Category Archives: fantasy

Wizards (1977)

I suppose I’m no different from others in that I hold the belief that the pop culture of my youth is vastly superior to today’s. I’m at a point where all I see is an odd mixture of hyper-PC agitprop and a mind numbing conveyor belt of destructathons that are bereft of meaning. Or a combination of both. Admittedly, my elders undoubtedly held the pop culture of my youth in disdain, but I still perceive a sharp contrast between then and now. Among the films for which I reserve a great deal of affection is Ralph Bakshi’s animated sci-fi fantasy epic from 1977, Wizards. In contrast to the sanitized, monolithic preachiness found in the messaging of today’s animation, Wizards is a relic from an era where liberals were trying to transgress the boundaries of cultural norms and it actually felt rebellious. That’s not to say Wizards is devoid of ideological programming, but it is remarkable to observe how yesterday’s radical vision would never see the light of day in today’s climate of supercharged cultural politics.

Wizards is a post-apocalyptic sci-fi/fantasy reimagining of the story of Cain and Abel stripped of its theistic underpinnings. As hard as it tries to conjure its own moral mysticism engaged in an epic clash of good and evil, it retains a nihilistic inertia at its core. Though it is satisfying on its own terms as a work of fantasy, the fact that it is a piece of cultural programming with a presumed youth oriented message requires that we evaluate its merits. When you open your film with a monologue which reengineers Genesis, you’re not exactly making agenda-free entertainment.

The world blew up in a thousand atomic fireballs. The first blast was set off by five terrorists. It took two million years for some of the radioactive clouds to allow some sun in. By then, only a handful of humans survived.

In place of some kind of creation event, Bakshi is giving us mass annihilation while suggesting the concept of eternal return. Man is trapped in a deterministic wheel of time which is marked by an inescapable struggle between the forces of technology and magic. Why bother even trying to make the world a better place if mutual mass destruction is an inevitability? The reference to five terrorists is also an interesting piece of predictive programming because Bakshi is already hinting at the world of independent acts of terrorism we currently inhabit. Whether it’s a reference to a past act of terrorism like the Munich Massacre or the Entebbe incident is an open question.

Two million years after the nuclear armageddon, actual humans remain mutated monsters. In the good lands, the “true ancestors of man”, elves and fairies, resurfaced. As humanity’s primeval ancestors, elves and fairies are apparently good by default simply as a result of their belief in magic and being in tune with nature and shit. At a big celebration, the Eve of this post-apocalyptic ancient future, Delia, is mysteriously drawn back to her home to give birth her immaculately conceived wizard twins. The moral character of Avatar and Blackwolf is apparent right away. Avatar is handsome and sweet and therefore fated to be good. Blackwolf is a surly and mean spirited mutant who apparently has nothing but hatred and malevolence in his heart. There’s no attempt to portray morality as something with an independent metaphysical reality in the divine mind. Instead, it’s simply biological luck of the draw and Blackwolf got the bad hand.

Upon Delia’s death, Avatar and Blackwolf engage in a cataclysmic struggle for global supremacy. Blackwolf is vanquished and is forced to retreat into the radioactive wasteland while Avatar presides over the peaceful land of Montagar. Just like every other piece of sci-fi or fantasy, Bakshi is solely concerned with the struggle for political dominion in this world.

Ensconced at his castle headquarters, Scortch One, Blackwolf begins his preparations for conquest. Using black magic, he summons a high command of demonic generals to lead an army of mutants who are initially enslaved through his Nietzschean will. Whether this period of research and experimentation in Blackwolf’s career of evil is Bakshi’s encoded reference to the alleged Nazi fascination with Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s mystical works is also up for grabs.

He then formed an army whose generals were called up from the black shadows of hell. Souls who waited for untold eternities for a new leader, Blackwolf’s tremendous power enslaved them all to carry out his will.

His armies lacked the motivation and inspiration necessary to carry out mass extermination so he sends his minions out to uncover the lost technology of the pre-apocalyptic world. Not only does he begin to build actual military vehicles and weapons, he harnesses the most powerful weapon of all: mass media. By unearthing the propaganda and iconography of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime, Blackwolf becomes a post-apocalyptic, mutant wizard fascist. Though the usage of technology and media is presented in a one dimensional way, this is arguably the great editorial masterstroke of Wizards. Bakshi himself is imprinting the one absolute moral negative in the postmodern, multicultural, materialist consensus: Nazism. In 2018, the spectre of fascism is perhaps the one and only universally denounced evil for anyone living in a Western country. In the wrong hands, a demagogue can use mass media to awaken the racial and national consciousness of the white race and drive them to commit unspeakable violence against Jews, blacks, Muslims, LGBTQIAPP2 folx, liberals and socialists. No one else is capable of comparable levels of evil though. Especially not communists. What’s less explicit is that Bakshi is using the exact same tools as Blackwolf to promote this very one sided view of evil, propaganda and the abuse of state power.

Analogous to Vaughn Bode’s futuristic killer in name and design, Blackwolf deploys Necron 99 to carry out an assassination against the president of Montagar. Pushing the envelope of the PG rating, Bakshi portrays prostitute fairies working their trade as Necron 99 plods through the streets of occupied territories. On his journey, he takes out hapless elves and fairies simply for their belief in magic. Apparently, only certain elves are willing to take up arms in defense of people and country. After suffering a devastating loss to Blackwolf’s newly propagandized and armed mutant forces and usage of media psy-ops, the elves quickly realize that the generations of peace are imperiled by this rising threat. Bakshi is also giving a voice to the rising tide of environmentalism and eco-consciousness that now comprises one of the pillars of progressive piety.

My children, the only true technology is nature. All the other forms of manmade technology are perversions.The ancient dictators used technology to enslave the masses.

Voiced by Bob Holt and living in one of Ian Miller’s surrealist castles nested amidst the pastoral bliss of Montagar, Avatar has become a curmudgeonly, cigar smoking facsimile of Peter Falk. He is joined by the voluptuous and highly sexualized fairy princess, Elinore. Wearing an impossibly skimpy outfit that has surely triggered an angry gender studies graduate thesis, Elinore is Avatar’s MK Ultra subject training for her initiation into the Masonic Lodge of Montagar. Upon hearing news that Blackwolf’s forces are advancing, Necron 99 guns down the president of Montagar who happens to be dressed like a harlequin. Even in the idyllic paradise of Montagar, the political leader is a clown. Another piece of predictive programming? You decide.

Mirroring an idea that would be duplicated in the Terminator films, Avatar reprograms Necron 99 to be their protector and rechristens him Peace. Avatar, Elinore and elven warrior Weehawk set off to Scortch One in order to save civilization from ruin. Magic is an unalloyed force for good, and it enables those who wield it to reprogram the technology of the bad people who only believe in technology. Or something.

Bakshi’s bleak cynicism reveals itself in the little vignettes of Blackwolf’s goons interspersed throughout the film. In one scene, two of Blackwolf’s soldiers seek the charity of religious leaders to feed their POWs. As they enter the temple, what they discover are relics of pop culture. When they finally enter the sanctuary, they find two priests/rabbis asleep in front of a tapestry of the CBS logo/eye of Horus. Bakshi is essentially telling you that pop culture and media has completely supplanted the role of religion. The two priests/rabbis manage to forestall captivity by invoking the necessity for prayer. They engage in an increasingly absurd pantomime of religious rituals which leaves little doubt over Bakshi’s utter disdain for religion. Their antics lull the soldiers to sleep, and upon awakening, they resolve to move to Plan B to fully secure control of the temple. After signaling to the soldiers outside the temple to initiate Plan B, the temple is blown to smithereens. Take that, religion.

Bakshi’s handling of Blackwolf’s belief in eugenics seems contradictory. He orders his unborn child destroyed because it would be a mutant, but he propagandizes his mutant armies with the belief that they will be the new master race. So either Bakshi is saying he doesn’t really believe what he’s saying to his own armies or that “bad” humans themselves are descendants of Blackwolf. As was originally established, morality is a biological certainty. The theme of mutation has been extended and inverted in recent years. Where Wizards paints it as physical and moral deformation, films like X-Men have elevated mutation to full blown hero status.

Wizards culminates in an epic battle between the remainder of the elven world against Blackwolf’s armies. He combines rotoscoped footage of older war films with an orgy of Frank Frazetta inspired fantasy carnage and death. It’s pretty gruesome for a PG, but it looks cool and it’s yet another example of how Wizards pushed the envelope. While this battle rages, Avatar and Blackwolf face off against one another in what amounts to a rather anticlimactic showdown. Given that the this was framed as a struggle between technology and magic, the manner in which Blackwolf is killed doesn’t make this chasm as irreconcilable as he originally presented it.

Once Blackwolf is vanquished, the armies lose their will to fight and Scortch One collapses and explodes as Weehawk declares that “The world is free!” It’s an idea that would be repeated that same year in a little space opera called Star Wars as well as films too numerous to count. It’s not a proper reflection of our post-national world, but the idea of vanquishing evil and liberating humanity by killing the leader and destroying his stronghold has retained its strength. But remember. It’s only a respite before the next iteration of evil on the eternal wheel of time.

In the end, Bakshi’s final message is summed up in the beautiful but despairing final song, “Only Time Will Tell”. It boils down to little more than Let’s Hope for The Best.

Elinore: [singing “Only Time Will Tell”] Time renews tomorrow. When we’ve used today. It will find the sorrow and wish it all away. Love can play a new tune. On this carousel. It may be tomorrow. But only time will tell. Somewhere in the darkness. There must be a light. Leading us together. Through the misty night. And maybe in the new dawn. We can break the spell. It may be tomorrow. But only time will tell. There can be a new dream. One for us to hold. Made with peace and hope and built upon the old. No one has the answer. To give away or sell. Tomorrow holds the secret. But only time will tell.

Despite its flaws, Wizards retains an appeal that I cannot deny. Whether it’s the psychedelic flanged synth swells, the orchestral battle funk, or the various Ian Miller background illustrations, Wizards still occupies a very special place in my heart. Like the two other sci-fi films from that year, Damnation Alley and Star Wars, Wizards has a vitality that transcends its narrative flaws. It’s both of its time and beyond it. The allure of magic and magicians has only taken deeper root in the public mind as the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter franchises amply attest. But the fear of technological enslavement seems fully abandoned. If anything, the proliferation of transhumanist themed cyberpunk seems to suggest that technology and magic can coexist. I guess it’s just a question of whether or not you think that’s a positive development for civilization.

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Schooltree: Heterotopia

When I heard that Lainey Schooltree was composing a rock opera, I could hear my own inner Boromir at the Council of Elrond. It was as though I had just heard the news that the One Ring was to be brought to Mordor.

One does not simply write a prog rock opera, Lainey. The black gates of the music industry are guarded by more than just Orcs. There is evil there that does not sleep. And the great Eye is ever watchful. It is a barren wasteland. Riddled with Arianna Grande and DNCE and Beiber. The very air you breathe is a poisonous fume. Not with ten thousand men could you do this. It is folly!

Never one to back down from an epic musical calling, that’s precisely what she set out to do. Fortunately for us, she succeeded and Heterotopia is the prog rock opera you’ve been waiting for. A project four years in the making, Heterotopia is a sprawling 100-minute epic which earns a place alongside Tommy, The Wall, or any other comparable effort you can name. Yes, it’s that good.

Heterotopia is a sort of metaphysical Hero’s Journey mixed with gothic fantasy. It’s a pomo Alice in Wonderland meets Lord of the Rings by way of Neil Gaiman. It’s a story of a down and out singer named Suzi who is disillusioned with the music industry, but finds her reality shattered when she follows a 100-legged cat down a rabbit hole into an alternate reality called Otherspace. While in Otherspace, she discovers that she has detached from her physical form and may not be able to recover her corporeal self. Worse, Otherspace is slowly being overrun by an encroaching darkness which threatens to enter the physical world and Suzi finds herself faced with an existential choice.

As good as it is, Heterotopia walks a very interesting tightrope. It has a seemingly populist heart, but it’s counterpoised by an overall vibe of gothic gloom. It may be a difficult pill to swallow for those expecting the kind of ecstatic emotional peaks one might reasonably expect from a rock musical. As a work of progressive rock, it’s an unmitigated triumph. Heterotopia is a cornucopia of musical riches for even the most rabid prog head. It has all of prog’s virtues and none of its vices. It has epic melodies, knotty riffs, angular rhythms, squiggly synth lines, dense harmonies, and plenty of odd metered nerdity. There’s also plenty of old fashioned arena sized, fist pumping rockage. None of it feels excessive, and all of it is ultimately subordinate to Schooltree’s impeccable instincts for songcraft. It is short on any kind of extended improvisation, but when the guitar jam and synth freakout finally arrive, it’s some serious lighters-in-the-air shit.

Schooltree’s prog bona fides are unimpeachable. She has clearly done her turntable homework. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is an obvious musical and thematic touchstone, but Schooltree hacks the prog genome and produces a refreshing and satisfying mutation of her own. Heterotopia reaches for the towering heights of Yes, Genesis, Queen, Supertramp and even deeper recesses of the family tree like Klaatu and Gentle Giant. I’m even going to second Jon Davis at Exposé by saying that Heterotopia bears some similarities to early Saga. One also detects the unmistakable DNA signature of Broadway musicals like Into the Woods and Jesus Christ Superstar coursing through its bloodstream. Musicals should be judged on the strength of the vocal storytelling, and Heterotopia doesn’t disappoint. Schooltree has an equal gift for the anthemic hook, the spectral vocal choir, and the spooky incantations of Dreaming-era Kate Bush. The songs are packed with hooks, but Schooltree always manages to subvert your expectations with a clever turn of phrase. The catchiness of the songs is offset by lyrics filled with ghosts, zombies, illusions, and pits of darkness. Schooltree is one of those artists who writes the most beautifully captivating melody or irresistible pop earworm, but when you listen to what she’s saying, the subject matter often belies the emotional tenor of the music.

The drama of Heterotopia centers around Suzi’s quest to reclaim her corporeal self. In order to achieve this, she must confront the fallen queen of Otherspace, Enantiodromia. The mythological surface of the piece is merely a vehicle for some rather morbid existential ruminations over the nature of consciousness, death, and free will. By combining prog, epic fantasy, and abstract philosophy, Heterotopia has certainly sealed a trifecta of high concept artiness. There’s a Nietzsche reference or two to be found amidst the Foucauldian mindfuckery. The central theme seems to revolve around the line between reality versus illusion, and the extent to which the latter shapes the former. Prog has always been a platform for big ideas and epic narratives, and this conjunction of mythic storytelling and philosophical speculation places Heterotopia squarely within the canon of classic prog.

All of which returns us to the unique position this work occupies. Prog enjoyed a cultural moment back in the 70’s and, to a certain extent, the 80’s. Nowadays, progressive rock of this kind caters to a niche audience. The type of prog that Schooltree is offering will doubtless please the faithful, but whether this particular delivery system will move the meter beyond the prog laity remains to be seen. It’s a Hero’s Journey, but the metaphysics are pretty abstract and the tone is very dark. Beneath the patina of mythological fantasy, Suzi’s tale involves what appears to be a standard dramatic arc tracing her fall, redemption, and resurrection, but it remains strangely suspended in a state of perpetual discord. Even when it reaches its conclusion, it sounds triumphant and the music signals resolution, but you’re left with lingering questions. Is this just one giant metaphor for Suzi’s alchemical transformation from the nigredo to the albedo? It’s possible. Suzi’s transformation is obviously meant to be a profound shift, but there’s something slightly underwhelming about it. This is where Heterotopia tilts towards postmodernism. Schooltree herself says that the central idea is that “reality is an illusion”, and this insight is supposedly what liberated Suzi to shape her reality. This is a fairly standard postmodern premise, and it’s an idea that has been explored pretty extensively in every corner of the artistic world for some time.

However, none of these concerns detract from the heroic achievement of this record. There is a level of ambition and flat out artistic brilliance in this work that simply cannot be denied. If this sounds like your thing, buy it now.

China Miéville: Perdido Street Station

If you have a taste for horror, fantasy, science fiction or just some virtuosic off-the-chain weirdness, pick up this book immediately.  Mr. Miéville has described his work as “new weird” and though it’s kind of dumb, I suppose it’ll have to do. What he’s doing feels new and original even if the influences are clearly evident. This is a next level genre mashup.

Squalid, gothic urban hellscape?  Check. Avian, insectoid and cactus humanoids? Yup. Bio-engineered mutants? Uh huh. A ghastly crime lord which would make Lovecraft squirm? Yes. A band of heroes embroiled in a tale of political intrigue trying to stave off apocalyptic doom? Got it. Dream eating moths which defecate psychotropic dung? Of course. Gonzo physics, chemistry, artificial intelligence, magic and some crazy shit about crisis energy? Sure. A dimension hopping spider which spews opaque riddle poems? Covered. Sentient mechagod which animates itself with junk from a scrapyard and speaks through a rotting corpse avatar? Got that too. Enough gruesome carnage to satisfy a rabid gorehound? Oh yeah.

Miéville’s imagination and storytelling gifts are dazzling. Perdido Street Station is overflowing with strange, vividly rendered characters and ideas. It’s the kind of material you could imagine being adapted for Heavy Metal. The cinematic detail Miéville brings to the world of Bas-Lag and New Crobuzon deserves special mention. The city is a character in and of itself and Mr. Miéville has succeeded in creating a fantasy cityscape which is simultaneously grand and squalid. 

Thematically, this book is essentially a meditation on choices and the impact our choices have on others. To a certain degree, it is also about the pursuit of individuality and the price you pay for that pursuit. Mr. Miéville’s politics are hamfisted, naïve, and cartoonish, but I’m not going to withhold my recommendation because it is such a flat out tour de force. Miéville is a self-professed Marxist, and he always manages to find ways to portray entrepreneurs and the pursuit of profit as morally degenerate. It’s dumb and predictable, but his novels are so good, it shouldn’t be a deterrence.

The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies (2014)

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Yes, the final trip to Middle Earth is turgid and predictable, but it’s impossible for me to hate on this movie and series too much.

Blockbuster war films are great because they attempt to extract moral lessons when humanity is at its worst. While I commend the considerable effort, the film falls short in more ways than it succeeds.

The LOTR series is already an anachronism in our age of globalization and multiculturalism. Jackson does indeed place emphasis on biracial love affairs and multicultural cooperation, but the world of Middle Earth is a world of racial and cultural distinction. The various nation states within Middle Earth are very proud of their cultural heritage, and are quite keen on seeing them continue. This entire prequel series was entirely dedicated to the dwarves reclaiming their homeland. Naturally, there is also great deference to elders, tradition, history and authority. In this respect, the LOTR series is deeply conservative.

Jackson exploits this veneration of authority to portray the various acts of defiance as virtuous. These individual acts of defiance occur very selectively and the agenda behind them isn’t difficult to discern.

Whether it’s dwarves, elves, orcs, or wizards, all action hinges on the commands of the leaders. The dwarves pay a cultish obeisance to Thorin, and the elves exhibit a quasi-fascistic, militaristic discipline and paternalistic authoritarianism. Even Gandalf has some pretty bossy tendencies. The various races of Middle Earth do not make much allowance for the province of individual agency. It undoubtedly made them successful cultures, but one has to draw the line somewhere.

The most libertarian moment comes from Bilbo in the film’s climactic battle. Bilbo insists on warning Thorin of an imminent attack and Gandalf demonstrates an uncharacteristic lack of faith in Bilbo.

Gandalf: It’s out of the question! I won’t allow it!

Bilbo Baggins: I’m not asking you to allow it, Gandalf.

Jeez. Fuck off, Gandalf.

The film places your sympathies squarely with the dwarves. They are the outsider race in Middle Earth and they’re the wandering Israelites seeking to reclaim their homeland. But they’re not without moral failings either. The film attributes Thorin’s moral lapse to greed. His obsession with Erebor’s existing treasure coupled with his weird obsession over the Arkenstone drove him over the edge. In place of one of the seven deadly sins, the “Dragon’s curse” is the great evil that befalls Thorin Oakenshield. Naturally, this provides an opening to administer a form of quasi-Marxist, crypto-religious preaching.

Thorin’s tightassery with Erebor’s wealth is indeed irrational. Granted, he’s a stubborn bastard who is pissed about the indignities he and his homeboys suffered in their period of exile. Covetousness does indeed have its downside, but flogging the old materialism fallacy is a little too convenient in an age where socialism is regaining purchase in the mind of the youth.

The most interesting stuff comes when it’s time to go to war. Fantasy gets off easy when it comes to rationalizing violence because the bad guys are so obviously bad. The underlying motivations deserve scrutiny because Jackson gets away with a full throated nationalism that would be scorned if seen as just white people. When the chips are down, what does Thorin do to stoke the troops? He invokes the blood connection to Durin and loyalty to the homeland! Erebor über alles, my dudes! Jackson inadvertently makes alt-right dwarves the sympathetic heroes.

The titular battle is actually waged over a contract dispute. Why Thorin didn’t just help the survivors from Laketown after Smaug had decimated the place boggles the imagination. Conversely, Thranduil’s quest for some ancient necklace seems wildly arbitrary yet strangely characteristic for a head of State.

Ironically, the destruction of Laketown brings out the best in the citizenry. The citizens of Laketown were helping one another in the absence of government authority and coordination. FEMA was not necessary. The moral reprobate was the Master of Laketown! He was the greedy fuck who absconded with the town treasury and was solely concerned with saving his own sorry ass.

The interracial love story between Tauriel and Kili felt like a forced and overwrought sop to multiculturalism. Instead of trusting their own individual instincts, they deferred to tradition and suffered. Jackson obviously wants you to see the downside of traditional norms and as a wedge of division.

It’s flawed, but entertaining enough. It suffers by not really having much more to say above and beyond what the LOTR series already said really well. Jackson feels like he’s coasting.

That said, Jackson clearly loves this material and it’s hard to gripe too much about such a towering achievement. It’s hard to imagine that anyone else could have brought this to life with as much vigor and passion.

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