Tuesday, June 17, 2008

FLASH GORDON Part 3 (and twice around the park)

Part 3 -
Created as a competitor to "Buck Rogers", Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon, owes more to Edgar Rice Burroughs "John Carter of Mars" series than to "Buck Rogers". The story (or meta-story) of Buck Rogers is freely recycled from H.G. Wells "The Sleeper Wakes" and takes place in Earth's future, while John Carter and Flash Gordon are Earthmen on an alien world. Carter and Gordon also share a common modality - that of the outsider entering into and changing (for the better) an advanced, but ultimately stagnant culture. Also, both bring with them the concept of democracy to societies based on feudal forms of government. Seen from the perspective of the locals (Ming, or the Barsoomians) the earthman can be seen as an outside political agitator, similar in some ways to Zorro. They all also seem to favor swordplay as a method of conflict resolution, but that's possibly a convention of the genre.

Mongo and Barsoom are also planets where science and magic seem to co-exist side by side with no real explanation offered as to how or why, and the technology, while more advanced than that of good ol' Earth, seems mostly moribund and stagnant. At least it's well designed in Flash.... ERB has somewhat of a tendency to get a little Jules Verne-esque with his airship and ray technologies, but these are conventions of the era in which the early stories were written. One major difference is that Flash brings his own girlfriend, but John Carter favors the local talent.... probably a wiser course of action, since Dale spends a lot of her time as a hostage, while Dejah Thoris can take care of herself quite well, thank you very much.
As classic American adventure heroes of the early 20th Century, the two share the best qualities as exemplified by Paul Bunyan, embodying the good-natured "can-do" attitude that seemed to exude from real-life heroes of the era, such as Charles "Lucky" Lindbergh.
So where does that leave us today? Well to start with, I think most people under 50 might know the name of "Flash Gordon" and may have seen the 1980's movie (which was more an adaptation of the serials, not the comic strip), or perhaps heard the title song by "Queen"... maybe some younger folks remember the Saturday morning cartoon with other King Features characters "Defenders of the Whatever" but that's about it. I'm saying NOTHING about the recent Sci-Fi Channel "version". There is also going to be a reworking of the character for comics, updating him from football star to Yale professor and former Olympic Gold Medalist while Dale is now a CIA agent. *Sigh* "Buster" Crabbe AND Alex Raymond must be spinning in their graves.....

So then... as he stands as a creation on the 1930's, is Flash Gordon another moribund franchise? I feel possibly not, since the recent dramatic advances in CGI FX, compositing and such allows us for the first time to see movies execute concepts exactly as they were written or drawn in another medium. Can you imagine if "Flash Gordon" or perhaps "John Carter of Mars" were done 100% right? Of course there is the strong chance we'll get another in a long list of stinkers that includes "Howard The Duck" or "The Shadow". What approach can Hollywood take in adapting properties to the screen? I think it can be done well, but it's gonna be tough for the boys in the studio backrooms...
So, how can this be achieved? I'm glad you asked.
Here's the thing....
Hollywood needs to understand that is an old, dry, played-out toothless whore, bereft of what few ideas and real personalities is may have had over the years.
Hollywood needs to become the comic book's bitch. There, i've said it.
Both "Sin City" and "Iron Man" have shown that ham-fisted producers, hack screenwriters and hapless directors all need to back off with their desire to "mess-with-the-franchise" and the film will make money. Lots of money. Which would imply that many of these film industry types put their own egos before profit. In any other industry, that set of priorities would get you canned sharp-ish. This should also be pointed out to some of the people working in comics for that matter, but that's a whole other rant.
It was a success in another media format because it was good. Uncle Walt sez - "Don't mess with the franchise". From cartoons to movies, TV, comics and so on, Disney understands how to manage and maintain properties in the multiple media platforms with consistent fidelity in global markets. C'mon, they turned the "Pirates of the Caribbean" amusement park ride into a massive movie hit series for goodness sakes!
"Sin City" used the Miller strips as a shot by shot storyboard (FINALLY!) and some of the best moments in the Spiderman movies are the exact recreations of classic panels and covers, the best being the costume-in-the-trashcan-in-the-alley longshot and the line "I shall be Spiderman... No More!" (Hey...any trainspotters out there wanna name the issue for me? Is it the cover of#59? #60? I know it's early-ish Romita for sure.)
So then - Transfer it, don't try to transform it. Imagine that it's the late 1930's, and your name is David O. Selznick and you're trying to cast "Gone With the Wind". That should be the attitude, and no less, Mr. Hollywood big-shot. If you respect the content, then you automatically respect and gain the respect of the fan base. I'm well aware that this demographic makes up a small percentage of the total audience, but it also represents the most vocal, well informed and intelligent percentage of the audience, after all, they make up the small percentage of moviegoers who actually read stuff like books. 'Nuff Said?
In our current world of war, strife, global warming and who-knows-what-else waiting in the carpark with a baseball bat, heroic fantasy like "Flash Gordon", if done right, with the lightest touch of futuristic optimism (and a huge budget), might provide the kind of tonic that our collective psyche's need. I have high hopes for Frank Miller's adaption of "The Spirit" in this regard. "The Hero With 1,000 Faces" and all that jazz. Why is this important?
Most of our media constructs function in many ways as complex protracted bio-feedback loops of a psychological nature - in relation to how we see ourselves, how we feel about ourselves and what we do, the way we think, and perceive our interactions with others and the world around us, and ourselves in it and so on. These thought processes are all influenced by our daily exposure to our own fictional media constructs. While I may be getting into what Jack Webb referred to as "The Jesus Speech" or what I would call a Frank Capra moment, let's consider this....
A non-documentary movie is fiction, right? So, in theory, our hero can be larger than life, impossibly good, un-realistically honest, stalwart and true..... perhaps to serve as inspiration. It's fiction, so anything could happen. It's an IMAGINARY STORY.
Why does this matter? The (late) Captain America, as typified by the late 60's, early 70's version, probably gave out more "Jesus Speeches" than any other Marvel character before or since, but as unbelievably corny as it may sound, the idealized example of Captain America (think "What would Cap do?") served to make me a better person. Same with Phillip Marlowe, or Sherlock Holmes, or Thor, God of Thunder, or Jason, or any of the other "Hero With 1,000 Faces". It really doesn't matter if they're a fictional construct or not... If the example makes us shoot for the moon, we may just hit it out of the park.

Now in closing, we're going to get to that "Where's my flying car?" thing. Strangely enough I found one answer to that question in a comic book. Fancy that.

"Doktor Sleepless" by Warren Ellis is one of my new faves, and I REALLY urge you to try a copy (and you know I almost NEVER plug product around here). I find loads of interesting challenging material in each issue. There's a lot inside (and also on the web) with this hot collision of William Gibson and Walter Gibson, Alan Moore and J. G. Ballard, Robert Anton Wilson and Philip K Dick....

I also love the non sequiter tag-lines under each issues' title logo (Issue 4's "Don’t Worry Ma'am, We're From The Internet" had me in chuckles for days, but "Bastard of Tomorrow" seems to sum the good Doktor up best). Here's some pages from "The Manual" - "You're Doing It All Wrong" :

Reminds me a lot of the classic speech "V" gives to Britian by television in Alan Moore's "V for Vendetta", which didn't make it into the film adaption, but should have.

I do fret about the resurgence of that untra-naff multiple cover thingy, which still leaves a bad taste in one's mouth from the 90's....

I must say that I am disturbed by my reluctant agreement with Ellis' concept (mentioned in the back pages of Issue 3) that "....the cranked wild years of the 20th Century some how burned out the cultural motor of the Western world". Hence the "Where's My Jetpack?" thing we've all felt for a while to some degree. A bit worrying, as it has a certain gut-level "ring 'o' truth" to it. I do have one caveat with this theory though.

One thing that does seem apparent to me is that Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers and John Carter... all the way down the line through "Doc" Smith's Lensmen out to Captain Kirk and so on, are based on, and come from the well-spring of the initial "Gernsback Continuum" as concieved and visualized by him and his acolytes (mentioned in Part 1), and further sophistication of these tropes was built upon by John W. Campbell and his foster children (Heinlein, Asimov, etc.), transferred into other media by Gene Rodenberry and the like, but I feel that somehow, just as in the case of fossil fuels, we have been coasting on stored or accumulated energy, that is to say - the dreams of the future of those who came before.

Perhaps we need to start to focus on becoming far-thinking futurists in the culture wars, and perhaps realizing that technocracy is not necessarily the answer to every problem. Of course i'm going to have to go away and write more about this topic because there's obviously LOTS more to this concept than I can hope to cover here (and my small absence of late was partially due to working on this sprawling rant), and as this has already wandered all over the place and i'm still not really done, I'll have to come back to this. I've got some solid thoughts cooking on the back-burner, just let me synthesize them into a more coherent whole.

Well, that wasn't where I expected this to end up at all, but it's as good a place as any for now to quit while i'm ahead. So, no rocket pack for you, but you get internet and cell phones, no flying car, but you get text-messaging and GPS and blogs like this...... and we (as a species) have a space station (now with a fully functional toilet) and a robot on Mars, all of which is not too shabby in a pretty gosh-wow sense 'o' wonder futuristic way to me. We could be doing better, using all this technology better...... but we could also be doing a whole lot worse. Good points and bad points, and of course, more would also be good and I do wish some of it was nicer (that is to say cooler) looking..... maybe some fins at the back, and some pin-striping? A little chrome maybe?

Now if anyone could REALLY tell me why Prince Barin runs around in bloomers and lederhosen, i'd be all done with this. I'm serious here.... did Alex Raymond have a thing for light opera? Really... I gotta know!


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