Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Inspiration and creativity (within constraints)

This my be one of the more poignant, beautiful bits of independent / contest film work I've seen in some time. But I seem to be more sensitive to this theme lately.

The "Porcelain Unicorn" was written and directed by Keegan Wilcox, and was the grand-prize winner for the Philips Parallel Lines "Tell It Your Way" international competition.

What makes this film all the more startling to me is its beauty underneath the contest constraints -- while entires could be any genre, told in any way, they had to follow six specific lines of dialogue from the Parallel Lines films:

  • "What is that??
  • "It’s a unicorn"
  • "Never seen one up close before"
  • "Beautiful"
  • "Get away, get away"
  • "I’m sorry"

Add to that the constraints and successes that get me stoked about the Biz: Wilcox has a small, tight-knit production company in LA, and they put the film above together start-to-finish in under two weeks.

Out of more than 600 entries, films were narrowed down to 10 finalists by a judging panel from Ridley Scott Associates (RSA), British Academy of Film & Television Arts (BAFTA) and Philips (the electronics folks), based on creative and original storytelling, interesting use of the Parallel Lines dialogue, and technical achievement. The film was selected by contest marshal and director Sir Ridley Scott, because "it had a very strong narrative; a very complete story that was well told and executed."

The contest film was inspired by Wilcox's grandfather’s war stories, and the "hero’s journey" of a Joseph Conrad novel.

As a reward for winning, besides being promoted six ways to Sunday by Philips, Wilcox will work for a week onsite at the Ridley Scott Associates offices.

Projects like these take a ton of talent people, so be sure to check the link to recognize those fine folks, and the runners up and People's Choice winner are good films, too.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Red Skull is a Nazi

Art by David Aja (image from
The Red Skull is a Nazi.

And you know what? Nazis are bad.

I don't mean "there's this jerk at work who doesn't do anything and spends all his time politicking because that's his only skill" bad, but "Genocide is a too-nice term for their actively killing massive amounts of men, women, and children because they didn't meet their ####-up standards of perfection" bad.

But I'm wondering -- not flippantly -- did Nazi's become a protected class at some point? Because in movies and comic books, it seems like you can't mention them, or show swastikas as a symbol of evil that we should not forget, and a pop-culture introduction to that horror might just be the gateway to more challenging dianoia.

I'm wicked stoked (and wicked nervous) about the upcoming Captain America: The First Avenger film. Excited, because a quality big-screen treatment is far overdue, I'm a lifetime franchise fan (Cap was my first comic book at 5 years old), and I think if director Joe Johnston can bring his Rocketeer and Young Indiana Jones Chronicles vibe to the Star-Spangled Avenger, it's a win. I'm nervous, because Captain America as a representative ideal means a lot to me.

I expect the film be a fun, mostly light-hearted romp, not necessarily prompting weighty discussions; but it is a launching point for them.

The Red Skull is going to be the main baddie in the film, but the film changes his origin in a significant way. Rather than portrayed as he is in the comic books as the goose-stepping protégé who eventually outstrips and frightens Hitler himself, he's couched instead within the clandestine, apolitical organization HYDRA (also from the comic books).

Now, I'm all for new expressions of franchise IPs (it allows me to be a Hasbro fan), and I totally get that for them to be successful in their non-generative medium, changes need to be made -- this smacks of commercialism with an unintentional bad social impact.

Allegedly, the Red Skull's affiliation was changed so the film would do well in overseas markets -- ostensibly Germany, where there's an understandable sensitivity to an ugly portion of that country's history.

Sure, there's an intelligent sensitivity aspect to this decision; though I doubt that's the driver. And the cost is potentially bigger.

I mean what I said earlier, where pop-culture can be a less-threatening entry to important concepts with which we should wrestle (there's an analog to edgy stand-up comedians making us laugh at things that would make us uncomfortable in intellectual-only situations). Hiding thorny things for marketing purposes is kind of the ... opposite of "Never Forget".

Interestingly, when Paramount Pictures (who is distributing the film overseas), was going to market the film in non-US markets, they balked at the planned idea of truncating the title to just "The First Avenger" -- arguing "Captain America" has too much brand recognition to remove from the film title. So they gave those various markets the choice between "Captain America: The First Avenger", or just the "The First Avenger".

Somewhat surprisingly, Ukraine, South Korea, and Russia are the only three having decided to date to go with just the truncated title; Germany is keeping "Captain America" intact. (China's still up in the air, since they only release south of two-dozen non-national theatrical releases per year, and it remains to be seen if Cap will be one of them, and what its marketing title will be. As a side note, it was also Paramount who chose to remove "A Real American Hero" from the G.I.Joe film title.)

So, at least for the most part (in this instance), brand recognition trumps, and the film gets to keep ... the name of the guy wearing a freaking giant American flag as his uniform.

Funny enough, the crew members-only poster (an excellent nod to 1940s art sensibilities) is a re-work of the cover of Captain America #1 from 1943 -- including Chris Evans punching Adolf Hitler (ah, but still no sign of swastikas; though Hitler's arm is cleverly obscured by a Luger P08).
"Captain America: The First Avenger" crew member poster (image from

Captain America #1, December 1940 - a year into WWII, but a year before the bombing of Pearl Harbor (image from
Even in the comics, for some reason, the Red Skull's affiliation to the Nazis is being downplayed.

As an example, I'm looking forward to the Red Skull: Incarnate limited series, and I'm a David Aja fan (and these covers are fantastic). But notice this cover:

No swastikas.

Here we have Johann Schmidt doing the sieg heil, but the symbol of Nazi barbarism is missing.

From David Aja's blog:
"At last was decided not to show swastikas on covers, but we thought readers' brains would fill blanks ..."
Sure -- if readers know enough about some of the horrors of history needed to fill in these blanks.

(And to be clear, I'm not at all criticizing Mr. Aja in this, just raising my larger concern.)

I'm not trying to be alarmist or make something out of nothing, but I honestly feel there are truisms we shouldn't ignore. Truisms like Edmund Burke's "Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it" (or George Santayana's more oft-quoted rephrasing, "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it").

At some point, societally, I think we do forget things. That happens over time, and the death knell is at some defined, measurable point we either have to figure out reactively, or for which we should actively watch.

"Never forget" is a mantra for the horrors of World War II, so we don't forget the brutality of some people toward others, and we don't forget the tragedy and cost of lives lost to that brutality.

To be totally insular (but to make a point with doable math), if I just consider the U.S. Armed Forces WWII veterans, there are estimated to be fewer than 2 million surviving. Within 6-10 years at current projections, we may lose the last of our living links to this important part of our history (though organizations like The National WWII Museum are doing what they can to capture oral histories from veterans and survivors).

Now, encouragingly, there are other places in the Marvel comics where the history and horror of things represented by symbols like the swastika are still remembered.

The amazing Ed Brubaker, whose current run on Captain America is currently one of my all-time favorites -- has reintroduced Sin, the Red Skull's daughter, and kept her and her father firmly entrenched in their Nazi origins.

Even in the current "Fear Itself" cross-over story arc (largely led by writer Matt Fraction), Sin and her armies are razing the entire United States  -- including the Capitol -- in their "Blitzkrieg USA", with giant war machines blatantly festooned with swastikas. Various participating comic writers are subtly (but explicitly) calling out this symbol via characters, noting its horrid history, and its current use to intentionally strike fear into the populace.

Going back to the commercial reasons for losing the Swastika from films and comic books (and to somewhat complicate the issue further) there's a related, cultural sensitivity reason to exclude the symbol.

It's not like the National Socialist German Workers' Party (or the precursor Thule secret society) invented the swastika. It's originally a sanskrit symbol, ironically a one-time good-luck symbol, and it still has wide active use in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Since India is a large populace (and an important commercial audience for US films), removing the symbol probably makes a lot of sense. There's a bigger, more complicated discussion here about misappropriation of symbols, whether such misappropriation can irredeemably damage a symbol or trope, and cross-cultural isolationism. (Though, to be clear, the red/white/black Nazi expression of the symbol is unequivocally negatively iconic.)

Getting above the weeds a bit, commercial concerns by themselves are certainly valid -- films are so expensive, and if they don't do gangbusters in all markets, we fanboys aren't going to get big-budget treatments of our franchise favorites.

My concern is that in the service of the dollar, or cultural sensitivity, or "playing it safe", even in these "light-hearted" pop culture vehicles like the Captain America movie, we will lose focus on the importance of remembering key parts of our history -- and in so doing, forget the cost, and how to avoid similar horrors in the future.

(Flame on!)

UPDATED: I've seen the new Captain America movie, and read the first issue of the new Red Skull comic series.

My feelings on this topic from the movie are mixed. There are nods to swastikas in the film, though they are creatively covered, hidden, and otherwise kept from full view. And while in the film Hydra is positioned as a division of the Nazi war machine, that in some way deflects the history of the horror the Nazis caused.

My feelings on the Red Skull: Incarnate limited comic book series are far less mixed (and very positive). While I still wish the swastikas had not been removed from the cover art, they are portrayed prominently, accurately, and frighteningly in the interior art. Even more importantly, writer Greg Pak is making this series an opportunity to accurately portray how not just the Red Skull, but the Nazi party, came into power. He is painstakingly portraying the culture and global events of the time, with a stated hope that people will tackle the thorny subject of how this happened, and how we might prevent it from happening again. He's even providing bibilography and further reading in each issue.

I'm impressed and excited by this mission of Greg Pak's -- it's encouraging, and weightier than I expected (my semi-myopia, nothing on Mr. Pak, obviously).

(I wonder if some smart PoliSci and sociology profs should look at this material as a clever way to give this topic a fresh look among jaded students.)