Monday, April 4, 2016

On The Power of Myth and How DC Films get it Wrong

     Modern film serves an important role in culture, and older generations that fail to recognize it are doomed to either do it wrong, or misunderstand its power altogether. As they display the stories of a culture on the big screen, they undertake, through an audio/visual medium, to tell tales that have a history stretching back into the ancient world that fall into three distinct, yet overlapping categories: stories about (1) gods, (2) demigods, and (3) mortals. These tales often spill into each other, but will have emphases that spotlight very different needs of the people that spin those yarns. Let's briefly discuss below what each does for us.

Stories about the gods: From the Enuma Elish of ancient Mesopotamia to the Greek legends of Olympus, stories about the gods and the heavenly realm have helped humankind to organize the world in our mind. The inexplicable is made relatable by means of attaching it to the diversity of deities given expression on those epic sagas. Why does the thunder and lightning appear so violent in the sky? How did the diversity of creation first come to be? Who oversees the chaos that is the vast mysteries of the oceans? Why does the natural order sometimes get out of whack, resulting in natural disasters with which the mortals must contend? The "old world" had its share of the deity tales, but so did the "new world" also. Aztec, Maya, Mixtec, Inca cultures all had the myths and stories of the gods that helped explain why creation operates how it does, and what obligations humans have to those deities because of it. Stories of the gods are not designed to make them relatable characters. Audiences do not gain inspiration from them to better themselves. Instead, they receive information and instruction on the nature of the gods, and their spheres of responsibility, in story form. The ancient world did not seek to write propositional doctrines and systematic theologies as began in the West during the medieval period. Instead they taught of the gods (their nature, their power and their behavior) by means of creation and clash mythologies.

Stories about demigods: While mortals and gods may be completely separate categories, so that mortals have no need to find the gods relatable or even interesting, the middle area is needed that would inspire humans to reach beyond the mere drudgery of everyday life. After all, credible histories could account for heroic feats among the ranks of men (and in some cases women) that far exceeded the abilities and accomplishments of the average person. Even actual history can be mythologized over time, exaggerating the deeds of heroes to keep them awe-inducing for subsequent generations. Thus, the tale undergoes subtle revisions to eventually make them a child of the gods, or a product of deity/human union. In the ancient world, these become not just examples of divinely enhanced human potential, but also can serve as lessons for teaching ideal human behavior. The self-sacrificing hero battles the forces of the netherworld, or some monstrous aberration, for the win... and their story is told to inspire the hearers to comparable deeds. This, or they serve as a morality tale to instruct on what virtues the gods find praiseworthy, rewarding the hero with victory because of their own journey of character. The hero is superhuman, but relatable to the human experience, opening up a wealth of applicability for the audience.

Stories about mortals: Human life, with all of its peaks and valleys, drama and drudgery, has always provided rich material from which to glean lessons for wise living. Relationships of all types, struggles and celebration, adversity and elation, are rightly dramatized into tales with which the audience can empathize and emote, gaining wisdom and practical knowledge for enjoying life to the full. The documentary, the comedy, the crime drama, the romance tale (sometimes called a "chick flick"), all have their place in that repository of human stories that the audience, in exploring the themes and imbibing the sentiments along with the storyteller, actually become more "human." The varied recesses of the human soul are exercised and quickened by considering how the story illuminates the nuances of relationships, the diversity of human experience, the joys of laughter or the messiness of justice. We need stories that often expose or remind us how the world really is, and not just trafficking in how we'd like it to be.

     Along a literary spectrum, it could be said that the gods are fully "two dimensional characters"(lacking struggle, development or growth through a lesson journey) with the mortals being fully "three dimensional" (relatable to the audience in areas of human experience). This would place demigods somewhere in between, with considerable overlap. The short version is: gods are boring, people are interesting. So if you're going to tell a tale of superhuman heroes, it's necessary to "humanize" them considerably so that they can be analogous for or inspiring to the human audience. Demigods that lack development through lessons, romance, tragedy or joy, or lack the humor found in human relations, slide precipitously toward the genre of "gods" mythology. This is as much a detriment to the demigod category as if it were to lack superhuman ability and thus become just another mortal tale. In a sense, the demigod story is a balancing act in which the storyteller keeps the superhuman nature and the mortal nuances in a delicate tension. If we don't believe the hero was in love, we don't care that he saved the girl AND the world too for that matter.

     Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is the latest installment in the new DC films cinematic depiction of their comic book repertoire. It builds upon the groundwork laid in 2013 by the reboot of the Superman franchise, Man of Steel. According to Rotten Tomatoes, a movie/television review aggregate web site, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has received a current score of 29% out of a possible 100, with audience reaction being tepid at best. Opening weekend, predictably, found DOJ (Dawn of Justice) making considerable money because of the hype and subject matter. However, audience reaction can often be responsibly gauged by repeat viewings. For DOJ, second weekend grosses had dropped dramatically. Reports of second weekend declines are commonplace, but movie news articles add that a 68% drop for the second weekend is quite extreme. Being a lover of films, my daughter and I saw it opening night as well, and later shared critiques that ranged from objective evaluations to inside jokes that only we understand. To date, we appear in in the majority of viewers that found it an adequate spectacle to witness at a theater, but not remotely worthy of its hype, and unworthy of money spent on repeat visits.

     As an anthropologist, I am quite curious as to what explains this phenomenon beyond the mere nuts and bolts of good film-making. Lessor skilled directors have been able to grasp the sentiments of audiences and conjure them back to ride that ride over and over again. What makes DOJ different and less able to connect with moviegoers? Incidentally, among the more pointed critiques leveled at "Man of Steel" in 2013 was that it "was not inspiring." This has not been true of all DC movies. On the contrary, the Dark Knight trilogy (started with Batman Begins in 2005) directed by Christopher Nolan, enjoyed tremendous success, and appears to have been as much a watershed breakthrough for comic book hero films as was the 1978 blockbuster Superman with Christopher Reeve. In addition, audiences appear well conditioned to receive these fantastical tales and enjoy them repeatedly (rf. the current Marvel comic universe, beginning with Iron Man in 2008, has enjoyed positive response from critics and audiences alike). The Marvel success stands in stark contrast to the DC films in those two areas; critics have praised them and audiences have affirmed them by spending dollars on repeat visits to the theater. I believe this is explainable through the lens of the role for ancient stories described above.

     Societies and technology may change, but people don't. Many of the basic human needs in the ancient world still are plainly evident in the modern day; with this exception though: audiences today are even less interested in stories of the gods than in ancient times. To keep the modern (and especially postmodern) audience engaged for a superhuman story, you must go easy on the "super" and heavy on the "human." The powers must be incidental to the struggle, with emphasis on the seemingly "mortal" experiences of romance, remorse, joy, laughter, wit, wisdom, multiplicity of motives, etc. Without it, people may show up once to watch the "gods do battle," but be quite satisfied to have taken in the data it conveyed, with no need to return and experience it again. What's more? They'll share that "data" with friends, essentially negating the need for those friends to go see the film and get that data themselves. The characters are not "heroes" that we empathize with or are inspired by. They are deities that held their apocalyptic conflict, and that explains why we have the occasional geologic phenomenon of destroyed cities.

     It's not that Zack Snyder, the director of Man of Steel, DOJ and upcoming Justice League movies, isn't a skilled moviemaker. On the contrary, he's demonstrated considerable prowess in the past. It's just that he (and DC studios) has adopted a storytelling strategy that falls mostly in the first of our categories listed above. They're not attempting to tell a relatable story from which mortals should glean inspiration for achievements or analogies for life lessons. They're essentially sitting around the campfire, like old fellows wrapped in a thick cloak to protect from the night breeze, and regaling us with the myths of the ancient Greek gods, and how their conflicts resulted in the natural world we experience today (coincidentally, Snyder directed the film 300, which was a decidedly mortal tale, stylized to appear more like a deity story also).

     Comic book hero films cannot fit within the realm of mortal stories. They are not meant to reside in the ordinary, mundane aspects of everyday experience. This leaves two categories remaining they can fall under: stories of the gods or demigods. DC appears to be choosing the former, and Marvel the latter. This is ironic because before their cinematic manifestations, comic enthusiasts recognized that DC enjoyed greater readership than Marvel for the exact same reasons, only reversed. In this way, Nolan's success with the Dark Knight trilogy was attributed to being "so true to the comics." The DC comics were demigod stories (heavy on the human, easy on the super), with Marvel comic heroes pushing the limits of fantastical. Now the roles appear to have switched. Marvel seems to have understood the above analysis and is cashing in on it, but DC will continue to suffer mediocre results if they do not.

     I, for one, have likened the contrast to two roller coasters at a theme park. One is loud, shaky and exhausting; the other is thrilling, joyful and exciting. After getting off the second one, you look to see if the line is very long, and if not, exclaim "Let's do it again!" But after exiting the other one, you wiped your brow and sighed "Whew, I'm glad that's over." I believe stories are important. They are not mere movies, and not merely comic book heroes. These are tales from which we, as humans being, are supposed to glean inspiration for achievement and analogies to unravel the enigmas of our mortal experience. Storytellers, as writers of novels or directors of films, are custodians of those stories, and are to convey them in a manner from which the audience will derive the greatest benefit. It's too bad DC has decided to tell campfire stories of the gods. The relatable demigods on the screen are turning me into a Marvel guy.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Houston Spartan Race SPRINT Review

     Imagine my surprise when, following past race reviews, others would be sought by my peers. Obstacle Course Racing (OCR) has been a passion of mine since first discovering it in 2012. That was the year that my yearnings for athletic activities looked beyond the normal local 5K race for charity, and sought to interject a sense of adventure. A banner ad at the time intrigued me, which included a self-playing video clip of OCR legend Hobie Call jumping over fire, followed by the caption "Could a race change your life?" That was enough. I was instantly hooked as a "Spartan" and didn't even realize it. Spartan Race quickly became the go-to focus of a family wanting to increase our list of camaraderie and character building activities. We volunteered at the BEAST in Glen Rose, TX that year so as to earn our race registration for the following May where a SPRINT would be held in Burnet, TX. Our first exposure to Spartan Race was as volunteers, only later to actually run the course and fully understand how appropriate our passion had been. 

     That first race also introduced us to the larger world of OCR, the culture, personalities and ethos of it. In 2014-2015 we had opportunities to participate in several OCRs other than Spartan Race. I will tell you that our experiences with those OCR companies have left me quite content to simply fill my race calendar with Spartan races, unmotivated to attempt fitting others in. Either those others were in some way quite disappointing, or merely not spectacular enough to attempt fitting them in around the SRs that I already know I'll want to do. If it seems that my reviews are not entirely objective, at least I've disclosed my rationale. 

My race evaluation has come to include five categories of significance to me. The list is, of course, open to expansion, but these have been key areas according to my experience. The list described below is pasted from an earlier review

"Our evaluation score is based upon five categories or experience that we comment on to each other as we work as volunteers, run as racers together, and then later debrief about after the event. These five categories are:

  • Staff - Were the event staff friendly, professional and patient? Were they accommodating of needs for water, food or bathroom breaks? Did they make an effort to help us volunteer together? At registration, were they warm, welcoming and organized?
  • Logistics -  Did the event seem organized and well thought-out? Were sufficient materials brought to meet the attendance demand? How well were staff supplied with materials to perform their tasks (shirts, medals, radios, water, etc.)?
  • Obstacles - Were they well-constructed? Did they offer an athletic challenge? Did they need explanation or were they self-explanatory? Was there a penalty for failing the obstacle? Was it also safe while being difficult?
  • Trail - Was the course designed for a decent trail run? Did the outside venue (ranch, field, stadium, etc.) allow for the run itself to be part of the challenge with topographic variety (hills, canyons and plains)? 
  • Festival area - Was the atmosphere electric and exciting? Were examples of obstacles constructed for contests and practice? Were exhibits, vendors, restrooms, showers, start and finish lines laid out in a sensible way? Were start and finish line experiences exciting and satisfying

On each of the above categories we offer 0-20 points, resulting in an accumulated score out of 100 points (making a letter grade easy to calculate)."

     For the Houston Spartan Race SPRINT, we volunteered in the morning and raced in the afternoon after having been relieved of our duties at the end of our shift. This has largely been our repeated custom from the beginning. The result has been that at any given OCR, we get the perspective of a worker for the event before we are a participant. For the Houston Spartan SPRINT, I score each category below:

Staff - While I've yet to have a negative experience with Spartan Race staff, some races stand out more than others in terms of staff care. For the Houston SPRINT, not only were they their usual professional, gracious and helpful selves, but they did so in the face of unexpectedly challenging conditions. For several days before the race, heavy rains had soaked the race venue, leaving the planned parking area unworkable. Thus at the last minute, a new location was selected, and school buses were contracted to shuttle racers from the new site to the festival area. These logistical obstacles faced the staff mere hours before race day, yet not a single attitude was out of sorts as droves of participants and volunteers showed up late because of the changes they also were having to adjust to as well. Volunteer registration was relatively smooth despite the changes that had been foisted open the process. 

     I'll admit to being at somewhat of an advantage for having volunteered so often that, without much direction, those with me and I were able to march purposefully to our assigned area and begin working, meeting our staff contact at the finish line, without any other assistance. At the finish line, our staff contact moved about regularly to make sure people drank water, had the necessary snacks, and felt freedom to check out other areas when heavy waves of finishers weren't keeping us busy. When our volunteer shift came to a close, the staff member did not need to be reminded to relieve us. They were on top of it, and we were released with plenty of time to prepare for our own race. Staff Score: 20 points

Logistics - As was mentioned above, heavy rains had required a last minute, major shift in racer/volunteer entrance to the venue. Spartan Race sent out an email alerting of the change, and out party was able to adjust accordingly. We parked where instructed. The school buses that had been procured were not on scene at the announced time though, allowing some lag time for a considerable crowd of people waiting at the new parking location. Nevertheless, the buses did arrive in force and shuttle services remained steady after that. To describe the race venue (Lazy W Ranch in Hempstead, TX) as "muddy" from all the rain is an exercise in understatement. In many respects, this was an enhancement, but that will be described later. In terms of working the race, tables sank and threatened to topple supplies, with considerable ponds of standing water where venue traffic areas might have otherwise allowed people to congregate. 

     Photography continues to be an area where hiccups can arise. Because timing pads are sometimes situated distant from an auto-camera location, finding one's self in the repository of action shots can be challenging. Finding photos actually tagged to your timing chip is hit-or-miss. I found all of mine, and those my companions, by scrolling through every single picture time-stamped between our start and finish times. Another trade arises in the presence and skill of photographers. Without them, auto-cameras (such as GoPro), do not know to turn and snap a shot of each racer in a pack of friends. Thus actions shots are missing for some racers when a herd of muddy participants stampede across the timing pad or by the GoPro station. I understand its a trade though, for hiring more photographers costs money, and some find registration costs already eyebrow-raising. However, concerning photographers, it often appears that photographers that are hired have a time limit themselves. More abundant, and more detailed pictures can be found for racers earlier in the day. This is not merely for elite racers; open heats starting before noon have a greater collection of action shots than those starting later (oh say, in a volunteer's heat). The photographers leave before all racers have passed their area. This is just my perception. Logistics Score: 17 points

Obstacles - By far the greatest obstacle of this race was the mud. In this way, the open heat racers can boast a greater toughness and grit than any of the elites that finished this SPRINT in less than an hour. Yes, the elite racers had some mud and water with which to contend, but they certainly did NOT struggle against 4.2 miles of earthen purgatory affixing itself to one's body like an animated horde of demons from the mythic underworld. The barely viscous and unholy sludge ranged from ankle to waist deep for most of the course. This would be exhausting enough, but it also made each obstacle 143% more difficult. I have never struggled to get over 8ft walls before (with the exception of the BEAST in Glen Rose last Oct which had similar ground conditions), but in this case the ground would simply not release my feet. Teamwork was an absolute requirement. The teams might have been pre-planned by friends racing together, or the team may have been spontaneous as Spartans stopped to assist one another, but only teams could overcome these walls once the ground began to deny any jumping whatsoever. 

    The mud enhanced some obstacles to make them more of a challenge than ever before. In previous races, nailing the spear throw was aided by taking a few steps for momentum. The mud disallowed that. Fortunately, I still got it, but it required a different throwing strategy and the collection of burpee penitents nearby was greater than normal. Sand bag carry, gravel buckets, and the atlas carry all were transformed into something far more epic and daunting. There were no particularly noteworthy obstacles that differed form what has become standard for Spartan Races. There's a comfort in knowing that I've become familiar with these varying tests of skill, strength and endurance. Without the mud though, this might have been a rather unremarkable event (within the normal range of Spartan Race; which is itself excellent, challenging and fun). For my part, I failed at just one obstacle. At the end, the multi-rig assembly of bars, rings and ropes created a large burpee corral that needed wide expansion after racers began bunching up there. The multi-rig continues to be the "Bane" of my existence; and I WILL conquer it! Perhaps if it was near the front, like the monkey bars were, but instead it was at the end, after the mud demons has sapped all of the energy away. The obstacles were within normal range, not particularly creative; however, they do get a boost from the mud enhancement.  Obstacles Score: 18 points

Trail - Even more so than the obstacles, the trail benefitted from the advent of the apocalyptic mud in our score. Without it, the course would have been topographically underwhelming. I'm simply not used to a Spartan Race lacking any hills. Previous SRs for me have been in either the Texas hill country or the Sierra-Nevada near Lake Tahoe. I'm used to shouting my "AROO!" as a means of encouraging others trudging up a woeful incline, or in denial about my own exhaustion. This course's trail contained no such elevation changes. Were I among the elite racers, I might have been wondered what all the fuss was about, but after it had been pulverized by several thousand racers into moon dust (just add water!), the trail became a living thing bent on resisting your progress. Don't miss understand! The trail was beautiful, the ranch picturesque in many places and the water obstacles a joy, but the mud adds approximately 5 points to the overall level of satisfying difficultly, which Spartan Race could not have anticipated...Unless of course we include God among the Spartan staff performing course design. Trail Score: 18 points

Festival Area - As with the rest of the course, the mud was the star of the show. Imagine a rodeo arena being doused with six inches of water, then thoroughly tenderized with horses and cattle, then add some low depressions that fill up to create inconvenient lakes. None of this was the fault of Spartan Race, however it created a complete lack of anywhere to set your gear down or rest in the festival area. Seating has always been at a premium at OCRs of all types, but this was exceptional. A couple more hay bales here and there might have helped, or perhaps some plywood laid down for major foot traffic routes. Admittedly, those are my "armchair" suggestions, not fully appreciating what goes into those tasks. But enough about the mud already!

     The layout of the festival area was well planned. "Spartan Rigs" had practice obstacles for warming up or even competing for a free future race. All the booths and merchandising were well placed. There were adequate restrooms, and I experienced no lines or gross lack of maintenance for them. At other races, the "showers" (water pumped through hoses and nozzles) have suffered from intermittent pump operation, sometimes losing water pressure or stopping altogether; not so here. The equipment was well attended and no hiccups occurred. The D.J. kept the music upbeat and constant, and even made the announcement at one point that a dog had been left in a car and law enforcement was about to break into the car if the owner didn't see to it soon. Staff were ubiquitous and helpful in the festival area. It just took 10 minutes to walk from one end to the other because of the mud. 

     The announcing was adequate, but unremarkable. Previous announcers have created such an air of electricity and excitement at the starting line that you truly felt immersed in the adventure you were about to begin. I understand that some up and coming announcers need to be given a chance to really get into their groove, but there's a certain amount of talent for it that comes into play also. With examples like Dustin Dorough of Spartan Race, or Dewayne Anderson of Battle Frog Series, having raised the bar so high, OCRs do well to keep announcing as something they look to maintain high standards for in talent, excitement, charisma and delivery. Some have even suggested this deserves it's own category in OCR reviews. I'm not sure of that. For now I'll leave it as part of festival because start/finish line experiences are part of it. 

     To balance that out...finish line experience doesn't have announcing; it has fire. The fire jump is the last obstacle to overcome (it used to be gladiators in SR's early days) before the finish line. It contributes most to the excitement before getting the medal around your neck and completing the day's epic struggle. Note to Spartan Race: PLEASE don't let the fire die down! Depending on how often the staff stoked the fire jump, some racers leapt over glorious, Michael Bay sized flames, while others just had to skip over some smoldering coals. This affects both the excitement of the finish and the brag-worthy photos people want to make their Facebook profile pic later on as well. Festival Score: 17

     With an overall score of 90, this places the Houston Spartan Race SPRINT in the A-/B+ range, depending on how you divide the letter grades. I try to be objective, but admittedly Spartan Race is also like "family" after a fashion, and it's tough to critique "family." Nevertheless, because I'm so fond of Spartan Race, I'll share ways that possibly they could be even better. If you don't have that connection, you won't say anything; you'll just go somewhere else, claiming the "grass was greener" at the other race. Every Spartan Race is different, and I have no doubt that some of these challenges were unique to this venue and weather conditions. Having said all that, Spartan Race's strengths are very well executed, and I'm looking forward to many more.