Benjamin Sperduto

Fantasy, Horror, & Science Fiction Author

Month: July 2017

The Culture Tsar: Valerian’s “John Carter Problem”

The Culture Tsar has been looking forward to seeing Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets since seeing the trailer for it during the Super Bowl. Although the early critical buzz wasn’t particularly good, this movie wasn’t exactly promising to be a Best Picture contender, so the Culture Tsar didn’t put too much stock in the prerelease chatter.

Okay, enough with the preamble and on to the main question: Is the movie any good?

Answer: It’s fine.

Not a resounding endorsement, to be sure, but it’s certainly not a bad movie. The pacing drags at times, the writing can be a bit cringeworthy at times, and none of the performances are particularly good (although Ethan Hawke’s sleazy cabaret show proprietor is pretty fun). On the other hand, it looks beautiful. The effects and production design are spectacular and probably worth seeing on the big screen. There are a few memorable features, like the comic relief trio of misfit aliens who peddle information and Clive Owen’s cyborg bodyguards, and some imaginative setpieces like the multidimensional marketplace. On the whole, though, this is a movie that bets everything on spectacle, on astounding audiences with something they’ve never seen before.

The problem, of course, is that we have seen most of this before.

Valerian suffers dreadfully from what The Culture Tsar refers to as the “John Carter Problem.” When the film John Carter came out in 2012, many critics and viewers criticized it for not really offering anything new to the sci-fi adventure genre. It felt derivative and a bit uninspired. The problem, of course, had to do with the source material itself. Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars series had a major influence on generations of writers, but the stories themselves are over one hundred years old. The most interesting aspects of those stories have been absorbed and recycled by subsequent works so many times that most audiences can’t identify the line of transmission anymore. People watched John Carter and dismissed it was a Star Wars rip-off not realizing that the original Star Wars took a lot of its cues from the John Carter books.

Now, none of this excuses the fact that John Carter just isn’t that great of a movie (although The Culture Tsar has a soft spot for it). The problem is the filmmakers relied on the strength of the property and sheer spectacle to turn an otherwise lackluster story with bland characters into something memorable. But audiences weren’t impressed by the spectacle because they felt like they’d seen it before. John Carter might have been able to get away with this if audiences were more familiar with the property. Fans will turn out for mediocre adaptations of their favorite book series provided the movies are reasonably competent. But while John Carter more than meets this competency threshold, there just aren’t that many hardcore fans of the series dying to see it on the big screen.

Which brings us back to Valerian.

The film is based upon a French comic series called Valerian and Laureline, which ran from 1967 to 2010 and had a massive influence on a generation of European sci-fi artists and writers. Unfortunately, many of them have already incorporated much of what they loved into their own work. Even the film’s director, Luc Besson, has done this, with many aspects of the comic appearing in his mid-90s sci-fi cult classic The Fifth Element. The original Star Wars almost certainly took some inspiration from the artwork of Valerian and Laureline. But this wide-ranging influence also means that audiences will automatically feel like they’ve seen everything Valerian has to offer. Even worse, for all its influence, Valerian and Laureline isn’t widely known outside of France. The Culture Tsar considers himself a massive sci-fi and fantasy nerd and he’d never heard of the property before seeing the trailer for the first time earlier this year. In other words, there’s no readymade audience waiting for this movie in the US like there would be for even a “second string” superhero movie like Ant-Man.

All that aside, Valerian could have been a great success. It could have followed the example of Guardians of the Galaxy, which was a little known comic sci-fi property that wisely emphasized character over spectacle. Instead, it went a more predictable and conventional route of subordinating the characters and interpersonal conflict to the spectacle of the source material. While Valerian is fun enough, it’s also forgettable due to its bland characters and a predictable, “by the numbers” story.

Maybe The Culture Tsar would have liked it more if he’d read Valerian and Laureline, but that’s the crux of the “John Carter Problem”. If you have to be familiar with the source material to enjoy the movie, you’re probably doing something wrong.

The Culture Tsar: Curb(stomp) Your Enthusiasm

Sometimes our enthusiasm can get out of hand.

The hyperbolic nature of our cultural discourse encourages us to take strong positions on the things we like. Everything has to be either “amazing” or “terrible”, with little room for variation in between. These sorts of statements are driven primarily by emotion, even if they’re nicely dressed up with logical arguments (or at least the pretense of them). But emotions are a tricky thing; they can mislead you or cause you to overlook things a less enthusiastic observer might notice. There’s nothing wrong with being emotionally invested in the things you like, but at some point, if you ever want to have a productive conversation with someone about it, you need to be able to set that enthusiasm aside.

Take, for instance, one of the Culture Tsar’s favorite films of the last five years, Mad Max: Fury Road. When this movie comes up in conversation, the discussion goes one of two ways; either the other person loves the movie as well and proceeds to describe just how much they love it, or they bristle and mutter something about “not getting what all the fuss was about”. In the latter situation, sharing all the reasons the movie excites you isn’t going to get very far. Instead, you have to remove those emotional responses and talk about the film from a critical, pragmatic standpoint. In this case, the Culture Tsar usually deploys the “art film as action movie” argument, pointing out that the structure of the film as a two hour long car chase is the whole point of the movie and then indicating how the cinematography, production design, and practical effects all combine to serve that concept. The goal of the conversation at that point is not to make the other person “like” the movie, but rather to make a persuasive case for why it’s a good film even though they don’t care for it.

Internet commentary has largely debased what we used to call “criticism” because most people can’t seem to put their emotional attachments aside. There’s also a tendency to project one’s own feelings onto the general public. A friend recently related to the Culture Tsar that he argued with someone who believes The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is the greatest video game of all time and that it “changed gaming forever.” Now, despite the fact that the Culture Tsar loves Skyrim, he found this statement to be completely and objectively ridiculous. Setting aside question of whether it’s the best game ever (spoiler alert: it’s not even the best game in the Elder Scrolls series, but let’s save that for another post), what on earth does the phrase “changed gaming forever” actually mean? When pressed on this statement, the person said vague things about gameplay options and open world game design, but all of these things existed in various degrees long before Skyrim. Furthermore, Skyrim didn’t spark an entirely new breed of video games afterward. Open world rpgs existed for more than a decade before Skyrim’s release in 2011, and even if you restrict that category to first person rpgs, even those had become fairly common by the early 2000s.

But the person wasn’t making an objective argument; he was defining the game according to his own experience. For that particular gamer, Skyrim changed the way he viewed games forever. The problem is that he couldn’t set his emotional response to the game aside long enough to recognize that his enthusiasm said more about him encountering something for the first time than it did about the game itself.

Everyone wants to play the role of critic these days, but not enough people out there understand the role of criticism. Put simply, it’s not about you. Just because a work of art provokes an emotional response from you doesn’t automatically mean it’s objectively good. The Culture Tsar may love listening to Bryan Adams songs, but he’s never going to make the argument that Adams was one of the most influential and important artists of his era (tempting though it may be). If you want to engage in serious critical discussion, you not only need to curb your enthusiasm, you need to curbstomp it.

The Culture Tsar: The Star Wars Reformation

There’s a great scene in the film Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back in which Ben Affleck’s character remarks that the internet has given people around the world the power to share information and ideas like never before and they’ve decided to use that power to bitch about movies. The Culture Tsar thinks about that comment every time some fan-driven controversy breaks out over (insert media franchise here) and overloads his Twitter feed for 12-24 hours.

As the saying goes, this is why we can’t have nice things.

Now, the Culture Tsar obviously has nothing against bitching about movies in principle. There’s a big difference, however, between debating the merits/flaws of a film as cultural products and debating them as extensions of someone’s personal identity. In the former, disagreements over the work in question are defensible positions easily set aside after the debate. Someone can like or dislike a film for various reasons, but that in no way affects anyone’s enjoyment of it. For instance, the Culture Tsar thinks the Transformers films are equal parts dumb, vapid, obnoxious, and tedious. Their continued existence and success, however, doesn’t affect him beyond forcing him to watch the trailer for the next one every time he attends a movie (honestly, The Last Knight feels like it’s been “Coming Soon” for five years now).

But when a work of popular culture becomes deeply entangled with a person’s identity, criticism ceases being criticism and instead turns into an existential threat. The most obvious and intense example of this phenomenon is Star Wars fandom. Seriously, there were Catholics executing Protestants during the Reformation who felt less strongly about the sanctity of the Holy Scriptures than some Star Wars fans feel about the franchise’s canon. Take a look on any Star Wars forum and you’ll find people decrying, well, just about anything that’s happened with the franchise since it was sold to Disney. From the decanonization of the “Expanded Universe” to the casting decisions behind each new film, there’s a rabid cult of fans out there who are on a crusade to defend the “true” Star Wars from “outside” meddling. Never mind that many of these people were not even born when most of the films came out or lived through the shock of the prequels upending longstanding assumptions about the original trilogy; they view the entire canon as an internally consistent scripture that must be adhered to down to the last detail lest the entire franchise be invalidated.

There’s a reason the Culture Tsar compared this situation to the Reformation: it’s because this intense form of fandom only makes sense through the lens of religious scripture. The Catholic Church persecuted Protestant Christians because it feared that if erroneous interpretations of Holy Scripture were allowed to take root in society, scores of unsuspecting Christians might be led into heresies that could endanger their eternal souls. Of course, there’s also the more cynical interpretation that Protestantism threatened the religious authority of the church (and the political power that came with it), which is equally viable here. While Protestantism wasn’t particularly democratic in form in those early days, it did represent a broader democratization of the faith by making it possible for Christians to worship in multiple ways.

The Reformation also swept away centuries of Church practices that had little, if any, basis in actual Scripture. In this sense, Protestantism literally changed what it meant to be a Christian. Methods of worship changed, sources of authority shifted, and expectations of behavior were redefined. For devout Catholics who remained invested in pre-Reformation practices, this change represented an existential threat. After all, if minor changes were permitted to gain strength, they could potentially lead to greater heresies down the line.

It might seem glib, if not sacrilegious, to compare Star Wars fandom to the Reformation, but the analogy fits quite well. Longtime Star Wars fans who resent Disney-era Star Wars are largely motivated by a sense that the franchise has been taken from them and redefined by people who lack their deep commitment to the rituals of fandom. Virtually every internal religious conflict in human history boils down to an argument over which sacred texts are considered legitimate. When Disney/Lucasfilm announced that the “Expanded Universe” would no longer be considered canon for the franchise moving forward, it was tantamount to Protestants declaring that numerous Catholic sacraments were no longer necessary elements of salvation.

This argument might seem ridiculous if Star Wars was just another media franchise, but it isn’t. There are people all over the world who have a massive personal investment in this fictional universe. For many people, being a “Star Wars fan” is a form of personal identity every bit as strong as a religious identity. It’s simply not acceptable for them to allow just anyone to experience Star Wars however they want because that would diminish the value of their fandom. They also want to be able to claim a form of scriptural authority. To have someone, especially someone who doesn’t conform to their image of a “true believer”, dictate what is legitimate canon and what is not is the ultimate offense. It’s as if instead of heresy festering at the margins of the Catholic world, it’s being handed down by the Holy See itself (perhaps the controversy over the Second Vatican Council of 1959 would have been a better analogy, but that’s a deeper cut that would take longer to explain and the Culture Tsar isn’t about to rewrite this entire damn post).

And for the true believer, there’s only one way of dealing with heresy…

Star Wars is the most obvious example of this phenomenon, but it’s by no means the only one. Perhaps this is an idea the Culture Tsar will explore in later posts, especially if this little thought experiment manages to generate some controversy. For now though, he’s happy to provide eager readers with an opportunity to make relevant use of all that history they had to learn in school about Martin Luther’s 99 Theses, John Calvin’s Geneva experiment, and the causes of the Thirty Years War.

And if those references mean nothing to you, well, maybe you should put down that dumb Expanded Universe book about the Yuuzhan Vong and catch up on some history…

Why You Should Join a Writing Group

You can find plenty of advice on why joining a writing or critique group helps to improve your writing. Setting aside the rather obvious point that having more eyeballs reviewing your work provides more opportunities for feedback, it’s important to consider some of the benefits of these groups that have nothing to do with your own writing, at least not directly.

The novelist John Gardner once remarked that alcoholism was the primary occupational hazard of the author. As much as I love this comment, I think he mistook the symptom for the cause. The real occupational hazard of the author is isolation. Writing is a very isolating endeavor. You can be as outgoing and socially engaging as you want, but at some point, the only way writing is going to get done is when you sit down alone with the keyboard (or pen and paper if you’re self-consciously old fashioned). Once that process begins, it’s easy to become cut off from anything that’s not directly related to the work at hand.

In some respects, this kind of intense focus is a good thing because it allows you to tune out distractions and pour your creative energy into the writing. At some point, however, you need to come up for air and remember that your project doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Your book isn’t the “only book in the world” even though it often feels that way.

Before joining a newly formed writing group earlier this year, I’d never really associated with other writers. I showed material I was working on with a few close friends, but none of them were writers themselves. After a period of frustration over how to direct my writing energies, I joined the group in the hope it might provide me with new perspectives.

After a few weeks of reading various works in progress, I learned that my approach to writing fiction and the topics I choose to write about are merely a drop of water in a vast ocean. This is something I knew intellectually, of course, but it’s one thing to read completed works you might not normally be drawn to and quite another to engage with the authors of those works as they’re writing them. Discussing and critiquing someone else’s writing isn’t just about the writing itself; it helps you to imagine yourself behind another writer’s keyboard, to understand why and how they write. Learning different approaches and techniques to writing can help you to reevaluate your own creative process, which can be quite valuable if you feel yourself falling into unproductive habits or simply want to try something new.

I think it’s healthy for writers to get out of their own heads every so often, and a good writing/critique group can do a lot to bring their thoughts and assumptions about writing out into the open. If you’re stuck or frustrated with your work, exposing yourself to other writers going through the same struggles might just provide you the perspective you need to get moving forward again.

And yes, you’ll have plenty of knowledgeable people to help critique your works in progress, but you already knew that!

The Culture Tsar: Retro Rewatch Week

Privyet, Comrades!

The Culture Tsar is pleased to be making a return to praising and damning works of popular culture in all their varied forms. This week, he had a rare opportunity to sit down with a few movies he hasn’t seen in quite some time. Sometimes our memories can play strange tricks on us, causing us to elevate or diminish films far beyond their actual merits. Of course, sometimes those memories are entirely accurate. Upon a recent rewatch, for instance, the plot and premise of Prometheus made more sense but that didn’t make the movie any less terrible than the Culture Tsar recalled.

Without further delay, then, let’s take a look at the fruits of this filmwatching labor:

Dragonslayer (1981)

What the Culture Tsar remembers: A decent, but deeply flawed film that’s only memorable for the spectacular dragon effects. For God’s sake, the nerdy, curly haired guy from Ally McBeal plays the hero (Peter MacNicol). If it wasn’t for the dragon (which was THE standard for movie dragons until 2002’s Reign of Fire), nobody would remember this movie.

Upon rewatching: Holy shit, this movie is actually really good! The whole look of the film is great, effectively evoking the dreary, grim environs of 6th-7th century Northern Europe. Aside from a few questionable costuming choices (the king’s garb and the captain of the guard’s dumb helmet), everyone looks like they belong in that pitiful little kingdom. The performances and the writing are much stronger than I remember. Peter MacNicol is great as the unlikely hero, striking a believable balance between bumbling and bravery. While the dragon effects are a bit dated, most of them still hold up quite well. If you enjoy fantasy films, you should absolutely rewatch this one. It’s MUCH better than you remember.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

What the Culture Tsar remembers: A stunning film with intense action sequences and fantastic character moments. It lost out to Gladiator for the Best Picture Oscar and the Culture Tsar distinctly recalls bitching about how it was robbed. A modern classic.

Upon rewatching: Eh…maybe not. Time has not been kind to this movie. Maybe the action sequences were far more groundbreaking at the time, but they aren’t particularly impressive by today’s standards. The “flying through the air” stunts are awkward and not very convincing. While many of the character moments are still quite good (Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun-Fat both deliver standout performances), the movie drags, and the mid-story flashback subplot involving the governor’s daughter and her bandit lover is tedious. While the Culture Tsar still enjoyed the film, it’s definitely dropped quite a bit in his rankings of great films.

Dark City (1998)

What the Culture Tsar remembers: One of the Culture Tsar’s all time favorite films. Wonderfully evocative and creepy, with great character moments and inspired art design.

Upon rewatching: Still one of the Culture Tsar’s favorites. The film’s sets and scenery look a bit different in high definition, which only enhances the sense of artificiality permeating the entire city. That artificiality extends to some of the cast, with William Hurt and Jennifer Connelly both turning in strangely stilted performances that perfectly convey the discomfort just beneath the surface of their characters. Kiefer Sutherland makes a good turn as the crippled doctor, which is all the more interesting considering he would be playing uber-manly man Jack Bauer in 24 just a few years later. This film certainly deserves its reputation as a cult classic.

Predator 2 (1990)

What the Culture Tsar remembers: In a barren wasteland of shitty sequels, Predator 2 managed not to suck. Competent, but not particularly memorable, the best thing you can say about it is that it didn’t embarrass the franchise. What more can you ask from a sequel, really?

Upon rewatching: Turns out, you can ask a whole hell of a lot more. And Predator 2 delivers. WAY better movie than the Culture Tsar remembers! The writing is good, the characters are fun, and the action sequences get quite inventive. Sure, the effects are a bit dated, but they were about as good as could be expected for purely optical effects of the late 1980s. The image of “near future” 1997 Los Angeles as a warzone of gang warfare only seems like a caricature because it didn’t actually turn out that way. Back in the late 1980s at the height of the “war on drugs” and the crack cocaine epidemic, it was a perfectly plausible future. That aside, the movie does a good job of taking the rules established in the first film and building upon them to give the audience something it hasn’t seen before. In fact, Predator 2 is probably only a couple of great one-liners away from being better than the first movie. That might seem like overly high praise, but when you start adding up the memorable sequences, Predator 2 compares to the original quite well.

The Culture Tsar hopes you’ve enjoyed this little exercise and encourages you to take a look at your own backlog of movies you haven’t watched for some time. There might be more gems (or duds) among them than you remember.

Lastly, a special thanks to everyone who migrated over from the old Culture Tsar website. There may come a time when the Culture Tsar branches out to a separate site again, but for now he’s working to keep everything consolidated. Hopefully, that will lead to more posts like this one in the near future.

A New Home for the Culture Tsar

Several years ago, long before The Walls of Dalgorod saw the light of day, I decided to try my hand at blogging. I’d jokingly assumed the title of “Tsar of Popular Culture” among a group of friends after sharing my rather strident opinions (or pronouncements) on the latest music releases of the time, so I used that as a springboard to start a blog called “The Culture Tsar.” I went through periods of sporadic activity, but as I became more focused on writing fiction, it became difficult for me to decide how to manage my author blog along with the Culture Tsar blog.

Generally, I wound up ignoring both of them.

I’d like to start providing more than simple author updates on this website, so in addition to providing occasional writing/editing advice, I’ve decided to migrate the Culture Tsar persona to this page as well. I considered simply reviving the old Culture Tsar website (which is still active over on Blogger), but I don’t want to create a parallel online presence. All future Culture Tsar posts will be flagged as such and placed in a special category accessible from the main website menu for ease of use.

Cyberpunks and Reavers, Oh My…

Yikes, it’s July already? Time to catch up on news.

First and foremost, you can now pick up a physical or ebook copy of the Divergent Fates Anthology on Amazon. The anthology is a collection of stories set in Matthew Cox’s “Divergent Fates” world, the cyberpunk setting for his many novels (such as Virtual Immortality and the Division Zero series). Matthew invited several fellow authors to contribute to the collection and I’m very excited for my story “Sins of the Father” to be a part of it. If you enjoy the stories, be sure to check out his work for more cyberpunk and post-apocalyptic goodness. In addition to being a great writer, Matthew is also the most prolific author I know, so he has plenty of sci-fi goodness waiting for you.

On the upcoming front, my novelette “The Wolf Queen” is finally going to be appearing in print in Hammer of the Gods vol. 2: Ragnarok from Rogue Planet Press. This story has floated around in various ebook forms for a while, but if you want to snag a print copy, the anthology will be available on Lulu on July 10.

That’s all the big news for the moment. I’m going to be at Gen Con again this year, so I’m sure I’ll have something to share about that as we get closer to August. Unfortunately, 12/12 Project updates have been few and far between due to some erratic scheduling. Hopefully that will sort itself out in the near future. In the meantime, I’m considering rolling the 12/12 Project Podcast into a more general subject podcast, but I haven’t worked out all the details yet.

CLICK HERE TO GET A COPY OF THE DIVERGENT FATES ANTHOLOGY.

CLICK HERE TO GET A COPY OF HAMMER OF THE GODS II: RAGNAROK.

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