Like so many people out there — perhaps a disturbing number — I’ve spent a lot of time over the two weeks thinking about the final season of Game of Thrones. Although the meager six episodes had some truly stirring moments (the Dothraki charge in “The Long Night”; Rhaegal being shot from the sky by Euron Grayjoy; and Jon Snow revealing his true lineage to his brothers and sisters, as examples), overall the season felt rushed, overly dependent on spectacle, and sometimes just plain lazy. Did the writers and producers simply think up the most improbable outcomes for their characters and then pat themselves on their backs for delivering some final twists in a show famous for its twists? I don’t know, but it kinda seemed that way.
Regardless of how this all came together, I don’t agree that the entirety of Season 8 should be scrapped and reshot. As George R.R. Martin said back in 2003: “Art is not a democracy. People don't get to vote on how it ends."
Nor should they.
Do we really want our television shows, movies and books produced by mob rule where pandering to the desires of a majority is more important than creative vision? For goodness sake, one of the reasons I love being an independent author is because I don’t have committees of publishers, agents and editors telling me I need to re-write something in order to make it more commercial. Read it or don’t. Like it or don’t. It’s important to me that I remain true to my vision and hopefully a few people will enjoy it along the way.
Game of Thrones isn’t the only pop culture phenomenon that’s disappointed me. Generally speaking, I’ve not been pleased with how Disney has been wrapping up the Star Wars saga. Really, those fuckers made Luke Skywalker into a sad little fisherman who wiles away his days on a remote planet while the universe burns? I don’t think I’ll ever forgive that. And while I could’ve wished for better endings for Luke, Han, Daenerys, Jon, Arya, etc., I do not own these creations simply because I’ve enjoyed them. Fans can revile Season 8 for years to come if they so wish… or they can go forth and write their own fanfiction the end it the way they want. Or just get over it and move on because art, like life, should not be a group decision and is often full of disappointment.
If you grew up in Tucson, Arizona, during the 1970s and 80s, and were inclined to play miniature golf, Magic Carpet Golf was really your best choice. Located on Speedway Boulevard near Wilmot, it was not the city's only course, but it was the most authentic.
Designed in 1968 by Lee Koplin, the crazy artistic genius who built all kinds of miniature golf courses and roadside attractions starting just after World War II, the grounds were what I imagine the inside of Tim Burton's head must look like. Magic Carpet was an over-sized repository of kitschy Americana, right up there with roadside dinosaurs and cigar store Indians. The place teemed with strange concrete decorations — including a giant monkey with a swinging tail; a rampant bull with bulging eyes and lethal-looking horns; and an Easter Island mo'ai so large you could climb up its innards for a nighttime view of the surrounding city. And whether you considered these strange edifices to be art, architecture or just crap, they were a uniquely American invention which provided a uniquely entertaining mini golf experience.
During my childhood and teen years, I visited Magic Carpet regularly without ever knowing its pedigree. By the time I had kids of my own, age and lack of maintenance meant the two courses were an often dangerous thicket where masses of cactus overgrew the pathways and low-hanging tree branches tore at you from above. The strange menagerie which lived there had also lost much of its sheen. Concrete skins had begun to chip away, revealing the rebar and chicken wire skeletons beneath. Nothing had been repainted in years, unless you counted the several layers of graffiti. As the place continued to deteriorate, it became both sad and fascinating. Suddenly, you weren't just playing miniature golf — you were an urban explorer unlocking the mysteries of mid-twentieth century "roadside art."
Clearly, most Tucsonans didn't share my fascination because the last few times I went we had the place to ourselves save for the aging owner and a teenage employee who did everything from run the concession stand to repair the video game consoles. When the owner passed away in 2008, the era of Magic Carpet golf ended with him. A group of dedicated citizens rallied to save as many of the concrete statues as they could. The aforementioned mo'ai ended up on Fourth Avenue as the gateway to a popular nightclub. Others were sold to private residences or found an equally weird home at another local oddity, The Valley of the Moon.
Years after the golf course was demolished and turned into a parking lot for a local car dealership, my sister told me she had found the bug-eyed bull in her neighborhood. By that time I was living in Oregon however and quickly forgot about him. This past Christmas however, I went looking.
Hidden on a side street behind a Brake Masters and a massage parlor, there he was! He emerged from the trees like the minotaur bearing down on Theseus. (Wait, does that make me Theseus in this scenario? Never mind.) Honestly, I didn't even see him until I was practically on top of him. The Irish steakhouse whose parking lot he festoons is now closed and abandoned, so once again the bull is an orphan to time. The irony of this was not lost on me but it was still good seeing him. He looks well and he gave me a few gentle moments to remember all the fun I'd had at his former home. I don't know where he'll go from here. Hopefully there's a kind, nostalgic heart out there who's willing to give him another shot.
In 1979 I was twelve years old and in the midst of a preteen conundrum.
America was in the midst of a Golden Age of Science Fiction. Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind had crushed box office records a couple of years earlier and had inspired countless imitators. Broadcast television was filled with science fiction and fantasy shows, although admittedly most were pretty terrible — not that that mattered in the least to a sixth grader.
In May of that year, a dark, stylish film called Alien appeared in theaters. The critics buzzed about it. They debated as to whether it was science fiction film or a gothic horror film set in outer space. They reveled that the characters were essentially blue collar miners ultimately led in their fight for survival by a young woman, played by the then unknown Sigourney Weaver. They were mesmerized by the pugnacious alien, a bio-mechanical nightmare so different from the weird but mostly agreeable creatures offered up by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.
I knew I had to see it. Yet a single obstacle lay in my way: my mother.
A surprisingly efficient gatekeeper when it came to television and movies, my mom allowed me and my sister only 3 and a half hours of TV per week and we were required to use color-coded pens to circle our selections in TV Guide to prevent any cheating. As for films, it was G and PG ratings only. Alien’s hard R and its provocative tagline — In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream — had sealed its fate long before I had ever asked to go.
Now let me just add that my mother was absolutely correct in denying me access to Alien. As a parent, her instincts were spot on but my juvenile brain and sense of indignation were not quelled by a logic I did not see at the time.
Later that summer however, my father offered to take me, a suggestion which was undoubtedly motivated by his complete ignorance about the film and a lingering desire to stick it to my mom who had divorced him a few years earlier. But I was not the type of kid who routinely lied to or disobeyed my parents, so I declined and we enjoyed a double feature of The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker instead. It wasn’t a decision I regretted. After all, James Bond had a super cool Lotus Esprit S1 which turned into a submarine IRL and fired missiles! But it did mean that I would have to wait a few more years to see Alien.
If there was any light at the end of the tunnel, it was through books. My mother, a school librarian, had no problem with frequent trips to libraries and book stores. As it happened, Waldenbooks carried the illustrated Alien Movie Novel so over the summer I literally READ the film I was never allowed to see. This had to be done in covert intervals of course, as purchasing the book with all its gruesome, chest-bursting, head-smashing color photos was also verboten.
Decades passed and I hadn’t thought about that book until I stumbled upon a used copy of it in a comic book store two weeks ago. There was an immediate rush of nostalgia, warm memories of being a kid and getting away with something. Granted, reading the Alien Movie Novel wasn’t quite as scandalous as flipping through a dirty magazine, but for a boy who loved horror films born into a family that loathed them, it felt like a naughty victory.
Now, 38 years later, the book sits on my shelf next to my Alien Blu-ray, a quiet reminder of when life was defined by the simple problems of childhood.
When I was a sophomore in high school, I made my first foray into Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). It did not go well.
I had little exposure to role playing games (RPGs) prior to high school, but had fallen in with a group of boys who were (and still are) rabid for them. After a certain amount of cajoling, I agreed to give it a shot. My interest in the fantasy genre was limited, but the storytelling aspects of D&D appealed to the burgeoning writer in me and I even wrote out an extensive history for my first character. Because I also had some artistic talent, I created portraits of all our characters. So, before I’d even had my first adventure, I’d already put a lot of effort into the experience and my enthusiasm was building.
On a sunny summer afternoon, we assembled at the Dungeon Master’s (DM) house for my first game. I was the novice of the group, and my level one character was a poor addition to a fellowship which had been in play for a long time; but with my friends to guide me, I felt comfortable and confident. Within the first hour, we found ourselves in a dungeon and, being the most under-powered character in the group, I was holding back.
“Y’know,” the DM told me, “if you don’t take any risks you won’t gain any experience points.”
At his urging, I took it upon myself to break down a locked door — immediately falling into a pit of green slime. Thus my character, only an hour into his first quest, met an abrupt and unseemly end.
Keeping in mind that “do overs” are not included in the D&D rule book, and the DM’s uncompromising personality did not incline him to make any exceptions, I found myself with few options.
“What do I do now?” I asked.
“Nothing. You’re dead,” the DM replied.
“Can I roll up a new character?”
“You can for the next game, but not this one. You can watch us play, I guess.”
Needless to say, I didn’t spend the rest of the day watching four other guys play Dungeons & Dragons. I went home and convinced myself that RPGs simply weren’t my cup of tea. That attitude lingered for thirty years. Except for a brief flirtation with World of Warcraft (the digital version of D&D, I suppose), I’ve never had any interest in trying RPGs again.
In retrospect, what kept me away from RPGs wasn’t the games, but the gamers. Over the years, watching from the sidelines as my friends continued to play, I was amazed by how seriously they took the experience. (This is not unusual for gamers.) Still, I found it ridiculous when one friend stopped talking to another over a romantic dispute involving a female NPC (non-player character). Another would become enraged whenever a companion “went rogue” and strayed from an agreed upon action. Yet another was so conservative in his game play that he eschewed any kind of combat, robbing the gaming experience of its excitement. From a distance I could find all this amusing, but I knew if I actually sat at the table with these kinds of gamers, I’d want to kill them or quit.
So why am I telling you this? Well, after thirty years of resisting D&D, I just started playing again and I’m finding plenty of others my age who are doing likewise. Yet it can be daunting to know where and how to start so consider this a cautionary tale. What changed between my two experiences is who I decided to play with, opting for other noobs and finding a DM who was patient and willing to instruct rather than dictate. I kept my focus on the social aspects of the gaming experience, rather than becoming obsessed with the minutiae or one-upmanship I watched pervade so many other games. As a result, I’m really loving my RPG experience.
If you’re new to RPGs or just curious to try them out, find gamers you can work with. Many game and comic book shops will hold workshops and classes to help beginners, and this might be a good place to start. But also take a moment to ask yourself what you want to get out of the experience. As I found out in high school, your first foray may color your perception of RPGs for a long time to come so make it a good one!
I’ll admit. I’m kind of obsessed with Riverdale, The CW’s neo-noir crime drama starring K.J. Apa, Lili Reinhart, Cole Sprouse and Camila Mendes. If the name and characters seem familiar to you, but you just can’t place them, that’s because the show’s a dark adaptation of the Archie comic books.
Yes, those comic books and yes, I mean dark.
If you remember Archie, Jughead, Veronica and Betty as thin teen stereotypes concerned only with who to take to the homecoming dance, your illusions are about to be shattered. Take that all-America trope and shove it through the lens of David Lynch; or think about movies like Heathers or River’s Edge; and you’ll be in Riverdale’s neighborhood.
By any standard, it’s a pretty remarkable transformation.
Honestly, I was never a fan of the Archie comics, finding them a little too white bread for my tastes. Granted, Archie was created just prior to World War II when wholesome, nostalgic depictions of young adults were in vogue. Mickey Rooney, Julie Garland, Shirley Temple and Jackie Cooper dominated the box office and Archie was a deliberate attempt to replicate their success by offering a serialized character who was “normal” (i.e. didn’t have super powers). The downside of normalcy was storylines that strayed into the mundane. Major themes included the female characters (Betty and Veronica) vying for Archie’s attention, rivalries with other students, homework problems and difficulties relating to parents. All of these things are common challenges for adolescents regardless of the era, but Archie was inclined to present them in a highly sanitized, and increasingly unrealistic, manner.
By the 1960s, this trend reached its zenith. Archie had become a superhero called Captain Pureheart (yes, really) whose main power was being a really swell guy. By the following decade, he’d been coopted by conservative Christians and spent much of his time espousing the virtues of Jesus Christ and encouraging prayer in schools.
None of these later comics, nor the related animated shows, were particularly successful. Many didn’t last more than one edition (or season), and it was clear Archie needed to be modernized if he was going to appeal to increasingly sophisticated, worldly young adults.
And the competition was fierce.
By the start of the twenty-first century, comic books had become something very different from what they’d been in decades past. Zombies chewed their way through humanity in the stark, black and white artwork of The Walking Dead (2003). Japanese manga was on the rise, exposing American readers to unapologetically adult themes including frank depictions of sexuality. Even mainstream publishers like Marvel Comics were shifting long establish paradigms, with one of the best examples being 2006’s Civil War. Yet despite these industrywide changes, the Archie brand was slow to adapt.
In fact, the Archie comics really didn’t push boundaries until the century’s second decade. One of the most notable changes was in the art. The cartoony feel used since the 1940s was replaced by something more stylized and storylines became more inclusive. Real-life themes such as gun control, divorce and death were introduced. By 2010, an openly gay character named Kevin Keller was established and the following year made history as the first male LGBT character to have a solo comic book storyline. In 2012, the comics even went so far as to kill off Archie when he takes a bullet intended for Kevin.
But as you know, nothing that dies in comic books can stay dead forever. (Just ask Superman.)
By 2014, Archie was relaunched and rebranded to appeal to millennials under the New Riverdale banner. With writer Mark Waid (Daredevil) and artist Fiona Staples (Saga) leading the way, the concept was to keep Riverdale as a “whitebread community” on the surface, but give it a seamier underbelly. Ultimately, this transformation fed into The CW television series which began with the revelation that underage Archie’s having an affair with the high school’s music teacher, which has caused a schism between he and long-time friend Jughead Jones and possibly caused him to witness the murder of a classmate named Jason Blossom.
How’s that for shifting a paradigm?
With the season two trailer dropping yesterday (see below), now’s a good time for you to check out the series if you haven’t done so already. The show can be streamed on The CW website, Netflix, YouTube and a variety of other places.
Enjoy the ride.
I’m sorry to say that I’ve given up.
I’ve given up hoping that we’ll ever get a decent depiction of Wonder Woman — possibly the world’s foremost female superhero and certainly DC Comic’s — on either the big or small screen. I came to this conclusion after rewatching the 1970s TV show starring Lynda Carter. (Yes, I own the box sets. Shut up.) Those three season just dripped with lovely cornball goodness as only a show of the 70s could, complete with turtlenecks, disco music and sunglasses so big they would swallow your face. Yet despite all the goofiness, there was a certain heart and soul to Carter’s depiction of the princess from Paradise Island. She was likable. More importantly, she liked humanity. She believed in people and really wanted to help them, even as she was clucking her tongue at their stupidity.
I’m now pretty confident we’ll never see that Diana Prince / Wonder Woman ever again. Maybe she was the product of an earlier time and the modern moviegoer (or movie producer) is just too cynical to tolerate her strength-through-kindness schtick. I certainly don’t have much faith that the upcoming Zack Snyder produced film will reclaim her magic mantle. I might be a little premature in writing this, but I think I’m on pretty solid ground here.
Let’s start with the fact that it’s taken a bafflingly long time to bring Wonder Woman back to the screen at all. After numerous false starts like David E. Kelly’s horrific TV movie from 2011 and Joss Whedon’s unproduced script, we finally got a sneak peak at the Amazon princess in Batman v. Superman: The Dawn of Justice. But there was a problem. Like so many other elements of that film (the plot for example), Diana Prince as played by Gal Godot was almost incidental. She hobnobbed with the power elite in slinky dresses and was set up as a foil for Bruce Wayne despite their all-too-brief interactions. But when the going got tough, Diana hopped on a plane out of town and only returned at the last second to help battle Doomsday. Not only was this out of character for Wonder Woman, perhaps one of the most morally steadfast characters in comic books, but she lacked those essential qualities that made her more than a superhero, but also a feminist icon. Where was her empathy for others? Where was the intellect?
I can’t fault Gal Godot for any of this considering how little she as given to do in Batman v. Superman, but the film did underscore how she has some mighty big red boots to fill. And, considering the increasingly poor quality of DC Comic movies, I’m not expecting much when Wonder Woman hits theaters next year.
So at day’s end, I think I have to agree with so many other Wonder Woman aficionados, which include some notable comic book artists, when I say that for now, the definitive Amazon princess will remain Lynda Carter’s version. After waiting 40 years to see Wonder Woman on the screen, I've given up hope that Hollywood can get this character right.
I'm going to make a brief argument against one of the most pervasive trends in Hollywood these days — the almost obsessive need to create reboots and sequels of just about every movie that's been released in the last 30 years. I've felt this way for a while, but it perhaps came to a boil for me when Netflix announced their sequel to Ang Lee’s game-changing martial arts film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Starring Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang, the original film was a gorgeously produced and multi-faceted story of unrequited love, misguided loyalties and enduring compassion. Moreover, it was an indictment of how traditional Chinese society repressed women. The film went on to win four Oscars, including Best Foreign Language Film which is really the Best Picture award for flicks where people speak something other than English.
Jump ahead sixteen years and we find Netflix producing a sequel entitled Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny. Even though they managed to talk Michelle Yeoh into reprising her role as Yu Shu Lien, make no mistake, this film is an imposter of the highest magnitude. Gone is any attempt at subtle storytelling. The plot is a simple retread of the “evil warlord must be stopped” trope with the Green Destiny sword now strangely imbued with almost magical powers where, in the original film, its power was wholly symbolic. The magnificent stunt choreography of the original is replaced with run-of-the-mill CGI effects, a lazy and galling substitution for so many reasons. The acting is horrendous.
Why Netflix felt the need to provide Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with a sequel may seem baffling, but this is the company that gave Adam Sandler an exclusive four movie deal, which, to a fair, has turned out marvelously for them (read more about that here.)
But Adam Sandler is not Ang Lee anymore than The Ridiculous 6 (shudder) is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. There’s no expectation on anyone’s part that Sandler will ever be remembered as a great filmmaker while Lee certainly is. And this brings me to the crux of my argument… Frankly, I’ve come to believe that some films are so important, so culturally significant that reboots and sequels should not be allowed. Of course I write knowing this is impossibility for a variety of reasons. Who, for example, would determine which films are and are not “culturally significant”? Beyond that, filmmaking is often big business, which means little regard is ultimately given to the intrinsic value of a thing if there’s money to be made (hence that Sandler-Netflix deal.) In the end, I think it relies more on the viewing public to curtail this trend by withholding our attention and dollars when necessary. Yes, there will still be the occasional unwanted sequel and reboot, but maybe, just maybe, we can stop things before a franchise is born.
Once upon a time, kids, getting Star Wars toys for the holidays meant looking forward to an empty box. I don't mean this facetiously, because in the Winter of 1977 when Star Wars mania was at its height (the first time), the movie that would go on to become a phenomenon had precious little merchandising. As a result, ten of thousands of parents were desperate to find something to give to the tens of thousands of children pining anxiously for anything Star Wars-related.
It was Kenner Toys that came up with a novel solution: sell parents the promise of toys to come.
Officially, this was called the "Star Wars Early Bird Kit" and it consisted of a cardboard display stand, a few pieces of cheap swag and a promissory note that four actions figures (Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, R2-D2 and Chewbacca) would arrive in the mail sometime in the near future. This was either the most impudent or most ingenious marketing ploy ever... but since it worked I think we'll have to mark it as the latter.
This holiday season, the children of the world will have no "empty box" worries if my experience today at the local Toys R Us is any indication. Aisle after aisle of Star Wars toys, slickly packaged in an ominous red-and-black veneer, didn't just overwhelm my senses... it crushed them. Curious, I thought, that while in 1977 the movie was devoid of toys, now many of the represented toys are devoid of a movie and will be until Episode 7 hits theaters in December. To the dozens of people I saw purchasing them, however, it didn't seem to matter. They may not know exactly who Captain Phasma is, but at this point Star Wars is religion and merchandise its holy icons. And if you're not ready to snap up Episode 7 toys until you've seen the film, fear not as the whole pantheon is well represented from the first trilogy to the Clone Wars. In fact, the only thing I didn't see was merchandise for the 1978 Star Wars Christmas Special... but maybe that will come too?
I've been an avid Star Wars toy collector since 1977 when I tried to talk my mom into purchasing that "Early Bird Kit." (For the record, she didn't.) But with time I've come to see these toys in a different light. Most of what's out there is dreck and you have to be more circumspect about what you take home. A couple of decades ago I might've at least concentrated my buying power on one line of Episode 7 stuff — probably action figures — but I won't even do that now. Frankly, I know that line will never end I don't want to become the toy equivalent of a crazy cat lady.
But beyond the insane expenditure in time and resources, there's an argument to be made that Star Wars merchandise ceased to be special when it became so ridiculously commonplace. Whether it's the Death Star Chip and Dip bowl set or the Stormtrooper Silicone Oven Mitt or the AT-AT Halloween costume for your dog (all real things), the prevalence of Star Wars merchandise had burned me out. I guess there really can be too much of a good thing.
It seems like there’s a cadre of filmmakers out there scrambling not only to adapt the ancient Graeco-Roman world to film, but to do it as poorly as possible. If you’re watching these films, and I’ve seen my fair share, then common patterns, tropes and visual elements are expected. I’m not exactly sure where all this began, but my suspicion is was with Troy, the 2004 Brad Pitt vehicle which provided a fanciful vision of antiquity’s “world war.” Later the same year, Oliver Stone’s plodding epic Alexander descended on theaters. It was intended to be a more “authentic” depiction of antiquity, a claim which wasn’t borne out by the director’s numerous liberties with the life story of one of history’s most famous men.
But if these two moviegoing events proved anything, it was that audiences did not require literary or historical authenticity as long as movies about the ancient world were appropriately ramped up for modern movie-goers who seem to often mistake pandemonium for true drama.y the mid-2000s, our collective image of the Graeco-Roman universe had become even more skewed. Zack Snyder’s 300 provided an indelible visual palette which has been emulated ad nauseam ever since. A dark, lifeless landscape set beneath perpetually stormy sky is the Greece most American movie-goers now expect – a far cry from the thick forests, grassy steppes and wide sandy beaches of the real country.
Similarly, the actors playing Greeks seem to be cast more for their abs and ability to bellow than anything else. They battle each other in flying, wire-assisted leaps, slashing open necks with a font of slow-motion blood set to pounding electronica music. They fight hard and love harder, as the laughable who-gets-to-be-on-top sex brawl between Themistocles and Artemisia demonstrates in the recent 300: Rise of an Empire. And yet, for all the blood and rape, paranoid Hollywood producers still see the need tweak many basic facts about ancient culture, presumably to make it more relatable to modern Americans. The ancient Greek’s tolerant views on sexuality are often toned down or invisible – which is why Patrocles was Achilles’s “cousin” in Troy and Hephastion was little more than Alexander’s “general” in Alexander. Likewise, Greek conflicts with foreign powers have begun to look a lot like modern geopolitical conflicts, particularly where people from the Near East are concerned. This is perhaps no more obvious than in the Persian aqua-suicide-terrorists scene from Rise of an Empire. Last year’s Pompeii tapped into our collective fear of natural disaster in an era of expanding climate change. On the other side of things, films like Clash of the Titans and its sequel made no pretense at being culturally relevant… or relevant at all. In some ways, I enjoy them more because these films aren’t trying to be anything but what they are – 90 minutes of visual pablum.
As a special added feature to my blog, Arcades Rising From the Ashes, enjoy these great arcade-related scenes from the Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982), Wargames (1983), The Karate Kid (1984) and The Last Starfighter (1984). If you lived through the eighties, this will probably remind you of how omni-present arcades were in the lives of many American teens.