Category Archives: Art and the arts

For further comment–Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens

Bio of a nerd

1977 was a good year for me. First, it’s the year that I was born, which makes it a banner year in my personal history. It’s also the year that the United States launched the two Voyager probes into deep space.

It’s also the year that Star Wars was released.

I grew up with Star Wars. I’m told that my parents saw it for the first time when I was six weeks old. They went to a drive-in theater, and I was asleep in the back seat. My earliest memory of going to a movie theater was seeing Star Wars. I also remember being scared of the Jawas, so much so that I started crying and my mom ended up taking me out of the theater. (I think that my younger brother has forgiven me for this….) We had Star Wars toys. Of course we pretended to fight with light sabers.

Of course, over time, the obsession with Star Wars faded. The trilogy was complete, and people moved on to other things. That’s right; there was a stretch of time during the late 1980s that Star Wars was largely dead as a brand. (Apparently West End Games’ Star Wars roleplaying game kept the flame alive. But I digress.)

The spark was reignited in 1991 with the release of Heir to the Empire, the beginning of a Star Wars novel trilogy by Timothy Zahn. I devoured that series and found myself reconnecting with the new flood of Star Wars material that began to be released.

And then, of course, the prequels.

My wife arranged for us to go to a midnight viewing of The Phantom Menace when it came out.

When Yoda drew his light saber in Attack of the Clones, I cheered with the rest of the theater.

And, I’ll be honest: when Amidala died in childbirth in Revenge of the Sith, I cried.

The mythology of Star Wars has been a central part of my life. And so, when I heard that a new sequel trilogy was coming out, I was thrilled.

We dodged spoilers. We watched The Force Awakens in 3D at the local big screen theater. It should have been awesome!

But it wasn’t. I really, really didn’t like it.

More recently, I rewatched it with the family, and I decided to give the movie another chance.

And I still didn’t like it.

I know I represent the minority, and it feels like questioning a geek sacrament of some sort, but I think that The Force Awakens is a fundamentally flawed film that betrays its legacy as a Star Wars movie.

Now, I could have just kept this opinion to myself, but I decided to admit this on social media. The response was interesting. Of course, some folk disagreed with me–I would expect nothing less–but I discovered a thread of agreement and support. Apparently I wasn’t the only one. So I figured that it would be good for me to outline my thinking on this matter. I won’t lie; some of this is probably just thinly disguised nerd rage, and I’m trying to keep that in mind to give this issue some needed perspective. But some of this also spills out into larger issues of social commentary, responsible storytelling, and even the business of geek culture. So, hopefully, somewhere in the midst of all of this discussion, you will find something valuable, even if you disagree.

Star Wars as myth making

Let me start by outlining one of my underlying assumptions: Star Wars isn’t science fiction. This isn’t an idea unique to me by any stretch. I’ve heard Star Wars called “galactic fantasy”, which seems closer to the truth. But I’m going to go all literary theorist here and argue that Star Wars is best understood as existing in the tradition of epic myth. When I say “epic”, I don’t mean the scale of the action–though there’s certainly that–but rather I’m referring to the subject material, Over here at Wikipedia, an epic poem is defined as “a lengthy narrative poem, ordinarily concerning a serious subject containing details of heroic deeds and events significant to a culture or nation.” The article goes on to note that “[c]lassical epic employs dactylic hexameter and recounts a journey, either physical (as typified by Odysseus in the Odyssey) or mental (as typified by Achilles in the Iliad) or both. Epics also tend to highlight cultural norms and to define or call into question cultural values, particularly as they pertain to heroism.”

This isn’t surprising. Anyone who has spent time around Star Wars knows that George Lucas relied heavily on Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth theory, first laid out in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, especially the idea of the “hero’s journey”. Campbell’s theory is not universally accepted, but it’s fair to say that the hero’s journey as he outlines it has deep roots, at least in Western culture, and taps certain fundamental storytelling archetypes.

Here’s where I admit something that I’ve secretly thought for a while: Star Wars is a terrible example of world-building, at least as an alternate reality. I cannot look at the world of Star Wars and envision “normal life” or the like happening outside the frame of the film. I don’t believe any of the planets that are shown (e.g. Tatooine or Hoth) being actual places.

But that’s fine, because Star Wars isn’t trying to set up an alternate reality. Instead, it is creating a collection of environments as different set dressings to bring vibrancy to the grand theater that it is creating for us. Hoth isn’t really a planet; it’s an environment for our characters to stand on. Viewed from this angle, Star Wars does a fabulous job of creating archetypal environments for its characters to inhabit.

The characters are also archetypes. Luke, Leia, and Han aren’t merely interesting characters in a clever setting. Each of them are resonant with fundamental Western storytelling archetypes. Han is the Rogue and Trickster–thus the whole brouhaha about Han shooting first. Leia isn’t just a princess; she is The Princess. And Luke is the Chosen One, who follows a classic arc: starting in obscurity, his destiny is revealed to him by an ancient wizard (Kenobi) who gives him his father’s sword and ushers him onto the pathway of destiny, where he rescues the princess from the evil fortress and conquers the villain…at least for now.

This isn’t just the sketch of A New Hope; it’s a sketch of one of the West’s core stories.

The complexity and nuance of this story only increases with the release of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, by tying in the themes of family, temptation, sacrifice, dedication, and redemption. By the end of the original trilogy, we have received a story that has highlighted and celebrated a variety of cultural values, especially around heroism. Star Wars is our culture’s epic.

I think that it’s valuable to consider the prequels through this lens. If the original trilogy was about redemption, the prequels were about corruption. They had to be, and we all knew it. Rather than being a heroic epic, they were a tragic epic, again using the Greek definition: a hero overcome by his fatal flaw.

Consider that there are two tragic heroes in the prequels: Anakin and Kenobi. Kenobi is tragic, because he allows his dedication to his dead master to blind him to the emerging problems with Anakin. Anakin is tragic because his desire to love ultimately leads him to betray the Jedi Order and bring about so much evil.

I think that the prequels were attempting to set this up, but they failed in execution. I think that Lucas focused too much on the idea that his audience was children and therefore watered down what he was doing. Jar Jar Binks is the obvious example, but even the use of slapstick robots as the enemy reduced the dramatic tension of the story. And, yeah, the romance between Anakin and Amidala just wasn’t handled well.

The ideas were there. It could have worked. Instead, the prequels represent a flawed attempt to tell another epic on the same stage. It should have worked, but it didn’t.

That all said, I do want to defend the prequels by noting that they felt like another epic story. They felt like Star Wars, even when they were tripping over their own feet.

And this is what I think was missing from The Force Awakens: epic storytelling. Unlike the original trilogy and, to a lesser extend, the prequels, the characters in The Force Awakens did not hearken back to culturally accepted archetypes, nor did the storytelling highlight particular cultural norms.

Or, maybe this is a more precise way of stating the point: the culture from which The Force Awakens drew its archetypes had changed. The previous movies were drawing on archetypes derived from classic storytelling.

The Force Awakens derived its archetypes from Star Wars.

So, for example, I’d argue that Rey is intended to be a new Luke Skywalker character. She is cut from the same cloth: mysterious parentage, desert upbringing, Force empowered. She even wears the same kinds of clothing as Luke does in A New Hope.

There are other correspondences. Poe is the new Han Solo. Finn is arguably the new Princess Leia. There’s even a new R2-D2 in BB-8. We are supposed to read their characters through the lens of prior Star Wars lore and make these connections.

There’s another term for this approach: nostalgia. The Force Awakens is not an epic film; it is a nostalgic film. It is an attempt to recapture the original feeling of watching A New Hope for the first time while introducing the new characters necessary to extend the brand into a new generation. All the trappings are present, but the mythic power of the original is gone. And that makes all the difference in the world.

More on The Force Awakens and nostalgia

Here’s my next objection to The Force Awakens. Not only did the movie trade mythic power for nostalgia, but then it did failed to do nostalgia well. Let me explain what I mean.

When A New Hope came out, the slate was blank. There were no previous films or stories that needed to be honored. This was the beginning. By the time that The Force Awakens hits the scene, though, this is no longer true. There are six movies’ worth of previous story that need to be honored. Okay, if you want to leave out the prequels, then there are still three movies’ of previous story that need to be honored. And I don’t believe that they were.

Before I proceed, let me admit a couple of things up front. First, this is definitely where the nerd rage is hitting. Second, some of this is surprisingly emotional for me. In fact, I will organize the following section along those lines.

First, some nerd rage.

I know that The Force Awakens is trying to replicate A New Hope. However, this ends up producing nonsensical results. For instance, consider the entire political situation sketched out in the opening crawl of The Force Awakens. We have the First Order, which is the heir to the old Empire, doubtless underfunded and reduced to guerilla action in the wake of the loss of leadership and resources in the decisive Battle of Endor. Oh wait. No, it’s not. The First Order is depicted as having the same reach, organization, and power as the old Empire…somehow.

But no matter! The Republic, seeing this threat emerging, masses its sizeable fleets and goes on the offensive, crushing the upstart First Order before it can become established…or maybe instead, it’ll set up a guerilla group with a secret base, equipped with only X-wing fighters because…um…I don’t really know.

No, really! Think about it! How does any of that make any sense at all. The Republic won, remember? They are the government now, not the First Order. That means that they don’t need to lead an insurgency. They have an army! So why don’t they use it?

For that matter, to get really picky here for a second, why does the Resistance only send X-wings after Starkiller Base? I’m thinking that some B-wing bombers or Y-wing torpedo fighters would have been pretty useful, especially in attacking a fixed position like that. I mean, if you’ve decided to leave all your MC80 star cruisers home for some reason.

The situation simply doesn’t make sense, given what has come before. We know that the Rebellion was able to field a substantive armada at the Battle of Endor, and that’s while it’s still an insurgency. The entire Resistance strategy makes no sense at all.

Furthermore, I object to the ongoing withholding of information that the movie trafficked in. Despite its unfortunate clickbait title, this video outlines the issue pretty well. None of the previous Star Wars movies created tension by withholding information. Certainly, we were surprised by revelations (“No, Luke. I am your father!”), but we were not teased with hints that would be paid off in a later installment. Why aren’t even we told who Snokes is? Or why are we teased with Rey’s backstory? To put it bluntly (and a little petulantly), Star Wars isn’t Lost. Yet The Force Awakens seems to delight in dangling information just out of reach.

Now, I’m going to pivot into more emotional space. But this is fair, I think. Nostalgia is an appeal to the emotions by drawing on treasured symbols. So, it’s only fair to ask: how did The Force Awakens do at handling treasured symbols? We did get to see many of the previous Star Wars characters. How did that go?

Now, remember my own history. I am squarely in the target audience for this movie. The Force Awakens is hearkening back to the stories of my childhood. Add to this my prior discussion of the archetypal aspects of the original characters. The Force Awakens is conjuring with powerful magic.

And, in my opinion, this is perhaps the most profound place that the movie fails.

The last time we saw all these characters was at the victory celebration on Endor after the destruction of the second Death Star. Luke has become a Jedi. Han and Leia have finally figured out their relationship. The Emperor is dead, and the Empire is defeated. All is right with the world.

Until the beginning of The Force Awakens, when each one of these items is systematically destroyed.

Every single one of the original characters are failures. Luke has failed as a Jedi Master, so badly, in fact, that he has fled into exile. The Empire is resurgent, and Snokes is functionally a new Emperor. The movie is particularly hard on Han. He’s really only had two loves in his life: the Millennium Falcon and Leia. And, at the beginning of the movie, he has lost both of them.

What’s worse, these failures are off-screen. We don’t experience them as the story unfolds. No, we are just informed that all of these characters’ previous victories have been negated. Instead, we find the original cast as broken shells of what they once were. Even the droids are not immune, as R2-D2 has shut down in apparent mourning after Luke disappeared.

Everything fell apart in the gap between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens.

Yes, I know that there needs to be conflict for the story to exist. But the conflict could have built on the characters’ successes as they try to wage the peace. However, in their zeal to remake A New Hope, the filmmakers essentially undid all the previous characters’ successes.

Just think of that victory scene at the end of Return of the Jedi. Then think, “Meaningless. It didn’t matter.”

Because, remember, these aren’t “realistic” characters. They are archetypes. Negating their victories is like negating the “happily ever after” at the end of a fairy tale.

Or, for certain, that’s what it felt like to me. As I’m writing this, I’m discovering (a little uncomfortably, to be honest) how much this story is tied up in my identity. These characters have been a really big deal to me for a really long time. And, rooted deeply in these stories, is the simple idea that good prevails over evil through acts of love and courage.

But, according to The Force Awakens, apparently not. It was all futile. Which means that love and courage in the face of evil are futile.

I need to put in a particular word here about Han and Leia’s divorce, because this hit me particularly hard. In classic storytelling, a happy ending often includes a marriage. And that’s what you see at the end of Return of the Jedi. Sure, the marriage happens off-screen, but you know it will happen. And they all lived happily ever after.

Except that no one believes in that anymore, especially about marriage.

Divorce is endemic in our society. It’s gotten to the point that we’ve grown accustomed to it, like marriage is a long-term lease instead of a lifelong commitment. Broken families are becoming the norm, and the fallout is apparent in the children.

But still, our myths point towards something better. Towards lifelong fidelity and the beauty of family and childrearing. And yes, we all know that “happily ever after” takes a lot of work, but the stories hold up the ideal as something to be embraced, pursued, and achieved.

Even Star Wars adopted this view. I know that the Extended Universe has been ruled non-canonical, but it was really neat seeing Han and Leia try to work out how to be married and be parents. It wasn’t always easy, but they worked hard at being married.

But The Force Awakens destroyed that. No “happily ever after” for Han and Leia. And that hurt me deeply. It felt like a denial, at a fundamental level, of the possibility of wedded bliss for anyone. Because if the hero and the princess can’t stay married, what hope do the rest of us have?

Some thoughts from the real world

Okay. That got pretty heavy. In fact, you’d be forgiven for thinking that I consider The Force Awakens to be a conscious assault on my childhood. But that’s not actually fair to Disney. I understand that all of this is actually about brand management.

Here’s the deal. Despite everything I outlined above, Star Wars is not a cultural treasure held in the public domain, like The Odyssey or Shakespeare’s plays. Star Wars is an intellectual property, owned by a corporation, that intends on leveraging its IP for profit.

As an outsider observer, here’s what I see. Star Wars still has a lot of power as an IP. However, the perception is that brand loyalty took a serious hit after the prequels. So, in order to revitalize the brand, Disney needed to restore fan confidence. Making a seventh Star Wars movie makes all kinds of sense. There were always hints that there was supposed to be a trilogy after the original trilogy. By making this trilogy, Disney leverages this expectation, drawing a lot of fan attention. Then, by successfully executing on the first release, they lay the foundations for a host of other movies, including, of course, all the attendant merchandizing and the like.

However, the original cast members are getting old. So, for this all to work, Disney needs to introduce new characters for a new generation of Star Wars stories. Thus Rey, Finn, Poe, and the others.

Furthermore, Disney has already seen a lot of success with a shared cinematic universe in its Marvel superhero films. (Remember that Disney also owns Marvel.) So, they are executing the same strategy here. For example, there’s a new Star Wars movie coming out in December 2016: Rogue One. It’s not actually part of any trilogy. Instead, it’s a standalone story set in the Rebellion era of the Star Wars continuity, focusing on the spies that stole the plans for the original Death Star. There’s also a forthcoming movie starring a young Han Solo. (See this article for more details on Disney’s strategy.)

But it all hinges on the first movie out of the gate being solid. Have to get it right, or everything else collapses. So, given all the money that’s at stake, best to play it safe. A functional soft reboot of the franchise is a great way to get everything going. And, yeah, be sure to include a trench run, just like in A New Hope. The audience will love it.

I know that J.J. Abrams wasn’t trying to ruin my childhood. It’s just a series of business decisions that led to this approach to the story.

Which brings me to my last thought. I’ll admit that this is a bit unformed, but I think it’s worth consideration.

A while ago, I came across the article “On Geek Culture”. In it, the author argues that geek culture has become just another form of brand loyalty. Here’s an extended quote from the article:

Most alarming is that, almost exclusively, the media being so strongly identified with is corporate and ruthlessly capitalist in nature. Star Trek might present an optimistic and inspiring vision of the future, which any American liberal would like to see, but it’s a vision wholly owned and operated by CBS. Star Wars is now held by Disney and all of their attendant copyright shenanigans. So, too, is Marvel Comics — a company recently focused to an alarming degree on denying ownership rights to its content creators (watching comic book fans contorting themselves in order to justify continuing to support Marvel while admitting their favorite creators are left destitute by the company’s practices is depressing). Even Dungeons and Dragons — market leader in a dwindling cottage industry — is run by a subsidiary of toy behemoth Hasbro.

As a thought experiment, imagine brand loyalty that doesn’t have people nearly coming to blows over Doctor Who and Star Wars; think, instead, of the argument in question being over Disney and BBC. Or, for a starker contrast, instead of people dressed as Marvel characters at ComicCon, imagine Geico geckos or Progressive Insurance Flos. This is essentially already happening: what is Superman in the twenty-first century but a corporate mascot, albeit one with a lavish backstory? It’s no wonder that non-geeky media desperately tries to cultivate geek cred in the form of viral commercials or a presence at conventions. Having brand loyalty so intense that it can incite real or simulated violence would be a remarkable windfall for any company able to harness it.

The author’s premise wasn’t universally accepted. Indeed, there were a couple of responses (here and here) which are worth reading.

But it did get me thinking. Something seems a bit off in our current relationship with stories, if the primary influences that shape them are profit motive and not a desire to tell the truth.

In addition, are my fellow nerds and I being exploited for corporate gain? This is a subculture that has traditionally had a serious inferiority complex. Witness this music video to get an idea of what I’m talking about. But now, our interests have become mainstream. In our thrill of being accepted, are we being taken for a ride?

Or am I overthinking this one? “Corporate” doesn’t have to equal “evil”, right? And certainly, without a large bankroll, the quality and production values of movies would be less. I do still love a good spectacle.

Yet still, I’m left wondering if we’ve allowed ourselves to become merely consumers of stories and not producers. Surely our own communities, be they local or interest-based, could benefit from stories created for our benefit, and not merely for an outsider’s profit. Is it time to strike out on our own and make our own stories? And what would that look like?

Conclusion

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! I appreciate your willingness to read through my thoughts. I don’t know if I’ve managed to persuade you, but I hope you can understand my perspective on this matter. Honestly, now that I’ve finished writing this article, perhaps I can consider the matter properly exorcised from my mind, letting me move on to other things.

I do know one thing, though.

They should have just made Timothy Zahn’s “Thrawn” trilogy into the new Star Wars trilogy. That would have been so much better!

Thanks for reading.


For Further Comment: BATMAN V SUPERMAN Review: Zack Snyder’s Doomsday

A few days ago, I posted a link to this article about the new Batman vs. Superman movie. Based on a response or two, I wrote about the connection between Superman, father hunger, and the rise of American demagoguery. I was pleased with how it turned out, so I’m posting it here, slightly edited.

First, a disclaimer: I haven’t seen the movie Batman vs. Superman, never intended on seeing it, and probably never will. Also, Christopher Nolan’s run on Batman has spoiled me for any other Batman.

That said, I posted this review because it seemed well-written, especially regarding our ongoing inability to “get” Superman. I’ll totally allow that I find Superman to be a boring character, but trying to make him into a brooding character seems like a symptom of our cynical age. It’s like we can’t believe that someone that powerful could genuinely be good. Power must corrupt, right?

I would connect all of this with father hunger. So many of us learned early on that their dad couldn’t be trusted. And why should he be trusted? After all, he was a brute, or violent, or gone. That void festers in the soul, leading us to a fundamental distrust (or even active violence) against authority figures of any sort.

This seems to be what happened in Man of Steel (another movie I’ll admit I’ve not seen). Rather than Superman being a loving authority figure (i.e. not one of us), he’s remade into a wandering orphan (i.e. one of us). I think this is why a lot of the Superman fans I saw online really hated this movie; they understand that Superman is supposed to fill the void of father hunger, not be afflicted by it.

(As an aside, if you want to understand what Superman fans like about him, this comic seems like a good thing to check out.)

This whole issue spills over into our relationship with government and church. Sure, let’s allow that both institutions have managed in various ways to earn that reputation. Yet still, our adolescent kicking against any authority leaves us vulnerable to predators and demagogues, who fill that void in ways that are dangerous to us.

(Did I just draw a line from our handling of Superman to Trump and Sanders? I think so!)

Deep down, I think that we all struggle with two warring impulses. The first is the savage howl of victory, as we cast off our fathers in triumph, asserting that we will stand alone. The second is the plaintive cry of a child, wondering if Daddy is ever coming home. For some of us, the abandonment came first. For others, the bitter anger. But these two emotions swirl in our hearts, and they rush out at the oddest times.

Like, say, the release of a superhero film.


Art versus Product

Ever since I wrote my post on the economics of games, I’ve been thinking about the issues I raised. (Yes, apparently my writing is so good that it’s even thought-provoking for me.) In particular, I was thinking about my own approach to game design, which led me into thinking more about the economics of art, which led me back to the eternal question: “What is art?”

I don’t plan on answering that question. Or, at least, I don’t intend on offering an answer for the ages. However, it occurred to me that there’s a potentially helpful insight to be gained by considering this question from a certain perspective. It still won’t answer the question “What is art?”, but maybe it’ll help the artists out there who are trying to figure out how to make a living without “selling out”.

Let’s start there. What’s “selling out”, and why are artists so terrified of it?

I think the answer can be found in the idea of “artistic vision.” As an artist, there’s something that I’m trying to bring into existence that is, first of all, a form of self-expression. I’m trying to evoke some aspect of myself into the world. That slice of “myself” could be my internal emotional life, or it could be an insight I’ve had into the way the world works, or whatever. The point is that it is a part of me that I’m trying to externalize.

So, if I’m not evoking my own “artistic vision” and I’m instead implementing someone else’s vision, then I’m not being true to my art. I’ve sold out.

Does that sound right, fellow artists? It’s especially bad when money gets involved, because now you’ve prostituted your art for money. Of course, money lets you eat, which we all want. So how does that work?

But let me rephrase that mess more positively. You’re an expert, working with a client to create something for that client to use. You are in constant dialogue with the client, seeking to understand that client’s needs and ensuring that the item being created meets those needs.

Broadly, this is product development. But, really, what I’ve described is all the consultative professions: architects, industrial designers, software developers, marketers, and more. The same skills are in play; the only difference is the client.

In product development, the goal is to meet the needs of the client. In “art”, the goal is to meet the needs of the artist.

When I say it that way, it could be tempting to swing the pendulum in the other direction and accuse the artist of being selfish. But, really, I think that both approaches are valid. The world needs expert servants who can aid people with brilliant ideas and bring them into existence in order to serve the needs of the world. At the same time, the world also needs prophetic visionaries who evoke their insights in order to cause people to consider their souls.

It could even be the same person.

Now, the economics are going to be completely different for these two approaches. Given that money is the abstraction that we use to coordinate human effort, it’s not surprising that product development can easily earn money. Art is more…complicated. After all, the utility of a product can be measured in various ways: time saved, money saved, effort multiplied. The value of art is harder to define. After all, what makes your insight so valuable? It’s trickier to assert, which makes it harder to justify receiving money for it.

Which brings us back to the traditional way this is done: an artist “sells out” by using his skills to essentially create product for others, in order to earn the resources to express his own insights. This is true in our modern capitalist system, but it’s equally true in a patronage system like Renaissance Italy.

And, maybe, this isn’t a bad thing. Maybe it serves as a natural filtering process. It requires the artist to ask, “How valuable is this insight to me?” Enough that she’s willing to work hard elsewhere to birth its evocation? If not, then maybe it wasn’t worth bringing into the world in the first place.

(Now, this certainly doesn’t follow in its entirety. But maybe there’s something in here for all the artists out there–and the one writing–to consider.)

Anyways, this was an attempt to process these ideas out loud, so I don’t have a great summation. But, if nothing else, consider that maybe “selling out” isn’t always an act of treason to your art; maybe it’s an act of service to your fellow human.


For Further Comment: “Interstellar” — Christopher Nolan’s Ode to Love

This morning, I received an email from my father with a link to this article. I’ve geeked about Interstellar in his direction, so he knew this would catch my interest. He was right.

So, because this gave me a chance to geek about Interstellar to all of you, I’m going to use it for my inaugural “For Further Comment” post.

SPOILER ALERT: I’m not going to bother trying to dance around spoilers in this post. I’m not doing a plot summary or anything, but if you haven’t seen the movie, maybe stash this post until you do.

First off, the link to the article:

“Interstellar” — Christopher Nolan’s Ode to Love

Also, I should disclose my biases. I love the work of Christopher Nolan. I’ve watched every single one of his movies at least once. Yes, including the obscure Following. And, I’ve loved each one. Yes, including The Prestige.[1]

So, when I saw that a new Nolan movie was coming out, I was already on board. And when I saw that Nolan was going to do a science fiction movie…well, I was enthralled.

Here I should distinguish: when I say that Interstellar is “science fiction” genre, I don’t mean the space opera of Star Wars or the Star Trek reboot, as much as I like space opera. Rather, I mean that Interstellar is part of a long tradition that uses stories like this to grapple with philosophical issues. Make no mistake: Interstellar definitely makes the appropriate genuflections in the direction of astrophysics and other appropriate sciences, as it was actually inspired by the theoretical of Dr. Kip Thorne, a physicist who was also an executive producer and the science consultant for the film. However, Interstellar is chasing down ideas.

Someone has noted that science fiction stories are ultimately about one of two issues: human identity or humans’ relationship with their tools. Interstellar is about human identity: specifically, what it means to love.

In the linked article, Rick Phillips does a good job of outlining this theme of the movie and positioning it relative to the current zeitgeist.[2] However, when I left the theater after watching Interstellar, I was fascinated by its positioning relative to the science fiction tradition. It seemed clear to me that Interstellar is in dialogue with certain ideas that have threaded through SF, demonstrated most aptly by Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001.[3]

Okay, yes, yes, I know about the eight-minute long light show and the weird ending of 2001. But I stand by my designation of “masterpiece”. In its story, 2001 manages to address both prongs of SF: it sets forth a comprehensive vision of human identity in the context of humans’ relationship with their tools. Even if you haven’t seen 2001, you know about the crazy computer HAL. And what are computers, but the pinnacle of human toolmaking?

I consider 2001 to be an example of what I’ll call “transcendent science fiction.” These are SF stories that use the outer reaches of space as a stand-in for God/The Ultimate/Destiny/whatever. Danny Boyle’s Sunshine is another movie that would fit into this category, and I think that Ridley Scott’s Prometheus was trying to occupy this space, too, though not nearly as well. It’s the place where SF touches mysticism. And it’s definitely where Interstellar fits as well.

Here’s the thing. These stories often feel very epic in scale. For crying out loud, 2001 covers literally millions of years in only a couple of hours. And while there are characters at center stage, none of them are deeply engaged or even sketched thoroughly. Even Dave Bowman, the final survivor of the crew of the Discovery, isn’t a realized character. He is Everyman. He could be anyone. And that’s the point. The main character of 2001 isn’t any one person; it’s humanity as a whole.

And that’s where Interstellar is so very different.

Phillips phrases the theme of Interstellar in this way:

[L]ove is what propels human beings to sacrifice and provides a glimmer of hope for our race.

As wonderful as that statement is, I think that Nolan is being a bit more sophisticated than that. Because, after making that statement, Nolan asks a profound question: what is love? Is it just the sum of the evolutionary impulse to survive as a species? Or is love a transcendent force in the universe?

And you see both sides of this. The mission that is launched into space has, as its primary focus, the survival of the species. There are embryos on board the ship that are intended to be the first colonists of the new world. Humanity gets off the rock, even though the particular humans might not.

On the other hand, you get this great exchange, which I’m cribbing from IMDB:

Cooper: You’re a scientist, Brand.
Brand: So listen to me when I say love isn’t something that we invented. It’s observable. Powerful. It has to mean something.
Cooper: Love has meaning, yes. Social utility, social bonding, child rearing…
Brand: We love people who have died. Where’s the social utility in that?
Cooper: None.
Brand: Maybe it means something more – something we can’t yet understand. Maybe it’s some evidence, some artifact of a higher dimension that we can’t consciously perceive. I’m drawn across the universe to someone I haven’t seen in a decade who I know is probably dead. Love is the one thing that we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space. Maybe we should trust that, even if we can’t understand it. All right Cooper. Yes, the tiniest possibility of seeing Wolf again excites me. That doesn’t mean I’m wrong.
Cooper: Honestly, Amelia, it might.

“Love is the one thing that we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space.” Of course, all the interstellar travel and, well, astrophysical weirdness of the movie relies on gravity to transcend space and time. So, which is it? Is love or gravity the ultimate transcendent reality?

Or, put another way, is the physical realm all there is, or is there something more?

And I think that’s the point of Interstellar‘s weird ending. All the stuff about fifth dimensions and all that? Really just technobabble to allow a single reality to shine through: love brought Cooper back to his daughter.

2001 cares about the vast sweep of human history, but there’s not really any room for…you know…people. Interstellar ultimately insists that humanity in the abstract is less important than the particular humans that you love.

G.K. Chesterton seized on this theme when he wrote:

We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbour. Hence he comes to us clad in all the careless terrors of nature; he is as strange as the stars, as reckless and indifferent as the rain. He is Man, the most terrible of the beasts. That is why the old religions and the old scriptural language showed so sharp a wisdom when they spoke, not of one’s duty towards humanity, but one’s duty towards one’s neighbour. The duty towards humanity may often take the form of some choice which is personal or even pleasurable. That duty may be a hobby; it may even be a dissipation…. But we have to love our neighbour because he is there– a much more alarming reason for a much more serious operation. He is the sample of humanity which is actually given us. Precisely because he may be anybody he is everybody. He is a symbol because he is an accident. (Emphasis mine)

Science fiction can sometimes get caught up in the questions of caring for humanity while neglecting the questions of caring for our neighbor. Interstellar is a beautiful corrective to this trend.

[1]That one is for my brother, who understands why.
[2]Because it’s my blog and I get to drop words like this from time to time.
[3]If you’re interested in a truly fabulous analysis of 2001, I direct you to this website, which forms the foundation for my understanding of 2001.


My love letter to Leverage

Last night Crystal and I finished watching Leverage. For the entire time we were watching, I contemplated writing a love letter to Leverage. Well, now seems like a good time.

I like serious television.

That seems like a good place to start.

I’m not a sitcom kind of guy. I don’t want light, fluffy entertainment. I want stories that matter. If it’s too light, I’m not engaged.

So, while others are lauding How I Met Your Mother or Big Bang Theory, I’m turning to weightier fare.

The Wire and Babylon 5 are tied as my favorite shows. And please don’t make me pick. On the one hand, a story of an honorable man in dishonorable times (Babylon 5). On the other hand, a tale of organizational dysfunction, urban decay, and political critique (The Wire). These are shows that challenge me morally and ethically, force me to think deep thoughts, and to face the difficult parts of life.

They can also be seriously depressing. In particular, The Wire is populated with wonderful characters, but, honestly, some terrible things happen to them, and, really, do any of them actually win? (Just a few–a precious few–like Bubbles.) And, sure, that’s realistic.

But who wants to live in reality all the time?

Don’t you sometimes want a show that is sharp and intelligent but where good prevails, evil is vanquished, and it’s just…fun?

And that’s why I love Leverage.

You see, Leverage starts with a clear-eyed look at the villains of the world. Specifically, Leverage focuses on corporate evil and political corruption, those that manipulate the system and use the weak and powerless to gain money and influence. Insurance companies, banks, mercenary groups, pharmaceutical companies, big box stores–all these and more had their turn in the spotlight. Inevitably, some ordinary person gets in the way of the ambitions of the group or is harmed through their callousness. These are the sorts of stories that you don’t have to look hard to find in our day. They are the kinds of stories that get us angry, that make us want justice.

And that’s the beauty of the escapism of Leverage. It starts with real villains. And then, they get what’s coming to them.

So, each week, we see Nate Ford and his team of incredibly skilled con artists, hackers, and thieves take down these corporate villains, Robin Hood-style.

People like that… corporations like that, they have all the money, they have all the power, and they use it to make people like you go away. Right now, you’re suffering under an enormous weight. We provide…Leverage.
–Nate Ford

I’ve often said that Leverage combines two of my favorite things: crime and project management. This is because Leverage is a heist show. Every episode is like Ocean’s Eleven or The Italian Job, with clever plans, unexpected reversals, daring risks, and, eventually, sweet, sweet success. Along the way, you get to see very competent people being very good at what they do. Probably impossibly good, actually, but it doesn’t matter. Because they’re using all that crazy awesome to make bad people pay…and that feels so very good.

Also, Leverage is funny. Really funny. Like, I watch an episode and laugh out loud repeatedly. Snappy lines, situation comedy, recurring motifs (“Dammit, Hardison!”) and even the occasional playing with the fourth wall. Plus, despite the fact that all the characters are hyper-competent, they’re only hyper-competent in their areas. So, the times that Hardison (the hacker) ends up in a fight or Parker (the thief who is, admittedly, kinda crazy) is trying to con someone…well, hilarity ensues.

And then, on top of this, Leverage managed to unfold characters that transcended their base roles on the team to being full-fledged people that you actually care deeply about. So, Parker is the crazy daredevil thief, but she spent most of her life in foster care and has deep-seated fears of abandonment. Elliot is a one-man army, sure, but he remembers his blue-collar roots and carries the stains on his soul from a life of covert wetwork and constant violence.

Which means that the Leverage team isn’t just a group of quasi-super do-gooders. They are also needy, hurting people, who desperately needed each other. They start the show as loners, but together they become the family that they all needed.

Because, in Leverage, at the end of every show, everything is set to right, and the world is a better place for both the client and for the team itself.

And I’ve needed that in my life right now.

If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time now, you know that I’ve been struggling with depression for several years. And so, I knew I needed to spend some time away from “realistic” television. I needed something that would be happy and uplifting without insulting my intelligence.

And that’s what I found in Leverage.

One more reason to walk out of the dark.

So, I want to thank showrunners John Rogers and Chris Downey, actors Timothy Hutton, Gina Bellman, Christian Kane, Beth Riesgraf and Aldis Hodge, and everyone else who worked on Leverage. You’ve made something wonderful and beautiful and seemed to have a lot of fun along the way. And, as you did, you made something precious to me and made the world a better place.

And it’s not every day you can say that.

Thank you. Thank you for Leverage.


Stories and seasons

A long time ago, I told my children that we wouldn’t watch the Harry Potter movies until Isaac had read the books first. He didn’t have to finish them all, you should understand, but each movie would be watched only after Isaac had finished the relevant book. The goal was to encourage Isaac to dedicate himself to reading a longer book and to apply a bit of peer pressure. This was before we figured out that peer pressure doesn’t really work on Isaac (I’m so proud, and a little annoyed)….

Anyways, Isaac recently discovered audio books, and now we’re off to the races. All of this to say–

We watched Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban the other day.

Alfonso Cuarón directed this installment, and I found it to be appropriately arty. I liked looking at this version of Hogwarts a bit more than the previous Chris Columbus renditions. And all this has me thinking about Harry Potter again.

Harry Potter is part of a resurgence in young adult literature. It might even have been the leading edge of that resurgence. (I don’t know enough to say for sure.) A common theme of these new young adult novels is the “coming of age”, the point where a person crosses over from childhood to adulthood. It’s a powerful theme and one that is obviously resonant with the target audience. The Harry Potter series is an especially good example of this theme, executed fairly skillfully. Each book in the seven-book series is a single school year, starting with Harry as an eleven-year old kid and moving through his teen years to his becoming an adult and shouldering those responsibilities in the final book. Additionally, there’s almost an assumption that the target audience of each book is the same age as Harry in that book. This means that the subject matter continues to grow and mature with each installment, becoming deeper and, honestly, harsher.

Part of how this manifests is the gradual emergence of a backstory that Harry and his friends are initially unaware of, a story in which Harry’s dead parents figure prominently. Over time, Harry and his friends come to understand the sacrifices made by their parents’ generation and rise up to take their place to finish the work that they started.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is where this backstory really begins to leak into Harry’s life. This is the point where Harry begins to be exposed to the history that shaped his life, as the players in that history return into his life. This is the point where Harry begins to understand that his life is shaped by the choices of those who came before him, choices made before he was even born.

It’s a powerful moment in the story, and it’s a powerful moment in every person’s life, when you begin to see how you fit into a larger whole. It’s a big part of growing up.

And it totally didn’t engage me.

As we were watching the movie, I realized that the story wasn’t speaking to me. Again, I’m not faulting the execution. The story is skillfully crafted, and the film was a joy to behold. But the story is aimed at people in a different season of life than mine.

I have been recently revisiting a couple novels by Tim Powers that I read in my youth. Last Call is about the battle to become the mystic Fisher King, played out through bizarre Poker games and post-modern vision quests in the wasteland of Las Vegas. Declare is a Le Carré-style Cold War spy novel about a Cold War era struggle between Britain and the Soviet Union to exploit the power of the djinn that inhabit the Middle East.

I’m not even sure that these brief descriptions do them justice. And I’m realizing that I had absolutely no frame of reference to appreciate these novels when I read them twenty years ago.

Both novels have middle-aged men as their protagonists. Both of them have lived long enough to have made poor choices or have traumatic events in their past. Their current lives are not shaped by their parents’ pasts. They are shaped by their own pasts, defined by the wounds and regrets that they have already experienced. And now, their current choices are defined by an ability (or lack thereof) to overcome their own regrets about their pasts.

They are novels for an older audience, not for children on the cusp of youth but adults who have lived long enough to wonder if they can undo the damage they have done.

I’m not a young man anymore. No, I’m not old, but I have enough life behind me to have my own personal history, my own wounds, my own regrets. And right now I wonder if I will be able to overcome those regrets, or if they have to define me forever. These stories I am reading resonate with me, because they hold out hope that there can be more than my past.

At the same time, my older children stand on the verge of adulthood. They are emerging into a larger world and finding their place in it. And for them, Harry Potter is an excellent story, helping them to understand their own lives as they move into their futures.

And for that, I am glad.


Dance Party!

In one week, my family will be throwing our Spring Equinox Dance Party. This has settled into something of a tradition. On a quarterly basis (give or take), we have a dance party. You’ll find me on the decks, playing loud music loudly. Flashing lights, bubbles, fog…the whole nine yards. There’s an open bar and drinking and celebration. People stay up too late, talking about things profound and frivolous.

It’s a deeply spiritual thing, really. But perhaps I should explain.

In 2010, music saved my life.

It’s February. We’re just coming off the initial impact of the house fire that made us homeless for a month. Depression has me deeply in its grip, and I couldn’t shake it loose. Crystal was at a loss.

And DJ Hero was available for the Wii.

At some point, i’m going to talk about Rock Band, Guitar Hero, and DJ Hero as part of the “My Life with Games” series. For now, I’m just going to note that part of the appeal of these games is wish fulfillment. Most people want to be rock stars. That’s their wish fulfillment. For me, I wanted to be on the wheels of steel. Mixing and scratching seemed much more appealing than shredding on a guitar. No doubt this is the result of having been more connected to trance, techno, and other forms of dance music more than rock or metal.

Playing DJ Hero reawakened these desires.

Crystal saw what was happening. She knew that I wanted to begin to explore this new hobby. She knew that I was agonizing over the expense. She also knew that I was tired and lonely and depressed and struggling. So she did everything in her power to make this a reality for me. She researched color-changing LEDs for our front room. She pulled together funding for stereo equipment for me for my birthday that year. She pushed and encouraged me to pursue this new thing.

She wanted me to be happy.

I already had a significant musical collection that I’d built up over the years. But I started paying even more attention to the music around me. Somewhere in here I discovered dubstep and other bass-heavy music like Sub Swara. I brushed off my old trance tunes. I started casting the net wide and seeing what I could find.

And one night, we threw a dance party at our house.

I don’t remember the exact genesis of the first party. I do know that it was just the people living with us at the time. It just kinda came together. I played the music, and everyone else danced. Glowsticks were probably involved at some point, because the local dollar store has a constant supply, and, well, glowsticks!

It was a big hit. My children loved it and demanded more. And so, periodically, we would. Some of my children began to explore breakdancing, the better to bust out their moves at the next party. I ended up discussing music and the theory of DJing with a couple of my children. Traditions began to emerge, like ending every set with “Go to Bed!” by the Beatnik Turtles. Anthems began to develop, like “Eastern Jam” by Chase & Status, “Fireflies” by Owl City, “Jump Around” by House of Pain, or “Scatman” by Scatman John.

And then, the fateful day: we invited some people from outside the family to one of the parties. It went smashingly well. So, we started making it a habit to invite other people. And the guest list seemed to grow, and grow, and grow….

Each time we run this party, we experiment with a new tool. We added a moonflower light, a fog machine, and a bubble machine. This time, I’m going to see if my computer can play the music and run visualizations. That should be way cool if it works.

And each time I play out, I plan out the music I’m going to focus on. I assemble a pile of music that I will theoretically work with. (Like any good plan, this often goes out the window quickly as I try to adapt to what the people on the dance floor want.) In particular, I plan my opening and closing tracklists carefully. Starting off well is important. Ending well might be even more important. Besides, there are themes I’m wanting to weave into the music, and that’s where they usually live.

You see, I look at each of these parties as something deeper than just getting together and making noise. Each of these parties is a celebration. A celebration of being alive.

Each of these parties is another milestone on the long, slow climb out of the rubble of my former life. Each of these parties is a reminder, to myself if nothing else, that God has been good for the last season and that He’s still going to be good for the next season.

And so, every time, I’ll play the songs that express these truths to me. Songs like “Still Alive” by Lisa Miskovsky, “Meteor Shower” by Owl City, “Oh! Happiness!” by David Crowder*Band, or even “Dynamite” by Taio Cruz or “We Found Love” by Rihanna. Songs that tell me to rejoice that God is good and full of grace, that He brought us this far and that He will take us the rest of the way, that I should cease my striving and rejoice in the life that He has given me.

And when I say “rejoice”, I mean shaking the house with the bass while the room fills with people who showed up at my house to celebrate the same thing, whether or not they know it.

Our dance parties aren’t about drunken carousing. They are about declaring joy and celebrating life. In other words, they are about embodying the Gospel to anyone who wants to see it.

And if you can’t see the Gospel in a room of joyous people, you’re doing it wrong. Oh so wrong.

I’ve really been looking forward to the next dance party. The winter has been long, and I’m ready for spring. I’m want to jump around and celebrate, and I’m excited to be able to continue sharing this joy with as many as I can.

The party starts at 7:00 on March 22. And yes, you’re invited.


On the passing of an artist

Those of you who know my know that I love the local restaurant One World. It’s one of the first places I fell in love with after moving to Peoria. It’s one of the reasons I love living where I do, because it’s now in my neighborhood. I can, on a whim, walk down to One World and bask in the ambience, feeling all artistic and such. And, when the weather is warmer, I’ve done exactly that. I’ve met with friends at One World. Crystal and I have spent date nights at One World. We’ve had our business meetings there, too, planning household needs while eating hummus or salsa. Mmm….

Much of the delight of One World comes from the intricate yet offbeat wall paintings. Every flat surface seems covered with a mural of some sort. Some of the tables share the artwork. I’ve been going to One World for ten years, and the artwork still fascinates me. Much of it is odd trompe l’oeil, especially on the tables. One has a portal opening into the sky. Another has four compartments painted on it, filled with apples, and lifelike sugar packets painted on its surface. I sat at this table on Wednesday and found myself trying to brush those sugar packets away, constantly forgetting that they weren’t really there.

The artist who painted these delightful images is named Vin Luong. I’ve never met him, but he’s a friend of a friend. He doesn’t know it, but his work has delighted me for a decade.

On Thursday, Vin passed into glory. He was 46. It was sudden. Eight weeks of illness, from which he and his wife expected him to recover by summer. Instead, he is gone.

I have a lot of hangups. Just ask my wife, and she’ll tell you. I’m emotionally needy, and I’m willing to admit it. The recent issue for me has been circling around my artistic production. Namely, there hasn’t been all that much, and this bothers me deeply. If I’m not creating, I feel like I’m dying. But the passing of Vin has shaken this assumption.

I don’t know Vin, so I’m projecting here. But, if he had been given the chance to remain until summer before dying, would he have spent his last days on his art? Or would he have spent them on his wife?

Perhaps a better question: if I knew that I had only months to live, should I spend that time on my art? Or on my family and friends?

What value is my art, if I sacrifice my relationships to achieve it?

My art will not survive me. Though I die, yet I will live again. My art will pass away and be dust, but I will remain forever. And those that I love will remain forever as well. So, if my art, which is temporary, does not help others, who are not, it is valueless.

And yet, I do not want to devalue art. Vin’s art has filled my life with joy, and one day I will be able to tell him that to his face. I hope that my art is also of value to the people that it touches, even those that are past my direct reach.

And so, Vin, my brother, through your life and your death, you have taught me how to live and die. You didn’t even know that you were touching me, but I’ll tell you some day. I have a feeling that you’ll appreciate it. And, by the way, your art was amazing.

And for those left behind, I offer a prayer:

Lord of the quick and dead,
Who promises a resurrection to everlasting life for all who love You,
Comfort the friends and family of Vin Luong,
That they may trust in the beautiful salvation that You have wrought for all Your beloved,
Who will reign with You forever, the Living One, forever blessed.
Amen.


On a passing year and the beginning of the new

I’m writing this, because I need to exorcise this from my mind. I’m writing this in one take because I refuse to give too much time to the dark. This year is different.

I’ve loved “A Long December” by the Counting Crows ever since it came out. In 1996, it was my theme song. December of 1996 was my long December, and I haven’t forgotten. “A long December and there’s reason to believe/that maybe this year will be better than the last”. But, you know, sung without the level of confidence that such lines should inspire. There’s less of hope in that song and more of a desperate clinging to hope, that the worst is behind us–must be behind us–or else it’s too much to take.

Last year, God gave me another song: “Winter Song” by Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson.

They say that things just cannot grow
beneath the winter snow,
or so I have been told.

They say we’re buried far,
just like a distant star
I simply cannot hold.

Is love alive?
Is love alive?
Is love alive?

And in the music video, when the flower dies, and I wept when I saw it, because I was the flower, and was there anything left. And last year I played this song for my daughter, and we wept, and I promised her that it would be better. That this year would be better. That there was reason to believe that maybe this year would be better than the last. It was a desperate clinging to hope.

But it has. 2012 has been a better year.

And I look ahead to 2013, and there’s reason to believe, that maybe this year will be better than the last.

And that’s all the introspection I’m going to allow. It’s time to make the kaldomar and celebrate the coming of my Savior, who makes all things new. The dark is past; the light has come. Merry Christmas, everyone!


Alex Clare

Guys! Guys! Guess what I found!

Alex Clare–Too Close

First off, there’s kendo in my music video, so you can stay.

Second, after the epic swell at the beginning of the track, we settle into pop music/singer-songwriter territory. Which is fine and all.

Until 1:16. Then, suddenly, there are BASS WOBBLES IN MY SINGER-SONGWRITER!

And kendo!

*bliss*

Ahem. That’s all. Wanted to share the joy.