If you’re on Twitter, you know there has been a lot of drama about the future of the site. If you’re not on Twitter, well, now is probably not a good time to join.

I have no idea what will happen to Twitter. All I know is, my follower count is around 250, which is the higher-end estimate of Dunbar’s Number, and thus seems to me to be the perfect amount. I only regularly interact with about 5% of them. But I have alternate ways to get in touch with that 5% without using Twitter. So, even if it goes, it wouldn’t be the end of my world.

What I’m more interested in is what this means for social media as a whole. Frankly, I dislike the term “social media.” It reeks of early-2000s tech speak, in which hackers reinvented terms for well-established human behaviors and thought themselves geniuses.

Of course, the internet is a wonderful way of meeting people, and I’m grateful for all the friends I’ve made through it. (They are, after all, the real treasure.) I would not want to lose touch with them. Fittingly, Twitter is a canary in the coal mine. What happens to it could, in theory, happen to all online relationships.

At times like these, I like to flippantly reference Deus Ex, a 2000 cyberpunk video game in which the world is ravaged by terrorism, poverty, and pandemics, all while sinister global megacorporations scheme to reengineer humanity itself for their own ends.

However, while this game may sound very dated and completely irrelevant to our modern era, the part I’m thinking of is the “Dark Age Ending,” in which the protagonist, J.C. Denton, destroys the global computer network controlled by the tech billionaire villain, plunging the world into a state of anarchic freedom:

(By the way, one high-profile fan of Deus Ex is none other than… Elon Musk.)

Now, before you all get excited and form an anarcho-syndicalist commune, I’m not saying that our future is necessarily small tribes communicating only by letters and carrier pigeons.

Rather, I’m saying we need to think about what the whole goal of online socializing is. What do we want to get out of it? Do we actually want a forum where anyone can say anything to anyone? Maybe we do.

Then again, maybe not. Maybe all we want is a place to talk with our friends. I don’t know; these are tough questions.

But this I do know: it’s got to be about the quality of the relationships, not the quantity. The ability to attract millions of eyeballs is not that important. What’s important is that we cultivate friendships with people that are actually meaningful to us.

Okay, okay; I know I’m really trying your patience at this point. Once again, I have failed to deliver the weekly book review. But I have an excuse! In addition to the three I mentioned last time, I have subsequently acquired another book to beta read!

Also, I have been writing reviews. Really, I have! But, the trouble is, they all have to be posted later in the year, to coincide with book release dates or certain Autumnal holidays. 🙂

All right, so if I have no book review to post, do I have anything useful to contribute? Well, not exactly. But I have a request that may prove fruitful.

Earlier this week, Kevin Brennan posted about the depressing lack of reviews for his books. I think it’s something almost all of us indie authors can relate to. Kevin is a fantastic writer, and to see his works languishing like this is disheartening. (If you want advice on where to start, I recommend his road trip comedy-drama Fascination.)

Nor is Kevin’s an isolated case. There are many wonderful indie writers whose books go un-reviewed.

I realize we’re all pressed for time these days. I mean, here I am, not posting a review when I should be. “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” and this week anyway, I am part of the problem.

However, you don’t have to be part of the problem. So, tell me about what you’re reading or have recently read in the comments below. I am agog to learn! I therefore yield the floor to you, loyal reader.

I must begin with an apology. There is no book review this week. This is not (solely) due to me being a lazy bum. I’m currently beta reading ARCs of books by three of my favorite authors. I am quite excited about this. But, since the books are not out yet, I can’t review them. (One of them will be coming fairly soon, though, so stay tuned…)

But, if I post nothing on the regular posting day, readers may be disappointed. Heck, you might even forget this blog exists if I go quiet too long. And who could blame you? I feel I owe you something for showing up here for the weekly Friday post.

So here goes: today, we’re going to talk about fashion.

No, not clothes! Sorry; I’m basically useless when it comes to discussing clothing fashions. If you want that, watch Karolina Zebrowska.

The fashions I want to talk about are less tangible. They are fashions in art, philosophy, literature, etc. I’ve written about this sort of thing before, in my posts about fin de siècle. Why did so much art in the 1890s share a common mood, and why was it different from the mood in, say, the 1820s, or the 1950s?

Actually, maybe fashion is the wrong word. There’s not really a word in English for what I mean. So we steal words from other languages, words like milieu and ethos and zeitgeist to convey the idea.

These concepts are describing something. But it’s hard to define exactly what “it” is. Indeed, “it” is usually the thing itself; a circular definition. The 1890s had a zeitgeist, an ethos. And so did the 1980s. And the two were completely different from each other, which makes them difficult to describe as the same thing.  As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said when discussing another phenomenon: “I know it when I see it.

My contention is that every era has this. Often, however, it is visible only in retrospect, or rather by comparing the spirit of one era with that of another, and seeing what’s different.

While it’s easy to see the spirit of other eras, it’s very difficult to see it in our own era. It strikes us as “just the way things are.” As Paul Graham once wrote, “It’s the nature of fashion to be invisible.” Or, bringing Karolina Zebrowska back into this again: “We are constantly shocked by the supposed stupidity of people who came before us, and at the same time impressed by how well-developed our society is. Except, well, as you probably guessed, neither is true.

When you watch a movie from the 1950s, the garish Technicolor is obvious. But when you watch a movie from the 2010s, the orange-and-blue palette isn’t… until you know to look for it, after which you wonder how you could have missed it.

Actually, I lied to you before. There is a word in English for this… sort of. It’s a neologism, but weren’t all words neologisms once?

The word is “meme.” Or maybe more precisely, the derived term, “memeplex.”

If you’re like me, when you hear the word “meme” you probably think of funny pictures of cats. But really, almost anything can be a meme. Broadly speaking, any concept that gets perpetuated among groups of people is a meme.

In fiction, we call common memes “tropes.” Stock characters like “The Evil Stepmother” or “The Hardboiled Detective,” for example, are memes.

A meme becomes a fashion when it starts appearing in a lot of places at the same time. The noir Hardboiled Detective meme seems to have been in fashion from the 1930s through the 1950s.

And obviously, some things go in and out of fashion. The youth fiction of a hundred years ago was mostly adventure and sci-fi. Now it’s dystopias and magic. Things come and go, be they shoes, literary archetypes, or cinema techniques.

Now, the question is: What makes a meme take off like wildfire? Or not?

The question is relevant to us because there are basically two ways to make it as a writer:

  1. Piggyback off the success of an existing literary memeplex
  2. Create your own literary memeplex

The distinction between the two is not clear-cut. H.P. Lovecraft is credited with creating a sub-genre of horror that now bears his name, yet he himself would admit he was influenced by Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert W. Chambers, Lord Dunsany and many others in creating his fiction. Nothing is completely original. But some are more original than others.

Of course, I don’t have a perfect answer to the question. I do not know the exact formula, if one even exists. Alas, despite what you may have heard, there is no how-to guide to Create A New Cultural Phenomenon With This One Weird Trick!

But I have a theory. Or maybe it’s more of a wild guess. I have no proof that it’s right. I think it is, though.

My theory is that the key to creating a new literary memeplex is interaction with other creative people.

If you study pretty much any artistic movement, you find that the artists were influencing each other with their ideas. Sometimes as friends, sometimes as rivals, sometimes as fellow students of a craft. The point is, they weren’t just sitting by themselves trying to come up with new ideas in a vacuum.

My belief is that there is some critical mass of creative energy necessary to launch a meme with sufficient force that it can sweep through the general culture. Maybe there are some people who are such geniuses they can achieve this energy by themselves. But I think in most cases, it requires more than one brain working along similar lines.

This is why, if you’re bored of the current memeplexes, the best thing you can do is try to work on new ones. If there’s one thing I know about fashions, it’s that they don’t go away because people get sick of them. Rather, people get sick of them because they discover something new.

Attention, all! If you enjoyed my ’90s action movie series and would like to read more blog posts about movies, fellow author and blogger Peter Martuneac is doing a series on his favorite films, beginning with the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The first installment, his analysis of The Fellowship of the Ring, went up today and you can read it here.

What, you may ask, is ultimately the point of this series? Have I come to tell you that the only good action movies were made between 1990 and 1999? No, of course not. There have been plenty of good action movies for decades before and after. North by Northwest is a wonderful action movie, and so is Ghost in the Shell. Nostalgia for the cinema of the ’90s may color my vision, but it has not blinded me. Not yet, anyway.

Let me answer this question the same way I do everything: by telling a long rambling story that I’ve probably told before on here someplace.

The story begins with my mother, who is a much better critic than I am, and one of my worst fears is that someday she may start a blog of her own, and put me out of business. Part of the reason she is so good she attributes to the nuns who educated her. One of these nuns taught my mother’s high school English literature class, where she drilled into her students that one of the great themes of literature was “Love Conquers All.”

My mother wondered what were some other great themes of literature. She concluded that another one was “Ya Can’t Fight City Hall.” Tragedy, in other words; the inevitability of fate. (Ma Gambrel is a classicist, and I’m sure that it was reading Greek tragedy that made her think of this.) She was convinced there were others, but as yet, she has not been able to name them.

Now, you know me, readers! Show me a rule, and the first thing I try to do is break it. But there’s no doubt in my mind this is one versatile rule. I’ve found that most stories can be sorted into one of these two categories. Of course, they’re very broadly defined. “Love” can be familial love, fraternal love, paternal love, erotic love, patriotic love, etc. Likewise, “City Hall” could be God, destiny, social norms, the inherently imperfect nature of humanity, ancestral sins, etc.

Is this a perfect way of categorizing fiction? Certainly not. No such thing exists. Is it even a worthwhile exercise? Well, that’s a discussion I’ll leave up to you. But I’ll tell you this: my hunch is, most famous movies of a given era will fall into one camp or the other. The late ’60s and early ’70s, for example, were heavily Ya Can’t Fight City Hall, e.g. McCabe & Mrs. Miller or Chinatown. And in contrast, the ’90s were, on balance, all about Love Conquering All.

Which brings me at last to the topic of the movie I actually want to talk about today. Like Tank Girl, this is one I’ve reviewed before, so that will spare me the synopsis, which is my least-favorite part of review writing, and let me get right to the analysis.

The Fifth Element, basically, is love. Well, of course, technically it’s Leeloo, the mysterious woman who appears just in time to oppose the evil forces threatening to destroy the universe. But she doesn’t do that until Dallas declares his love for her. It’s a surprisingly fairy-tale ending for what has largely been a wild, semi-cyberpunk sci-fi adventure.

A good theme can hold a weird movie together. You can have all sorts of weirdness, as indeed The Fifth Element does, but if you do, it’s best to have a solid foundation in the form of the kind of story that people have been telling for millennia. Otherwise, you just get weirdness for weirdness’ sake.

The other thing that makes Fifth Element great is its sense of humor. Sometimes directors get so invested in trying to make people buy in to their make-believe world that they forget to be able to laugh along the way. But this movie knows not to take itself too seriously, and the result is a playful adventure move that can be rewatched again and again. My friend Pat Prescott, who introduced me to this film, watches it whenever he’s having a really tough week.

Now, before I wrap up this installment, let’s do a thought experiment: imagine there was a Fifth Element franchise. There would have been sequels where Leeloo and Dallas broke up. There would have been a prequel that showed Zorg’s dark, gritty origin story. There would have been a reboot that was substantially the same as the original except with everything just slightly worse. It would have been awful.

One thing I’ve learned from this hobby of mine as a wannabe techno-decadent cultural critic is that the word “franchise” in the context of movies is essentially synonymous with the word “putrefaction.” Once something is called a franchise, that means it is dying. The process may be slow and subtle, or it may be swift and brutal, but it’s inevitable once that word starts showing up.

Anyway, though; this is supposed to be an upbeat series! I don’t know where all that doom and gloom came from. The point is, The Fifth Element is a wonderful sci-fi adventure that encapsulates the bubbly good-spiritedness of ’90s action movies.

This entry is an unusual one. For starters, it’s the first film in this series that I’ve reviewed before on this blog. Hopefully, I’ll be able to say something new about it, rather than just repeating myself. I suppose I’ll need to find a new angle from which to talk about this movie,  since I’ve covered most of the plot in the earlier review.

I’m not sure if “tank movies” are officially recognized as a type of genre, but they ought to be. Obviously, they can’t officially be a “sub-genre”… that would have to be for movies like Crimson Tide and Das Boot.

Sorry. But there really is such a thing as a tank movie. 1988’s The Beast, about a Russian tank crew in Afghanistan, is one such example, and this is another one. Actually, as I think about it, there may have been some real tank nostalgia going on in the ’90s. After all, who can forget the big scene with the tank in the previous film I discussed? And this was also the decade that gave us BattleTanx, a post-apocalyptic video game about a future where rival tank gangs fight it out on the streets of ruined cities.

Tank Girl is more like The Beast, in that there is just one tank, all by itself in a huge desert. But that’s pretty much where the similarities end, because while The Beast is a dark rumination on the morality of war and man’s inhumanity to man, Tank Girl is a hilarious romp complete with Cole Porter musical numbers, half-man, half-kangaroo hybrids, and Malcolm McDowell hamming it up as the villain. Ladies and gentlemen, the ’90s!

Is Tank Girl a great movie? No, I wouldn’t say so. But here’s a thought for you: maybe every movie doesn’t have to be great. Maybe it’s good enough to just be fun sometimes. Tank Girl doesn’t feel like it had any pretensions, or grand ambitions, or designs to cleverly subvert or archly critique. The writing process was pretty much, “What if there was this punk girl who drives a tank and fights an evil corporation?” And that’s what you get.

Okay, I am going to repeat myself a bit. I guess it’s a bit tacky to quote from my own review, but hey, I stole the title of this blog from a stage direction in a Victorian operetta. I’m not one to stand on ceremony.

[W]hat amazed me most about the movie was that—despite being a combination of live-action and surreal cartoon animation, despite the bizarre set design, despite the male love interest being part kangaroo—at its heart, it’s just a good old-fashioned tale of frontier justice.

It’s tough to make something weird and unique that is still compelling. Most well-worn tropes are well-worn because they work very well. Telling a story that is both innovative and yet follows a good, solid three-act plot structure that will satisfy an audience is hard to do, and Tank Girl does it.

Maybe you’ll find the movie just too bizarre. Unlike the other movies I’ve covered so far, this is a cult film, with nothing like the huge blockbuster ambitions of the others. But I realized I simply couldn’t make this list without it. Its mixture of surreal and commonplace plot elements, its grungy aesthetic, and its essential optimism all make it a film that practically shouts “’90s” to me.

And finally, a note about the tank itself. According to my most-used reference website, it is an M5 Stuart tank in most scenes, though sometimes it is a T-55 or PT-76. The Stuart tank is also featured in another “tank story”: DC Comics’ Haunted Tank. Do with this information what you will.

Although this series is yet young, this may be the most important movie I’m going to analyze. Why? Because in addition to being an action movie, it’s about action movies. It is a meta-commentary on action movies.

It’s also a departure from Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park in that it was not a box office success. In fact, part of the reason it was not a success was because it came out right after Jurassic Park. Which, as we have established, is a great movie, so I can’t even indulge my snobbish side by complaining the masses have no taste. It’s just a bit of bad luck, that’s all.

Last Action Hero is about a young boy named Danny Madigan who loves the movies. In particularly, the Jack Slater series, about a tough cop played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. The film begins with Danny watching the climactic battle with the villain The Ripper at the end of Jack Slater III. 

Let me pause here to tell you: I was that kid. I loved Schwarzenegger movies when I was 10, MPAA ratings be damned. (My mom was thrilled about that, let me tell you…) So, I can identify with Danny, and when the projectionist at his local theater gives him a ticket for an advance screening of Jack Slater IV, he reacts the same way I would have as a ten-year-old.

But the ticket is a magical device, and transports Danny into the world of Jack Slater, where everything operates according to action movie logic: cars explode from a single bullet hit, a main character can suffer grievous physical trauma and walk away with only a scratch, all the female characters wear skimpy outfits, and Slater casually fires a round into his closet every time he enters his apartment, knowing without checking that there will be a bad guy lying in wait to ambush him.

And then, of course, there are all the Easter eggs, like when Danny and Slater enter a video store (remember those?)  and see an ad for Terminator 2: Judgment Day, starring… Sylvester Stallone. Slater’s assessment: “It’s his best performance ever.”

Eventually, when confronting the main villain, Benedict, the ticket sends Slater and Danny back into the real world, along with Benedict. Here, Slater is baffled by the rules of this strange reality. “Something’s wrong with my gun,” he mutters when it fails to blow up a car.

Benedict, however, is right at home in the real world:

Think of villains, Jack. You want Dracula? Dra-cool-la? Hang on, I’ll fetch him. Dracula? Ha! I can get King Kong! We’ll have a nightmare with Freddy Krueger, have a surprise party for Adolf Hitler! Hannibal Lecter can do the catering, and then we’ll have a christening for Rosemary’s Baby! All I have to do is snap my fingers and they’ll be here. They’re lining up to get here, and do you know why, Jack? Should I tell you why, hmm? Because here, in this world, the bad guys can win!

Benedict, you see, has been busy exploring the gritty underbelly of New York, and has learned that drugs, prostitution, and murder run rampant on the streets, with no larger-than-life heroes swooping in to save the day.

Slater does ultimately defeat Benedict, but in the process sustains wounds. Real, mortal wounds, not the fake kind he is used to getting in the movie-world.

The only way to save him, of course, is to send him back to the world of Jack Slater IV, where his fatal stomach wound just needs a quick bandage. And then, with a fourth wall breaking wink to Danny, Jack Slater rides off into the sunset.

The film is packed with references, in-jokes, parodies and meta-humor. But most of all, it’s a love letter to the movies. A love letter full of good-hearted teasing about all the ways in which action movies are silly, of course, but at its heart Last Action Hero is about why we love these movies. Because the real world is full of ugliness, and it’s pleasant to visit a world that’s not ugly and nasty, but instead ruled by hope and heroism. Yes, it’s “escapism,” and yes, it may be true that if people focused on translating the virtues of their cinematic heroes into actual, real-world actions, it might not be a place that we so urgently wished to escape.

But stories are the seeds that eventually bear fruit in deeds, and that is why heroic stories are important. Last Action Hero confesses openly that there is something silly and juvenile about the whole concept, but it doesn’t do it out of malice or with contempt. Ultimately, despite poking fun at many action movie tropes, it’s a defense of the genre.

Because the world needs heroes, just as Danny Madigan needed Jack Slater. And that fact is the central emotional core of Last Action Hero.