Pulp Consumption: Mad Max

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Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray cover

In 1979 something incredible happened: I was born. But seriously, that’s also the year of some amazing cinema, including Alien, The Amityville Horror, Apocalypse Now, and The Warriors, but the one I’m most enamored of is Mel Gibson’s second major film, and the one that rocketed him to stardom, Mad Max.

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Max during Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, arguably more influential and important to the look of Fury Road than anything in the original.

The Mad Max series rocketed back into cultural consciousness two years ago with Fury Road, but before Furiosa and Immortan Joe, before Tina Turner singing “We don’t need another hero,” before the ever-expanding desert and the gyrocopter and the weird kids-only cargo cult, we had Max Rockatansky, an Australian highway patrolman operating a pursuit vehicle at the ass-end of civilization as society breaks down around him. We aren’t given a specific time period, just “a few years from now,” and there are still vestiges of contemporary life, but the apocalyptic events that shape the world of the later Mad Max sequels are clearly ramping up.

Of course, that information all comes over the course of said sequels, and George Miller’s explanation of setting is not nearly so clear in the films themselves as it is in hindsight with audience interpolation and extrapolation. Miller chooses not to have a ton of voiceover, long expository scenes, minutes-long text scrolling, or characters all but talking to viewers, as some other, lesser films tend to do. Instead he packs every scene with visual cues, exhibiting an attention to detail that is rivaled only by the best directors in film history, people like Alfred Hitchcock, Walter Hill, Brian DePalma, Ridley Scott (before fame ruined his directorial focus), James Cameron, and Stanley Kubrick (when he wasn’t being a monstrous jerk to his actors).

At the beginning of the film, Max is called out to engage and bring to justice a motorcycle gang member known as Nightrider after Nightrider has killed a rookie police officer. After a high-speed chase in his now-iconic Interceptor (a 1973 Ford Falcon XB GT), Max manages to force a crash that kills Nightrider. Some later events regarding the lack of true justice for a rape committed by the same gang makes Max question the efficacy of law enforcement as the world begins to eat itself, and he tries to resign and make do with what life is left in the collapsing world. He’s convinced to take a vacation instead, but there are no Disneys in this world, and vacations aren’t exactly something that happens in the apocalypse.

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Max as he appears before the film hits high gear.

What starts out as a relatively straightforward action cop movie shifts gears and becomes a straight up revenge film as Max forgoes any objectivity or belief in justice after watching his wife and infant son run down and murdered by a biker gang. Far be it for me to spoil a 38-year-old movie, but Max gets his vengeance and leaves the last vestiges of his humanity behind him as he moves on to become the ultimate survivor we meet in the three follow-up movies.

This film absolutely fits into the pulp aesthetic, at least as far as I’m concerned. There may be room for some reasonable disagreement on this point, but revenge plots where main characters seek out their own personal justice against the people who have done them wrong are as pure pulp as exists. The sense of right and wrong is also pretty clear cut, which some of the pulp revolution crowd insist on when they describe pulp. I’m not so set on that, and any in-depth foray into Black Mask or Detective Fiction Weekly will put the lie to that idea. In any case, there is clear motivation, all the action is driven by character decision rather than authorial intrusion or outside circumstances, and the resolution is satisfying if morally gray, lending viewers a definite feeling that justice was served, but at a significant personal cost.

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The weakest of the films is also the one that establishes most of the mythology about the apocalypse and those who are surviving it.

To modern audiences, Mad Max might appear a tad slow, which I grok, as even for a fan like me it does seem to drag on at times. Compared to Miller’s newest sequel (or even its excellent immediate sequel Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior and the less-than-stellar-but-still-enjoyable mid-1980s trope defining Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) Mad Max seems positively glacial.

If your only foray into the world of the desert diesel-punk post-apocalyptic world that is Mad Max was 2015’s Fury Road, then you need to do yourself a favor and queue up the original, if for no other reason than to see where it all started.

In next week’s article, Matt will be discussing Fury Road, so stay tuned for more Mad Max love. While you’re at it, join us on Facebook. We just launched a group where we can engage more directly with fans of Broadswords and Blasters or pulp in general.

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Pulp Consumption: The Recursion Theorem

Earlier this year, we were given the unique opportunity to view “The Recursion Theorem,” an indie black and white film that would feel right at home in the Twilight Zone. It also claims inspiration from Asteroids (the classic video game), and Greek mythology. Yes, when I read that description I scratched my head as well. But bear with it, because it comes together well.

The story is simple enough. A man, Dan Everett, wakes up in a room, with no memory as to how he arrived there. In his exploration of his space, he discovers that he cannot escape the room, as no matter what point he exits, he reenters the room at the opposite point. With his physical movement so confined, what follows is his exploration of how he might have arrived there and what it will mean at the end.

While the special effects are impressive (especially for an indie), the stand out piece is Dan Franko’s performance as Dan and his descent into… well, if it’s not quite madness than it is at least a close cousin. At one point he has a conversation with his more reasonable half, proceeds to get drunk and devises a plan to escape that, well… that would be telling, wouldn’t it?

One thing I can say is that I wish the filmmaker had revealed a bit more as to what is going on, as all the viewer truly understands is about as much as Dan himself. There are hints strewn throughout the film as to what the possibilities are, but nothing is fully revealed leaving the viewer to guess at the nature of the room and whether Dan is justly imprisoned, cruelly being held captive, or perhaps the entire sequence of events is playing out in his head.

I’d recommend this to anyone who is a fan of the Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, or even Doctor Who for the themes explored… or just to people who enjoy what a single actor can accomplish in a limited space.

The Recursion Theorem is available on a pay-what-you-want at their website, has garnered a heap of well-deserved praise, and is a testament to what indie film makers can accomplish.

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Pulp Appeal: Zork, Metal Gear, Fallout, Bioshock

Matt talked about The Witcher last week, which got me thinking about other video game series that fit the pulp aesthetic. Rather than do a deep dive on one series, and because I am far more familiar with older video games than modern ones (LA Noire, for instance, is one that probably deserves a whole column, but I haven’t played it), I thought I’d do some capsule reviews of a bunch of different styles of games from various consoles and computer systems. No such article could ever hope to be even close to comprehensive, so I’m going to stick to four game series that I’ve played a lot of and loved immensely.

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Zork[1] Series – Zork is an interactive text adventure game that was first published in the late 1970s. Although Colossal Cave Adventure is recognized as the first interactive fiction game, it is little more than its name lets on. Zork is something more. It’s a mashup of genres set in a world not entirely dissimilar from our own. As the hero of the story, you “Get Lantern” and “Hit Thief with Sword” while you explore the Great Underground Empire, which starts below a white house with a mailbox in front of it. There is a lot of humor, but the game is essentially puzzles, fetch quests, riddles, and a few fights that move through a mixed sci-fi/fantasy land. Modern gamers would probably balk at a text only adventure, but I remember playing on an old Commodore 64 when I was a young teenager. There have been multiple other adventures including some 360° video exploration point-and-click games in the style of Myst. One of those, Zork Nemesis, is one of my favorite computer games ever made. It’s the story of star-crossed lovers, murders, and an investigation into their deaths. For a Zork game, it is strangely dark with some black comedy elements, including a joke-telling decapitated head. Clues are found epistolary style as the player pieces together a noirish story. The payoff leaves a little to be desired, but the darkly comic tale is certainly worth exploring.

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This cover is clearly inspired by Michael Biehn’s character Kyle Reese from The Terminator.

Metal Gear Series – Metal Gear was first written for and played on Microsoft-coded MSX computers before being ported to the wildly successful Japanese Nintendo Family Computer (Famicom) and American/European Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). The game series, developed by the now famous and hugely influential Hideo Kojima, deals with the political, moral, and social ramifications of technology, genetic engineering, war and peace, and vengeance. At lot of the gameplay is stealth-based, where your character tries to sneak around guards in order to investigate the whereabouts of weapons and people. It has elements of spy noir as well as some definite action sequences. Kojima’s initial goal was to create a pastiche of 80s action movies, the pulp fiction of its day, but the series shed some of its tongue-in-cheek humor as it went on. While the original Metal Gear game seems positively primitive and cryptic by modern standards, it almost single-handedly created an entire genre of video games, with new games of the stealth-action genre being produced even now on modern consoles.

headerFallout series – Fallout is a computer game created for Windows computers in 1997. It’s an ostensibly open-world role-playing game system developed by Interplay that takes place in a post-apocalyptic landscape. Much of the fashion and references are to space-age science fiction of the 1950s-era cathode ray television and nuclear duck-and-cover style. The player takes the role of a Vault Dweller, a young man or woman who was raised in a nuclear fallout shelter that has begun to malfunction. Through exploration, diplomacy, and violence, the character looks for a Water Chip (or doesn’t, if the player seeks to go away from the main storyline) to fix the shelter. There are clear references to movies like Mad Max, to Atomic Age fears of mutant humans warped by radiation, and to old horror movies about rampaging giant insects, among other callbacks to golden age sci-fi and pulp. Some of the imagery is reminiscent of Flash Gordon, Blade Runner, WarGames, and Forbidden Planet, among other properties. More recent incarnations switched to first-person view and incorporated more shooting/action elements, which was polarizing for fans of Fallout, to say the least. In any case, the original and its first couple of sequels are games I still play from time to time today, each time trying to get through a different storyline.

1608-2K_BioShock-The-Collection_Bio1_Andrew-Ryan-Statue.0Bioshock series – Bioshock is a first-person shooter sci-fi horror series directly inspired by golden age pulp fiction and the free-for-all Objectivist writings of Ayn Rand. In the original game, the player takes on the role of a man whose plane crashes near a lighthouse that houses a secret. It’s actually the surface connection between regular civilization and the undersea city of Rapture, a city built on Libertarian ideals that has since fallen into warring factions because of genetic engineering gone awry. It’s a lot to unpack, and the game has a deep, engaging story of one man’s rise to power, and the corrupting influence that power has on him. Like many role-playing focused video games, it has epistolary elements, in the form of notes and audio tracks found all around the city. By injecting himself with some of the gene-editing cocktails, the character develops pseudo-magical powers, and also comes across a whole host of weaponry from wrenches to grenade launchers. Like Fallout, the visual aesthetic takes its cues from history and historical visions of the future. However, instead of taking inspiration from the 1950s, Bioshock reaches further back in time, to the 1920s—the era of art deco, jazz music, the Lost Generation, and the golden age of radio—when pulp was just reaching its audience. The first sequel takes place in the same city, following a different character, but largely hits the same notes. The second sequel, Bioshock Infinite, shifts locations to a floating cloud city, and takes its inspiration instead from the late 1890s. The main character in this game is a Pinkerton, as Dashiell Hammett was before being a writer, deepening the Bioshock connection to pulp and noir.

These are all action-oriented games that hit upon the political and moral concerns that much of the best pulp fiction does. The theme of the age of rayguns and nukes, of fears over science and the exploration of forgotten, hidden cities, runs through each of these series in various different ways. While they don’t necessarily scratch the same itch as a collection of Black Mask issues might, they are all indicative of the reach pulp fiction has. I’ve even seen it said recently that video games are the modern pulp fiction. There’s certainly evidence to point in that direction.

Incidentally, all of these games are still playable (though some may seem more like a chore than entertainment for modern audiences), and most of them are legally obtainable. Some need an emulator if you don’t have a console (like the MSX or NES), but the computer games can be purchased at places like Good Old Games (GOG) or on Steam. The original text-adventure Zork and its sequels, since they’re not at all code-heavy, are easy to find and playable in browser windows. If you like that and also tabletop roleplaying games, I recommend you check out Memento Mori Theatricks Parsely line of games, especially Action Castle.[2]


[1] Zork figures quite prominently in Ernest Cline’s book (and in-production film) Ready Player One. Kids who grew up in the 80s should definitely give the book a read. It is not the greatest science fiction book ever written (and it’s not really pulp), but it is fun. I actually recommend the audiobook version read by Wil Wheaton over the text version if you have Audible or a local library with good audiobook selections.

[2] A few years back, with permission from Parsely Games creator Jared Sorensen, I made my own free Creative Commons-licensed Parsely module called Adventure Quest Hero.

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Pulp Consumption: The Witcher

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Geralt of Rivia (perhaps best known from the Witcher series of video games) first premiered in a series of short stories penned by Andrzej Sapkowski back in the early ‘90s. Sapkowski would go ahead and pen a series of connected novels from 1994 to 1999[1].  They have only recently been published in English, with the final book in the saga being released in English this year.

Geralt is a witcher, a professional that deals with monsters. And he was engineered to do it. In the world of the witcher, where monsters are all too prevalent, your common person isn’t going to stand much of a chance against something that can move faster, regenerate from wounds, and decorate the nearby trees with what was inside of you. Enter witchers. They take boys, subject them to a horrible process that makes them faster, stronger, and able to withstand injecting horrible alchemical concoctions that make them even faster and stronger. They also study a limited amount of magic, and learn a tremendous amount of lore about the monsters they are supposed to fight. The process makes them immune to disease… and also renders them sterile. Traditionally, they only took young boys to train, though the central aspect of the saga is Geralt training a young woman Ciri.

The Witcher could easily stay within the concept of monster of the week. Geralt could show up, kill the local monster, and move on. He, however, lives by a witcher’s code. He won’t kill a sentient monster. He’ll only take a job for payment. The lie is that there is no codified “Witcher’s Code.” It is something Geralt refers to in order to keep people from asking too many questions, and it gives him an out in order to refuse contracts he disagrees with. Sapkowski does occasionally indulge in his characters discussing philosophy, and the fact that his characters use modern scientific terminology[2] might be disconcerting to readers who are used to more pseudo-medieval fantasy. The setting itself isn’t real world Earth, but does take place in a setting where different planes of reality have converged in the past, and this convergence is what resulted in monsters coming over into the world[3].

Geralt is a thinking man’s hunter. He’s not going to swing his sword first. He investigates. He asks questions. He prepares. And if at the end of the day he decides you are a threat? Then he’ll draw his sword. He is also well aware that a foul form can hide a fair soul, and vice versa. Even though he carries two swords, one silver for supernatural foes and one steel for more mundane threats, he acknowledges early on that both are for monsters. To be sure, the stories are bit more grey when it comes to morality than what you would expect from “classic” pulp, but there are many variations on the genre, and we’d be remiss to discount them out of hand.

All in all, I’m surprised that I don’t see the Witcher series end up on more sword-and-sorcery/grimdark lists, as if you have an interest in either genre, you’d be remiss in passing them up.

[1] In contrast, the first video game was released in 2007. There has also been a Polish tv series called The Hexer based on the property, a Polish tabletop game, and there is a forthcoming Netflix series in the works.

[2] Geralt is referred to more than once as a “mutant,” for instance. Magic as well is viewed from an empirical standpoint and behaves in a consistent fashion.

[3] It is heavily implied that humans are not native to this world either.

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Pulp Appeal: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

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A few weeks back Matt discussed one version of a character known in the west as “The Man with No Name.” Akira Kurosawa wrote and directed Yojimbo, starring B&B favorite Toshiro Mifune, about a nameless ronin who moves from town to town solving problems–or creating them, depending on your interpretation–wherever he goes. This character shows up in many other movies including the original Django spaghetti western and its many sequels, the Sergio Leone film Dollars trilogy starring Clint Eastwood[1], and the Walter Hill film Last Man Standing starring Bruce Willis. Although Kurosawa didn’t explicitly state it, film buffs and noir fans believe he got the original idea for the character and plot of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, a novel of his nameless character The Continental Op, about whom I’ve already written.

The Man with No Name, like his inspiration[2], had a direct sequel, but unlike the ronin, he actually had a third installment, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.[3] The movie is set in the American Wild West while the Civil War rages on in the east.

The plot revolves around a stolen hoard of gold buried in a grave, and the three main characters each only know a piece of the puzzle. They reluctantly form partnerships that shift throughout the movie, as each character betrays each other at various points. The climactic scene is a classic Mexican standoff, and perhaps the most iconic single standoff in film history.Mexican Standoff

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blondieEastwood plays The Man with No Name, referred to onscreen as “Blondie” because of his hair. He’s a former Confederate soldier who grew tired of the cause and of the death and destruction, so he deserted to become a bounty hunter in the West. He is different enough from The Man as shown in A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, that you might rightfully question if he is indeed the same character. He’s less prone to outright murder and seems to have more patience than in the earlier films, but that might be because this is technically a prequel to Fistful, as demonstrated by The Man’s poncho showing up at the end. In any case, the film trailers and posters all identify “Blondie” as “The Good.”

AngelLee Van Cleef, a New Jersey resident and former sailor[4], plays the role of “Angel Eyes,” another nameless character. Unlike “Blondie,” “Angel Eyes” seems to have no compassion for anyone and works as a mercenary and hitman. “Angel Eyes” is the main driver of the violence and rivalry between the three characters as he has no moral compunctions against murder and is so driven by simple greed that he refuses to honor any partnerships. He is identified as “The Bad”[5] and is usually dressed in black, another common trope of Westerns.

TucoRounding out the titular characters is “Tuco”[6] played by Eli Wallach. He is “The Ugly” from posters, which trades on the humor of his character and the fact that (unfairly) compared to Van Cleef and Eastwood, Wallach is not handsome. “Blondie” even calls him “The Rat” in dialogue. At the start of the film, “Blondie” and “Tuco” are running a scam on law enforcement. “Tuco” has warrants against him across most of the West, and “Blondie” turns him in to local sheriffs in exchange for the bounties. As the sheriffs get ready to hang “Tuco,” “Blondie” shoots the rope, swoops in and saves “Tuco” and then the two ride off and split the bounty equally. Although this may be a bit of a spoiler for people who haven’t seen a film that is over 50 years old, it is this partnership that foreshadows the ending of the film.

The themes of pulp fiction run strongly through this whole film. None of the characters is particularly a good person (not even “The Good”), and there’s a big morass of moral grey areas. It’s set against a backdrop of a decaying and corrupt civilization filled with murder and failed causes. Though the Confederates are shown to be in the wrong (as they were), the film doesn’t portray the Union as being all knights and paladins either (as they weren’t). Everything is portrayed as vastly more complex than the black hat/white hat divide that was the norm for Western films of the day. Most of all, the film is about active characters making active decisions, driving the plot rather than floating in a sea of ennui and navel-gazing.

As we stated in the editorial for Issue 3 of Broadswords and Blasters, we want to read and publish stories[7] about engaging characters with big problems and dangerous confrontations with real risks. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly delivers that in spades.


[1] High Plains Drifter, which Matt already wrote about, is Weird West, but there’s a case to be made that the Man with No Name trope applies to him, too.

[2] Inspiration is putting it mildly, and the creators of Yojimbo felt so, too. Fistful is nearly a shot-for-shot remake of Yojimbo. Kurosawa’s production company even managed to force Leone to settle out of court for a pretty hefty sum. That said, Kurosawa should probably have paid Dashiell Hammett a chunk of money first.

[3] In Italian the film is billed as Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo. (The Good, The Ugly, The Bad)

[4] Like me!

[5] The trailers are actually inconsistent on which character is The Bad and which is The Ugly. Depending on which trailer you see, “Tuco” and “Angel Eyes” are flip-flopped, though “Blondie” is always The Good.

[6] There’s an argument to be had that “Tuco” is the actual protagonist of the film. I don’t necessarily buy into it, but I can see why someone might. “Tuco” is certainly more well-rounded than the other two characters, including have a full official name. And “Blondie” and “Angel Eyes” are forces of nature that move through the West leaving destruction in their wake rather than fully-fleshed out people. Indeed, from a man-on-the-ground viewpoint, filmgoers have a much better sense of who “Tuco” is as a person. There’s also the fact that Eastwood was initially hesitant to appear in the film because he objected to how much screen time he was ceding to Van Cleef and Wallach, Wallach in particular. It apparently took a lot of negotiating, including profit-sharing and a new Ferrari, before Eastwood would take on the role.

[7] When we open back up for submissions in the spring and you consider sending us something to read, think back over the “Pulp Appeal” and “Pulp Consumption” articles we post. If your story is nothing like the films, stories, books, and tv shows we write about, chances are it’s not for us.

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Pulp Consumption: El Borak

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Another one of Robert E. Howard’s creations, Francis Xavier Gordon, better known as El Borak (Arabic for “The Swift”), is a Texan gunfighter and adventurer… only instead of his adventures taking place in the Old West, our hero finds himself in Afghanistan.

For the most part, the El Borak tales are strict action-adventure[1]. El Borak relies on his quick wits (and his quick hand with a gun or a blade) to get him out of the scrapes he finds himself in, typically against hostile tribesmen but also scheming politicians and rival adventurers. Gordon straddles a line between the barbarian and the civilized man, is not one to shy away from violence, but also with a keen understanding of how the Western world works… and why the West will always struggle in the hills of Afghanistan[2]. However, unlike some of Howard’s other characters, Gordon is a man of vengeance, but possessed of a somewhat gentler soul. He stops to bind wounds. He cares for his men. He is a leader, unlike many of Howard’s other creations, who, though they might sit on thrones, only rarely do we get to see them lead men.

One of the things that stuck out for me when reading is the level of detail Howard incorporated into his stories, and it reflected the amount of research he did into the setting as he was writing. Howard never travelled out of Texas, but he had enough resources at hand to craft a series of stories and to make the details surrounding the stories a key part of their attraction. So too, the setting functions as a frontier, but unlike the American West, a frontier and land with a history of never being conquered. Here a man fleeing civilization, fleeing the strictures of polite society, could remain always just out of reach.

So my recommendation is that if you are looking for stories that are more adventure oriented, but without necessarily the sorcerous trappings of Conan or Kull, you could do a lot worse than tracking down EL BORAK.

[1] The big exception is “Three-Bladed Doom.”

[2] Lest you think military adventurism in Afghanistan is a product of the 21st century, military campaigns have been launched into the region as far back as Alexander the Great

 

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Broadswords and Blasters Issue 3 Is Live!

The newest issue is now available for purchase in both Kindle and Print versions. Buy one for yourself. Buy one for a friend. Buy one for your neighbor. Buy another one for yourself to put in a different location–work, dinner table, couch, wherever. Note, we do participate in Kindle Matchbook, so if you buy Print, you can get the Kindle version for free.

While you’re at it, if you haven’t picked up Issues 1 or 2, go out and buy them, too!

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