Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Why The New Star Wars Will Be Good

The new Star Wars movie is going to be good - like, really good. Maybe even great. At least, that is my hope and belief. My feelings are based on more than a just a fan's optimism, however. Here's why I think it will succeed where the prequel trilogy failed so miserably.

Reason One: female characters. Out of six Star Wars films to date, not one of them passed the Bechdel Test.* I don't think any of the movies save Return of the Jedi even had two named female characters with speaking parts. Along comes the latest trailer for The Force Awakens, and by itself, the opening voiceover passes this classic litmus. A small fact, to be sure, but this alone sets the new film apart from anything that's come before. I think that this is a very good sign, and I'm a big fan of stories with interesting and engaging female characters.

Reason Two: visual style. In some ways, the first Star Wars movie is the best: George Lucas was just out of film school, where he had studied luminaries like Akira Kurosawa and spent time with people who would become some of the great American directors of our time. That first film reflects an almost silent-movie ethic, in which the visuals and the editing are the central storytelling mechanisms. The subsequent films, however, moved away from that style of cinematic expression.

Now consider this short sequence from the trailer that gives a vignette of exploration - it is remarkably similar to Miyazaki's Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.

It's a simple setup, but it suggests a command of visual storytelling that was sorely lacking in the prequel trilogy. And its clear parallels to an artist like Miyazaki is cause for hope and celebration.

Reason Three: real sets. As Red Letter Media so devastatingly pointed out, you simply cannot make an exciting movie with nothing but a green screen (seriously, watch four minutes of this clip). From interviews and production stills, we know that the new film will not suffer from this defect.

Reason Four: genuine loss and emotion. George Lucas has never had a gift for dialog, nor has he ever been known as an "actor's director." The best-written Star Wars film to date is Empire Strikes Back, written by Lawrence Kasdan based upon Lucas' story. In that film, Kasdan and director Irvin Kershner conjured real humanity and feeling out of the light-hearted space opera.

So having Lucas out of the picture gives an immediate boost to the prospects of the film having a good story with well-written characters. More deeply, the latest trailer has some tight, expressive dialog and voice acting that give me chills. Finally, the themes of the three The Force Awakens trailers seem to be fear and menace, family and home, and the search for a history and an identity. These are powerful and timeless themes that fit well within Joseph Campbell's Hero With A Thousand Faces. If the filmmakers can deliver on the promise, the movie could surpass all expectations.

Reason Five: insiders, and especially the actors in the film, are already fans of this movie. Of course actors are professionals who are under contract to pitch the movies in which they star. But they don't do things like this or this when they aren't excited about the results of their work.

Of course, it still could end up being terrible. But if it sucks, I'll come back here and eat crow and complain. I always do.

*UPDATE: several smart people have pointed out that A New Hope does have two named female characters (Leia and poor Aunt Beru, who I had forgotten), and that Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones actually do pass the Bechdel test (though only just barely). I will simply point out that apart from Princess Leia, none of the female characters in the first six movies had much to do or much screen time. And with the exception of Leia, none had any character development whatsoever. So, however we score the previous films on the Bechdel test, from the trailers, The Force Awakens looks to be a big departure from the glaring lack of developed female characters in the Star Wars film franchise. Thanks to my old friend the Dutchman and to Manny Kant over at LGM for pointing out my omissions.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

A Few Thoughts About Mass Shootings And Gun Violence

1. I am not 'scared' of a mass shooting any more than I'm 'scared' of being struck by lightning or 'scared' of being hit by a car. I want to do something about mass shootings (and other gun deaths) because they are preventable and tragic and unnecessary.

 2. Jeb Bush made a good point when he said, "stuff happens, there's always a crisis. And the impulse is always to do something, and it's not necessarily the right thing to do." That's a fair quote, but he's being attacked for the first part and not the second, which is unfortunate. The problem with what he said is that in fact, we know that good, effect policies exist that can and have effectively addressed the problem of mass shootings and other gun violence. Doing nothing is only a tenable position if there is nothing more that can be done. That's not the case with gun laws to address gun violence.

3. I have a difficult time understanding people like NRA president Wayne LaPierre, neurosurgeon-cum-presidential candidate Ben Carson, Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, and Douglas County, Oregon Sheriff John Hanlin, who call for more guns in the wake of a gun-slaughter. It strikes me as an extreme form of fear-mongering. "Better get a weapon or next time, they'll get you."

4. But more basically, haven't any of the above heard of friendly-fire? Have they not seen the myriad stories about accidental shootings? My only answer to these questions is "yes, they absolutely have." Which means that they are disregarding their own answers to these questions because a) they are pandering to gun-culture, b) they believe that the blood of innocents is a price that must be paid, or c) both. All of which are personally appalling.

5. Blocking funding to study the problem of gun violence is a particularly grotesque form of cowardice.

6. My last thought: the conversation about guns always seems to drift into the need for personal security. To me, genuine security looks like this:

And not like this:


And definitely not this:

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Rest in Peace, Part II

My brother generously added me as a co-author on his blog about six months ago. I haven't been able to work up the gumption to write anything for it since, though. I never imagined that my first post would be the eulogy that I wrote for my mother's memorial service. But here it is.

In my mom’s obituary, my brother described her as a “conspiratorial grandmother.” It’s funny that he used that word, because, in reflecting on my mom, it’s the very same word that came to my mind.

In my mom, the grandchildren in our family had a natural ally and coconspirator in the long struggle against a common enemy: parents.  Cookies for lunch; waffles for dinner; staying up past bedtime; binge-watching inappropriate shows on Netflix: At Grandma’s house, all things were possible.

And it wasn’t just her grandchildren, either. My mom had a special affinity for all kids. She relished their humor—the more scatological, the better. She adored being goofy with them. And she treasured sharing her love of books and reading with them.

Many of you know that my mom was a garage sale and thrift store aficionado. She put these skills to use in tracking down anything we could possibly need, and many things we didn’t—tiaras, parasols, all manner of dress up clothes; entire wardrobes of regular clothes; art supplies; toys; and so many beautiful children’s books.

I swear I never bought a single Barbie, but somehow it seemed like we had thousands. And when the girls decided that they needed a Ken—apparently a fairly rare commodity at garage sales—grandma tried to help them create one out of one of the many superfluous Barbies we had lying around. I won’t say much about that other than that it’s my understanding that it involved the use of fire and it wasn’t very successful.

It didn’t matter, though. The girls were delighted to see grandma strike yet another blow against the tyranny of parental correctness. More importantly, they absorbed the underlying message: grandma would do anything for them.

The truth is, even as I publicly deplored these shenanigans, I was secretly delighted too. The incredible relationship between my daughters and my mom has been one of the principal joys of my life.  She entered into my daughters’ feelings and daily concerns as fully as I could myself. She was their strongest advocate.  It comforted me to know that she was always in their corner, even—or especially—when I was not. I knew that even if there were things they wouldn’t talk to me about, they could always talk to their grandma. It breaks my heart that they lost her now, when I feel that they need her the most.

And she was an integral part of our daily lives. We talked all the time, got together all the time. She was an indispensable part of so many family outings and road trips. After she discovered an aptitude for texting, we could count on witty one-liners and random asides throughout the day.

What I’m trying to say is that losing her has blasted a gigantic hole in our lives. We are standing in the middle of a crater, still dazed and blinded by the events of the last month, and we can’t even comprehend the edges of it. All we can do is try to fill it with love for each other.

I’m not a particularly religious person. But one religious sentiment has always resonated with me: “God has no hands but these hands.” Over the past month, I have been so humbled by my mom’s friends, neighbors, and extended family coming forward to help care for my mom and for us.  In your ministry to us, I saw each of you come cloaked in the mantle of the divine. And I am so very grateful for everything you’ve done. Without you, we could not have brought my mom home to spend the last few days of her life surrounded and cared for by her family.  And thanks to the stories and memories you’ve shared, I have also come to know my mom better even as I ached to hear her voice. As I try to make sense of a world without my mom, I will always remember how much she was loved by all of you. Thank you for that gift.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Rest In Peace, Mom

Note: I gave this eulogy at my mom's memorial service earlier today. 
I am your child
Wherever you go
you take me too.
Whatever I know
I learn from you.
Whatever I do
you taught me to do.
I am your child.
And I am your chance.
Whatever will come
will come from me.
Tomorrow is won
by winning me.
Whatever I am
you taught me to be.
I am your hope.
I am your chance.
I am your child.
Mom heard the petition of this children's poem, and she heeded its call. She parented as if everything was at stake. And everything was: she was a single woman with four children. She had a son with cancer. She faced the loss of her own mother. She had no money, no job, no direction. But she overcame all of this adversity: she graduated from nursing school… and built a full and happy life for herself and for all of her children. She poured everything she had into providing for us and our futures. But what did we know about that.

In 2008, after I got divorced, I lived with my mom for a time, while I got back on my feet. She was the ideal roommate: quiet (-- hard to believe, I know --), clean… she kept to herself when I didn't want company, but she was right there when I needed someone to talk to. I learned a lot about mom as a person that year.

So one evening, I came home and asked her about her day. She flashed me her knowing smile and replied: "today while I was seeing an amputee, and tending to his infected stump, the dog was sniffing my crotch. I look over at other side of the bed and I see a mouse crawling up the bedspread, and the cat isn't doing anything about it. So I say to the woman, 'there's a mouse, how come the cat isn't doing anything about it?' and the woman picks up the cat and throws it at the mouse. In the meantime the amputee has shit the bed."

Such is the life of a nurse. In that last year before she retired -- the year I lived with her -- mom, a twenty-seven year veteran who was turning 65, worked Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day, all without incentive pay. She was actually scheduled to work the entire Christmas weekend, but had to call in sick -- which she never did -- because she couldn't get out of bed.

And it occurred to me that this was her *every day* while I was growing up. When you are a child, you cannot conceive how hard your mother works. All of that noise, all of that chaos, all of that hard, hard work - she shielded us from it. We lived inside of her protective armor. All of our pedestrian worries about homework, sleep-overs, clean uniforms… these seemed like the biggest problems in the world to us. Meanwhile, outside of the bubble in which we lived, mom fought real demons: financial hardship, cancer, unsafe neighborhoods, unfair labor practices. And she did it always with a wry and confident smile on her face.

The poem reads, "tomorrow is won by winning me." You did it, mom. I am your child -- and I am very proud to say so.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

What He Said

I've been reading a lot of LGM lately because those guys (and gals!) are smart and funny and have a lot to say about stuff and things. Today I read this piece which pretty much deflates any pretense that there's a good-faith effort going on right now in Indiana to preserve religious liberty:
The assumption on the right is that liberals... don't support religious freedom like we did back in the 90's. They're not entirely wrong about that, but it's an incomplete view about what has changed. Insofar as liberals changed their minds about the proper scope of religious exemptions, they didn't do so in a vacuum, they changed their mind about it because the context we're now in -- facing an utterly shameless political movement that treats any conceivable political tool as fair game to achieve its political ends -- is just simply not the kind of environment that fits well with an expansive approach to religious exemptions.
As the cool kids say, go read the whole thing.