Monday, November 23, 2015

Myths Aren't Forever

Hey kids! Want some militarization of space?

Have you seen the Harold Ramis remake of Bedazzled? It's not a museum piece by any means but a very clever comedy with a charm of its own. It helps that the Devil is played by Elizabeth Hurley in all her splendor and glory. She's a witty and talented comic actor, a gift I think a lot of people have overlooked in favor of her more, uh,  immediate attributes.

The remake doesn't bother to retrace the steps of the classic original but instead casts Brendan Fraser (there's that name again) as a uber-awkward IT nerd pining after a pretty but unremarkable coworker. He meets Hurley who then takes him to her nightclub which upon his first entry is a roiling Bacchanal filled with the beautiful people, all having the time of their lives. 

Only later do we see they are the Damned and the party can never stop, that they are condemned to go through the motions on the dancefloor for Eternity.

I remember feeling like I was in a LARP of that scene a couple years ago at the New York Comicon. It was dangerously oversold and every face I saw looked exhausted, miserable, and yet utterly trapped in a pantomime they didn't quite understand. The place was so packed that no one could look at any of the tables. The vendors, who were paying an arm and a leg for their trouble, were crestfallen. 

How oversold was it? It took me a half-hour to walk a single aisle. It was like a scene out of Soylent Green.

Finally, I and several thousand other patrons escaped to Artist's Alley, in an entirely separate wing of the enormous Jacob Javits Center. Of course, in the old days meeting the artists and creators would be the whole point of a convention. But the con industry has metastasized into something entirely different. In many ways it's a giant costume party, much to the chagrin of people trying to earn a living selling at increasingly costly tables.

I went to another con yesterday, in the middle of an enormous industrial park in Central Jersey. It was sparsely attended and perhaps a sign that the market has been oversaturated. New York was just a few weeks ago and Christmas shopping is on the agenda by the end of this week. So perhaps it was an aberration. And geek culture is mainstream culture so it's not like it was 20 years ago when everyone was worried the bottle was finally running dry.

But in a way it has. It's run dry creatively. 

We're talking about a situation where the big story this year is yet another sequel for a film franchise that's nearly 40 years old.

I have no doubt the new Star Wars will do gangbusters at the box office. Tentpole films and football are the last vestiges of a common culture we have left in an increasingly fractured populace, thanks to technological narrowcasting and Globalist social engineering.

But will it have the effect the original had in 1977? Of course not. 

Star Wars was such a blockbuster because it was such a pure distillation and amplification of the most intoxicating tropes in sci-fi and fantasy, in much the same way that Van Halen's first album was a distillation and amplification of the tropes of 60s and 70s hard rock. Both hit so hard because they felt so new, yet fed on streams that had stood the test of time.

It's also worth noting that both emerged out of a California that doesn't exist anymore, a land of social and economic mobility. 

Today California is a feudal state, the most economically unequal state in the union, where a rapidly-expanding underclass and a rapidly-dwindling middle class ruled over by a technocratic elite nursing totalitarian ambitions not seen in almost a century. Their wealth is so immense that their word is law, elections mere formalities.

The Empire, in other words.

One of the things we were discussing at dinner last night is how the Internet has given birth to a culture of attack, and that the unprecedented wave of antagonism George Lucas was subjected to for the prequels is sure to rub off on this new film. 

It's just too much fun for anonymous trolls on the Internet to go on the attack, particularly against a cultural phenomenon that's getting so much attention. The trolls who get the most attention are sure to become news stories themselves, since the media loves nothing better than a backlash narrative.

But that's the least of our problems.

I've pointed out before that most of the popular franchises out there are all 40 years or older. The Walking Dead is the most successful "new" franchise but any horror fan worth their salt knows it's simply Dawn of the Dead writ large. George Romero is its true creator, no matter who's signed their name to it now. So what does this mean for our modern-day bread and circuses?

It's a strange feeling to see the pop culture of my youth have such staying power. But those icons were created by a different class of artists, with a different understanding of the world. 

Star Wars was deeply spiritual, at least in its original incarnation. But it was also a celebration of the old "just war" doctrine, deeply unfashionable among intellectuals in the post-Vietnam era. The Marvel icons were the offspring of men whose heads were filled with ideas, Stan Lee with his sunny humanism, Jack Kirby with his Gnostic obsession with aliens and gods and Steve Ditko with his passionate political idealism clashing wildly with his personal paranoia.

Batman and Superman were the offspring of the pulps, with Batman being a wafer-thin reworking of the mystic vigilante Shadow and Superman based on strongmen like Doc Savage, his creator Jerry Siegel immersed in pop occultism and UFOlogy (Siegel's next major creation after Superman was the occult superhero The Spectre and his last major creation was alien hybrid The Starling, whose origin clearly signalled Siegel had been boning up on abduction literature).

The question is how long can you keep selling these old stories? At some point you need a generational cohort to stand up and create new ideas of their own. I don't think this generation is going to be the one, certainly not if the convulsions ripping through our college campuses are any indication.*

Unfortunately what may be the deciding factor is war. Many of the pulp creators were World War One vets and many of the comic creators served in WW2, as did crucial pop culture figures like Rod Serling (Twilight Zone), Leslie Stevens (Outer Limits, Battlestar Galactica) and Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek). Maybe these stories didn't arise out of them but were forced upon them by history.

Globalism hasn't created a world of sunshine and candy canes, it's created a world of war, social chaos, and population disruptions. China and Russia are just two of the countries tired of US unipolarism and are building up their militaries to do something about it. All it takes is one truly major economic crisis and it's Katie, bar the door.

Myths grow out of times of crisis and upheaval, in one way or another. The current vogue for superheroes is a symptom of the powerlessness felt by a populace under assault by the realities of Globalist social engineering, war-making and economic redundancy. But we still live in the post-conscription era, where war is a distant anxiety for most people.

If war does come it might be a new kind of war, unconventional, asymmetric, civil. The way things are going, it may well come sooner than later. Given the ubiquity of technology it may be impossible for myths to arise immediately as they did during past wars, when the passage of information wasn't so instantaneous. 

But myths do die. They aren't immortal. The next war or wars may in fact sweep away the myths of the 20th Century entirely. 

The wars may send people reaching back to far older myths as civil wars can rekindle the bonfires of identity, sending people back to the myths of ancestors. This has always emerged in times of close conflict, particularly in conflicts seen as struggles against occupying powers.

The time may well come when our descendants look upon our pop culture as little more than postmodern bread and circuses. Our current conceptions of popular culture may be seen as antiquated and redundant, an indulgence of happier days gone by.

*Convulsions that almost seem like a massive agent provocateur program engineered to produce nothing of lasting consequence but a deep right wing backlash. Democrats are just now waking up to how dominant the GOP is at every level of government below the Presidency. Since I lived through the 70s and 90s- when aggressive left wing activism created a major backlash at the polls- I'm not surprised by any of this at all. In fact, I expect these divisions to get much worse. Divide and rule; is there an older game?


  1. Great piece Chris, quite true, but are you going to address and tackle the identity crisis in the literary genres filed? First with the Hugo Awards / Sad Puppies debate? Which I should add went under my radar last year, and now with the World Fantasy Awards / H.P. Lovecraft racist debate? This issue alone has just reeked of Liberal elitism. The interesting thing for me is, when I went to conventions as a kid, I never saw the need to insert politics to the level that exists now. A lot of this feels like, pardon the term, tit for tat, and to see the left media just latch onto the WFA debate, looks like the most incredible form of deflection I have seen.

    1. Just INHO, but the Sad Puppies hatefest killed my interest in written SF, I'll still re-read my old favorites, but all the drama and hatred against LGBTs, Women, and such from that faction just drove me away.

      I haven't seen a movie in-theatre since "Iron Man 3", but if my friend wants to see the new Star Wars, I'll go with her. I just mostly do my thing anymore, go out w/friends, do my hobbies, and enjoy my old movies, books, and shows. The only comic book I'm reading is the 'Jem and the Holograms' re-boot from IDW, and the only "new" show I watch is MLP:FiM, both new takes on 80s franchises. Further proof of what Chris is saying, I guess.

    2. I don't pay any mind to these controversies. I mean, I read about them but considering that they're being fought on both sides by people who hate me and my kind (which I discovered all too well when I wrote Our Gods Wear Spandex), why exactly should I care if they destroy each other? It's the old scorpion fight- if they're busy fighting each other they're not busy making innocent people's lives miserable.

    3. That's a good way to put it. :) Maybe I'm just getting old, I just try to spend time doing fun things or being with fun people. Most of the rest simply aren't worth the time, stress, and all that.

  2. Possibly the myths are eternal. It's just the wrappers change. Or myths are constructed from a shifting set of cultural Legos, astronomical observations, and the numinous Other. I'm working on a piece of fiction involving the idea of random access myth (hat tip to Sandy Pearlman and Micheal Moorcock) because, like you, I see all the Mystery being sucked out of these franchises and sci fi/fantasy in general.

    1. Sandy Pearlman is an interesting guy. He's the only producer who actually got the Clash's real sound on record and of course they stabbed him in the back for his trouble (they loved betraying everyone who helped them out). Blue Oyster Cult would have been a very dull boogie band had it not been for Pearlman's conceptualizing. We need more like him.

  3. Ball of snakes with wings clipped.
    Energy spike. Mutational highjinks ensue.

    One of these days, those fingerprints will leave traces.

    In the dirt, in the sky, in the eyes. Probably the lack of frame of reference would be some narrative that just stares back.

  4. I probably won't bother with the new Star Wars flick, because I suspect that we've all *already* seen it.

    I read a quote recently that excitedly stated that the artists of the future will have to become artist-philosophers. Oh, I thought, if only that were true! Instead a lot of pop culture seems to not just be vapid, but incredibly negative.

    Alan Moore did an interview recently where he suggested that culturally, we've dragged a lot of the flotsam from the 20th century into the 21st, rather than creating a new cultural or generational identity - the example he gave was that we're still making Batman and Spiderman movies, many decades after their conception. This certainly feels true - we're 15 years into the 21st century, and apart from technology, there seems to be little that typifies it or condenses it like previous decades.

    Good post. These are all things to think about, at any rate.

  5. All the more reason to smoke 'em while you got 'em. Our most cherished myths, I mean. Savour the things that give you succour, because we're living in a vast and unfathomable universe, and a little internal strength is useful. :)

  6. Beautiful stuff; just posting to chime in a bravo.

  7. I took note of the picture caption about militarization of space and it occured to me that our culture militarizes about anything it can get ahold of. And I'll surely be seeing the SW film, as I have a ten year old who's aching for it to come out. And I was 11 when the first film came out, so I know how magical these things can be. The only thing I really hated about the second trio of films was the whole 'midichlorian' thing, which was someone's way of sucking the psi out of The Force.

  8. "We're talking about a situation where the big story this year is yet another sequel for a film franchise that's nearly 40 years old."

    To be exact, there are two such sequels - Star Wars and, of course, Rocky, in the form of the semi-spinoff, Creed.

    As for spiritual, think about the original Rocky, the everyman hero of Roman heritage who is chosen by a god - that's _Apollo_ Creed, folks - to do battle and prove himself worthy of Olympus. Apollo vs. the Stallion at the Colosseum, with all the world watching. Even the opening image is revelatory, with its brass fanfare and mosaic of Roman contestants going at one another, foreshadowing the battle to come.

    And in Creed, he returns to mentor the son of Apollo, Adonis. A foster father to the young hero, right out of the myths. Micky would be proud.

    1. Oops, and I totally forgot to point out the spiritual aspect of the movie title, CREED. But you've all figured that out by now.

  9. I do see a problem with seeing things like Star Wars, Marvel movies and comics, Indiana Jones -- basically all "geek" "pop" culture -- as "modern myth-making." In some ways, of course that is true, but in a very obvious way, it is more a case of "if these are myths, then who runs the temple? Who are their shaman? And what do they want?"
    In a very clear way, the STAR WARS stories - just to pick on one of many - are basically part of a marketing plan to sell crap - toys, comics, tickets and so on. It's not myth, it's marketing. It's commerce.
    It's like a commercial virus actually that spreads along the vector of the Hero's Journey. I think it is a little troubling that so much of our cultural imagination is populated (colonized) by commercial products owned by corporations like Disney. That is what is being captured here. What value does Luke Skywalker or Superman have? Only the value we, the fans, give them. You wouldn't have corporate lawyers and lobbyists constantly pushing to extend copyright protections to eternity if people didn't basically give away their imaginations to these characters and fictional worlds. And, of course, what really matters to the people controlling these "intellectual properties" - these "products" - is how much money they can take from our devotion to them.