Procrastination: An extremely overused word. (A very short post on writing)

I was going to write about board games today. Actually, I was going to write about board games last Friday, and again yesterday…

And then I remembered how this blog keeps dying and how much that annoys me. So, a short one today.

Writing. I had a good friend who finally opened my eyes about writing last year. He made me realize that it’s about enjoying writing, about enjoying creating worlds and thinking about storytelling. He helped me get past my paralysis and my self-loathing (most of the time). I don’t write as much as I should but I write now.

I recently gave up on a project that has been in my head for years and years. Not given up on it forever, but put it to the side for a while. Now I’m writing something that is essentially a bit silly. I’m concerned that it’s derivative (it is), I’m concerned that I don’t know what I’m doing (I don’t) and I’m concerned that it’ll be terrible (…). I’m writing though, and I have a story in my head, and it’s about the distant future. Essentially it combines my experiences reading of the last year that have been mostly defined by reading Dune (and several sequels thereof) and researching the lives of American missionaries in China in the 1920s. There you go.

Dune. I have to write about Dune some more in this space. What a wonderful book. It frequently came to mind as I taught students about the ebb and flow of East Asian civilizations last year. Wonderful stuff.

One last little point in among these little points overlapping: the trick to writing is to write. This is written everywhere, funnily enough, but it cannot be underestimated in its importance. This short little blog post is a piece of writing. I am writing. Write as often as you can and whenever you can. Don’t put off writing because you think you have a clear idea of what you want to do. Don’t put off writing, end of story.

A brief rumination on Rocky IV

 

I realized yesterday that I think about one of the Rocky films every single day. Every day of my life for the past five years at least. Probably the last ten or twelve.

In fact, I think about Rocky IV all the time at the moment. I’m doing some work on American ideology in the 1980s and I’ve always been a sucker for Cold War propaganda anyway. Stallone’s career in the 1980s was like some kind of young Reaganite’s fevered dream, but Rocky IV is still the champion of good old fashioned jingoism mixed in with completely undercooked notions of universal humanistic qualities that cross borders, oceans and possible nuclear conflicts. Don’t get me wrong, the idea that people come together over something pure and wonderful is a great idea, and I think a very nice one. I just don’t know that Rocky Balboa outrunning his KGB tail in the snow and generally beating the crap out of the pride of the USSR’s sporting world was likely to get everyone off their seats chanting his name and thinking about Mom’s Apple Pie, McDonald’s and The Beatles.*

*The Beatles aren’t American obviously, but were such a perfect expression of what came to be recognized as the cultural superiority of the West. That cultural superiority, fuelled by free speech and open societies, played a major part in the fall of Communism.

Rocky IV is a funny movie really; they try half-heartedly at one point to depict a volatile situation where both sides are wrong, when the Soviet manager becomes indignant at the pre-fight press conference with Apollo Creed. It doesn’t last long. Paulie, sitting to the side in an odd position, makes the entirely valid point that the Soviets couldn’t talk too much about the affairs of others when people were being kept behind a massive wall in Berlin by the threat of force. The fact that Paulie is essentially sitting in the pose of a guy espousing politics from his armchair, though probably not intentional, doesn’t help with the image.

It’s just so… weird. Like a lot of problematic fiction, Rocky IV leaves gaps for the audience to fill in. As a piece of American/Western propaganda it’s perfect. Drago’s drug use is inferred by a lot of talk about the power of “science.” Audiences in the 1980s had seen plenty of examples of Soviet science, with the East Germans in particular a widespread joke before actually being caught doping. Drago isn’t much of a character, a massive homunculus that turns up and grunts before killing the series’ best character and running back to Moscow. It’s odd. Dolph Lundgren’s performance has been mocked to the ends of the earth and back, but practically every man my age has absorbed Drago’s character into our understanding of popular culture. Between Drago and Clubber Lang, not to mention Creed, Rocky is about the least interesting thing about the Rocky movies by the mid-1980s.

At the very end of the film, Drago starts to show some humanity, to resist his masters. Presumably this is a statement on the inhumane nature of the Stalinist system. Again, it’s undercooked stuff. They know the audience will get where they’re coming from, and if not, how bad? They’ll see Rocky win the Cold War.

Sometimes I feel convinced that I’ll essentially turn this blog into a Rocky blog, but then I get distracted and write about other things or just don’t write at all. This was supposed to be a quick post on the weirdness of fandom and my own apparent participation in it. I love the Rocky movies, adore them, have spent far too much time thinking about them and critiquing them over and over again. I am a Rocky fanboy, in a lot of ways. What a weird fanboy to be.

Sense of a (Happy) Ending

This post talks about the ending of The Dark Knight Rises. I don’t talk about specific details in any way that would “spoil” the film, but I do talk about the film in very broad terms and I wasn’t worried too much about spoilers when I wrote it.

I teared up at the end of The Dark Knight Rises. It’s been a tough few weeks around here and I’d probably tear up at the end of What to Expect When You’re Expecting, but still. My tears at the end of The Dark Knight Rises were genuine.

The film wasn’t perfect, but I decided at some point to forgive it almost everything, and I did. I suppose it’s not as good as The Dark Knight, but it’s a fantastic action film about Batman nonetheless, so I’m pretty happy with that. Ultimately, I really liked the way the whole trilogy ended. Endings are a tough thing.

First of all, not everyone is going to agree on what constitutes a “good” ending, an “earned” ending or a “satisfying” ending. Furthermore, people change their minds from film to film and from experience to experience. I would typically not be a happy ending type guy. Not really my thing.  The Dark Knight Rises isn’t so much a happy ending as a series of short codas that reassure the viewer that the ending of the film wasn’t THAT bad. It all worked out in the end. In short, a type of happy ending that normally drives people who don’t like happy endings to distraction. However, I liked it. It worked for me. It worked with how I viewed the characters. It made me feel good about the film. It made me feel good about life. Again, it’s been a little tough around here, but I suspect I would have felt this way anyway.

How did Nolan do it? Well… he didn’t do it. He didn’t magically nail an ending that everyone liked. In fact, he left some feeling a little short changed, or at least unsatisfied. I can see that. There’s also the issue of sequel baiting here. I find it hard to believe we’re not going to see Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Batman, but we might not. That would impact my reaction to the ending in a fairly fundamental way, which would be an odd experience. I’d be watching the film in five or ten years and be reflecting on how odd and infuriating it was that Nolan set up another Batman film that was never made. Instead I’ll probably have just been to the cinema to see McG’s reimagining of the original TV series or something.

So endings change over time, too. Or rather, the reaction to endings or the experience of witnessing an ending. I suppose we even (wait for it… here comes the grad student) participate in endings. Big social events like blockbuster films with strong genre identifications become participatory in a sense. People use words like “owe” and “earn”. The terms cover a very wide spectrum, from those unreasonably saddling artists with expectations to more sophisticated discussions of the reality of a film’s reception and what it is doing artistically. So, the ending of The Dark Knight Rises becomes a big deal and worthy of discussion.

Back to the issue of how the ending works today in 2012, though… There was an awful lot of ribbon tying going on at the end of this film. Goodbye Lucius, goodbye Alfred, goodbye Bruce. It wasn’t the entire leading cast of Lethal Weapon 4 posing for a photograph and yelling “We’re family” at the camera but it was a very clear nod to the people watching in the cinema. Hey guys, this is for you. That’s instantly annoying for some people because it pulls you out of the movie watching experience. This kind of thing is usually instantly annoying, or at least distracting, to me. I went with it this time. Maybe Nolan has built up enough good will with me. I’m not a Nolanite or a massive Batfan. I just liked his Batman trilogy. Part of that is a result of the memories of so many fantastical genre films throughout my youth that sucked, part of it is just my own gut reaction to the films. I liked them. I liked what they did. For the most part.

So what does this mean about endings in general? That you can get away with being a little sappy or being too on the nose if you’ve carried your audience far enough? Many point out the numerous plot holes in The Dark Knight, and not one of them bothers me a whit. It was a great film and I enjoyed it immensely. I continue to enjoy it immensely. There have been moments in this trilogy, particularly in the first and third installments, when my suspension of disbelief began to creak. It never cracked though. As I realized what was coming and that Nolan really was going to deliver on the odd foreshadowing of Alfred’s annual European vacation, I began to tear up. The ending worked for me, and I was happy.

What is Bruce living on? When exactly did he and Selina develop such a close relationship? Did they have trouble getting visas to work in the EU? How did he know exactly what restaurant it would be? Were they eating three meals a day there waiting for Alfred to show up? Who cares? You could tear any movie to bits without too much effort. I know that there are variations and gradations of being able to pull something apart, I know the end of The Dark Knight Rises is pushing it. I’ve just decided not to care. Whether or not The Dark Knight Rises itself “earned” that ending is a question worth asking. Nolan cheated a little, because I think the trilogy as a whole “earned” it and this was a blatant thank you aimed at fans of all three films. I certainly see how that could be an issue for some. In fact, I was surprised that it wasn’t an issue for me. I felt this way while watching it, which only heightened my own enjoyment of the moment. Maybe I’ve strayed over into dangerous fandom territory. I hope not; or at least, I hope this doesn’t mean I’m going to start getting into weird impassioned arguments with strangers on the Internet about how Nolan is an untouchable genius.

Yeah, I’m not doing that.

The film did make me think about endings though, about how they should work and how they relate to the body of work that precedes them. The film had multiple endings. Essentially, it cheats. I was sufficiently invested in the work that preceded it, and sufficiently happy with all of it, that I didn’t mind it. I gave it a pass. I chose to enjoy the goodbye.

This is part of the problem if you want to criticize the approach of course. It’s essentially a series of endings. A real ending followed by a series of scenes saying goodbye (and you’re such a lovely audience, we’d like to take you home). It was coming though. Having Cillian Murphy return as judge of the mad court was a blatant cameo, even if he was in character. Batman revealing his identity to Gordon might be my favourite moment of the entire trilogy. Maybe I should have known the ending was coming. Maybe I should just learn that sometimes it’s alright to enjoy a happy ending.