Imagining a Better Future by Re-imagining the Past

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Flavors of Dieselpunk: Part II

Innocence Lost: Dark Ottensian Dieselpunk

"All the time the flapper is laughin' and dancin', there's a feelin' of tragedy underneath…" ~ Clara Bow

In the previous post I explored what is often called Hopeful Ottensian dieselpunk. But not all of Ottensian dieselpunk is positive because it does have a dark side, which is appropriately named as Dark Ottensian. I have to admit this aspect of Ottensian dieselpunk holds a special appeal to me, which is one reason for the extreme length of this post.

Diesel Era Roots

1920’s: Modernity and Culture Wars


Modernity with its freedoms and challenges obviously didn't originate in the 1920's but the same advances that the Hopeful Ottensians celebrate helped contribute to a crisis where America had to face Modernity in ways that it never had to before. America’s response to Modernity was what today we would call a culture war. In the forward to the book The Culture of the Twenties, edited by Loren Baritz, Alfred F Young and Leonard W Levy wrote that the characteristics of the 1920’s were, "products of a pervasive clash between the values of a new urban, urbane, and modern civilization, and the pieties of small town, provincial America."

Though they were less in numbers, the political power in the 20’s rested with small town conservatives who were successful in passing legislation in the futile attempt to hold back Modernity. As a result they were able to force through their agendas such as Prohibition and the "criminal syndicalism" laws resulting in events such as the Palmer Raids. In addition, the 20’s saw a massive growth in Nationalism and membership in the Ku Klux Klan.

The cosmopolitan intellectuals, writers, and artists who were more receptive to Modernity responded with revulsion to this right-wing political activity by pulling away rather than pushing back. Many of those who could afford it fled to Europe while others dug in and created pockets of progressive and artistic communities within the major cities.

Caught in between these two extremes were the majority of Americans. According to Baritz, "The middle term was the world of the Jazz Age, flapper, speakeasy, and the rest. Reaching both forward and backward, it knew it was not truly of either world. It was the booming New Era, the Roaring Twenties. But it too was caught by the power of the village; it had to consume its booze secretly lest the village law cause embarrassment."

1930’s: Great Depression, Dust Bowl and the Rise of Totalitarianism

The crash of October 29th, 1929 along with the previous market crashes set off a chain of events that sent the world plunging it into one of the worst economic crises of modern history known as the Great Depression. To add insult to injury Mother Nature herself seemed to declare war on the American people. For years farmers had over planted without rotating the crops and had removed the native grasses. This, along with a period of extended drought, resulted in the nightmare of the Dust Bowl.


The international political scene was just as bleak. Stalin was terrorizing the people of the Soviet Union. In Italy while Mussolini claimed to make the trains ran on time he ruled the nation with an iron fist. The Nazis rose to power in Germany creating terror with their anti-Semitism, hatred and military expansionism. The Second Spanish Republic had fallen to the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. While in Japan the military gained power through “government by assassination” and began expanding its “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” which was nothing more than a propaganda term for conquest.

It’s in these dark and violent times that Dark Ottensian dieselpunk inhabits.

Dark Ottensian Dieselpunk

I share the opinion of Ottens and Piecraft (The Gatehouse Gazette Issue #1) that the 1994 motion picture of The Shadow is an excellent representation of Dark Ottensian Dieselpunk, which I had touched on lightly in a previous post.


Lamont Cranston: The Tormented Hero

In the opening scene of The Shadow we see Lamont Cranston (Alec Baldwin) living in Tibet as a cruel and heartless opium drug lord. After being kidnapped by the Tulku, a local holy man, he’s told by the Tulku how he knows that Cranston’s been tormented by his, "black heart" and was always in "great pain." We then hear the famous line, in this case spoken by the Tulku, that Cranston knows, "what evil lurks in the hearts of men” because Cranston had, "seen that evil in [his] own heart."

Throughout the movie Cranston is shown as a tormented man. When Margot Lane (Penelope Ann Miller) tells him, "I'm not afraid of you," Cranston replies, "But I am." Later, he tells Margo, "You have any idea what it’s like to have done things you can never forgive yourself for?"

A Violent, Crime Ridden World

Early in the movie, right after the kidnapping, the audience is told in the narration that while armed with the power to cloud men’s minds, "Cranston returned to his homeland, that most wretched lair of villainy we know as… New York City." The world of The Shadow is one of drug lords and mobsters. Crime is rampant with an inept police force that was incapable of protecting its citizens, as illustrated in the movie by Wainwright Barth, played so well by the great Jonathan Winters. Society is filled with violence and corruption with the people’s only hope being a vigilante armed with ancient knowledge and occult powers.

The Shadow
perfectly captures the Dark Ottensian sub-genre.

Hope in the Darkness
"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves…" ~ Cassius in “Julius Caesar” (I, ii, 140-141)

Unlike Hopeful Ottensian, in Dark Ottensian neither human technological progress nor Modernity gives us hope for a better future. Instead, this drive for domination and control over both nature and ourselves is setting us up for destruction. The greater we strive to exert control and establish order the more chaos originates.

Yet, one shouldn’t think that the message of Dark Ottensian is one of hopelessness. At the end of the movie Cranston defeats Khan by learning to master the one thing that he never could before: himself. But he achieves this mastering not by exerting greater control but instead by letting go. He lets go of his past and his demons that haunt him as well as trying to control the Phurba by brute force. If one notices, previously in the movie the eyes of both Khan and Cranston would turn black when they used their occult powers. Yet, once Cranston achieves peace his eyes become pure silver. He has defeated his demons by letting go, finally achieved redemption, and we can see it in his eyes.

In Dark Ottensian hope for humanity lies not in Modernity’s drive for control and technological progress but by learning to let go of this desire for control and the demons that hold us back.

6 comments:

Lord K said...

Well, my patient waiting is fully paid, even with a generous bonus.
Bravo, Larry!

Larry said...

Thanks Lord_K!

Jonny B. Goode said...

Well-written. You forgot an important one, though, that fits right in with Dark Ottensian (and one I quite identify with): The Batman.

Larry said...

Thanks Jonny. I agree that the Batman is a good example. In each of my installments I'm only using one example to illustrate that particular sub-class and in this case I chose to use The Shadow.

G said...

I agree with the Shadow example. For those who haven't, while the movie is very entertaining, go out and get yourselves copies of the radio serials they paint an similar but even darker image.

Larry Amyett, Jr said...

Thanks G! I love the radio serials.