Thursday, September 3, 2020

Escape to the Streets of Fire

I've been blown away with the popularity of the success of The Pulp Mindset. Not just in sales but in how much discussion that has been popping up online about the burgeoning state of NewPub. It's gratifying to know that it has spurred on more people to talk about pulp, the state of the industry, and what exactly makes a good story beyond a formula. There are far more folks out there interested in the subject than I realized, and they won't settle on inane things like "Mystery Boxes" to explain how storytelling works.

Just recently I was fortunate enough to be tagged into a twitter thread by author Daniel J. Davis. He had just finished reading my book, The Pulp Mindset, and had decided to apply his theory of what pulp was using two of his favorite movies, Escape from New York and Streets of Fire. Both of which, I might add, are easy 5/5 movies (which is the score I gave them on Cannon Cruisers), but there is a very clear difference between the two pictures even though their setup is the same.

Mr. Davis mentions setting and general morality, and how things differ from non-pulp works. In essence, it is about how things have changed in adventure storytelling in just a short time. Even though Escape from New York is the older work and feels distinctly '70s, Streets of Fire has a more timeless feel and is less dated than the higher budget movie made years earlier. Just why is that? What is it that makes them so different?

The entire twitter thread is compiled here, but I wanted to highlight one part of his very insightful analysis that we will be focusing on today.

"Two heroes with similar personalities. Nearly identical missions. But what ultimately separates them is thier moral core. Tom Cody is a better man than Snake Plissken will ever be.

"And THAT is why Streets of Fire is pulp. And Escape from New York isn't.

As can be gathered, especially from The Pulp Mindset, is that I have been thinking about this subject for quite awhile.What is it that makes a work have that flavor the pulps had? It's more than mindless action, because the pulps were about more than mindless action. There is always that higher sense of morality and wonder to consider.

And that is a big part of their differences.

Escape from New York actually does check a lot of the boxes to what makes pulp what it is. It is action focused, it wants to wow the audience and take them to another world, and the main character drives the plot forward in his attempt solve the problem. It has a lot of the right pieces in the right places. But it definitely does fall short in the pulp category in two ways, as Mr. Davis mentioned in his twitter thread above. 

The setting, even though it is the future and fictionalized, is limited in the fact that it is based heavily on a real world location and can only have so much done to it. New York City exists in real life and we know its boundaries and what it's like, if even tangentially, and that is part of what gives the movies its identity. In a story built around discovery and horror in an unknown place, this does kind of dilute the possibilities as to where this particular story is allowed to go. This does hurt Escape from New York's scope, at least a little.

It isn't that you can't make a pulp story set in a real location, but when the story's main appeal is that the location is fashioned around uneasiness and the danger of the unknown, using a real place is counterproductive. It does take away same of the wonder and excitement.

On the other hand, Streets of Fire can take place anywhere at anytime. It doesn't really matter where the setting is, and the fact that it doesn't have a concrete location succeeds in making the city more foreboding and mysterious when we are lost in it later on in the story. We literally have no idea about this place, what awaits in the shadows, or why the world even is like this. It's a fable, and that means wonder comes before anything else. All we have to tie this wild setting down is our relationship to the main character, another thing that both unites and separates the two movies.

While they are both actin stories, one contains more wonder than the other does.

Yes, the setting is one thing, but how about the main character? As I go through much fiction of the past forty or so years in western culture I can only come to the same conclusion that Mr. Davis does above. The main character is what truly solidifies a work of having a pulp heart or not.

As mentioned earlier, Escape from New York has a lot of the hallmarks of pulp, but it still ends up coming across more pulp-inspired than pulp, at the end of the day. Meanwhile, Streets of Fire seems to easily achieve its place as a pulp tale without question. Why is that?

It is because of basic storytelling. You see, the main character is the audience's view window into the world. It is through them that the audience is given a guided tour of what the writer has to offer and it is also through the protagonist the writer filters what wonders the audience is allowed to experience. In other words, the protagonist is the moral anchor of the ship that is the story. We are entering this story through their eyes, after all. 

It is very simple: Tom Cody represents the romanticism and awe of the world we have inside of us, even when he is bitten by cynicism. He overcomes his obstacles and becomes a real man, a hero, by the end of Streets of Fire. His adventure makes him a more complete human being.

Snake Plissken never really becomes proper a hero throughout Escape from New York. He helps people but it's mostly for personal reasons, and the whole plot kick-starts because he has to be forced to participate in it. Snake was a member of society who was screwed over and put in chains for it, is nihilistic and uncaring, and no longer has any love for the world he lives in. He might very well be justified in his feelings, but if the world ended tomorrow Snake would just shrug his shoulders and accept Armageddon with open arms. He only overcomes problems in the story because they get in his way. There are no moral stakes around him succeeding or failing in his quest aside from death. There is no spiritual dimension.

This is because Escape from New York is a very modern and cynical movie, one that could only exist in the pit of despair known as the 20th century, and in the 1970s in particular. Because of its lineage as a 1970s action movie there is a cloud of despair ad hopelessness that hangs over the proceedings. o matter what you do, it simply does not matter.

In a story, there are frequently two motivations for characters to do anything, a material and a spiritual incentive. The first are the tangible goals stated in the plot: "Get the President" in Escape from New York, and "Get the girl" in Streets of Fire. Where the spiritual incentive comes in is the secondary reason they are going on the quest. Snake doesn't have one; it's either get the president or die. Cody's is initially just as simplistic (get the girl and get paid) but as the story goes on we learn that his motivations go a little further than that and become something higher by the end. Snake does find those to help him in his journey, but in typical '70s fashion they all die and mean nothing to the quest and Snake ends the story just as down as he began it. His "reward" is empty. 

Now, I don't want it to sound like I think Escape from New York is a bad movie. It's very much not, and compared to most '70s action movies it is nowhere near as hopeless in outlook. There are also a few things that allow some light into the tale. Snake actually is a good guy--he tries to help every innocent he comes across without expecting anything in return, he takes out villains because they are villains, and he clearly has a moral code he will not break.

The issue is that the 1970s universe it was made in refuses to reward any of that goodness and it ends up meaning nothing by the end. What you're left with is a story of a broken hero in a broken world which won't let him have even the smallest of victories. In fact, Snake's one gain by the end of the movie, his freedom, is punctuated by an act of petty (but deserved) revenge. It's a satisfying ending, as far as the story goes, but it doesn't offer anything beyond that tiny victory. At the very least it's not as empty and meaningless as Taxi Driver given that it doesn't end with the cinematic equivalent of a wet fart and a shrug.

Streets of Fire has Cody punished for his mistakes to which he works to correct them and set the world right again. By the end he has overcome his demons and is left in a better spiritual state than when he began. The material gains he made mean little in comparison to his true victory in the end of learning what real love is. He can now go out into the world and do good for both it and himself.

Of the two, it is clear that Tom Cody gets more out of his quest, and his ending is a far more timeless one not locked to its era.

Hollywood seems set on bringing back the 1970s

A lot of this can help explain the popularity of anime, especially in the modern day west where no one in the mainstream knows what heroism is and write constant Mary Sue protagonists without even a hint of self-awareness.

As an example, in Trigun, Vash the Stampede's battle is not only with his genocidal brother but coming to terms with himself as an alien being and the existence of sin. By the end of the story, both are conquered at the same time. In Cowboy Bebop, Spikes battle with Vicious is also an attempt to put the past to bed, which he does by opening a future to the city Vicious had ruined. In Megalobox, Joe's fight is to prove not only does he have value, but so does mortal life. They all have a moral dimension beyond the one listed in the plot description.

Now, can you say the same for recent Brand X space movies? What higher cause or motivation does anyone have in these other than "good things are good and bad things are bad" doggerel? No one has any ambitions that go beyond stopping bad guys from being bad, and no character beyond juvenile jokes. There is nothing to them under the surface. There is no higher goal. This is something even Snake Plissken at least hinted at wanting to have, even if he didn't achieve it. Here, it's not even acknowledged as something that exists at all. These movies are pure modernism: nothing but thunder and noise, signifying nothing.

Pulp stories were made for a wide audience, meant to instill hope, wonder, and a sense of adventure, to every single person that read them. Sure, they ran in cheap magazines, could be ramshackle and creaky, and might even follow a similar formula to other tales, but they always achieved their goal of entertaining the audience and lifting them up even if for a few minutes. Without the spiritual edge of wider things beyond the scope of our narrow views of life, it just isn't true pulp. Even the simpler tales aimed at something higher than the emptiness of modern life.

So, I would agree with Mr. Davis' assertion that Escape from New York, while pulp-inspired and a great movie, doesn't quite hit the moral qualifications needed to be pulp. Though it does try, and it gets full credits for that, which is more than I can say for similar types of movies being made today. A remake would certainly lack even that.

Unfortunately, the West is trapped in chic-Baby Boomer nihilism of the sort they championed back in the 1970s. We're back to pretending this deep and artful again. They've taken things from eras where this higher motive was and have twisted them to be weapons against those who were touched by them in the first place. The destruction of Brand X space movie is the most clear cut example of this hatred of hope. If you enjoy those movies then you enjoy death and despair over life and hope, which is the opposite of the original's intent. You are praising a lie and an inversion. This isn't depth; it's hypocrisy.

The endless obsession with subversion must go from art before anything changes in the old system, but that doesn't seem likely to happen anytime soon.

But you don't need to wait for them.

There are plenty of creators in NewPub, and the independent circuit in other mediums, fashioning brand new stories of hope, excitement, and wonder. The Pulp Revolution has come, and it has changed everything with its straightforward goals. While the mainstream continues to dig its own grave, NewPub only grows and gets stronger. The old system is on the way out, and the new is ready to deliver what you want again. It's about time things are put right again.

With the gates being wide open it might be harder to find something that personally tickles your fancy, but it will also be much easier to get something of equivalent (or higher!) quality than what the decaying mainstream system is putting out today. This is the most exciting time its ever been to be an artist and to be a consumer of art, simply because of the possibilities ahead of us. They really are never-ending.

And, unlike before, that gate won't be shut again by usurpers and subversives. Pandora's box has been jammed open, and it can not be closed again. Welcome to the revolution!

The streets are ablaze with adventure. All you have to do is walk them.


  1. I love both of those movies, for different reasons.

  2. Going to buy the book now! I'm glad it's caused so much discussion. This is something that needs to be chewed over by indies, who too often just chase the same tired topics tradpub chased.

    1. It's definitely been a good experience. Thanks for reading!

  3. Cowboy Bebop is an interesting case. Critics will almost universally describe its philosophy as nihilistic. Are they correct? I've thought about it a lot. The reason I've never made a video or article on it is that I'm not really sure.

    Does Spike die at the end? The critical consensus seems to be that he does, which is worth that and the air you breathe.

    Trigun, in contrast, is one of the most misunderstood and misinterpreted shows ever made, but properly understood it is easily the most superversive anime of all time.

    Can you imagine any show or movie in the west - or even in modern day Japan - containing the scene where Spike slams his hand on the ground and the Cross rises out of the desert, turning the tide of the final battle?

    I can't. It's remarkable it even exists.

    1. According to Watanabe, Spike didn't die at the end. That pissed off a lot of people when they heard that one.

      I've always understood the ending was representing him being free from the past and finally able to move on. If he really isn't dead then I'd guess that was what Watanabe was trying to get across because there's no other point for what happened.

      Even if he died, he still accomplished something that had a positive effect, as did the others throughout the series. This isn't exactly Chinatown, here.

      But Trigun is definitely misunderstood. I've seen people say the message is about how not doing anything is correct and that the ending validated the protagonist in not doing anything. This is completely missing what the actual issue was with Vash to begin with.

      I think the problem is too many people have been taught nihilism is deep, complex, and worth celebrating, when it's actually the easiest thing you can do when writing a story.

      Thankfully, that worship of nihilism appears to be evaporating, but not soon enough.

    2. Watanabe was cagey. After a lot of needling he eventually said "Well *I* think he probably survived", but that's about the extent of it.

      The consensus seems to be that the point is the *impossibility* of moving on, that Spike ultimately could not overcome the odds and push forward, that he was trapped and once that part of his life was dead so was, finally, he.

      I've never been fully convinced of that interpretation. Spike himself brings up that possibility - this is it for him - but always reminds us that he "hates that story", and that he WASN'T going off to die. Granted, Faye didn't really seem to believe him. It's a very strange ending.

      But Trigun is definitely misunderstood. I've seen people say the message is about how not doing anything is correct and that the ending validated the protagonist in not doing anything.

      Somebody once told me that Trigun taught them that might makes right. It's these sorts of misinterpretations that prompted me to make my video on it.

      The point of Trigun and the issue with Vash is that Vash's refusal to kill was due to misplaced personal guilt and not actual moral fortitude. After Vash is forced to kill his perspective changes: If necessary he has overcome his guilt and so CAN kill and thus can act truly morally when he refuses anyways, instead of refusing because it makes him feel like a monster.

      It's not an easy message.