Wednesday, October 12, 2016

878. Lost American Tribes of the 21st Century

Over at Arlee Bird's Tossing It Out, there's some talk about Columbus Day and the modern efforts to downplay his accomplishments in the interests of establishing a replacement Indigenous Peoples Day.  As we all know, Christopher Columbus accidentally discovered the New World (it's erroneous, however, to believe people in 1492, much less Columbus himself, thought the world was flat or just plain ended somewhere).  Yeah, and sure, Viking and Chinese explorers got there first, but with far less publicity.  And the whole history of a continent changed forever.

The thing is, it's a bit strange for Americans to complain about what Columbus did.  It's strange, because if he, or someone else, hadn't done it, there wouldn't be any Americans to complain about it.  Everyone you know, unless you're reading this on a reservation (generally speaking), is directly descended from the efforts begun with Columbus.  That's just a fact of life.

I despise what white settlers did to tribes living on their own land, across the whole history of exploration into the Americas, not so much the settlers themselves, but everyone who made it so easy for them to take and take and take, and in the meantime make it seem like the people they were taking all this land from were the bad guys.  Because no, they weren't.  I despise that not only did we take and take and take, but we tried our very best to eradicate, or merely severely marginalize, these tribes, right up to the current day.  As I indicated in a previous post, no one argues Red Lives Matter, and that's because they don't live in the all-important cities where everything of note happens, at least as far as the media is concerned.  Shailene Woodley, the Divergent series actress, was recently arrested protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.  This is merely the most recent in a long series of cultural battles that have nothing to do with buzz topics like gun control or terrorism, but have nonetheless been at the forefront of American life for centuries.

And yet, none of it means anything, and still we have people who otherwise claim Columbus Day should be a thing of the past.  Listen, I think every sports team with a Native American theme should rename itself.  Lately I've been referring to the team that just beat the Red Sox in the playoffs as Francona's Cleveland because I don't want to call them anything else.  These were all teams that were named early in the last century, when we'd finally "won the war" against the tribes that had the nerve to exist and demand any modicum of rights and dignity.

It's really about American self-esteem, American self-loathing, our collective inability to face the ugly truths about our past, not to mention our present.  So we invent distractions and allow ourselves to be fooled by straw arguments, when any idiot who gave any of it more than a second's thought could see how ridiculous it all is.  We can't even have Thanksgiving without people saying it can't possibly represent even the suggestion that anyone could get along back then, much less now.  It makes me far more ashamed to be an America to think of this than how terrible this election season has been.  But it's all related; we've never tried to work it out, just bury it. 

Except, the past is prologue.  We always seem to forget that, don't we?

Thursday, September 29, 2016

877. I legitimately haven't made up my mind yet about the election

I don't really like either candidate.  This is not a unique position.  Plenty of people like me have chosen to support a third party.  But who are we kidding?  None of them has a chance to win.  The leading contender, Gary Johnson, keeps betraying deep international ignorance.  There's also Jill Stein, but then there's also your neighbor, who you could vote for as a write-in, if you were so inclined.  Or Mickey Mouse.  I mean, Disney is pretty popular these days, right?

Trump is the consummate businessman, Clinton the consummate politician.  That's really all you need to know about either of them.  Strip everything else away, the specifics about what they've said or done, whatever their triumphs might be and of course their gigantic mistakes, how they conducted themselves in the first debate, all of it.  I think anyone can agree with that assessment: this is a battle between the two ruling classes of this country, the business people and the politicians.

I think we can agree that the country needs some work.  Both of them do.  Of course they do.  The only thing that bothers me is the persistent media insistence that Clinton is the obvious choice.  The media exists to be objective.  Theoretically, anyway.  If Clinton were such an obvious choice, it wouldn't be so easy to disagree.  It's not just diehard partisans and conspiracy theorists who think she isn't so easy to root for.  This is the not the basis for an argument.  You can't just say the other side is a poopyhead.  That's grade school reasoning, and I'll thank you to raise the bar of your self-worth before addressing anything adults might be considering before addressing the topic.

Because as adults, we owe it to ourselves to make reasoned decisions.  I get that we have a two-party system, and that most people tend to side with one of them, and that as a result they despise the other one.  I'm registered as independent.  Always have been.  I despise partisan politics.  Always have.  This country's history is a tapestry of partisanship.  George Washington was referred to as King George.  I kid you not.  People got fed up with Virginian politicians and Boston brahmans.  So we ended up with Andrew Jackson, a man so thoroughly likable and also so thoroughly incompetent that he sent the nation into a financial quagmire for decades, and we thank him by putting him on the $20 bill.  That's the kind of people we are.  We're basically idiots.  We're a nation of idiots, and happily so.  We're incredibly passionate about everything, no matter how stupid our opinions are, just so long as there are other idiots supporting us.

That's how we got Trump and Clinton as candidates for president.  This would hardly be the first time we've had less than ideal options.  The list of presidents is littered with incompetents.  We also thought Lincoln was incompetent, by the way.  We voiced this opinion loudly throughout the Civil War, right here in the Union (where we technically all reside today, thanks to him).  The famous anecdote about the Gettysburg Address is that he wasn't even the keynote speaker, and Lincoln's future historic speech was little noted that day (heh).  It took his assassination, and a lot of follow-up incompetence in the White House, for us to realize what we had with him.

Because we hardly ever know what we have.  We're too busy shouting our idiot opinions to stop and think what they actually indicate, about ourselves, our times, and least of all what history might say about us.

History is a fickle bitch.  The play Hamilton is a noble and worthy artistic achievement, but it also plays fast and loose with Alexander Hamilton's legacy, who he was, how he found a place for himself, and what led to the fatal shootout with Aaron Burr.  You'd expect the man to have been destined to shape the country into something truly great, instead of what we actually got.  Listen, a lot of Founding Fathers went on to become president, and none of them were universally loved, even amongst themselves. 

The United States of America is a unique creation.  It's continually a work in progress.  We find ourselves in an election that seems destined to put it in a new direction.  But I say, as I've suggested in the past, neither of these candidates will be the cause for change.  Actually, they will be.  We don't like either one.  This is hardly likely to change once they're elected.  But it will force us to think more carefully about who we want to elect next time.  Because I don't think any of us wants a repeat of this campaign season, and it's somewhat safe to say whoever's elected this November, they're destined to be a one-term president (hopefully).

The thing is, this exact thing happens every campaign season.  We allow ourselves to be suckered into partisan politics because it's supposed to make things easier.  In reality, it just keeps things in a holding pattern.  That truly is the American way.

No, I haven't made up my mind yet.  Despite how despicable they are, in their separate ways, Trump and Clinton both offer things that could incrementally benefit the country.  A vote for Clinton is essentially a vote for Obama's vision of America.  If you think Obama was a pretty decent president, Clinton's your woman.  (The historic nature of a woman as president has its own unique appeal.)  If you think four more years would be enough to fix glaring oversights from the last administration, even, vote Clinton.  The checks and balance system worked pretty well the last time a Clinton was president.  If you think the last eight years have seen a lot of egregious mistakes, Trump is your man.  There's really not a simpler way to explain him.  That's how Obama was elected, plain and simple.  Again, the checks and balance system would curb Trump's worst impulses.  We know this.  Put rhetoric aside.  Stop letting the pessimists convince you.  I understand pessimism.  Most of the time, I'm a pretty pessimistic guy, but this isn't a time for pessimism.  If you think Trump's worse impulses are themselves not worth supporting, then by all means don't take him seriously.  If you think Clinton doesn't have a decent enough record, then by all means don't take her seriously.  But one of them is going to be president. 

You have to weigh a lot of things, and above all keep things in perspective.  Don't allow yourself to be convinced by rhetoric.  Presidencies don't succeed on rhetoric.  There's a reason history still doesn't think Kennedy was a great president, because the best of him was essentially rhetoric.  Presidencies are what happen once you're in office, not what you said on the campaign trail or in your best speeches.  Anyone who says differently is just trying to get elected.  ("Read my lips;" still one of the cheapest campaign tricks I ever saw, those ads.)  The realities of the office are very different from what you tell your supporters.  It suddenly becomes far less easy to tell what the right thing is.

Kind of like being a voter.  That's why we have these ridiculous campaign seasons to begin with, to try and come to a reasoned decision.  Anyone who decided last year, or four years ago, or twenty years ago, isn't taking their responsibility seriously.  There are too many distractions for anyone to make up their mind that easily.  If you're depending on what other people are saying to choose your candidate, then you're not doing it right.  If you're depending on what the candidates are saying about each other, then you're not doing it right. 

Try to be objective about it.  That's what I'm trying really hard to do right now.  I registered as an independent.  That's got to mean something.  I realize most people are registered to one of the two major parties, or are trying to get smaller ones off the ground.  Most of them have already made up their mind.  I can't do that.  I'd like to think more people are capable of reaching their own conclusions, too.  It's a messy process.  So's democracy.  Clearly.  This is exactly what it looks like.  It totally sucks.  But there you have it. 

Friday, September 16, 2016

We need to talk about slavery...

When you're able to paint people who are against illegal immigration as the bad guys, you know something's wrong.

And something is very, very wrong.  Democrats have been patting themselves on the back, believing they thoroughly occupy the high ground, every time they ridicule Donald Trump for his ideas about curbing illegal immigration.  But you've got to ask yourself, what are they really saying?  Nothing good, I'd say.

At its heart, you do have to admit it's evil to tell people desperately fleeing terrible situations that they can't find a new home, especially one that seems to be the polar opposite of what they're leaving behind.  America is a land of immigrants.  I get that.  (I also get that although we've kind of had a tepid show of solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux over the Dakota Access Pipeline, I think you'd have to stretch the truth considerably to find anyone to have argued Red Lives Matter quite as much as an actual slogan I'm sure you can name.)  The problem is, what they'll find here is only marginally better.  What they're really getting is the promise of a better future, and likely for the next generation. 

Listen, because of my own job history, I've actually worked alongside illegal immigrants.  I know the tenuousness of their situation.  I've even seen plenty of evidence that they struggle a lot more than we think.  (I worked in a shoe department where boxes were always ending up empty, or filled with highly inadequate replacements, so to say.)  You can't make a blanket statement like calling them hard-working and expect that to summarize them perfectly.  The bottom line is, for every illegal immigrant who will get to benefit from businesses willing to turn a blind eye to their status, there's another who will only get exploited in far less appealing ways.  These are the lowest-earning members of our society.  They round out the bottom line, a line that keeps shrinking because businesses are always eager to ship their bottom lines to another country, so they can pay even less to get the work done.

What Democrats are arguing is actually pretty hateful.  To put it in perspective, the Civil War happened because it would have been terrible for the Southern economy to lose its free black labor.  Which is to say, slavery was absolutely essential, from that mindset.  We tend to think bigotry came first.  No, it was money.  It's always money.  And that's what Democrats are rallying for.  Whether they admit it or not.

Anytime you have a situation that exploits the helpless in society, there's really no other way to describe it other than forced servitude.  Slavery. 

There are better ways to handle immigration.  For one thing, that's why legal immigration exists.  That's what documentation is about.  If we somehow don't have enough immigration agents, I would certainly be proposing that kind of immigration reform rather than loudly criticizing the other guy's ideas, personally.  Because the end result is the same: lessened illegal immigration. 

Immigration is always about desperation.  Someone doesn't decide to do something like that just on a lark, because they're bored.  They know it's going to be difficult.  They know they're risking their lives.  And they probably know what's waiting for them.  It may be a thousand times better than what they had before, but I kind of think we know better than they do what they're actually accepting.  We tend to have this absurd notion that it's the American way to claw your way to the top.  But I also think we all know not every American has to.  I think we know plenty of Americans who never had to struggle a day in their life.  Why would we possibly say that's the best of all possible worlds, one where such disparity exists?  Is that the American way?

Because it's convenient.  Like slavery.  Illegal immigration is nothing better than slavery.  It is slavery.  We know this.  It's the same as Black Lives Matter, the biggest hoodwink you'll find in the media, besides all the blind support for Hillary Clinton.  Listen, we all know black people have had it rough.  We know this.  The thing is, why does the media report the deaths of black people by police, when they ignore the conditions that lead to such tragedies?  This is the kind of moral outrage that is itself outrageous, and criminally misleading.  None of these victims have anything on Emmett Till.  Not to make light of any of their deaths, but none of them died as horribly as Emmett Till, and they've all died for very different reasons.  If you have no idea who Emmett Till is, and how he died, maybe you should have a look at history, and find some perspective.

We have absolutely no perspective today.  We lost perspective sometime, I think, in the '60s, when the counterculture began to bleed into the culture, become it, and suddenly all our moral rage was turned on permanently.  The fight for equality is a good thing.  It will always be a good thing.  But the lack of perspective is very, very bad.

This isn't about how my life has turned out, or anyone else's.  The problem is that we fight for change without knowing what needs to change.  Illegal immigration needs to change.  Slavery needs to end.  In all its forms.  We can't keep supporting those who terrorize us in our own society, by our own rules, by our own implicit support. 

I don't care how much of an idiot Donald Trump is.  I don't care how many trumped up (heh) allusions you can make to Hitler.  The truth is, before Americans entered WWII, we weren't falling all over ourselves saying how terrible Hitler was.  It's not that we didn't see what he was doing.  In a lot of ways, we wholeheartedly supported his ideas.  Even refusing to enter the war for as long as we did, we supported him.  That's the bottom line.  Until we chose to fight, we were on Hitler's side.  Sins of omission are still sins.  They say Trump's nationalist, isolationist ideas are what amounts to his Hitler tendencies.  Well let me tell you something, Americans have been arguing for nationalism and isolationism from the very start.  If you don't know that, you don't know history at all.

In a lot of ways, supporting illegal immigration is a lot like supporting Hitler.  Hitler was all about the supremacy of pure Germans.  Democrats like to say the only people who will knowingly support Trump are white Americans.  Except we all know there's no such things as pure Americans, just as there was never such a thing as pure Germans.  It's a lunatic association.  Hitler wanted a strong Germany, one that was far better than the wreck that emerged from the disastrous policies that ended WWI.  Trump does want a strong America.  So does Clinton.  She believes it already exists.  Sure, and Ryan Lochte is still technically an Olympic champion.  They took away a legitimate Olympic hero's medals for far less stupid mistakes.  Just look up Jim Thorpe.  (He was Native American, naturally.)  Clinton's America is one that supports a global community, which in itself is a noble thing.  So were Wilson's negotiations to end WWI.  But those negotiations did create Hitler.  You can't destroy a car and expect to sell it new again.  That's about as clear as the economics here can be explained.

I would never call someone Hitler just to get a cheap pop from my audience.  Hitler was a legitimate maniac, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.  He achieved nothing great (unlike past conquerors he can't even be called a military genius; he had people for that, which is kind of the mindset we've been using ever since, propping up one-trick ponies), and all his thoughts were hateful.  With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that now.  But Charles Lindberg, for instance, didn't.  (Philip Roth wrote a whole book of alternate history about that: The Plot Against America.)  Lindbergh continues to be celebrated as a great aviation hero.  It's always tricky to balance the achievements with the person behind them, but history seems to ignore the bad in favor of the good.  Wilson, by the way, loved the original Birth of a Nation.  You see how irony litters history? 

No, Trump isn't Hitler, and neither is Clinton.  But I'd much rather give my support to someone looking to find solutions to the moral abattoir we've created for ourselves than the other person who'd like us to pretend it doesn't exist, because one is inherently hateful and the other isn't.  I think you can tell which one I think is hateful. 

I'm not against illegal immigration.  But I'd certainly like for there to be a better outcome.  I think we can all agree on that, if we only stop to think about it.  Do you really want to be the person arguing for slavery in 2016?

Monday, September 12, 2016

Is Star Trek best understood as midlife crisis?

This past Thursday marked the fiftieth anniversary of Star Trek.  The episode NBC first aired was "The Man Trap," which actually focuses on "Bones" McCoy rather than Kirk or Spock.  McCoy was often pointed out as the oldest character in the original series, and his backstory frequently refers to what amounts to another lifetime, with his Starfleet career as a kind of second act.  You can find that right in "The Man Trap," too, the first time Star Trek features a character reconnecting with an old flame, from when he was already a young man of 25 or so.

This is significant because in the first pilot Gene Roddenberry submitted to NBC, "The Cage," the story was about Christopher Pike questioning whether he can still handle the burden of command.  We just saw that repeated in this summer's Star Trek Beyond, and it was a familiar element from previous movies, too.  Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan both featured Kirk ruminating on such things, not to mention his clearly advancing age.  In Star Trek: The Next Generation, Picard was presented as aging right from the start, an older captain whose last command had ended badly, and this whole series was his shot at redemption.  Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's Sisko was after the same thing, if you'll remember, trying to pick up the wreckage of his shattered life.

Roddenberry was already working on a second or third life of his own when he created Star Trek.  He'd been a pilot in wartime, and then a street cop.  By the time he reached Hollywood, Roddenberry's enthusiasm for the future might have seemed quaint to anyone looking at his biography.  Yet there it was, a kind of optimistic projection of post-WWII zeal in American exceptionalism into the far future, where the melting pot had gone all the way to the final frontier.  It's no wonder that later writers found so much rich material from the Cold War.  I mean, what else could you expect.  Star Trek was all about the country from which it came, which made the '60s allegories it explored all the more relevant to its emerging legacy.

And yet, if you're watching Kirk in "The Man Trap," you see someone who is more cynical observer than playboy adventurer, the Kirk who became famous as the prototypical hero type of his day, young and mindless of all danger, idealistic yet adaptable.  Who's behind the Kirk in "The Man Trap," but Roddenberry?  This was early Trek, the sixth episode ever produced.  (It gets fascinating: "Where No Man Has Gone Before," the second pilot and production debut of Kirk, aired third; "The Corbomite Maneuver," the debut of classic Kirk, was the third production but aired tenth; "Mudd's Women," fourth production, aired sixth; "The Enemy Within," which split Kirk into good and bad versions, was produced fifth and aired fifth.  Strangely, "Charlie X," which was the eighth production, aired second, while "The Naked Time," the first acknowledged Star Trek classic, was the seventh production, and aired fourth.  Anyway.)

So what does it all mean?  That Roddenberry didn't originally envision the Kirk we know.  Clearly.  He originally thought about the conflicted Pike.  When NBC is criticized for considering Roddenberry's Star Trek as too cerebral, you can begin to see what the network meant.  What Star Trek became isn't necessarily how it began.  You can see how much thought Roddenberry put into it.  It took a lot of time to develop the easy feel of the Kirk/Spock/McCoy dynamic everyone remembers.  No, what Roddenberry originally envisioned was the end result of the Space Race, where the whole thing has become a burden.  (Wouldn't we know it, 2016?)  It's the vision of a man who had lived a lot already, and who wasn't as optimistic about it as he could seem later.  What drove him was success in television.  What else would it be?

You can see how often later writers reflect on the lessons taught by "The Man Trap," and "The Cage."  They became the two most basic story templates of the whole franchise.  Forget everything else you know about Star Trek, and just trace the number of times you saw a misunderstood monster ("The Man Trap," later made most famous by "Devil in the Dark") or, as I've already pointed out, a career in crisis (all those other captains, like Decker in "The Doomsday Machine," if you want to find examples well before the movies). 

Everyone has a definition of what Star Trek means, but what it really boils down to is something few have realized, which is that Gene Roddenberry didn't come up with utopia.  He came up with allegory, plain and simple.  And the allegory was mostly about himself.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

15th anniversary of 9/11

Fifteen years ago, I was attending my second year at the University of Maine.  The old Student Union was still being used (it took forever to get the new one built).  I wound up there, later, watching along with scores of other students the unfolding events, but first there was breakfast.

I remember this so well: One of the dining hall workers came out and told us a plane had struck the World Trade Center.  I had no idea that this was going to become one of the defining moments of my life.  I figured, there had been an accident, and that was it.  They switched the radio to news.  They always played music.  I remember listening, on another morning, a stupid DJ explaining Uncle Cracker's hit song, and later realizing, after I'd seen the video, that they were just explaining what the video was.  That morning, though, the radio was tuned to something important.

Still, I reported to English class (Jennifer Moxley was always worth attending), but by the time French class came up, next, all I needed to know was that something definitely was happening, and I decided to skip the class (I never did figure out how to care about French class again), and head over to the Student Union, and there it was, the towers collapsing, New York City in chaos.

I went to my dorm room and wrote my parents an email.  Later, I realized how insensitive this was, because my mother had desperately wanted to hear from all her kids.  None of us knew what the scope of it was.  Later we'd know about the Pentagon and United 93.  The terrorists had actually flown through Maine.  My three oldest siblings were all out of state, and so was my youngest.  I was the only one still in Maine.  None of us were flying that day.  Still, anything could have become a target.

I started identifying myself as a poet, in the days and years after 9/11.  For a while, every year on the anniversary, I would write a new piece to commemorate it.  I took a poetry class in one of my final semesters, and already the gulf between what Americans think about 9/11 and the rest of the world, and I'm not talking about wars here, but the basic perception of the tragedy itself, was becoming evident.  There was a visiting poet from Chile who dared talk about the Pinochet years, and the other students in the class ridiculed the thought that her tragedy could even compare to ours.  I was outraged.  This is the sort of thing we don't talk about, and it's terrifying.  In a lot of ways, 9/11 made the United States horribly egocentric.  None of us wanted to get defensive, but that's what everyone did.  Since it was so self-contained, in some respects, 9/11 was easy to sweep under the rug.  We went back to work, and promptly started isolating ourselves as never before, or at least, not since the days of westward expansion.

We entered the age of social media.  This is ironic, coming from a blogger who started in 2002.  In those innocent days, I never cared whether someone else would read what I wrote.  Now the blogging community is obsessed with getting as many people to like it as possible.  It sells books, right?  But we're so busy promoting ourselves, our friends, we forget any kind of perspective.  Perspective is what died on 9/11.  In the days immediately following it, we were one big country, but then we splintered, and we've never looked back.  I just don't get it.

This is not about patriotism, but about perspective.  I'd heard about the Taliban, smashing Buddhist statues, before 9/11, and as someone who still mourns the long-ago destruction of the Library of Alexandria, it's because culture is very important to me.  I don't get these terrorists, as they've continued to exist over the years.  I think they're reactionaries.  I think they're scared that the world's passed them by, and hate the fact that anyone else can define culture.  I thought we might've gotten past that sort of thinking.  Wasn't that called the Middle Ages?  You know, the Dark Ages?  But I guess not.  But really, we're not much better.  Everyone has an agenda now.  We took what the '60s tried really hard to accomplish, and we've blown it up to ridiculous proportions.  Everyone's shouting for equal attention, and no one's paying attention anymore.  We chat about inane things, we argue politics, but we have no perspective. 

Sitting in that dining hall, fifteen years ago, I had no perspective.  I had no idea what was going on.  Then, like everyone else, I had no choice.  Then people started to choose otherwise.  I really wish we could get back to a place where we care about things again, and quit hiding.  Because you know what hiding does?  It makes you crazy enough to think up something like 9/11. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

873. In hopes for a better world...

Things have been worse.  With so many alarming topics to talk about today, there are people who have chosen to believe we have somehow ended up in the worst of all possible worlds.  We haven't, but if we're not careful, we might.  Isn't that the way it always is?  This is not a perfect world.  If it were, everything would be different.  But it isn't, and so it is what it is, and as always, we have a choice, to let our fears get the best of us, or to somehow master them, because our first thoughts are always exaggerated ones, ones if we rethought would reveal themselves for what they really are.  I think the problem is, with so many options to talk about our thoughts, we have somehow diminished the need to think about our thoughts, and all we do is react.  Reaction is good.  It's how we know what we feel.  But this is not a world where feeling alone defines reality.  Humans are uniquely capable of setting aside feelings (it can be difficult, I know), and giving our reactions a proper consideration.  Somehow, I think we've forgotten that.  We've forgotten that we have the ability to analyze things.  By that, I don't mean to compartmentalize, fit into a predetermined set of conclusions.  We've unfortunately allowed ourselves to fall into the mindset where phrases like "survival of the fittest" and "those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it," meaningful and yet unproductive concepts that when put to the test don't mean what they seem to, define how we think.  "Survival of the fittest" is intended to explain why nature works the way it does.  And yet humans don't fit that model, and any attempt to explain otherwise ignores what we would otherwise understand, if we gave it half the thought it deserves: The phrase, in human context, would read, "Survival of advantage." 

Everyone has advantages, which is to say skills.  The problem is that some skills are easier to identify, and easier for others to understand, easier to exploit in whatever model the person in question is attempting to enter.  Skills alone don't determine worth.  Skills are rarely even the qualification we use to make decisions.  More often than not, we make decisions based on social conclusions.  "Survival of social skills," maybe.

History is a funny thing.  It's easy to see parallels in history, and it takes a clever person to see them, admittedly, but no two situations are ever exactly alike, and it takes an even more clever person to see that.  "Those who don't see the distinctions history makes are doomed to continue making mistakes," perhaps.  But that seems too clumsy, so it's probably easier to default to the original statement, no matter how flawed.  How about, "Those who make mistakes make history."  Well, that's just obvious.  Because history is really a history of mistakes, no matter how much we like to claim otherwise.  Still, it's not very inspiring, is it?  "Those who strive for success make history."  Good, but not enough of a moral.  "Those who understand they're fallible will make the best history."  Too pat.  "Those who don't learn history are doomed for limited perspectives."  I kinda like that one.

These are tiny examples.  This is what considering things beyond the most basic level looks like.  Most of the time, you'll hear people argue for trying to see it from a variety of perspectives, but in doing so you run the risk of losing perspective.  At a certain point, judgment comes into the equation.  You have to decide where you stand.  What people so often forget is that you don't have to choose between extremes.  You really can fall somewhere in the middle.  Somehow, this became a thought crime.  In school, the students who are merely average don't count for anything, and somehow this mindset is taken to generalize that you must be at an extreme to matter.  This is absurd. 

Yet this is a polarized world, at the moment.  That's exactly how people are thinking.  Each side is so convinced they're right, they're not even willing to give the other side any credit.  That's lazy and clumsy thinking.  It's about picking sides, and nothing else.  Hey, picking sides like that leads to worse things, not better.  Is that what we really want?  I hope not.  I like to believe people really aren't that bad.  But they can be misled. 

So I guess what I'm saying is, if you're feeling as if we've somehow entered a doomsday scenario, remember that you have a choice.  You can choose to look beyond the rhetoric, on whatever alarming topic you've chosen to fixate, and look for a better way.  Because there's always a better one, and things really have been worse.  We have a chance to make things better.  But it starts by acknowledging our complicity in making things look worse, at least at the moment.  In this uniquely hypersocial environment, in this unique moment in history, we can do better.  We just have to try.

Friday, July 08, 2016

872. Excalibur, and its surprisingly enduring legacy

I finally got around to rewatching 1981's Excalibur, what was for at least one generation the definitive retelling of the Arthurian legend.

Now, this is one of those things I have a complicated history with, which is to say there have been times I've actively dismissed it as terrible filmmaking.  When it showed up on a marquee in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice earlier this year, as the movie (previously, The Mark of Zorro) the Waynes saw on that fateful day in the updated timeline, when Batman became an orphan, I started thinking I should give it another shot.

Clearly, I'd argue, Excalibur was made because of the Star Wars effect.  Everyone was scrambling to contextualize this new phenomenon.  Dune became a movie (it can be argued that Star Wars owes a debt to Frank Herbert's saga) for the first time.  Star Trek reached the big screen.  And King Arthur rode back into popular culture.  Now, this is a guy who helped define, over the centuries, what pop culture is all about.  Along with Robin Hood, it's hard to find any fictional character who's had more enduring appeal in the West.  Where Robin Hood embodies the triumph of will over state, King Arthur is the myth to end all myths about how states become great.  It's the updated version of the founding of Rome, where the figure at last supplants the foundation.  You might argue about how Greek myths came about, but there's no longer any clear lineage about where all those gods came from.  You could also argue, Jesus Christ, and indeed, Arthurian lore is steeped in Christian symbolism.

Putting that aside, I have to admit, even now I find Excalibur to be unwieldy.  It's hugely overwrought, to be sure, even as it contains the secret origins of Patrick Stewart, Helen Mirren, Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, and Ciaran Hinds (he's the only one I couldn't spot this time around), all of whom later became hugely successful actors, and so you spend half the film just seeing how much of their later selves is on display, and by that have a worthy distraction when other things aren't working for you.  If you're not particularly hip to the legend, the proceedings are probably impenetrable.

Sound familiar?  The same can be said for Batman v Superman, which obviously chose to give a nod to Excalibur because it depicts the founding of the Knights of the Round Table, where Dawn of Justice is all about laying the foundations for the later Justice League.  That, and Batman is Lancelot to Superman's King Arthur.  Tellingly, Excalibur is all about King Arthur's twisted history and fate, all tied up in a single thread, just as Dawn of Justice focuses on how Superman's alien origins define how people view him, either as threat or savior, and the monster that kills him being a relic of those origins.  Where Excalibur crams everything into one movie, Batman v Superman's greatest sin is expecting people to not only have already seen Man of Steel, but invest in the future Justice League movies, too.

But enough about superheroes.  Excalibur's legacy goes further than that.  It ranked 18th in box office earnings the year it was released, grossing $34 million.  Another Grail seeker, Indiana Jones (admittedly looking for something different this particular movie), was the year's top hit, Raiders of the Lost Ark.  The follow-up to another Star Wars response, Superman II, was a big hit that year.  This was still a time when Hollywood was trying to definitively crack the Star Wars code, though.  Non-genre hits like On Golden Pond, Arthur, Stripes, The Cannonball Run, Chariots of Fire, and The Four Seasons (this starred Alan Alda and Carol Burnett; it's the only film from the 1981 top ten that's been lost to history) were other big hits.  There was also the James Bond flick For Your Eyes Only and Terry Gilliam's breakout hit Time Bandits.  Ahead of Excalibur, too, was Clash of the Titans, and a Tarzan movie. 

No, Excalibur picked up steam in later years.  It was a cult hit.  I discovered it in college, likely a place for a movie like Excalibur because it has a couple of nude scenes, and where else but college are you going to be watching stuff like that for the first time (assuming that like me, you were previously pretty innocent about such movies)?  This was a movie that reeked of mythic proportions, something ideal to watch in those formative years of your life, if you were already well-versed in stuff like Star Wars. 

Finally, Peter Jackson made his Lord of the Rings movies, which were responsible for blowing open the doors for movie sagas that could finally compete with Star Wars.  And clearly, Tolkien had a lot of King Arthur on the brain, and so did Jackson.  The first one, Fellowship of the Ring, has always been, for me, the most successful creatively of them, because it follows such a clear narrative line, straight to the Lancelot of Boromir dying in redemption in front of Aragorn's King Arthur (complete with his own legendary sword needing to be reforged). 

Another movie I think has a strong Excalibur connection is Star Trek Nemesis, which Star Trek fans have always confused with a rip-off of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  And yet, the central conflict of Picard's feud with his clone Shinzon has less Khan to it than King Arthur's ultimate rival in Mordred, who happens to be both his sister's son, and his.  Strange liaisons indeed.  It's the kind of logic that sent Star Trek fans livid, because for them, this was a franchise that was about sending social messages, not eating its own tail, which is kind of funny, because no one cared for its predecessor, Star Trek: Insurrection, even though it was a clear parallel to the continuing plight of Native Americans (it bothers me a great deal that out of all the social causes out there today, no one cares about the most screwed-over population in the whole country).

That's what Excalibur got wrong, I think, trying to immerse its logic too deeply within itself, and I guess, what Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice did, too.  You can't have Picard engaged in a direct feud.  That's why Star Trek: First Contact worked so well, and was such a big success, because it mixed up the revenge story with one of hope for the future, which is what Star Trek is all about.  What is King Arthur about?  He's the story of hope, too, that times won't always be so bad, because there weren't always terrible leaders and there will be good leaders again.  That's the sword analogy right there.  What do Batman and Superman say in their movie?  That we can put aside our differences, if we try.  King Arthur's story is full of intrigue, and conflicting motivations, and things forbidden, and the ability to overcome our worst impulses, even if we've already made the fatal mistake.

To find that message in Excalibur, you have to be able to navigate a lot of barriers.  The dialogue is spoken almost exclusively as if the recording equipment was the least reliable to be found, and actors were given the simple command, "Just try and make a forceful delivery."  It's like bad Shakespeare, but it's so overblown, it's impossible to forget, no matter how hard you try.  Mordred's ridiculous gold armor and his even worse helmet, even harder.  This is what it looks like when you try too hard.  The more time Peter Jackson spent in Middle-Earth, the more he leaned in this direction, too.  That's what people have been saying about Batman v Superman, that it's impenetrable, merely an excuse to try and grab some cheap money from gullible movie-goers.  Me, I never saw it that way, but then, I guess I was just in the right place at the right time, to get it. 

But that's what happens when you're chasing something big, something like Star Wars.  Not only did Hollywood never see it coming, but everyone else sought to understand what it was all about, too.  That's why someone made the connection to King Arthur.  And why, once everyone had become accustomed to lavish productions, they became easier to accept as big hits, a whole series of blockbuster sagas.  Only now, we're circling back again.  We never did stop to figure it out, and eventually even Star Wars started looking overblown, with the prequels.  What can you do?

Except, keep giving the results another chance.  I mean, plenty of people saw potential in Excalibur.  It just took some time.  In the end, the important thing is, these are stories vital to the culture.  They're being told because someone thought it was important.  Sometimes, it may be enough to just try and figure out why, because inevitably, someone will try telling it again.  That's what it's all about.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

871. Some personal reflections

So I caught some of American History X on TV yesterday, and it got me thinking.  No, I've never been in the situation Edward Norton's character finds himself in, but I wonder how much intolerance really does seep in.  Now, I am generally a pretty tolerant guy, but like anyone else I find myself forming opinions when I hear what the news is reporting.  Last year this blog imploded in part because I attempted to mount a defense of Bill Cosby.  I happen to be someone who thinks everyone is redeemable, given the chance, but I also believe that rushing to judgment is wrong, regardless of what circumstances may suggest.  I talked about how I thought Cosby might have been targeted due to his opinions from a decade earlier, in which he voiced the black community's lack of accountability.  This was a conclusion I'd reached in part because I was skeptical about all the defenses people were formulating around the series of police shootings of black males, which has become a regular feature in the news over the past few years.

American History X made me think about what I was really advocating.  While I believe that circumstances sometimes dictate unfortunate situations, which has been the case for African Americans, for American Indians, for everyone who has ever come to this country, in fact, I found myself thinking the victim was worth blaming.  That's the bottom line.  I have to own that.  The victim is never worth blaming.  In attempting to come to a full understanding of what was happening, I found myself thinking along lines that were the opposite of what I believe.  I say I'm a tolerant guy.  I was raised Catholic.  Catholics have some pretty strict ideas about certain things.  Some of those ideas I agree with, and some I don't.  It's never okay to say someone isn't allowed to do or be something because of who they are.  We're all individuals just trying to fit in.  The more we work together, the better.  Coming from someone who definitely has had problems fitting in, that means something to me, maybe not the same way it means to a black man, or a gay man, or any other version of the basic human model you can think of, but it connects me, it means I belong in the same quagmire, and that I have no right muddling things just because I don't understand something.

A blog I used to follow, which isn't particularly active now, was part of the implosion, in part because it was increasingly advocating certain things without following my particular criteria, which when I say it like that it sounds ridiculous.  The problem became, I felt isolated from an experience I had previously been a part of.  And hey, that happens.  As much as we struggle to fit in, we have to also realize that the irony is, nothing lasts forever.  The thing we try so desperately to be a part of is the same thing we will eventually leave behind.  Things change. 

The UK exit from the European Union happened, and at first I didn't get why it was such a bad thing.  But again, it's the separation effect.  Trump as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, I just didn't get why people loathed the idea so much.  But advocating walls around the country?  Listen, I rationalized that he says whatever he thinks people want to hear.  I say to myself, this is what happens when the Democrats spend years isolating Republicans.  The truth is, Trump isn't presidential material.  And maybe I've been too hard on the Clintons.  They just finished announcing more ways in which a Clinton has failed on a human level, but the truth of the Clintons is the same today as it was twenty-five years ago: these are politicians through and through, and they are, despite themselves, very human, too.  There's a Clinton in contention again for a reason, because they know how to play the game.  Everything else is divisiveness.  I talked recently about how the Democrats have played that game this millennium, because the Republicans played it before them, etc.  But the truth is, regardless of what a Clinton does, I think we're at a point where we're going to emerge from all this nonsense.  This whole campaign season has proven that we've all pushed too far.

And really, that's what it's all about.  My working life has been pretty mediocre.  At one point, I worked alongside immigrants who were more likely than not completely illegal, and I was the one who felt isolated.  It made me feel uncomfortable, but then, I'm generally uncomfortable with the concept of other people in general, not because of who they are, but because of me, because I've never gotten the handle of other people.  I'm an introvert.  Hear me roar.

I can never reset to how things were before last year, and in truth, it was probably inevitable, this exodus.  I once had an idea that I could overcome my clumsiness around others, but the truth is, and I'm not bemoaning my fate, I can't dictate how others view me, regardless of whether it's positive or negative.  All I can do is try and be fair toward others.  This began because I suggested we needed to talk about Bill Cosby, when the real subject was something else entirely.  We're once again at a cultural crossroads.  We've recognized that society hasn't made as much progress in tolerance, in fairness, as we've sometimes led ourselves to believe.  There are those who are rallying to the defense of victims, of those struggling to find their footing, and generally they're absolutely right, and it's generally wrong to say otherwise.

I just thought I should acknowledge that. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

870. The Blockbuster Numbing Effect

There've been plenty of people who wondered what was to happen to the superhero movie, once the bubble finally bursts.  More often than not, the answer is that it'll go the way of the Western, that it'll gradually lose all relevance in the popular culture.

I don't know about that.  I think of superhero movies in terms of the sci-fi genre.  Once that box exploded, with Star Wars, it became very hard close up again, in a way that Westerns haven't really experienced since the end of their heyday, when they held a virtual monopoly on the public's imagination.  Half the reason superhero movies exploded in the new millennium was because Hollywood finally figured out how to duplicate Star Wars' blockbuster model.  Suddenly, there were hot new franchises all over the place, of viable endurance and massive popularity.

The problem, if anything, is to keep superheroes from becoming like horror movies.  Horror movies have long had their sway with audiences.  In the '80s they took on new life with a slew of franchises.  The problem is, horror films became increasingly hard to translate to wide audiences, unless a true breakout occurred, which does continue to happen.  The thing is, no one thinks of horror movies as dominating the box office, the way they did in the '70s, before Star Wars.  Tastes change.  Something will replace superhero movies as the hot new thing, but superhero movies won't go away, like Westerns have for the most part.

The problem will be in finding the balance that prevents them from appearing too insular.  In this age where the massive Avengers franchise exists, this can seem like a ridiculous dilemma, because eight years and over a dozen films later, no one's arguing that it's tough to keep track of what happens in these movies, because they're designed to operate independently, with little need to know what happens in any one film.  You can watch one of them and simply expect a good time. 

That's it, really, the expectation that you don't need to invest too much into the experience.  Anytime a blockbuster goes beyond that expectation, barriers begin to form, and opinions sharply decline in their generosity toward the film.

It's not that difficult to see how this tracks.  Everyone loves Star Wars, because the original movies were filled with romantic breeziness.  The second one, The Empire Strikes Back, deepened the story just enough so that fans thought it was a worthy follow-up to the original.  By the time the prequels were made, however, you suddenly needed to know so much more, such as why it was at all important to care about the little boy Anakin Skywalker.  It wasn't simply a matter of expectations, but having to invest in the material something beyond sheer enjoyment.  In fact, under circumstances like that, sheer enjoyment becomes the last thing possible.

Where superhero movies started looking for something other than entertainment was the misleading success of The Dark Knight, which proved to be a spectacle for reasons other than Batman's adventures, but the spectacle of the unexpected performance from the late Heath Ledger, whose death alone brought attention to the movie.  People loved Spider-Man as a lovable sadsack, and because watching him swing through New York City was a life-affirming exercise post-9/11.  They didn't particularly want the Goth dorkiness of Spider-Man 3 or Marc Webb's deeper analysis in the Amazing Spider-Man films.  Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has proven a powderkeg precisely because it tried to be operatic instead of just a big dumb fight between its title heroes.

These ambitious superhero movies have their place, but they'll never be as popular as the lighthearted, irreverent material that continues to dominate the box office.  You try for anything else, and people will just crap all over it, because this is not the kind of stuff they want to think about.  They go to the movies to escape.  That's how hits are born, the ones that are still fondly recalled years later.

Hollywood has developed a new problem, in that there are so many movies with blockbuster expectations, they can't possibly all end up blockbusters, and suddenly there are more and more blockbuster box office busts.  This can't at all be surprising.  The more demand you make of your audience, the more careful you'll have to be to find it, because otherwise, it simply won't be there.  It's the blockbuster numbing effect.  What otherwise might have become a generation's defining movie memory will have been lost in the shuffle, simply because you didn't expect it would be so difficult to get lost in the story.  Sometimes, it really is.  The hit movies are the ones that make it look easy. 

Thursday, June 23, 2016

869. Person of Interest comes to an end

I thought I'd observe the airing of the final episode of Person of Interest, which was broadcast on Tuesday night.  In this era where the flashiest, or just most comfortable, programs get all the attention, Person of Interest set a new standard for network television.  On the heels of hits like Alias, Lost, and Fringe, CBS acquired this latest idea from J.J. Abrams, who developed it with Jonathan Nolan, expanding on concepts Nolan had originally conceived along with brother Christopher Nolan in the blockbuster The Dark Knight.  In an age of terrorism and surveillance scandals, Person of Interest explored the nuances of both in surprisingly personal ways, expanding from an initial focus on tech savant Harold Finch and his pitbull John Reese to include the likes of Root and Shaw, as well as police counterparts Carter and Fusco as they worked on the behalf of the Machine, and later against the corruption of its doppelganger Samaritan. 

This was a show I was eager to watch when it debuted in the fall of 2011, which just happened to be when I lost all track of regular TV viewing.  When CBS begrudgingly dumped the final season this year (I have no idea why the network became so grumpy about a show that had been one of its biggest hits in recent years), I took it as a chance to catch up and pay my respects as it concluded its story.

It never disappointed me.  From the return of Shaw (following the unexpected death of Carter, Shaw's apparent demise was one of the moments that registered in the mainstream media, in part because of her budding relationship with Root) to the closing moments of the brilliantly orchestrated finale, in which the whole reason these characters were fighting was spelled out (because human lives matter, which in any other hands would have come off as a trite message indeed).  This was a whole series that bucked the trend of providing easy answers about its weekly mysteries, famously giving the group clues leading them in the direction of people who could be victim or perpetrator.  In an age where we've steadily lost our trust in others, Person of Interest struggled to affirm that it can still exist.

This was a 9/11 drama ten years in the making, exploring the world that resulted from the worst catastrophe of the modern era, and coming up with a hopeful message.  That may not be what everyone else is saying, but that doesn't matter.  Thank goodness Person of Interest did.  This was a TV classic, folks.

Monday, June 20, 2016

868. Ted Mosby is very happy right now!

Cleveland native Ted Mosby is really happy right now.  I mean, he geeked out when LeBron came back home, and now there's a championship to celebrate.  Life doesn't get much better, right?

(The preceding was brought to you by a dedicated fan of How I Met Your Mother.)

In all seriousness, congratulations to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, celebrating Cleveland's first championship win in fifty-two years, defeating the Golden State Warriors in an epic Finals rematch, and LeBron winning with Cleveland.  I'm not a huge basketball fan, only insofar as anyone mildly interested in the '90s craze will be today, but I can always appreciate a sports superstar winning the big one (unless their name is Peyton Manning).

Monday, June 13, 2016

867. The End of Anicetti, the 155th of Big Bethel

I'm not going to talk too much, but I felt it was important to mark the retirement of Frank Anicetti, who for years continued his family's (a hundred years' worth) legacy at the Kennebec Fruit Co. in Lisbon, ME.  Frank's the one who helped initiate Lisbon's annual Moxie Festival, and he was featured in Stephen King's 11/22/63.  Earlier this year he started toying with the idea, and now it seems he made it official.  He's a true icon in that town, and I hope this year's celebration of Moxie remembers that.

Somewhat conversely, I was a part of a different kind of history on Saturday, when the 155th anniversary of the Battle of Big Bethel was commemorated in my backyard.  I've been living in Hampton, VA, for about half a year now, and it's been interesting to observe the plaques and memorials so close to home.  I imagination it should always be interesting to have history near you like that.  It's not the first time, and it probably won't be the last.  This time, it just happens to include the present conditions of a battlefield that's dubbed the first planned land engagement of the Civil War.  Hampton is already very near the "Historic Triangle" in Virginia (Williamsburg, Yorktown, and Jamestown).  Anyway, there was a ceremony, and I stopped by to hear some of what was said.  The speaker compared the battle to Bunker Hill, which was certainly an interesting thought.  (When I took the historic trip of Boston my freshman year of college, I visited Bunker Hill.) 

Friday, June 10, 2016

866. Mock Squid Soup - June 2016: What Dreams May Come

Every month various bloggers come together to celebrate movies with the Mock Squid Soup society.  This month I'll be talking a little about 1998's What Dreams May Come.

Released a few months prior to one of Robin Williams' last big hits, Patch Adams, this was a big artistic statement about death that kind of landed with a thud, and has never quite recovered.  I kind of figured this was my kind of movie from the start, but for whatever reason I've only just sat through the whole thing.  Call it confirmation bias if you like, but yeah, I loved it.

What Dreams May Come is the story of a man who dies and discovers the afterlife is an unexpected window into not only the way he lived, but his family as well.  He appears in a full-scale version of a painting his wife made years ago (honestly, this is one of the great pieces of artistry in film, without any danger of overdoing it).  He eventually meets his son and daughter, who appear into different, and surprising, guises.  They both died in a car crash years earlier, and the grief sent their parents in different directions as they struggled to cope.  After Williams dies, his wife commits suicide, which ends up informing the rest of the movie.

I don't know, I think this movie was simply released at the wrong time.  Culturally, we'd stopped accepting the Christian view as the dominant outlook on life, and so a movie that accepted a generally Christian view of the afterlife couldn't have been received comfortably.  The same thing happened because it was a Robin Williams movie, because critics had kind of decided they were over him.  His supporting turn in Good Will Hunting was basically the last time they liked him (other than a few later roles, in One Hour Photo and Insomnia, where he played psychopaths, which was about as far against type as he could get).  Critics also didn't particularly care for Cuba Gooding, Jr., whose own Oscar win (Jerry Maguire) marked the only time they liked him (despite a lot of good work following his breakthrough, including the equally critically hapless but no less brilliant Instinct).

Chances are you won't be thinking of whether you care about a Christian view of the afterlife, or whether you always liked Robin Williams or Cuba Gooding, Jr.  If you've seen What Dreams May Come for yourself, what did you even think about it?  Was it a movie you found easy to dismiss because it seemed so easy to dismiss?

For me, I always liked how bold it was, unafraid to take a look at the moodier side of Williams, which in dramas usually meant he had a beard and acted solemn (this was a good mode for him; see Awakenings, for instance).  Like Patch Adams, though, Williams was able to bring out his playful side in What Dreams May Come.  It may not have been a mistake these two are often seen paired together in home video release.  These are human portraits.  Where Patch Adams played up the comedy, What Dreams May Come plays up the tragedy.

(Fitting, for a movie that in its title alludes to Shakespeare.)

To watch it was to see how intricate the story was, too.  The reveals of who two of Williams' guides are, and why they chose these guises, are just two of the wonderful surprises in the story, which never really flirts with the obvious risk of melodrama for this kind of movie.  It's all pretty frank, and by the time we meet Max von Sydow, even wonderfully fantastical, in a way we'd have to wait for the later Harry Potter movies to see again.

Me, because of the literary tradition with Dante's Divine Comedy, I like to believe that a culture's current impression of what the afterlife looks like is a window into its soul.  I don't know what the immediate reception of What Dreams May Come says about that, but the film itself bridges more than breaks the gaps that have formed between different circles of our society, and I think you only need to see it to believe that.

This is not a story about faith.  It's the story of humanity, broken and then mended, and perhaps found.  I think it's pretty profound, and worth considering as one of the great artistic statements of the last hundred years.

Thursday, June 02, 2016

865. X-Men: Apocalypse, otherwise known as the best X-Men movie yet

The thing about setting benchmarks is that it can be a terrible burden.  Earlier this year I determined that Captain America: Civil War was the best Avengers movie yet.  It sent a new benchmark for that franchise.  And yet, it's not as good a movie as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (which is not the best Superman or Batman movie, an honor that still resides with The Dark Knight) or, as I have now determined, X-Men: Apocalypse.

Apocalypse is the sixth movie in the X-Men franchise, not counting three spin-offs (two for Wolverine and one Deadpool), and it completes the second trilogy while rounding out as a statement for the whole series to date.  It does so brilliantly, by learning all there was to learn from the previous entries, something Civil War did before it, too, but because there was more substance to build on, the achievement is greater.

For me, it's always about substance.  Like Batman v Superman's nod to Excalibur, a genre film that broke new ground and helped set the tone for what was to come, Apocalypse makes a big deal about how a few of the characters go see Return of the Jedi, which sets off a similar conversation.  Most viewers will take away that Bryan Singer is still annoyed at what Brett Ratner did with X-Men: The Last Stand, the finale of the first trilogy, the previous two having been directed by Singer before he attempted to move on with 2006's Superman Returns (that was the whole period when the early millennial fascination with superheroes was either going to die or evolve, and you can see for yourself what happened).  And maybe Singer is, but the greater point is also how crucial Apocalypse is to the second trilogy, and how its story is reflected in Return of the Jedi.

If there's a weakness to the film, I would call it blockbuster hangover, which is something that began with Independence Day, the need to have as much destruction as possible in the story, most of which is usually unnecessary.  Putting that aside, we can look at the story itself.  Apocalypse assumes the role of the Emperor.  That's all he basically is, an evil presence forcing moral decisions on the main characters.  The key players, as always, are Professor X and Magneto.  This has been the case since the start, because of the initial casting for these roles with noted British actors Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, whose performances helped drive interest in the series even as their roles tended to be lost in the shuffle of other character conflicts.

Ironically, it was in Ratner's Last Stand where they truly began to drive the plot, with the character of Jean Grey caught between them.  Apocalypse, if anything, might be seen as Singer's version of Last Stand, but with all the history of the film series behind it.  With First Class and Days of the Future Past having put such a heavy emphasis directly on Professor X and Magneto, Apocalypse had to deliver, make a thesis of the conflict between them, and decide, once and for all, if they were truly worth rooting for.

This is why I say the X-Men have been doing what Batman, Superman, and the Avengers only just got around to, all along.  Apocalypse helps prove that, in elegant fashion.

So many opinions that you have to wade through have already made predetermined judgments about certain aspects (critics hate long genre series; they were complaining about Harry Potter movies even as fans were still rabidly buying the new books, as if they would have no way of keeping up with the mythology).  A lot of the people who will tell you Apocalypse is a failure have joined the camp that says only Disney/Marvel can do it right, and that you have to have a fairly light tone to make a superhero movie. 

Apocalypse is the bold statement this franchise has been building toward from the start.  When Singer first made an X-Men film, he built his vision around the gay community, where he saw the most obvious mutant analogy.  Yet in Apocalypse, you can see where he has expanded that vision.  Black viewers can see these X-Men as analogous to their struggles, too, which have been plastered all over the news for the past few years, all over again.  The struggle never ends.  And that's the point of these X-Men movies.  The way to respond, in this franchise, comes down to whether you will reject the greater community (Magneto) or attempt to join it (Professor X).  Tellingly, Mystique is the one straddling the line and drawing the sides closer, once again.  It may also be relevant to note that, along with Rogue, it's Mystique that was left depowered in Ratner's Last Stand.

The confidence Singer brings to these movies today is totally different from the tentative, if bombastic (driven by the early love affair everyone had for Hugh Jackman's Wolverine), steps he took in his first two movies.  It's best understood in the Quicksilver scenes, which have stolen the show in two movies now.  It's in how he allows Magneto to be human, not in a forced way, as has been the direction in other movies, but as someone we don't need to be reminded was born in the Holocaust (but this time, it doesn't seem exploitative to remind us, again).  It's in how he allows Quicksilver to avoid telling Magneto that he's his son.  That's the Usual Suspects version of Singer I've been looking for all along, the one capable of withholding information, for the good of the story, the characters, and the audience.  Because it makes everything better.

This is how it's done, folks.  For all those still upset about the second Star Wars trilogy, you now have a genre franchise with two trilogies, where you can hopefully see how the last in them rounded out the story, in hugely appropriate fashion.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Mock Squid Soup May 2016 - Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Cherdo previously covered for the Mock Squid Soup gang, hosted by Mock and Squid.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008) was the movie that kept on giving.  It gave us Jason Segel as a movie star, introduced the world (yay!) to Russell Brand, featured a spin-off for Brand's memorable Aldous Snow in Get Him to the Greek (2010), and led to Segel successfully rebooting The Muppets (2011).

That's a lot to accomplish, plus an instrumental version of Israel "Iz" Kamakawiwo'ole's iconic "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"/"What a Wonderful World" (which is appropriate, since the movie is set in Hawaii and, y'know, Iz was Hawaiian).

Instead of going on and on (as I usually do), let me just focus on my favorite scene from the movie: the puppet show.


I don't have a clip from the movie itself (the above comes from Craig Ferguson's since-ended late night talk show), but the song, "Dracula's Lament," expresses for itself that unexpected moment when you realize the puppet show that is so crucial to Segel's character is actually pretty awesome.  It's the whole movie in a nutshell.  You can watch the rest of the movie and kind of dismiss it as just another post-millennial comedy, but that song is what launched Segel's Muppets (which gave us the Oscar-nominated "Man or Muppet").

Thursday, May 12, 2016

863. Captain America: Civil War, or, The Best Avengers Movie Yet

So here's what my Avengers cycle best-of looks like now:
  1. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
  2. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
  3. Iron Man 2 (2010)
  4. Avengers (2012)
  5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
As you can see, two of three Captain America movies make the top five.  When it was released, 2011's Captain America: The First Avenger shot close to the top of the list (you can see 2010's Iron Man 2 in third) thanks to Chris Evans' endearing performance as Steve Rogers and the general tone of embracing the history of comic book superheroes in light-hearted but warm fashion (particularly Cap's early days in uniform as a glorified spokesman).  So it wasn't surprising that its sequels interested me even more, as they delved more deeply into superhero psyche and the further pitfalls of wearing even the spiffier uniform.

What this amounts to is depth in presentation, something that's usually lacking in these Avengers movies.  I mean, that's why I liked Iron Man 2 so much, because it was the rare introverted Tony Stark that looked for things that were well beyond the surface.  (Iron Man 3 was a shell, pardon the pun, of this accomplishment.)

But other than that, Civil War also works on the visceral level of the Avengers films at their best, the interplay that's so key to entries like Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy.  These are screwball flicks at heart, perhaps more so than superhero movies.  They will never match the vision of, say, The Dark Knight or even Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (something that always sticks in the craw of fans and critics, who routinely find holes that aren't there in DC's movies, and gobble up the relative mindlessness of Marvel's).  Even Civil War, like The Winter Soldier before it, full of moral bravado, plays sleight of hand in its plotting instead of looking for real answers.  You cannot compare the conflicts in Civil War and Batman v Superman, no matter how similar they are.  The much-mocked humanity of Batman v Superman is met with hollow characterization in Civil War.

And yet, I still say Captain America: Civil War is good.  It's a different kind of good, a different level of achievement.  It's not wrong to say it's a lesser one.  It's not wrong to say that a movie with loftier ambitions and greater technical achievement is better than it.  It is wrong to say that you have to aim lower to be a successful superhero movie. 

Calling Civil War my favorite Avengers movie is acknowledgement that it did succeed in what it set out to accomplishment.  That's all you can ask of any movie.  I rate them lower when they haven't, and don't even realize it.  I do that with books, too.  I see no difference except in formatting, between movies and books.  They're different art forms.  But to be a good movie means the same thing as being a good book.  Standards don't change.  I can like, very much, a book of little ambition, or one that does not dazzle me in its language, but I'll always like the one that has both, better.  It's the same with movies, even ones with superheroes.

There's a lot that's just sloppy in Civil War, clumsy in how plot threads come together.  When they meet up, the right moments do happen, and the ending is good, and that goofy clash of champions at the airport is a true highlight, something that couldn't, and probably shouldn't, happen in a DC movie.  But that's what defines these Avengers movies.  Obviously, they make entertainment that's easy to enjoy.

So sue me if I still like DC better, even when I've found perhaps the perfect Avengers movie.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Box Office 2015

U.S. box office results for notable movies from 2015...(mil = million)

1. Star Wars - Episode VII: The Force Awakens ($936 mil)
After the huge success of Jurassic World, there was some doubt that the next Star Wars wouldn't top the yearly box office (which has been done before; Attack of the Clones landed in third behind Spider-Man and Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers in 2002).  But then it just completely exploded.  Fans are still debating if JJ Abrams was too faithful to the original trilogy...

2. Jurassic World ($652 mil)
The last entry in this series (Jurassic Park III) was released back in 2001.  So fans were ready for the unofficial reboot, and more from the suddenly heroic Chris Pratt.

3. Avengers: Age of Ultron ($459 mil)
Marvel's Avengers franchise just keeps clicking along at the box office.  Captain America: Civil War features ramifications from this as well as its own previous entry, Winter Soldier.

4. Inside Out ($356 mil)
The Pixar machine rolls along with this entry about the inner workings of a little girl's mind, personified by wacky characters.

5. Furious 7 ($353 mil)
The late Paul Walker makes his final appearance in the series with this entry.

6. Minions ($336 mil)
A spin-off of the Despicable Me franchise gives the wacky little yellow dudes their own movie at last.

7. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 ($281 mil)
Interest in this saga cooled over the years, leading to a somewhat underwhelming performance for the finale.

8. The Martian ($228 mil)
Matt Damon gave a career performance in this latest astronaut disaster movie.

9. Cinderella ($201 mil)
Disney has been producing live action versions of its animated hits since 1996's 101 Dalmatians, and they remain viable box office fodder (see this year's massive success with The Jungle Book, for instance).

10. Spectre  ($200 mil)
Daniel Craig's final appearance as James Bond was a subdued success.

And selections from the rest of the list:
11. Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation ($195 mil)
13. The Revenant ($183 mil)
14. Ant-Man ($180 mil)
15. Home ($177 mil)
17. Fifty Shades of Grey ($ 166 mil)
19. Straight Outta Compton ($161 mil)
21. Mad Max: Fury Road ($153 mil)
23. The Divergent Series: Insurgent ($130 mil)
24. The Peanuts Movie ($130 mil)
27. Spy ($110 mil)
28. Trainwreck ($110 mil)
29. Creed ($109 mil)
30. Tomorrowland ($93 mil)
32. Terminator: Genisys ($89 mil)
33. Taken 3 ($89 mil)
37. Ted 2 ($81 mil)
42. Bridge of Spies ($72 mil)
44. The Big Short ($70 mil)
45. War Room ($67 mil)
47. The Visit ($65 mil)
52. Joy ($56 mil)
53. Fantastic Four ($56 mil)
54. The Hateful Eight ($54 mil)
59. Jupiter Ascending ($47 mil)
60. Sicario ($46 mil)
62. Spotlight ($44 mil)
69. The Age of Adaline ($42 mil)
73. Pan ($35 mil)
75. Concussion ($34 mil)
94. Ex Machina ($25 mil)
95. In the Heart of the Sea ($25 mil)
100. Aloha ($21 mil)
111. Room ($14 mil)
117. Carol ($12 mil)
119. Strange Magic ($12 mil)
121. Self/Less ($12 mil)
156. Anomalisa ($3 mil)
186. Legend ($1 mil)

Source: Box Office Mojo

Monday, April 11, 2016

861. Good and bad news for fans of Lost and its enduring legacy...

I remain an unabashed fan of Lost, the maddeningly ambitious TV series that ran on ABC from 2004 to 2010.  It's one of my favorite stories from any medium, and true highlight of my experiences to date.  Entertainment Weekly recently released a special magazine detailing its favorites from the past 25 years, and in the TV section it included Lost at seventh out of twenty-five.  I was a regular reader of EW for fifteen years or so, and so know full well that it was as obsessed with Lost as anyone else, possibly even moreso, possibly even using it to shape the course of the magazine's whole future.  Well, maybe, but at long last it seems, after years of joining the trend of backlash that followed the controversial final episode, EW is ready to embrace Lost again.  Here's its write-up:

This exotic survival saga about redemption and community started earthy and existential and finished esoteric and mystic, sparking endless discussion and frustrating some of its fans in the process.  What is inarguable is that its tantalizing, labyrinthine mysteries helped change the way we watch and talk about television.

This is like a breath of fresh air for someone who never stopped loving it.  Finally, the bitter years of disappointment, in which the whole thing looked like it would be whitewashed from history, seem like a memory.  As someone who was astonished to find himself buried in an avalanche of praise for something he was enjoying, and being thoroughly unused to such things, this is reassuring.  But it also suggests that the new praise may also suggest that all the previous love will amount to something, in the future, that will make it harder to rediscover than, say, The Prisoner, something that continually enjoys revivals precisely because it didn't have an ending, or The Fugitive, because its ending defined the whole thing.  What good is a cult following if it completely collapses?

As a fan of Star Trek, I know what it's like to see something you love lay dormant for years.  But the thing that keeps Star Trek coming back is that at its heart, it's relatively simple and durable in new iterations.  What about Lost?  Fans tend to binge-watch things that continue giving them visceral thrills. A lot of people came to Lost because they wanted to know answers, and they kept finding them in strange and unexpected places.  But when they saw where it was all headed, what the last answers would be, they lost interest.  The ending of Lost is the same as its beginning.  At its heart, Lost is an examination of the human condition, far more demanding, and ultimately forgiving, than anything else in this moment has proven to be. 

 But maybe it's too demanding.  Fans saw something flashy, and so came aboard for that.  Do fans of old television really come back for substance?  Absent from EW's list was the cathartic, short-lived Boomtown.  I've never found much interest in reviving interest for that, but it remains a truly treasured memory for me.  Theoretically, it'd be easier to rediscover.  A lot of the key players resurfaced in Justified.  And yet...?

This is the strange place in the cultural ether I always inhabit.  Maybe it explains me.  I don't think I'm a contrarian, but that's what I end up seeming like.  I don't know.  Maybe I just shouldn't worry about it.  Let succeeding generations do that.  I have my memories, right?

Friday, April 08, 2016

860. Mock Squid Soup April 2016 - The Fall

Hey, everyone, I'm joining the Mock Squid Soup movies group for another month.  Hope you don't mind.  Soup's hosts are Mock! and Squid (although at least one of them would deny it, and we all know which one).  This month I'm going to talk about The Fall.  It's been a favorite of mine since I originally saw it in theaters, completely on a whim, and it becomes more and more a favorite in the years since.  It's just that good.

Hey, so you know The Princess Bride?  Well, The Fall is like The Princess Bride as an art film.  It's the story of a stuntman from the early days of Hollywood recuperating from, well, a fall.  His name is Roy Walker, and he's played by Lee Pace, who at the time was best known for the quirky TV series Pushing Daisies, but has since appeared in Peter Jackson's Hobbit movies and Guardians of the Galaxy.

This movie was a passion project for director Tarsem, by the way.  He labored for four years and largely financed it himself, and finally saw it hit the film festival circuit in 2006, although its theatrical release didn't happen until 2008.  Championed by David Fincher and Spike Jonze, The Fall garnered a rapturous review from the late Roger Ebert, but has otherwise languished in obscurity in the years that have followed.  It doesn't help that Tarsem has since become better known for The Immortals, Mirror Mirror, and Self/less, all of which failed to connect solidly with audiences or critics.  His earlier film The Cell, like the rest of his work, is well worth considering in the context of Tarsem's creative vision, and by itself.

But I'm here to sing the praises of The Fall.  If nothing else, please watch this film.  Here's a list of IMDb quotes from the movie to get you into it.  Most of the exchanges are between Roy and Alexandria, the precocious girl who's half the reason this movie works so exceptionally well.  The interplay, the pathos, and the humanity exhibited between them is breathtaking.  What Alexandria can't possibly realize, or appreciate, is that Roy is contemplating suicide the entire time she knows him.  He's heartsick over the loss his girlfriend to another member of the film production.  He spins incredible tales to amuse Alexandria, and the more time they spend together, the more the tales become a collaboration (whether Roy likes it or not).

The Princess Bride is an ingenious fairy tale told by a grandfather to his ailing grandson.  Yet you can forget the layers of The Princess Bride the more you get into its many fascinating characters.  Well, how about Governor Odious?  The name alone is outstanding.  He's the villain of The Fall, the enemy of a whole host of heroes, including a young Charles Darwin. Like The Wizard of Oz, Roy draws from people he and Alexandria know from the hospital, so that we get to know characters in various guises, including Roy himself, whom Alexandria eventually makes the star of the story as it takes shape, and she becomes his daughter.

Yeah.  And the art of it is a whole different level of what's to appreciate about The Fall.  If The Princess Bride is impossibly romantic, then The Fall is impossibly beautiful.  I think the only reason it's not better known is that it wasn't widely released and it's so hard to completely explain, except by analogy.  Which is why I'm making such a hard sell with the Princess Bride comparison.  Except some people won't give something a chance if it evokes a cherished experience, because some people will never let something touch their cherished experiences, and The Princess Bride has only become more and more beloved as time has passed.

The Fall is like that.  I'm not just saying that because it is for me, but because it's such a complete experience, something you really do need to see to believe, that you will watch again, and again, and still feel as if you haven't fully appreciated it.  It's a truly great film, and it's life-affirming in the best possible way, with an ending that you will laugh over and cheer for, and possibly even cry during...

Just watch it already.  You'll thank me later.

Friday, April 01, 2016

859. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Deadpool

Well, shoot.  Zack Snyder's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is about as perfect a superhero movie I've seen since The Dark Knight.

I loved his Watchman, his Man of Steel, and Marc Webb's Amazing Spider-Man 2, but Dawn of Justice is about as escalated as they get in terms of what Christopher Nolan achieved.  (Also in the running?  Oddly enough, Gore Verbinski's Lone Ranger.  Last thing you should ever do is listen to what the critics say.  Unless their name is Roger Ebert.  Which of course is completely impossible these days.)

There were two things about Man of Steel's ending that stuck in the craw of viewers: Superman killing Zod, and the wanton destruction of Metropolis.  Both of these are addressed in Dawn of Justice.  How often has a sequel so directly commented on its predecessor?  Go ahead, I'll wait.

What Snyder obviously hopes to accomplish is recontextualizing superheroes, at least in the movies.  There are plenty of viewers who want Avengers-style faire, obviously, and that's all well and good.  But some of us want something meatier.  Snyder's aim is to discuss superheroes in the grand scheme of history.  And actually, he does it by positing Superman (Republicans) and Batman (Democrats) as emblematic of the political shift post-9/11, as well as the wars of the past, with Lex Luthor boldly comparing Superman to the British (and by extension, Batman to Americans).

It's also a bold piece of psychological profiling.  Snyder is not particularly kind to Batman.  He likens the young Bruce Wayne, and the man he becomes, to someone suffering from PTSD in the wake of his parents' murder, plagued with dreams he sometimes can't differentiate from messianic visions.  He literally can't tell fact from fiction.  Although driven by the best of intentions, he can be easily manipulated by the likes of Lex Luthor, who is his opposite number in much the way Superman is.  What separates them is someone who truly does understand the past, who's been there.  Which is to say, Wonder Woman. 

Snyder's Superman has always been the boy who grew up troubled by his own potential, convinced by his father that he would never be accepted.  And throughout Dawn of Justice, we're reminded just how many angry voices there really are out there.  Superman, in this interpretation, is George W. Bush.  So, yeah.  Critics will hate him, because most voices in the media are liberal (liberals hated Bush, in case you'd forgotten), just as they were lukewarm to Quentin Tarantino's Hateful Eight because he had a Mexican as one of the bad guys in the era of Donald Trump.

The whole thing is a brilliant depiction of what happens when ideologies collide, and are either forced to obliterate each other or compromise, or even discover that they're not enemies after all (in this political climate, it's a truly sensational message).  From the introduction of Tim Burton's specter in 1989's Batman, superheroes lost their ability to exist in a black and white world.  When forced back in, audiences either chafe (Joel Schumacher's Batman) or go along with it (Joss Whedon's Avengers) because of the spectacle.  Because audiences can't refuse spectacle.  That alone will make Dawn of Justice a hit, despite all its nasty complications.  People who hate complicated will hate it.  That's just how it always is.  If they can't ignore it, they'll hate it.  But the spectacle of it will bring in loads of money anyway.

Deadpool is completely different while kind of exactly the same.  It's the logical extension of Burton's Joker, the clown who steals the show because he doesn't take anything seriously while also taking his own life extremely seriously.  Ryan Reynolds is the perfect guy to pull off this kind of role.  (I mean, in both its current cinematic incarnations.)  Deadpool was created to be the logical extension of the wisecracking archetype previously embodied by Robin and Spider-Man, except he never had a story that rooted him into anything of substance until now.  In the comics he's the biggest cult figure around, has been since he burst onto the scene twenty years ago, and is only now being recognized for it.  In the movies?  The only character capable of taking the Marvel approach to its zenith.  You wouldn't have Deadpool without Iron Man, who all but smirks through most of his scenes, but then becomes deadly earnest for whole moments at a time (that's why Iron Man 2 is the best Avengers movie, because it tries the hardest to strike a balance).

Marvel likes to harp on the legacy of the Nazis.  Dawn of Justice sidesteps the villains of 9/11 to reveal how it brought out, in the end, the worst in the good guys.  I mean, it's spelled out so plainly.  Why does Superman have to die and Batman be the one to found the Justice League?  Because that's what happened in the real world, too.

Dawn of Justice is a superhero movie with a big idea at its core.  I'm sure, one day, Superman will revert to being the big blue boy scout again.  But hopefully it won't happen anytime soon.  It's worth noting that this is the first time since Adam West that a live action Batman wears the grey and blue costume.  Snyder's often accused of being too pure to the source material.  This movie cobbles together a number of comic book source materials (Dark Knight Returns, "Death of Superman," Justice League: Origin), but in the end it's his original version of his earlier Watchmen.

Which I consider to be a very good thing.  Deadpool can't touch that.


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