Sep. 12th, 2008

heron61: (Gryphon - emphasis and strong feelings)
Yesterday evening, [livejournal.com profile] teaotter, [livejournal.com profile] hereville, [livejournal.com profile] xtricks, and I all went to see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The first 20 minutes were pure 50s pulp – in that relatively short segment we had space aliens, atomic bombs, rockets (or at least a rocket sled) and fighter jets flying overhead. However, the film was basically worthless fluff. There was effectively no characterization at all, and it looked far more like a video game than a fun pulpy film. None of this was helped by the fact that nothing at all was explained. Using all the data we have about the aliens, I can construct two completely different and unrelated explanations as to what was going on with the multiple flying saucer crashes, the actions of the aliens at the end, and the fact that they clear didn't defend themselves and flying saucers didn't start showing up when someone stole the crystal skull 500 years ago. Of course, making coherent stories from exceptionally limited data that wasn't initially designed to support any sort of coherent story is part of my job (at least when I do licensed adaptations of various media to RPGs), and it's clear to me that no one bothered to see if the film made any sense (up to & including Indiana Jones mysteriously getting his job back at the end). No characterization + no coherent plot = bad film. I've seen worse this summer, but this has been a summer of deeply wretched action films. So far, Iron Man has been the only exception (I haven't see The Dark Knight yet).

In any case, after the film, Becca and I talked about pulp as a genre. We both like it, and it's definitely a useful antidote to the far too common modern trend towards vile antiheroes and unremitting grimness. However, there's one problem with a lot of pulp, and especially every piece of pulp George Lucas has ever produced – violence, or more specifically mass death.

One common approach to pulp is, that George Lucas seems particularly fond of is the idea that it must have lots of big & impressive fight scenes. In practice, this means a whole lot of casual death and casual murder of villains, and I'm simply not OK with that in media and haven't been for a while. This film had PG-13, low gore violence, but underneath that, it was yet another highly violent George Lucas film.

If you want pulp with lots of fight scenes, there are ways to do it, the most obvious being having the protagonists fighting mindless zombies or robots, since such creatures are far more like things than people. However, there's really only so much you can do with this. However, there are alternatives that are more broadly applicable. District B-13 (which I discuss here) was a pulpy action film and had large segments of non-stop breathtaking action, but the body count was quite low, and in fact compared to many films the level of violence against people was also quite low. Also, the big villain was killed by his associates, not the protagonists. Also, my favorite is pulp adventure where solutions do not involve violence. Some of Andre Norton's SF fit into this category, but the most well known example are various TV shows and films done by Gene Roddenberry. There was no shortage of episodes of Star Trek (discussing mostly the original series) that were pulpy SF (as well as episodes that definitely were not pulp) and yet in most of these episodes, the solution was not violence. The characters regularly used minor violence (including a whole lot of punching, judo-throwing, and Vulcan neck-pinching opponents on the way to a solution, but problems were generally solved through understanding &/or communication (as well as occasionally destroying a hostile computer system, which were typically not intelligent). Yes, characters regularly died in original series Trek, but in the vast majority of cases these deaths were regarded as meaningful by the story and the characters and that makes a vast difference to me.

Most modern actions films have cut back gore compared to similar films from 15 to 20 years ago, but they are no less violent and murdering villains is still done often and casually. Instead, the violence is simply far less gory, and this is especially true in the pulpier action films. I'm definitely not a fan of this trend.

On a vaguely related note, while it's very definitely not pulp, I also admire Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles for their treatment of violence and especially killing. In that show, killing is either something done by the worst villains or something that has serious consequences and which is to be avoided and prevented, at least by the characters who are shown to be the moral centers of the show (Sarah Connor, and to a lesser extent John Connor).

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