"The inside of outside no one has found." - Jeff Tweedy
Something has happened to us. To our characters specifically, and through them our culture as audience, since we are what we make believe. This change is keeping with a larger trend so it shouldn’t shock or amaze though it does shock and amaze if you let it. Let it. Here, with me.
Characters are the backbone of stories. We are a story based species. Something is happening to us.
As a boy I played role playing games. Dungeons & Dragons, Rifts, Vampire: The Masquerade. I’m here speaking of games one plays with pens and paper, dice and imagination, a community of like-minded enthusiasts. At the heart of these games, what more than anything defined them, was the character you chose to play. You could be a warrior if that suited you, an introspective priest, a cunning thief, a girl and her bow. Tons of options. Once the decision was made you assigned random values to different skills this character would possess that informed how you (the real you and the you of the game) could interact with the fictional game-world. The point here is that each character was unique, had different strengths and weaknesses. No one could do everything and in just about every situation you could lose it all on a shitty roll of the die. Somewhat like real life. And I was watching a movie recently, one very closely aligned with this world of make-believe I’ve just cursorily described, that gave the lie to all that. That robbed us of any chance of loss.
I’ve yet to meet someone who adores death, losing, the poverty of events that comes with failure; and our popular culture seems to agree, driven by characters who strive to defeat death or wish it away. A narrative thrust as old as Gilgamesh, if not language itself. I wonder if this is good for us though? If this isn’t the territory of religion-systems (Christianity, Islam, etc.) and if it is why our popular culture feels the need to encroach on that map; or put another way, perhaps our popular culture is vying to be a new religion-system (it’s happened before; Scientology what?) but if that’s so what fills the void left by what once was a popular culture?
Or are religions the original popular culture? The kernel of truth in them both distraction - pure and simple - from the hard truths of existence.
The film in question was Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. In this film a character who wasn’t even mentioned in the source material conducts a series of acro-martial feats that boggle the mind; that can’t even be said to remind one of a video game because at least the developers of video games know that without loss, challenge, obstacles to overcome their players would dwindle: that finally remind one of pornography. Legolas, the wood elf warrior of the Fellowship, follows the barrel-bound dwarves down a quickly flowing stream all the while slaying every orc in his way with a grace any ballerina would covetously desire. In this frantic exchange, battling enemies intent on annihilation, he lands every assault and evades every blow. He is a god among mortals whose every whim manifests itself in a roll of 20, every time (the RPGs mentioned earlier utilize 20 sided die to determine the effectiveness of an attack; 1 being a total failure and 20 being a total success). After viewing this shameless spectacle one is forced to wonder why all the fuss over Sauron? Why didn’t the wise elders at Rivendell simply send Legolas to the Black Gate and have him obliterate everything in Mordor?
It wasn’t just that the story was changed to accommodate this revision, but that the character was too. The Legolas of The Hobbit is not the Legolas of The Lord of the Rings. He has been sped up, extended, made a cipher against the phobias we all share - a dashing emblem of power and success with no possibility of defeat. And while a filmmaker is entitled to represent their vision, one wonders what the point of this vision is? What does an audience gain by knowing the hero can’t lose? Perhaps this is simply a fundamental of popular culture, a necessary piece of what makes such culture widely appealing. Perhaps it is no coincidence that while the real-world lives of the audience become grimmer and dirtier, harder and more uncertain (the Great Recession, chronic joblessness, income inequality, larger degrees of automation in the workplace, the thinning of the spoils that globalization has created, political systems that can not or chose not to represent their constituents) the lives of those we idolize or allow entertain us become more potent, certain, winning, deathless.
Recall the BBC’s Sherlock, where the super-sleuth outwits the Reichenbach Falls, returning from an apparent death in time to deliver a speech at John Watson’s wedding in a series that is truly more fan fiction than adaptation. Or boldly remember Star Trek Into Darkness where Kirk isn’t dead more than ten minutes before being brought back to life to eulogize those not as lucky (the original version of this particular escapade had the decency to leave Spock dead the duration it took them to make another film). Doctor Who has to die before he can keep adventuring and Obi Wan only grew stronger after Vader cut him down. Gilgamesh sought to conquer death but failed. We moderns, with our tales, are clearly more clever. And here we see that death has no meaning in our stories, or one we are wiping away through our popular culture. It is true that many of these stories are built upon narrative foundations with centuries of history and culturally significant parentage such as religious tales; so again, are we simply conflating two allegedly different systems? Or is our current popular culture our one true religion?
Do we need mention comic books?
We do to discount them from this discourse, at least initially. Comic books are cyclical things (DC’s New 52, Marvel Now, etc.), reiterated with the generations to continually find purchase in the imaginations of the new young eager for their mythic exploits. A myth can not die and even a child, in some way, understands this. They are communal things, comic books, with different authors and artists bringing their characters to life. No matter how great a work Frank Miller’s The Dark Night Returns is (and it is a very great work indeed) it is not the definitive version of Batman in the way that The Hobbit (speaking here of Tolkien’s text) is the definitive word on Bilbo Baggins. Whether or not you prefer Curt Swanson’s barrel-chested Kal-El, Christopher Reeve’s charming Clark Kent or Frank Quietly’s monumental Man of Steel, they’re all Superman; neither erasing or taking anything away from the other. Oddly, in this day where being a geek is cool, and all things nerdy are trendy, it is almost as if the original source of this identity (comic books, for realz) aren’t even technically popular culture. Can a myth (a timeless aggregate of hopes and fears) truly be confined, or understood, in or as a popular culture the very nature of which is ever increasing change? Ever quicker access to information and content, ever shifting codes of what’s ‘in’ or ‘out’?
Everything is speeding up. We are quite clearly now equipped to provide empirical evidence of the dromological pollution Paul Virilio wrote of in Open Sky. A pollution of overexposed duration, of time itself (don’t forget that Jackson is shooting his hobbit trilogy at an unprecedented 48 frames per second). Of how we perceive the material world and through perceiving are defined by it, by the shared process of perception. At the bar the other day someone was amazed I didn’t pull a smartphone out of my pocket whilst taking down their number, or, they thought that for one second before getting an email notification, a text message, a news update from The New York Times. Nor was this interruption of their consciousness considered rude by any of their friends. For my part I didn’t mention it, remembering that the root of dromological comes from the Greek; dromos meaning to race. We are all in a race, and as any runner will tell you, it isn’t the competition you watch but the road.
There was a time when only the runner ran. Now the road is running right alongside us.
So things are speeding up, everything, even our characters. For an allegedly immortal species the difference in ability of the Legolas of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is hard to map with that warrior’s prowess in The Fellowship of the Ring. He is a quicker creature. Nimbler. So much faster than he seemed before. Rushing past the normal consequences of morally infused heroics, the chance something might go wrong, into an idealized realm of perfect action closer to Plato than Patton. And he isn’t running alone.
They say speed kills. They used to. It is clear now that we, as a culture, are using speed to devalue death or forget it. We’re damming the river Lethe to power our networks and gadgets. Because somehow we’ve come to the conclusion that if we go fast enough, if we throttle-up, we can outrace the finish line. We can rush through a forest of villains without fear of reprisal, without breaking a sweat.
Which is clearly absurd. Who rolls 20s all the time? What has happened to us? What is a hero without odds to overcome? What meaning exists without skin in the game?
The ‘in’ or ‘out’ of a popular culture is not the same as the ‘in’ or ‘out’ of death. And yet we are seeing a blurring of that distinction, and not simply along narratological lines, but in our perception of time as well … we’re seeing a gambit, a hustle, an all-in bet that through our new technologies (and the newer, faster, shinier characters that symbolize them) we can find what generations before us strived vainly to acquire; the inside of outside: the cure for death. The immortality riddle might be the ultimate conundrum, one we’ve never been closer to solving. Or that’s the way it would appear to the techno-futurists and their fans. To the story tellers of the masses who need preach the good word with ever more bombastic productions. I’m not saying it’s Kool-Aid, not saying it isn’t tempting to consider, but what of the water still in the tap? What of the original wellspring of life so many seem happy to leave behind?
If our popular culture is being polluted by a death-to-death drive (as, indeed, most all religions always’ve been) perhaps this pollution is mutating the medium as well. Perhaps we are no longer content to allow our heroes to have lives and all the messy consequences that come with. Perhaps we are simply trying to inject the wisdom of myth (cyclical, eternal) into our current stories. Are we seeing the comicification of all genres? Have the geeks finally won?
I don’t know. But if they have, we can be certain of one thing; The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug won’t be the last bit of wood elf war porn to hit the cineplexes. Though it just might be the start of a new genre altogether.