Tag Archives: movies

The Lost Art of Awesomeness, reborn in Russia

Do you remember a time when movie posters weren’t just blue and orange? Remember when movie posters and video game boxes were awesome? What do I mean by awesome? See below:

exterminator

That, dear readers, is the art of awesomeness. Where do I even begin to describe the sheer insanity of this masterpiece? Alright first of all we’ve got a guy who clearly does not give a fuck. Massive explosion behind him. Zero fucks given. The beautiful woman who is mildly concerned about the explosion clinging to his shoulder? Nope. Still reading 0.0 on the Fuck-o-meter. Why is he so nonchalant? There are some mysteries man is not yet ready to know, but I think it has something to do with that gun.

I mean look at that weapon! It is as far beyond our most modern firearms as they are beyond the first matchlock muskets. It spits in the face of all known knowledge of firearms engineering. It literally feeds from three magazines at the same time, and seems to consist of a double-barrel shotgun, an assault rifle, a grenade launcher, and two who-the-fuck-knows-whats on the bottom. I don’t care how many Magpul after-market parts you put on your AR-15; it will never achieve but a fraction of this awesomeness.

Of course in America, the other source of artistic awesomeness was to be found on the cover of home video games, such as those for the NES, Sega Genesis (Mega-Drive for you Europeans out there), and SNES. Let’s take a look at a couple of examples.

operationc

You picked the wrong day to break out of your glass tube, Mr. Giant Scorpion!

That there is the box art for the first release of a Contra game on the Nintendo Game Boy. Now I can tell you from personal experience that prior to this release, nearly all Game Boy games were puzzle-games, typically variations on Tetris. That ended with Operation  C, and the very box itself seems to proclaim just that.

Just look at that! Drink it in. We’ve got a massive mutant scorpion that’s just clawed its way out of a glass tube in some kind of lab, but just before it can turn and claw our hero to shreds he starts pumping round after round into its thorax with what appears to be some kind of futuristic assault shotgun.

Hell, back in my day, even silly-looking games had incredible box art. Just look at this clusterfuck:

amagon

What’s going on in that picture? Well let me rephrase that so we won’t be here all night: What’s not going on in that picture? You’ve got everything. First we’ve got the contrast: despite very Mario-style cartoony graphics, our happy ginger hero is blazing away with what is clearly meant to be an M16A2 (yeah I know it’s ejecting from the wrong side, gun nerds). Virtually everyone around him is terrified by this. That weird lizard thing by his left leg, that skull, and even the metal Wehrmacht bird behind him. The dinosaur just looks kind of pissed, but then again there’s a fuckin’ dinosaur in this picture! Then you’ve got the evil crab. The evil grab isn’t impressed. He’s about to sink one of his claws into our hero’s leg to see what happens, but something tells me he’s only going to end up getting his shell perforated by about a half dozen 5.56x45mm rounds.

This box art has everything. There’s an undead sentient skull, a weird blue lizard, a goddamned dinosaur, a UFO, an evil crab, a blazing firearm, a dude on steroids, the official seal of Nintendo… Oh and if you think this game’s a joke, go ahead and run it in an emulator. I’m betting you’ll get a game over half way through the first level.

Of course just like movie posters, game art has declined over the years. This is what the covers of our hit games look like now:

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Oh wow! Look at that angsty, brooding hero. This could just as easily have been an album cover for Staind. No surprise that the games are easier too. There’s no “Press F to win the game” in Operation C or Amagon.

Luckily, however, the art of awesomeness has not been lost. It has survived in a new medium, specifically the cover art of Russian sci-fi and alternative history fiction. In the past I’ve shared a few examples of such art, but today I’ve got a much larger haul. Let us experience and evaluate some of the finest specimens of Russian fiction book covers.

american

The first example is from the book The American: Path to the North by Roman Zlotnikov and Igor Grinchevskiy. This piece resonated with me because it’s called “The American” and in fact this image captures exactly what it’s like to be an American in Russia. I mean that might as well be me on the cover there. Alright I don’t have hair like that, but the lab coat, the pocket watch, the scientific laboratory with firearms and ammunition- it’s basically as if you compressed my nearly-ten years in Russia into one image. I’m sure other American expats and former expats would feel the same way about this image.

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There’s plenty of modern Russian art depicting WWII scenes, but how many of them have a Red Army soldier wielding dual TT33’s John Woo style, shooting an Estonian Waffen SS man? The answer is I have no idea, but this book cover sure does. Had to take points off for the cuffs on SS-man’s tunic, however.

book2

Look, I’m the first person to say that the whole zombie genre isn’t just getting old- it’s been old for at least five years by now. But if Hollywood is going to give us Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, we might as well have a zombie apocalypse set in the early Soviet Union. And if we have Stalin armed with a hammer and decapitating zombie Trotsky with a sickle well, so much the better.

bookcover

Tsar Nicholas II and his father Alexander III blazing away with machine guns designed in the state which overthrew their regime (and killed the former). What else can I say about this? I can’t help but notice this book has three authors. The only thing that could make this novel more awesome is if neither of them ever spoke to one another until after the work was published.

cellphonestalin

Okay this book, entitled A Conversation With the Leader, posits one of the most simplistic alternative-history premises I’ve ever seen. What if, at the battle of Brest fortress in 1941, one of the defenders had a cell phone and could call Stalin with it? How would this change the course of history? One hopes that in addition to giving our hero a cell phone, the author also remembered to give the USSR a functioning cellular network as well. Otherwise this phone would be reduced to a mere distraction device to confound the German besiegers.

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Young Andrei Ivanov was always getting trouble at school. The bigger kids picked on him. His teachers said he’d never achieve anything. His parents yelled at him. He thought he was a loser…until one day. Now Andrei has been transported back to the battle of Prokhorovka in 1943! But does he have what it takes to go from zero to hero and liberate his Motherland from the fascist invaders? There’s only way to find out! Master the Russian language so you can read this novel.

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Trotsky becomes a Ukrainian nationalist and attacks Stalin, who defends himself with a portrait of Lenin. I really don’t know what to say here. My thought process has ground to a halt.

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Alright let’s start with the obvious- that’s a Nazi SS man wielding the M41A pulse rifle from Aliens. No, it doesn’t just look like it, it is the pulse rifle, full stop. Beyond that this cover turns it up to 88 with Hitler, flying saucers, and what I can only assume are snow panzers. The only question is- can allied agents manage to survive long enough to organize a resistance movement among the Antarctic penguins and end the Nazi occupation once and for all? I think we all know the answer is: You’re goddamned right they can!

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Okay so we’ve got a WWII era Red Army soldier equipped with late 30’s era German sub-machine gun killing a 1920’s Civil War era Bolshevik commissar of some sort, ostensibly to save the Russian emperor. How is this not going to cause a time paradox?  Imagine that- renegade Red Army soldiers team up with the Nazis to travel back in time and save the Russian empire from the Bolsheviks. Then, as soon as they rescue the Tsar’s family and kill their captors, each member of the time-traveling assassination squad suddenly realizes that he is illiterate, and dressed in traditional Russian peasant clothes. Oh yeah- their kids all died before they reached the age of five.

putinshirt

If only there had been Putin’s Russia instead of the Soviet Union during the Second World War! Driven on by love for their glorious leader, the ethnically homogeneous Muscovite Russian army would have easily defeated the entire Wehrmacht with knives instead of wasting precious bullets. Who needs that Red Army anyway? It was so full of Ukrainians it might as well have been the UPA!

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All I have to say about this cover is that my wife is very lucky this young woman doesn’t actually exist.

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So this cheerful novel is called Death to Britannia, and the cover is a depiction of what Anne Applebaum believes will immediately happen to the UK should it exit the European Union. Of course the comparison isn’t 100% accurate, because like many of those other books, this novel is alternative history. In this case we’ve got contemporary Russian paratroopers descending on what appears to be late Victorian Britain (the rifle appears to be inspired by the Martini-Henry). Of course just to make it “fair,” our Russian heroes are using PPS machine pistols from the WWII-era. There’s no sport in it if there’s no challenge, right?

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Saving the best for last, we have a Russian police officer magically transported to a fantasy world. Noting that the brave mounted knight may in fact Central Asian in appearance, our hero detains him with his sword.

“I bid thee halt, good citizen,” officer Kuznetsov said, saluting with his new found blade.

“Wherefore did thou stoppest me, officer?” asked the rider in a clearly foreign accent.

“I must see thy documents if thou wishest to pass!”

Hanging his head in exasperation, the rider reached into a saddle bag and produced the desired item- a scroll of vellum wrapped in hemp twine. He handed it to Kuznetsov with a sigh.

Kuznetsov looked over the strange writing and frowned.

“Thou hast not the proper seal on thy document, good rider, I fear that this carries a penalty of four hundred gold coins!”

The rider rolled his eyes.

“Perhaps, dear officer of the law, there is some way I could pay this penalty…here and now?”

Kuznetsov nodded. The rider reached into his saddle-bag again and tossed a small but heavy sack into Kuznetsov’s waiting hand.

“Methinks thou will find all the proper seals on those documents, sirrah!”

Kuznetsov felt the weight of the bag in his hands and peered into the opening at the top. Gold sovereigns, fifteen or twenty at least.

“Indeed, good rider, these documents have the proper seal. I dare say everything is in order. Thou art allowed to pass.”

And thus the rider saluted and went on his way. Kuznetsov pocketed the gold and began walking along the road toward a small town. Hopefully it would have an inn that could offer him both victuals and lodging for the night, for the next day he would set off on his true quest- the Dark Fortress Morthian at the foot off Dragonskull Mountain. There he would either wrest the Amulet of Wisdom from the corrupted elf-mage Q’alla’dain or he would perish like so many others who came before, their bones piled high about that cursed land!

***

Thus concludes our brief survey of the art of awesomeness in Russia. I look forward to feedback from the reader, as well as other examples of awesome art from around the world.

Art mirrors BS

If anyone out there is still watching House of Cards, you’re probably no doubt aware that season three will feature a political showdown of some sorts with a character who is an obvious stand-in for Vladimir Putin. You can get a couple brief glimpses of Putin’s doppelganger in the season’s trailer.

Kevin Spacey apparently has some kind of personal hard-on for Russian politics, as he actually managed to feature two members of Pussy Riot on the show. Yet even they said the show’s producers don’t get Russian politics.

To be honest, I actually started watching the show from the beginning because I wanted to see how this whole not-Putin thing would play out in the third season. I did not make it very far. Probably the only thing that got me to watch the first season halfway through was the character arc of Peter Russo; I found him to be the only remotely sympathetic protagonist in the sense that he sees the error of his ways and begins making an effort to turn his life around. As for Frank, well, he’s an asshole and a complete idiot. I’m not the first to point out the boundless stupidity of a US congressman deliberately initiating an extramarital affair with a highly ambitious and tenacious political reporter. Eventually it became clear to my wife and I that we had only been watching the show when we had literally nothing else to watch, and keep in mind that on one occasion, “something else” was a documentary about the St. Nazaire raid. The last episode we watched was the one whose ending strongly implied that the producers’ understanding of oral sex was probably about as good as their understanding of Russian politics.

Getting back to the topic of how pop culture shapes people’s perceptions of Russia(Of course that’s what this post is about!), I came to realize that even if I managed to get through seasons one and two of House of Cards, the season three episodes dealing with Russia would be utterly cringeworthy. What’s my rationale for that prediction? Well anyone who has spent significant amount of time in Russia has surely cringed at typical pop culture treatments of Russia such as those we see in the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series. Yet I think that if we’re honest, idiotic portrayals of Russia in video games or action thriller films are not terribly problematic. Most consumers of such media are on some level aware that they aren’t going gain any insight into Russia from a James Bond film.

House of Cards, on the other hand, is a series that purports to be realistic and intelligent. I suspect the producers’ aim is for the show to seem politically savvy to those who aren’t. Just as Law & Order spit out legal jargon and House M.D. bludgeoned viewers with medical terminology, House of Cards uses jargon and sometimes mundane activities to give us the impression that somebody really did their homework. Seeing as how they got Pussy Riot to play Russian dissidents and they seemed to have purposely model their Russian president on Putin, there is no doubt that the same audience who is impressed by the political jargon will similarly assume that the producers also did their homework on Russia.

Numerous episodes of the Cracked Podcast have dealt with the topic of pop culture having profound effects on the way we perceive reality. Obviously not all pop culture has the same effect, but even low-brow entertainment can shape our perceptions. Over-the-top action films continue to influence people’s understanding of the real world in profound ways; I still see characters in movies cocking the hammer on automatic pistols, for example. Of course the pop culture that really influences our perception of the real world tends to be the dramas, the biopics supposedly based on real events, and the supposedly “intelligent” thrillers. These are the ones with less gun play or gratuitous sex, and villains who tend to be big corporations or corrupt politicians. Seeing as how real dramatic action tends to be very rare and extremely confusing, we assume that the toned down, jargon-filled thriller must be far more realistic. That may often be a very mistaken assumption. Although Law & Order didn’t have its lawyers carrying on affairs in their offices and its detectives rarely had to fire their service weapons, there’s little reason to believe that it was an accurate portrayal of law enforcement and legal procedure.

Thus when it comes to Russia, I pose the following question- Which portrayal is more likely to shape people’s perceptions about Russia?

1. An action film where the villain is an evil ex-Russian army intelligence colonel who brings his henchmen into a peaceful community and starts an imperialist war under the guise of a “local” rebellion?

2. A drama where an American diplomat must mentally wrangle with his Russian counterpart over a gay American tourist couple who were imprisoned during their visit to Moscow and are set to be executed for homosexuality.

The first film being an action thriller, few people are likely to take its message seriously, despite the fact that its plot is in fact quite realistic. By contrast, the second film is likely to be taken as a realistic, politically savvy, “ripped-from-the-headlines” scenario, particularly if George Clooney is cast as the protagonist. Yet the second film’s plot, of course, is utter nonsense.

The second example is what one acquaintance referred to as an “awareness film,” and for lack of a better term I have decided to appropriate it in this case. Awareness films are these films which usually seem to come from good intentions. They try to use real-world issues as the basis of their plots. On one hand the producers might be cynically attempting to cash in on something that seems like a hot-button issue at the time, but on the other, some might actually believe that these films actually to raise awareness and that they can have a positive effect as a result.

Films like The Constant Gardener, Syriana, and Michael Clayton are a few examples which come to mind. The problem is, that aside from often being incredibly boring and pretentious, these films not only distort or oversimplify the issues they are presenting, but they also do so under the implicit guise of realism. In other words, if we have an action film where Sam Worthington goes after an evil oil corporation with two Kalashnikovs and thousands of rounds of ammunition, audiences are unlikely to leave the cinema feeling that they were somehow informed or educated on the politics of fossil fuel production. But substitute Worthington for Clooney, and make him a lawyer in the oil company’s legal department who discovers a secret plan to back a civil war in a made-up African nation so as to secure access to their untapped fields and- BAM! Instant “intelligent” thriller that fuels political conversations at dinner parties. Like, yeah, it’s all about oil really. That’s all the corporations care about, and the corporations run the government. And what about like, Iran and that Vladimir Putin guy? The next president is going to have like, a way to deal with them too!” This kind of political “awareness” may be great at getting young political science majors into bed, but it doesn’t really help build the kind of understanding necessary to actually do something about the problems we see in these films.

Obviously when it comes to traditional portrayals of Russians, as we tend to see in action films and video games, there are definitely problematic issues. As I said before, such entertainment does influence our perceptions, if only more subtly. In general, however, I think the worst kind of stereotypes and incorrect ideas tend to come from, and are reinforced by, media which attempts to portray itself as being realistic and based on actual events.

The tragedy is that it is certainly possible to learn enough about Russian politics so as to make a realistic, entertaining, and indeed educational TV drama or film about the subject. Done right, such a political drama could be adapted in a way so as to make it very appealing to an international audience. The show could be both a destroyer of stereotypes and misconceptions and a major earner at the same time. Would I share notes about this truly realistic, Russian political drama? Well, only with Peter Pomerantsev, perhaps. Gotta get paid!

Let’s make some movies!

So Meduza released this article about the Russian Ministry of Culture’s draft document indicating what sort of films they intend to fund in 2015. According to the article, the document says priority for funding will go to films about the following themes:

-Success stories that inspire people (in areas such as manufacturing, entrepreneurialism(sic), and civic activism);

This generally gets you arrested or exiled unless you are a close personal friend of Putin, and then sometimes that doesn’t even save you.

“The roles of Crimea and Ukraine in the 1,000-year history of the Russian state;”

Let’s see…The Crimea basically became part of the Russian empire in 1795 or thereabouts. The empire, the beginning of the state of “Rossiya,” is usually dated to about 1721, and it ended in 1917, meaning it lasted less than 200 years, much less than the United States. The modern Russian state has been around for a whopping 24 years.

“Russian military glory (its victories and victors);”

No Russo-Japanese War, WWI, or Crimean War. Got it.

“Film adaptations of Russian literary classics;”

Because we don’t have enough of those, and we’ve never managed to produce any decent literature in almost a quarter of a century.

“Modern-day heroes in the fight against crime and corruption;”

These people end up dead, or in jail. Or dead in jail. Which Russia do these ministry of culture flacks live in? Oh right, the one behind four-meter-high green metal walls with 24/7 security.

“A society without borders” (success stories from from individuals with disabilities);”

Dude in a wheelchair wins the US green card lottery and books it.

“Historical anniversaries (such as the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution, and the 25th anniversary of the August 1991 Putsch);”

Sorry, but October revolution contradicts the glory of the Great Russian Empire and will offend believers.

“Family values as the foundation of Russian society; and
Russia as a multiethnic country.

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Shut the fuck up.

Zero Dork Thirty

So I just watched Zero Dark Thirty and I think they really missed out on a great opportunity to give the film a mind-blowing twist ending. When the young CIA analyst Maya opens the body bag containing the body of Osama bin Laden(SPOILERS!!!) , how much cooler would it have been if she unzips the bag and finds…HER OWN LONG LOST FATHER!  She screams and collapses into a sobbing mess. One of the SEAL team members sees this and then looks at the camera and says, “Looks like we’re going back in!” Having set up the premise of the upcoming sequel, we roll credits. Alas, that opportunity was missed, and therefore a possible franchise was killed before it could begin. That’s what happens when you don’t get M. Night Shyamalan to direct.

All is not lost, however. If they make a gritty, stylized reboot of the film, preferably with the help of Zack Snyder, there may yet be a chance to turn this into a successful series of films. With plenty of CGI and slow motion shots,Zack could potentially set the stage for future sequels such as Zero Dark Thirty II: Osama’s Vengeance, Zero Dark Thirty: Son of Bin Laden, and prequels such as Zero Dark Thirty: The Rise of Al Qaeda.