Friday, July 24, 2009

Witchcraft in the Southwest

Witchcraft in the Southwest, Marc Simmons' 1976 work on "supernaturalism" among Native American populations along the Rio Grande isn't much of a read. As an academic work, even forgiving that it is now over a quarter century out of date, it lacks theme or focus (as well as an index). And as a work of popular non-fiction, the prose is unengaging and reads more like the author listing out a series of sketchy anecdotes.

The most striking aspect of Simmons' writing is his uncritical approach to the subject. He strongly connotes Native American paganism with European witchcraft (although he does nothing interesting to explore how that was transmitted or its cultural effects), and when he describes the condemnations of Catholic missionaries and local villages fetted upon "evil" witches, there is a distinct tone of sympathy with such attitudes. You can almost read the glee whenever he describes how some witch (usually an old, lonely woman) receives "just" punishment for her curses, which almost always results in getting flogged to death or suspended from a mission rafter by her elbows. That he doesn't question why the villagers have these attitudes, how the role of witches (whose herbalism seems to harken to practical medicinal purposes couched in occult trappings) might've been marginalized in the move from paganism to Christianity, or any other meaning than that these are witches and they deserve death is both frightening and ultimately boring.

The book is too small and Simmons' treatment too facile to really do the subject justice. There are a bunch of details that suggest the richness of the subject, both to the academician and those simply curious, but Simmons never provides anything other than a simple description. An example is the following:
One night Juan Perea, a notorious male witch who died in San Mateo in 1888, sallied forth on a nocturnal ramble after depositing his eyes in a saucer on the kitchen table and borrowing those of the cat. While he was away, his hungry dog upset the table and gobbled up his eyes, leaving Juan to spend the rest of his life wearing the green eyes of the cat.
That's deliciously crazy (even moreso as it's only one of three times in the book where a witch loses their eyes and ends up with those an animal), but that's also the entirety of Perea's story in the book. Simmons does this with every anecdote: write a few sentences describing the instance and then going on to the next one, with little comment or detail. Ultimately, this is a maddeningly underwritten work by an author with a dull, conservative perspective on what could have been a much-more promising subject.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker is the best movie I've seen this year, and the best war film I've seen in quite awhile. A series of vignettes depicting the last days of a three-man EOD team before they rotate out of 2004-era Iraq, the film moves briskly from one frightening encounter to another, as though the movie is trying to give some sense of the terror of war. While terrifying, The Hurt Locker never becomes anything more than action movie - a gritty, powerful and highly effective action movie, but in the end, just an action movie.

Directed by Katheryn Bigelow (Near Dark, Point Break), the film's three protagonists are James, Sanborn, and Eldridge. James is a veteran EOD man, an adrenaline junkie in love with war and nothing else. Sanborn is a professional just looking to get home but unsure of what he really hopes to find there. Eldridge is a younger soldier haunted by a death he might have prevented and generally burnt out by Iraq. Besides a few scenes inside the wire that define the characters' backgrounds and relationships, the bulk of the film is taken up by six set-pieces on the battleground, where the characters either have to defuse improvised explosives or dodge ambushes.

Despite an opening quote about war being a drug, The Hurt Locker doesn't really have any message. The greatest focus is on James, and the he could be seen as an archetype for modern-day America, so desperately dissatisfied with our suburban Wal-Mart existence that we crave overseas combat just to jolt us from our ennui, that we might have once fought out of love for democracy and freedom but have come to love war for its own sake.

But that's a stretch: this film is about explosions, about men facing death and being manly about it (the scene where James and Sanborn punch each other comes off more like a hurt/comfort slashfic than male bonding). The character of James - the angst-ridden death-obsessed badass who is the best there is at what he does, but what he does best isn't very nice - might've seemed original once upon time before almost every action movie made since the 1950's used that character as its protagonist. Jeremy Renner's portrayal of James is okay, but he is so underwritten than there's just no depth.

Which is also true for the movie. The Hurt Locker packs an immediate edge because of its timeliness, and it will mistakenly be lauded as the first movie made about the Iraq War to capture the grunts-eye view of the war. However, it's not Platoon or The Big Red One or All Quiet on the Western Front - I may be naive or uninformed, but I doubt that the average grunt is like James, so high on war that he often forsakes basic precautions just to get to the action quicker. If the film focuses on Sanborn or Eldridge, it might've be closer to The Grunt's Tale that critics want to paint it as, but James is such an action hero cliche that The Hurt Locker can't rise above those genre roots. And while the film's portrayal of almost all Iraqis as sinister figures ever-ready to explode hidden bombs may be spot-on for a film that is from the American soldier's perspective, it also means that the film can't be taken seriously as a more general perspective on the war.

But this is a good movie, a damn fine movie, one that belongs alongside other full-muscled if simplistic military meditations like Hell is for Heroes or Hamburger Hill (it starts with "H" too!). And if Bigelow had mixed in some well-considered commentary, The Hurt Locker would have probably ended up sacrificing its visceral energy for labored pretentiousness. It may just be an action movie, but the film does reminds us that you don't need robots terminating or transforming to make an exciting summer blockbuster: you can also do it with poorly thought-out tragic misadventures in the Middle East.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Children of Earth and Curse of Yog-Sothoth

This is a joint post to my gaming livejournal and my personal blog, due to the cross-topics being discussed.

This week, I saw that latest (last?) Torchwood series, Children of Earth, and read the first act in the Curse of the Yellow Sign series for Call of Cthulhu. I expected one to be marginal and the other to rock, and was surprised on both fronts. MAJOR SPOILER WARNING for those that continue...

Torchwood defines the term "uneven." When it premiered three years ago, I had expected a darker, adult take on the Doctor Who mythos, one where humanity faced the same kind of otherworldly threats as the Doctor but had no Time Lord know-how or status to succeed without loss and sacrifice. Instead, Torchwood saw "adult" as an excuse to inject more sex and violence into the mix, while maintaining the goofy cheese of the new Doctor Who series. There's nothing wrong with trashy sex-&-gore (see the current HBO series True Blood), but British have always been able to inject a dark and unsettling political subtext when they made adult sci-fi. Torchwood failed in this, and could never elevate itself beyond cheese-tastic in those all-t00-few moments where it was more than adequate. Yet, in its latest series, Children of Earth, it finally became something more.

The first three episodes of the mini-series were effective, with its murkily-seen alien antagonist and hints at a horrifying exchange of children in the past. Then, with the fourth episode, Children of Earth ramped up the horror in a brutal and intelligent manner, as political leaders sat around a table and slowly descended into a moral hell where not only would children be given over to the aliens, but it would the "right" kind of children (first the illegal aliens, then the poor, then all those but the politically-connected). Even in its absurd trappings, that scene is frighteningly realistic, and, as with the best sci-fi, more about our present than anything fantastic. Then it gets even darker in the finale, where a political figure who was in that room murders his family and commits suicide rather than watch them turned over to the aliens and live with his complicity in the act. And then the usually cheesy Captain Jack pulls the switch to sacrifice his own grandson in the only chance humanity has to end the alien threat and save the 10% of the world's children that would otherwise be handed over. Both are unimaginable crimes, made all the more horrifying in that they were also absolutely reasonable things to do in that situation, carried out by "good" men.

On the other hand, we have Curse of the Yellow Sign: Act 1: Digging for a Dead God, a Call of Cthulhu scenario by reknowned game designer John Wick. As its title suggests, it's only the first part of a trilogy of scenarios, so this individual product is rather thread-bare: nothing particular of the Hastur Mythos appears, and the scenario doesn't end with any kind of conclusive climax. Indeed, there are no set events in the scenario beyond introducing the characters to the plot. What does exist is the premise: the setting is sub-saharan Africa in 1939, and the characters are German SS personnel working on a covert operation to mine diamonds when they unearth something alien and malevolent. While that alien prescence exerts a sanity-damaging influence on the characters, there is no plan to foil, ritual to carry out, Gate to close, or cultists to slaughter. All that is likely to happen in this unstructured game is that the characters will carry out acts of depravity and violence until... well, I guess everyone decides they've had enough and call it a night.

That actually appeals to me, as I've been thinking about running a "sandbox" game to work out the railroad-y tendencies I'm worried might be prevalent in my GM style. Unfortunately, I don't think I'll be running Digging for a Dead God for reasons that became apparent after I'd finished Children of Earth. You see, the reason Children of Earth was so effective was not that horrible acts happened, but that it was good people carrying out those acts, honorable and empathetic characters forced into a very dark situation. Yet in Digging for a Dead God, you've got Nazi player characters (mostly), so that when they murder and torture and fall into darkness, there's hardly any moral distance from which they have to fall. I am a great proponent of the kind of personal horror Digging for a Dead God is trying to attain, and I definitely agree that CoC needs more of that than yet another ritual to disrupt; but if you play scumbags, there's no room for personal horror when all the story asks them to do is engage in scumbaggery.

I could probably avoid this if I changed the characters from Nazis to something less intrinsicly evil, but it means nothing if I simply file the serial numbers off to make the characters mercenaries or put them in another setting. I would have to establish the characters as intrinsicly "good" (ie. likely to be upset about putting villagers in a hot box) and still create a situation where they would be doing the kind of actions they are in the written scenario. In other words, I'd have to write a completely new scenario, and considering how little there is in Digging for Dead God (literally, you're Nazis, you torture Africans, and a dark god whispers to you - that is pretty much it), it just wouldn't be worth it. So, while I will probably pick up Act 2 of the trilogy (I do want a sandbox game focused on personal horror), this first part does nothing for me, except reinforce why Nazis make for lousy player characters.