Flotsam: Mostly More About Liberalism

1. Revolutionaries / Liberals are the most intolerant people in the world. They like to pretend to tolerance, and believe themselves to be tolerant, but this is an illusion based in the fact that they don’t value the same things as their opponents. Anything they actually value, they are utterly implacable on. They don’t care what religion you profess because they think all religions more or less equally false. But deny the value of public education or question the tenets of feminism and you’ll see just how ‘tolerant’ they are.

It’s not different with Modernists in the Church: adherence to certain doctrines or moral laws is ‘rigidity’ because they don’t care about these things. But don’t you dare question the ‘reforms’ of Vatican II (especially not the ones that don’t actually come from the documents).

This, really, is only what we should expect. Remember, Liberals think of themselves as setting free the oppressed. Therefore, anyone who disagrees with them on something they consider substantive is arguing for oppression and hence cannot be allowed any kind of influence since they ‘want to put y’all back in chains’, to quote the criminal in the White House.

2. This is also why Liberals of different stripes tend to be extremely hostile to one another. In the early US government the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans were accusing one another of treason and monarchism over the least provocations. Because the central doctrine of all kinds of liberalism is that mankind has been held in unjust oppression up until now (or from a certain Edenic period in the past, e.g. the Roman Republic) and are now being set free. Thus, anything that deviates from the particular branch of liberalism being proposed is a compromise or holdover with the tyranny of the past that must be stamped out if we are ever to get to our free-and-equal society.

The upside is that this allows for the ‘no true Scotsman’ fallacy to be played indefinitely. If you point out that a given form of liberalism has failed or hasn’t produced what it promised, they can say “well, that’s not real socialism / freedom / democracy / republic”. It may even be true.

The trouble is that a system that only delivers on its promises when we’re constantly balancing an entire nation on a razor’s edge that requires constant vigilance and involvement by at least a majority of the population is, for that very reason, an unworkable system.

“The price of liberty is eternal vigilance,” is an elegant way of saying “we have an inherently unstable system of government.”

3. The good news is that, as I’ve said before, the form of government generally matters less than most people think, provided the structure of society as a whole retains its integrity. That is, as long as individuals understand their particular place in society, as long as they believe in and adhere to the particular values and traditions of their culture, as long as the forms of family, religion, and community remain intact, and so on, pretty much any kind of governmental structure can bump along tolerably well.

The really dividing element of societal / governmental structures is how well they can maintain these things. So…yeah.

4. The fact is, most people don’t want to have to be constantly standing guard over their governmental structure. Most people don’t have the time, interest, or frankly the capacity for such vigilance. What people want is chiefly to feel that they can understand the rules of their community and their own place within it, that it isn’t going to change or fall apart tomorrow, and that it’ll still be there for their children.

In other words, what most people want is order and stability. Because freedom, in any meaningful sense, can only exist amidst relative order. If you go out to the frontier, you’ll have ‘freedom’ in the sense that you can settle wherever you like, but your scope for living is extremely limited; you can subsistence farm and hope not to be killed by Indians or rival farmers that’s about it. That’s why the great story of the west is the taming of the west; the bringing of order to it. The point of the frontier was that it would not remain a frontier forever, and that the pioneers would create a world in which their children would have a greater scope for living than they had.

To put it another way: if ‘freedom’ means anything, it means the capacity to direct your life to an end of your own choosing according to your own capacity and interests. But the demands of survival mean that this is only possible when you can more or less assume those demands will be met: a society composed entirely of subsistence farmers cannot build a cathedral. The more specifically human endeavors – art, philosophy, commerce, architecture, etc. – only become possible once some people are able to be spared from the business of making food or fighting off invaders, and for the most part it only becomes worthwhile when you feel fairly confident that whatever you create will still be there when it comes time for your children to inherit it.

Community and a degree of order are necessary prerequisites for human flourishing and thus for anything that could reasonably be called ‘freedom’. Continually having to stand guard lest someone swoop in and turn your society into an oppressive state that no longer considers you as worthy of having a place in it is detrimental to liberty.

5. This is really the thing that I find most painful about our own society and stands in greatest contrast to the experience of most past generations for about the last thousand years or so: the fact that I don’t necessarily feel confident it will still be there when it comes time for my own children to inherit it.

6. That was a gloomier one than I intended. I take some comfort in the fact that I know that I’m naturally pessimistic and so things may very well be less disastrous than they appear. I’m actually fairly hopeful that we might at least settle back into a semi-functional society in the near future, as the backlash against the actions of the boomer generation gains momentum.

7. I just discovered this fellow on YouTube and he’s quite good, I think he hits the nail on the head with this video regarding a). why many Traditional Catholics seem harsh and aggressive and b). why so many of us are reluctant to actually say what we think these days.

Another element of why many Trads are unpleasant people is probably simply frustration and anger at being repeatedly abused, insulted, and kicked around for sixty-plus years. I remember Charles Coloumbe compared Traditionalists of an older generation to abused children. I mean, seriously: what do you expect? “Oh, these Trads are such rigid, devisive, and intolerant fools who can’t accept the world has moved on. Now why are they so rude to me?”

(Again, I notice that Progressives are often so certain of their own views that they’re actually surprised and confused and even offended when someone gets upset that they just mocked and belittled something he holds sacred).

That, and the simple fact that, thanks to the hostile attitudes of so many in the Church, most of these people are on their own when it comes to discipline and doctrine. It’s supposed to be that the priest or bishops or what have you are out there defending the faith and laying down rules and an example of what to insist upon and how to behave. But now they’re mostly attacking and rebuking those who try to stand up for the faith, which means the individual Catholic (and I’m speaking not just of Trads but of anyone who genuinely believes and wants to live their faith) has to make these calls for himself.

Remember that when authority abdicates, the need for that authority doesn’t go away.

Thought of the Day

“Who, thinkest thou, is a faithful and wise servant, whom his lord hath appointed over his family, to give them meat in season.

Blessed is that servant, whom when his lord shall come he shall find so doing. Amen I say to you, he shall place him over all his goods. But if that evil servant shall say in his heart: My lord is long a coming: And shall begin to strike his fellow servants, and shall eat and drink with drunkards: The lord of that servant shall come in a day that he hopeth not, and at an hour that he knoweth not:

And shall separate him, and appoint his portion with the hypocrites. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
-Matt. 24: 45-51

Of course, when it comes to the under-servants in that parable, the great thing was for them to remain in the house and dutifully at their posts for the Master’s sake, despite the beatings and mistreatment of the steward.

Flotsam: Miscellaneous

1. My cold of two weeks ago came back with a vengeance this week. Never quite bad enough to keep me away from work (certainly not while I’m still on probation time before my PTO becomes available), but more than bad enough to make the experience quite miserable. Hence why this is a non-specific Flotsam. So, for today I’m just going to toss off some miscellaneous thoughts that I’m too tired to flesh out much.

2. It is sometimes said that you shouldn’t trust primary sources in historical inquiry since they will be biased. Instead, you should trust the professional historian, who is trained to sift through these biases. Indeed, the primary sources are biased. So is the professional historian.

The difference is that the historical bias of the primary source is itself a part of that same history. The bias of the historian is not.

3. Do you notice that there is what you might call an ‘assumed culture’ at work in today’s world? Anything made for general public consumption that doesn’t originate from a source with an otherwise strongly marked character makes the same references and presumes the same values: you’ve seen Star Wars and Game of Thrones. You vote democrat. You’re non-religious. You’re into, or at least familiar with certain pop stars, and so on. It’s like there’s a giant mutual-aid society, in which a web of entertainers, politicians, businessmen, and so on give each other shout-outs and kudos.

I find this kind of boring, even when they reference things I like. It also begins to give that kind of ‘unman’ feel, like there’s no actual personality behind the references, but something trying to ape a personality.

(See, that’s an example: when was the last time you heard a Space Trilogy reference in anything made for the general public?)

4. There’s also the thing where people will cheer when someone mentions an officially protected demographic. Basically a way of signalling “I’m a good person!” or “I am offering the right obeisance!”

5. Oh, speaking of which, I remember during the (mercifully brief) ‘Diversity, Inclusion, Equity’ portion of the onboarding process, they talked about how ‘we’ve found that diversity isn’t just race, religion, sex, and so on, but things like what school you went to, what neighborhood you grew up it, what your experiences are.’

In other words, diversity is supposedly the startling insight that companies employ individuals. This amazing fact requires an entire department and continual training to understand, and we presume that you, the employees, will need to be constantly reminded of this.

I also love that ‘we’ve found’ (or it might have even been ‘experts have discovered’, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt): apparently, the idea that people can be distinguished by things apart from officially designated categories came as a blinding insight.

6. I notice that a lot of moderns have an idea about nature that goes something like this: that the ideal of nature is balance, of all things working together in harmony to allow all to thrive.

If you want to see how much nature values ‘balance’, try introducing a species into a new environment and see how nature deals with it. Nine times out of ten, what happens is either a). the new species gets quickly wiped out by the existing species or b). the new species utterly dominates the ecosystem and wipes out many of the existing species (rats are especially gifted at doing this).

See, nature isn’t about balance: nature is about every species and almost every individual trying to get as much as it possibly can. In other words, nature isn’t harmony: it’s warfare. The ‘balance’ is an illusion created by the fact that the species withing a given ecosystem have all reached a point of more or less stalemate. The moment any species has a real advantage, it rides it as far as it can, happily wiping out everything else around it even if this means dooming itself in the long term.

(Someone might say that introducing rats to isolated islands isn’t natural because humans do it. Well, one, that doesn’t change the fact that rats still act according to nature, and two, the result would be the same whether the rats got there on ships or floating on driftwood).

Nature doesn’t care about balance: nature cares about survival, and not even long-term survival.

7. “Your counterexamples don’t really prove your point so much as they prove you don’t understand mine.”

One of those things that passes through the mind a lot, but which takes a while to catch and articulate.

Flotsam: Mostly Batman

1. I’ve been re-watching some of Batman: The Animated Series lately, reminding myself of just how good it really was. Those gorgeous black-paper backgrounds, that wonderful Fleischer-style animation (the creators said they wanted it to look as though it had been made in the 1940s. I think they succeeded both in look and feel), those striking musical scores (I want to say they made a new one for each episode, certainly a new motif for each character), and of course the wonderful stories and stellar voice acting: Kevin Conroy at Batman. Mark Hamill as the Joker (I’ll admit, I almost associate him more with that role than with that sci-fi movie). Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as Alfred. Bob Hastings as Commissioner Gordon. Roddy McDowall as the Mad Hatter. Adrienne Barbeau as Catwoman. Michael Ansara as Mr. Freeze. Paul Williams as the Penguin. Ron Perlman as Clayface. David Warner as Ra’s Al Ghul. John Glover as the Riddler. Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn. Not to mention one-shot roles from the likes of Tim Curry (who was originally slated to play the Joker, but was considered ‘too scary’, which…given Hamill’s performance makes one wonder), Thomas F. Wilson, Dick Miller, Bill Mumy, John Rhys-Davies, Harry Hamlin, and of course Adam West. As the saying goes, I’d watch a cast like that read a phone book (at one point, that’s pretty close to what happens).

2. Watching the episodes, though, I was struck by how different this is from what has become the usual Batman fare, and even from the subsequent direction the character took in future shows ostensibly set in the same universe (New Batman Adventures, Justice League, etc). The stories here tend to be much more subdued and down-to-earth: ordinary crime stories and dramas (e.g. one episode has a ruthless tycoon planning to stage a gas explosion to clear out a neighborhood he wants to develop). Batman doesn’t always deal with supervillains, and even when he does the villains are themselves a bit more low-key than in other versions. Like, you’ll see scenes at Arkham where Joker, Poison Ivy, Mad Hatter, and Scarecrow are just hanging out in the lounge playing chess or watching TV while a couple of guards stand watch, occasionally intervening to break up a petty squabble. In other words, they’re…actual mental patients! A more contemporary Batman story would have all four under Hannibal-Lecter-style maximum security restraints and still murdering guards left and right.

3. The show also emphasizes Batman’s status as a detective. He spends most of the episodes following up clues and interrogating suspects (one of my favorite scenes has him interrogating a germaphobic gangster in a hospital storeroom full of viral samples: “Hm, crimson fever. Nasty way to go…”), or else trying to escape a death trap. Nor is he an infallible fighter: he’s skilled and quick, but he has to work at it to take down even normal thugs, and the show emphasizes that he’s always in danger during the action scenes (this despite the fact that most of the bad guys have an aim that would make a Stormtrooper blush).

(He’s also a lot more…well, normal. He’s less relentlessly grim, in and out of costume, than he would become, expressing fear, shock, and even amusement at times, cracking jokes with Alfred, and so on. BTAS Bruce is much more well-adjusted than later DCAU Bruce. And that’s kind of saying a lot).

Frankly, I like this a lot better than the idea that Batman’s the greatest fighter in the world (along with being the greatest everything else). I much prefer him being an extremely skilled, but still limited human being whose abilities are all tailored to his mission in life (very much like Sherlock Holmes), but which inevitably come up short sometimes, forcing him to think outside the box. I really don’t like when Batman simply pulls some obscure new skill out of his utility belt whenever it comes up, or when he’s played as being so supremely cunning that he can defeat anyone with prep time.

The big example of this sort of thing for me came in an episode of Justice League (a show I really like, by the way), where they’re dealing with a plot in some small Eastern European / western Asian nation. Batman confronts a guard, who taunts him that he can’t understand a word he’s saying anyway. Batman answers in the same language, proving himself to be fluent in it. See, that’s the sort of thing that bugs me: he would have had no reason to learn that language, it never would have come up but for this one incident. But he’s Batman, so of course he has any skill he needs because it makes him ‘cool.’

(Ironically enough, this means I have the same problem with some versions of Batman that most other people have with Superman: that’s he’s too infallible and over-stocked with abilities).

Me, I much prefer the ‘Animated Series’ style to the character. It feels to me like BTAS exists in a kind of separate, parallel world to the rest of the DCAU: a world where there isn’t a Superman or Themyscira or Green Lanter Corps, just a city full of broken, twisted human beings, some of whom have, through mad science run amok, gained powers beyond the ordinary, and where there is a hint of the supernatural, but where for the most part it’s simply all-too human heroes and criminals fighting over the lives of the ordinary citizens.

Again, I like the DCAU as a whole, and of course I love Superman, but it has a different flavor, and overall I think I like Batman best when he exists apart from ‘all that’ (it also lets me imagine that there’s a version where things turned out happier for everyone involved than Batman Beyond indicates. Among other things, I want Dick and Barbara to end up together. And no version of Batgirl should have a romance with Batman: that’s just wrong on multiple levels. But now I’m getting on even more of a tangent…).

Short version is that, as I see it, there are two versions: ‘pure’ Batman and ‘Justice League’ Batman. For my money, as far as Batman’s concerned, I prefer the former (simple way to distinguish: in ‘Pure’ version, Dick ends up with Barbara. In ‘Justice League’ version, he ends up with Starfire. Easy!).

4. On another note, still going through training at my new job. It’s much more enjoyable now that it’s getting more relevant to my actual position (still a lot of training to go, though).

That said, the on boarding process at a large corporation these days feels a lot like this to me:

“There’s no escape, but then, who would wanna leave?”

RE-POST: Why I Love ‘Independence Day’

I missed this 4th of July’s ‘Independence Day’ rewatch due to being sicker than paint, but here’s my yearly post on why it’s among my personal favorites.  

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            When Independence Day came out, it was a huge hit, but ever since then it’s kind of become the poster-child for the big, dumb, CGI-fueled blockbusters of the late 90s. And, yes, in a way it is, but…well, that’s kind of beside the point.

The Story: On July 2nd, a massive alien craft appears in orbit around the earth and sends out an armada of city-sized flying saucers that take up position above several of the world’s major cities, including Los Angeles, New York, and Washington D.C. We then see the unfolding war of the worlds through the eyes of four American men and their families: underachieving New York cable company technician David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), Los Angeles-based Marine pilot Steven Hiller (Will Smith), drunken Californian crop duster pilot Russell Casse (Randy Quaid), and the youthful President Whitmore (Bill Pullman).

So, is this movie pretty stupid? Sure. This is light science-fiction pulp, of the kind you might find in Amazing Stories, or in a drive-in theater in the late 1950s, only given a massive budget and an all-star cast. Granted, a lot of those classic films were better than this one (The War of the Worlds in particular does many of the same things while being an overall superior film), but none achieved the same sense of scale and grandeur as this one.

As for me, I’m glad we have it.

This is the movie that Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, or Invasion of the Saucer Men, or those 1940s serials dreamed of being. It’s pulp sci-fi done as an epic: national and world-spanning in scope, drenched in apocalyptic dread and patriotic defiance, with implacably hostile collectivist aliens pitted against scrappy, courageous, freedom-loving humans. It tackles big ideas of freedom, heroism, faith, family, and patriotism in a simple, but solid fashion. This may or may not sound appealing to you, but to the film’s credit is unambiguously knows what it’s trying to be and doesn’t make any apologies for it.

There are a lot of things to like about this movie. In the first place, it’s huge. Four main characters, each one carrying a small cast of supporting characters, a world-spanning plot involving a large-scale alien invasion targeting the major cities of the globe, huge airborne battles…it’s just a grand, glorious spectacle. Yet, amazingly enough, the film still manages to keep the focus largely on the people involved: we see these events through their eyes, and the real story of the film is how it affects them. It’s not done brilliantly, but it works. We very rarely leave the perspective of one of our leads, and then only briefly to illustrate things that they are talking or thinkings about. For instance, late in the film we have a brief glimpse of various armies around the world receiving and responding to the President’s call for a united counter-attack, but we quickly cut back to where the President and his military aids are receiving the answers.

At the same time, though, the four interconnected storylines make the film seem anything but constrained. On the contrary, the multiple-perspective format gives the story an epic feel that few subsequent blockbusters (Armageddon, Transformers, etc.) have successfully imitated. This is in stark contrast with Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, which though in some ways a better film was rendered all-but unbearable by the fact that we spent the whole thing welded to three boring and unpleasant characters.

The leads here, by contrast, are all charismatic and likable (though some might find Jeff Goldblum’s stammering speaking style annoying), as are most of the supporting characters. They’re not especially original, but they all have personality and serve as pleasant enough company. I particularly like Robert Loggia as the President’s right-hand general and Judd Hirsch as Goldblum’s father. It helps that most of them are played by veteran supporting players and character actors (including a pre-Firefly Adam Baldwin as the commander of Area 51 and a very young, pre-Avatar: The Last Airbender Mae Whitman as the President’s daughter). Even the SETI boss who only shows up in the opening scene is invested with life and character, thanks in part to old-pro Eric Avari. This is really one of the most impressive ensemble casts I can remember seeing in a 90s blockbuster.

More than that, though, it’s just a really good story and well-done adventure. It’s grand and epic, but also keeps focused. Appropriate for a film about the Fourth of July, the theme is pitting freedom and the American way of life against the encroaching forces of collectivist aliens backed with all-powerful technology. When, after the opening salvos, we see the Statue of Liberty lying broken in New York harbor we understand what the battle is really about.

The film’s theme plays out in the lives of its characters, who all start off having forgotten what’s really important, which they rediscover throughout the film, even as they have to fight against the implacable hostility of the alien menace. Levinson and his wife have divorced due to their divergent career paths, with her working on the White House staff while he wastes his talents at a dead-end cable job. Whitmore’s caught up in politics and has lost his authority. Hiller dithers about marrying his girlfriend for fear of how it will affect his military career. And Casse is a drunken wreck who can barely take care of his family, while his adult son sees him as an embarrassment. All the characters are then forced to reexamine their lives and ‘re-center’ on what really matters: family, faith, and country.

The four leads provide an interesting cross-section of American society about the mid-nineties: blue collar, white collar, military, politics; Black, White, Jewish; married, single, widowed, divorced. The film is thus about as representative of the American way of life of the time as could be asked for. We see that the characters in the opening don’t appreciate what they have, being lost amid their petty concerns and self-destructive behavior. It’s only when their world is threatened that they begin to re-orientate their lives around the things they’ve neglected for so long, and it is this that gives them the power to strike back.

On the other hand, the aliens prove to be the reverse of American values; they’re a kind of hive-mind, with little or no individual personality, each subject to the collective. They have no home and no land of their own: they simply move from planet to planet taking whatever they need like locusts and moving on when they’re done. When asked if there’s any possibility of the two species co-existing, they bluntly respond that there isn’t: the trademark American skill at integrating different cultures is not going to work here.

In this context, it’s significant that the film explicitly describes the aliens as having bodies ‘just as frail as ours.’ All men, and aliens, are created equal; the aliens just have better technology that allows them to impose their will upon the earth. Once mankind figures out a way around that technology, the fight becomes more even.

The specifics of that method have justly been called out as ridiculous, but, again, that’s not really the point. All they needed was a semi-plausible excuse to bring down the alien shields, and a computer virus works as well as any other (the fact that the aliens were previously established to be using the Earth’s satellites to coordinate their attack lends it just enough pseudo-validity to work in context). The important thing was how the idea was given (amid a heart-to-heart between Levinson and his father about the need to have faith even in the face of disaster) and what it leads to (a last-ditch battle for freedom).

There are so many things that, looking back, the film does really well. The motives and backgrounds of the characters are established very quickly and concisely. For instance, we meet Levinson talking with his father over chess, who urges him to move on after his divorce. The scene establishes at once 1. their respective personalities and close relationship, 2. Levinson’s divorce, 3. his intelligence as he smoothly checkmates his father, 4. his environmentalist principles, 5. his reluctance to move on with his life, suggesting both his continuing attachment to his wife and his unambitious, lethargic personality. All that in one scene that lasts maybe two minutes (these key points are  reiterated and expanded on in equally efficient subsequent scenes). A quick moment of Hiller receiving a rejection letter from NASA establishes his dreams of flying in space, which he achieves at the end, as well as establishing the reasons for his inner conflict over marrying his girlfriend. Considering how many characters the film juggles, it’s remarkable that it manages to develop its leads as well as it does.

The film also does a good job of conveying the impact of the events; a minor, but established character dies in the destruction of each city, then more characters die in the subsequent counter attack. At least one character who survives the initial bombardments later dies of her injuries simply because she couldn’t get medical care soon enough. And we see things like the President agonizing over his failure to act more decisively, or Hiller making his way to Area 51 only to learn that he’s the only survivor of his entire Marine base. The film keeps moving, but it does allow the characters to react to the disaster.

I like the humor in the film a lot as well. Many of the jokes turn on the fact that, in the course of the disaster, normal social barriers have been eliminated, leading to unexpected situations, like when Hiller’s girlfriend sheepishly admits to the First Lady that, “I voted for the other guy.” Or when Levinson’s father unexpectedly finds himself about to meet the President…and discovers that his son once punched him in the face.

I’m also impressed at how well the effects have held up, probably because (like many of the best early CG-driven films) the movie actually uses a large amount of model work and practical effects and only supplemented with computers where necessary. The destruction of New York, Los Angeles, and Washington was mostly done with models and real fire effects filmed at low speed (so, the exact same techniques pioneered in the original Godzilla), the fiery clouds surrounding the ships as they enter the atmosphere were done with models in smoke-filled tanks, while the aliens themselves are glorious animatronic costumes. On that note, the sheer fact that the film manages to make flying saucers frightening and otherworldly again after so many decades of parody and over-exposure is impressive in itself. The featureless, almost motionless ships hovering ominously over the cities convey a distinctly alien atmosphere, especially contrasted with the more familiar planes and buildings of our own world.

I could go on about it, but suffice to say, I think it’s a really good movie. Yes, it’s kinda stupid, yes it’s cheesy and overblown, but at the end of the day it succeeds in being exactly what it sets out to be, which is a big-budget, large-scale version of a classic sci-fi b-movie. It has pleasant characters, great visuals, and tells a simple, but solid story. All in all, it’s one of my favorites.

Flotsam: Snobbery, Revolutions, and the Fourth of July

1. Still in the ‘awkward transition’ phase regarding my new job, where I haven’t even begun to do the actual job I’ve been hired for (which itself is a trainee position), and I’m still getting used to the new schedule and what is and is not an option now. I’m at least keeping regular writing times, though, so that’s making me feel grounded, though I haven’t figured out how to fit blogging in.

2. At work the subject of arbitrary enforcement came up: the thing where people will create completely meaningless standards – e.g. “you take cream in your coffee? What kind of man are you?” – and enforce them for the group. I said (and the conversation moved on) that this is an authority thing: people assuming a position of authority in the social hierarchy. Status means that you are the one who sets the standard (giving nicknames is another way of assuming authority), so when you have an otherwise ‘equal’ group, those of an aggressive temperament will naturally try to seize the highest position they can.

Again, allowing for human wickedness and stupidity, this tends to only occur between ostensible equals as a means of setting the social hierarchy. It occurs between privates in a platoon, not between privates and officers. It occurs between priests in a parish, not between priests and bishops. It occurs among the gentry, not between the gentry and the artisans. Not to say you won’t find a stupid aristocrat who sneers at his tenants for not liking the right music or something, but generally vices directed at inferiors are of a different kind than snobbery: more of officiousness or arbitrary rule or selfishness.

3. Reading a piece at The Orthosphere I had one of those ‘oh, of course,’ moments, where you’re told something and realize that you should have known that all along from the nature of the case.

“highly egalitarian societies… have high homicide rates.”

Well, of course they do. When no one is any better or higher than anyone else, officially, then when there’s a dispute, the principles have to settle the matter themselves. But the only final, ‘authoritative’ way that two equal individuals have of settling matters is violence. The ‘talk it out’ solution advocated in schools only works when both sides are prepared to be reasonable and look at the matter objectively, which will be so in only a tiny minority of cases. How many times do kids on a playground actually ‘talk things out’ to the satisfaction of both? Not saying it never happens, but it would require exceptional kids on both sides.

What actually happens probably ninety-nine cases out of a hundred is that one kid, the one with the more extroverted and aggressive temperament, talks down the other and gets the rest of the group to gang up on him to force him to concede.

Because there’s another factor at play which the Orthosphere author doesn’t bring up: the fact that in the absence of an official hierarchy (or even in the presence of one, but wherever it doesn’t operate), people will create their own, even in something as petty as ‘what kind of shirt do you wear?’ or ‘what kind of car do you drive’? And people will be much more aggressive and quick to enforce these kinds of ‘unofficial’ hierarchies because they don’t rest on anything but the vigilance of the individual. A king doesn’t have to keep pushing arbitrary rules to remind people he is the king, but a ‘free and equal citizen’ does, because it’s the only way he can keep his place.

The more egalitarian you try to make a society, the more socially repressive, mistrustful, and violent it will become as people try to claw out and maintain their position.

Because the fact is that all human societies are hierarchical: that is just part of the form of society as such. If you don’t have a structure, a hierarchy, then you don’t actually have a society, just a collection of individuals, who will operate as individuals (like how if you get the parts of your computer ‘out of form’, you no longer have a computer as such, just a lot of metal and plastic operating as metal and plastic).

And one thing individuals naturally try to do is to form societies and establish social status. So that even if you could create a perfectly egalitarian state, the people living within it would quickly set up their own competing tribes and hierarchies. It would be like trying to keep the sea perfectly flat: that is just not how the thing works.

4. The evil of snobbery lies in the fact that it is someone laying claim to a status that he doesn’t actually deserve and that he misuses in any case. Mrs. Elton in Emma is a snob because she assumes a position she doesn’t actually merit, defends it aggressively by cutting down people who aren’t actually a threat to it, and uses her position bluntly and officiously once she’s in it. Emma herself is also a bit of a snob, but much less so because A). she has a right to her position, and B). she mostly uses it responsibly, except in trying to encourage Harriet to lay claim to a higher position than she’s actually entitled to (so, sort of a snobbery by proxy).

But I don’t think most people really mind class distinctions. The structure would hardly have persisted so long and so universally if they did. The people who object to hierarchies are those who want to move from one level to another and find it more difficult than they think it ought to be (trouble is that these are often the very same kind of ne’er-do-wells who like to write books). The common farmer generally doesn’t mind living under a duke: it is the nouveau-riche industrialist who chafes at aristocratic privilege.

5. And it’s the latter who leads revolutions. We like to think of rebellions as the poor, downtrodden masses rising up against their aristocratic overlords. Actually, from all I can tell, it’s the rich classes who are the revolutionaries: the ones who are powerful, but feel they aren’t as powerful as they deserve to be. That is, the ones who have more practical power than official power.

(There’s another element of the ones who feel ashamed for being rich, but don’t know what to do about it. Those who lack either the training or the stomach to be Saints become Revolutionaries as an easier alternative. And part of me wants to make a ‘Navy – Coast Guard’ joke here).

The impoverished masses tend to be conservative, at least until the propaganda gets to them. Because, of course, it really makes very little difference to the average tenant farmer or artisan or factory hand whether he lives under a republic or a monarchy, except that his sense of cultural identity (and thus tribal belonging) is bound up in whichever one he happens to have been born in. Thus the very same populations who were Loyalist in 1776 tended to be Union in 1861.

So, in summary, Revolutions tend to be rich men convincing poor men that they are being oppressed so that the poor men will go risk death to gain a higher status for the rich men.

6. On that note, happy Fourth of July everyone!

Perhaps it’ll help if I say that however the nation came to be, now that it’s established I would have it continue and improve. I would see it restored to the days of its glory, and I would be thankful even for the optimism of the early-mid twentieth century. Basically, I’d hold my tongue about this whole subject if it meant we could have a functional society again.

This, by the way, is why I’m still a Union proponent in the Late Unpleasantness, even though in many ways I sympathize more with the Confederacy. Revolution is a genie that is very hard to get back into the bottle once it gets out, and I think that if the Confederacy had been established, both it and the Union would only have experienced an endless string of bloody, petty uprisings as one state or another decided it was being oppressed and took up arms against another (heck, it nearly happened between Michigan and Ohio in 1835, and again between Arizona and California in 1934). The real necessity of the war was to firmly establish that we were done with in this country, and the result is that, after the ‘simmering down’ period, we had a more-or-less unified national identity all the way up to a couple decades ago.

7. Just so there’s no misunderstanding (yeah, right), I don’t think slavery would have outlived the 19th century, whatever happened. World opinion (i.e. the British Empire) was too set against it, and I don’t think the Confederacy, or whatever Balkanized collection of states resulted from it could have survived as the lone Western slave-holding nation. Probably would have been better overall if it slavery hadn’t been settled in the war and had simply been allowed to die a natural death, but that’s another issue entirely.

8. Let’s try to end on a high note here (wish the image quality was better, but it was the only one I could find). This is the kind of thing I’d like to see come back, my own disillusionment notwithstanding:

Thought of the Day: Another Suggestion

Once again, Mickey Mouse’s copyright is due to expire before too much longer (which would mean Uncle Walt’s spirit would finally be able to rest). I’m sure Disney will try to get copyright laws extended again, but they can’t keep that up for ever. I’d recommend they get ahead of things and select a new mascot, one that better fits their current philosophy.

I think I know the perfect one:

“The WORLD is my nemesis!”

Friday Flotsam: Tribalism and Boomers

1. I started my new job this week, which was pretty much just all orientation. A little irksome, but if they want to pay me to sit in a room and listen to someone talk for eight hours, I’ll take it. No idea how my actual job will work out, since I’ve not done anything related to it yet.

2. The company that bears the name of Disney continues to descend ever further into self-parody. This week I heard that they are not only making a live-action adaptation of Snow White, but that they cast a distinctly non-white actress in the role. Again, this is the sort of thing you’d joke about, but here we are.

I’m hoping that messing with Snow White will prove the “sailing in force into the West” of Disney, and result in the company being swallowed up in a great chasm, leaving only a remnant of the faithful behind (still reading Prof. Tolkien’s letters).

(Of course, it’s still not as ridiculous as the BBC race swapping Anne Boleyn).

3. Going through training at my current job (which is a very, ah, self-impressed company, though to be fair one that seems to have a good deal to be impressed about), it occurs to me that this is basically just a tribe: we have our chief, who acts as the active will of the collective and whom people talk about with reverence and respect, a hierarchy of senior nobility who have received their positions from the chief and are particularly invested in the well-being of the tribe, and so on. My training thus far has largely been an induction into the tribe and learning why I should appreciate it and be loyal to it, and the good of the tribe is presented as the great goal to which we are aiming.

I think our situation differs from that of our ancestors not in that our tribes are fundamentally different in nature from, say, feudalism or tribalism, or so on, it’s that we are less bound to them. We can easily move between tribes, and in fact most of us are obligated to do so. The company-tribe was always a looser bond than natural tribes – nation, church, etc. – but these days it’s looser than ever.

What we have here, in fact, is something like no-fault tribal divorce. Though since the ‘tribe’ is a natural human need, we overcompensate by being extremely tenacious in clinging to those tribes we actually do feel an emotional attachment to and which we don’t expect to have to divorce from. So, we obsess over fandoms, or sometime political parties, and so on; whatever we can feel relatively ‘safe’ within.

Just a vague, half-formed thought there. Maybe something there.

4. A very interesting and on-point video by David Stewart on the growing hatred for Baby Boomers:

Friday Flotsam: On Professor Tolkien and Related(?) Matters

1. I have been reading the letters of Professor Tolkien lately, mostly straight through, though sometimes jumping about when I want to find his views on something specific. Mostly I read it because I enjoy his company, as it were, and I feel as though I am getting to know him personally as a man. He was, of course, a genius, but what is rather more important than that what might be called a deep soul. There are great wells of sensitivity in him. I almost wrote ‘of poetical feeling’, but that doesn’t really convey the right idea. When two people love one another very deeply, they naturally come to know one another intimately, which adds further depth to their love. Some men are like that with the works of God, able to put their hands down into creation itself as it were and perceive the startling pattern and order and beauty of all these unique natures acting out creation (for creation isn’t a moment of time long ago, it’s the unfolding process all around us: a created thing doesn’t merely ‘exist’, part of its being is to act and be acted upon).

It is the sort of thing that a modern or a scientific mind tends rather to impede than otherwise, as looking at things too mechanically: e.g. continually asking “what is the good of the thing?” what which we mean “how can this thing make someone’s life a little longer, a little more secure, and a little more comfortable?” But the thing I’m talking about is a matter of seeing the good in a thing itself, as what it is.

Of course the trouble with trying to describe this is just that it doesn’t go into scientifically precise language, or if it does I’m afraid I don’t have the vocabulary for it yet (and if I did, you the reader probably wouldn’t, rendering the whole thing a glorified glossary). My point is that Professor Tolkien had this perception in abundance. He was something of an atavism: a man whose tastes and mindset were rather more of the high Middle Ages, though flavored through with that distinct character of Victorian and early 20th-century England (which is a topic all in itself).

In any case, I’m much enjoying spending time with the Professor and basking in his rich sanity.

2. It is also quite interesting to see men from different perspectives. Professor Tolkien offers a number of insights into Professor Lewis, obviously his dear friend for many years (and even after their friendship cooled he still refers to him with great affection and admiration). Among other things he refers to Lewis’s strong anti-Catholic prejudices, something that only rarely comes out in Lewis’s own writings (as he didn’t think it his place to deal with inter-communion debates, at least not publicly). Those who say that Lewis was ‘almost a Catholic’ frankly need to read more of the man: he shared many distinctly Catholic views and was friends with many Catholics and admired nuns, but his northern-Irish upbringing had left very strong roots of aversion to the Church herself (it would be an unpardonable license of me to speculate on why). That comes out even on a close reading of his religious works (e.g. his insistence that ‘the Church’ means ‘the invisible body of all believers’: one of his less coherent ideas). There’s one letter where Tolkien notes that Lewis, though otherwise as anti-Red as any man, yet had a blindspot for believing everything the papers said about Franco and the situation in Spain, refusing to hear a word in his favor or to believe the stories of priests and religious being massacred, though quick to credit tales of Protestant preachers being mistreated. He was “very quiet” after an evening with Roy Campbell, who had been in Spain and fought on Franco’s side.

It’s rather startling to find such a failing recorded, not just because it’s recorded of such an otherwise astute and good-hearted man, but also because it’s so familiar to us today. This is one of those moments where, as one of my college professors put it, the intervening years simply melt away. Though as Tolkien pointed out in commenting on the event, hatred of, or at least aversion to Rome is really the only justification for Anglicanism (St. John Henry Newman made a similar point, and it was one of the reasons he left the Anglican communion. I’d like to find Tolkien’s view on St. Newman (as an extra-extra aside, I’m finding it tricky to find a good shorthand to address this particular saint, since we also have St. John Neuman of Philadelphia. I’m reduced to addressing him by his full name every time. I rather think he finds the conundrum amusing) ).

3. I hope no one thinks I’m criticizing Professor Lewis in any of this: he’s well beyond my criticism, and as noted Professor Tolkien still fought tooth and nail against those who bad-mouthed him even after their friendship had cooled. I just think it’s interesting. We have to remember that in reading what men wrote, especially what they wrote for publication, we’re getting a very select view of them, often the very best that they have to offer, heavily polished and reflected over. That’s why, in Lewis’s own works, one is sometimes rather surprised to find him referring to his own bad temper, or to his many other, less mentionable sins. We don’t associate the erudite, warm-hearted voice of the author with the things he describes of himself. Unless, of course, we reflect on how different we are from what we ourselves write.

4. This took a different direction than I intended. I wanted to comment a bit on the Amazon ‘Lord of the Rings’ series (sic), or at least what little I’ve heard of it (i.e. that some moron wanted his own version of Game of Thrones and so appropriated Tolkien for the purposes, since the Shadow can only mock and cannot make). The most, ah, illustrative incident I’ve encountered is a tweet from whatever orc now runs ‘theonering.net’ justifying their desecration of the Professor’s work by claiming that Tolkien was ‘woke’.

Yes, the most prominent reactionary author of the 20th century, the devout Roman Catholic and Medievalist who despised ‘progress’ and who described himself as possibly “a non-constitutional monarchist” is claimed for the anti-reality brigade. May them and all their works be thrown down and forgotten.

(He also justifies the race-swapping on hand by claiming Tolkien ‘never described his character’s color’, indicating the idiot never actually read the books, given the number of times the descriptors ‘fair’, ‘swarthy’, and so on are used).

I think Professor Tolkien himself expressed my feelings best (writing of Prof. Lewis’s death): “I wish it could be forbidden that after a great man is dead, little men should scribble over him.”

5. On the other hand, I’ve also seen defenders of Tolkien claim him for the Libertarian camp, which is equally absurd. The trouble, I think, is that we today have a very limited idea of politics and worldviews: we misunderstand things because most of us only have two or three categories in which to put them (we always like to say “there are two kinds of people in the world….” Makes things so much simpler). Partly this is a consequence of our liberal heritage: liberalism always presented itself as the great foe of tyranny, which basically meant that anything not liberal was tyrannical and anything liberal was freedom (e.g. King Louis trying to enforce the established rules of the Estates General is tyranny. Confiscating the property of the Church and giving it to rich industrialists and landowners is freedom).

This tendency is reinforced by the American tradition of having two viable political parties, the platforms of which are an absurd hodgepodge of mostly unrelated positions.

The idea that someone can stand at right angles to both sides, or dispute the fundamental principles at work in both, never really enters our heads. So we try to squeeze all varieties of Monarchists (and there are probably at least as many varieties of Monarchism as there are of Liberalism, just that Monarchists tend not to feel obligated to impose their own version upon the rest of the world as the only means to liberty) or other reactionaries into the liberal-made boxes, with the result that their actual positions fly over our heads.

6. I think most people today, even those who love his work, don’t really grasp what Tolkien’s position was. They know it appeals strongly to them, and so they hunt out and focus on whatever is closest to their own point of view.

But the common appeal, I think, is the aforementioned ‘depth of soul’, which is so rare today and was never common to the degree that Tolkien had it and combined it with genius. Most examples of it are behind difficult, archaic language and obviously alien (to us) points of view, but Tolkien is a near contemporary of ours who brings all that sort of thing forward in an almost familiar way.

Basically, moderns are starved for real myth and depth and Tolkien is one of the few places they find it (his many imitators, even the talented ones, I think grasp at something they lack the background or ‘content’ to create).

All this sort of thing ought to be found in the Church, and still can be for those willing to look, but alas, the majority of the stewards of the Church are as orcish, small-minded, and materialistic (in assumption if not in belief) as most of their contemporaries and so tuck away the really appealing elements that people are starving for into the backroom as something shameful while emphasizing the same shallow, boring junk that people can get everywhere else.

7. Wow, that one took some twists and turns. Probably annoyed just about everyone at some point in that.

Thoughts on ‘Street Fighter’

Last week we looked at a video game movie that worked. This time we’re tackling one that…doesn’t. At least, not in the way the filmmakers probably intended.

1991’s Street Fighter II was one of the most popular and influential fighting games ever made, laying foundations that the genre has built upon to this day. As video game movies began to take off, it was a natural consequence that it would get an adaptation. People were still excited about video-game movies at the time, and while they had no idea how to go about it, they hadn’t yet realized the fact.

Capcom and Universal were thrilled at the idea of Street Fighter movie. They got Steven de Souza, writer of Die Hard, Commando, and 48 Hours to direct and write the screenplay, and cast white-hot action-star Jean-Claude Van Damme as the lead. Everything seemed set for an action movie classic.

The phrase “this was a brilliant idea on paper,” springs to mind.

In the southeastern nation of Shadaloo, civil war is raging against the megalomaniac General Bison, whose forces are armed with high-tech weaponry to compensate for their smaller numbers. The ‘Allied Nations’ (AN) forces are led by Colonel Guille, an American officer with a comically thick Belgian accent, as well as his second-in-commands Cammy White and T. Hawk.

The plot is kicked off when Bison kidnaps a group of aid workers and ransoms them for twenty-billion dollars, threatening to execute them after three days (his control room helpfully has a huge digital countdown). He also captures Guille’s friend, Charlie Blanka, and starts to turn him into a supersoldier under the supervision of the idealistic, but cowed Dr. Dhalsim. Bison’s troops also include Jamaican computer wiz Dee Jay and dim-witted Russian strongman Zangief.

At the same time, ne’er-do-well conmen Ryu and Ken attempt to rip off the dangerous underworld boss Sagat, only to be found out and pitted against his chief henchman Vega before all of them are arrested. Guille recruits the two to work undercover to find Bison’s lair.

Meanwhile, hot-shot reporter Chun-Li is also working to track down Bison to avenge her murdered father, with the help of her news crew, Hawaiian sumo-wrestler E. Honda and boxer Balrog.

Unlike Mortal Kombat, I had not seen this movie all the way through before watching it for this series, though I had seen parts of if and of course knew many of the story beats and lines. Having now seen it, it’s…a very strange movie.

We’re adapting the world’s most famous fighting game. Let’s structure it as more or less a Jame Bond movie, only set during a fictionalized version of the Vietnam War. The all-American hero will be played by a thickly-accented Belgian, the 7’ Thai kickboxer bad guy by a 5’10” Cherokee, and we’ll also throw in an Australian pop star and one of the supporting cast of Gandhi.The game’s protagonists will become comic relief, we’ll include a lot of goofy sound-effects and odd jokes, the villain will be plotting to take over the world with a race of green-skinned, fright-wigged super-soldiers, and to play him we’ll cast a classically trained dramatic actor who has zero martial arts experience and who is currently terminally ill.

It’s hard to know where to begin with Street Fighter. It is such an odd, stupid, ill-conceived mess that you could talk about all that’s wrong with it for hours. To begin with, as indicated above, the plot is all over the place. We have the hostage crisis. We have the war plot. We have Bison wanting to make a race of atomic supermen to conquer the world. We have Chun-Li’s quest for revenge. We have Ryu and Ken going undercover with Sagat. And all the while it’s not clear just what Bison’s position even is: is he the rebel or the ruling power? If the latter, how come Guille can’t find him? Just who is fighting him apart from the AN? Is there a Shadaloo government? Or if Bison is the government, is there a local rebellion? Where are they during all this? We never see them. And why is Colonel Guille apparently in charge of the entire American Expeditionary Force, and why is he such a public figure that he gets his face on the cover of Newsweek as Bison’s arch-foe?

Even apart from the many plot holes, the whole premise of the film is just a weird choice. So, you’re making a movie out of a fighting game. Indeed, the top fighting game in the world. What basic plot structure do you employ? A tournament film? A crime film? Something like the classic Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan films? Maybe a revenge plot? No, apparently you make a sort-of James Bond movie crossed with a Vietnam War flick (complete with a radio anchor beginning his broadcast with, “Goooood Morning, Shadaloo!”).

This is such a strange decision. Who looks at the game and thinks ‘pseudo-Vietnam War’? (My own suspicion is that this entire plot exists to justify Bison’s military garb by making him a would-be tin-pot dictator).

But the problem is not just that this is completely unrelated to the plot of the game, such as it was. Like most if not all fighting games of the time, the plot to Street Fighter II was very thin, though certainly enough to build something interesting on. No, the problem is that this set up really doesn’t allow for – indeed, almost precludes – the kind of one-on-one martial arts duels that were the entire point and appeal of the game.

(To be fair, this is still less weird than the Blade Runner-aesthetic adopted for the Super Mario Brothers movie of a year earlier).

That’s really the point on which the film collapses (well, one of many, but perhaps the most fundamental): there’s very little actual fighting in this movie (and nothing at all that could be called ‘street fighting’, leaving the title bizarrely out of place), and most of what is there consists of the characters dispatching a random goon with one or two moves before moving on to the next one. At one point Ryu faces off with Vega in a cage match clearly inspired by Vega’s stage in the game. There’s a long build up and then…Guille bursts through the wall and arrests everyone just as the fight’s about to begin. Who the hell thought that one up?

Most of the action consists of gun battles and explosions. There are only a handful of real one-on-one fights in the film, and not only are they all pretty short, but the vast majority of them are crammed into the final ten-fifteen minutes and inter cut with one another.

Now, it is just conceivable that the film could work without the fights if they focused on making full use of the game’s large cast of colorful characters. The trouble is (and this is the other – or an other – big problem) that almost all of them are either completely irrelevant, all-but-unrecognizable, or both.

We’ll talk more about the fighting, such as it is, and the characters, such as they are, later. For now, back to the plot. So, Bison kidnaps a bunch of AN aid workers and holds them for a twenty-billion dollar ransom. Then Guille offends Bison with an off-color arm gesture, which enrages Bison so much that he somehow hacks into the TV signal to turn it into a two-way video chat, where each can see the other and talk (just what Guille is looking at when he talks to Bison through Chun-Li’s television camera is a mystery. This happens twice in the film, by the way, making me question whether the filmmakers understood how television works). Upon learning that one of his captives is Guille’s friend, Bison decides to use him as the test subject for his super-soldier program.

Except that, according to his later statements, the race of atomic supermen was Bison’s main goal in the first place, but I guess he wasn’t going to begin his experiments until Guille annoyed him and he found out one of the captives was his friend? Was he just waiting to get started on his world-domination plot until he got hold of one of Guille’s buddies? He was all set to execute the guy a minute earlier.

Meanwhile, Guille wants to go after Bison, but can’t pinpoint his location except the general area. Apparently, Guille has no surveillance planes or satellites or, heck, helicopters on hand to conduct reconnaissance. Otherwise he might not have needed to send a couple of con-men undercover with Bison’s supplier to find the giant temple crawling with uniformed guards and surrounded by radar dishes. But then Ryu and Ken (the protagonists of the game, by the way) would have had even less reason to be in this film, and God knows they don’t need that.

Speaking of which, we meet Ryu and Ken trying to swindle Sagat by giving him nerf guns instead of real guns. Now, in the first place, it’s incredibly stupid that they ever thought that would work (did they think no one would so much as touch the weapons before paying?). But then there’s a bit where Sagat ‘tests’ the duo by having his men aim the weapons at them and fire, saying “Surely you’re not afraid of your own weapons.” Does Sagat think that a real firearm is so enchanted that it would never harm the man who sold it?

(This is just one example of the sometimes nonsensical dialogue in the film. At another point Sagat asks Ken “Are you with me or against me?” to which Ken quips “Is this multiple choice?” Uh, yes, it is. He gave you two choices. How is that even a joke?)

Sagat punishes the duo by subjecting Ryu to a cage match with his henchman Vega, promising Ken that he’ll be next. But just when we’re daring to hope there might be some fighting in this movie, Guille bursts through the wall in an armored truck and declares everyone under arrest. Later, still fuming about his inability to find Bison (again, have you tried searching the area you know he is in?), Guille notices Ryu and Ken fighting some of Sagat’s men in the prison yard and decides to recruit them to go undercover in Sagat’s organization. I don’t know, I can’t really see Sagat trusting these two idiots, even if they help him escape. More likely he’d dump by the side of the road and call it even because he didn’t kill them.

Their escape also involves hijacking the prison truck while it’s still parked in the middle of an army base, instead of waiting for it to drive them outside the city. I mean, it was a set-up, but still.

Though I will give the film credit that it at least shows refugees, people being hurt by the war, and uses the sight of them to justify Ryu and Ken’s accepting Guille’s offer. That was a good touch.

I also like Chun-Li’s infiltration of Guille’s headquarters. Security is much too light, of course, but she gets some good moves, like where she watches from a staircase as a guard passes by, then flips over the railing as he goes up the stairs behind her.

Later on, there’s a scene where Bison and Sagat are having an arm’s deal, and Chun-Li and her crew plan to assassinate him with a truck-bomb (which is kind of dark for a heroic character: apparently she doesn’t mind blowing up any servants or entertainers present). The trio run into Ryu and Ken, and the film then plays it as if the plot was foiled and the trio captured because the two con-men were trying to save their own skins (after they wandered into a Mexican standoff between Bison and Sagat because they somehow failed to notice either the screaming servant girls running past them or the two large groups of men pointing guns at each other. Also because they somehow thought it was a good idea to go back to the place they were just told is about to be the target of a bombing).

But the thing is, Chun-Li was the one who decided to send Bison another two-way television message gloating over his impending fate. Even then, it still might have worked had she had waited to do so until after she’d set the bomb, or at least if she hadn’t provided live footage of the approaching truck (no, I don’t know how she has that), giving ample time for everyone to escape even after standing around gawking for a bit. I mean, what did she think was going to happen?

Though the scene does feature one of the funniest (intentional) jokes in the film, where Zangief sees the truck coming on the television screen and shouts, “Quick, change the channel!”

We also learn in this scene that E. Honda and Balrog are after Bison because he ruined their sumo and boxing careers, respectively. So, a drug-lord / dictator in southeast Asia really thought it worth his time to wreck the sumo wrestling career of a guy in Hawaii? I mean, petty as he was, I can’t picture Mao spending the time or effort to sabotage the career of, say, Barbara Ann Scott, the champion figure skater, so thoroughly that nothing was left to her but to seek revenge (though if anyone cared to make a movie about that…).

Also, as noted the above scene features Sagat’s men turning their guns on Bison in outrage after he tries to pay them in ‘Bison dollars’, and Bison’s men responding in kind. The very next scene, they’re working together harmoniously once more. Why on Earth would Sagat continue to do business with Bison after that? He knows he’s not going to get paid in anything worthwhile. Or why would Bison trust Sagat to the point of bringing him into his secret headquarters? Actually, why would he do that regardless if secrecy is so important to him? Sagat could easily sell the information to Guille for anything he liked, and he obviously has no personal loyalty to Bison, so…why? Apart from the need to get all the villains in the same place for the climax, I mean.

Chun-Li and her crew are captured off-screen after that, and she’s put into something like her classic costume (though inexplicably red instead of blue) by Bison and sent to his chambers, where she recounts how he murdered her father. This is a legitimately pretty good scene, by the way, and prompts prompts probably the best line in the film. Chun-Li lays out the full story of her father’s heroic death, her voice dripping with hatred and contempt as she throws his crime in Bison’s face…only for him to spoil the whole thing by admitting that he doesn’t even remember the event. “For you,” he says, “The day Bison graced your village was the most important day of your life. But for me…it was Tuesday.”

(I love Julia’s performance here, by the way: he isn’t taunting her, or angry, or disturbed in any way. He’s just mildly interested in the story of the genuinely long-forgotten incident).

Chun-Li then breaks out of her restraints and proceeds to kick the crap out of Bison, giving us one of our rare one-on-one fights. Well, sort of: it’s not so much a fight as it is her mercilessly kicking him for a minute or so before the other good guys rush in to rescue her and he takes advantage of the distraction to escape.

Turns out Bison’s private chamber has a switch just outside the door that seals the entrances and releases sleeping gas. He’s apparently very confident in his minions’ loyalty and the integrity of his security. Not to mention the good will of the guy who was ready to shoot him about two scenes before.

Meanwhile, Guille is ordered to pull out by what may be the most cartoonishly smarmy bureaucrat ever committed to film. Instead he delivers a stirring speech about freedom and justice and promises to go up river and “kick that son-af-a-bitch Bison’s ass so hard. That the next Bison wannabe. Is gonna feel it.”

Not quite the ‘Patton in front of the flag’ speech

Again, this does lead into a handful of decent jokes, like when the bureaucrat reports to his superiors that not all Guille’s men have left, at which point we cut to a morose-looking cook in an otherwise empty base. The bureaucrat himself is such a ridiculous caricature that I found him hilarious.

We then get what fans of the game really wanted to see: Guille’s invisible boat riding through a minefield and blowing up radar stations (did the filmmakers play the wrong game at the arcade or something?). During this, Bison uses a control panel modeled directly after the arcade cabinet to direct his defenses. Nice idea in theory, but looks laughably out-of-place in what’s supposed to be a piece of military hardware. Maybe Bison just likes the bright colors. He blows up the boat, but Guille, Cammy, and T. Hawk escape and sneak in on foot (Guille chooses the moment when they’re literally crawling directly under the noses of some of Bison’s guards to ask T. Hawk about his headband).

During this time, Dr. Dhalsim has secretly switched out the software meant to condition Blanka into an unstoppable killing machine for software apparently meant to make him nice. The former consists of non-stop war newsreels, while the later is a mix of happy stock footage (and why did they even have that?). That’s all it takes to re-program a brain, I guess. In any case, this results in Blanka escaping and electrocuting his guard.

Guille gets in and is ready to euthanize Blanka, but Dhalsim stops him with some cartoon-level platitudes about choice and so on. There’s a big assault on Bison’s base and we finally get a few actual one-on-one fights: E. Honda vs. Zangief, Ryu and Ken vs. Sagat and Vega, and, of course, Guille vs. Bison (which happens after Bison has clearly already lost), while the other characters dispatch a goon or two in passing while hustling the hostages out of the fortress. During their escape, Chun-Li pauses to question Cammy’s hair-style, and she responds in kind.

At about this point, Ryu and Ken have the standard “temporary break up because one is idealistic, the other is practical.” The entire thing, from the disagreement to the reconciliation, takes place over the course of about five minutes. It ends with Ken giving Sagat the gold statue he was going to loot from Bison’s headquarters saying, “if I hadn’t met you, I might have become you.” Uh, at what point was Ken ever tempted to be like Sagat?

(It occurs to me it might be a reference to Sagat’s early comment about how the last kickboxing champion “Retired and became me.” I like that line, but again, nothing in Ken’s storyline indicates that was a possibility for him).

Guille defeats Bison, but he’s revived by his suit, which is then powered up to allow him to fly and shoot lighting (why would I make that up?). He beats Guille up a bit with his new powers (“You came here to fight a madman and instead you found a god!”), then Guille kicks him into a wall of screens and he dies again. Then the building blows up, but more or less everyone escapes and delivers their victory poses from the game.

I guess this is as good a time as any to talk a bit more about the fighting. Again, there’s very little actual martial arts action going on here: a few quick group shots and individual moves against random goons making up the bulk of it. There are almost no wide, long shots of the actors going at it: the fights are generally filmed close-in, with numerous cuts, presumably to better help disguise the lack of training among the participants. There are also a number of ill-conceived bits of choreography, the funniest of which occurs when Cammy jumps on a guy’s back, snaps his neck, flips him over, and then punches him out.

The fight between Zangief and E. Honda is a cool idea on paper (and Honda becomes one of the few characters to actually use one of his moves from the game), and is at least fun to watch, but it has zero stakes and mostly involves them simply wrestling around a bit until Honda just declares the fight over and runs off with his friends.

To be fair, Zangief is as confused and disappointed by this as we are.

Ryu and Ken vs. Sagat and Vega is probably the most competent fight in the film, since it’s the only one where most of the participants seem to have a respectable level of skill (I don’t think Wes Studi was a trained fighter, but he’s at least athletic enough to fake it). Bryan Mann as Ryu and Jay Tavare as Vega in particular get to show some decent athleticism (Vega is possibly the best realized character in the film, which isn’t saying much since he’s basically just a henchman here, but he at least looks and acts right). It also includes what might possibly be Ken’s famous ‘Shoryuken’ move…but also might just be a normal uppercut.

By the way, the fight takes place in a locker-room / gym. Ryu defeats Vega by opening up an incinerator door and using it to heat up his metal mask.

Why does the locker room have an incinerator?

“What? You never had to get rid of really old gym shorts?”

Probably the most embarrassing fight of all is Chun-Li’s attack on Bison. Yes, it’s kind of cool to see the First Lady of Fighting Games cutting loose and proving her metal on screen, but the fact that she so thoroughly trounces him and is only prevented from outright killing him by circumstances kind of undermines him as a threat (as if we needed that given Raul Julia’s wan face and evident lack of martial arts training).

Then there’s Guille vs. Bison, otherwise known as ‘Jean-Claude Van Damme beats up a 52-year-old cancer patient.’ It’s as awkward and unimpressive as you can imagine, with many, many cuts to try to disguise Julia’s lack of fighting ability (including one bit where it looks like they under crank the film to make him look faster than he is). They then give up and just give him superpowers, which involves hanging him on wires and running him into Guille again and again (this was never foreshadowed or set up, by the way: it just comes out of nowhere to give Guille an actual challenge).

The battle of the century

On that note, let’s talk about the characters. As indicated above, the film is hampered by the studio-mandated need to feature every single one of the game’s sixteen fighters (they ended up excluding exactly one, Fei Long, though the character of Captain Sawada seems more less based on him). And not just in cameos, but present throughout the film. However, for the most part they only vaguely resemble their counterparts from the game and have nothing of what made them memorable. Only a minority even have anything that you could call a personality trait.

Left to right: Bison, Ken, Ryu, Chun-Li, Balrog, Honda

The script is visibly struggling to include all of them, which results in odd things like the aforementioned ‘Bison ruined E. Honda’s sumo career,’ or the fact that the names ‘Dee-Jay’ and ‘Dhalsim’ are pretty much just penciled in over completely different stock characters (arguably, so were ‘Ryu’ and ‘Ken’). This is also a likely cause of the film’s bloated, convoluted plot: the super-soldier element, for instance, pretty clearly exists solely to justify Blanka’s existence, as it ties into nothing else.

Many of the characters are just names: T. Hawk could have been cut out and no one would have noticed. Balrog likewise contributes nothing apart from the fact that Grand L. Bush (best known as one of the Agents Johnson in Die Hard) is utterly unconvincing as a boxer. He’s a good actor, as seen in his other work, but he’s not particularly big or muscular (middle-weight at best) and has a professional, intelligent, sophisticate kind of screen persona that is the polar opposite of Mike Tyson-avatar Balrog.

Kylie Minogue is cute as a button, and though not a great actress has good charisma and comes across as just incredibly sweet on screen, which makes her nothing short of ridiculous as Cammy, whether talking the game version or the film’s supposed special-forces soldier (I actually wish she’d done more movies, to be honest: she’d be a great fit in a romantic comedy. Not so much an action film, or at least not an action role). She pretty much just exists as someone for Guille to talk to, as she likewise contributes nothing to the plot except being charming.

E. Honda is at least big enough (there’s a funny moment early on where he squeezes past Balrog while they’re all crammed in the news van) and he comes across okay as far as he goes, though he spends most of his time driving Chun-Li’s van around and of course bears little resemblance to his game counterpart. Again, Dhalsim and Dee-Jay are names and ethnicities and nothing else, and they’re otherwise just the ‘scientist cowed into working the villain’ and ‘evil computer guy’, respectively (though Dee-Jay does get a few laughs, like when he responds to one of Bison’s grandiloquent pronouncements with a thoroughly disinterested, “okay”).

Wes Studi as Sagat looks like he’s wondering just what the heck he’s doing there most of the time, though to be fair that fits the character as envisioned in the film. He’s obviously nothing like the towering Muay Thai giant he was in the games, in fact if anything he’s shorter than most of the other characters, meaning he really only has the eye patch and the scar – visible precisely once – in concession to the role. Though he is at least authoritative enough to be convincingly dangerous nonetheless. It’s funny to think that one year later he’d be part of the acting all-star game that is Heat.

(On that note I have to say how weird it is to see great dramatic actors like Raul Julia, Wes Studi, and Roshan Seth trading this Saturday-morning-cartoon-level bad dialogue back and forth).

Ryu and Ken are all-but unrecognizable, being reduced to bumbling comic-relief con-men, though as noted they at least get a decent fight in at one point, which puts them ahead of most everyone else. Blanka is pretty much just a plot point, spending most of the film sitting in a booth being programmed and then a few minutes running around a dark stage in really bad green make-up and a wig, looking more like a troll doll come to life than the ape-like wildman from the games. Captain Sawada, the Fei Long stand in, is…well, the thing there is that Ken Sawada, the actor playing him, was originally cast as Ryu, until it was discovered that his English was terrible and so he was recast in a minor role that only kinda-sorta existed in the game and then just pops up once in a while. He’s dubbed in the role, but I don’t know why they bothered with this, since I almost have to believe that any performance he might have given would have been better than that of whoever did his dubbing.

On the other hand, Andrew Bryniarski as Zangief seems to have simply walked out of the game, and though he doesn’t get much to do and his fight with Honda is pretty lackluster compared with what it might have been (Bryniarksi had been a professional wrestler, but he doesn’t really get to show any wrestling moves here), he’s still one of the best things in the film for his dim-witted antics (“You got…paid?”). As noted, Vega is likewise one of the best realized characters, as far as he goes.

The only other character who more or less comes off intact is Chun-Li. Ming-Na Wen isn’t as bubbly as the character seems to be in the games, but she otherwise fits the role pretty well, and legitimately has the charisma to pull off such an iconic character (no small compliment, given that Chun-Li is considered one of the classic video game beauties). She also actually gets a plot-line and some characterization and even a handful of decent action scenes. I don’t know if she’s a trained fighter, but she’s athletic enough to not be absurd at least.

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And yes, I do love the fact that Chun-Li later became the voice of Mulan.

What about the two leads?

I have to admit, I haven’t seen any of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s other movies (unless you want to count Kung Fu Panda 2), so I don’t know if he’s always this bad or if it was a result of his well and truly not giving a damn while being coked out of his mind for the whole shoot. But, yeah, his performance is the stuff of legends, and his thick Belgian accent is hilariously distracting in what is supposed to be an explicitly all-American character (the guy has the flag tattooed on his bicep, which gets a helpful close-up at one point).

Otherwise, he’s just Jean-Claude Van Damme, since I’m not sure Van Damme could play any other roles (actually, judging by this film, I’m not sure he could play that one): your straight-up American military badass maverick from a thousand other 80s-style action films. That’s fine as far as it goes, and is a perfectly acceptable interpretation of the character (not withstanding the accent), though attempts to play him up as an inspiring leader and hero fall laughably flat. And again, his position doesn’t make a lot of sense: why is a special forces colonel the public face and military commander of apparently the entire war?

As for Raul Julia as Bison, he exists beyond criticism. Like Jon Voight in Anaconda, what we have here is a genuinely great actor cutting loose and going full-bore pulp-film ham on a role. You can’t call the performance either good or bad: it simply is. This is really the chief reason to see the movie, and every moment he’s on screen is a treasure of bizarre, whole-hearted entertainment. Bison is a gloriously over-the-top character, the kind for whom the phrase ‘delusions of grandeur’ is far too tame. He does things like paying Sagat in ‘Bison dollars’, which he assures him will be worth five British pounds after he’s kidnapped the Queen. He just tosses that off causally, as something that of course he’ll be able to do once he gets around to it. Or there’s a bit where he’s planning his capital city of ‘Bisonopolis’ and comments that the food court is too small, since “all the big franchises will want to get in.” Right down to the pettiest points, he not only assumes himself superior, but assumes everyone else will agree.

“…Until the very planet is in the loving grip of the Pax Bisonica!”

As I say, Julia was a great actor and it’s pretty clear this is not him mocking the film, but legitimately how he thinks the role should be played. He apparently did a lot of research into dictators and crime lords to inform his performance and, yeah, you can definitely see that: that sort of absolutely self-assured, narcissistic perspective combined with an almost childish impracticality. Bison’s a cartoon, but an accurate cartoon. And again, he’s just a joy to watch as he sweeps about the sets with Shakespearean authority, delivering his gloriously cheesy lines with seemingly boundless energy (“Keep your own God! In fact, now would be a good time to pray to Him!”). It’s all the more impressive when you remember the man was actually dying at the time, yet he still dives into the role with so much gusto that apart from his thin face you would never know it.

“GAAAAME OVEEER!”

(For those who don’t know the story, Raul Julia was suffering from stomach cancer at the time the film was being made. He knew it was likely going to be his last performance, so he let his kids pick which role he’d play. They were big fans of the game and so picked M. Bison, and he pulled out all the stops to give them a performance they would enjoy – as well as taking a hefty paycheck to ensure their support. He died not long after filming wrapped, two months before the movie’s release.

I could never fault Julia taking the role, and have nothing to complain of in the result, but I do have to wonder who thought of him in the role in the first place).

“Why settle for mere money? After I defeat the AN, what if I were to share the country with you?”

That said, Bison is fun, but he isn’t exactly an impressive villain. One of the first things we see him do is lose his temper just because Guille makes an off-color hand gesture to him on a news report (though later completely unfazed when Chun-Li calls him a coward to his face). His ridiculously over-the-top speeches and grandiose plans come across as simply goofy (the fact that many other characters, including his underling Dee-Jay, clearly don’t take his pretensions very seriously doesn’t help), and there are several points where he lets himself get placed in positions of weakness through either incompetence or neglect, from which he only escapes because his enemies are as incompetent as he is. And of course, the second time we see him in a fight, the female lead walks all over him.

None of this is exactly out of character – again, he’s a petty dictator with extreme delusions of grandeur – but it doesn’t really do much to make him a convincing threat or up the stakes any. Heck, by the time he and Guille have their showdown, his base has been found out and mostly conquered, meaning he’s already lost the main plot (not to mention that the AN troops only need to shoot him for the film to be over).

The thing about the characters in general is not so much that they are different from the games. Again, it isn’t like the games had much characterization. Rather, it’s that you have this great roster of colorful characters representing an insane gamut of different types, and you turn them into a group that wouldn’t look out of place at a PTA meeting and you spend most of the time just having them stand around doing menial work (watch E. Honda drive a van! Watch Cammy chair a meeting! Watch Dhalsim use a computer! Watch T. Hawk…which one’s T. Hawk?).

For instance, in the game, E. Honda is a sumo wrestler who wants to prove that sumo is a legitimate martial art and so enters the wold tournament to pit his brand of sumo wrestling against the best fighters in the world. That’s not deep characterization, but it’s at least original. Here he’s a fat Hawaiian guy who drives a van and is mad because his promising sumo wrestling career got scuttled by a power-mad dictator. Oh, and at one point he demonstrates a high pain tolerance, which isn’t set up by anything and which never comes into play again. That’s it.

It isn’t that it’s different, it’s that it’s so much less interesting.

So, the plot is a mess, the characters are mostly flops, and the action is lame. What else?

Well, what surprised me was how cheap the film looks. The sets are adequate, but by and large, look to me like they might have come from a decently-budgeted TV show. Dhalsim’s lab in particular wouldn’t be out of place on something like The Man From UNCLE. Bison’s command center is nothing much to look at: just a rather cluttered Bond villain lair copied by someone with half the budget. I don’t know whether this is because they’re actually cheap, or just over-busy and ill-shot. Most of the rest of the film takes place in board rooms or generic Asian city streets (though no fighting in those streets). Bison’s holed up in an ancient temple, but we don’t get many shots of the exterior and, again, the interior’s just a bog-standard villain lair. The sets often feel rather small and cramped somehow, like a stage set where the environment is compressed to fit into the available space, and the fight scenes mostly take place in these cramped, dull locations.

I do love how Bison has a dedicated ‘hostage pit’, complete with automated announcement related to it on the intercom. Apparently, the situation really does come up that much in his life. and all that said, there are some creative details sprinkled about. I especially appreciated the propaganda posters lining the walls in Bison’s hideout, depicting the AN forces as evil claws gripping at the nation. Someone did their homework there. Another set detail I appreciated was that the reclining Buddha statue from Sagat’s stage in the game appears as part of the décor in his club.

Bison’s private chamber likewise has some amusing touches, like the Napoleon-style self-portrait and the John Wayne Gacy-style abstract painting. Though again, these are amusing, but not really anything else: they’re too broad and obvious a joke and don’t really make sense taken together (if they were going for a Hitlerian artistic taste, it should be nothing but classical-style art: the Gacy painting is jarringly out of place for that). It’s pretty much just an ‘I understood that reference’ joke.

That is another thing, the film at times feels like a parody of itself. There are odd jokes, like the bit where a Godzilla roar plays over Honda and Zangief’s fight for no reason, or Bison’s intercom reminding his troops that their benefits depend on their performance, or the aforementioned gag of Ryu and Ken trying to sell nerf-guns to Sagat. Bison’s winged skull logo shows up everywhere in his hideout to the point of absurdity, even in places like the backs of chairs and topping his martini stick! There’s also the fact that Bison is never once shown without his hat, and has a set of differently colored ones for various occasions.

I don’t know what they were going for here, because the film isn’t structured like a comedy but it often plays like one, and not just unintentionally. It’s as if part of the crew thought they were making an action film and the rest thought they were making a spoof of action movie.

Now, all that having been said, as bad as this movie is – and it is a very bad movie – you really can’t dislike it. It’s so stupid, so ridiculous, and so cartoonish that it becomes rather charming. This is one of the classic bad films of its generation, like The Room or Plan 9. In any case,it’s definitely not boring. Between Van Damme’s incredibly distracting accent, Raul Julia’s performance, and the spectacle of futilely trying to cram so many characters and plot-lines in, it’s frankly hilarious. And again, some of the jokes do land: “change the channel,” “I’d love to, but some idiot just canned me,” or Bison’s (ad-libbed), “I guess you didn’t see that!” taunt directed at Sagat. There are, honestly, some decent things here, though mostly superficial: Chun-Li and Zangief surviving the transition to the screen, a few individual moments, some decent lines, and again, Raul Julia, who really can’t be mentioned often enough as by far the best thing in the film.

Besides all that, there’s just something downright charming about the film. It’s a bad movie, but it isn’t malicious in any way, and the filmmakers are clearly really trying to give the audience an entertaining ride.

All things considered, I definitely would recommend seeing it at least once for the sheer entertainment value, and for one of the most memorable final performances ever committed to film.

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“SHORYUK…Oh, wait, we’re not doing that here.”