Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Star Trek TNG Take Down. . .

Today I’m introducing a new feature, which I’ll run every so often on Wednesdays: the Star Trek TNG Takedown. Basically, I’ve been watching a lot of STNG and the daffy liberalisms are swelling my brain. So I’m going to poke a few holes in their goofy world, because there are more things in Heaven and Earth, Jean-Luc, than are dreamt of in your contradictory and nonsensical philosophy!

Today’s takedown involves the episode “The Survivors,” from Season 3. This episode begins with Jean-Luc and the weepy ship Enterprise responding to a distress call from a Federation colony on Delta Rana IV. As they arrive, they discover that the entire planet has been devastated (and not in a good way), except for one square little patch of land.

Ignoring the fact that destruction on that scale would rob the planet of its atmosphere, the crew beams down to discover an AARP couple, Kevin and Rishon Uxbridge, two retired gangsta rappers. We soon learn that Kevin is not what he appears to be. Indeed, it turns out he’s a creature called a (Maureen) Douwd, an immortal energy creature who describes himself as a being “of great conscience.” Uh huh. . . if you gotta tell people what you are, then you probably aren't.

When Jean-Luc queries Kevin about what happened, Kevin tells him that an evil race called the Husnock attacked the colony. Kevin didn’t join the other colonists in defending themselves because he thinks of himself as a pacifist. But when he saw Rishon killed, i.e. when this war affected him personally, he abandoned his pacifistic principles and wished the Husnock into the cornfield. . . all of them. Yep, peaceboy killed 50 billion men, women and children. But don’t worry, they were all bad.

Well, peaceboy turns himself over to Jean-Luc for punishment. And what does Captain Inconsistent do? He whines that Kevin has suffered enough, and he declares “we have no law for what you’ve done.”

WTF?? Are you kidding me?!

Have you ever looked in a law book Jean-Luc? I’m pretty sure in the section “crimes against humanity” (a liberal favorite), you’ll find a little thing called “genocide.” Indeed, you’ve whined about this law before whenever someone wanted to kill a “race” of robots or a unique machine, plant, animal or mineral. . . or eat the last cookie. Kevin is a citizen of the Federation, putting him under Federation jurisdiction -- an issue Jean-Luc rarely lets stand in the way of one of his self-righteous speeches -- and he admits killing all 50 billion. So how about it, Jean-Luc? Slap the cuffs on this space Hitler!

Sorry. Not this Jean-Luc. Oh no. This Jean-Luc thinks Kevin’s “suffered enough.” Really? I don’t recall Jean-Luc (or any liberal for that matter) ever accepting such a defense to a crime they truly despised. Nor does Kevin appear to be suffering as he’s simply recreated his wife, his house and he’s having a good old time continuing to live his life.

What we have here is classic inconsistent liberal justice. Jean-Luc, who loves to throw around the word “genocide” to show his moral superiority to all the people he’s "not" judging, suddenly can’t bring himself to say the word when he’s faced with an honest to Q genocide because he likes Kevin and he feels bad for him. Or, more accurately, he feels like he would feel bad if he were Kevin. He never once thinks about the 50 billion slaughtered aliens, nor does he investigate what really happened here. Maybe they came to arrest Kevin for buggering their sheep? Doesn’t matter, Kevin seems honest. . . apart from his lying to Jean-Luc throughout the episode and his mental battery of Troi. Besides, what’s 50 billion rotting corpses among friends?

Is this justice? Hardly. Jean-Luc whines about justice, but when faced with implementing it, he defaults to an arbitrary rule where he decides right and wrong based on his own whims at the time. And far from implementing any sort of universal justice, he only looks at one side of the equation, i.e. he only considers how this will affect the guy he sees before him. He doesn't think about the victims or the message this sends to the future or to other would be sheep buggerers. How is that justice?

Why have laws at all?

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Friday, September 24, 2010

What's Wrong With Black And White?

I often wonder about black and white films. Filming in black and white was a real art form. Some directors were masters at it. . . others weren’t. Since they didn’t have color, they had to use shades of gray and shadows to convey depth and meaning. And often the results were really impressive. Indeed, many times the images produced were much more striking than color films could achieve. But the thing about black and white is that it’s not my preferred way to watch a film, and I don’t understand why.

I like black and white films, I really do. My list of top 50 films certainly includes a good number of black and white movies. But I admit that watching a black and white film is not my first choice when it comes to picking a movie. I don’t know why this is. My first thought was that this was just because of the era from which these films came. Indeed, between the censorship boards, the more simplistic story telling techniques, and the often stage-like acting, I thought that maybe the problem was one of content?

But then I realized that I would be even less interested in a modern black and white movie. Indeed, for the one or two modern black and white movies that pulled it off, there are a dozen more where this gimmick just turned me off completely. And if you told me that you planned to make a black and white film today, I would probably lose interest in the film at that point.

So maybe the problem is in the black and white itself? Maybe it’s the fact that it’s only “half an image” when movies that include the “whole image” are readily available? But then how do we explain the draw that black and white photography has? And if it is only a problem of being half an image, then you would think that colorizing would have made these films complete. . . but that atrocity only robbed these films of their charm.

In the end, I suspect that the problem with black and white is that it’s become like literary classics: we don’t see them as “entertainment” anymore so much as historically, culturally or educationally significant. Thus, they fall into the same category as Shakespeare. And while I love every word Shakespeare wrote, he’s hardly my first choice of what to read on a lazy afternoon. For that, I look for something “entertaining.”

And that of course begs the question about 3D. Right now, 3D is a gimmick, but it’s becoming a reality. As they develop 3D televisions that don’t require glasses, look for 3D to replace 2D across the board. At that point, all the films we’ve known over the past 60 years will seem as strangely dated as black and white seems today. Will they suddenly seem less entertaining as well?

It's hard to imagine that a film like Predator 2 might one day be seen as a "classic." But then, I'm sure people felt the same thing about Invasion of the Body Snatchers or pulp noir films.

What do you think?

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Friday, September 10, 2010

Film Friday: Deliverance (1972)

At first blush, Deliverance is just the story of four guys who go on a river rafting trip that goes horribly wrong. . . kind of the 1970s version of the modern hillbilly-cannibal slasher flick. But if you dig deeper, it’s actually a social commentary about the changing relationship between modern man and nature. It’s also the movie that solidified two ultra-negative stereotypes that have come to dominate how many Americans see each other today: hicks and elitists.

** spoiler alert **

Based on the 1970 novel Deliverance by James Dickey, the John Boorman directed film is the story of four Atlanta businessmen (Burt Reynolds, Ronny Cox, Ned Beatty and Jon Voight), who go rafting on the fictional Cahulawassee River in rural Georgia. The river is being dammed and will soon disappear, taking several communities with it. As they start down the river, they encounter a group of people who live in backwoods conditions. Toothless, dirty, and with little understanding of the world beyond 1930, these people become the enemy for the four men as they fight for their own survival.
Hillbillies v. Elitists
There has always been a tension between city folk and country folk. But until Deliverance, that tension wasn’t really as nasty as it’s become. Consider the portrayal of country folk in films like The Grapes of Wrath, Sergeant York or any number of films about the American South. Country folk were seen as simple, yet decent people, with a few bad apples in their midsts. At the same time, city folk were typically seen as bright, but impersonal and often yearning to return to the simpler life.

When told that his character "Toothless Bob" would need to rape another man, Herbert "Cowboy" Coward (with the shotgun) told the director: "I done worse."

Deliverance changed all of that when it create highly negative stereotypes for both groups. Instead of yearning to reconnect with the land, the four Atlanta businessmen are seen as condescending elitists who think they have the right to mistreat and ridicule the hillbillies. They see the hillbillies as a subspecies of humanity and are happy to let them know it. Thus, Reynolds goes so far as to insult these people to their faces, showing that he believes he can act with impunity to these inferior creatures. Beatty acts similarly, particularly pointing out their inbreeding, though he is more cowardly and thus talks about them only when he thinks he is protected by the group. Cox doesn't insult them intentionally, but he shows his condescension in the way he treats the hillbillies like children and is shocked when they demonstrate competence. Only Voight treats them as human beings. From this comes the stereotype that urbanites are cowardly and condescending types who see themselves as superior to ruralites and who feel they have the right to mistreat these people and impose their will on them. This has become a widely held stereotype in rural circles.

On the other hand, Dickey/Boorman’s hillbillies are dirty, inbred, toothless people who favor banjos, stills, shotguns and sodomy. This stereotype has easily overtaken the more noble view presented in the past. Indeed, the line “I'm gonna make you squeal like a pig. Weeeeeeee!” has become so infamous with urbanites that all you need to say is “squeal like a pig” and people who have never heard of this film know exactly what you mean.

Neither the hillbilly nor the urbanite stereotype is generally accurate, though there are people who fall into these categories (I’ve met both kinds). Nevertheless, these stereotypes have become so strongly ingrained in the American consciousness that people genuinely believe this is what they will find in the other, alien environment, i.e. small town or big city America. Indeed, the relationship between rural and urban America has probably never been worse than it is today, and these two stereotypes play prominently in explaining why that is. Deliverance is the movie that solidified these stereotypes.
Modern Man v. Nature
But there is more to Deliverance than sodomizing hillbillies. At its core, Deliverance is a movie about how these four distinct modern men handle their ordeal. And therein lies the social criticism and the real interest in the movie.

Three of the men represent distinct archetypes of the modern city-dwelling male. Burt Reynolds represents the throwback. He’s a man who worships sports, hunting and all things physical. He longs for the challenges presented by nature because they appeal to his primitive nature, and he disdains the modern world. He is aggressive, violent and acts without thinking. Ronny Cox is the polar opposite of Reynolds. He represents the modern intellectual. He can see all sides of every issue and is paralyzed by his inability to settle on a course of action. In the civilized world, he probably holds significant power, but his skills at handling theory count for nothing in the wild. Ned Beatty represents what happens when man loses touch with the physical world. He is fat and soft, weak and cowardly. His total surrender to modern convenience has made him helpless. Finally, Jon Voight, the fourth, represents the bridge between them. He is physically capable without being the beast that Reynolds is. He is smart, but in a real world sense rather than Cox’s theoretical sense. And he enjoys the creature comforts, though he has not become dependent upon them as Beatty has.

What they endure becomes a test of these archetypes, a test which all but Voight fail. Reynolds fails because his aggression brings on all of their problems. He alienates everyone they encounter, foreclosing any chance of getting help from the locals and fostering the suspicion that isolates the four. Moreover, his aggressive disdain for the weak Beatty makes teamwork impossible, leading to the two canoes splitting up, which makes them vulnerable to being attacked. Beatty collapses in a pool of his own helplessness and loses his manhood as the self-emasculated Beatty’s fate is to be sodomized by the hillbillies. Cox becomes paralyzed with indecision because he can’t pull his head out of the world of theory long enough to come to grips with the real world. His rather symbolic fate is to die when his head disappears beneath the water. Only Voight is capable of rising to the challenge.

And within this formula, Dickey lodges several criticisms. First, he argues that the throwbacks are the cause of our problems because of their mindless aggression. . . an argument made by elitists today. But he also argues that the intellectuals cannot help us because they can’t come to any conclusions on real world issues. . . an argument made by middle-Americans today. He also argues that modern humans have become so dependent on the comforts of the modern world that they would simply die if left in nature. . . an oft-repeated criticism that has become more and more valid as obesity rates rise and reliance on the internet takes off. And in the end, he tells us that the solution is to be as Jon Voight -- stay in touch with our physical natures but don’t let them dominate us, use our minds but don’t lose touch with the real world for some theoretical existence, and enjoy the comforts of the modern world but don’t become dependent on its conveniences.

These are themes that touch a nerve in modern America, where we are quickly losing touch with nature and what it takes to survive away from our modern conveniences. This is why the past forty years have seen concerns about the Alan Alda-ing of America, why ridiculous camps have appeared for males to “rediscover” their primitive side, and why such an animosity has arisen between city dwellers and country folks. We are living in a moment where our relationship to the natural world is changing significantly and it’s not clear yet how it’s all going to turn out.

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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A Chicken In Every Pot, A Gun In Every Film. . .

I don’t find guns fascinating. I do appreciate them and their role in guaranteeing our freedoms, as well as their power to protect the weak from the predatory. But on a personal level, I don’t like them OR dislike them. They are a tool, much like a hammer, a spoon or a power mower, and I don’t have any strong feelings for my tools. But I am getting sick of seeing them in every movie.

This issue actually first came up for me about 15 years ago, when my German grandmother was paying us a visit. After a couple weeks, she suddenly said that she wanted to see a movie that didn’t include any guns. Hmm. At first, I thought this was just German anti-gunism. But it wasn’t. Her point was that every single movie we watched included guns, and she wondered why there were no American movies without guns. No big deal right, I'll just pop in one of them there non-violent films. But guess what?

As I looked at the movies we had on DVD and what was on television, I was amazed to discover that EVERYTHING had guns in it. The action flicks obviously involved guns, as did the westerns and the war flicks. No brainer there. Crime stories? Yep, them too. But what about science fiction? Hmmm. Guns as far as the eye can see. Comedies! Surely comedies are by and large gun free, right? Nope. Comedy after comedy included guns in some capacity. Dramas? Them too. Heck, even the chick flicks occasionally toss in an armed robbery moment.

Now I’m not saying there aren’t movies without guns, there are. But the selection is much smaller than you would think. And many of the movies that you would think wouldn't include guns, do inject them: Airplane had one, so did Vacation, so did Ocean’s 13, as did Legends of the Fall, Beethoven, Back to the Future, Wall Street, and Titanic. Here’s an incomplete but extensive list of guns in movies: Click Me. (Believe it or not, your best bet to find a movie without guns is in the horror genre.)

Why is liberal Hollywood so obsessed with guns that they need to inject them into everything, even films that don’t need them? Would we be better off as a society with fewer films including guns? Probably. Monkey see -- monkey do, after all, and it probably doesn't help that liberal Hollywood solves all conflicts with gun play. But even if it doesn't change society, can't we at least get a break from this? Can't more movies find more creative ways to generate or resolve conflict than reaching for the old warm pistol? We wouldn't accept it if every film involved a knife fight or a briefcase full of money, so why do we ignore the gun-crutch?

Like I said, I have nothing against guns, but this is becoming ridiculous.

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