Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #27 Discusses the Impact and Aesthetics of Star Wars

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Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt grasp the low-hanging fruit in pop culture to talk about Star Wars: The unique place that these films have in the brains of people of a certain age, how we grappled with the prequels, and why we feel the need to fill in and argue about the details.

We primarily focus on the two most recent emanations of this beast, The Mandalorian and Rise of Skywalker. We talk alien and droid aesthetics (how much cuteness is too much?), storytelling for kids vs. adults reliving their childhood, pacing, plotting, casting, whether celebrity appearances ruin the Star Wars mood, creation by an auteur vs. a committee, and what we'd like to see next.

We had enough to say about this that we didn't need to draw on online articles, but here's a sampling of what we looked at anyway:

This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. In this case, it's all just more Star Wars talk, covering droid body dysmorphia and humanization, the cycle of embodiment via action figures and re-presentation on the screen, tragedy in Star Wars vs. Watchmen, making up for racism in Star Wars through sympathetic portrayals of Sand Person culture, watching particular scenes many times, clown biker troopers, and more. Don't miss it!

This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts or start with the first episode.

RIP Syd Mead: Revisit the Life and & Art of the Designer Behind Blade Runner, Alien & More

Has any year ever sounded more futuristic than 2020, the one we all live in as of today? 2019 came close, mostly because it was the year in which Blade Runner took place. Though initially a flop, Ridley Scott's cinematic adaptation of Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? soon became a contender for the most influential vision of the future ever put on screen. This owes not just to the directorial skill of Scott himself, but also of the many collaborators who set their imaginations to the year 2019 — then nearly 40 years in the future — along with him. Among the most important was concept artist Syd Mead, who died this past Monday at the age of 86.

Mead credited as an inspiration for his own Blade Runner work Métal hurlant, the 1970s French comic book that brought attention to the even more deeply influential art of Moebius. But his own career as an illustrator and industrial designer, already far along by that time, had also prepared him thoroughly for the job. That career began in 1959 with Mead's recruitment to the Ford Motor Company's Advanced Styling Studio, where he spent two years thinking up the cars of the future. He then illustrated publications for other corporations before launching his own design firm in 1970, working with European clients including Philips and Intercontinental Hotels, and later nearly every Japanese corporation that mattered, from Sony, Bandai, and NHK to Minolta, Dentsu, and Honda.

That was in the early 1980s, when we all looked upon Japan as a vision of the future. To an extent we still do, not least because of the Japanified future envisioned in Blade Runner — as well as the one envisioned in its recent sequel Blade Runner 2046, also a beneficiary of Mead's contributions. No matter how much Japan fascinated Mead, Japan repaid that fascination tenfold, seeking him out for film and animation projects, putting on shows of his work, and even publishing a digital collection of his art as one of the very first CD-ROMs. (I myself first heard of Mead from Syd Mead's Terraforming, a Japanese-made video game for the Turbografx-CD that made use of his visuals.) This was perhaps an unexpected development in the life of a kid from Minnesota who spent his youth drawing in solitude, even one who grew up absorbing the sci-fi swashbuckling of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon.

But unlike those kitschy, dated worlds of flying cars, gleaming towers, rocketships, robots, Mead created credible, enduring worlds of flying cars, gleaming towers, rocketships, robots. That must owe in part to an instinct, developed through industrial design work, of rooting the fantastical in the possible. A look back at the full scope of his art — which you can glimpse in the trailer for the documentary Visual FuturistThe Life and Art of Syd Mead at the top of the post as well as in the montage video just above — reveals that Mead really believed in the futures he drew. And by having believed in them, he makes us believe in them. The real 2020 may not bring any of the sky-high buildings, impossibly sleek vehicles, or sublimely vast pieces of infrastructure that Mead could render so convincingly. But however the next year — or the next decade, or indeed the next century — does look, it will owe more than a little to the imagination of Syd Mead.

Related Content:

The Blade Runner Sketchbook Features The Original Art of Syd Mead & Ridley Scott (1982)

The Art of Making Blade Runner: See the Original Sketchbook, Storyboards, On-Set Polaroids & More

French Student Sets Internet on Fire with Animation Inspired by Moebius, Syd Mead & Hayao Miyazaki

“The Long Tomorrow”: Discover Mœbius’ Hard-Boiled Detective Comic That Inspired Blade Runner (1975)

The Giger Bar: Discover the 1980s Tokyo Bar Designed by H. R. Giger, the Same Artist Who Created the Nightmarish Monster in Ridley Scott’s Alien

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Why You Should Read Dune: An Animated Introduction to Frank Herbert’s Ecological, Psychological Sci-Fi Epic

A vision of humanity's future without most of the high technology we expect from science fiction, but with a surfeit of religions, martial arts, and medieval politics we don't; pronunciation-unfriendly names and terms like "Bene Gesserit," "Kwisatz Haderach," and "Muad'Dib"; a sand planet inhabited by giant killer worms: nearly 55 years after its publication, Dune remains a strange piece of work. But applying that adjective to Frank Herbert's highly successful saga of interstellar adventure and intrigue highlights not just the ways in which its intricately developed world is unfamiliar to us, but the ways in which it is familiar — and has grown ever more so over the decades.

"Following an ancient war with robots, humanity has forbidden the construction of any machine in the likeness of a human mind," says Dan Kwartler in the animated TED-Ed introduction to the world of Dune aboveThis edict "forced humans to evolve in startling ways, becoming biological computers, psychic witches, and prescient space pilots," many of them "regularly employed by various noble houses, all competing for power and new planets to add to their kingdoms." But their superhuman skills "rely on the same precious resource: the spice," a mystical crop that also powers space travel, "making it the cornerstone of the galactic economy."




Herbert sets Dune — the first of five books by him and many successors by his son Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson — on the desert planet Arrakis, where the noble House Atreides finds itself relocated. Before long, its young scion Paul Atreides "is catapulted into the middle of a planetary revolution where he must prove himself capable of leading and surviving on this hostile desert world." Not that Arrakis is just some rock covered in sand: an avid environmentalist, Herbert "spent over five years creating Dune's complex ecosystem. The planet is checkered with climate belts and wind tunnels that have shaped its rocky topography. Differing temperate zones produce varying desert flora, and almost every element of Dune's ecosystem works together to produce the planet's essential export."

Herbert's world-building "also includes a rich web of philosophy and religion," which involves elements of Islam, Buddhism, Sufi mysticism, Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism, all arranged in configurations the likes of which human history has never seen. What Dune does with religion it does even more with language, drawing for its vocabulary from a range of tongues including Latin, Old English, Hebrew, Greek, Finnish, and Nahuatl. All this serves a story dealing with themes both eternal, like the decline of empire and the misplaced trust in heroic leaders, and increasingly topical, like the consequences of a feudal order, ecological change, and wars over resources in inhospitable, sandy places. At the center is the story of a man struggling to attain mastery of not just body but mind, not least by defeating fear, described in Paul's famous line as the "mind-killer," the "little-death that brings total obliteration."

The scope, complexity, and sheer oddity of Herbert's vision has repeatedly tempted filmmakers and the film industry — and repeatedly defeated them. Perhaps unsurprisingly Alexander Jodorowsky couldn't get his plans off the ground for a 14-hour epic Dune involving Pink Floyd, Salvador Dalí, Moebius, Orson Welles, and Mick Jagger. In 1984 David Lynch managed to direct a somewhat less ambitious adaptation, but the nevertheless enormously complex and expensive production came out as what David Foster Wallace described as "a huge, pretentious, incoherent flop." Dune will return to theaters in December 2020 in a version directed by Denis Villeneuve, whose recent work on the likes of Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 suggests on his part not just the necessary interest in science fiction, but the even more necessary sense of the sublime: a grandeur and beauty of such a scale and starkness as to inspire fear, much as every Dune reader has felt on their own imagined Arrakis.

Related Content:

The 14-Hour Epic Film, Dune, That Alejandro Jodorowsky, Pink Floyd, Salvador Dalí, Moebius, Orson Welles & Mick Jagger Never Made

Moebius’ Storyboards & Concept Art for Jodorowsky’s Dune

The Dune Coloring & Activity Books: When David Lynch’s 1984 Film Created Countless Hours of Peculiar Fun for Kids

Why You Should Read The Master and Margarita: An Animated Introduction to Bulgakov’s Rollicking Soviet Satire

Why You Should Read One Hundred Years of Solitude: An Animated Video Makes the Case

Why You Should Read Crime and Punishment: An Animated Introduction to Dostoevsky’s Moral Thriller

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Pretty Much Pop #22 Untangles Time-Travel Scenarios in the Terminator Franchise and Other Media

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Time-travel rules in The Terminator franchise are notoriously inconsistent. Is it possible for someone from the future to travel backwards to change events, given the paradox that with a changed future, the traveler wouldn't then have had the problem to try to come back and fix? Neither the closed-loop series of events in the first Terminator film nor the changed (postponed) future in the second make sense, and matters just get worse through the subsequent films.

Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt are joined by Brian's brother and co-author Ken Gerber to talk through the various time travel rulesets and plot scenarios (a good starter list is at tvtropes.org), covering Dr. Who, Back to the Future, Looper, Dark (the German TV show), time loop films a la Groundhog Day (Edge of Tomorrow, Happy Death Day), time-travel comedies (Future Man), historical tourism (Mr. Peabody and Sherman), Timecop's "The same matter cannot occupy the same space," using time-travel to sentimentalize (About Time) or clone yourself (see that Brak Show episode about avoiding homework), and freezing time (like in the old Twilight Zone).

Some articles we looked at included:

You can find the Brian and Ken short stories we talk about at gerberbrothers.net. Listen to them podcast together and read the science fiction stories they publish at constellary.com. The Partially Examined Life podcast episode Mark hosted where the dangers of AI are discussed is #108 with Nick Bostrom.

This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts or start with the first episode.

Kabuki Star Wars: Watch The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi Reinterpreted by Japan’s Most Famous Kabuki Actor

The appeal of Star Wars transcends generation, place, and culture. Anyone can tell by the undiminishing popularity of the ever more frequent expansions of the Star Wars universe more than 40 years after the movie that started it all — and not just in the English-speaking West, but all the world over. The vast franchise has produced "cinematic sequels, TV specials, animated spin-offs, novels, comic books, video games, but it wasn’t until November 28 that there was a Star Wars kabuki play," writes Sora News 24's Casey Baseel. Staged one time only last Friday at Tokyo's Meguro Persimmon Hall, Kairennosuke and the Three Shining Swords retells the events of recent films The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi in Japan's best-known traditional theater form.

To even the hardest-core Star Wars exegete, Kairennosuke may be an unfamiliar name — though not entirely unfamiliar. It turns out to be the Japanese name given to the character of Kylo Ren, the power-hungry nephew of Luke Skywalker portrayed by Adam Driver in The Force AwakensThe Last Jedi, and the upcoming The Rise of Skywalker.




In Kairennosuke and the Three Shining Swords he's played by Ichikawa Ebizō XI, not just the most popular kabuki actor alive but an avowed Star Wars enthusiast as well. "I like the conflict between the Jedi and the Dark Side of the Force," Baseel quotes Ichikawa as saying. "In kabuki too, there are many stories of good and evil opposing each other, and it’s interesting to see how even good Jedi can be pulled towards the Dark Side by fear and worry."

The thematic resonances between kabuki and Star Wars should come as no surprise, given all Star Wars creator George Lucas has said about the series' grounding in elements of universal myth. Lucas also actively drew from works of Japanese art, including, as previously featured here on Open Culture, the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa. And so in Kairennosuke and the Three Shining Swords, which you can watch on Youtube and follow along in Baseel's play-by-play description in English, we have the kind of elaborate cultural reinterpretation — bringing different eras of Western and Japanese art together in one strangely coherent mixture — in which modern Japan has long excelled. No matter what country they hail from, Star Wars fans can appreciate the highly stylized adventures of Kairennosuke, Hanzo, Reino, Sunokaku, Ruku and Reian — and of course, R2-D2 and C-3PO.

via Neatorama

Related Content:

Watch a New Star Wars Animation, Drawn in a Classic 80s Japanese Anime Style

How Star Wars Borrowed From Akira Kurosawa’s Great Samurai Films

Japanese Kabuki Actors Captured in 18th-Century Woodblock Prints by the Mysterious & Masterful Artist Sharaku

The Cast of Avengers: Endgame Rendered in Traditional Japanese Ukiyo-e Style

High School Kids Stage Alien: The Play and You Can Now Watch It Online

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinemaand the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future? Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds Becomes a New BBC Miniseries Set in Edwardian England

H.G. Wells began writing the novel that would become The War of the Worlds in the England of the mid-1890s. As a setting for this tale of invasion from outer space, he chose the place he knew best: England of the mid-1890s. Staging spectacles of unfathomable malice and fantastical destruction against such an ordinary backdrop made The War of the Worlds, first as a magazine serial and then as a standalone book, a chillingly compelling experience for its readers. Orson Welles understood the effectiveness of that choice, as evidenced by the fact that in his famously convincing 1938 radio adaptation of Wells' novel, the hostile aliens land in modern-day New Jersey.

Subsequent adaptations have followed the same principle: in 1953, the first War of the Worlds Hollywood film set the action in 1950s Los Angeles; the latest, a Steven Spielberg-directed Tom Cruise vehicle that came out in 2005, set it in the New York and Boston of the 2000s. But now, set to premiere later this year on BBC One, we have a three-part miniseries that returns the story to the place and time in which Wells originally envisioned it — or rather, the place and very nearly the time. Shot in Liverpool, the production recreates not the Victorian England in which The War of the Worlds was first published but the brief Edwardian period, lasting roughly the first decade of the 20th century, that followed it.

In a way, a period War of the Worlds reflects our time as clearly as the previous War of the Worlds adaptations reflect theirs: television viewers of the 2010s have shown a surprisingly hearty appetite for historical drama, and often British historical drama at that. Think of the success earlier this decade of Downton Abbey, whose upstairs-downstairs dynamics proved gripping even for those not steeped in the British class system. This latest War of the Worlds, whose trailer you can watch at the top of the post, uses similar themes, telling the story of a man and woman who dare to be together despite their class differences — and, of course, amid an alien invasion that threatens to destroy the Earth. It remains to be seen whether the miniseries will rise to the central challenge of adapting The War of the Worlds: will the emotions at the center of the story be as convincing as the mayhem surrounding them?

Related Content:

Hear Orson Welles’ Iconic War of the Worlds Broadcast (1938)

Horrifying 1906 Illustrations of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds: Discover the Art of Henrique Alvim Corrêa

Ray Harryhausen’s Creepy War of the Worlds Sketches and Stop-Motion Test Footage

Edward Gorey Illustrates H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds in His Inimitable Gothic Style (1960)

Things to Come, the 1936 Sci-Fi Film Written by H.G. Wells, Accurately Predicts the World’s Very Dark Future

Stream Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, a BBC Production Featuring Derek Jacobi (Free for a Limited Time)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Appeal of UFO Narratives: Investigative Journalist Paul Beban Visits Pretty Much Pop #14

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TV news reporter Paul Beban (ABC, Al Jazeera, Yahoo, and now featured on the Discovery Network's Contact) joins your hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt to discuss the public fascination with UFOs, both at the peak of their popularity in the 50s and in the current resurgence. Do accounts of sightings necessarily make for good TV? Do you have to believe to be entertained? Is belief in UFOs related to religious belief? To beliefs in conspiracy theories and anti-government venom? To humor?

We get into the mechanics of Contact, the Area 51 hubbub,and also touch on the show Project Blue Book, films like Arrival (2016) and UFO (2018), the documentary Unacknowledged (2017), the short story "Roadside Picnic," and more. To learn more about UFO lore in America, check out some of these podcasts.

Some of the resources we used for this episode included:

Plus, here are some stats from Gallup about UFO sightings and belief, you might want to pick up the book Nostalgia for the Absolute that Paul refers to, and here's the 2014 talk by Robbie Graham that Brian referred to describing "hyper-reality" and the Hollywood UFO conspiracy. Here's a list of UFO documentary series.

This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts or start with the first episode.

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