distal muse

observations, opinions, ephemera, and views


July 23, 2017

How Doctor Who’s Sex Change Explains Everything

Heavy sigh.

Seriously? People are getting exercised over this? I suppose these will be some of the same people who will come out in angry revilement if the next James Bond really is a black man.

There’s a certain space wherein this kind of angst is perfectly acceptable.  Private conversations with people who share the same interests and have Opinions about the condition of a favorite bit of entertainment and how it would be if certain changes were made.  Three or four of you get together over beers (or floats, depending) and pizza and spend an hour or two reconstructing the whole æsthetic as you would have it.  This is good, healthy use of imagination and the application of ratiocination over something that is fun and has no real impact on anything else. The relative merits of various incarnations of the Doctor (or Bond) is a legitimate question within the confines of a small subject relating to art and storytelling and critical appreciation.  Same kinds of questions apply when a reboot of an old film or tv show is in the works or when a dead author’s work is licensed out for new books.  We flex our gray cells and participate in a way in the creative process.  We can draw lessons from such interactions.

But when someone, like a John C. Wright, weighs in to tell us how this is all part of the feminization of civilization at the expense of masculine role models and that civilization itself is at risk because after 12 incarnations of a fictional character who is also an alien being several centuries old the people in charge decided to give a female version a try, and a cadre of spoiled, semi-privileged misanthropes go on a tantrum in agreement, condemning the change and anyone who might like it to the nether regions of Hell…

Get a life.

If you don’t like it, you don’t have to watch it.  You can go back and rewatch the umpteen seasons already available (you will anyway, probably). You have several options here.  You can even discuss—discuss, as in have conversation, engage discourse, exchange opinions—the merits of it among yourselves or others. What you don’t get to do is tell other people how they’re about to bring on the end of the universe because they like something you don’t.

Really, that’s going just a bit far, don’t you think?

This is the flip side of insisting that everyone must have an opinion about something, even if it’s something of zero interest to them.

We’re talking about art now.

The fact is, there’s room for all opinions, as long as we remember they are just that—opinions.

This is one of the places wherein we learn to play nice with people who disagree with us.

But a lot of people don’t know how to do that anymore.  Maybe they never did.  But they also never had access to such incredible amplification systems before.

At it’s base, though, this is what a certain kind of privilege looks like.  It’s taking a position that what I believe is the absolute Norm and anything that deviates from it is unacceptable.  We can’t have a female Doctor Who because it runs counter to the way I want the universe to work, and what is it with these girls anyway, trying to shove their way into something they don’t fit? They have perfectly good heroes of their own that are just as good as mine, so they should leave mine alone!

Sound familiar?  If it doesn’t, that may be symptomatic of the problem.

We see this time and again when a group previously thrown a bone by society asks for more respect and society, or the arbiters thereof, look at them like they’re being selfish and demanding something undeserved.  In reality, the most vocal opponents have been skirting by on the earned privilege of others for ages, and when according something like equality to a group that has never had it before is presented to them they realize, in their bones, that they just might not be able to compete on a level playing field and everything must be done to convince the world that everything as it has been is meant to be.  Because, damn, what if that group turns out to be better than us?

Well, tough. The fact is, fanboy, sitting there on your couch feeling one with the Superbowl Star because you bought the jersey and cheer the team and you are, somehow, the same as that quarterback because you both have testicles, you can’t compete with the standard model you already feel you own.  You don’t get to claim superiority because someone else can do all that shit that presumably only males can do.

Or white people.

This is instructive, really.  The response to the change came before the first episode aired.  Among those screeling anthrophobes so unhinged at the idea that the Doctor no longer has a penis (if “he” ever did, which is an interesting question in itself from a purely science-fictional standpoint, since the Doctor is Gallifreyan and may well have a completely different sexual arrangement) and now has, gasp, a vagina (again a presumption), it is not so much that they ever identified with the Doctor but that, on some level, they possessed identity because of the Doctor.

Here’s where I start to have problems with this whole process. Are you drawing inspiration from the idea of the role model—brains, ability, character traits—or are you hitching a ride on all that by hitching your ego to the one thing you don’t have to do anything to achieve to be “like” the role model?  To say “I want to be like that character” is to make a commitment, however small or temporary, to doing some work toward.  To say “I am like that character” because you happen to share certain physical similarities is to borrow a sense of self-worth that you haven’t earned.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with that as long as you keep it in perspective.  As long as you know that, really, you aren’t anything like that character but might occasionally pretend to be, in your own head, your dreams, or in a bit of cosplay, and you only pay homage because you think that character is cool.  Some of the cool might rub off.  But that fact is these things change.

How important is it that what may be the least important aspect of a character remain constant and unchangeable just so your shortcomings stay neatly hidden away behind an act of mental pretense?

None of this would rise to a level requiring a response had it not become evident that as role model, The Doctor has failed for these poor, disheartened misogynists.  Failed in that the essential message of the Doctor didn’t get through, didn’t translate, didn’t manifest.  The whole point of the regeneration, aside from need to explain all the new actors, is that what you are on the inside matters infinitely more than the plumbing. And no gender has exclusive rights to the interior. The Doctor moves from one incarnation to the next, changing, becoming different, yet always bringing along the most important things, which have nothing to do with anatomy.  In that way, inadvertently or not, the Doctor has been a role model for people, not boys.

Discussing narrative consistency, the needs of logical drama, the pros and cons of story and character arc choices, all that is one thing, and legitimate.  But that’s to do with the interior, because you already have a character who transforms from one person into another as an essential element of the interior.  Having already established that and had it accepted as part of the way this thing works, to go off on a tear when the transformation doesn’t conform to your limits is small-minded and disingenuous, especially when you couch your complaints in some variation of requiring a role model for gender identity when that was never an essential aspect of the character in the first place, mainly because it’s an alien.

In other words, the shock is all about you, not the character.  Quite possibly there’s always been an attendant fantasy about the Doctor getting it on with the Companions, which now becomes incommensurable with certain neuroses when it might be a female Doctor taking her pick of male companions—or, for the sake of consistency, still doing so with the females.  That opens a whole other door of unmanageable unfathomables, I suppose.  What, the Doctor not only a woman but a lesbian?  Or just bi?

But according to canon, the Doctor never did do that, and we have the fey thread with River Song to even suggest a sexual attachment, and she wasn’t a Companion, and—

Rabbit holes can be fun, certainly, but be careful that they don’t start in your own fundament.

Civilization will not end.  The Doctor will survive.  As for role models, the Doctor has been serving as one for People since the beginning.  This will be just more of the same.

And that is about all I have to say about that.

I’ve got some timey-whimey shit to think about now.

(Oh, the title?  How does all this explain everything?  Well, think about it.  Taking issue with things just to have a snit because you’re uncomfortable…well, look around.)

June 06, 2017

Uncle Joe

Now we know what it’s like to have Uncle Joe running things.

I’ve been watching, as has the world, the Trump administration unravel. I have to say, anyone capable of making George W. Bush look like an exemplary president has a degree of chaos in attendance difficult to comprehend.

But this is our Uncle Joe.  In charge.  You know who I’m talking about. Most families have an Uncle Joe, who shows up at family functions and proceeds to dominate discussion with his opinions on everything from the world series to nuclear proliferation.  He will sit there and tell you how if he were in charge things would be different, he wouldn’t let those people get away with this or that, he’d solve the Middle East problem thus and so, and Russia? Hell, they’d be all the way back within the original borders of the Duchy of Moscovy! Uncle Joe knows what went wrong with Cousin So-n-so’s marriage to that bimbo and didn’t he say all along that it wouldn’t end well?  Uncle Joe thinks PBS is too much a family business and its sole purpose is to provide “traveling money” to people who live large for very little work by doing “educational” programming, which always seems to be about something America did wrong to some group we never heard of or showcases these scientific know-it-alls who want us to believe in climate change and evolution. Lotta nonsense, you ask Uncle Joe. And what’s with that new husband of what’s-her-name and all his nose-in-the-air posing? He talks about wine like he invented it and books no one reads and you never hear him cuss, can’t trust a guy like that, doesn’t drink beer, reads all the time, and tries to be polite to everyone, what’s he trying to do, make us all feel inferior? Uncle Joe thinks they should level Jerusalem so no one can have it and nuke North Korea and what are we wasting time worrying about Syria for when everyone knows Iran wants to conquer the world! And don’t get him started on civil rights, my gawd, give them people the vote and they think they have a right to burn everything down they don’t steal first…

Uncle Joe. Everyone tolerates him because Aunt Phoebe has been with him umpteen years and she’s as sweet as could be, always telling us “he doesn’t mean anything by it, but since he retired, you know, just ignore him,” which drives Uncle Joe to even greater heights of pomposity and displays of ignorance, because the last thing he wants is to be ignored. So he doubles down until everyone’s nerves are ground to an emory thinness and when is this party supposed to end?

But Uncle Joe has his fans, kindred spirits who feel just as marginalized by the complexities of a world that constantly demands their attention and threatens them with obsolescence every day. Sycophants of all ages who feel overwhelmed by matters they find barely comprehensible.  Uncle Joe has it down, as far as they’re concerned, he has a good bead on it all.

And that new husband with the wine-savvy and the book-learning?  He’s some leftist, socialist, social justice warrior who wants to take their jobs away and make them feel bad for being Americans.

Uncle Joe—uninformed by anything more current than the Korean War and the SALT talks, wondering why nobody sings like Frank Sinatra anymore, convinced the EPA is only there to take everyone’s job from them, and the solution to everything is the Big Stick philosophy (which not even Teddy actually used)—is now in the White House.  We have been watching, waiting for the moment when things rationalize, when he takes off the Sunday barbeque façade and begins acting like he knows something about how all this is supposed to work, and what we are seeing is everything promised in the campaign.  In charge and making a hash of it all.  There will be no moment when he reveals himself to be smarter than the act he put on to get people to vote for him.  This is what he is, this is what we have, and even many of his supporters are beginning to wonder what they were on back in November.

He is proposing to take an axe to just about everything worthwhile in this country.  And for those who somehow believe that in the wake of the destruction they will be better off, that somehow the EPA, the NEA, the space program, education funding, Pell Grants, and the FEC are the reasons they don’t feel secure and are at risk of losing their jobs and that by getting rid of these programs they will get back what they feel they’ve lost, all I can say is—

Actually, I don’t know what to say to them that wouldn’t be just more salt in a wound they don’t know how or when they received.  They don’t know.  Anything I might say to them would just be kicking them some more.

What I will say is, the media and the government agencies responsible for the conduct of the networks and the licensing and oversight—there are laws regarding public service and equal air time which have been pretty much ignored since the aftermath of Watergate.  You have obsessed over lowest-common-denominator irrelevancies for so long you actually think it’s news.  Your obsessive attention to someone’s emails and Uncle Joe’s antics abetted this situation because you didn’t do your job.  When someone as odious as Glenn Beck publicly acknowledges that he did it all wrong and is sorry for his part in gulling the public and contributing to this mess, you all know you have failed.  Not all of you.  A goodly portion of the print media tried.  But they’re hamstrung by their Owners, who can fire them at will for not toeing the corporate line, a situation allowed by the greed is good politics we’ve wallowed in since Reagan. Most people get their news by broadcast and the overwhelming majority of you failed us.  You’re the journalistic equivalent of ambulance chasers.

So Uncle Joe’s in the White House.  And we’re getting a lesson in just how fatuously stupid Uncle Joe has always been.

I hope we survive the lesson.

September 08, 2016

50

I was eleven when Star Trek premiered. I’d seen the previews all summer, I was salivating in anticipation. Just from those minute or so clips it looked just so cool!

We watched the first episode—Man Trap—and disaster struck.

See, I was a somewhat “sensitive” child. I hate horror. I was prone at an earlier age to nightmares.  I recall a couple of times waking up screaming. Of course, I’d been like four or five. It had been years. But my mother was adamant about keeping me away from anything that would curse my nights and ruin their sleep. She was skeptical that this—this—Star Trek Thing—wasn’t just another monster show.  I remember trying to persuade her that, no, it’s about spaceships and other planets. No monsters.

Well.  What was the thing in Man Trap other than a classic scary monster?

I missed half the first season because of that shaggy critter.

We lived downstairs from my grandparents and I took to sneaking up there to watch it.  They had an ancient ANCIENT television, in a pale maple cabinet and a very low-res gun painting the picture on an old tube, so the picture was anything but sharp.

Even so, there was something about it that just took hold.

It is difficult sometimes to explain what Star Trek meant to someone like me that year. It was amazing. It was miraculous.  It was where we wanted to go.

Somehow, Roddenberry and his writers had constructed a thing that had life beyond the edge of the television tube.  We knew the Federation had length, breadth, and depth.  It had substance.  It was a place.  Not like anything else on tv at the time that could even begin to call itself science fiction, this was a universe and we knew it would welcome us in if we could just–just—kind of—maybe—slip in there, past the electrons, and sort of step through.

Of course, it did what written SF had been doing for a long time.  The difference was the medium.  I never knew anyone else growing up who was remotely interested in reading the books and magazines I did. Everyone watched television and more than a few watched Star Trek.

It embedded and evoked an idea of the world and life that extended beyond the ordinary in a way that far exceeded its primitive SFX and pasteboard sets and often mediocre scripting.  It wasn’t the individual episodes that mattered, it was the proposed future portrayed.

We didn’t have any of that stuff. Today we have a lot of it.

I saw the entire first run eventually, all in brilliant black-n-white.  We didn’t have a color tv till the latter part of the Seventies.

It didn’t matter.  I could close my eyes and see all the colors.

My dad, who had a problem with obsession, didn’t like my growing dedication to the show.  “Split your head open with an axe and a bunch of starships would fly out of it,” he would say, as if that were a bad thing.

Well, it wasn’t school work.

But today I’m a published science fiction writer, and I didn’t learn how to do that in school.

More, though, in some way the optimism and vision of Star Trek became part of my general make-up.  I think I’m a better human being because of it.

It was just so fucking wonderful.

Happy Anniversary.

We Prospered: Leonard Nimoy, 1931 to 2015

He was, ultimately, the heart and soul of the whole thing.  The core and moral conscience of the congeries that was Star Trek.  Mr. Spock was what the entire thing was about.  That’s why they could never leave him alone, set him aside, get beyond him. Even when he wasn’t on screen and really could be nowhere near the given story, there was something of him.  They kept trying to duplicate him—Data, Seven-of-Nine, Dax, others—but the best they could do was borrow from the character.

I Am Not Spock came out in 1975.  It was an attempt to explain the differences between the character and the actor portraying him.  It engendered another memoir later entitled I Am Spock which addressed some of the misconceptions created by the first.  The point, really, was that the character Spock was a creation of many, but the fact is that character would not exist without the one ingredient more important than the rest—Leonard Nimoy.

Spock IDIC

I was 12 when Star Trek appeared on the air.  It is very difficult now to convey to people who have subsequently only seen the show in syndication what it meant to someone like me.  I was a proto-SF geek.  I loved the stuff, read what I could, but not in any rigorous way, and my material was opportunistic at best.  I was pretty much alone in my fascination.  My parents worried over my “obsessions” with it and doubtless expected the worst.  I really had no one with whom to share it.  I got teased at school about it, no one else read it, even my comics of choice ran counter to the main.  All there was on television were movie re-runs and sophomoric kids’ shows.  Yes, I watched Lost In Space, but probably like so many others I did so out of desperation, because there wasn’t anything else on!  Oh, we had The Twilight Zone and then The Outer Limits, but, in spite of the excellence of individual episodes, they just weren’t quite sufficient.  Too much of it was set in the mundane world, the world you could step out your front door and see for yourself.  Rarely did it Go Boldly Where No One Had Gone Before in the way that Star Trek did.

Presentation can be everything.  It had little to do with the internal logic of the show or the plots or the science, even.  It had to do with the serious treatment given to the idea of it.  The adult treatment.  Attitude.  Star Trek possessed and exuded attitude consistent with the wishes of the people who watched it and became devoted to it.  We rarely saw “The Federation” it was just a label for something which that attitude convinced us was real, for the duration of the show.  The expanding hegemony of human colonies, the expanse of alien cultures—the rather threadbare appearance of some of the artifacts of these things on their own would have been insufficient to carry the conviction that these things were really there.  It was the approach, the aesthetic tone, the underlying investment of the actors in what they were portraying that did that.  No, it didn’t hurt that they boasted some of the best special effects on television at that time, but even those couldn’t have done what the life-force of the people making it managed.

And Spock was the one consistent on-going absolutely essential aspect that weekly brought the reality of all that unseen background to the fore and made it real.  There’s a reason Leonard Nimoy started getting more fan mail than Shatner.  Spock was the one element that carried the fictional truth of everything Star Trek was trying to do.

And Spock would have been nothing without the talent, the humanity, the skill, the insight, and the sympathy Leonard Nimoy brought to the character.  It was, in the end, and more by accident than design, a perfect bit of casting and an excellent deployment of the possibilities of the symbol Spock came to represent.

Of all the characters from the original series, Spock has reappeared more than any other.  There’s a good reason for that.

Spock was the character that got to represent the ideals being touted by the show.  Spock was finally able to be the moral center of the entire thing simply by being simultaneously on the outside—he was not human—and deeply in the middle of it all—science officer, Starfleet officer, with his own often troublesome human aspect.  But before all that, he was alien and he was treated respectfully and given the opportunity to be Other and show that this was something vital to our own humanity.

Take one thing, the IDIC.  Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination.  It came up only a couple of times in the series, yet what a concept.  Spock embodied the implications even in his trademark comment “Fascinating.”  He was almost always at first fascinated.  He wanted before anything else to understand. He never reacted out of blind terror.  Sometimes he was on the other side of everyone else in defense of something no one seemed interested in understanding, only killing.

I’m going on about Spock because I know him.  I didn’t know Mr. Nimoy, despite how much he gave of himself.  I knew his work, which was always exemplary, and I can assume certain things about him by his continued affiliation with a character which, had he no sympathy for, would have left him behind to be portrayed by others long since.  Instead, he kept reprising the role, and it was remarkably consistent.  Spock was, throughout, a positive conscience.

On the side of science.  I can think of no other character who so thoroughly exemplified rational morality.  Spock had no gods, only ideals.  He lived by no commandments, only morality.  His ongoing championing of logic as the highest goal is telling.  Logic was the common agon between Spock and McCoy, and sometimes between Spock and Kirk.  I suspect most people made the same mistake, that logic needs must be shorn of emotion.  Logic, however, is about “sound reasoning and the rules which govern it.” (Oxford Companion to Philosophy)  This is one reason it is so tied to mathematics.  But consider the character and then consider the philosophy.  Spock is the one who seeks to understand first.  Logic dictates this.  Emotion is reactive and can muddy the ability to reason.  Logic does not preclude emotion—obviously, since Spock has deep and committed friendships—it only sets it aside for reason to have a chance at comprehension before action.  How often did Spock’s insistence on understanding prove essential to solving some problem in the show?

I suspect Leonard Nimoy himself would have been the first to argue that Spock’s devotion to logic was simply a very human ideal in the struggle to understand.

Leonard Nimoy informed the last 4 decades of the 20th Century through a science fictional representation that transcended the form.  It is, I believe, a testament to his talent and intellect that the character grew, became a centerpiece for identifying the aesthetic aspects of what SF means for the culture, and by so doing became a signal element of the culture of the 21st Century.

Others can talk about his career.  He worked consistently and brought the same credibility to many other roles.  (I always found it interesting that one his next roles after Star Trek was on Mission: Impossible, taking the place of Martin Landau as the IM team’s master of disguise.  As if to suggest that no one would pin him down into a single thing.)  I watched him in many different shows, tv movies, and have caught up on some of his work prior to Star Trek (he did a Man From U.N.C.L.E. episode in which he played opposite William Shatner) and in my opinion he was a fine actor.  He seems to have chosen his parts carefully, especially after he gained success and the control over his own career that came with it.  But, as I say, others can talk about that.  For me, it is Spock.

I feel a light has gone out of the world.  Perhaps a bit hyperbolic, but…still, some people bring something into the world while they’re here that has the power to change us and make us better.  Leonard Nimoy had an opportunity to do that and he did not squander it.  He made a difference.  We have prospered by his gifts.

I will miss him.

 

Stop Shooting At Each Other, Please

I’m 60.

What this means for the purposes of this post is that I lived through the assassinations of JFK, RFK, and Martin Luther King Jr.  I watched the reactions of the nation on the news, listened to the discussions that went on constantly for weeks and months (and in many ways are still going on), and I saw my neighborhood change in anticipation of a kind of Armageddon.  I remember the summer of  1968 seeing many of my neighbors sitting on front porches and steps holding shotguns and rifles, some with pistols strapped onto their waists, waiting for the wave of rioters to come charging down the street.  St. Louis, it seemed, was ready.  Why?  Because we could see it on the national news, every night it seemed, that somewhere whole sections of some cities—Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, others—were burning.  Troops patrolled the streets protecting first responders (we didn’t call them that then) from the occasional sniper who must have thought it “cool” to take potshots in the midst of the chaos.  We could see what was happening and a lot of people had decided it would not happen here.

Very few people were talking about the why of it all.  It was tragic enough that the assassinations had occurred, but I remember many people being baffled at the reaction.

Roll back the years to the civil rights coverage in the South and many middle class whites in other parts of the country were completely stunned by what the police were doing to poor blacks.  We could see it, right there on television, and it was a shock.

But we were Doing Things to redress those inequities, weren’t we?  Wasn’t that what the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was all about?  It was going to get better, so why all this violence?  Couldn’t they see?

We didn’t ask, many of us, what it was we couldn’t see.  All many people knew was that laws were being passed, things were being made to improve, we were addressing the problems.  We saw that.

And then we saw the riots.

The gap between them was poorly filled if at all and most people, fearful, made so by the drumbeat of media coverage that concentrated on spectacular images and the sounds of outrage, reacted, often predictably, and many of them shut down their sympathy, barred the doors, and prepared to defend themselves and their property.

What was in that gap?

Everything of any consequence to the issues at hand.

Whole multiple histories of dysfunctional relations between segments of society that knew very little about each other beyond what was shown them by the media.  The meaning of King, which was not the same for everyone.  Simply the fact that his assassination and the subsequent explosions of civic unrest were not isolated incidents with no backstory, no connection, no justifications, no context.

Officer Darren Wilson, who was brought before a Grand Jury on the charge of killing an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, was acquitted by that grand jury.  Here is a link to the transcripts.  I suspect many people will not read them.  They will get their information from the media, from friends, from hearsay, from the gestalt through which they move, osmotically and coincidentally usefully, and mostly what was said at the grand jury will be regarded as unimportant.  Why?  Because minds were made up within hours or days of the shooting and likely will not be swayed by post hoc explanations.  Because there are two extremes, one of which says a cop can do no wrong in the line of duty and the other that says a cop is never to be trusted, and people fall along the spectrum between these two without bothering, often, to consider there might be a third set of determinants.  But because, really, it doesn’t matter so much why one white police officer shot an unarmed black teenager compared to the larger question of why the situation leading to that existed, occurred, and is now being vigorously shoved to one side by the institutions upon which we rely to explain the world to us.

And it just got muddier in the wake of riots.

Riots.  Why riots?

Didn’t we expect them?  Haven’t we been telling ourselves that this would occur for weeks now?  Haven’t we been gearing up for some kind of O.K. Corral showdown pretty much since the announcement that there would be a grand jury?  The new reports on people worrying over their businesses and homes, the governor calling out the National Guard, seeing businesses boarding up their storefronts in anticipation of the coming battle, acquaintances finding a way to leave town, the constant tension-building delays.  Sure looked like we expected what we got.

And the rest of the story?

We had no social media back in the Sixties, just rumor and gossip, phone calls, kitchen table discussions.  But it amounted to much the same thing—as soon as it became newsworthy that violence might occur, we primed ourselves for a fight.

Personally, I’m surprised it wasn’t worse, given the tempers and the artillery present in the streets and the weeks of stoking we’ve had.

And who actually rioted?

In my opinion, anything that constituted a “riot” occurred when the police began moving to shut down demonstrations which were till then peaceful when a few assholes decided it would be “fun” to brick some windows.  It doesn’t take much to push a seething situation over the line.

The mistake always made by the police is to treat everyone then as one of those destroying property. A conceptual homogenization occurs, devolving to Us and Them, and everyone falls into one of two categories, and both sides feel justified in their actions.  The “issue at hand” instantly transforms from where it started into something more primal, stops being about what everyone was there for to begin with.  The protestors find themselves moved from “we’re here to protest a civil injustice” to “we have a right to be here and do this” and the police move from “we’re here to keep order” to “we have to shut this all down now.”  The original message gets lost in the ensuing struggle over the new mandates.

And we have more footage for the evening circus of unruly people defying authority, etc etc.

We need to stop telling ourselves to get ready for fights that may not happen.  We need to stop pumping ourselves up in anticipation of the worst possible outcome.  We have to stop scaring ourselves.  We have to stop giving airtime to alarmists who call out the national guard at the drop of a hint.  We have to stop acting like the only solution to any problem is to shoot.

The lack of comparable media on the community and its problems is telling.  Certainly there have been some stories about the history of Ferguson and the nature of the disconnect, but they are far outweighed by the rhetoric of pain and the ominous forecasting of worse to come.  I’m encouraged in this instance by all the people and groups who are striving to put constructive information before the community, to promote dialogue, and address that all-important context, but people react most strongly when threatened, and there has been more than a little threat inherent in our media coverage.

St. Louis didn’t burn that summer of 1968.  There was trouble, certainly, but not that.  I don’t know why.  I do know that after that things began to change, across the country.  They changed sufficiently that I, as a not-particularly-observant white guy, thought we were getting past our national curse of racism.  I can’t deny that things today are much better than they were then, but the things that linger, that cling like a rotting caul to our collective psyché, I admit have surprised me in the last ten years.  Maybe it requires an oversized symbol to force these things into the open.  I’m ashamed of my own past fears and prejudices.  The nature of racist expression has changed somewhat and now seems to express itself more as economic distinctions than hatred of skin color, but the fear mongering we experience daily over questions of immigration and economic inequity and education and glass ceilings eventually eats away the camouflage hiding the real character of the problem.  We put a thick coat of paint on a house that still needs major structural attention.

But it would really help if we stopped telling ourselves to shoot at each other.

Pet Peeve

I don’t watch a lot of television.  Possibly more than I should, given everything I have on my plate, but I grew up with tv and have loved a lot of what’s been on it and it is, or can be, a great source of pleasure.

One of the shows I’ve been devoted to the last few years has been Castle.  From the first episode, I’ve been hooked.  Firstly, how could I not like a show about a writer?  And especially the writer as many of us dream of becoming.  Secondly, Nathan Fillion.  I mean, Firefly?  I was so happy to see him get a new show.  (And the fact is, if one pays attention, there are Firefly references sprinkled throughout the show.)  Thirdly, Stana Katic.  (I am hopelessly enamored of women with strong personalities and great brains—did you know Ms. Katic speaks five languages and often does her own stunts?  We don’t even have to talk about her looks, do we?)

The show started off with a smart script, tremendous wit, and immediate chemistry.  No one was talking down to anyone here and the ongoing back story involving Detective Beckett’s (Katic) murdered mother was written in just enough and brought to a satisfying resolution, if not conclusion.

It was obvious from the get-go that these two would fall in love eventually, which worried me, because so many shows have been ruined by consummation.  (Just look at Bones if you don’t believe me.  How sad.)  They wrote and played it marvelously.

When they finally decided to get them together, much to my surprise they didn’t ruin it.  Usually what happens is one of the two becomes submissive and suddenly we have “traditional male-female roles” playing out and it’s just so been-there-let’s-not-anymore.  Not so here.  They are different enough characters that they can remain equals without the kind of imbalance that might blow them apart.  Which still may happen.  They’re on their way to getting married now and the quality remains high.

So I feel a bit churlish about complaining, but I can’t help it.

Rick Castle is getting stupid as the show progresses.

Oh, he always pulls himself out of it by an episode’s end, but over five seasons he has gone from a very savvy, knowledgeable, well-informed, somewhat reckless amateur sleuth to someone who believes in woo-woo and is overly-cautious to the point of cowardly at times.  And after 30 bestselling crime novels, the rich pool of knowledge he had at the start of the show has sort of leaked out along the way.

The last show I watched, from last season, has him advancing with a STRAIGHT FACE the theory of a serial killer striking from beyond the grave.  Really?  Really?  This is as bad as people assuming because I write science fiction I believe in alien abduction.  It’s reinforcing a weird stereotype.

Oh, I get it, he’s the writer, so he’s supposed to be the romantic as opposed to Beckett’s supreme rationalist.  But I liked it better when he was the one the wild (but credible) theories opposed to her thorough and dogged policeman.

It’s even borderline sappy now.

I still love the show, I still think it has some of the best writing on network television, but it would be nice if they’d push Rick back to where he started.  This hasn’t yet ruined the show for me, he is still mostly an asset in the police work, but from time to time he’s implausible.

Meanwhile, I’m waiting for the Joss Whedon-scripted episode.  You know one is on the way, don’t you?  ABC take note.  Whedon, a Castle script.  Please?

The Last One

The last motion picture theater of my youth is gone.

For several years, The Avalon, sitting on Kingshighway, across the street from a mortuary that has now become a church, has been shuttered and slowly decaying and finally has met its inevitable fate.

In a way, good.  It has been an eyesore for some time, a constant reminder of neglect and a ruin of a bygone era.

Hyperbole? Indeed, yes, but true nonetheless.  As you can tell by what remained, it was an elegant, simple building, with a lovely facade.  A symbol of an age thoroughly gone—the single-screen, stand-alone movie theater.

The last film I saw there was back in 1986 or ’87—The Last Temptation of Christ.  The theater had passed into the hands of a single owner who was a bit of an eccentric, and he tried everything to keep it going.  He had a bit of a windfall with that film because of the timidity of every other movie theater in the city and county.  They all refused to show Scorcese’s flawed depiction of Jesus’ final days.  The Avalon announced it would screen it and it was no doubt the last time it had sell-out audiences for several days.

By then, the wear and tear was already very apparent.  One of the speakers had been busted for years, generating an annoying buzz off to stage left, and he had never, evidently, made enough money to fix it or replace it.  For ordinary dialogue it was fine, the buzz only became noticeable during very loud sequences.  Probably a torn cone.

But the air conditioning worked, the concession stand still operated, and the seats were kept in repair.

After that, we never went back.  When the doors closed, I expected someone to buy it and try to restore it, but I always thought that during the ’80s and ’90s, when so many of these disappeared one way or the other.

There’s a scene in Woody Allen’s film Radio Days that shows the family Going To The Movies during the 1930s.  In Allen’s handling, it is a reverential scene, like people going to church, slow, a processional, and while I never quite felt that way, there is certainly something of that in my memory.  Nostalgia often becomes a frame for reverence.  Going to the movies for us was a Big Deal and our major entertainment, up till the age of VCRs.  I have vivid memories of a childhood with many options for movie-going.  St. Louis was full of them.

A few of the buildings remain.  The ultra-modernist Martin Cinerama is still there, but it serves as a church now, which pains me.  It was the most expensive theater to go to, but it was the only Cinemascope screen in town.  I remember seeing Grand Prix there.  I also saw 2001: A Space Odyssey there four times.  But not much else.  We may have seen How the West Was Won there, but my more vivid memory of that was seeing it in our local theater, The Shenendoah, and being annoyed at the peculiar warp in the center of the screen where the wide Cinemascope picture had been compressed.

The Melvin is still there, but it, too, is a church, one of those little revival things that can barely support itself.

And of course The Fox is still there, majestic centerpiece of our threater district, and up the street a little bit is Powell Hall, which was once The American, a movie house of the grand tradition.

The rest?  All the stand-alone neighborhood theaters are pretty much gone.

The ones I spent my adolescence in were within walking distance, albeit long walks:  The Shenendoah, The Ritz, The Washington, and The Columbia.  I saw Gone With The Wind in The Columbia.  To be fair, that one is somewhat still there.  The building is, anyway.  After the theater closed, it was converted into a sports facility for a while, with handball courts.  It burned.  Now it is a private home, a showcase bit of architectural bravura owned by the architect.  I sometimes wonder how many people anymore know what it once was.

But the others are just gone, torn down.  Parking lots.  That’s also what became of The Granada, another of my favorites.  I remember when it was demolished, standing in the remaining space and trying to fit the immense theater of my memory into the claustrophobic area of the empty lot.  That’s another one I recall the last picture I saw in—Star Crash.  It rained hard that night, too.

The Granada in particular galls.  I knew a bunch of people, my age, who had formed a company to try to buy it so they could turn it into a revival theater.  The owner, for reasons that escaped us all, refused to sell, delayed and delayed, until one year the roof fell in and the building became a hazard.  The cost of renovation at that point was too high and soon after it fell to the wrecking ball.

The Ritz…yes, I remember the last picture I saw there, as well.  The owners had tried to convert it into a multi-screen venue, which sort of worked, but the crowd had deteriorated into a Roman mob and I was threatened with a knife in the hands of a ten-year-old I told to shut up.  The film?  Airplane II.

Not sure about all the others.

The litany is long, like absent friends.  The Crest, the Crestwood, the Ambassador,  all the Loews theaters, Midtown, State, another one that eludes memory just now, the Mark Twain, the Creve Coeur…

I remember the first time I went to a multiplex.  I didn’t know then that it was the wave of the future.  My dad took me to The Des Peres to see 2001, on a screen not much larger than a widescreen LCD you can put in your home now.  They were known as “Jerry Lewis Intimate Theaters” and we thought they were a joke.  Well.

Movie houses, as they were once affectionately called, suffered, I think, the demise of the B Picture more than anything else.  In an era where the cheapest Hollywood production can only be done for close to ten million, the need for box office returns simply will not support the way theaters used to operate.  Oh, there are certainly B pictures, but they go direct to television (cable) or direct to DVD.  No one is going to pay the cost of an evening at the theater for less than a major motion picture, so the bread-and-butter of the former age is gone.

I can understand, intellectually, what happened, and if I had been a businessman in the movie house business back then I probably would have taken the same series of decisions that has resulted in the current loss of what for many decades was an American institution.

Going to the movies is a social activity.  It’s not like gathering a couple friends at your home to watch a DVD.  It is a civilizing activity when conducted the way it once was.

One benefit of this, probably unforeseen (I didn’t see it), is the revival of live theater.  If you’re going to pay a lot of money to go be entertained, the novelty and impact of the stage is the thing that draws the audience.  Not, perhaps, large audiences—many local theater groups struggle—but devoted audiences, and this, I think, is a good thing.  Live theater is about the story, the characters, not the special effects.  At live theater, you have to pay attention.

I miss going to the movies.  We stopped doing it years ago because, frankly, it was just more convenient to rent the video.  The “pause” button has spoiled us, weakening out bladders, giving us opportunity to replay what just happened because we don’t pay as close attention as we used to, and avoiding sitting in a hall with people who don’t know how to shut up during the film.  It became expensive and a bother.

Now it’s a special event, something we might do once or twice a year.  (I have every intention of going to see John Carter of Mars at the theater.)  And, yes, there are still theaters—multiplexes, often in shopping malls (although that peculiar institution itself is struggling, so who knows what may happen)—and they are expensive.  Now we have OMNIMAX theaters, which, impressive as they sometimes are, is nevertheless part of an ongoing tradition in film to try to coax people to leave their homes and go to the movies, like VistaVision, Todd-AO, Cinemascope and a dozen others, all trying to offer people what could not be had on television.  The current revival of 3-D is such a gimmick.

Anyway, I thought I’d take some space to lament the passing of yet another monument from my youth.  The intersection where The Avalon once stood was home once to a remarkable piece of urban architecture, a Famous-Barr department store that, when it was built, was shocking for its modernity.  That’s gone now, too, a strip mall in its place with a Walgreens and an Office Max.  Around the neighborhood you can see the architectural motifs on apartment buildings and private homes that speak of a more optimistic, confident time—and, perhaps, a more thoughtful time.

Or not.  Nostalgia is deceptive and memory a dangerously mutable realm.  But there is still some comfort there, to go along with the melancholy.

 

April 26, 2011

Dead Stuff

This may be social suicide, but I’m going to say it anyway.

I don’t like zombies.

Not too thrilled with vampires, either.

I mean—hell, they’re dead.  Dead.  And motivating.  The contradiction alone is…

I am tired of zombies, though.  And vampires.

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In the last several months, I have picked up at least two novels I was very much looking forward to reading because their premises looked really cool.  I put both down because zombies got dragged into them, and I thought unnecessarily.  Zombies are cool right now, though, and apparently a lot of people like reading about corpses shambling around trying to eat the neighbors.  Never mind that they don’t seem to move very fast and an octagenarian with a hip replacement could outrun one, but…

Now, I liked Michael Jackson’s  Thriller.  I even liked the zombie dance in it.  I thought it was a neat twist on an old theme.  But it’s an old theme and while even I wrote a story that sort of dwelt on the possibilities of vampirism explaining certain religious rituals, it was a short story and I didn’t make a career out of it.

To be fair, I have never been much of a horror fan.  I don’t find having the crap scared out of me particularly fun.  Some do.  Certainly a lot of people in my life have had fun scaring the crap out of me, but that’s another story.  So I was never a wolfman fan or a mummy fan or a Dracula fan or any of that.  I could appreciate these things as one time motifs for a specific work of fiction, but to turn them into cottage industries…

I even liked Buffy, but not really because of the vampires and such.  I thought it was funny.  (And Willow was hot.)  Angel not so much.

I find the fannish obsession with dead things a bit disturbing.  Necrophilia is not healthy.  But each to his or her own, I say.  Not for me to judge.

But I do dislike it ruining otherwise good fiction because it’s, you know, trendy.

I wouldn’t mind having a good explanation for it.  I like to understand things.  Knowledge is power, after all, and even for the purposes of self defense…

Anyway, there.  I’ve said it.  I don’t like zombies.  And I would really like them not in what appear to be otherwise perfectly good steampunk novels that I would otherwise read with delight.

I do wonder how many others feel the same way…

April 14, 2011

The Future of Space Commercials (or is that Commercial Space…?)

This is very cool.  This is the promo video for the next generation of privately-built low-earth orbit heavy lifters, the Falcon Heavy from SpaceX.  What I like about this is, basically, it’s a commercial for a spaceship.  Appropriately weighty music track, great imaging, and the brag lines are like any other commercial for any other industrial product.

When I was a kid reading stories about the future of space travel, it didn’t occur to very many of the authors that there would have to be advertising to go along with their services.  One of the many things not quite gotten right.  Also, many of them were pretty vague about who was actually running the space lines.  Oh, some of them alluded to luxury cruises, which implied a Cunard-style commercial firm behind them, but it was not often put front and center, so you could be forgiven for believing it would all be government-run, financed, built, etc.

Well, one of the basic ideas behind NASA was always that it should be a research and development program to create the technologies that one day folks like Virgin and SpaceX would use to create private enterprises.  It looked for a long time like that was never going to happen.  Space travel is really damn expensive and the pay-back on investment is really long-term.  In the quarterly-statement cycle into which most businesses are locked these days, it seemed unlikely any visionaries would scrape together the funding to, you know, build it.  But that’s happening now, although sometimes it feels like a snail’s pace.  But it’s happening.  Who knows?  It might be less than a decade before a commercial shuttle starts docking at the ISS.

The commercials, though—that’s where NASA really dropped the ball back when they were a force to be reckoned with.  Heinlein chewed them out for not having a decent PR department and I still believe part of the reason they get so little support is that during the whole moon-landing decade, everything you saw on tv was boring.  (It’s unfair, I know, but consider it from the average 12-year-old’s viewpoint comparing the endless, static “simulations” of the Gemini and Apollo vehicles in orbit to any then-current SF show, like…Star Trek…?  What would you rather watch?  NASA bored themselves out of popular support.)

But it didn’t die and it’s still doing great cutting-edge stuff, but now it’s fulfilling the high-end expectations of its purpose and we’re getting cool stuff like SpaceX, Virgin Intergalactic, and others.  Ad Astra!

January 14, 2011

Other Buzzzzzzzz

I am not going to go see the new Green Hornet movie.  I knew that long before its release, when I heard Seth Rogen had been cast as the Hornet.  I just knew it would be a waste of everyone’s time, money, and sentiment.

I’m sorry.  Hollywood has been doing superhero movies now for decades and they’ve gotten a few of them pretty right.  Except for a ridiculous semi-musical romantic interlude, the first Superman movie with Christopher Reeve was fine.  Mostly this was due to Reeve and co-star Gene Hackman (who can save just about any movie), but they treated the material lovingly the whole way.  Subsequent versions, not so much.  In fact, by the fourth outing as Superman, Reeve must have been a bit embarrassed.  Clearly, the problem with sequels is that we’re dealing with material that was born to be a serial, and the best medium for that is television, not big budget cinema.  That said, a few of these aren’t so bad.  It helps not being immersed in the comic books to begin with (for instance, I was able to enjoy all three of the primary X-Men films without getting all worked up over the liberties taken by the studio that incensed many dedicated fans—except for a Baker’s Dozen back when I was 13 or 14, I did not follow the comics), but I can more or less enjoy many of these outings.  Have to admit, though, to date the Marvel franchise has fared much better.

But the Green Hornet is another matter and one of the things that Hollywood so often forgets is that the material must be taken seriously!

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These were the guys I grew up with.  Brit Reid and Kato as played by Van Williams and Bruce Lee, 1966 to 67.  The car especially, Black Beauty, really rocked.  Now, I saw these in first-run and haven’t seen them since, so doubtless they have dated and dated badly.  But my imagination took the original viewing and went amazing places with it, and that is the problem with a lot of these films.

No doubt the film-makers took a cue from the Iron Man movies.  There is a lot of humor in those films, but—the films are not humorous.  Tony Stark is funny, but funny within context—and with a lot of credit going to Robert Downey Jr. for just doing a tremendous job in the role—and that’s something film makers fail to grasp time and again.

For instance, the best Three Musketeer films ever made were the Salkind productions in the 70s with Michael York and Oliver Reed.  Great films.  And funny!  But funny as a consequence of the action within context—the characters themselves were not jokes, they were serious.  Much later, a third film was made, Return of the Three Musketeers, with the same cast, but something had been lost—they were turned into buffoons in order to artificially inject humor rather than letting it arise from the context, and it is painful to watch.

Long ago now Tim Burton made a Batman movie and cast a comic actor, Michael Keeton.  A lot of people probably moaned, fearing the worst.  But Burton treated the material seriously and Keeton played it straight.  Likewise in the sequel, but when Burton lost control Keeton bailed, and good for him, because the studio starting injecting jokes, much as had been done with the James Bond films, and taking the premise much less seriously, until they produced a truly foul film (one of the few I have been utterly unable to watch more than 15 minutes of).

Keeton, however, had done serious films before.  He had a reputation as a comic actor, but more in the line of Jack Lemmon than Seth Rogen, who has gone from one slapstick dumbshit vehicle to another, and apparently the studio opted to play to his strengths in that regard here.

I don’t like movies or television that rely on stupidity to carry the story.  That’s why I no longer watch most sitcoms.  Stupid is not funny to me.  The great comics knew that good comedy was not to make fun of people’s stupidity but to derive the humor from stupid situations.  Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp was not stupid.  Lucille Ball’s character was not stupid, either, she simply never knew enough to follow through effectively on her schemes, and the situation tripped her up.

That said, superhero stories walk a fine line between significance and the absurd.  I mean, really, these people are improbable at best.  It is all too easy to paint them as ridiculous or such utter fantasies that no real drama could result from their stories.  It’s difficult to write sympathetically, not to say powerfully, about people who are so much more than average.  And the scenarios!

But that’s what makes them iconic, because they achieved that balance and then some.  So you have to be careful when translating them from one medium to another.  In this instance, they clearly didn’t get it.

Now back to our regularly scheduled day.

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