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New Podcast! Primitive Culture #114 – Star Trek and Vietnam

A little while ago, I had the pleasure of sitting down with the wonderful Tony Black to talk about Star Trek and Vietnam.

The general reading of classic Star Trek tends to play up the show’s liberal credentials, to read Star Trek as a utopian and pacifist series that was very much on the right side of history. This antiwar reading is supported by episodes like Errand of Mercy, The Trouble with Tribbles and Day of the Dove, among others. However, the show’s politics are decidedly more complicated. Like America itself, Star Trek was divided over the Vietnam War, as reflected in episodes like Friday’s Child or The Omega Glory, and most especially in A Private Little War.

The result was a fun (and involved) discussion, and you can listen to it below or directly via Primitive Culture‘s homepage on trek.fm.

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252. Platoon (#222)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, with special guest Joe Griffin, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every Saturday at 6pm GMT.

This time, Oliver Stone’s Platoon.

In late 1967, Chris Taylor volunteers for service in Vietnam. Arriving in country, Taylor quickly discovers that the war is not what he expected. As the platoon descends into civil war, Taylor finds himself torn between the two sergeants: the monstrous Barnes and the philosophical Elias. Taylor discovers that he might not just be fighting for his life, but for his very soul.

At time of recording, it was ranked 222nd on the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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New Escapist Column! On the “Karate Kid” Franchise as an Exploration of Hollywood’s Complicated History with the Martial Arts…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. The new season of Cobra Kai launched on Netflix today, so it seemed like a good excuse to take a look back at the Karate Kid franchise.

The Karate Kid franchise is often overlooked in discussions of the American action movie, particular the American martial arts movie. However, the films offer a fascinating snapshot of the tension that existed within Hollywood around martial arts during the seventies and into the eighties. The genre was largely imported from East Asia, however it was quickly reworked and reinvented as an American genre. Indeed, one of the recurring tensions within the Karate Kid franchise is the idea of appropriation – of who karate “belongs” to and what happens when others try to take it.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

212. Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (#86)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guests Grace Duffy, Luke Dunne and Andy Melhuish, The 250 is a weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released Saturdays at 6pm GMT.

So this week, Richard Marquand’s Return of the Jedi.

It is a time to settle old scores. Returning to his home planet of Tatooine, Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker begins the final stage of his journey towards reconciliation with his father Darth Vader. Meanwhile, the Empire has embarked upon construction of another planetary superweapon, as the Emperor hatches a plot to crush the Rebel Alliance once and for all.

At time of recording, it was ranked 86th on the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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196. The Terminator (#245)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guests Joe Griffin and Emmet Kirwan, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, James Cameron’s The Terminator.

In 2029, Los Angeles is a burning hellhole. In 1984, it is not much better. In the dead of night, two soldiers from an apocalyptic future escape into the urban landscape. These mysterious veterans of a coming war make their way across the City of Angels, with only one name on their minds: Sarah Connor.

At time of recording, it was ranked 245th on the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Non-Review Review: Da 5 Bloods

Da 5 Bloods argues that the wounds inflicted by the Vietnam War never truly healed.

The basic plot of Da 5 Plots is standard war movie stuff, recalling the set up of the classic Simpsons episode Raging Abe Simpson and His Grumbling Grandson in “The Curse of the Flying Hellfish”, which itself drew upon a variety of inspirations including episodes of M*A*S*H and Barney Miller. The film follows four veterans who return to Vietnam ostensibly to repatriate the remains of their lost squad commander “Stormin’ Norman.” However, it quickly becomes clear that these former soldiers also have their eyes on a more lucrative prize.

The past never stays buried.

Co-writer and director Spike Lee uses the familiar trappings of war movies – and specifically of Vietnam War movies – to interrogate the legacy of the conflicts and the scars that it left on the national psyche. Indeed, one of the most interesting structural choices in Da 5 Bloods is to effectively invert the basic structure of BlacKkKlansman, which opened as a pointed genre tribute before seguing into actual contemporary news footage during its final act. Da 5 Bloods starts by offering a glimpse of the chaos of the early seventies before diving into the story that it wants to tell.

The result is to contextualise both Da 5 Bloods and its statement on contemporary American identity, drawing a strong line from the unrest and horror of the Vietnam era to the madness of the present moment. Da 5 Bloods was obviously written and filmed well before the latest crisis in the United States, but Lee is a shrewd filmmaker with his finger on the pulse. Da 5 Bloods feels like a movie that is both about the nightmare of this particular moment and the tragic inevitability of that moment as the outcome of unprocessed trauma that has been festering for decades.

Normcore.

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New Podcast! The Sanctuary – “A Private Little Vietnam”

I was flattered to be asked by the wonderful Tony Black to help him launch a new Star Trek podcast. The Sanctuary hopes to be a look at the politics and the social commentary of the larger Star Trek franchise, and will feature Tony and a host of guests looking at how the franchise examines a big issue.

As a pilot, Tony suggested that we might discuss how the original Star Trek series looked at the Vietnam War. It’s an interesting discussion, because it’s a very complex and evolving conversation that takes place across the run of the show, between various creative voices within the show. This is interesting, because the show itself unfolded against a backdrop of shifting public opinion on the topic, which means that it’s not as simple as a “pro” or “anti” position.

Anyway, it was a huge honour to be invited on to help launch the show, and I hope you enjoy it. You can subscribe to the show here. You can listen to the episode here, or click the link below.

 

New Escapist Column! On “Rogue One” as “Star Wars” for the Twenty-First Century…

I published an In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine a little while ago, looking at Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Like most films, the original Star Wars was a product of its time. It spoke to simmering tensions and traumas related to the late seventies, from lingering atomic anxieties to the horrors of the Vietnam War. However, a lot of time has passed since the original trilogy, and our cultural anxieties have changed over the intervening years. Since the purchase of Lucasfilm by Disney, the Star Wars franchise has been fixated and focused on the original trilogy. However, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the only film to make an effort to ask what those tropes and conventions mean moved to the present day.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

New Escapist Column! “Rambo” and the Re-Staging of the Vietnam War…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine yesterday, looking at an aspect of American pop history that I find fascinating.

In the seventies and eighties, American pop culture seemed preoccupied with restaging the Vietnam War. While a lot of that was reflected in films like Rambo: First Blood, Part II, which sent elite combat units abroad to enact brutal vengeance and to settle accounts, one of the more interesting trends was the way in which action movies like Star Wars, Predator, Red Dawn and even Die Hard very aggressively reframed their protagonists in the style of the Viet Cong; as insurgents squaring off against tactically and numerically superior foes who were often invaders or occupiers. This dynamic was best expressed in Rambo: First Blood, which found a Vietnam veteran waging a one-man war against a local police department in the forests of Washington.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

 

Non-Review Review: Rambo – Last Blood

There’s something almost disappointingly pedestrian about Rambo: Last Blood.

The sequels to Rambo: First Blood have often struggled to live up to the original film, to capture the aspects of that early eighties action drama that elevated above so many of its contemporaries. Watched today, First Blood is a surprisingly sensitive piece that exists worlds apart from the gleeful revenge fantasies of Rambo: First Blood, Part II or Rambo III. It exists a world apart from superficially similar action movies like Missing in Action or P.O.W.: The Escape, a surprisingly meditative and reflective piece of work.

Parting shots.

It isn’t really a surprise that Last Blood strips out a lot of that meditation and reflection. Even the best of the sequels – the no-nonsense Rambo, from 2008 – was relatively straightforward in its ambitions and its methods. What is disappointing about Last Blood is how mundane its own ambitions and methods really are. The bulk of Last Blood is given over to a story that feels lifted from the most crass of the spiritual descendants of the original Rambo, with the eponymous Vietnam veteran embarking on a mission into the Mexico underworld to recover his surrogate daughter.

That said, Last Blood roars to life in its final act, recapturing some of the thrills that distinguish the series from so many of its imitators and successors. There’s a pulpy absurdist thrill to the film’s final act, which tries awkwardly to combine the wry commentary of the original film with the hyper-violence of the sequels. The result is a film that averages out to somewhere around “just about fine.”

Take a bow.

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