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. 


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