Challenge of the Lady Ninja

In Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, after acknowledging that Ninja III: The Domination is “a very strange film,” director Sam Firstenberg attributes the movie’s box office failure to audiences who just weren’t ready for the idea of a female ninja. Perhaps American audiences weren’t, but I think there’s more to it than that. It’s true that many action and fantasy films of the 1980s, including some that are now classics, make some pretty wild leaps of logic to smush together their various genre elements into original shapes, but few filmmakers outside of the Golan-Globus orbit would have thought at the time to rip off both Flashdance and The Exorcist by way of a martial arts movie. In The Domination, Lucinda Dickey plays a telephone line worker who moonlights as an aerobics instructor; when she is possessed by the spirit of a dying ninja, she starts to display the evil ninja’s powers and personality until it can be vanquished by the arrival of a good ninja (played by ever-reliable Sho Kosugi). I suspect the absurdity of the plot turned off more viewers than a straightforward martial arts movie starring a woman would have. (Incidentally, the only reason I haven’t covered The Domination separately is that while I’ve seen it, I don’t have a copy at hand to review so I hesitate to go into more detail from memory.)

More to the point, the kunoichi, or “lady ninja,” was already well-established in a subgenre of Japanese ninja movies (and at least one female ninja had made a big splash with American readers in the pages of Daredevil in 1981 and ’82: I hope to discuss Elektra and other ninjas in the comics before the month is over). Many, if not most, of these movies were every bit as exploitative as The Domination, not just gender-swapping the protagonist but playing up the sexiness of the heroine and putting her in provocative settings, such as infiltrating a brothel, facing the possibility of rape, catfighting with other women, or displaying distinctly feminine versions of typical ninja abilities, to name a few examples. Even the best examples of the genre are at least a little bit sleazy.

Historically, kunoichi were women trained in the arts of ninjutsu with an emphasis on disguise, infiltration, and seduction: servants, artists, musicians, and prostitutes had access to the inner circles of power that were off limits to other outsiders. Furthermore, closeness to their targets put them in a position to quietly gather information, influence decisions, or even kill. Ironically, women’s subservience and unimportance in the male-dominated samurai society made them effectively invisible. In discussing sex as one of the “five needs” (which could be turned against the ninja’s intended victim), Stephen K. Hayes in The Ninja and Their Secret Fighting Art writes “In another reliable ploy, the desires of an individual can be catered to by supplying sexual excitement. . . . In the midst of lusty physical gratification, an enemy’s guard is lowered and he becomes much more vulnerable to physical attack or verbal probing.” It’s not hard to see how the kunoichi could add sex appeal to an already-popular genre whether treated in a historical or fantastical manner. (This is not to say that stories of male ninjas were necessarily free of sex or exploitative elements–merely that it seems to be more of a driving element in the “lady ninja” films.)

I’ve watched a few “lady ninja” movies, but I don’t think I’ve watched enough to try to offer an overview of the genre in more than these broad strokes. For one thing, the plethora of overlapping titles is a thicket deeper than I care to venture into at the moment: they generally all have “kunoichi” or “lady ninja” in their titles, but beyond a few examples most are not part of related series; even some that are part of a series, such as Memoirs of a Lady Ninja, are actually free-standing entries beyond the thematic connection, much like Cannon’s Ninja trilogy. Finally, some of the more popular lady ninja films have been remade, just like popular Western stories. In order to avoid muddying the waters any more than I already have, I’ll describe one I’ve watched recently and let it stand as an example.

The Challenge of the Lady Ninja (aka Chinese Super Ninjas 2; the Internet Movie Database also lists it as Never Kiss a Ninja, which seems like good advice) is on the more ridiculous side of the genre. It’s a low-budget effort with the ninjas demonstrating magical powers that the special effects can’t quite pull off. The fight scenes, using wuxia-style wirework and trampoline-aided leaps, make up in imaginative staging what they lack in believability, and they do go in some weird directions. Most bizarre of all, Challenge is a period piece, taking place during the WWII-era Japanese occupation of Shanghai, that makes no effort to disguise contemporary fashions, settings, and automobiles. It’s as if it takes place in an alternate reality, which it might as well.

Like many ninja stories, Challenge begins with a test: Wu Shiau (Hui-Sang Yang) faces off against her school, and ultimately her classmate Kuroda (Kang Peng), to obtain the ninja medallion that will prove her abilities. After some challenges and demonstrations of her skills (including a seductive illusion that reduces four of her opponents to slobbering wolves making cartoon “hubba hubba” noises), she gets past Kuroda by using “moving shadow,” a technique that makes her appear to split into two or three duplicates, disappearing and reappearing at will like images in a hall of mirrors. Even once he is defeated, Kuroda challenges the master of the ninjas, upset that a Chinese (!) woman (!!) should advance to the rank of ninja while Japan is at war with China (!!!). The real root of Kuroda’s disgruntlement, however, is that the master would teach Wu Shiau moving shadow and not him: his lust for power is too great to be trusted. The student/sibling rivalry that is at the root of so many ninja conflicts is well-represented here.

After passing the test, Wu Shiau learns that her father has died back in China. Upon arriving in Shanghai to pay her respects, she learns that the man responsible was Li Tung, the man she was betrothed to as a young girl, but who has turned traitor, helping the Japanese occupiers by working against the Chinese revolutionaries and steering gold and other resources to Japan. (Li Tung is so evil that when he first appears on screen he is accompanied by John Williams’ “Imperial March.”) Wu Shiau vows to avenge her father, infiltrating his compound that night; she finds him well-guarded, and is forced to retreat when she comes face to face with Li Tung’s four bodyguards (each is a specific type and has a particular fighting style). She is aided in her escape by a mysterious skull-masked figure who later returns to provide useful information to her.

Narrowly escaping with her life, Wu Shiau decides that what she needs is a team, so with the help of her fellow revolutionaries she goes about recruiting three more women: an expert swordswoman who was forced to close her school by the Japanese; another woman willing to give her life to fight the occupiers; and a prostitute who overhears one of the men looking for enemies of Li Tung who figures it’s a good opportunity to fight back. Through a series of training montages (it’s the ’80s, after all), Wu Shiau gets her squad in shape, teaching them the ways of ninjutsu, bolstered by the particular skills they already had (they are remarkably quick studies). It’s this part of the movie that is the most “male gazey,” with numerous shots of the girls working out in skimpy attire and even practicing their seduction skills on a hapless dupe. (Corny comic relief also comes with the territory in martial arts movies, and most of it is in this section.)

Their first attack on Li Tung and his bodyguards (with the girls hidden inside plaster lions in front of a temple!) is another flop, and the lady ninjas barely escape (again!) with their lives. They’ll have to think strategically: they study each of Li Tung’s bodyguards to strike at their weaknesses and take them down individually. Noteworthy fights include Wu Shiau taking on a female tae kwan do expert in an oil-filled ring (again, the ’80s) and another against a tribesman who fights with a razor-edged boomerang and spiderweb-like net. (And yes, one of the bodyguards is killed in a brothel as one of the ninjas takes the regular girl’s place.) It’s all pretty bonkers, and not everything is as it seems, but they save Li Tung’s most dangerous henchman, a Japanese swordsman named Yamamoto with ritual tattoos on his forehead and eyebrows, for last.

Afterword: When discussing Ninja Assassin last week, I mentioned the frequency with which CGI-enhanced fight scenes were compared to video games. There’s no mistaking anything in this circa 1983 production for a computer more sophisticated than a video effects processor, but in its own way it does remind me of the games of the time. There’s the procession from one boss to the next, leading up to the final confrontation, of course; and as mentioned, the effects that send fighters leaping through the air are sometimes primitive, but the result is quaintly analog. Beyond that, the number and frequency of odd weapons flying around that Wu Shiau has to avoid while fighting (like the aforementioned boomerang; there’s also an odd moment when she later faces off against her old classmate Koroda and he sends chains hovering through the air at her) are visually reminiscent of the busy, moving obstacle-filled screens in games like Ninja Gaiden or Castlevania. In some cases the sheer abstraction of the visuals takes me back to the Atari 2600 or NES: is that black square a platform or a hole? Is that moving bar of color a searchlight or a deadly laser beam? I picked up this ninja medallion at the beginning of the game–if I attach it to someone, will they explode? Is that how I win? Only one way to find out!

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Review: Ready Player One

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When I was a kid, back in the 1980s, one of my favorite computer games was Lode Runner, an action-puzzle game in which the player traversed a maze of brick platforms, ladders, and monkey bars rounding up gold bars while avoiding the evil minions of the “Bungeling Empire.” The best part of the game was that it included a level editor so the user could create their own mazes, save them, and play through them. I probably spent as much time creating new puzzles as I did playing the game. Games that include this feature can be a doorway into game design, but even as a kid it was enjoyable to create a setting from a godlike perspective and then play through it, seeing it in action from the player’s perspective. Although I would have killed for a Super Mario Bros. level editor back then, I actually haven’t gotten around to trying Nintendo’s Mario Maker, mostly because I’m afraid if I started using it I wouldn’t be able to stop.

As a child of the ’80s and longtime consumer of pop culture, I’m sure I was predisposed to like Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One. The futuristic setting is the best of times and the worst of times: post-Peak Oil, the world is a mess, with economically-depressed mobs placated by logging onto the OASIS, a comprehensive virtual-reality environment containing whole worlds to visit, socialize, and game in. And because the late designer of the OASIS, James Halliday, (like me, and like Cline) grew up himself in the ’80s, the entire online environment is saturated with references to Dungeons & Dragons, Back to the Future, MTV, Atari, and numerous other icons of 1980s nerd culture. Halliday’s posthumous announcement that he had hidden an “Easter egg” behind a series of puzzles in the OASIS, and that whoever solved them would get control of the entire thing, had set off a hunt for those clues and, by extension, a mania for all things ’80s, with “gunters” (egg hunters) devoting themselves to the lore of that magical decade in hopes of cracking Halliday’s code.

It is, in short, a nerd fantasy–now everyone will like the stuff I like–and it is clear that while the book’s protagonist is Wade Watts, a nobody living in the piled-up slums of Columbus, Ohio, Cline really identifies with Halliday, the gamemaker and magic man whose obsessions end up consuming everyone else. It’s Halliday’s world, and Wade Watts just lives in it, or rather gets to play through the maze that Halliday created. Cline’s book has received its share of criticism for various reasons (not least of all its choice of overwhelmingly white and male cultural touchstones), but the biggest tell that this is nerd escapism is that no one in the OASIS appears to resent having to learn about Atari’s unfinished Swordquest series or memorize the lyrics to songs that played on cable more than fifty years earlier. They love it as much as Halliday did, and never seem to view it as homework or history. Cline seems incapable of believing that anyone wouldn’t be jazzed by all this stuff. It’s either endearing or infuriating, depending on your point of view. If you already felt alienated from 1980s nostalgia or don’t fit Cline’s particular demographic, I can imagine it would be repellant indeed, and Cline isn’t the writer to get under the surface of the material and turn skeptics into believers.

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When I read Ready Player One, I felt that it would either be made into a very good or very terrible film: it appears to be written with an eye on adaptation into a screenplay (Cline was previously best-known for his screenplay to Fanboys, a love letter to Star Wars and George Lucas), with minimal style and a straight-ahead plot, with few “literary” flourishes. The reams of description of mashed-up costumes, vehicles, and settings (Wade, as Parzival, his online avatar, drives a DeLorean with the Ghostbusters logo on the side and an onboard computer like KITT from Knight Rider, etc.), in particular, would go down much more smoothly in a visual medium like film or comics, where they could be taken in at a glance, or as background clues, rather than having to be spelled out.

And I will confess that as much as I feel criticism of the book is justified, it occupied a disproportionately large part of my imagination after I read it, just thinking about how its sample-driven, narrowly specific amalgamation of all things ’80s would look onscreen; how deep and multilayered its references could be; what songs would accompany scenes; how a filmmaker might play with the pixilated, airbrushed, and screen-printed visuals of the era and translate them into cinema; and so forth. When I learned that Steven Spielberg was set to direct the inevitable film adaptation, I was a little concerned: I was sure that Cline would be thrilled to have one of the giants of ’80s genre film adapt his work, but the strain of the story that caught my imagination was one of cultural inheritance and transformation, and to me it made more sense to have someone who grew up with Spielberg’s work and could filter it through their own sensibility make this film.

To give an idea of what I had in mind, imagine Ready Player One made by Edgar Wright (whose Scott Pilgrim vs. the World already does something like this, full of video-game and music video references) or Phil Lord and Chris Miller (who in The Lego Movie created a tapestry of references but were also able to call into question the premises of their own fantasy). As one of the fathers of modern blockbuster filmmaking and the creator of numerous iconic movies of the ’80s and beyond, Spielberg is an obvious choice; but it is notable that his style is to breathe a life of realism and naturalism into fantastical ideas. My imagined Ready Player One was one of screens and surfaces–this is how I remember the 1980s–in which the artifice was brought to the foreground.

When reviewing a film, it is of course unfair to criticize it for being what it is not, and in any case the existence of a realized film doesn’t prevent me from imagining my own version. But part of reviewing is being honest about one’s reaction, and it would only tell half of the story if I didn’t mention my reservations.

Obviously, Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, which opened this past weekend, is different from the movie I imagined, but I ended up enjoying it quite a bit. As expected, it makes many changes from the book’s plot, mostly for the better. With a screenplay by Cline with Zak Penn, much of the action is streamlined, some characters strengthened and given more to do, and the actual challenges Wade and his friends overcome are thoroughly revamped (I don’t think anyone actually wanted to see Wade reenact WarGames line-by-line, as happens in the book) and turned into satisfying cinematic set-pieces.

In fact, my favorite parts of the movie were those that were changed so much from the book that I couldn’t possibly have predicted them or had a preconception of what they should look like. There is still a sizeable infodump at the beginning, delivered by Wade (Tye Sheridan) through voice-over, but the viewer’s introduction to the OASIS at least shows why it would be popular. There’s a lot of emphasis on how you can be whatever you want to be online (a notion that becomes relevant later), but it also makes the games look like they might actually be fun to play (a hurdle not every filmmaker can overcome when it comes to creating fictional games onscreen). Spielberg is reportedly an avid gamer in real life, and his experience and affection for the medium shows in these sequences.

In its depiction of the real world outside the OASIS, Ready Player One could almost be a sequel to Spielberg’s Minority Report: its extremes of wealth and poverty, omnipresent advertising, and debt slavery form a similar background, and it is clear that the ultimate power in this near future is corporate. As in the book, the bad guys, IOI, are both a stand-in for whichever megacorporation–Microsoft, Google, Amazon, etc.–is most worrisome at the moment, as well as the “evil empire” of so many genre films. IOI’s CEO, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), is a soulless money man (you can tell because he only pretends to like stuff from the ’80s when he’s trying to win over Parzival), in charge of an army of gamers trying to find the Easter egg first (and a department of genuinely enthusiastic pop culture nerds, the “mission control” types) so that IOI can monetize the OASIS, dividing users’ experiences by price tiers and filling their VR viewers with pop-up ads (Boo! Hiss!). (I got a good laugh at Sorrento’s gigantic overcompensating gamer chair, although I think I was the only one in the theater.)

It’s easy to accuse Spielberg of swimming in the shallow water with this material: it’s a break from his more serious recent films and a return to his youthful blockbuster roots, in more ways than one. A sequence recreating a classic horror movie, in particular, is the kind of fun-scary thrill ride we haven’t seen from Spielberg since maybe Jurassic Park and The Lost World (War of the Worlds and parts of A.I. were scary but not fun; Tintin was fun but not scary). Although he shies away from recreating his earlier triumphs, the Indiana Jones movies he made with his fellow “movie brat” George Lucas are just as much a mosaic of ideas from an earlier generation of pop culture as Ready Player One–if you thought I’d come all this way without at least mentioning serials, the joke’s on you–the crucial difference being that Indiana Jones and Star Wars rebranded those ideas, fusing them into new mythologies; Ready Player One is concerned with that process of repackaging in an environment in which nothing ever really goes away.

There’s also no question that Spielberg is calling into question the utility of all this spectacle: like Cline’s book, Ready Player One indulges the fetish for nostalgia and escapism while ultimately concluding that it’s important to go outside once in a while, too. There’s a similar contradiction in its celebration of fan culture and open borders between intellectual properties while mostly including characters owned by producing partner Warner Bros. and a few recognizable Japanese icons (so no Marvel, Star Wars, or anything else owned by Disney, as far as I can tell). For all its flaws, Cline’s book felt like a genuinely personal project, full of weird deep cuts (I for one had never heard of the Japanese Spider-Man TV show in which the web-slinger has a giant robot!) and a citizen of the internet’s embrace of Fair Use to justify borrowing just about anything at all, rolled together into one giant ball, Katamari Damacy-style (see, I can do it too!).

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A battle between the Iron Giant and Mechagodzilla sums up the dumb appeal of this premise, and if you’re not on board for that there’s probably not much I can say to change your mind. On the other hand, in a world in which Facebook memes may have been used to turn the tide of our last election and nations and ideologies contend with one another in virtual spaces to win hearts and minds, the final battle for control of the OASIS, the ultimate mash-up that brings those metal titans together, doesn’t strike me as entirely frivolous. Ready Player One never uses the phrase “Net Neutrality,” but it’s at the heart of Cline’s belief that online connectivity can bring people together just as easily as it separates them, and that it is up to us to choose. (And if that sounds impossibly high-minded, a guy also gets killed by a Madball, and it’s hilarious.)

Mark Rylance as James Halliday (shown in retrospective video and as his online avatar, the wizard Anorak) is the film’s real emotional center, and Ready Player One also touches on the deep sadness at the root of Halliday’s creation, a world in which he could be in control as a substitute for the unpredictability, messiness, and possibility of being hurt in the real. As Wade and his online companions Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and Aech (Lena Waithe) discover, Halliday’s own aborted attempts to connect with other people turn out to be the key to unlocking his puzzles, and Wade’s arc (drawn more clearly here than in the book) is one of getting his head out of the game and connecting to the world around him.

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In conclusion, Ready Player One is funny, exciting, sometimes scary, and mostly satisfying in the same way it’s satisfying to see those stuck-up kids from the ritzy camp on the other side of the lake get beaten by the rag-tag misfits in every slobs vs. snobs comedy that came out in the 1980s. If it’s ultimately a little shallow and we’re never in doubt that the good guys will win this one, well, that’s part of the package. Will today’s kids be as inspired by this film as Cline and I were by Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark? Despite tips of the hat to post-’80s properties like Minecraft and HALO, if the audience I saw this with is any indication (mostly middle-aged white guys like me), I doubt it. It will likely be an amusing blip in Steven Spielberg’s late career. But for myself, I’ll continue to imagine what could have been, proving that books are the real portals to the imagination. (You might think that I am above deploying such a cliché, but seeing as I have just written over two thousand words about Ready Player One, clearly I am not.)

The Lost Worlds of Power is here!

I am pleased to announce that The Lost Worlds of Power is now available for download! Made up of twelve novelizations of classic NES games, including my own take on “Legendary Wings,” The Lost Worlds of Power is the brainchild of Noiseless Chatter’s Philip J. Reed. I’ve only just started digging into it, but the book promises a range of styles and approaches to games both classic (“Battletoads,” “Marble Madness”) and obscure (“Linus Spacehead’s Cosmic Crusade”?). Download it for free here (and for a limited time, you can also download last summer’s Volume 0)!

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It’s been a while since I’ve been able to offer an update on The Lost Worlds of Power, the fan-written collection of Nintendo game novelizations of which I’m honored to be a part. However, I’m told that the October 31 release date is still firm! The book will be available as a free download that day, so be on the lookout for that!

In the mean time, I am pleased to offer the illustration for my selection, “Legendary Wings,” by cartoonist Ron DelVillano:

Legendary Wings

When editor Philip J. Reed sent it to me as part of a bundle with the other illustrations, he noted:

Just so you know, I didn’t give Ron any guidance on what your stories were actually about…true to the Worlds of Power spirit! I only told him the games. In some cases, he actually ended up with some coincidentally appropriate details, which I love, and in other cases
the illustration is totally irrelevent, which I love even more.

How accurately does Ron’s illustration reflect the contents of my story? I’ll leave that for you to judge, but for the record, I think it’s awesome! More information will be forthcoming as I have it!

. . . And as a bonus, here’s another of Ron’s illustrations that is perfect for getting into the Halloween spirit:

Monster Party-01

The title? “Monster Party,” of course.

Last week, Philip J. Reed of Noiseless Chatter invited me to write a little about my contribution to The Lost Worlds of Power during the lead-up to publication, and it’s available to read now. While avoiding spoilers for the story itself, I zeroed in on the relation of fan fiction to the descriptive manuals that often accompanied video games in the early days, and the ways in which the illustrations could suggest a more detailed setting than the graphics of the time allowed.  (That wasn’t as much of a problem by the time my selection, Legendary Wings, was released–it’s graphically quite impressive–but I guess it was on my mind, and I can never resist the opportunity to travel down memory lane.)

Those hi-def screens reveal a lot of detail, don't they?

Those hi-def screens reveal a lot of detail, don’t they?

Check it out, and consider following Noiseless Chatter while you’re there, won’t you? Updates on The Lost Worlds of Power appear there regularly, although the release date hasn’t been finalized as of this writing.

 

I’m very pleased to announce that my adaptation of the classic video game Legendary Wings has been selected for inclusion in the upcoming anthology The Lost Worlds of Power, edited by Philip J. Reed of Noiseless Chatter.  My story will be one of twelve novelizations of games for the Nintendo Entertainment System™ written in, er, homage to the original Worlds of Power series, which often had little to do with the games that were being adapted.  The anthology will be available as a free eBook when it’s done: I believe I’ll be able to host it here, but I will definitely include links if not.  More information, including a release date, will be forthcoming as it develops.  I’m very excited to be included, and I can’t wait to read the rest of the stories in the volume.  The complete announcement can be found here.

Lego House on the Prairie

I saw The Lego Movie this weekend, and I loved it.  This isn’t a review, and I won’t spoil anything, although I will direct you to Charlie Jane Anders’ review at io9 and its (accurate, in my view) contention that a successful genre spoof must authentically partake of the genre it sends up (in this case, the summer blockbuster and the hackneyed “chosen one” motif).

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Like all the recent movies based on beloved toys, The Lego Movie is at least partly pitched toward the nostalgia center of viewers’ brains.  Sure, I played with Lego bricks as a child, and still enjoy them now that I have my own children to provide cover. If that were all there were to it, however, I doubt I would have reacted so strongly to the film; the other Lego spin-off video games and cartoons I’ve seen are entertaining, but not profound.  No, what I feel compelled to explore is how successful the film is at building an elaborate world out of familiar components, and its connection to the student films and music videos that did the same thing with toys when I was a kid.

The idea of toys (or other inanimate objects) coming to life is hardly new, of course: before the Toy Story movies there was Corduroy and The Velveteen Rabbit and Raggedy Ann, back to the fantasies of E. T. A. Hoffmann and beyond.  In all likelihood we could trace it all the way back to the idea of “household gods” and the pervasive spirits of pantheistic animism, or perhaps the unity of self and environment in earliest infancy.  In any case, that’s not really my point; what connects my memory of playing with Lego bricks to the new movie (and makes it successful at driving its themes home) is the constructive nature of Lego: all imaginative play gives back only what you put into it, but Lego is explicitly open-ended.  Since the first bricks were produced in 1949, every piece is part of a compatible system and can be connected together in some way.  That’s the first prong of the movie: the pleasure of digging up and recombining the different “worlds” Lego has produced over the years (including some “deep cuts” like Fabuland).

The second prong of the movie’s appeal is how this world is set in motion cinematically.  As a kid, I was obsessed with stop motion animation: my first exposure was probably on shows like Sesame Street, which, among its many other virtues, was often a showcase for inventive (and sometimes downright experimental) film.  The Carmen-singing orange was one I remember (although I had forgotten the rubbery ‘70s-era synth soundtrack, another element that connects it to many childhood memories):

Obviously, there’s a lot more where that came from.

What remains captivating about many of these little films is their handmade quality, and their use of everyday objects: toys, food, utensils.  As with furnishing dollhouses, creating dioramas, or assembling Rube Goldberg-like marble slides (think of the game Mousetrap!), there is an obvious pleasure in the handicraft involved in the creation of a tiny world, playing God on a child’s scale.  When given the illusion of movement, it made it easy to imagine the ordinary objects I saw all the time having a secret life when I wasn’t around, both tapping into and feeding that sense of domestic enchantment alluded to above.

It also made it look easy to get into the game: I recently discovered this short Super 8 film, made in 1980, and starring 12-year old Stefano Paganini’s Lego collection:

It’s rough—I know I wouldn’t have been able to do any better at that age—but it has the same sense of play that the makers of The Lego Movie explore on a grand scale.

It’s the limitations of Lego—where they can fit together, the articulation points of the minifigures—that give it character and provide something for the filmmakers—for whom there are practically no limits anymore with the use of computers—to bump against.  As Brian Eno wrote in 1995 (published in A Year with Swollen Appendices),

Whatever you find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature.  CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit—all these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided.

Eno was mostly speaking of audio formats, but his prescient words have also proven true for visual styles.

The aesthetic qualities of Lego—abstracting familiar shapes into a grid, designed as “bricks” but able to approximate all kinds of shapes—are something that every child encounters one way or another.  Although Lego has introduced many angled and curved pieces to its arsenal, it’s the jagged sawtooth of the square pieces arranged in stair-step fashion that is still an essential part of Lego’s “look.”

Eno mentions 8-bit sound; I think the abstraction Lego encouraged was a reason I was similarly fascinated with the blocky graphics of the the video games that emerged in the late 1970s; just as with the stop motion videos that appeared to bring Lego bricks or candy to life, Space Invaders and Pong gave movement—controlled by the player!—to simple, even primal, geometric shapes.  I was so fascinated by this level of abstraction that I would practice breaking down pictures into their component pixels using graph paper.  I even briefly took up cross-stitching because it looked to me like video game graphics; the only tangible proof of that brief flirtation that I left behind was a sample sheet with a few segments of the Centipede from the game of the same name, rendered in cross-stitch.

I’m reminded of Norman Brosterman’s book Inventing Kindergarten and its thesis that the first generation of twentieth-century modernists were shaped in early childhood by the highly abstracted geometric play that was a core component of nineteenth-century kindergarten. As developed by founder Friedrich Froebel in the 1830s and ‘40s, the geometric elements of kindergarten were centered around the series of about twenty “gifts,” playthings that were meant to introduce primary forms—the sphere, the cube, the cone, for example—and encourage young children to model aspects of the real world in a progression of graduated complexity.  Architect Frank Lloyd Wright would later credit Froebel’s system for developing his spatial faculties, but he was far from the only one.  According to Brosterman,

During the system’s heyday—roughly the half century before World War I—Frank Lloyd Wright was merely one of millions of people, including most of the so-called “form-givers” of the modern era who were indoctrinated, in effect, programmed, by the spiritual geometry of the early kindergarten.

Brosterman’s book is full of pictures juxtaposing nineteenth-century kindergarten projects made by small children with artwork made by adults of the same generation years later. The comparisons are suggestive, to say the very least.

From Norman Brosterman's Inventing Kindergarten

From Norman Brosterman’s Inventing Kindergarten

In addition to the Froebel gifts, there were also “occupations,” which consisted of paper, string, and clay, media that could be used to create finished projects.  Brosterman quotes American kindergarten leader W. N. Hailmann as describing the distinction between gifts and occupations:

The gift gives the child a new cosmos, the occupation fixes the impressions made by the gift.  The gift invites only arranging activities; the occupation invites also controlling, modifying, transforming, creating activities.  The gift leads to discovery; the occupation, to invention.  The gift gives insight; the occupation, power.

Without wishing to overstate the case, Lego bricks descend from the same progressive concept of early childhood development as a process of discovery and mastery, and lend themselves to a similar kind of abstraction of the real world.

Duplo.house

Interestingly, the debt Wright and other modernists owe to Froebel’s kindergarten, as described by Brosterman, has not been lost on modern educators and toy makers (in this context “toy” may sound dismissive, but it’s relevant: Milton Bradley, for example, was an important U. S. maker of Froebel gifts).  Froebel USA now makes a “Prairie House Block Set” of abstract building blocks, both a tribute to the credit Wright gave to the Froebel system and, in all likelihood, an appeal to parents who might hope for a similar start for their own children.

Wright.Froebel

And while Lego has expanded its original system of interlocking blocks to include very young children with its Duplo blocks, it’s also moved in the other direction with its “Architecture” line aimed at teenage and adult model-builders.  Detailed Lego versions of real-life architectural masterpieces, including some by Frank Lloyd Wright, are available as kits.  (Here’s a more detailed description of the Prairie-style Robie House model shown below.)  With the Architecture line, the emphasis is on faithful recreation, but the pieces are just as compatible with the Lego system as any other.  That’s the beauty of it: whether following the instructions or building freely, it’s all up to you.  That’s a core component of Lego that The Lego Movie gets.

LEGO-Architecture-21010-Robie-House