazing. And this is the first scene!

This is the hardest of Miyazaki’s movies to work through simply because of sheer originality. If I went through every single reason the movie worked so well, I’d be up all night writing this article. The spirits and fairy tale creatures are fantastic (fans of “Totoro” may recognize the soot spirits used by the wonderful  spider-like character of Komaji), the setting of the bathouse is extraordinarily detailed, the animation is astoundingly well-executed, and the movie simply bursts with ingenuity; everywhere you turn there’s some new feast for the eyes and mind.

Once again, with his handling of Chihiro Miyazaki puts all modern handling of female characters in western animation to shame. Chihiro is brave and admirable, but not in a ball-busting tough as nails feminist way. She is admirable because she never loses hope, never gives up, is kind to those that others shun and revile, and refuses to be deterred from her goals.

An excellent example of this sort of admirable but quiet courage comes early in the film. Haku tells Chihiro to ask the boiler-maker Komaji to help her get a job; no matter what Komaji says or does, she is not to leave until he helps her.

Chihiro goes to the boiler-maker and begs him for help. He ignores her. She begs him again. She ignores her. She takes the time to help his soot spirits bring coal to the boiler, which finally impresses Komaji enough to send her to Yubaba, the witch who rules the Bathhouse. Chihiro doesn’t get mad at Komaji. She doesn’t run away when she sees his frankly terrifying spider-like body. She doesn’t leave when Komaji refuses her. She simply refuses to give up.

Similarly, when she is told to ask the witch Yubaba for a job, the western feminist answer to Yubaba’s refusal and threats would be to challenge her back, or maybe get insulted and try and find some way around her prohibitions. But Chihiro doesn’t do that! Once again, she quietly persists, refusing to leave until she is granted her job, no matter how afraid she gets and how much Yubaba threatens her. Chihiro knows this is her best chance of getting out alive and rescuing her parents, and doesn’t ruin it by acting like a Rey brat.

Later in the movie, when forced to work as, essentially, a slave in the Bathhouse, Chihiro again doesn’t complain about her lot but does the work asked of her to the best of her ability, however unreasonable, and even takes the time to show kindness to spirits and beings that others ignore or hate. Her motivations remain pure; she just wants to rescue her parents. When the spirit No-Face offers her gifts, Chihiro refuses, and in fact she is the only person who is able to use things No-Face gives her without being negatively affected because she is the only one who doesn’t *ask* for his help and doesn’t accept it  for selfish and materialistic reasons.

Two scenes in the movie have become famous in their own right. First is the sad and creepy “ghost train” sequence, where Chihiro rides without speaking on a train to the afterlife surrounded by the silent spirits of the dead. The scene is sad and beautiful, and, as always with Miyazaki, it’s the subtle details that make it; you may find yourself getting bored until your heart skips a beat when you realize that one pair of spirits is clearly a father sitting with his young child, and suddenly a whole history of unanswered questions floods through your mind. The fog outside of the trail, slowly gliding across the surface of the water, is so haunting and gorgeous that your heart practically bursts.

The second famous sequence is the “Dragon Haku” sequence; where the Ghost Train ride represented loss and acceptance, the scene where the dragon form of Haku bringss Chihiro back to the Bathouse represents life and the reviving power of love and kindness; Haku literally carries Chihiro back to the world of the living, something only possible because Chihiro was willing to risk her life and make sacrifices in order to save him. The animation here is – again! – absolutely gorgeous, brimming with energy and dynamism.

There is so much more to say about this film; I’ve barely scratched the surface, really. It is, without question, an absolute masterpiece.

Now, all of that said, do *I* think it’s Miyazaki’s best film?

Actually…no. After a lot of thought, and after changing my mind, I think I still have to give it to “Princess Mononoke”. “Spirited Away” was original and marvelous and beautiful, but “Princess Mononoke” took the varied and conflicting motivations of a changing world – significantly, not unlike the atmosphere of “A Game of Thrones” – and instead of making it either nihilistic sludge or some sort of epic tragedy, made it superversive, and somehow did it in a way that felt in no way like a betrayal of the sort of story he was telling. Miyazaki had a huge cast of characters with their own understandable agendas and motivations that changed throughout the course of the movie, an extremely complex political landscape to navigate through, and some of the best dialogue of any of his films (Lady Eboshi again…”Watch closely, everyone. This is how you kill a god. The trick is not to fear it.”). It’s a marvel he made any sense of it at all.

Epic in scope and ambition, brilliantly executed, and a setting tailormade for tragedy somehow turned superversive…well, when I put all of that together, it’s hard for me to rank it below *any* movie, really, even the great “Spirited Away”.

Does this take away from “Spirited Away”? Not in the slightest. It is a brilliant, amazing, almost perfect film. It is an achievement that no artist but Miyazaki could accomplish. It has earned every single accolade it’s received. If you haven’t seen it, you’re doing more than missing out on one of Miyazaki’s best films. You’re missing out on one of the greatest films, animated or otherwise, anime or otherwise, ever made.

Watch it, and if you haven’t gotten it already perhaps you’ll understand why Miyazaki is not just great. He stands on his own – a giant in the field, matched by nobody, perhaps ever.

Watch this movie, and understand how lucky we are to be able to witness his genius.

A Beethoven Retrospective

(This is a months old reprint of an article on my private blog, which is, shocking as it may sound, much more cynical and polemical than how I write here most of the time. I thought it made a lot of sense here, and I thought of it again after reading Mr. John C. Wright’s article on beauty. As it so happens, I’m still teaching myself the piano. And, alas, still bounce off of classical music hard.)

Currently I’m teaching myself the piano; I’ve owned one for a long time now (paid for by me and transport paid for by my parents as a gift), but never learned it. I’m attempting now to stubbornly turn a new leaf and start improving myself, and learning piano is a good start to that; it’s also a good way to correct problems with procrastination. Dedication is needed. My school year looks to be packed and extremely difficult, so I’ve decided I will cut out all recreational pursuits except for piano, which is really only recreational in the sense that it’s not school related. Either way, this will ensure everything I do during the school year will be productive in some way or another.

In light of this, I’ve decided to try to take another shot at listening to classical music. I’d taken a couple of cracks at it in the past, but much as with classical novels, I’d always bounced off. But, not this time! I’ve decided to start with Beethoven, who of the few I’d tried to listen to I was always fondest of. He combined technical precision with pure emotion beautifully.

“Might as well go big or go home,” I thought, and started right in on Beethoven’s 9th Symphony; I imagine if I’d asked I would have been told not to start with something so ambitious.

I’m still glad I did. “Reviewing” the ninth symphony is sort of like reviewing “The Iliad” or “Paradise Lost”; what can you really say? It surely has to be the pinnacle of western music. I’ve listened also to his Moonlight Sonata, his fifth symphony, and Fur Elise, and the third symphony (Eroica, one of the most influential pieces of music ever, apparently) is on in the background right now. But nothing has quite matched up to the brilliance of the ninth. I don’t connect well with classical music, as I’d said, and this was no exception – but the sheer ambition and brilliance of the work is undeniable. How somebody conceived something like this, and actually had the technical skill to write it down and coordinate it into a cohesive whole, is utterly mind-boggling. I can’t even imagine it. And he wrote it when he was completely deaf! How is that even possible?

Beethoven is a fascinating guy, though of course by now most people probably know that. He really is inspiring, though. I always found it very moving and telling that the final great piece that Beethoven, a man who at one time considered suicide due to his declining hearing*, wrote was the Ode to Joy…and the final piece that Mozart, by all accounts a much happier and buoyant man, wrote was a Requiem.

This is a bit unfair, as Beethoven did write other things after the symphony, and the Requiem Mozart wrote was commissioned by somebody else. Nevertheless, the fact that the ninth symphony was written by a deaf man who once considered suicide is, as far as I’m concerned, nothing short of a miracle.

*I found his Heiligenstadt Testament very moving and inspiring.

New Kickstarter Card Game: Hero’s Journey!

Nathan McClellan, a delightful fellow and Superversive Fan, is involved in a Kickstarter for a really cool card game called Hero’s Journey. I showed the Kickstarter video to my youngest and he cried out in awe, “How can I get that!” So, I asked Nathan and his partner-in-crime, James Wright (no relation), if they would concent to be interviewed.

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Can Odysseus survive the Flying Monkeys? 

Willl the the starving Greeks be forced to eat Toto?

1) What led you to embark on the Hero’s Journey, so to speak?

Well, there was an old game both of us loved to play a lot during our college years which has since gone the way of the dinosaur.  Several other games from that period were starting to make a comeback so we asked ourselves, “Why not this one?

Then we asked, “If we did bring it back, what would we want most?

And almost simultaneously said, “More crossovers.

So we set about expanding the game’s original engine to accommodate beyond its original, narrow focus.

2) Tell us about yourselves. Who are the folks who are making the Hero’s Journey happen?

Just a couple of nerds that like games and books.

We had an older friend, Brad, who died in his thirties who also loved this game.  We like to imagine he would have been on board for this and enjoyed it too so the whole thing is dedicated to him and giving his boys one more legacy to remember their dad by.

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Who will kill you first, Paris or the Wicked Witch?

3) There are many types of games out there. We might play Life if we want an group game, or Uno if we want something fast and easy or Chinese Checkers, if we are looking for a bit of strategy. What kind of experience might a person be looking for that would prompt them to reach for Hero’s Journey.

This is more for the harder gaming crowd as the game has at least 2 layers of strategy to it.  First is the planning where you take the cards we’ve given you and build a deck with.  Second is when you play that deck against an opponent who has constructed their own deck.  But we’ve included at least 2 simple deck lists to help beginners get started and are planning to posts decklists as players invent them or if you want to do quick start plays or themed style evenings.  We’ve tried to keep the game pretty flexible.

4) How did you come to pick Oz and the Iliad?

Since we’re just getting started we decided the best bet was to start with public domain books.  That way we could take a property and develop parts of the game to simulate moments and characters from that property without having to worry about licensing fees or having the game tied up in legal battles.

Then since the game naturally simulates trying to get from point A to B with constant challenges along the way, we thought “What’s something in the public domain that everyone recognizes which has a hero & their companions get from a start to a finish?”  Oz (get home) and the Iliad (get to Troy) seemed the most obvious choices.

5) The art looks really good. Who is/are the artist and how did you get them involved.

A mix of asking for artists on the web and asking people we know for recommendations.  Since we’re just getting started with the game (and know how frustrating it can be to look for that “big break”) we especially looked for artists that are building their resumes.  If this launch is successful, I hope to keep it going by always looking for new talent whenever we start a new set of cards relating to a book.  As for who they are, we’ve done a week long focus on our artists along with examples here: https://epicusliterati.wordpress.com/category/artist-focus/

6) Is this a game about storytelling? Or is storytelling actually required to play the game?

No, it’s a game first.  Though we won’t complain if players want to combine it with a trivia night (i.e. “Name the pair of animals that attacked Dorothy & co while crossing a log.”).  We also like to invent our own stories of how things might happen in a game (like the time Dorothy got to beat up on an old Trojan priest).

7) Do you have plans for additional expansions? Might there be other stories joining the Hero’s Journey, should things go well? If so, do you have any in mind that you’d like to see?

Yes, we’ve got at least 2 more small sets rough-drafted and currently testing off and on.  And definitely yes as to more books.  If this game proves successful enough and we can move out of the public domain, we have a wishlist of stuff we’d love to license. (Though we’ve found more in the public domain than initially thought, we might do a whole series on “forgotten classics.”)  We also aim to allow the players to help us pick and choose which books are adapted next.

8) How does this game differ from something like Smash-Up?

Well, Smash-Up (a game I usually enjoy – if you ban spies & geeks) is a much faster, pick-up & play, while our game will require a bit of prep before anybody comes to the table.  Smash-Up also has a very loose rules system to try and make it as flexible as possible, but that gets messy when players interact.

Our rules are a bit more complex and structured to allow things like ranged & melee combat as well as multiple players to gang up on one (as that’s what’s happening to you every turn).  This also means that while Smash-Up isn’t too bad for new players to grab & play, Heroes’ Journey may take 1 play through before players really “get” it.

 

9) What age range to you foresee enjoying the Hero’s Journey? Can ten year olds set out on this journey, as they might on a Pokemon journey, or does this require more

On average I’d say maybe 13 and up.

Some cards and their resulting decks are much simpler then others, so might be a better fit for some players.  For example, “Wild Monkey Beatdown” (as we nickname it) is pretty easy and basic, while “Monkey Swarm” is much trickier to pull off.

Though if a person can play, we say: Let them play.