Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Review: Wizardry & Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy, by Michael Moorcock

Austin, TX: MonkeyBrain, Inc., 2004, pp. 206.

I first encountered Michael Moorcock's classic study of epic fantasy many years ago, when I had only a faint idea that he is a Big Name in speculative fiction (picked up mainly from my readings in Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove's Trillion Year Spree), and not much idea as to why. I'd tried to read some of his Jerry Cornelius stories, which didn't work for me. (I wasn't a fan of the cut-up technique, and still am not.) At the same time, I'd read relatively little fantasy, and had some hope the book would help me get a handle on the bigger picture. I didn't find it very useful to that end, and didn't do much more than skim it before setting it aside.

The fact that I didn't find the book of much interest then doesn't say anything about its worth, but it does say a great deal about its conception, as I realized when rereading it later on. It was never intended as an introduction to the genre, the kind of thing someone in a hurry would read to get a clear image of the field. Moorcock does not offer a history of the genre, or a survey, though there is plenty of history, and quite a bit of breadth in the examination. Nor is the book unified by an overarching argument or concern. Instead Moorcock is sounding off on a selection of themes in a collection of chapter-long essays covering, respectively, the genre's origins (chapter one); the use of landscape in epic fantasy fiction (chapter two); the depiction of heroes and heroines (chapter three); the presence of wit and humor, and the lack thereof (chapter four); the escapist aspect of much of the genre, as well as the political implications of this kind of writing (chapter five, which is essentially a reprint of his essay "Epic Pooh," also the chapter's title); and finally, the evolution of the genre's expressions across the media spectrum (chapter six, "Excursions and Developments").

As might be expected, the breadth and depth of Moorcock's reading and range of reference is staggering. While enriching these discussions, it can also be a bit of an obstacle after the first chapter, since he makes little effort to meet a less prolific reader halfway in the later parts of the discussion. As China Mieville acknowledges in the introduction to the new edition,
Reading Michael Moorcock's history of literary fantasy is like walking an immense, brilliantly stocked library, through which you don't know the way, following a librarian who walks briskly, nodding and pointing at various books as he goes.
"Very interesting that one," he says, and "Ah, some good things in there," and you're desperate to stop and examine the volumes . . . but your custodian walks too quickly, and you can only stare back at them as you run to keep up (11).
The result is that Wizardry & Wild Romance is best approached as a polemic (or a collection of polemics) addressed by one expert to other experts. It is never impenetrable in the way that academic literary criticism so often can be--Moorcock's writing is far too lucid for that--but as Mieville notes, the fleetness with which it moves among a great many items can be frustrating.

Readers should also keep in mind that this study was first drafted in the 1970s, and even the latest edition strongly reflects that. Despite some revisions to the main text, there are no references to any fantasy fiction actually written after 1985. (A reader hoping to see something about Robert Jordan or J.K. Rowling, for instance, will come away disappointed.) At the same time, many of the authors he references are relatively obscure now. (In fact, I had never heard of most of those writers he praises most until I picked up this book.) Additionally, the moment colors his outlook in significant ways. As historian Nick Tiratsoo notes, this was a period of hysteria in Britain about the "respectable classes losing control," with much hyperbole about labor militancy, uppity young people with "common accents," and other sorts of things I first gleaned in reruns of Are You Being Served? and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin a very long time ago--and Moorcock's opposition to that kind of reactionary thinking is strongly present, be it in his suspicion of rural nostalgia and escapism, or other sorts of "comfort food for the comfortable."1 (Indeed, he can be particularly harsh regarding the impulses and attitudes he sees under the surface of the wishes the genre so often speaks to--especially those for a "simpler" world in which a young man armed with gritty determination and cold steel can win himself an empire, or our heroes venture off to kill villains we are not even meant to try and understand in order to restore an "idyllic" status quo.)

Still, even at its most dated and partisan the book succeeds in both entertaining and informing. Wizardry offers plenty of bits of fascinating background. It points the reader to a great many authors, many of whom they would be unlikely to encounter elsewhere, and Moorcock's eye for their strengths and weaknesses, quirks and accomplishments, is uncommonly sharp. The book is also packed with insights well worth reading even three decades on, from his views on the transient appeal of so many particular works of fantastic literature, to the role a well-crafted landscape can play, to the underappreciation and frequent misunderstanding of comedy's place in the genre. (Even the political commentary is still relevant, given that the conservative resurgence of the 1970s pretty much set the world on the political course it has followed these last several decades.)

Even when I didn't agree with the author's argument, or his feeling--after all these years I'm still more sympathetic to escapism and comfort food than he is, rather less enthusiastic about Modernist and Postmodernist approaches to literature, and think what people tend to call "grown-up" fiction is overrated, to name but a few points--I always understood the reasoning behind them. Indeed, it all made me wish Moorcock had penned a proper follow-up. Naturally, anyone with a serious intellectual curiosity about the genre, or simply looking to broaden their sense of what epic fantasy is and can be, should make a place for it in their reading list--though those brand new to the field might put off getting to it until they've acquired more familiarity with the subject.

1. Interestingly, Tiratsoo noted that those dismayed by the decade's trends frequently expressed those feelings in a nostalgia for the eighteenth century; imaginative flight to romanticized, pre-industrial, rural spaces; and less pleasantly, "retribution," violent and otherwise--with obvious implications for the ways in which fantasy fiction was being received. Nick Taratsoo, "'You've Never Had It So Bad': Britain in the 1970s." In Taratsoo, ed., From Blitz to Blair: A New History of Britain Since 1939 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997), pp. 187-188. Those looking for a bit of quick background about both the genuine difficulties and overblown alarmism of the period can check out this article from the September 30, 1974 issue of Time magazine, melodramatically titled "Will Democracy Survive?"

Friday, January 7, 2011

"Was 2010 the Worst Year for Movies Ever?"

Continuing in the vein of "2010 in review," Moviefone's Gary Susman offers his take on the year's films, and it is far from celebratory. Of course, measured in dollars and cents, this wasn't a bad year at all for Hollywood, which took in over $10 billion in the North American market. Still, the figures reflect rising ticket prices and the high take of 2009's Avatar, which actually pulled in most of its money in the early months of 2010. This compensated for a rather long string of disappointments. They were especially concentrated (and commented upon) in the early part of the summer season, but after that the flops never stopped coming.

Looking for an explanation, Susman points to the plethora of reboots, remakes and sequels; "warmed-over" '80s nostalgia; stalled star vehicles; failed new franchises; and the rush after 3-D movie experiences.

Of course, except for 3-D, none of this may seem to represent a significant change from the norm in recent decades. Stars have never been bulletproof, just about always enduring flops as well as appearing in hits, and at any rate, most of the talk about actors' bankability confuses correlation with causation. Nor is the crashing and burning of a would-be franchise a new development; that problem too would seem to be as old as the idea of a film series. Indeed, these points hardly seem to be worth discussing. Besides, reboots, remakes, sequels, prequels and the like have been mainstays of the box office ever since there was a box office. (In 1983, for instance, eight of the top twenty movies fell into this category.1) And before warmed-over '80s nostalgia, there was warmed-over '50s, '60s and '70s nostalgia. (Remember the #1 hit of 1985, Back to the Future, and the career trajectory of Oliver Stone in that decade? The big-screen spin-offs of shows like The Fugitive, The Flintstones and Mission: Impossible, the return of John Travolta and Pam Grier to starring roles, the comeback of the martial arts movie in the '90s?)

Still, an objective look at the numbers does show an increased propensity for retreads through the last decade. In the 1980s and 1990s, the average was closer to three to four of the top twenty grossers in a given year (3.9 for the years 1980-1989 and 3.7 for 1990-1999, respectively). From 2000 to 2009 the average was twice that high, seven to eight (7.5) of each year's top twenty commonly falling into that category. By my count, six of the top ten and nine of the top twenty movies of 2010 are retreads (while the category accounts for at least twenty-one out of the top one hundred).2

Additionally, as heavily as the 1990s mined the 1970s, the last few years may have worked the '80s still more aggressively, as the propensity for retreads suggests. (Where Travolta made his comeback in new movies with little relation to his earlier screen image, Stallone paved the way for his by reviving his '80s-era franchises-Rocky and Rambo-with himself in the starring role, and finally The Expendables, an "homage" to exactly the kind of action movie Rambo epitomized. And certainly the '90s had no equivalent to the success of The Transformers franchise.)

In short, while these approaches are far from now, Hollywood has relied on them even more heavily than before.

That said, after a string of flops like this year had, it's traditional for observers to predict big changes in how Hollywood will do things-changes that will see the Suits concede creative freedom to the Artists-and Susman is true to that tradition. Still, the pipeline movies must pass through is a long one, and even if the system were to do a one hundred and eighty degree turn today in its green-lighting of new projects, it would be 2013 before a full year's slate of movies might look substantially different. Besides, the truth is that, with inflated expectations the norm (even a $400 million global gross is "low" enough to stall or even kill a franchise), disappointment is a way of life, and it takes more than a few bumps in the road to shift the characteristic operational style of the bloated, bureaucratized studios. The causes of the preoccupation with retreads, spin-offs and the like have very deep roots, not least in
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.
It would also be a very great mistake to underrate the intrinsic appeal of "high concept" for a company run the way the studios are, or of the added control over the creative process that comes with assigning someone to work on a studio-owned IP, compared with the challenges involved in dealing with a new artist bearing a new concept. Likewise, it would be a mistake to overlook Hollywood's global orientation, which helps drive its present tendencies. The mid-budget dramas and comedies which Susman sees renewed studio interest in tend not to travel so well abroad as the glossy, spectacle-heavy blockbusters that remain Hollywood's strength, and the foreign grosses on those make a lot of difference. (Even a mediocre performer like Prince of Persia nearly quadruples its income with the help of those receipts, bumping its $90 million take in the U.S. to a $335 million global total--which leaves a sequel highly unlikely, but is certainly enough to make the nine figures laid out for the budget tolerable, especially when DVD sales, broadcast rights and the like are added in later. By contrast, the ballyhooed The Social Network did little more than match its domestic earnings.)

My guess is that the Suits are far more likely to dig in their heels and push the product they are most comfortable with all the harder, the critics be damned. Accordingly, it seems far more likely to me that there will be a convergence between (somewhat) chastened expectations and some lucky strike that will renew Hollywood's always incredible self-satisfaction . . . until the next run of disappointments, the inevitable talk of the studios changing their way and the repetition of the whole stupid pattern all over again.

In short, if there's going to be change, it will probably be in the direction of still more retreads. Bet on more nostalgia, too, though my guess is that the passion for the '80s will give way to one for the '90s any year now.

Remembering the '90s far better than I do the '80s, I'm already aghast at the thought.

1. In 1983, Return of the Jedi was #1, the Bond movies Octopussy #6 and Never Say Never Again #14, the Dirty Harry movie Sudden Impact #7, the Saturday Night Fever sequel Staying Alive #8, Superman III #12, Jaws 3-D #15, the remade Scarface # 16, and Psycho II #20. The data used in this article all comes from the yearly listings of the Box Office Mojo web site.
2. The count goes even higher if one include in this count the remakes of films made overseas like Edge of Darkness, Death at a Funeral and Dinner for Schmucks, as well as the new versions of previously filmed stories like Alice in Wonderland and Robin Hood.

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