Unhappy with Pop Culture? Make Your Own | Ghost in the Shell & Fanboy Pandering

GHOST IN THE SHELL

Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

This essay contains spoilers for Ghost in the Shell (2017). For my spoiler-free review of the film, click here

One thing that struck me in the aftermath of the live action version of Ghost in the Shell — controversially starring Scarlett Johnasson, formulaically directed by Rupert Sanders though undeniably beautiful to look at — is just how dearly some people cling onto their beloved pop culture properties, especially when a Hollywood adaptation comes around as does its thing with them, as it is wont to do.

Of course, this isn’t at all something new.

Neither is it something that I don’t myself recognise.

I’ve been guilty of it in the past, and I understand the strange cocktail that washes over a fanboy’s consciousness when these stories they’ve committed to, these stories that have carved an intimate wedge in our hearts and minds, are suddenly plucked out of their designated cubbyholes and thrust up on the big screen for all to see.

You feel as if your ownership of them is no longer a certain thing. In other words, you feel stripped of a privilege that was previously unassailable.

You feel like you should be the one telling people what this thing is really like, what it should really look and feel like, and how whatever adaptation has appeared on the scene is cheating people out of the ‘authentic’ experience of the original artifact in question.

Scarlett Johansson and Pilou Asbaek in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

Scarlett Johansson and Pilou Asbaek in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

But in the recent past, this was no longer all that much of a ‘thing’. Canny studios have realised that pissing off fanboys robs them of a crucial revenue stream, and so fidelity became the new thing.

Ironically, Robert Rodríguez’s Sin City could arguably be the finest example of a direct and entirely faithful comic-to-film adaptation, but the system in which it was made could be broadly described as ‘pulp arthouse’.

But with the likes of Marvel simply up and deciding to set up their own filmmaking arm, fanboys could finally breathe a sigh of relief and revel in the knowledge that their beloved properties will be projected onto the world stage more or less unchanged.

They were finally able to tell their peers, “Look, that is the thing I’ve been obsessing over for so long. Isn’t great?”, instead of mumbling some irritate thing about how this is all horrible and skewed and why are you enjoying it?

So in a way, Sanders’ take on Ghost in the Shell felt like a refreshing jolt of nostalgia for a time when nerd butthurt was an automatic reaction to whatever adaptation of a beloved property came out in Hollywood at any given time.

The insides of a cybernetic geisha head in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

The insides of a cybernetic geisha head in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

It was all salted by a juicily political polemic too — the whitewashing accusations that are awkward because, you know, she’s a robot but then they’re also justified cos, you know, Hollywood so White — so that it suddenly felt like we were on contested terrain once again: this wasn’t just a motion comic/live action cartoon for fanboys to lap up, it was an adaptation through-and-through, and thus open to criticism from all sides.

Whereas a studio like Marvel has a militarily imposed editorial line it cleaves to, Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell attemps to play with other tools to ensure both fidelity to the source material and a wide-enough audience appeal

In a cinematic landscape so aggressively framed by well-oiled franchises holding fanboys close to their hearts, even something otherwise equally a part of the blockbuster machine like Ghost in the Shell begins to feel like something of an outlier.

And ironically enough, its attempts to have the cake an eat it too — even if we assume the most cynical interpretation to be correct, that all of this would be in aid of raking in as large and diverse an audience as possible — only bolster its status as something of a more vibrant collage than its ultimately more successful counterparts.

Whereas a studio like Marvel has a militarily imposed editorial line it cleaves to, because it’s guaranteed success so far, Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell attempted to play with other tools to ensure both fidelity to the source material and a wide-enough audience appeal.

Juliette Binoche in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

Juliette Binoche in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

As if to compensate for casting Johnasson in the lead role, the rest of the cast is actually a pretty diverse international mix. ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano is wonderful as the mentor figure Daisuke Aramaki — and gets to speak Japanese throughout — while Johnasson’s closest friend and ally Batou is played by Danish actor Pilou Asbæk, with the rest of the main cast rounded off by Juliette Binoche (France) and Peter Ferdinando (UK).

Also, the script allows for a notable mirror-image diversion from the standard Campbellian trope that most high-concept blockbusters of Ghost in the Shell’s ilk operate under.

Effectively, [Ghost in the Shell 2017] flips Joseph Campbell’s idea of a hero questing from an Ordinary World to a Special World to then take a boon back with them and help society as a whole

In this East-meets-West collage, it’s somewhat expected for Sanders and co. to take a more ‘American’ tack to the philosophy that underlies the entire Ghost in the Shell enterprise, and go to great lengths to humanise Johnasson’s Motoko in an attempt to give the audience a fully-rounded emotional arc for the character; as contrasted with the more nuanced approach to the cybernetic subject that we might find in the Japanese source material.

So, as things turn out, Johansson’s Major/Motoko discovers her human roots and sets out to reclaim them fully; rediscovering ‘her’ biological mother and embracing that her memories as genuine — which were previously suppressed by the Corporation that kept her as an agent in their employ.

Effectively, this flips Joseph Campbell’s idea of a hero questing from an Ordinary World to a Special World to then take a boon back with them and help society as a whole.

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Instead, Motoko’s trajectory is more akin to a journey FROM the Special World (as a cybernetically enhanced agent operating in a highly rarefied dystopian-cyberpunk universe) BACK TO the Ordinary World (when she discovers what really happened to her ‘organic’ self and rushes back to the warm embrace of what’s left of her human family).

As the film’s coda reveals however, this about-face does not mean Motoko will quit being an agent. What the ending suggests — apart from a lead-in to a sequel that is unlikely to happen given the film’s dismal box office showing — is that Motoko will continue to ply her skills with, presumably, a renewed peace of mind and a wider understanding of the world around her.

Scarlett Johnasson and Anamaria Marinca in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

Scarlett Johnasson and Anamaria Marinca in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

She is no longer a cog in the Corporation’s machine, so the Hero’s Boon she in fact brings back — and which she’s aided in giving full bloom to by Daisuke — is the ability to do her job freed from the agendas of the agency — to actually do her work for the ‘greater good’ instead of doing dangerous work in service of the Corporation’s bottom line.

Certainly, this is a small enough innovation on the concept. It’s a modest and tacked-on twist that ultimately, didn’t pay off enough at the box office, for whatever reason.

But it does point towards a realm of possibility that opens up once you give slavish fidelity the boot.

major

Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

Pop culture artifacts like superheroes and even properties like Ghost in the Shell enjoy a mythic status in our consciousness which sometimes even spans generations.

The laws of intellectual property of course bars us with tinkering with them liberally — though the very nature of the internet runs counter to this idea, but that’s a discussion for another time — but licensed adaptations should at least be allowed a take on them that brings in something fresh.

We could make the mechanical vs organic metaphor here once again: with Marvel Studios and the like producing functional and successful but ultimately uniform fare while those filmmakers allowed to do something different are making wonderful work out of the unpredictable organic matter of Story.

But what it also brings to mind is, if you want something done differently, you should just up and do it yourself.

Unlike the dazzling but oppressive cybernetic interface that gives Ghost in the Shell its dystopian kick, the internet provides those willing enough to go the extra mile at least some leeway to producing their own stuff based on the things they love.

And if what you love is genre fiction, there’s plenty to play with there that will not, in fact, get you in copyright-related trouble…  

 

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April Update | Censorship, Near Future SF & Campus Book Fest

April got underway to a head-start as I finished up my soujourn at the Kinemastik Film Club by screening the both beloved and reviled cult classic The Fifth Element to what seemed to be a pretty nostalgic and misty-eyed audiences.

The film was certainly a lot of fun, but it also felt a bit patchier than a lot of us remembered; with a jokey mess of a plot and visuals that were — yes — stunning in parts but hardly had enough ‘wow’ set-piece moments to justify the cult status Besson’s space opera still enjoys (as bolstered by both the Moebius inspired settings and Jean Paul-Gaultier costumes).

milla

Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element (1997), dir. Luc Besson

It was still somewhat heartening to see all that taking place on the big screen at the British Legion in Valletta, as I’m pottering away on my own piece of decidedly ambitious but also — one hopes, as a check on said ambition — silly and satirical slice of sci-fi. But soon after that, I was invited to participate to a project that teased at the more sober qualities of that same genre…

Archived Futures Harvest: Near-future SF writing in Rabat (sort of…)

Last week was in fact a pretty hectic one for this exact reason, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t rewarding. While details remain under wraps until the first week of May when the exhibition is set to open, what I can in fact tell you is that my friend Glen Calleja of Studio Solipsis invited me to do some writing for him at his Rabat studio, and that it was a great — if rather exhausting — time.

A studio in Rabat is a great thing to have

A studio in Rabat is a great thing to have

The extended exercise took its cue from a workshop organised some months back, and focused on a collective imaginary of the future. The content I was creating channeled paranoia about surveillance and smart technology, and took the form of fabricated (not ‘fake’!) news articles, surveys and the interpretation of surreal prose texts — or are they coded messages by underground movements?

Even apart from the coolness of working in Rabat and Glen’s zen-like demeanour and keen intelligence — and, of course, the project’s own rich potential, which runs on the intriguing paradox of mixing futuristic speculations with the instruments of the archive — gave me ample opportunity to flex some storytelling muscles.

I’ve always been one to work to limits, but being told to write something creatively based on a fabricated news report, or culled from — also fabricated — surveys and coded messages, gave me a special kind of frisson. I will definitely be applying some of these devices to my own writing in the future.

The Archived Futures Harvest exhibition launches on May 5 and runs for two months

Talking in public: Campus Book Fest, ACM Lab

Speaking about writing at the Campus Book Festival, April 4. Photo by Rik Van Colen

Speaking about writing at the Campus Book Festival, April 4. Photo by Rik Van Colen

As it happens, Glen Calleja was a stall-mate of my dad’s at the Campus Book Festival which ran at the beginning of the month — book-binding is one of his many skills — and it was after he heard me speak at the event that he proposed we collaborate on the Archived Futures project.

The talk — which took place on the bright and sunny morning of April 4 — went reasonably well, I felt. The original idea was to do something about MIBDUL together with Inez, but she happened to be in London for a workshop at the time. So instead of a visually-enhanced guide of how we’re slowly putting the comic together, I decided to speak about how my first novel kicked my ass into submission and taught me that structure is a very important thing indeed — and not, as I had foolishly assumed, the provenance of those who lack verve and imagination.

Some audience interaction proved that I was not alone in these concerns, and it’s always nice to find real-life correlatives to conversations you would normally have online — which lend a disturbing patina of anonymity even to your closest friends.

Arts Council Malta Head of Strategy Toni Attard and intellectual property lawyer Jeanine Rizzo at the ACM Lab on censorship/self-censorship in Malta, April 21

Arts Council Malta Head of Strategy Toni Attard and lawyer Jeanine Rizzo at the ACM Lab on censorship/self-censorship in Malta, April 21

More recently, I was asked to participate to the latest edition of the ‘ACM Lab’, which are public talks organised by Arts Council Malta on various issues germane to Maltese culture. This time around it was all about censorship and/or censorship, with lawyer Dr Jeanine Rizzo breaking down the new laws pertaining to freedom of expression, which led to a debate with theatre-maker Adrian Buckle — who bore the brunt of the law as it previously stood — and Mario Azzopardi of the Film Classification board.

The discussion was polite enough, with all of us agreeing that transparency is key in age classification — citing the BBFC as an admirable benchmark — but that when it came to theatrical productions in particular — whose producers are now free to self-classify in Malta — an element of risk always remained.

ACM’s head of strategy Toni Attard asked me whether I think Malta’s artists were ready to take full advantage of the newly relaxed laws, and whether evidence of this can be found on the ground. As ever, I believe that the ‘slow’ approach is necessary to all of this; we should keep our eyes peeled on what’s happening, but also be patient enough to wait until enough evidence has accumulated before making our final analysis.

And in our spare time…

Beyond all that, it appears that science fiction is something of a running thread this month. I’m taking steps towards making a trip to WorldCon 75 at Helsinki possible right now — read: assessing the financial viability of it all — which has motivated me to pick up a couple of Hugo shorlistees.

too like lightning

I’ve started with Ada Palmer’s ambitious and, let’s be frank, pretty fucking dazzling Too Like Lightning, which I can only describe as far-future SF written by a member of the Enlightenment literati from the 18th century. I’m only about a quarter of the way through and I’m not sure I’m quite getting all the nuances of the labyrinthine world that Palmer — a 35-year-old professor of history from the University of Chicago — plunges us into, but I’m also hooked.

Easier on the intellect but no less engaging is The Expanse, which I’ve finally gotten to after stalling for a few months and following a slew of recommendations. It certainly doesn’t disappoint: the world-building (!) is tight, controlled and crisp, the characters are richly but clearly drawn and the political intrigue is on the right side of soap opera.

Sure, Fifth Element it ain’t. But I’m looking forward to burning through the rest of it.