Saturday, February 4, 2012

Myth Blog Retrospective: One Year Later

Back for more! A special Captain America! Redefining Modern Myth double post marking the one year anniversary since we launched on February 4, 2011...

Heroes Lost, Heroes Found

by Ben Alpi

What’s in a year? So many wonderful things, unfortunate things and horrible things happened. In the time from February 4, 2011 and February 4, 2012 the world changed. Dictators fell and freedom rang out. The waters of the Pacific rose up trying to swallow the rising sun. Speech was tread upon, privacy eroded and liberty constricted. Teachers of children had to defend their profession. Veterans came home from war. Great and beautiful minds left our world to travel beyond the veil. That unfortunately includes the venerable Cap co-creator Joe Simon, age 98. And around the globe people took to the streets in great numbers to protest tyranny.

Can you recall any one name who led the charge? A man stood against his government and made them listen. Do you know what country? Do you know his name?

These days, it seems like we’re almost afraid to even use the word “hero.” One of the main attributes of a hero might be someone who doesn’t quite fit into society. Not fitting in is of course one of the best ways to get yourself reprimanded by society in some way—beaten by bullies, fired by your boss or skipped over for a job or promotion. A hero finds the courage to raise his or her head above the parapet. Of course, doing so is the best way to get it cut off by society. If you don’t run with a ball, crunch financial numbers or make good investment bets or if your job involves marker boards, pencils, keyboards, or test tubes, you had best walk on eggshells.

In the entertainment world, as I’ve spoken about at length, there is a perception that a mythic hero is simply unrealistic-- ‘No one is THAT [insert positive trait here]. No one is perfect.’ It’s true, stories often skip over many hardships a person would normally face, but that doesn’t make the character obsolete and sure doesn’t mean the ideal is not worth pursuing. I mentioned to Rick what I was thinking of writing for our anniversary here and he offered that I could mention how in the dark days of WWII, they looked for heroes “to extoll the nobler qualities of man.” In all times previous to the twentieth century, art and stories drew out dark forces for a reason. Many of the most horrifying of images, a painting, sculpture, illustration, photo or film, held beauty and optimism within it. But it seems our society would rather snuff out the flame for fear it might burn too brightly.

Such movements as “conceptual art,” perhaps begun with Dechamp’s Fountain (famously, a urinal with “R. Mutt 1917” scrawled on it,) sought to break tradition by passing mundane objects off as art. This style still greatly influences contemporary art today although it’s grown more grotesque. The amateur and the defamer has been elevated to a higher place than the master. Best not ask a master because they’re just so set in their ways anyhow and/or are just elitists who would rather hold their mastery over us than help. Is that true? Are we so afraid of looking like we don’t know as much as someone who has spent years of their life to become an authority that we’ll avoid them or tear them down? Nope.

I must admit the thought of Cap’s heroism and brilliantly clear intentions always give me a heavy heart. Whilst growing up I never thought superheroes were real, but when I realized that real people didn’t emulate them, something kind of broke inside me. This year I wrote a short animated film called Looking Up. In the film, a son sees his father as a mighty superhero but is ultimately let down when his dad abandons the family. This leaves the son grasping for a role model. Even though real people can let us down, concepts like Cap remind us that there is an ideal worth striving for. I feel that to the bottom of my soul. And that’s why I write about heroes and not anti-heroes or villains masqueraded as heroes. It seems our society as turned upside-down where degenerates are lauded for risking their reputations for fame (read: infamy) and crude behavior is applauded and encouraged for our entertainment. This past year, more scripted television and documentaries were replaced by “reality” television; poorly shot and executed programs wherein reality is re-written in the editing room to enhance conflict. Oddly, but not surprisingly, many people seek to emulate the celebrities created by these destructive shows and in some cases, it seems they imitate the soap opera-like drama in their own lives. Some say these are signs that our society has dropped off the precipice, our Golden Age is over.

The last hundred years saw us trying to redefine ourselves after incredibly rapid changes. Modern art has reflected this by widely rejecting tradition and deconstructing it. Art has become anti-art and heroes anti-heroes. Again and again Rick and I returned to the question ‘Could a film about Cap still reflect his purity and stand up to society’s new-found anti-goodness tendencies?’ I see now that this tendency is almost a form of self-loathing. Producers fear that showing a good-intentioned and noble hero could make the audience feel inadequate. It’s true that our young people have been coddled overmuch and our society has been softened by cheap goods, technology, and credit cards, but do I think that we should capitulate to this anti-idealism? Over. My. Dead. Body.

Have our intentions in education, art and entertainment changed so much that we’re no longer interested in challenging our children and ourselves? There is absolutely nothing wrong with the story of a sickly boy who endured and persevered even though more of his days were filled with pain than not. Steve Roger’s pain gave him a core so absolutely strong, no one could break it. His pain also opened him to empathy and later as Cap, he could identify easily with the weakened and downtrodden. Cap knows better than most that folks just want to be free. Free to live, love, move, enjoy their lives and to be free of oppression and pain. People want to feel they’re a part of society and feel like they’re contributing, not to live in fear.

Cap is also a student of history. He knows this all has happened before. He knows that lessons were once taught harshly with starved lions eating prisoners and slaves in the Colosseum. I don’t think he’d want us to go back to that, but I also don’t think he’d want us to try and deny the existence of right and wrong let alone avoid all matters of violence or reality say, in children’s television. It’s interesting how it seems we’re trying to avoid teaching our children about reality while we also try to tamp out their imaginations and make them grow up quicker. And once we’re older, somehow we crave only guilty pleasures? Well, back in Cap’s day gluttony was not a favorable trait and that’s not changed. Heroes cannot make you feel bad about yourself; they can only make the guilty feel so. Challenges cannot destroy character, they can only build it. Being exceptional is not shameful or a curse or a burden. It’s a gift. We’re all exceptional at something and we all should delight in that. And we shouldn’t need the darkness of war to show us the light.
Although he sits at the microphone like any other American testifying to a Congressional committee, the Senators are uneasy at the presence of the imposing figure of Captain America.

The Senator from Nevada who chairs the committee shakes his head.“I’m sorry, but you’re 70 years too late, Captain. Our job is to root out government waste and I see no reason to continue funding a project like yours which is simply beyond its usefulness. We don’t need symbols anymore. We won the war.”

Cap looks him and the other Senators in the eye as he speaks. “I wish I could agree with you, Senator, but even the founders knew we had to seek a more perfect union. Perhaps I’m out of my time, but my message, our message, has never been more important. We’ve won many battles, but as long a one child goes hungry or one person is hurt for being different, there will still be work to be done. And I’m here do my part.”
Be exceptional. Stick your neck out. Help someone in need. Be gentle, but don’t blind your children. Drink less, stop smoking and get more sleep. Spend more time talking to your loved ones than listening to newscasters and talk shows. That’s what Cap would want you to do. He’d also remind us that a democracy is not a concrete pillar; it’s a Liberty Garden that needs our constant attention. It needs to be tended, watered, and sung to. He’d also say don’t be afraid of heroes.

The man I mentioned before who stood up to his government was Anna Hazare. He went on a hunger strike to protest corruption in the Indian government. After eleven days of only water, his actions shamed parliament into agreeing to at least give credence to his anti-corruption plan to make public servants accountable for massive scandals and end their culture of bribery. India is the largest democracy in the world with a population of more than 1.2 billion, has six national political parties, and 21 languages recognized by its constitution. I know about Hazare only because I traveled to my future in-laws in England during his protest. Anna Hazare is a hero and we should know his name. There are more. And what about you? Are you a hero?

Over this past year I was blessed to work with Rick on this project as well as my short film Cowboy Creed. Thanks to Rick and a host of other kind backers, professionals, and artists the film is now in post-production. Cowboy Creed will not shy away from displays of heroism and villainy and I think you’ll like it. I absolutely loved writing this blog with Rick and opening his sketches each week was a joy—which has been wonderfully relived today! And there is so much more to discover! The next twelve months will be a challenge just like the last twelve, but let’s all make the most of them. With Cap running out in front showing us the way, we can’t fail! Thank you all for reading!

Keep your dreams alive,
Ben Alpi

Captain America and Heroism - One Year Later

A Blog Anniversary

by Rick Arthur

February 2011 was the official start of the Captain America! Redefining Modern Myth blog.  Ben Alpi and I ran some blog tests in late 2010 and Jan. of 2011 to measure the format and work out some technical issues.  Some of these posts became the “Preamble” to our blog about Cap.  Having spent several years exchanging emails, deciding to collect them, and based on the super hoopla from the Big Football Game which included both a Thorand Captain America movie preview, we created the first official offering after the game as a sort of “kickoff."  So, in the shortest month of the year, wedged in between Ground Hog Day and Valentine’s Day and just after a 31-25 Green Bay over the Steelers win in game XLV, Captain America! Redefining Modern Myth - the blog which became about truth, justice, freedom, patriotism and liberty debuted with a post entitled, There Is No Tea.”  We set out to ask “How do you make a modern film about a character with almost seventy years worth reference material?”

Ben and I achieved a growing success as we rolled out the posts like clockwork three times a week.  After a few weeks, I proposed we add more color to the posts and set about with Ben’s help to recreate the background graphic and layout.  Ben’s vision for the look had been full of WWII browns and tans also designed to work well with the type selected.  Several artistic efforts proved to be unsatisfying.  What did we end up with though?  Small color “sketches” to grace the posts themselves. While I created a majority of these color sketches, Ben also tried his hand - plus gave invaluable advice on much of the others.  This solidified our graphic layout.

Content proved to be fairly easy.  We had made a decision early on NOT to edit the text much.  What we got was a conversation with a very natural sound that reprinted in most cases our exact emails.  I split the emails into segments and gave them post titles.  Topics ranged from discussing Simon and Kirby to WWI, WWII, Steve Rogers as a boy, what is patriotism, who is the Red Skull, what would it be like to film certain scenes.  My favorite parts include the scenes, the dialogue and reading what Ben would write back.  His action filled opening script with Cap parachuting larger than life onto the battlefield is astonishing and set a lot of the tone for what would come next.

It is the “what comes next” that concerns us here.  We could not have predicted any of it.  Emails about Cap took a decidedly sharp turn.  Who was he and what forces shaped him?  What constituted heroism? Bravery? Patriotism?  What did WWII really mean from the perspective of the time - just how dangerous was it, how close to loosing it all?  What was the nature of sacrifice?

An important aspect of the character was how he took the arc of a heroes’ journey.  This is more important than jumping from “cool visual” to “big explosion here.”  Reading the blog you will be able to follow the sometimes contradictory steps we take in building Steve Rogers from the ground up, laying the foundation of WWII from the aftermath of The Great War, having him engage in battle and having him come up against an opposing force in the shape of the Red Skull who tests Cap’s mettle and makes Cap question his beliefs.  Despite all of the strengths a hero possess, the villain must always appear stronger, often besting the hero before the hero discovers an important truth about himself. Only with that can the hero claim victory.

Our emails began to build toward us actually writing a screenplay. This would have been a logical extension of our searching for character and a great deal of fun for me because my script partner, Ben, is a filmmaker and would have taught me a lot about the process.  This type of writing though is not light and fun, not something I could do in just 15 minutes a day.  A screenplay would require more dedication and time than I could give.  While a lot of material was available to work from, solutions for scenes would consume brain power, trial and error, and time.  Just for a first draft.  Marvel announced a Cap movie while we were still emailing.  I worked a job as did Ben.  We had to be content with amassing background information and knowing that the character had gotten a fair investigation by us.

Ben also writes and reminds us that being heroic and following your instincts are an important part of the human condition.  What can I do?  One man or woman can make a difference.  Standing up for individual liberty, freedom and responsibility is what Captain America as a fictional character was all about.  Tales of heroes remind us time and again to strive for a perfection of our inner virtues and live entirely without fear - the kind of life that could shine as an example to others.  Honest. Open.  Selfless. Compassionate. Devoted. Despite all our struggles and failings, heroes stand before us and say “Get up.”  We are reminded of how life’s trials are both a sprint and a marathon and some obstacles will knock us down in the dirt.  Cap got up again and again when he could have stayed down, when avoiding a stronger opponent would have kept him safe...

I am very happy with the resulting blog.  I feel it represents much of the thinking we had developed on the character.  As we finish our first full year, I am able to see the body of work for what it is, a love letter to Cap, to our superhero youth, and more importantly a proud remembrance of the sacrifices made by the greatest generation of Americans to secure freedom and liberty in the darkest chapter for mankind. Thank you to all who serve.

Thank you too, dear reader, for embarking on this journey with us and discovering a different Steve Rogers and a revitalized Captain America.  If you have read this blog before, discover it again and if you haven’t then be prepared for a treat!

Let Freedom Ring!