My latest for Splice Today involves my epiphany about formal schooling after hearing so many professional educators fret about how much their students are forgetting during the break between when schools stopped classroom instruction because of the COVID-19 pandemic and when schools might reopen in the fall: Formal schooling is largely a waste of time and resources.
Friday, May 15, 2020
Monday, March 09, 2020
In a piece originally written for the late Rebeller, I examine Richard Stanley's H.P. Lovecraft adaptation Color Out of Space and how both Stanley and Lovecraft deal with fear of the outsider:
The irony of H.P. Lovecraft's fiction is not that it works in spite of his well-documented racism; it’s that it works because of it.
While Lovecraft's prejudices against black people and foreigners sometimes enter his works directly (see “The Rats in the Walls” and “The Horror at Red Hook”), they usually manifest in a more generic and universal way: a fear of a mysterious and existentially threatening other. This is what makes Lovecraft's works, especially his later works that formed what became known as the “Cthulhu mythos,” more palatable and more enduring. Fear and loathing of particular groups may be learned and depend on time and place, but fear of “the other” in a general sense is universal, and possibly at least partly instinctual. Like it or not, humans are essentially tribal, and a lot of human progress has depended on broadening our definition of who belongs to the tribe.
The trick today in adapting Lovecraft, especially for the movie screen, is to keep Lovecraft's fear of the other without keeping Lovecraft's particular targets.
Director Richard Stanley (Hardware, Dust Devil) meets the challenge with Color Out of Space, his first narrative feature since his close encounter with 1996's cursed production The Island of Dr. Moreau and its temperamental stars, Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando.
Apart from dispensing with the British “u” of Lovecraft's original spelling, Stanley moves the setting to the present day. He also gives us something Lovecraft never would: an African American narrator played by British actor Elliot Knight as a hydrologist whose work takes him into the wild woods west of Lovecraft's witch-haunted Arkham, Mass.
In interviews, Stanley has said casting Knight is one way of confronting Lovecraft's racism head-on, but it does so unobtrusively. It's simply not a factor in the story, which is playing on a different level. It's a kind of fan service, where those of us in the know about Lovecraft's more unsavory traits can sit back and laugh at the joke Stanley has played on him.
It's ironic, then, that Stanley's Color Out of Space is more in the spirit of Lovecraft than most other Lovecraft-inspired movies, which get by with name-dropping Lovecraftian creations like Cthulhu, Dagon or Yog-Sothoth. (Fear not. Stanley drops a few names, too.) As fun as Stuart Gordon's Lovecraft movies are, for example, only 2001's Dagon and his 2005 Masters of Horror episode “Dreams in the Witch-House” really feel like Lovecraft.
Knight's Ward Phillips is surveying for a new reservoir, which brings him to the Gardner farm where Nathan Gardner (Nicolas Cage) and his family have traded life in the city for the tranquility of raising alpacas in the sticks. Wife Theresa (Joely Richardson) is a stock trader recovering from cancer surgery and connected to her clients by dodgy satellite internet. Daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur) is a practicing Wicca casting spells that fail to transport her back to civilization. Eldest child Benny (Brendan Meyer) spends his days getting high with the neighborhood squatter, Ezra, played by stoner specialist Tommy Chong. And Julian Hilliard of Netflix's The Haunting of Hill House plays youngest sibling Jack.
From the start, this is a family under stress and just one crisis away from full dysfunction. The crisis arrives as a large glowing meteorite that crashes in the Gardners' front yard.
Within days, the meteorite has disappeared, but its unearthly color remains. Indescribable colors, like non-Euclidean geometry, may sound great in print, but they don't translate to the screen. Stanley settles on neon lavender. Anyway, it gets into the soil, into the plants and into the water that the Gardners and their alpacas drink.
From there, the color's malignancy proceeds in true Lovecraftian style, bringing madness, body horror, transformations, and death, all of which provide another chance for Cage, fresh off Mandy from the same producers, to go Full Nicolas Cage. If that's what you're here for, you will not be disappointed.
Stanley and co-screenwriter Scarlett Amaris drop hints of contemporary relevance — glimpses of pollution and climate change we're probably meant to take as akin to the color — but in the end the color is a different threat entirely. As Lovecraft would insist, human activity is trivial compared to the threats posed by a universe indifferent to human existence.
Medical science can fight Theresa's cancer, and Ezra's boondocks shanty can escape the prying eyes of the surveillance state and surveillance capitalism, but both are powerless against the color.
And what a color is it. Everything is beautifully shot by Steve Annis, whose previous work is in music videos. Color Out of Space is a bold standout in a genre that's come to be dominated by low lighting and monochrome.
For Lovecraft, the “colour of space” might have been a stand-in for a flood if immigrants he saw entering every aspect of society and corrupting it, but its power lies in that it could be any invader. Stanley's own spin on the formula is to make the Gardners invaders, too. Unlike the family of Lovecraft's story, Stanley's are transplants just as the color is.
Nathan has a Baby Boomer infatuation with getting away from the rat race, but his way of going about it is to embrace the latest fad, alpaca ranching: Alpacas are “the animal of the future,” he tells his children. Taking over a house that used to belong to his estranged father, Nathan is the only Gardner who wants to be there. The rest would just as soon have stayed in the city, but they're all a disruptive influence in the woods west of Arkham, just like the color is.
Particular fears may change, but the instinct remains.
Franklin Harris is an editor at The Decatur Daily in Decatur, Ala.
Thursday, August 09, 2018
We don’t need another hero: Nearly 25 years later, Alan Moore’s Watchmen remains a stirring warning against absolute power
NOTE: I wrote this, according to the time stamp on the file, back in 2009. It was published by a libertarian student organization called Young Americans for Liberty. It doesn't seem to be otherwise webbed anymore, so here it is again:
You can tell a work of fiction is influential when other writers are still grappling with its implications nearly a quarter of a century later — usually with limited success.
Since its publication in the mid-1980s, Watchmen has been the poster child for pop art that transcends its origins. Having garnered accolades usually reserved for highbrow literary fiction, Watchmen is the reason we now refer to comic books as graphic novels. It birthed countless newspaper stories with unfortunate headlines like “Bam! Pow! Comic books aren’t just for kids anymore.” It changed the aesthetics of superhero comics, both for better and for worse. And this year, of course, it inspired a major motion picture that, if nothing else, perplexed audiences expecting the next The Dark Knight or Iron Man.
It is little surprise, then, that libertarians have latched onto Watchmen, claiming it, along with the works of Ayn Rand and Robert Heinlein, and the 1960s cult-favorite television series The Prisoner, as part of libertarianism’s artistic canon.
The graphic novel, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, is set in an alternate 1985, in which the existence of superheroes has turned the United States into a virtual dictatorship. President Richard Nixon, having engineered the repeal of the 22nd Amendment, is in his fifth term, and corruption and chaos are rampant. As gangs terrorize the streets, the U.S. and the Soviet Union plunge toward seemingly inevitable nuclear annihilation.
The main point of divergence between our 1985, which turned out comparatively well, and the 1985 of Watchmen is the existence of Dr. Manhattan, the one costumed hero in Watchmen who possesses superhuman abilities. With Dr. Manhattan’s help, the U.S. wins the Vietnam War, a victory that Nixon uses to become all but president for life. The Soviets, meanwhile, regard Dr. Manhattan as such a threat that they’re willing to risk nuclear war to avoid U.S. domination. In Watchmen, the old adage “Better dead than Red” might as well be “Better Armageddon than American.”
Dr. Manhattan, in short, changes everything. As one character in the graphic novel observes, “It is as if — with a real live Deity on their side — our leaders have become intoxicated with a heady draught of Omnipotence-by-Association, without realizing just how his very existence has deformed the lives of every living creature on the face of this planet.”
Dr. Manhattan is the literal embodiment of amoral power. Following the accident that gives him his superhuman abilities, Dr. Manhattan gradually becomes more and more removed from his humanity. Time, for him, has no real meaning because he can see past, present, and future simultaneously. As a result, death has no meaning for him, either. As such, he is the perfect tool for the politicians who would seek to exploit him.
It’s also no surprise that the U.S. government in Watchmen maintains a monopoly on superheroes. A law bans costumed adventurers except for those who work for the state, namely Dr. Manhattan and the equally but more aggressively amoral Comedian. The only masked crimefighter working, illegally, outside of the system is Rorschach.
Of the characters in Watchmen, Rorschach comes closest to being a real libertarian, although Moore’s portrait of libertarianism isn’t exactly flattering. Rorschach is brutal, smelly, and, most importantly, psychotic. Moore bases him on The Question and Mr. A, two characters created by Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko, an adherent of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy. Despite his antiauthoritarianism, Moore is still a man of the political left, and his Rorschach is a not-at-all-subtle critique of Ditko’s “right-wing” libertarianism.
Libertarians, however, tend to focus on the positive character traits hidden beneath Rorschach’s psychosis. Rorschach believes in truth and justice, and he is uncompromising in his pursuit of them, which is why he continues to work outside of the government even after the government criminalizes costumed vigilantism. He is, whether Moore likes it or not, the moral center of Watchmen, and readers — not just libertarians — gravitate toward him. Rorschach remains the book’s most popular character. Rorschach may be insane, but at least he sticks to his principles, even in the face of death.
Even as Moore’s Rorschach was capturing readers’ imaginations, Frank Miller’s daring interpretation of an old mainstay was doing the same, and for the same reasons.
Published at about the same time as Watchmen, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns covers many of the same themes and is no less influential. It casts a middle-aged Batman in the Rorschach role of uncompromising individualist and Superman in the Dr. Manhattan role of government stooge. Yet despite the shared dark tone of both works, the similarities between Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns end there. Moore’s only solution to the problem of Dr. Manhattan is for Dr. Manhattan to leave Earth, leaving humanity to its own fate. Miller, however, has faith in superheroes, so long as it is the right superhero.
Miller’s Batman is a quasi-libertarian anarchist, a genius hero who, like the characters in Rand’s novels, uses his brain to thwart the brute, physical power of Superman and the state. And like the image of the student standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square, Miller’s version of Batman as an ordinary man prepared to stand up to seemingly omnipotent power has endured, inspiring everyone from libertarians to politically apathetic fanboys to subsequent Batman writers.
The libertarian/Randian themes are even more explicit in Miller’s follow-up, The Dark Knight Strikes Again. In the sequel, Miller brings in Ditko’s The Question as a mouthpiece for Objectivism, of sorts. The difference here is that Miller’s version says, “I’m no Ayn Rander! She didn’t go nearly far enough!”
But can libertarians put their faith in even a libertarian superhero? The treatment of Batman post-Miller raises lots of red flags. Just as Miller’s Batman developed a contingency plan to take down Superman, Batman, as portrayed in more recent comics, has formulated plans to deal with just about any superhero who, for whatever reason, might go bad. Unfortunately, time and again, Batman’s plans have fallen into the wrong hands, with disastrous results. For example, in the recent series Countdown, Batman creates Brother Eye, an artificial intelligence to watch over all of Earth’s superpowered heroes and villains. Yet, as one might guess from Brother Eye’s Orwellian name, this ends badly when a covert government agency takes control of the A.I. for its own purposes.
As a new generation of comic-book writers picks up and runs with the ideas Moore and Miller first explored, it seems there is need for a libertarian critique of even “libertarian” superheroes. Ultimately, even superheroes who operate without government sanction, so as to preserve their independence and integrity, run into problems because they still serve a law-enforcement function. They’re still appendages of the state, if only unofficially.
Marvel Comics’ recent Civil War story arc illustrates the point. After a botched operation in which a team of young superheroes accidentally kills 600 civilians, the political leaders in Marvel’s fictional universe take a page from Watchmen. They pass a law outlawing all costumed superheroes except for those who agree to register with and work for the federal government. The Superhuman Registration Act splits the superhero community, with pro-registration heroes lining up behind Iron Man and anti-registration heroes backing Captain America.
Although it is never spelled out so explicitly in Civil War, the pro-registration side has a point. What are superheroes, anyway, except unauthorized, unaccountable law enforcement agents? Superheroes don’t obtain search warrants. They don’t read suspects their Miranda rights. If they screw up, they don’t face disciplinary action. And it’s almost impossible for a wronged party to sue them for misconduct. Just try serving a court summons to the Hulk. In short, all of the real-world problems associated with police misconduct are potentially worse when it comes to superheroes. They exist outside the rule of law.
Against that possibility, the Superhuman Registration Act seems, in libertarian terms, to be the lesser of two evils. Of course, as libertarians are fond of pointing out, the lesser of two evils is still evil. Any law that can be abused eventually will be abused. In our world, Republicans constantly pass laws they would never trust Democrats to enforce and vice versa. Each side, when out of power, complains that the other is abusing the powers of government. Yet when the sides swap places, the incoming party never repeals the laws that the other side abused.
In the Marvel Universe, Iron Man currently finds himself on the outside, on the run and wanted for crimes he didn’t commit. Meanwhile, the villainous Green Goblin, in his civilian identity of Norman Osborn, has become leader of the government’s registration effort. If there is any consolation, it’s that Iron Man may have learned his lesson. After all, he is one of the smartest characters in the Marvel Universe, which puts him leagues ahead of our real-world politicians.
For all their efforts, no one writing superhero comics has yet come up with an answer to Moore’s critique of superhero power. Moore’s own solution isn’t really conducive to writing ongoing superhero comics. He sends Dr. Manhattan packing. Dr. Manhattan decides to leave our galaxy — end of story. When all else failed, Moore opts for abolition, which is, of course, what one would expect of any anarchist, of either the left-wing or the libertarian, anarcho-capitalist variety.
Perhaps that is why Watchmen maintains its resonance with libertarians, despite Moore’s antipathy toward much of libertarian thought. Unlike Miller, Rand, Ditko, and others who gave us idealized libertarian supermen who could fly in and save the day, Moore takes a more radical, yet more realistic approach. His hero-turned-villain, Ozymandias, is named so as to evoke the image of the broken idol in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem of the same name. Essentially, Moore is telling us to put not our faith in idols, even if they’re wearing a smile and spandex.
The Watchmen movie and the renewed interest in the graphic novel couldn’t have been better timed. Several comic-book artists have taken to depicting President Barack Obama in superheroic terms. Alex Ross’ painting of the president striking a Superman pose emblazons posters and T-shirts. Spider-Man and Obama do the fist bump in a recent issue of Amazing Spider-Man. And for his part, the new president seems happy to play up his heroic image, as when he posed with the statue of Superman in Metropolis, Ill.
Whatever your politics, if you’ve grasped the message of Watchman, images like that ought to have you at least a little worried.
Sunday, July 22, 2018
Wednesday, July 18, 2018
My latest for Splice Today is a look back at the 1979 Bible prophecy documentary The Late Great Planet Earth, based on Hal Lindsey's unlikely bestseller and hosted by a slumming Orson Welles. Nearly 40 years on, Lindsey's brand of Bible exegesis motivates the evangelical wing of the Republican Party, but his prophecies are all busts.
Wednesday, July 27, 2016
Entertainment companies want to reach out to an increasingly diverse and historically underserved audience. But in the age of remakes, sequels, and tentpoles, that rarely results in new characters. Instead it manifests in the laziest and most unsatisfying way possible: diversifying existing trademarks. My latest at Splice Today.