Tag: camp

Spectacles with Smarts

There was a time when I could buy the argument of a fictional work being fun for its own sake. Specatcle that aims to be nothing but spectacle has its place, usually in the skies above parking lots as fireworks explode in the darkness. But in the arenas of storytelling, be it printed or in motion, characters that feel human and storylines that lead to a satisfactory end in paths audiences can follow will slay works based entirely on spectacle every time.

To illustrate my point, let’s compare the films Flash Gordon and Scott Pilgrim Versus The World.

Both are based on printed comic adventures. Both feature arguably normal human beings thrown into abnormal situations. Both films have bright, splashy color pallettes and kickass soundtracks. And both are largely considered cult classics having not performed well at the box office. Of the two of them, I would say that Scott Pilgrim is the superior work by a large margin.

Courtesy DEG

I’ve reviewed both movies, and looking back on my take on Flash Gordon, I can see why I was so favorably disposed towards it. It’s unashamedly fun. Camp for camp’s sake was pretty big in the 80s, as evidenced by this and Rocky Horror Picture Show among others. Rocky Horror survives due to its cult camp appeal and the fact that large groups see it together. Flash Gordon is also better viewed with a group, if only so there are others with whom you can laugh at the production.

Comics and their heroes tend to be silly in one way or another, but embracing that silliness can be a delicate operation. Making the premise of a man wearing the flag of his country or a woman doing acrobatic assaults in impractical outfits work as a plausible, relatable story takes effort and thought. Opting for total abandonment of coherence for the sake of spectacle is much easier. Flash Gordon does the latter. I still think Max vod Sydow’s Ming the Merciless is a delightfully callous villain, the Queen soundtrack can be enjoyed outside of the context of the film, and Brian Blessed turned loose on his fellow actors is fun to watch, but there are major problems a production based on campy set pieces cannot overcome. Characters have no arcs, no growth. The plot shambles aimlessly, forgotten for the sake of the visuals which have not all aged well. It’s a relic of a different age, and the wrinkles do unfortunately show. I still think it’s possible to have fun just sitting back and watching Flash Gordon, but your brain is not engaged while doing so.

Courtesy Universal Pictures

By comparison, Scott Pilgrim balances its sillier elements with good character growth and interaction and a plot that can be followed without difficulty. Scott’s struggle to overcome his own insecurities is enhanced by his battles with Ramona’s evil exes, rather than overwhelmed by those battles. His relationship with Ramona also has some weight to it, despite its supernatural trappings, and there are even realistic relationship with Knives and Kim, to say nothing of the advice and support of Wallace. Rather than laughing at Scott Pilgrim, we laugh with it. While the far-flung moons of Mongo feel distant and alien, and not in a good way, Toronto and the young people in it are relatable and realistic, high-octane psychic kung-fu battles notwithstanding.

Could a better story be made of Flash Gordon? Certainly. If Flash had flaws to overcome, doubts to face, the freedom to learn more about the other characters outside of broad and ill-defined characterstics, he’d be a better hero for us to get behind. Let his relationships with Dale, Zarkov, the princess, the Hawkmen, even Ming develop naturally. I say keep the garish colors and the operatic rock soundtrack, but make this plot and these characters mean something other than a vehicle for the set pieces. It’s the 21st century, after all; there’s no reason we can’t have unique spectacles that also engage us on the basic levels of storytelling.

Courtesy Marvel Studios

Dumb fun will arguably always have its place, be it in mindless shooting games like Painkiller, Space Marine, or Serious Sam, or films that are great fodder for parties with friends, like Flash Gordon, most of the Star Wars films, the Grindhouse movies, or most flicks starring Arnold or Sly. But to ask for something substantial in the story department or some decent characters we can get behind is not a tall order. The Avengers would simply not have worked as well as it does if the admittedly silly superheroes who star in it didn’t have realized characters with complex relationships and understandable motivations. Oh, it would have been fun, certainly… but as it stands, it’s both fun AND engaging. It’s a spectacle that’s also smart.

Don’t ever underestimate your audience. Keep your writing broad and simple at your own peril. The more you engage the reader’s brain, the more you make them think about and relate to your characters, the more they’ll want. It’s not unreasonable for today’s audiences to expect, nay, demand their entertainment be smart as well as entertaining. And we, as entertainers, should be all too happy to oblige.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension

Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

[audio:http://www.blueinkalchemy.com/uploads/buckaroo_banzai.mp3]

We call them Renaissance men, polymaths or omnidisciplinarians. The last two are more friendly for people of all genders who dabble with success in multiple fields of interest, but one of the first was Leonard da Vinci. Benjamin Franklin is another, but neither he nor da Vinci ever developed supersonic cars, practiced neurosurgery or battled evil space aliens. That we know of. For confirmed antics of that sort, we must turn to a lesser-known but quite impressive polymath by the name of Buckaroo Banzai. In 1984 a docu-drama following an adventure of his was released, sub-titled Across the 8th Dimension. Sure, it may seem like a mash-up sci-fi adventure parody, but I’m sure it’s just as much based on a true story as most things Hollywood slaps that label on these days.

Courtesy MGM

Dr Banzai began his adult life as a neurosurgeon, but a brilliant career in medicine felt too boring to him, so he took up super-science and crime-fighting as well as a rock career. His latest invention, the Jet Car, is supplemented by a tiny device of secret origin called the Oscillation Overthruster, which means the car not only achieves supersonic speeds but also drives through solid matter. The Overthruster was first tested in 1938, an incident that not only failed but lead to the possession of one of its inventors by the evil overlord of an alien race called the Red Lectroids. Thirsty for conquest but ill-equipped, the Red Lectroids were defeated by their peace-loving cousins the Black Lectroids and banished to the 8th dimension, which Buckaroo just drove through. Instead of citing him for speeding, the Red Lectroids try to get their paws on the Overthruster to free the bulk of their forces, which puts them in direct opposition of Buckaroo Banzai and his Hong Kong Cavaliers. Let’s just hope they save the world in time for their gig in Atlantic City.

If you think this premise sounds a bit silly on paper, you’re not far from the truth. In addition to the special effects and music that place this chronologically smack in the middle of “the big 80s,” the do-nothing-wrong Buckaroo may seem a bit stale for some, even verging into author or audience projection. Most of the special effects budget appears to have been spent on the Jet Car and the facial appliances for the various Lectroids, as the miniature work for the spacecraft we see is laughable even by the standards of Star Wars before Lucas started messing around with it. The movie certainly isn’t going to be blowing your mind with clever narrative construction or even that many interesting characters.

Courtesy MGM
What a guy.

Then again, neither did Flash Gordon or Total Recall. Buckaroo’s story has got its tongue firmly wedged in its cheek, and the smiles that pass between the Hong Kong Cavaliers are pretty infectious. Like any good parody, the movie is in on its jokes and knows it shouldn’t be taken too seriously. It’s one of those times where the MST3K mantra comes in handy. Unlike some other parodies, though, Buckaroo Banzai doesn’t go so far as to address or even acknowledge the fourth wall. The film is, for better or for worse, mostly concerned about doing its own thing.

In fact, that’s one of the biggest selling points for this admittedly silly and campy flick: it’s original. It’s indicative of a time where filmmakers, actors and special effects houses were keenly interested in trying something new and different. In this case, the goal was to create a character that harkened back to the pulp adventures of two-fisted yet erudite men of action like Doc Savage while including elements of super-science of the nuclear age. While Buckaroo’s polymath portfolio does verge on the ridiculous at times, the way in which he’s presented seems more along the lines of Ace Rimmer from Red Dwarf than any straighfoward Mary Sue type. You may scoff at his ability to pull hitherto unknown devices and parachutes out of his ass, but you can’t help but like the guy. He can’t spend too much time thinking about how great he is, dammit, there’s a world to save!

Courtesy MGM
“VAT DO YOO MEEN ZEY DUN LIKE ZE MOVEE?”

In the end, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension is harmless, campy and very unique fun. I can’t say every modern viewer is going to tolerate some of its dated effects and conventions, as it was created before ironic artistic expression was as huge as it is, but it’s certainly not looking to be taken seriously as art or make a lasting impression on genre fiction. There are quite a few mainstay actors from the fringes of the cinema present, from Peter Weller’s aw-shucks Banzai to John Lithgow’s extremely insane evil overlord, from Clancy Brown’s warm and friendly cowboy to Christopher Lloyd’s acerbic nefarious crony. It won’t be the best science fiction, action/adventure or comedic spoof you’ve ever seen, but I can pretty much gurantee that when you watch Buckaroo Banzai, you’ll agree that you’ve never seen anything quite like it. And in a world of derivative spin-off cash-ins and adaptations ranging from reasonably faithful to face-palmingly atrocious, that’s absolutely nothing to sneeze at. Give it a try, and remember… no matter where you go, there you are.

Courtesy MGM
“Sir, I’m going to have to write you a ticket for breaking both the sound and dimensional barriers…
…and for not making the Jet Car out of something more aerodynamic.”

Where Camp Belongs

Courtesy DEG

There exists a type of stage play that’s so absurdly over the top as to defy belief. I’m speaking of the pantomime. Burlesque is another one that comes to mind. The subject matter of these productions could be anything, from teenage romantic angst to the Holocaust, and goes so completely across the line of good taste that they circumnavigate our imaginations and strive come out the other side where things are so ridiculous they’re awesome again. It can be a very tricky thing to do, and it doesn’t always work.

In a similar vein, we have an unspoken sub-genre of films called ‘camp’. The degree to which a film tends to be considered camp is directly proportional to the degree to which it takes itself seriously. If it tries one time too many to make a legitimate point or be more than camp, it’s going to fail and the campier bits will just seem silly. Let it take the piss, however, and the overall effect is one of a fun if meaningless romp.

MovieBob mentioned camp in his review of Red Riding Hood, and cited two examples that I feel serve as great ‘bookends’ for camp. On the one hand, we have Batman & Robin. Now more than once, this little flick tries to harken back to the campy days of the Adam West television series, but more than one serious story point, complete with straight-faced sincerity and somewhat bland delivery, is tied to the absurdity the way a concrete block is tied to the ankle of someone who disappointed the boss. I’m not saying Batman & Robin would have been saved if you’d taken out the subplots involving Alfred & Mister Freeze’s wife, but it’s definitely one of the movie’s many problems.

On the other end of the scale is Flash Gordon. It in no way takes itself seriously. Horny evil overlords, impromptu football games and breathing in space are all handwaved in the name of having a good time. The color palette is vibrant, the actors larger than life (especially in the case of BRIAN BLESSED) and the whole thing is powered by the music of Queen. I can’t think of a campier movie that still manages to be enough fun to not overstay its welcome and make the audience feel like they spent their time well.

There are a plethora of films in between these two. Some will try to tap the same vein and not quite get it right, like Masters of the Universe. Others will keep the special effects, music and sensibilities modern while keeping the level of seriousness quite low, like Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy. From Independence Day to Moulin Rouge, there’s plenty of camp out there, and it isn’t all bad.

Sometimes you want to crack open that doorstopper and take in some serious long-form fiction, and sometimes you reach for a comic book. Camp is that comic book, and there’s nothing wrong with it. It has its place in our libraries, a space where it belongs, where our need for escapism exceeds our desire to remain in the real world. And it can work very well, unless you try to take it too seriously or otherwise muck it up.

I’m looking at you, Schumaker.

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