Archive for May, 2010

1980 Redux

What follows is a partial reprint of my 2007 musings on the thirtieth anniversary of Star Wars (Episode IV, if you must). I banged out these thoughts while staying up late stressing about the impending birth of our twins, savoring the last couple of months of my own childhood. Ah, rites of passage. Sometimes they exist only in our sleep-deprived imaginations.

Given that we just hit the same three-decade milestone for Empire, the “second” installment, I’m revisiting some of those self-indulgent themes. A mildly interesting side note: I sent the Star Wars essay out as an email to several people, one of whom is a well-known television journalist. He replied that he enjoyed the piece, that he had just recently had breakfast with George Lucas, and that he was going to forward the whole thing to him.

I never heard anything more about it. Here’s the bulk of the essay:

What I most loved about Star Wars and other science fiction epics of that period were not the rushes of adrenaline they inspired—although these were plentiful enough—but the mysteries they presented. Such mysteries are best translated as: “How did they do that? How can I do it with my own puny, limited hands?”

Those are the questions an aspiring magician asks of a professional illusionist, who lives or dies by manual dexterity. A young artist, struggling to master a stick of charcoal, might ask the same of an accomplished painter. But today—and here’s where I become the lamenting, doddering dad—a filmmaker can do anything, conjure any creature, destroy an entire downtown, make a thousand spaceships perform dizzying acrobatics… without ever building or touching these things, using mostly a keyboard. The hand is largely removed from the equation. And so I have to ask: Can we call the modern maker of children’s films a magician? Or is such an impresario, so adept at shattering and rebuilding images in a split second, better compared to a destructive, self-indulgent god?

I’m no Luddite. I’m writing this message on a new laptop (thank goodness for tax refunds) and I love Pixar and Shrek movies. It’s just that… I think science fiction films have, sadly, “grown up.” They have lost their awkwardness, their naiveté, their tendency toward sweet misunderstanding. Which leads me to a much more effective way to think of Star Wars—how it began and what it became.

 The 1977 film was more than a magic show for kids.  It was a drawing rendered by a child, scribbled and splashed across the largest piece of poster board its precocious maker could find. It articulated the mysterious world of the artist, which is a world that (like the landscape in Harold and the Purple Crayon) must be simultaneously created and explored.

But its chiaroscuro of muted colors, its dimly lit canyons, its sad and quizzical objects trying desperately to glow in the dark—these have no equivalent in the “mature” Star Wars, the Star Wars of Luke’s parents. And that makes perfect sense, given what the more recent trilogy is about: not mystery, not illusions, but the real world. It’s the tale of a boy who grows up, falls in love, and gets married. It culminates in the death of his wife and the separation of his twin children. Don’t plan on it getting regular screen time at my house.

How did such a charming fairy tale get to this place? Little by little, of course. You may remember that Luke loses his hand in The Empire Strikes Back and must adjust to a sophisticated prosthetic. The wound is transformative, but it still lends itself to mystery, to the kind of cloak-and-dagger aesthetic the first film engendered. In fact, before the release of Return of the Jedi, my sister and I entertained the possibility that Luke’s lost hand could be retrieved. We thought the hand was the “other hope” foretold by Yoda after Luke abandons his spiritual training.

Although our theory wasn’t so far-fetched, considering earlier references to the “Clone Wars,” it now seems like the goofiest possible idea—which is why it would have been so great. But when the third film arrived, we saw that it was not to be. We watched the saga continue its lock-step toward adulthood.

Shrink from such interpretations if you must, but the fact remains: Star Wars, as a six-film progression of images, crossed a line. It re-focused its aesthetic to the point of gratuitous violence, veering away from a Campbellian sense of mystery.

In the climactic moments of the Star Wars cycle, Anakin Skywalker is carved to pieces in an effects-laden firestorm. This dismays me for two reasons: first, because of its gratuitous aspect—what we might call “maximized violence” or “non-narrative violence.” Basically, it is violence pushed to the pictorial limit, simply because technology allows it. The unfortunate result is a kind of bloody absurdity, strangely akin to scenes from Monty Python films or, more tragically, the real-world fiasco continuing in Iraq.

Secondly, the sequence negates another long-standing theory of mine. Like many kids, I often pondered the origins of Darth Vader’s condition, how he came to be encased in his armored shell. As I grew older and became familiar with the ideas of Joseph Campbell, I believed Vader’s physical state to be the result of protracted spiritual decay, a mysterious moral decomposition that had set in over time. As Campbell observed, one loses one’s humanity as the executive of an oppressive state.

“Campbell is so early-90s,” scoffs the latter-day sci-fi scribe. “Look, we’d love to work him in, but the computer guys are too busy hacking off limbs and marshalling armies. They need to create battle scenes crammed with tiny quivering figures and amphetamine-powered chase sequences that last too long. They need to make monsters coalesce from the digital ether in a single shot, eliciting not delicious suspense but cruel and over-played shocks. They need to smash cities in a way that reveals every conceivable detail as oblivion arrives. In short, they’ve got to produce lucrative arenas full of mind-shattering, eye-exhausting chaos.”

These kinds of images are not drawings from the inner child. They are photo-realist portraits of a cold and pitiless universe. While they may be faithful to today’s carnivorous world, they are also devoid of mystery.

Please don’t think I’m defeatist, or that my love of movies has gone sour. For one thing, I believe that George Lucas has more stories in him. Maybe he’ll even make it onto my son or daughter’s list of heroes. In addition, I know there are many other writers, directors, and artisans working today who have not fallen into the “digital-for-digital’s sake” trap. Pixar films, in my opinion, light the path. They are as computer-driven as can be, but they do not lead us into destruction. They honor mystery in the way all children’s stories should.  

And although I’m no linguist, I know that the word “mystery” has something to do with the old craft guilds of medieval England. It might be a corruption of “ministry,” which was another word for guild, but, more than likely, it is also related to the Latin “mysterium”—meaning a group one could join by initiation, most likely some kind of craft-producing organization. So it seems that the mystery plays of the Middle Ages were called that because people considered them to be “made” as well as viewed. What a wonderful idea with which to cradle an art form.

Let’s not throw the cradle out just yet. I ask a favor of you: if you have any influence at all over the making of movies—I myself have none—try to remember the value of the human hand and its ancient role in telling stories. If you can do that, you might help the next generation arrive at a more handmade society—maybe not literally, but at least in spirit.

That’s no call for Utopia. It’s just a plea from a father-to-be.

Thanks for reading.

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I’m about as Caucasian as a person can get. So I approach the work of black authors knowing, due to my different experience, that I won’t identify with some material. Perhaps this is a sign of under-confidence, but it’s the best policy I can come up with—a policy of honest reading, honest interpretation. Only white arrogance assumes that everything falls within its realm of understanding.

On the flip side, I should certainly try to understand what a challenging piece of fiction is saying. Recently I’ve been experimenting with a specialized critical filter that might help. This form of interpretation may come across as bizarre, obscure, or plainly inadequate, but it gives me a fighting chance at valid assessment.

Despite previous posts, I don’t reach for my “terminus myth” lens every time I encounter a gloomy drama. But I can’t help focusing it on Forest Gate, the debut novel by British-born writer Peter Akinti. A tragic portrayal of London’s transplanted African community, Akinti’s book follows young men and women who have grown up in government-built “estates”—urban compounds which stretch the definition of community to the breaking point. Cultural heritage aside, these angry first- and second-generation African-Britons carry only fragile connections to the past and even more tenuous links to the future. Many are bent on destroying themselves and each other. Like previous stories in my end-myth analysis, Forest Gate takes place in an environment that has turned on its own inhabitants, a world in which no god or guiding light remains.

Akinti draws his characters with such raw despair that the two suicides, one suicide attempt, and seven murders described in the book feel as if they should herald an all-consuming conflagration or a deadening spiral into oblivion. Indeed, distinguishing aftermath from trauma is almost impossible. One of the protagonists, a young black man named James, has survived a suicide pact. Ashvin, his Somali-born friend, did not. Struggling with this new, undesired lease on life, James develops a strange and frantic connection with Ashvin’s sister Meina, another of the novel’s multiple narrators.

Their shared misery compels them to move in together, with semi-delusional results: “As James walked through the hall, everything behind him turned into a blur,” writes Akinti in his on-again, off-again use of the third-person. He has James and Meina enact a blind domestic bliss, a way of playing house. For James, it is “the first time in a long while that he had felt safe.” What emerges from this homespun arrangement is something like love, but it flowers in such a hurried, erratic way that I find myself questioning its entire conception. Akinti goes on to render it in sincere terms, as if it is a true love, as if a suicide pact were somehow fertile ground for a healthy relationship.

The strongest sections of the novel come out of Meina’s musings over what she left behind in Africa, and these, seconded by the corrosive views of London, are what beckon my form of post-apocalyptic reading. Meina recalls not only the war zone of Mogadishu but also her parents’ arguments over how to keep militants from threatening the family and her father’s outspoken opposition to the brutal powers that be. Her memories make it clear that Somalia is an imploded world, and that she blames it, not her father’s activism, for eventually turning her and Ashvin into orphans. The big question is, does England represent a second life for Meina, or a second death? For her brother, the answer has come all too easily. Meina despairs too over the plight of other young black immigrants, who may be “right to disengage from the world” even if she herself offers them affection.

After an escape from London, James and Meina are pulled back into the swamp of slum life. News comes of the deaths of James’s five drug-dealing brothers—a murder-suicide at the hand of the oldest sibling. In the midst of rage and grief, James learns that the psychotic “5” (all his brothers are assigned numbers instead of names) had fathered a child. James, Meina, and Bloom—a white man who helped Meina and Ashvin emigrate from Somalia—make a last-minute journey to Brazil to find the boy.

Yes, new life miraculously appears, sending the narrative suddenly upward in its final pages. Life flowers again, but with such a jarring change it feels like flowers placed on top of a coffin. I wish my reaction to this denouement were warmer. As suggested before, perhaps my biases make sentiment feel artificial here, in which case, it’s my loss. On the other hand, maybe Akinti and I both lose. He has fashioned one of the bleakest portraits of the inner city a writer can envision, but in my view, he has also needlessly mitigated a powerful and much-needed commentary. I admit, I am curious, even fascinated, to know why. Would a tale that finishes closer to complete collapse, total decay, somehow miss the mark? Are unflinching realism and spiritual renewal truly compatible?

The ending isn’t all afterthought. It is prefaced by a modest degree of set-up, as James wrestles early on with decisions of whether or not to embrace life, and Meina fights to do the same after losing her entire family. For these reasons my “terminus myth” agenda only goes so far. The characterizations are by no means flatlined. Both protagonists transcend their deadly origins. Learning and growth take place, but in ways that don’t quite convince me.

I have mixed feelings as well about Akinti’s prose. It offers a wealth of granular scenic details and an occasional stunning image. London is the only environment James has ever known, and a sojourn to Cornwall doesn’t stop his unease—even at night, when “lying down felt like being inside a boat.” Riding the tube, Meina watches a woman “stuffing ragged pieces of meat in her mouth” and another “clutching an expensive handbag like it was an automatic firearm.” These are luminous passages, bordering on masterful. On the other hand, Akinti’s relentless barrage of sentences often falls flat. He describes “the crescent moon reflected on the sea, which altered with every shift of the waves.” It would be an odd sea that didn’t do that. And I wasn’t counting, but there are probably three or four dependent clauses in the entire novel. This is either a feat or a failure of cadence, depending on your point of view—or your personal biases.

Mine include certain assumptions about people who have survived the end of a world. After the destruction of everything one trusts, isn’t love, or any new emotional bond, an extreme rarity? And if you are going to tell a story about such a miracle, shouldn’t you invent language and story elements that make it believable? You must build the story with care, rather than rushing it, forcing it. Akinti has only partially succeeded in making this particular reader believe. But his work and his perspective seem to promise much more.

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Obsessing over stories about the end of global civilization gets tiring, so I’ll take a quick break from it and discuss something slightly less disturbing — semi-global environmental disasters. The BP oil spill has only made it more important to tell the story of how injurious fossil fuels have been and continue to be to our future. An excellent telling of that story comes from Josh Tickell, a documentarian from my alma mater, the FSU Film School. I don’t personally know Josh but his movie, FUEL, deserves as much publicity as it can get. Here’s a statement from the director:

“The oil spill that BP is accountable for that occurred on Earth Day of this year is getting bigger. Much bigger. According to an independent analysis done at the request of National Public Radio, the spill is more than ten times larger than the estimates that the company now known as “Beyond Petroleum” has publicly released. The estimate places the current spill output at around 70,000 barrels a day, which puts the potential total of this spill somewhere in the range of TEN times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill and may in fact qualify this as the largest oil spill ever in American waters.

“As you know, the FUEL DVD releases on June 22 across America. I advise you to get it on Netflix today so you can be among the first to see the amazing work that’s gone into this “whole earth catalog” of the green digital age.           

“In the spirit of the FUEL movement, I hereby publicly invite BP and its affiliates to the first ever, public screening of the FUEL film in New Orleans, Louisiana on the night of Saturday June 26th. This screening will be attended by national media and by a cadre of well known celebrities. The intention of this screening is to open a dialogue of collaboration. We have done such screenings all over the world with well-known environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, NRDC and Greenpeace as well as with representatives of local industries with whom there is traditionally animosity, but little true dialogue. The collaboration that results from FUEL screenings is often powerful, community building and transformational.  Go to http://tinyurl.com/246sb6f <http://tinyurl.com/246sb6f>  for more information.”

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What would an inversion, or a dark mirror image, of Campbell’s storytelling form look like? I’m not talking about anti-heroism, although some aspects of the anti-hero are certainly helpful to look at. I want to examine heroic qualities that play out in a downward spiral. In the Campbellian model, a hero transcends the limited world of his origins and, in doing so, renews that world. He struggles against forces which want to lock the world up (evil step-parent) or destroy it (dragon) and his struggle is always a means of self-discovery.

In the terminus myth, we are still presented with heroic actions and qualities, but the world is already destroyed and the overbearing parent keeps a strangle-hold on the hero throughout. This holdfast parent may even be so powerful as to take on the guise of the hero, as in The Road. Or the hero may spend the entire story trying to remain within the parent’s shadow or clutches. Very little self-discovery. Maybe none.

As I’ve suggested before, the actions of these characters always make sense. Just as the origin myth describes human or human-like actions at the beginning of the world, the terminus myth is telling us how people will act when the world is ending. It’s not preaching about the need to avoid such a fate, or about how to prevent it.

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Can I reconcile my interest in end-myths (or terminus myths, as I call them) with the basic tenets of this blog? I’d like to show how they aren’t mutually exclusive. First of all, my ideal of the luminous hand has nothing to do with anodyne or sugar-coated storytelling, nor does it exclusively promote “cautionary tales” or other politically activist narratives. By all means, my “About the Blog” page alludes to making a positive contribution to society, but the idea is to reach that goal through artistic truth, not proselytism.

An authentic terminus myth – The Road, for example – is no more a cautionary tale about nuclear warfare than Full Metal Jacket is a cautionary tale about joining the military. Neither story is told for the direct purpose of edifying the public. Yet, despite the darkness of their narratives, they are both fashioned with a luminous hand.

Likewise, not even the darkest of terminus myths will end in oblivion. Always, something rises from the ashes and the myth offers up (sometimes grudgingly, sometimes in a tacked-on way) a hint of renewal. Karen Armstrong would probably say that all myths, even those set in the “end of days,” must include the theme of renewal, because myths exist not to explain the world but rather to guide and better us. How this plays out in the terminus myth is something I’m still thinking about.

The boy in The Road, almost too conveniently, finds protection with a new family. At the conclusion of The Wire, the addict we have known for five seasons as Bubbles regains his birth name and a fighting chance at staying clean. Still, most of what that series shows us is the triumph of corruption, incompetence, and cruelty in the life of a city as well as the crash-and-burn ending of several careers. The Wire makes sure we understand the downward spiral of urban decay even as it allows a handfull of its characters to keep a light burning.

I wonder if a radically new form of storytelling might emerge if apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories were to completely overwhelm our culture (think of how many have appeared in movie theaters in the past couple of years). I have in mind a kind of inversion of the standard Campbellian formula. Again, more on this later.

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I have been thinking a lot about origin myths and their viability as stories, as per Campbell and the like. Of course, there’s nothing earthshaking about discussing the narrative aspects of myth, rather than the spiritual or religious. Like any story, a myth features flesh-and-blood (or nearly so) characters who face and overcome obstacles, earn empathy, and entertain listeners. This is more of a stretch for origin myths, it seems, but not impossible. Japanese culture offers some good examples which I won’t go into here.

What really interests me is the opposite of an origin myth — what I call a terminus myth. A terminus myth is similar to a destiny myth, but takes place in an environment of drastic, perhaps irreversable, decline. The Road is a terminus myth. So is HBO’s The Wire.

We should take great pains to distinguish myth from prophesy. Prophesies are political in nature, with the clear objective of controlling and punishing behavior that is deemed detrimental to a society. I do not envision the prophets of old spouting their predictions around campfires. Instead, they screamed and pointed fingers from irreproachable heights — temple roofs, city walls, mountaintops. The terminus myth has nothing to do with that.

A terminus myth does what any true story does — constructs a picture of human actions and emotions — in a setting that we find darkly fascinating yet are scarcely able to come to grips with. A terminus myth is not as much about “where we’re headed” as “what we will do when we get there.” I’ll be writing more about this idea in the days to come.

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