Saturday, December 4, 2021

New and Noteworthy (Collected)

Back in the '00s, with social media rather less developed and utilized, it was not uncommon for bloggers to post little announcements or referrals to other material such as we would now convey to the world through a service like Twitter instead. I certainly did this with various items that caught my eye under such headings as "New and Noteworthy," "Links Round-Up" and "Items of Interest" (up until about 2013, by which point the practice made less sense).

Many of these items have since lost their interest simply because they became dated, while in cases th items in question have disappeared altogether, such that it makes little sense to keep them here. Still, it seemed to me that a few were worth preserving and this post fulfills that purpose, providing a round-up of the lot in one place for anyone who might be interested in them.

* Plenty from the always worthwhile Charlie's Diary, including Stross and his readers' tracking of the saga of the Arctic Sea (the last entry on which was "More News From the Tom Clancy Dimension"); his thoughts on the joys of customer service call centers in the New Economy (said disregard for service I chalk up to the combination of "short-termism"-now an accepted term, appearing routinely in academic papers on economics and business-and the view that cutting wage expenditures is the way to business success); and an extended discourse on the "political threats of the 21st century" with an eye to the totalitarian potential latent within transhumanism and extropianism, and the prospect of Singularitarians in "chrome-plated jackboots."

* The return of the English-language edition of the Polish steampunk-themed compendium Steampunkopedia (as Steampunkopedia2) on September 3.

* A fairly lively discussion over at Lou Anders's Bowing to the Future about the old issue of the mainstream's literary elite's attitude toward speculative fiction (one which recaps recent high points in the debate-not least, the comments from Kim Stanley Robinson and recent genre coverage in The Guardian-and also includes participants unafraid of raising issues of cold hard cash, and possible hypocrisy).

* From io9's Lauren Davis, a graph offering a comprehensive track of the popularity of genre themes over time, one which suggests some interesting conclusions. Interestingly Davis notes that
the graph's most striking feature is the boom all the themes apparently experienced in the 1990s . . . [which] now seems to be on the decline . . . suggest[ing] a huge investment in genre television shows (and perhaps in television in general) that we simply aren't seeing any more . . . Interestingly, space travel shows were the first to go as circumstances changed, and although shows about managed to hang on longer, they, too are on their way out. Does this indicate that science fiction and fantasy shows are on the decline? Or does it represent a shift to less expensive, near-future science fiction with different speculative priorities, shows like Dollhouse, Chuck, and Fringe?
My methodology in setting forth my assessment of the situation in the June 2008 and June 2009 editions of the Internet Review of Science Fiction was less scientific, but similar in some of its conclusions (particularly about the shift in tropes, away from space, toward the close-at-hand, the subtly different, and the low budget). Chuck, of course, is all but finished, Dollhouse hung on by the skin of its teeth, and Fringe could be in trouble, so it may well be that the turn to "less expensive, near-future science fiction with different speculative priorities" may be a transition to even bleaker times ahead for the genre.

* Jonathan McCalmont's latest "Blasphemous Geometries" column over at Futurismic, in which he discusses the value system embedded in many of the best-known games in the first-person shooter, an additional comment about which he has posted on his personal blog, Ruthless Culture.

The heart of his argument is that in video games (as other observers, including Thomas Frank-who is cited in the piece-have pointed out about a great deal of other contemporary culture), we get an outrageous, even rebellious-seeming surface, underlain by the acceptance or even promotion of conservative or conformist values (from consumerism-as-the-essence-of-individualism to a Hobbesian world-view). As McCalmont rather elegantly puts it, these games present
man as little more than a beast: a blend of Hobbesian savage and PCP-fuelled homo economicus who can unleash unspeakable and unrepentant violence in service of his own desires, but who would never seek to question either the system he is a part of or his ultimate involvement in it.
* Over at Tor.com (for which October 2009 is steampunk month), Vernian Process founder and Gilded Age Records cofounder Joshua Pfeiffer discusses differing treatments of the sociopolitical side of steampunk (which I think deserves as much attention as the sociopolitical side, and have devoted some time to myself).

* By way of M.C. de marco, Paul Graham's essay on "Post-Medium Publishing," which wrestles with a problem raised by, among others, Cory Doctorow-namely that (as he put it in "Happy Meal Toys Versus Copyright," downloadable as part of the Content collection available on his web site) an
"information economy" can't be based on selling information. Information technology makes copying information easier and easier. The more IT you have, the less control you have over the bits you send out into the world. It will never, ever, EVER get any harder to copy information from here on in. The information economy is about selling everything except information.
Which of course leaves us wondering-where do we go from here? As you might expect, Graham doesn't have any answers, but he does have some ideas about what an answer might look like.

* Charles Stross offers an impassioned and incisive analysis of the dark side of mainstream American political culture (more deeply frightening and disturbing than any of his Lovecraft homages) at his always worthwhile blog, Charlie's Diary.

* io9 recently published an interview with Tor editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden which promises to be on the future of science fiction books (focusing mainly on the impact of e-books and the Internet, rather than on the content itself).

* Strange Horizons recently made the news-the regular news read by people who don't follow the genre (in this case, the Los Angeles Times)-after Hugo-winner John Scalzi offered to match up to $500 in donations for the non-profit magazine.

* Jonathan McCalmont, over at his Ruthless Culture blog, offers a compelling commentary on the whole issue of public support of the arts, which devotes some attention to the case of Strange Horizons specifically-and the ultimately structural nature of the problem of the respective places of amateur and pro.

* As usual, io9's providing a lot of interesting items, with two of the more noteworthy its list of "Dumbest Space Operas of All Time!" and a "rant" asking the question "Have War Movies Become Superhero Flicks?" (My answer to that question is absolutely yes-and as it happens, I actually discussed some of the reasons for that in a January article in the Internet Review of Science Fiction, "Science Fiction and the Post-Cold War.")

* Also worth a look is Ken MacLeod's recent posting on the handling of the theme of the "surveillance society" in science fiction, and Geoff Ryman's thoughts on the conclusion of Battlestar Galactica.

As you might guess, Ryman is no exception to the disappointment felt by so many other viewers, feeling himself to have been proved right in a dismaying way.

I was left feeling proved right in a dismaying way myself, though the things that really bugged me weren't the same ones. In my May 2008 IROSF article, "The Golden Age of Science Fiction Television" I referred to the writing on the show as often being
silly, sensationalist, muddled and inconsistent (especially in its running post-Nine-Eleven commentary), its gimmicks more derivative than casual viewers of science fiction generally appreciated, and the theory of "naturalistic" science fiction touted by the writers really much ado about nothing.
In that regard, the finale lived down to my lowest expectations, reminding me what utterly mediocre SF the show was, espousing an astonishing number of terrible genre cliches at its core, not the least of them a lame pseudo-religiosity (all the things that didn't make sense before still didn't make sense, thereby proving it was all God's plan!) and a "Frankenstein complex" Luddism that was already tired when Isaac Asimov coined that term seventy years or so ago.

So why was there all that hype about what a great, ground-breaking show BSG was? My guess is that the response was due to its catering to the skewed standards of TV critics, who overvalue pointless head games, "crisp" filler dialogue, unlikable characters (provided, of course, that they're unlikable in the "right" ways), homage to the political pieties of the moment, and the tendency to take oneself far, far too seriously, something this show always did.

* CNN's list of the "nine worst tech movies of all time." There's a bit of hyperbole in the title, of course, but there are plenty of "bad" movies here all right, and certainly bad in the ludicrousness of their depictions of the technologies concerned. (Incidentally, it's no surprise to me that most of the films are from the '90s, with the most recent given as coming from 2002-for reasons I discussed at length in my February 2009 article for the Internet Review of Science Fiction, "Racing Down the Information Superhighway: Computers in 1990s Film," in which I not only discussed the subject, but critiqued many of the same movies.)

* By way of the prolific video game blog Kotaku, one Karachi resident's observation that the street signs in Modern Warfare 2's recreation of the city are written in the wrong language-Arabic, instead of Urdu (Pakistan not being an Arabic-speaking country).

Naturally, this started a debate regarding the broader unrealism of the game (which is, of course, considerable at every point, even by techno-thriller standards), and even the real-life political situation it draws on for its inspiration.

My take on this particular error: a sad reminder of our collective geographic illiteracy (did no one at the company realize this very basic point?), and the tendency to simplistically view whole parts of the world as monolithic blocks-as when someone refers to "Africa," "Asia" or "Latin America" as though any one of these were all one thing. (In spite of U.S. foreign policy's preoccupation with the Middle East since the '70s, which went into overdrive in the last decade, the North Africa/Southwest Asia/South Asia/Central Asia region seems especially susceptible to such misconceptions, with especially unfortunate consequences, because of the political charge involved.)

* For those who haven't seen it before, Mark Rosenfelder's humorous piece "If all stories were written like science fiction stories," in which a perfectly ordinary trip to San Fransisco is given the genre treatment. (Of course, this particular prose style has long since ceased to be fashionable, with "lived-in" futures in which the characters take all the trappings in stride as part of daily life enjoying more favor, but the point is valid all the same.)

* Charles Stross on Blindsight author Peter Watts's conviction-with a focus on what this whole situation tells us about the directions in which both civil liberties and globalized capitalism are moving. (As usual when an issue like this comes up, there's plenty of interest in the comments thread as well.)

* By way of io9, Connal at A Dangerous Business on his visit to the Museum of Soviet Arcade Games. (Yes, they had video games there too.)

* Also from io9: this list of science fiction films Hollywood is currently remaking (twenty-one of them!), accompanied by alternative suggestions of successful but as-yet unfilmed science fiction works.

I don't know all of the alternatives they mention, and I'm not sure that all the ones I do know really would be worth filming, even when I happen to like the source material. (I don't think there's a two hour movie in John Kessel's "Pride and Prometheus," for instance. And while there's no arguing the place of E.E. Smith's Lensman in the history of space opera, it may be too sprawling and too old-fashioned to be viable as a Hollywood movie.)

All the same, I'm sympathetic to the idea behind the post. An unwillingness to let go of (or let rest) a salable brand name or profitable intellectual property--an obsession with the sequel, the series, the remake--has always been part of Hollywood's way of doing things, and if it seems more pronounced now, it is worth remembering that this is also a response to the ever-bigger gamble involved in gigantic and still-growing budgets, shortening theatrical runs, ever-more fickle attendance at theaters, and the ever-louder pop cultural cacophony which a project needs to get above to be seen or heard, something easier to do with an already-established IP.

But all that's really no excuse. The budgets are as big as they are because the studios are so preposterously wasteful, the audiences fickle in large part because so much of the product is so bad and the ticket (and concession) prices so high, while the larger cacophony of pop culture is a reflection of their own hype-creating machines. And it's well worth remembering that much of the mess is due to the contempt of Big Media for the new and the creative that has made reality television (ugh!) what it is today, another, crucial reason for this desperate clinging to the same old IPs.

Ultimately, the biggest threat of all to their profit margins is their small-minded insistence on trying to hold back change rather than adapt to it.

And so here we have the studios determined to produce mega-budget movies no one ever asked for while ignoring vast, fertile fields of possibility. Going down the list, it seems to me that not one of the listed remakes is a genuinely exciting prospect, with some of these movies redoing what hadn't even been worth doing the first time around, and others bound to be inferior to what was accomplished with their concepts on the first go.

* SfSignal's recent "MindMeld" on "the next big thing" in science fiction and fantasy literature. Predictably, none of the authors interviewed had a particularly good answer--at least, not as straight answers go. None of them convincingly points to a new scientific development or area of technology opening up explored new territory, to an orthodoxy that will be challenged, or a vein of untapped potential that can be mined, or a new work or talent changing the game. If anything, they put me in mind of the argument I've made time and again that nothing to compare with, for instance, the splash cyberpunk made in the '80s, seems to be on the horizon.

Still, Jeff Vandermeer in particular has fun brushing off the question with facetious answers.

* Jonathan McCalmont's review of Adam Roberts' New Model Army for The Zone. You may remember I reviewed the same book for Strange Horizons back in June, but his take is quite different, McCalmont declaring it "one of those rare works that seems to provide a cultural blueprint for the entire genre," and indeed, inviting comparison with the birth of the novel. (I think that's a bit much, but as might be expected from McCalmont, the case is certainly an interesting one.)

* Victoria Strauss dissects the implications of statistics on self-published books recently published by Publisher's Weekly at the blog of the Science Fiction Writers of America. That there are more books appearing through this avenue doesn't mean more people are actually buying them, a reminder that, as Andrew Orlowski put it, the hope that "things would get fairer on the Interwebs" for those whose path to authorship has been blocked by Big Media has not been realized, and perhaps will not be.

* Last but not least, the winners of this year's Hugo Awards have just been announced. China Mieville's The City & The City and Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl tied for best novel. Best novella went to Charles Stross's "Palimpsest" (first published in the collection Wireless, which I reviewed for Strange Horizons last year). Best novelette went to Peter Watts for his highly praised "The Island" (which appeared in the New Space Opera 2 anthology). You can click on the link to read the full list.

* Charles Stross, drawing on Alvin and Heidi Toffler's 1970 book Future Shock, recently looked back at the place of religious tolerance inside a world that is looking worrisomely authoritarian; and offered his thoughts on authorial fact-checking of minor details, with Carrie Vaughn's Discord's Apple held up as an object lesson.

* Airlock Alpha's Michael Hinman on HBO's recent loss of subscribers, itself part of the unprecedented, broader slippage of cable, this year seeing a drop in paying customers for the very first time. This has often been taken as a reflection of the broader economic crunch, but some also wonder if cable isn't suffering from competition with Netflix and the Internet.

There's surprisingly little comment so far, though, about how cable has tried to cope with that competition. Far from trying to fight by offering a better product or better prices as market enthusiasts would have us believe is the response to such a situation, the industry has dedicated itself to simply making it as difficult as possible for consumers to get the Internet on their TV screens, while offering less product and higher prices--yanking channels out of their analog line-ups without cutting their rates, but clearly pushing them to pick up more expensive digital packages (with John Luciew earlier this year offering an interesting take on one particularly affected group, those who rely on TV to help get them through their exercise routine).

I leave you to draw the obvious conclusions about this situation.

* And finally, I'm recommending Publetariat: People Who Publish, "an online community and news hub built specifically for indie authors and small, independent imprints." There is a fair amount of standard how-to stuff here, admittedly, but there is also quite a bit of news and commentary about the business itself, oriented to this marginal but heavily populated side of the publishing business (mentioned here in my blog post of the 7th this month).

• Ken MacLeod's posting on his blog of his 2006 speech on science fiction as "the first human literature," an analysis well worth the read.

• Michael Hinman of Airlock Alpha offers an incisive analysis of the "boneheaded scheduling moves" that have characterized the Syfy Channel's line-ups in recent years, with the demise of Caprica offered as an object lesson for the mismanagement of heavily serialized shows. He also offers a plausible alternative model, though my guess is that Syfy (which now airs some form of reality TV every weeknight, including Smackdown in the Friday night slot) has already written off science fiction-just as science fiction fans should be writing the channel off.

• And finally, spy novelist Jeremy Duns' interview of J.P. Trevor on his blog, The Debrief. Trevor is an artist and production designer best known for cinematic special effects work on Star Wars and the Tim Burton Batman, but he is also the son of novelist Adam Hall, the author of the "Quiller" spy series. The Quiller novels have been translated to the big screen in a 1966 movie and the small one by the BBC in a 1975 series, and in the past decade MGM bought up the film rights in order to take another crack at the series-which has yet to materialize-and it is on this that the interview focuses.

* Airlock Alpha's Dennis Rayburn, revisiting the question of reboots, remakes and re-everything else, asks "Is Hollywood Creatively Bankrupt?"

This seems like a rhetorical question, of course. After all, can anyone but a Beverly Hills Babbitt possibly say "No" to that with a straight face? However, it's not just that I'm sympathetic to the sentiment that led me to note it here; Rayburn does show how it fits in with the industry's broader situation.

All the same, I think he's overoptimistic about the reality "craze" fading away. It's already gone strong for a decade now, with no sign of letting up, and the creative bankruptcy of which he's spoken, and the attractions of reality TV for media executives, especially those trapped between the shrinking resources of beleaguered networks, and the smaller ones of the network's cable subsidiaries (low production costs, non-unionized writers, none of that messy "creative process" Suits can't stand) make it exceptionally resistant to a backlash from an audience that frankly isn't discerning enough to teach Hollywood a lesson by refusing to have anything to do with the format.

* An abbreviated version of the roundtable discussion about the history of pulp science fiction magazines between Robert Silverberg, Richard A. Lupoff and Frank M. Robinson, up at the Locus web site. (Those intrigued by the subject may also want to check out this 2006 article by Brian Curtis for Slate Magazine regarding pulp fiction generally, across genre boundaries-and in knowing that since its redesign in October, Tangent Online has devoted a section to those same pulps, as well as one to classic science fiction in all formats.)

* And finally, Charles Stross on the possibility that a virus is responsible for the obesity epidemic, as well as the tiresome tendency to view physical illness as a matter of moral failure rather than biological disease. (Also of interest on Charlie's Diary: his commentary on the recent announcement of Prince William's marriage, which those similarly inclined may find a welcome respite from the tedious, fawning hoopla surrounding the event.)

* A trio of recent pieces from Jonathan McCalmont's Ruthless Culture on our "culture of passive-aggressive friendliness," Occupy Wall Street, and personal ambition (or to be precise, the lack of it).

* And finally, from April, an amusing bit from Cracked about "8 Scenes That Prove Hollywood Doesn't Get Technology." (Five of the eight are actually from crime dramas on CBS – with NCIS accounting for two all by itself, the original and New York spin-offs of CSI for another two, and NUMB3RS rounding out the group. However, the 1995 film Hackers, well-known for its unique attempt to convey the experience of computer hacking on the big screen, also appears here.)

* Cory Doctorow on "The Coming War on General-Purpose Computing" and a response from Joe Brockmeier – agreeing about the import of the "copyright war," but raising some other, perhaps even trickier issues. Of related interest: Joe Karaganis on public opinion and heavy-handed online piracy crackdowns.

* Two recent pieces by Jonathan McCalmont, the first on Tim Maughan's indie short fiction collection Paintwork, which includes an interesting overview of the cyberpunk genre since the 1980s; and the second on the formulaic nature of American independent cinema. (Incidentally, McCalmont's discussion focuses on films of the 2000s like About Schmidt, Sideways and Young Adult, more than the angsty slackers, frustrated Hollywood-creative types and quirky lowlifes I personally associate the category with, but nonetheless does a good job describing a substantial amount of the recent territory.)

* At Strange Horizons: Susan Marie Groppi on her departure from the fiction department; reviews of two particularly intriguing books – Adam Roberts' new novel By Light Alone (the clever central gimmick in which is genetic engineering which endows human hair with photosynthetic properties, with huge consequences) and Ernest Cline's Ready Player One (which combines a bleak post-greenhouse future with the '80s geek nostalgia hinted at in the title); and Genevieve Valentine take on the new film version of John le Carré's classic Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as science fiction.

* At Forbes, a lengthy article by David Vinjamuri on indie publishing. It seems to me especially notable for its critical take on the contempt to which these authors have been subjected by bestselling authors who came up the traditional way, like Sue Grafton (who has been especially nasty), and Vinjamuri's thoughts on the economics of book pricing.

* From io9, "Ten Rules of Blockbuster Movies that Hollywood Forgot." Given that the number of blockbusters made is so small, and reliant on such a small, closely connected club of people for their creation (the handful of producers, directors, stars and executives capable of getting them green-lit, and their advisers), it seems astonishing that the product does not reflect a more robust institutional memory in these respects - but as the article makes quite clear, this has often been absent.

* Charles Stross presents his predictions about the year 2512, which, again, are a far cry from what his more extravagant fiction would lead one to expect (with rather less in the way of transhumanism and outer space adventures, and rather more in the way of climate change's consequences).

* Ken MacLeod's essay "The Soul of Man After Socialism," in which he argues that socialism, or something like it, will be more rather than less necessary in a transhuman future, on the grounds that nothing has quite matched the socialist project's assertion of a common humanity - a position which will be all the more challenged by technological change. As MacLeod notes in his mention of the essay on his blog, he touched on these ideas earlier in a September post, "Mapping the Posthuman," which also provides some useful context.

* Tom Shone of the Guardians' film blog on the end of what he called the "Oscar film," described here as "mid-range, mid-budget humanitarian epics like Dances With Wolves, Gandhi and Driving Missy Daisy, about the moral efficacy of the individual – one person making a difference, in costume" - and of course, how that led to Argo (a controversial win in quite a few quarters) beating Lincoln.

* David Walsh with quite another perspective on how the ceremony played out. As one might expect given his particularly pointed criticism of some of the year's nominees (like Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty, but also Argo), he criticizes the product on the grounds of politics as well as art, which he sees as broadly representative of problematic tendencies within the film industry, like the superficiality of its "liberalism" (limited to culture and lifestyle, while thoroughly conservative in its attitudes toward economics and international politics), and its refusal to "mention . . . a single problem of contemporary life" ("one had the distinct sense that some powerful anti-reality filtration system was at work in the hall"), with the implications of Michelle Obama's presenting the Best Picture award, and Syriana producer and star George Clooney's being among the recipients, naturally remarked upon.

* Kent Anderson on the cheapening of the word "innovation." That the post is itself a comment on an earlier post by Scott Berkun from more than five years ago only highlights how thoroughly this term has been abused by a certain kind of technology and business-hyping nit-wit, ruining it for everyone else, so that we are all far, far, far past the point at which we should, if not totally cease and desist using the term, at least use it only very, very carefully.

We can think of it this way: if you're saying it, you probably aren't doing it.

* Tor.com on the prospect of a rise in the cost of video games with the next generation of consoles (Playstation 4, XBox 720 and the rest) now on the horizon.

I should say, though, that the $70 video game does not seem all that new to me. I remember such retail prices for 8-bit games way back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Admittedly, such prices were a rarity, but given the inflation we have since then, which has almost halved the purchasing power of a dollar ($1 today is like 53 cents in 1989, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics), a $70 game today is about equal to $37 then, a bit below what was average at the time - which suggests a slight drop in prices.

How many things can one say that about? Certainly not food. Or energy. Or education. Or health care. Or any of the other things that really do put pressure on people's budgets. And in contrast with all these other areas, it does seem pretty clearly the case that gamers are getting more product for their money.

* Charles Stross, considering the possible implications of a British exit from the EU (which he thinks will not be pretty for the British economy).

* John Winters on being a (self-described) self-publishing failure, a much needed corrective to the kinds of success stories our rags-to-riches-quick-fantasy-obsessed culture trumpets.

* By way of the Ukiah Blog, a piece by Victoria Beale in the New Republic which offers a critical take on Paul Coelho, as both artist and thinker, with her assessment of the author's Message tidily summed up in its last sentences:
[U]nder the platitudes Coelho’s philosophy has always been a harsh worldview: unhappiness or lack of fulfilment is only for the weak and unfocused. And increasingly in his books, success can only be measured against the author and the obstacles he has overcome. The gospel of self-reliance has never been so trite or unforgiving.
Make what you will of Coelho's star status at Davos.

* Finally, over at Strange Horizons Martin Lewis reviewed Damien Broderick and Paul di Filippo's Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels, 1985-2010. To go by Lewis' review the book has its limitations (he's actually a lot harsher than that, eventually resorting to a four-letter word to express his disgust) but given the scarcity of critical efforts even attempting a comprehensive overview of science fiction "after the New Wave" (a fact which prompted me to put together the book by that very title), it seems worth at least a glance from anyone interested in a big picture view of the life of the genre in these years.

* In the Los Angeles Review of Books, Alec Ash's interview with writer Fei Dao about science fiction in China touching on the genre's history and influences in China (interestingly he identifies Soviet science fiction as one of the "big three" influences, alongside Western and Japanese science fiction), its current concerns (reflecting the country's modernization), as well as the audience for this type of work and the prejudices it is up against (which are not all that dissimilar from what it has seen in the West).

* Ian Sales on taking Amazon's bestseller lists as a guide to larger trends in book publishing.

* At Fanpop, a well-constructed response to the enmity so many apparently feel toward Game of Thrones' Sansa Stark. (I would have to number myself among those who see her character as one of the series' more sympathetic - and a reminder that much as we complain about the prevalence of Mary Sue/Gary Stu characters, a large segment of the audience all but demands them, and becomes quite unreasonable when their demand is not met.)

* A provocative piece from Airlock Alpha's Amber Hollingsworth which takes on the issue of "Why Horror Isn't Scary, But Thrillers Are."

* And last but not least, a number of Charles Stross's posts, including his response to Margaret Thatcher's passing, and its aftermath; his "Public Service Announcement" about why it is best to ignore the news; his announcement of the release of The Traders' War (an omnibus edition of the first three Trade of Queens novels, "revised and reassembled as the single book it was meant to be"); and his piece on British nuclear disarmament, which offers a succinct critical history of the country's strategic deterrent.

* Three pieces by David Walsh. The first is a follow-up to his earlier consideration of Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty which responds to later revelations about the film's production. The other two discuss Baz Luhrmann's hit remake of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, with the first a review of the movie which considers a side of Fitzgerald and his book that you very likely did not encounter in high school; and the second an examination of some recent misadventures of the tiresome Prince Harry and company through the lens of the novel, and the film, in turn, through Luhrmann's associations with British royals.

* An amusing piece from SFX's Nick Setchfield on what Star Trek might have looked like had it first appeared in the 1890s, 1930s, 1950s or 1970s.

* Patrick Nielsen Hayden's obituary for British novelist Iain Banks, perhaps best known to science fiction fans for Consider Phlebas, the first of his "Culture" novels, and a founding work of the new space opera. He will genuinely be missed.

* Ian Sales reviews James Lovegrove's The Age of Zeus. (You may remember my review of Lovegrove's previous mix of mythology and contemporary military adventure, The Age of Ra, which I reviewed here.)

* Charles Stross's latest crib sheet on writing The Jennifer Morgue - in which he wrote the Laundry's Bob Howard into a James Bondian adventure.

* Gawker's Max Read on the accents in Game of Thrones (which has recently concluded its third season).

* As Jonathan McCalmont notes over at Ruthless Culture, Speculative Fiction 2012, a round-up of the best online nonfiction writing about the genre, is out. As might be guessed by those who followed the portion of the blogosphere devoted to science fiction, the debate kick-started by Paul Kincaid's September 2012 review essay about three year's best anthologies for the L.A. Review of Books has a place in it, with Kincaid's piece included, as well as Jonathan McCalmont's response "Cowardice, Laziness and Irony: How Science Fiction Lost the Future."

* Ken MacLeod's remembrance of Iain Banks in The Guardian.

* Also in The Guardian, Cory Doctorow on the recent revelations about the NSA's Prism program.

* Last month io9's Rob Bricken asked "Does DC Have a Chris Nolan Problem?" after watching Man of Steel. I think DC certainly has a problem--but that it's the same problem everyone else has, and that the tendency he attributes to Christopher Nolan goes far, far beyond the role of any one individual. It reflects where the whole industry has gone in this postmodern era of "dark-and-gritty" everything with a side of still more dark-and-gritty.

* Jonathan McCalmont's review of Nikita Mikhailov's Burnt by the Sun 2, the sequel to the Palme d'Or and Oscar-winning 1994 film--which, surprisingly, seems to have wound up a Stalinist-Orthodox version of a Michael Bay movie according to McCalmont. (How many sequels to Cannes Grand Prize winners can you say that about?)

* Charles Stross, with a provocative piece on the troubles besetting British democracy, and what he thinks it says about the future of politics.

* David Walsh looks back on the career of the late James Gandolfini. (Naturally, he has plenty to say about The Sopranos, and what the reception of that show says about its cultural moment.)

* Shoshanna Kesock considers Syfy's Defiance.

* From io9, Charlie Jane Anders on the possibility of a Zack Snyder-helmed Wonder Woman movie. (I, for one, don't think this project is any more likely than the others, and certainly had a much more favorable view of Watchmen, which is probably the superhero movie I've enjoyed most in recent years, but the piece does touch on a lot of the relevant issues.)

Thursday, December 2, 2021

The Release and Box Office Run of No Time to Die: A Summary View

(I have been posting on No Time to Die's box office run these past couple of months and decided to replace all those little posts with this single post consolidating the contents of the lot. Here goes.)

The 25th EON James Bond film, No Time to Die, which had already suffered a more than usually long and troubled production (with one director's walking out and having to be replaced, with Daniel Craig's interrupting shooting, and the rest already translating to two delays) was due out in April 2020. A schedule that had it slightly preceding the big rush of blockbusters coming that summer, while alarms about the pandemic indicated a massive disruption of everyday life, filmmaking included, on the way, its backers were the first to bump a major release due to COVID-19, from April to November. They ended up delaying the release yet again when fall came around to April 2021, and then from April once more to October 2021.

Of course, the pandemic was still very much ongoing that year and a half on, while the box office was, as those in the business had feared, still depressed. In the months immediately preceding No Time to Die's release films that could have been counted on to bring in a cool billion, like Black Widow, fell far, far short of such expectations, with even Hollywood's most successful release in the preceding months, Fast and Furious 9, doing only a bit better than half that franchise's accustomed business as of late, grossing just over $700 million.

Going by the same assumption of fifty percent or so of "normal" business, with the new Bond film following two more or less billion dollar hits (Skyfall blazed past the mark in 2012, while Spectre's $880 million works out to a billion when adjusted for inflation), I figured the movie (with some claim to being an event as the close of the Daniel Craig era and its story arc, but not enjoying Skyfall-like buzz) would do about the same--which worked out to a half billion dollars. And I seem to have been far from alone in thinking so.

Still, the weekend before it came out, in the U.S. at least, Venom 2 had a sensational opening weekend, taking in some $90 million in those first three days, while the international release that very same weekend saw a $119 million take that beat the expectations previously held for it (also about $90 million). Feeding into yet another round of "The pandemic is over!" exuberance to which the media has been addicted no less than governments analysts greatly upped their estimates for the new Bond film's debut in the days right before its release, with even moderate expectations running as high as $70 million and one prediction suggesting a North American opening north of $100 million, which would have been a new record for the series. The actual opening weekend gross was more like $55 million Friday-to-Sunday (and $62 million counting in the Monday, which was Columbus Day).

Far from a new record, it was a low for the Daniel Craig era (lower even than what Casino Royale made back in 2006, fifteen years of ticket-price inflation ago). Confronted with the reality of the lower number some analysts accepted that they had been overoptimistic, but others took a "Wait and see" attitude, suggesting that the Bond film would prove to have exceptional legs. There was not much basis for this thinking. The best argument those espousing this position were able to set forth was that the older moviegoers less set on seeing a movie opening weekend would eventually come out, though the truth was that for the most part they had already done so. (It was the young people who weren't bothering.) Unsurprisingly the drop was the predictable one, the movie taking in a little under $24 million the following weekend (a 57 percent drop, more or less in line with the pattern of the last few Bond films--60 percent for Quantum of Solace, 54 percent for Skyfall, 52 percent for Spectre after its less impressive opening). Going by the premise that ten days into their run the Daniel Craig Bonds had generally made between half and two-thirds of their money, with the more robust earners proving to have the better legs (Skyfall had made only 52 percent of its total ten days in, Quantum of Solace and Spectre about 65 percent) I ventured the guess that No Time to Die, which had made $100 million by that point, would probably make somewhere between $150 million and $200 million in the U.S., with the lower bound at that point seeming to me the more likely given the soft response.

Where the global take was concerned I looked to the British data as well as the U.S. data (precisely because Britain is, of course, an especially strong market for the Bond films). The film's second U.S. weekend coincided with its third British weekend, by which point the movie had made about $93 million--just four-fifths of what Spectre had made by the same point in unadjusted numbers ($118 million). Assuming that the U.S. would, as was seen in the past, account for a quarter of the film's earnings, and that lower bound of $150 million, I saw $600 million as a plausible low end to the range. At the same time working from the possibility of the movie scoring about four-fifths what Spectre did in unadjusted dollars (four-fifths of $880 million) I guessed about $700 million as the upper end of the range.

It turned out that I was right about the North American take. In its eighth weekend in North American release, with the film already out on video On Demand, the movie took in all of $2 million, bringing its total up to $158 million, and leaving anything much above $160 million unlikely. In inflation-adjusted terms that is less than half what Skyfall made, about a third less than what the comparatively disappointing Spectre made, and indeed, less than any Bond movie has made in North America since the famously low-grossing Licence to Kill way back in 1989, as the table below (in which all figures have been adjusted for 2021 prices using the Consumer Price Index) demonstrates.

Spectre (2015)--$229 million

Skyfall (2012)-$360 million

Quantum of Solace (2008)-$208 million

Casino Royale (2006)-$225 million

Die Another Day (2002)-$243 million

The World is Not Enough (1999)-$207 million

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)-$212 million

Goldeneye (1995)-$189 million

Licence to Kill (1989)-$76 million

However, if I was right about the North American take I was wrong--overly conservative--about the global gross. Rather than $600-$700 million with the low end of the range the more likely I should have guessed $700-$800 million, with the upper range the more likely. (As it is the film has already passed the $750 million mark.)

For any but the absolute top-line blockbusters that would be a solid performance in normal times, never mind pandemic conditions, which I think justify grading on a curve. If one assumes that it made half the money it would have made in normal times that would make it the biggest hit the series has ever had (bigger than Thunderball, bigger than Skyfall, with its $1.5 to $1.6 billion exceeding even the latter film's inflation-adjusted gross of $1.3 billion appreciably). If one less generously assumes the pandemic allowed the movie to make sixty percent of what it would have ordinarily then it is, perhaps, number two, after only Skyfall. And if less generously we assume that the pandemic's cutting into its gross reduced its earnings by just a quarter it would still be on par with Spectre, and very respectable indeed. Testifying to the plausibility of the more generous measures is the fact that, with the end of the year scarcely a month away at the time of this writing No Time to Die is the highest-grossing movie of the year globally (excepting two productions made in China for the country's domestic market, increasingly an outlier these days), a distinction no Bond movie, not even the biggest, ever previously achieved (with Thunderball having the misfortune to be competing with The Sound of Music, Skyfall with the original Marvel's Avengers). In fairness the competition was not what it would have been in a normal year, with movie attendance fluctuating greatly (had No Time to Die come out in April it would have done rather less well), while it has likely helped that other studios split their earnings between the box office and video--and that Marvel got shut out of China's exceptionally large and, by pandemic standards, exceptionally healthy, market. All the same, it has the prize for now, and seems likely to still have it at year's end.

Still, if an observer might grade box office performance on a curve when assessing the reception of a film this does not work where a company bottom line is concerned. Spectacular as a nearly $800 million take is in 2021 the fact remains that, with the already obscene cost of making a Bond film raised by the tortuous path this one followed to the screen even before the pandemic, the marketing costs blown on those releases that never happened, the interest payments on borrowed money and the rest, it seems the movie may have needed to gross $900 million just to break even. The movie is clearly short of that, and indeed we are now hearing that the producers may, in spite of this success, be in the red by as much as a hundred million dollars. But all the same, when all the other non-theatrical income streams are taken into account No Time to Die will likely turn a profit before too much longer, as the producers confidently move on to the next reinvention of a franchise whose salability has (in spite of the disappointing American release, at least, testifying to vulnerabilities, not least in attracting interest among younger viewers) defied the doubters once again.

Considering the franchise's future I personally see it as being on TV (more particularly, streaming) because that is simply how things are going these days, with Star Wars, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Jack Ryan and the rest happily shifting from the box office to Disney Plus, Amazon and the rest. This is all the more the case in that I cannot help recalling the reports about Apple having been prepared to offer $400 million for the film's video rights, and that the producers might have done better bottom line-wise to take that offer. (While the details can make a lot of difference a studio typically ends up with about forty to fifty percent of a film's gross, which coming out of a $750-$800 million gross would work out to be $300-$400 million, which they would have got their hands on a lot earlier, and before they had got deeper into the red.) Still, I can easily imagine that with nearly $800 million banked in pandemic conditions (and the expectation that this thing has to end sometime) they remain ready to take at least one more crack at theaters--especially if they can find someone who knows how to keep to a schedule and manage a budget in charge the next time around.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

On American Monolingualism

It is an old stereotype that Americans, especially if they are not immigrants, are less likely to have second language skills than people in other, comparable countries, and especially less likely to be fluent in a second language than they.

Of course, all this is tougher to estimate than it sounds. Statistics based on self-reporting, for example, likely exaggerate capability, especially given the vagueness of concepts like "fluency"--and the demonstrated inability of a great many people to function at a high level in their own native language, even after lengthy formal education. (Perhaps one can carry on a simple conversation in a given language--but cannot speak it, let alone read it, at a very advanced level, such that so simple and mundane a task as understanding a common bus schedule can defeat them. Can that truly be regarded as command of the language?)

Still, there seems to be at least some truth to the image, sufficient that those interested in those subjects point out a couple of factors with some regularity. One is that an American (as compared with a citizen of the European Union, for example) generally has to travel a long way before they are in a place where the people predominantly speak, write and read a language that is not English (and less often need to do so than, for instance, people in countries where hard circumstances drive their people to go abroad looking for work).

Another factor is that Americans are far more accustomed to exporting pop culture than importing it--the songs they listen to, the movies they watch, much less likely to originally have been created in something other than English. (Indeed, Americans much more often see Hollywood's remakes of foreign movies than the movies they are based on.)

All of this implies a great deal for the pressure to learn, the opportunity to practice--that they are less likely to have just "picked up" other languages in childhood, or acquired something of them in everyday life, instead making this a thing one goes that much more out of their way to do, indeed specifically, consistently commit time to over a long period for the relatively distant payoff of competence in the language.

There is also what this linguistic difference means for those taking the deliberate, academic path to which they have no recourse--that they get language instruction conceived by linguists for other linguists, rather than for more general users, inclined to a scholarly perfectionism rather than offering up a package the student can quickly begin using as a basis on which to build that subtler knowledge. Is it quite so important that the student be enjoined to remember every last form of every verb to which they are introduced, the vast majority of which forms they are unlikely to see anytime soon, practically before the student has acquired any vocabulary at all? I doubt it. But that is what the textbook writers insist on, and the implicit enjoinment to perfectionism--which leaves potential learners thinking in terms of a far greater competence in the language than most native speakers of that language are likely to have as the standard of acquisition, and the choice between this or nothing at all--and that would seem to be another problem in itself, for when it is perfection or nothing I imagine many resign themselves to nothing. (I suspect contributing to this further is the pop cultural garbage inundating us in false images of hyperpolyglot geniuses who all speak a dozen languages perfectly, in spite of never actually studying or practicing, making it look easier than it is, setting impossible standards that make the onlooker feel inferior.)

There is, arguably, the way a purely academic effort can produce a very uneven capability. (One may end up in a situation where they can read the second language at a very high level, within some field of competency they have perhaps far more adroit at reading the relevant material than a native speaker who has not been trained in the field--but at the same time find that coming up with the words with which to carry on an everyday conversation defeats them.)

And of course, that those most likely to make the academic effort are people who probably speak their own native language with exceptional skill and polish is likely to pose obstacles for them as well--by leaving them the more impatient of their difficulties and crudity in that other language, all while they are perhaps juggling other intellectual or cultural interests as well with less than all the time in the world for all of them. (For example, they have only so much time to give to discretionary reading. As a result they find themselves having to choose between reading a book they are interested in their own language for the knowledge it contains--and struggling along with a book in another language just for the sake of practice.)

Of course, all this does not in itself mean that Americans as a whole might not be doing better--but it does at least call into question the tone of accusation and moralizing that American social critics tend to assume (and the sneering of a good many foreign observers) when discussing American monolingualism.

Why James Bond's Audience is so Middle-Aged

As the latest Bond movie finally has its day at the box office, and the data about the viewers is piling up, one thing that has attracted a good deal of notice has been the age of the audience--the Hollywood Reporter noting that some 57 percent were 35 or older, and 37 percent 45 or older.

Basically, Bond fans are, compared with the fan bases for other action franchises, middle-aged-to-old. Why is that?

I can think of at least three factors.

1. Older viewers got hooked on the Bond series back when it had a genuine claim to novelty--the first of the really high-concept action-adventure franchises--and little competition (nothing to compare with it until Star Wars, really, with real competitors few in number even into the '80s). By contrast younger viewers had numerous franchises clamoring for their attention, and effectively splitting it. (Indeed, they have their choice not just of action franchises but specifically spy-fi franchises, with the Fast and Furious film series, in its incarnation over the past decade, apparently their preferred flavor.)

2. Nostalgia has been a powerful factor in sustaining interest in the Bond films--but we are increasingly remote from that moment. People who grew up in the '80s and '90s might still remember being touched by the nostalgia for the '60s in which jet-setting Playboy lifestyle spymania figured so prominently (hence Austin Powers), but someone who grew up in the '00s would likely be left scratching their head looking at all that. The pull is simply not there for them. And that matters all the more given the aforementioned competition, but also a third factor, namely that

3. The newer Bond films--the films younger viewers are most likely to know, and to judge the franchise by--basically abandoned what was distinctive about the series (such as would let it stand out from the intense competition), and some would say, also what was fun about it. I recall Bosley Crowther's review of Goldfinger in the New York Times where he characterized Bond as "a great vicarious image for all the panting Walter Mittys in the world." I doubt anyone would say this of the Craig-era Bond--least of all in that incarnation's first and defining film, Casino Royale. The associations people have of Bond from watching the older films may keep them watching--but again, those associations are just not there for the younger crowd, which finds itself treated instead to gleeful stomping on the fantasy that Crowther's generation so enjoyed, by no means the crowd-pleaser that some seem to think it is.

And so they went to see Venom: Let There Be Carnage instead.

Hollywood Takes the Chinese Market For Granted--to its Cost

As even a glance at the box office data from China indicates the Chinese film industry is a powerful competitor for its vast domestic audience. Consider the following numbers:

* Since 2016, in spite of the difficulties for the market over the past two years, nine Chinese-made movies have broken the half billion dollar barrier.

* In the last "normal" year for moviegoing, 2019, 24 movies broke the $100 million barrier at the Chinese box office, of which 15 were Chinese productions. Of the top 10 earners (all of which broke the $200 million barrier), 7 were Chinese productions, while 5 Chinese-made movies took in over $300 million and two broke the half billion dollar barrier, with the disaster film The Wandering Earth making $690 million and the superhero movie Ne Zha taking an astonishing $703 million.

* Wolf Warrior 2, to date the highest-grossing Chinese film, took in $854 million back in 2017--outdoing the much-crowed about global gross of the first Wonder Woman. Translating to some $945 million in 2021 dollars, this falls just short of the billion dollar mark. Think about that--a billion dollars taken in by one movie in a single country.

As all this shows the Chinese market is big enough to support the making of big budget films just for Chinese audiences, without much concern for foreign viewership--with this extending all the way to first-rank blockbusters like the $200 million The Battle at Lake Changjin, which has made almost four times that figure at the Chinese box office in a mere three weeks. And of course, Chinese filmmakers have even less difficulty making lower-cost comedies and dramas suiting local taste.

Of course, much is made of Chinese censorship, which is real enough, and perhaps getting tighter (with three Marvel movies frozen out of the market this year, perhaps costing them the proceeds from hundreds of millions in ticket sales). Still, contrary to what the entertainment press claims it is far from the whole story. Even without censorship being at issue Hollywood has shown itself consistently clueless about what will or will not be a winner with Chinese audiences, or international audiences generally--perhaps as a result of America's culture these days making it less able to connect with foreign audiences like China's. The slogan "Go woke, go broke" represents the grinding of an ideological axe--but the fact remains that there is no reason for foreign audiences to care about an extremely particularist identity politics, with even the successes showing this. Black Panther, for example, was a strong earner overseas, picking up $600 million (and just $105 million in China). Yet while Black Panther was #1 in the U.S. that year, it was far outdone that year by Avengers: Infinity War, taking in close to $1.4 billion ($360 million of that in China). Simply put, Black Panther was received as another Marvel superhero film, and not the major cultural moment it was made out to be in America at the time of its release (with the result that, in China certainly, Infinity War outgrossed Black Panther by a factor of over three).

And of course what went for even the hits went that much more for the disappointments, with Crazy Rich Asians exemplary. The press for the film was extremely heavy on the identity politics angle--but it was far from clear why such American concerns would make the movie a blockbuster elsewhere, and indeed they did not. (Indeed, in a China still nominally Communist, where the social divide is enormous and people less prone to pretend obliviousness to it than in America, a spectacle of the vulgarity and snobbery of the ultra-rich was likely not seen as something to revel in.) Indeed, even when aspiring to be "woke" it showed itself to have significant blind spots. In America Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was celebrated as the first Marvel movie with an Asian lead, while conveniently overlooking the story's evocation of the vicious Yellow Peril racism that produced Fu-Manchu (an oversight the more appalling at a time of increasing anti-Asian racism, and Sinophobic fearmongering); and in casting actors who did not meet Chinese ideals of physical attractiveness, seen by many Chinese filmgoers not as a rejection of "racist" standards of appearance, but rather a Western stereotyping of Asian appearance received as a racist insult. Given what has happened with films like last year's Monster Hunter (the backers of which had bet big on the Chinese market)--after the movie's release--this could have cost the movie dearly even if it had its crack at the theaters.

Similarly reflecting that self-absorption is the place given to nostalgia in making movies for mass consumption, with again, the attempt to sell Star Wars exemplary. When Disney relaunched Star Wars Americans went to see it because they had seen Star Wars movies before, and remembered their earlier experiences in particular fondly--but this was not the case in China, which was in a very different place in 1977. And unsurprisingly the sales pitch fell flat--just as it was soon to do everywhere else, with Episode IX taking in about half of what Episode VII did, and Disney shelving its once Marvel-like plans for a mega-franchise sending two or three big Star Wars movies our every year. Now Star Wars is something people see on TV--and it remains to be seen when, and even if, Star Wars will be a big screen property again.

Altogether in this moment when Hollywood is ever more reliant on the global market it has become more national, even provincial--a fact on which few seem to care to linger these days. The question, however, is what Hollywood will do about it. Will it stop worrying about Chinese and foreign markets so much and focus on appealing to easier markets--or will it attempt to become more cosmopolitan, the better to secure as big a cut of the tickets bought by the planet's moviegoers as possible? The latter seems to me a far more likely outcome than the former--but first it would have to admit that it is having a problem, and at least to go by the tenor of the press that moment has not yet arrived.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Facing Hard Times is Hollywood Going to Rein in its Film Budgets?

Recent decades have seen film production budgets explode--and with them promotional budgets as well, which have, if anything, grown faster. (Previously a fraction of what it cost to make a movie, promotional budgets are now comparable to the production budgets which swelled in size so much.)

What led to those burgeoning costs? There is, of course, Hollywood's famously wastefulness with money, from the pre-production process forward. There is the ever greater reliance on intellectual properties, which come with big bills (not least, in legal fees). There is the explosion of the compensation for people bringing Big Names to a project. (All of this, you will notice, has nothing to do with the actual film production process.) And there is the fact that Hollywood has become so reliant on lavishly staged action films.

In considering the expense those projects involved one has to consider that Hollywood might lay out only a small fraction of the advertised budget. The figures may be overstated for tax purposes, for example, or to diminish the portion of the profit to be shared by others to whom the studio may have commitments. (Remember how Forrest Gump, after almost $700 million banked, had officially not yet turned a profit?) And of course, there is the place of product placement, and government subsidy (with Heineken paying $45 million for Bond to drink its beer in Skyfall, and Mexican officials offering a $20 million tax credit for the makers of Spectre to shoot the pre-credits scene the way they wanted). And while there is a tendency to emphasize the highly publicized theatrical earnings, much of the money comes from less publicized revenue streams, like video, TV rights and merchandising (which easily turn flops into profitable ventures).

Still, it is hard to picture the blockbusters we now take for granted being made without the expectation of billion dollar grosses. And the pandemic has seen such grosses become harder to earn, when they were already getting tougher to score in an age of ever-multiplying entertainment options and intensifying media noise (hence those aggressive promotional budgets). While I have certainly underestimated how long the studios can keep selling superhero movies, audience fatigue with the same themes, the same franchises, seems bound to set in eventually. Meanwhile the Chinese market on which Hollywood has set such hopes has proven a harder one than is generally admitted with movies like Crazy Rich Asians, the live-action Mulan and the latest installments of the Star Wars failing to take; with rising great power tensions perhaps forcing American filmmakers to be more cautious; with the last two entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which usually does pretty well in China, failing to even get into Chinese theaters (likely because of such politics), potentially costing each of those productions hundreds of millions of badly needed dollars. (Pre-pandemic Black Widow and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings would each have had a good shot at the billion dollar club. As it is the two combined have not even pulled in $800 million so far, which can hardly be making Disney happy--any more than the sputtering out of their once grand ambitions with Star Wars have.)

One possible response is Hollywood's spending its money more carefully. I am not convinced it can become much less wasteful, because its practice is so entrenched, but it may be that it will give us shorter running times and tone down the overfamiliar bombast in its action movies--while, perhaps, opening the door at least a little wider to creativity in its handling of the form, giving us something at least a little fresher than the stultifying sameness of recent years. Still, modest as such modifications sound I find myself thinking they are far beyond the pack which humiliates itself so thoroughly when its reality gets a little media exposure--with their inability and unwillingness to adapt the greater because there is, in the press as elsewhere, never a shortage of sycophants telling them they are all wonderful geniuses and that everything is just fine, the same as they do with the powerful in every area of life.

Friday, October 8, 2021

Superhero Films, James Bond and the Avoidance of Franchise Fatigue

As those who have followed the scene are well aware the boom in superhero films is about two decades old, certainly if one goes by the then-surprising success of Bryan Singer's first X-Men film in the summer of 2000. Naturally there has been considerable speculation about whether the audience is getting tired of superheroes--on which I have been getting my two cents for at least a decade now, with a piece by Brandon Katz in the Observer getting me thinking about it again, the more in as it cited former vice chairman of the motion picture group at Paramount Pictures Barr London's remark that "Every franchise with the exception of James Bond gets people tired."

The fact that almost six decades later the latest Bond movie looks like a hit--and indeed, a hit to which some are looking as at the very least a sign of the salvation of the whole industry--would seem to confirm London's assessment of the situation. Still, I would argue that Bond has been no exception to the pattern--that a glance at his long history shows that, yes, it, too, has experienced fatigue over the years.

The enthusiasm for the franchise may be said to have peaked with Thunderball, with "Bondmania" starting to pass not too long after. You Only Live Twice cost more and, if still a huge hit by any measure, took in a lot less money. On Her Majesty's Secret Service was a comparative letdown, after which The Man with the Golden Gun distinctly underperformed--while the increasing tendency to parody was, if not necessarily a barrier to decent earnings, not looked on happily by all, and many quick to declare the series weary, and the fans if not the mass market weary with it, though that too followed. The '80s were a time of declining grosses in an increasingly crowded market, with A View to a Kill seen as at the least an artistic low point (to say nothing of uncompetitive with the likes of Rambo that same summer), while Licence to Kill proved a particular disappointment in the U.S., contributing to the fact that there was not another Bond film in theaters for six and a half long years.

All of this was in spite of the fact that big-budget action movies were comparatively few until the '80s (by which time the franchise really was showing signs of fatigue), and that flamboyantly high-living, globetrotting spy-fi did not even begin to become a Hollywood staple for another decade after that (with True Lies, Mission: Impossible, etc.). It was also in spite of the fact that the series' runners went to enormous lengths to keep audiences, shamelessly seizing on any and every fashionable trend, no matter how questionable (Blaxploitation, Star Wars), while constantly shifting tone and feel (more or less serious, more or less nostalgic or novel), and that the conditions were such that it was able to get away with this strategy (at least so far as the general audience was concerned) because, again, the action movie market was not so brutally competitive as it has since become.

In short, the makers of the Bond movies had things comparatively easy for most of the franchise's history, while more recently it has probably helped that Hollywood puts out a good deal less spy-fi than it does superhero films, and that the output of Bond films has been limited. (Since 1989 we have had a grand total of only nine Bond films, and since 2002 just five of them--one every four years, on average.)

The superhero film has no such advantage today--and I would argue that this is less because of anything really special about it than the fact that the makers of the more successful such movies have gone to such lengths to fight off fatigue. There is the way in which Marvel got audiences wrapped up in a multimedia "Cinematic Universe." There has been the late shift to edgier, antiheroic, often R-rated material (with Logan and Venom and above all Deadpool). And there has been the leveraging of cultural politics (with Wonder Woman, with Black Panther, with Captain Marvel). I myself have not been particularly impressed with the results as anything but "more of the same," really, while not everyone found their tweaks to the familiar to their liking, myself included. (I found Deadpool's metafictional aspects and flippancy and edgelordism all awfully stale stuff, while Wonder Woman was, for all its woke pretensions, awfully conventional and nationalistic in its treatment of World War I, among other things, etc..) But they did get people into theaters--for a while. The approach may still be working, to go by the earnings of Black Widow and Shang-Chi and Venom 2 (so far), perhaps helped by the long stretch in which people have been going to theaters less and so many big movies of the type have had their releases bumped, audiences are feeling less saturated, less worn out, than they would have felt at the same point had things proceeded normally. Still, I suspect that before much longer the industry will have to think up something else if it is to keep the boom from going bust.

Revisiting Umberto Eco's "The Myth of the Superhero"

The idea of the hero is, I suppose, found in just about every culture in one form or another, and with it superheroes in the broad sense of people whose abilities and achievements were in some way more than merely human. Yet the idea of the superhero as we know it, the DC/Marvel Comics-type superhero--the superhero with a colorful public persona apart from their private identity, existent not in some mythic, settled past but as a figure whose adventures are ongoing in the present day, etc.--is more distinctly American (if, in a global age in which American pop culture is received everywhere, enjoyed everywhere, as the box office receipts demonstrate).

In considering that possibility I find myself thinking of Umberto Eco's essay "The Myth of Superman." The piece offers a great many ideas on the subject, some of which seem to me more plausible, others less so. Perhaps the most significant is his idea that the superhero is a response to the experience people have in modern times of being powerless, and feeling that they are mediocre, and hoping that somehow they will transcend their ordinary human limitations to redeem that.

Of course, individual powerlessness, and the sense of being a mediocrity, are unpleasant features of human social life generally for the vast majority of people, given the scale and complexity of that life, the constraints on us and the demands on us, the standards by which we judge ourselves in an age of mass media, and there is nothing uniquely American about them. But all the same I wonder if the pain of them is felt as severely everywhere--if being powerless and "mediocre" is experienced as so much of a humiliating defeat as in a society which makes so much of the rhetoric of freedom and choice and empowerment, which incessantly tells its members that they and no one else are in control of their lives; as in a society so given to the worship of the powerful individual, and enthralled with their exercise of their power for even the stupidest and most selfish ends; as in a society which so fervently sings the ideal of meritocracy, and its claim to actually living by it; as in a society where life is lived on "winner take all" terms; and in light of all of the foregoing, as in a society where the "losers," left with that much less than they otherwise might be, are also told every moment of every day that they have absolutely no one to blame but themselves for their unhappiness.

I wonder, too, if the response to that unhappiness with fantasies of somehow going from "zero to hero," from powerless mediocrity to super-empowered superlativeness, is so great in a society where the value system is less vehement about this particular brand of "loser-humiliating" individualism; where people are less inclined to coping, or failing to cope, with their frustrations and miseries in intensely private ways.

And I wonder if it is not relevant that all this took off as it did in recent decades, in a neoliberal, neoconservative era where those deemed losers are told to not dream of other worlds.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

The Reading We Don't Do in School

I have previously had occasion to mention on this blog my reading Graham Greene's brief but valuable essay about "our literary friends"--by which Greene meant those writers who may not "do us credit" in the eyes of the world but whom we truly enjoyed reading when we were young.

Considering the eternal debate about whether or not literacy is declining, it seems to me that the fact that fewer young people have such friends is probably part of the problem. We talk a great deal about how the schools may be failing in their educational mission (in part because their role is the more obvious, in part because teacher-bashing and school-bashing serves the agenda of the "privatize everything" crowd), but overlook how the schools never carried the whole burden. If people on average read better in the past than they do now, this was at least partly because they did more free reading, and likely got more than is appreciated out of material that, to the eyes of the skeptical middlebrow, looked unpromising.

Certainly looking back I think reading such fiction helped me in that way. My reading, admittedly, was not wholly unvaried, but as you may recall John le Carré was way too "literary" for me. (Indeed, even Ian Fleming was too literary for me in those days.) Rather what I went for were the jet-setting shoot 'em up spy novels, the military techno-thrillers, the big summertime blockbusters on paper generally. I inclined, in particular, to Robert Ludlum, Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy (and Larry Bond, and Dale Brown, and Eric Van Lustbader, etcetera, etcetera).

Were the books those authors produced "great literature?" No, not by the standards of "the ancients," or the Medievals, or Franco-Jamesian realism, or Zolaesque naturalism, or Modernism or postmodernism or any other "high cultural" standard with which I am familiar. Nevertheless, taking up those books I was not just practicing my reading comprehension skills, but doing so on material that still had me coping with long, information-heavy, sometimes complexly and intricately structured and detailed narratives (lots of subplots, lots of narrative threads, lots of viewpoint characters). Material that, because of its subject matter, made demands on, and sometimes expanded, my vocabulary and my general knowledge. Material that, while not doing so in the more artistically striking ways, or for the sake of exploring important or understanding of lived life, demanded close attention, and patience, and a readiness to puzzle things out here and there (if only for the sake of following what was going on in some action sequence).

I might add that as one who not only enjoyed reading such fiction but was already aspiring to write it I was more attentive to the books than most. Where the conventionally "dutiful" student of creative writing spends their time trying to write "beautiful" sentences, I went so far as to outline many of these books in detail, trying to work out how one development led to the next, how one scene led to the next; how one fleshed out a narrative so that what might have been boiled down into a summary of a few pages was a whole book; how they distinguished between what was worth conveying and not worth conveying to the reader, and how best it might be conveyed so that the reader would be able to follow along, and preferably, enthusiastic about doing so.

Soon enough my interests as reader and writer changed, and I spent less time with those friends than I did before. But looking back I can see that it was a training nonetheless, a broader one than even that to which I was aspiring as a would-be novelist.

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