Saturday, September 26, 2015

Live Long and Prosper

In an interview with Radio Times, Star Trek actor Simon Pegg had harsh words for adults obsessed with comic book films.  He said, "[W]e're essentially all consuming very childish things – comic books, superheroes.  Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously.  It is a kind of dumbing down, in a way, because it’s taking our focus away from real-world issues.  Films used to be about challenging, emotional journeys or moral questions that might make you walk away and re-evaluate how you felt about. . . whatever.  Now we’re walking out of the cinema really not thinking about anything, other than the fact that the Hulk just had a fight with a robot."  This was a real life reprise of William Shatner's "Get a Life!" speech from Saturday Night Live.

I wrestled with the man-child issue while writing my new book, I Won't Grow Up!: The Comic Man-Child in Film from 1901 to the Present.  I could maybe accept a 35-year-old man running around Comic-Con dressed as Captain America.  But it is about more than a bunch of adults letting off steam at an annual costume party.  The fact is that, in all likelihood, you could talk to the man in the Captain America costume and find out that he devoted countless hours to the fabrication of his costume.  Comic books have gone from being a diversion to being an obsession.  That can't be good.

An author who commits to a discussion of the man-child trend will inevitably find himself engaged in either a passionate defense or an absolute condemnation of the man-child.  It is the type of controversy that doesn’t allow moderate feelings.  But, still, I resisted the urge to turn my book into a polemic.  I have seen other authors go down that path and the works that they turned out were more angry than astute.  I did not want to be what author Jason Kotecki has called the "harrumphing codger," but I also didn't want to be an advocate of irresponsible man-child behavior.  So, I found a balance between the two points of views.  I wanted to leave it to the readers to absorb the book's facts, observations and insights and come to their own conclusions about the man-child and, of course, his value to film comedy.

Pegg found a niche playing childish characters while he was working in British television in the 1990s.  He starred in the sitcom Spaced as quintessential man-child Tim Bisley.  Wikipedia describes the Bisley character as follows: "Tim, rarely seen without his skateboard, his Chocolate beanie, or his PlayStation controller, is an aspiring comic book artist, amateur skateboarder, and passionate follower of cult fiction in many forms, including video games, science fiction, and especially - at least initially - the original Star Wars trilogy.”  Pegg wrote of Tim, "[H]e channeled his childhood passions into his adult life, cared about them as much, invested in them, the same level of time, importance and emotion.  His hobbies and interests defined who he was, rather than his professional status."

It is at times hard to determine if a filmmaker is celebrating the man-child or mocking him.  Pegg has explored the man-child for nearly twenty years.  This has, without question, been a long journey.  In his various films and television series, the actor has highlighted the man-child's strengths alongside his weaknesses.  Evidently, the journey has finally ended and Pegg has come to his grim and inexorable conclusion.

The mobs of man-children on the Internet are not the sort of people who see benefit in contemplating criticism.  They are highly protective of their way of life and they will react strongly against those who speak against them.  So, they did not react well to Pegg's comments.  They had a collective tantrum that lasted for days.  It surprised me, though, that many of the people who became defensive over Pegg's remarks expressed fear and despair rather than rage.  They justified their childish obsessions by admitting to being overwhelmed by the world.  They see the world as a nightmare beyond repair and they cannot figure any other way to cope.  It makes the man-child more sympathetic to know that their infantile condition doesn’t come so much from pleasure-seeking and narcissism as it comes from distress.

Pegg acknowledged the fear and despair.  He wrote in his response to the uproar, "It makes sense that when faced with the awfulness of the world, the harsh realities that surround us, our instinct is to seek comfort, and where else were the majority of us most comfortable than our youth?  A time when we were shielded from painful truths by our recreational passions, the toys we played with, the games we played, the comics we read."

Mass media has the habit of laying the world's problems on our doorstep.  It can be unbearable to an individual to be forced on a daily basis to confront the problems of 196 nations.  We would be more effective and more content to focus on just the problems of our immediate community.  But the constant bombardment of global ills has put our perception and cognition into a disordered state.  We, as a society, have made overanxious by the media, which has caused us to be hyper-aware of the world at large and has amplified the world's many, many problems.  It no wonder that a young person who is hooked up to a continuous Internet feed wants to run away and hide.

Still, I cannot help but become a harrumphing codger at times.  I harrumphed a great deal when I learned about cosplay porn.  Is sexual relations so frightening and unpleasant that young people can't cope with sex without dressing up in a costume or seeing others dress up in costumes?  Again, this is about more than dress up games.  Sex is empty when intimacy and openness is replaced by lycra and spangles, but maybe the point is to avoid intimacy and openness.  After all, this can only lead to messy situations.  A couple that gets intimate usually finds themselves up to their necks in dirty diapers, pablum and vomit.  I have heard about (but have not confirmed) a subgenre of cosplay called genderplay crossplay.  As I understand it, this involves a man dressing up as a female character and a female dressing up as a male character.  The couple presents this demented parody as a rejection of traditional gender roles.  It is just stupid, weird, and unhealthy.  Sex doesn't mean much if it's nothing more than a game or a parody.

It has become difficult to sort out this touchy issue.  Conflict is inevitable whenever a man attempts to balance work and play.  It is the epic Freudian battle of the id and the super-ego.  I could never overlook the benefits of child's play.  Kotecki sees it as beneficial for a man to retain his childlike enthusiasm and optimism.  He believes that an adult needs to have fun to relieve stress and, more important, he believes that an adult can have fun without being irresponsible.  In Shaun of the Dead (2004), Pegg's Shaun learns to be a mature partner to his girlfriend, but he still steals away on occasion to play a video game with an old zombie friend.

Play and fantasy should never consume our lives.  Let us bravely come out into the light of day and be virtuous, well-rounded and productive citizens.

Additional note

Pegg performed the same slipping-on-fluid gag in all three films of his Cornetto Trilogy.  Click here to see.

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