Sunday, September 18, 2011

"Of Chins and Chainsaws"

This is something I wrote for an English composition class several years ago, and it's probably the best essay I've ever written. It went on to win first place in a campus-wide essay contest, by unanimous vote. That doesn't mean it's good, mind you, but it's my very best work. Enjoy . . . or don't. But hopefully you will! :)

(Disclaimer: Good, bad or whatever, it's still my most prized work. So please, read, enjoy, share with friends, but don't plagiarize, or I will be very unhappy. Okay? Thanks, y'all.)

3 September 2008      
            The scene depicts a heroic figure standing tall against the forces of evil. There is an imperious smirk plastered across his face as he brandishes a large, powerful chainsaw in place of his right hand. A beautiful woman in a torn pink dress clings to his left leg for dear life as a sword-wielding skeleton crawls toward them. In the background we see that the noble hero is surrounded by a medieval army, who may or may not harbor some malicious feelings toward him and the fair maiden (but it is highly likely that their intentions are not noble). This is an iconic image, evoking many others from years gone by, ranging from the world of swords and sorcery created by the likes of Robert E. Howard and Frank Frazetta to one of Chevy Chase’s many horrific vacations; indeed, it even hearkens back to the days when the ancient Greeks and Romans carved idealized images of their gods into timeless marble. So what is it about this particular image that makes it special? What stands out most in the eyes of the viewer? More importantly, where exactly did it come from?
            A select group of people would recognize this image immediately as the beautifully painted poster for Sam Raimi’s 1993 film Army of Darkness, the final installment of the Evil Dead trilogy (which has an extremely dedicated cult following). The hero is Ashley J. Williams, a cynical college drop-out portrayed by the tall, clean-cut B-movie actor Bruce Campbell (notable for his trademark chin and Superman-like dark hair). Although one might dispute what possible merit the poster for a grisly cult movie might have when compared to similar works of epic art from a higher level of class and prestige, I prefer to ignore the conventions of what are considered high and low forms of art. Whether or not this work deserves to be compared to the paintings of Michelangelo or Da Vinci is a matter of personal opinion (although it is highly unlikely that a painting of Bruce Campbell will ever appear in the same exhibit as the Mona Lisa), but what it all comes down to is a simple question: do I like it? In a boundless sea of images, made nearly infinite by digital media, why am I attracted to this one? With so many great works of art to ponder, from Norman Rockwell’s work for the Saturday Evening Post to the breathtaking comic art of Alex Ross, why do I return to Army of Darkness?
            The attention to detail makes it clear that a great deal of time and care went into painting the image. The first thing one might notice is the sheer darkness of the background, which contrasts with the stark white complexion of the bare-chested hero. The second thing that sticks out (quite literally) is said hero’s rather overwhelming chin. And while he has a lovely damsel in distress on one leg, the other is being assaulted by several tiny doppelgangers, who are attempting to stab him with a fork and set his pants ablaze with a match. Also, there is a rather interesting meeting between two eras, as the hero’s contemporary attire, his chainsaw, and the battered wreckage of an Oldsmobile his right foot is firmly planted on seem to clash with the castle and medieval warriors in the background. The image is sly without condescension, and although at first glance it is just an attempt by its creator to be funny, closer inspection reveals the amount of love that was poured into it. Take, for instance, Ash’s cheeky expression, which conveys a broad range of possible thoughts, from “what, me worry?” to “God, I look good!” His very stance suggests that he is cut from the same cloth as many swashbuckling heroes before him, an unholy amalgamation of Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood, Captain Kirk, and of course Conan the barbarian.
            Of course, the fact that I like the movie (for reasons I cannot begin to understand or explain) helps, but I think the image speaks to a lot of people in that it appeals to our imaginations. What man hasn’t fantasized about being a great hero at some point or another, conquering insurmountable odds with valor and wit, while defending the life and honor of a gorgeous damsel in distress? Granted, these fantasies generally die out as adolescence gives way to the responsibilities and anxieties of adulthood, but that is why the poster appeals even more to adults, because it reawakens the spirit of childhood long since left behind. So yes, as a tired, beleaguered, and imaginative college student, the image of this smug, time-displaced hero standing defiantly against the aptly-named Army of Darkness does indeed appeal to me. Another possible appeal to adults may be that Ash himself represents something more than most of us can ever hope to become. He has the perfect physique, flawless hair, and smashing good looks that make even the most prominent of Hollywood leading men feel inferior for a fleeting moment. It’s disheartening for most men, myself included, to acknowledge the fact that they will never be the six-foot-four heroic ideal. Nevertheless, Ash represents what most of us aspire toward, but can never be. Of course, the chainsaw is also a draw in and of itself. Not only are we envious of Ash as a heroic symbol, but we are also very much enthralled by his weapon—a giant power tool! The very fact that it is out-of-place in the medieval image is what makes it entertaining, and it also stands as a testament to Ash’s physical strength (I actually tried to heft a chainsaw of similar size into a heroic, Ash-like pose, and it took all of my might just to hold it off the ground with one arm!). 
            Another aspect to consider might be what women see in the image. I am not so arrogant as to presume to understand the artistic tastes of women, but I was able to draw a few conclusions after some careful pondering. Firstly, I tried to imagine how a woman might react to seeing the way the damsel in distress clings helplessly to Ash's leg, practically swooning in his manly presence. She is clearly in danger, but she seems oblivious to the utter bleakness of the situation, choosing to concentrate more on maintaining the fine balance between looking seductive and innocent. This naturally begs the question, of course: what does the female viewer make of this? Would she be offended by the idea of a woman being portrayed as an inept sex symbol, relying on the archetypical male to save her from the forces of evil, or would she simply find it funny? The answer (as horrifying as it is to make this comparison) lies within a literary genre almost expressly targeted at women: the romance novel. Whether we as men like to admit it or not, we have seen our share of romance novels at some point or another, and they all seem to have a common thread: the cover. Almost every romance novel has a lushly-painted cover of a scantily-clad, swooning woman falling into the arms of a muscular, bare-chested Lothario (who usually resembles the model Fabio to some extent or another), and quite a few show some ominous form of evil lurking in the background. The chainsaw also plays a part in the way women might perceive the image, albeit in a somewhat more lewd way (i.e. if Ash is that good with a chainsaw, what else is he good at?). Also, she might see the woman’s expression as more than just the lustful gaze of a medieval tart. She might instead point out a rather admirable quality: a woman’s faith in her man (and judging by the look on Ash’s face, he clearly has faith in himself). She fears nothing, because she knows Ash will protect her . . .  how unlike the men of today, who have seemingly lost all semblance of chivalry! Could it be that many women actually like the idea of a powerful, sensuous male protector, even in this age of women taking on more dominant roles in relationships? Could women actually be enamored by the sardonic wit of this smirking savior (whose most romantic line in the movie is “Give me some sugar, baby.”)? I believe the answer, in at least a select amount of cases, is yes.
            I think the image contains a lot of appeal for men and women alike, due to its quirky humor and painstaking attention to detail. But the ultimate question is this: why do I like it? What makes it special to me? Simply put, it appeals to my imagination. Despite its lack of originality and “taste”, it has an intangible, irreverent charm that makes it impossible to overlook. It may not be the scholar’s definition of high art, but it reminds me of years gone by, when I had time to daydream and imagine what the hero’s life could be. I can’t truly speak for anyone but myself, but this singular, timeless quality makes it truly special to me, and I hope others can find (or have found) the same sense of fun and imagination.

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