Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Look at Life from "The Mahabharata"

"Now take care," said Krishna. "Maya mixes his blessings. Let me lead the way."

The Pandavas followed Krishna up the stairs. "Is it dangerous?" asked Arjuna.

Krishna replied over his shoulder, "Not exactly, but..." With a crash Krishna walked straight into a closed door of clear crystal, and stood back rubbing a bruise on his head. "See? That's the sort of thing not to do..." Krishna was pushing at the door. Then he gave up and went to a smaller doorway next to it. "I'll get in, or else!" He stepped up, pushed, and fell right through.

Krishna lay on the beautiful floor. "Well, come in. There is no door here, just empty air." (Buck, p.88)

Buck, William. Mahabharata. Berkley: University of California Press, 1973.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Drive-In Movie

I went to a drive-in the other night. I used to see a decent number of films at the drive-in, often low budget horror and fantasy films. I wish something similar was on the bill this time around.

The Skyway Drive-In is in Fish Creek, Wisconsin in Door County. It is a throwback, one of the few drive-in's still in operation. It has radio sound, so it sounds better than the speaker you hang on your window. It has that option, but no one was hanging anything (till after the show). A lot of people sat outside and turned those speakers up. It seemed to work pretty well.

I'm not sure why, but sitting in your car watching movies is pretty cool. It's private, and sort of surreal. People walk by and the shadows they cast, as well as their floating dialogue, dampened by the insulation of the car, makes it a sort-of-scary fun summer activity. Scary because while you're in the car, it's hard to tell exactly what is going on outside. It's sort of like telling ghost stories. Corny, but fun. A little creepy. For some reason, summer holidays make me think of Stephen King novels. The drive-in did too.

The concessions at the Skyway were great. They offered a stellar candy selection. They showed old cartoon ads, such as aliens coming down to buy popcorn, and cartoons announcing how many minutes till showtime. Before the first film, they played old Fifties tunes. Again, corny, but fun. And a little creepy.

When I was younger, it was all fun. I would have to bring pajamas and a blanket - I could never make it through a double feature without falling asleep. And I have to admit, it took some effort this time around. Which may be due to the quality of the films I saw.

Films I remember seeing at the drive-in when I was younger? "Dr. Doolittle", "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory", "Capricorn One", "Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger", "Food of the Gods" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Special Edition". OK - a few good films (Willy Wonka, CE3K:SE and Sinbad - if you don't appreciate Ray Harryhausen, move over to the next blog), one decent kid's film (DD), one bad, but fun horror movie (FotG) and one I really don't remember (Capricorn One - I think OJ Simpson was in it - and it's probably pretty bad, but I think I liked it when I was a kid). All in all, at least these were fun. All of them had their creepy moments as well. To go along with the fun, drive-in atmosphere.

The Skyway was showing "Mamma Mia" and "The Dark Knight".

Let's start with "The Dark Knight". It was the second film, so I was getting a bit sleepy. It was OK. I don't see a need for my humble, in-depth thoughts on the biggest film of all time, except to say: I like my heroes to be good, and I like to care, one way or another, about the characters in films. There weren't many to care about here. And it was dark, really dark - and though the drive-in, starlit night may have had something to do with that - it was also not much fun. Interesting and complex, but ultimately, I'm just not one for the dark reality comic book heroes.

But - it was way better than the first film I saw. "Mamma Mia". Oh mamma mia, why? I didn't think it could be so bad, but I watched this film with my jaw dropped down around my ankles. Why would anyone make this? It made Greek islands look dingy and dark. That's all that needs to be said - so there is no need to comment on why you would make a story based on songs that are unrelated, use actors with no singing talent in a musical, then edit their performances to point out their flaws rather than to tighten their few charms. I know it was a stage show first - apparently a hit? I don't know. This could be the worst film I've ever seen.

If the fun and creepy drive-in can't soften the blow, you know it's bad.

Friday, August 15, 2008

In Defense of The Clone Wars

What the heck. It's Friday.

I had plans to see "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" today. Me and my brother-in-law, both old enough to have seen the original (Part IV, I guess) (when it first came out, multiple times, standing in long lines hoping to get a ticket for my seventh viewing - really), were going to spend some time together and thought it would be fun. This morning, I get my local paper, the old-fashioned printed Chicago Tribune, and what, to my horror, do I read? Michael Phillips' review. He beats this little cartoon like a rented mule.

Not wanting to believe - it's Friday, after all, and we're going to the matinee (what we used to call the cheap show) - I check out the other local, Mr. Ebert, on-line at the Chicago Sun Times.

OUCH. Looks like we picked a dud. Star Wars just isn't the same. What happened?

We had a plan though. And we stuck with it. We went to see "The Clone Wars" in spite of the stellar reviews. And you know what? We had fun. There's lots of Jawas in it, you know? Neither review mentioned the Jawas.

A lot of what they did mention, and I'm just giving my impression of what they said - dark animation, sort of clunky, long battle scenes, bad dialogue in short sentences - and whatever else they say, is probably not all that wrong. But it seems to me that the awe-inspiring original "Star Wars" was a bit clunky, had long and utterly unbelievable battle scenes and pretty bad dialogue. But it changed the fantasy movie forever - for better or for worse. And it was fun.

Just like "The Clone Wars" is fun. Star Wars is not just a film, it is a universe. The fun is in the details, however broadly drawn - or as the esteemed reviewers might say, badly drawn. I'll agree - the art is uneven, at best. I did think Obi-Wan looked a bit odd - and in certain close-ups I thought he was one of Gerry Anderson's old Supermarionation Thunderbird's puppets. But for every odd bit, there are some pretty spectacular ones too. The backgrounds were tremendous - vague, dark pastels that set a grim mood over the war scenes. One scene of Anakin and his new Paduan apprentice walking across the desert - with R2-D2 of course - in shadow, in front of the blazing Tatooine suns - really stood out also.

Yes - these are small pieces of a film. But because Star Wars is a universe, I can enjoy the smaller pieces. I enjoyed seeing multiple Greedo's (I'm sure his race has a name, but I don't know it). The Huttlet - and perhaps this is an old man talking - was awesome. Cute as a button.

There are other problems, though. The battle scenes are a bit long, and in consideration of the times we live in, pretty grim. The dialogue is spotty. The new Paduan gets away with a lot of sass. But then again, Anakin is a Jedi who is all about sass. The Episodes I thru III were not as widely hailed as the originals, and I think most of the problems were with the character of Anakin. My belief was that Darth Vader should have made his appearance by the end of Episode II. We also knew the story already. The charm and the power of "Star Wars", the original film, is that it was new and we were not quite sure where it was going. It spoke pretty deeply to a lot of people, probably because of its adherence to Joseph Campbell''s Hero's Journey. The prequel trilogy just did not have that power.

That leaves the major problem that ran through my mind as I watched "The Clone Wars". Why would Jabba the Hutt, basically a criminal on the edge of the universe, even if he is a very successful criminal, be so integral to so many stories in this universe?

Because he's a big blob of Hutt, that's why. Jabba is a great creation and it's good to see him again. He may have looked better than he does in "The Clone Wars", but as old friends, we don't comment on someone's deteriorating looks. We greet them and smile.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Tolkien's Concept of Recovery, Part 2

"If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), then Fantasy would languish until they were cured. If they ever get into that state (it would not seem at all impossible), Fantasy will perish, and become Morbid Delusion." (Tolkien, 127 - 128)

A quote from Tolkien's "On Fairy Stories" worth analyzing - if we are unable or unwilling to see truths in reality, the Fantastic will be warped, as we will be unable to distinguish fantasy from reality. Not only does it "not seem at all impossible", I would suggest that our world is currently plagued by those unable to honestly assess "facts and evidence".

We have believers of numerous religions, unwilling to accept anyone's faith but their own. This leads to such nonsense as a creation museum, where dinosaurs pull carts made by men (not shown here, but look at the video of the Commercial to get an idea). I would say this qualifies under people that "could not perceive truth (facts or evidence)". On a different level, we have many people with a lack of imagination. They are able, but unwilling, to examine the facts of society's problems and then extrapolate possible solutions. If you can't imagine, or empathize with, what other people experience (things you "did not want to know"), there is a lack of creativity in dealing with problems. If you can't imagine solutions to problems you face, then you become powerless. You accept the situation you are in. This leads to hopelessness.

Worse, on the larger, political level, you accept the status quo. You seek nothing, find no new solutions and accept the way things have always been done. This leads to the political stagnation we find ourselves in - deception and corruption in politics, financially over-the-top benefits for the wealthy while everyone else moves along blindly, apparently powerless. Bread and circuses indeed.

Fortunately, the inability to work with the truths and evidence of life does not affect everyone. So while some Fantasy IS Morbid Delusion (again, the dinosaur pulling the man's farm cart is really the perfect example), the role of fantasy in our lives, created by rational people, is to enable imagination. It is real creation from real people, using fantasy to explore possibilities.

And here is where Tolkien's Recovery is a useful term. He discusses the problem of humans when they come to believe that everything is a part of them. This is in the sense that the individual believes he or she is central to everything - someone who believes the world revolves around them. We might say egotist. As Tolkien writes, "Of course, fairy-stories are not the only means of recovery, or prophylactic against loss. Humility is enough." (Tolkien, 129).

"Humility". The ability to see oneself as part of a whole and not necessarily the most important part. Creative fantasy aims to describe something new. This brings recovery - the seeing of old things in a new light - as we experience the world's simple things in a new way. Humility follows when we appreciate the intricacy of the connections between people, animals, plants, the planet, the stars, etc. The fantastic elements in these stories are there to bring wonder to us, but they also serve to enforce the wonder of the real elements that they echo and help describe.

It is almost as if Fantasy is an adjective for the real world.

Tolkien, J.R.R. "On Fairy Stories". A Tolkien Miscellany. New York, SFBC Science Fiction Printing: June 2002.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Imprisonment, Part 3

Bergman's Faith trilogy examines the internal dynamics of faith and how it can imprison us if we use, or lose, it. Blackmon's "Slavery by Another Name" rips straight into our real world sensibilities by uncovering ugly imprisonment, and worse, in post-Civil War America.

What is the relevance to us today? Internally we want to be free and believe everyone should be. Ideologically we should feel that wrongful imprisonment is bad. But how bad is imprisonment otherwise? Who should be jailed? How should they be treated when they are jailed? These are bigger questions and each of us may have our own answer.

Let's look at two current texts that dovetail nicely in exploring imprisonment and finding similar answers. One is a dramatic film; the other is a science fiction novella. In the current film "The Visitor", imprisonment of illegal immigrants in America is the explicit driving force of the narrative. How the effects of that imprisonment work internally on a middle-aged European American forced to confront the situation is the real exploration of the film. Is he imprisoned also? By what? Does he escape that imprisonment? How? In "The Political Prisoner", written by Charles Coleman Finlay (and found in the August 2008 issue of F&SF), a high level political agent of a volatile government on a "religiously" oriented planetary colony finds himself on the wrong end of an uprising. He is soon imprisoned in a hard labor camp, where every prisoner strives to stay alive by whatever means are necessary. He eventually winds up enmeshed in forced labor along with a group of alien Adareans. What he learns about history, people and fairness makes this hard-hitting, well-written story one to read.

The protagonist of "The Visitor" is a college professor whose love of life was sucked out of him when his wife died. He improbably gets tied to the lives of two immigrants that he helps out with a place to stay. He gets help from them by being immersed in discovering his own music and meeting new, friendly people. These new people are all recent immigrants. When one of them gets detained for later deportation, his life changes. He begins to consider what America means, but also what imprisonment is. Is it proper to simply lock people up, denying them easy access to help and information? There may be a better way to handle people's lives than the impersonal and distinctly rude way that this film portrays the immigration system. Illegal immigration may be just that, illegal, but this film speaks to these real people's common humanity. They should at least be treated like people.

In the novella "The Political Prisoner", the situation is different. It is the well-connected government agent that, perhaps mistakenly, gets arrested. He is packed in with other prisoners and sent to a hard labor camp. It is difficult to be on his side completely, as he is a brutal agent involved in double-dealing and murderous plots. But even this hard man becomes sympathetic; the brutality of camp enforcement and the conditions of so many men pushed together in small spaces works on his, and our, sensibilities. Finlay shows us the problems inherent in such brutal treatment. When the agent ends up with an imprisoned group of aliens, who have been treated by the humans poorly at best, and exterminated whenever possible, the irony, of course, begins. Their sense of who they are, their strength, pride and unity, show the human prisoner not just the only sympathy he can find in prison, but also what it actually means to be alive. Those we demean and abase should be mirrors for us, as they are never fundamentally different from ourselves. This is often the function in science fiction when "humans" and "aliens" meet. It also should apply in our world, as we meet any other person from around the world.

"The Visitor" and "The Political Prisoner" both end up focusing on the humanity of their respective detainees. The lessons in both should be obvious when we look back at our history. Hopefully they also speak to us about our current society. And perhaps Bergman's films should have a last commentary - as artistic cinema, what lessons are we to take from his films? When each of his character's lose faith in others, they get imprisoned in their own mental jails. Inevitably, this leads to tragedy. The worldwide Golden Rule says to treat others as we want to be treated. When it comes to prison, detention and human rights, it seems we often forget this.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Imprisonment, Part 2

Douglas Blackmon wrote a book called "Slavery By Another Name". It's a book everyone in America should read.

Slavery was abolished by the Civil War, right? When the Yankees beat the Confederates, slavery was abolished. Blacks were free and though they knew it would be a long road to equality between the races, they were free. Right? Well as it turns out, not everyone got on that road. The slave system was re-invented, given a new name and practiced, legally, up until World War II. Unable to have slaves, the businessmen and law enforcement of the South teamed up. African Americans were arrested for any thing that could be thought of - such as vagrancy, meaning they did not have a job (how many people could be arrested for that in 2008?) - and fined large sums which they could not pay back. Their sentence: labor to pay back those fines, and the prisons then sold them to the mine owners, steel mills, etc. So the law enforcement arrested people for no reason and sold them to the industrialists for cheap labor.

"Legal" servitude - Another Name for Slavery.

Apparently, the only real reason it was ended at WWII was because the American government was wary of Nazi Germany and the Axis Allies. You couldn't have the enemy using America's poor treatment of its own citizens as propaganda against us. We were supposed to be freeing the people of Europe, so I guess we better free our own imprisoned people first. I guess.

It took foreign criticism to finally end the legalized practice of slavery in the United States of America.

There were some poor whites who were caught up in this system, but the majority were the supposedly freed blacks. A link to the book can be found on my links list on the right. And here is a link to an op-ed piece about the book from Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Leonard Pitts: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chi-oped0728pittsjul29,0,5821420.story.
For typical Internet ignorance, read some of the comments after that piece. It shows that attitudes toward others have not changed much. Skin color makes some people very angry.

But they don't seem to understand the history of our nation. The exploitation of the past made us very wealthy and it explains our current situations. And it is still happening today. The racial ratio of prisoners is one piece of evidence.

But more important to today is if you look at who is being exploited now, it is people with power (and money) exploiting those without power (and money). Color doesn't matter as much any more. Just don't be poor and without social connections. But because of the history, if you are poor, without the right connections and happen to be black, you are probably dealing with even more limitations.

So if the wealth divide is growing larger, why do people want to continue racial disputes and arguments? We need to get over color and move on to fair. Not to mention justice.

Is film relevant on issues like this? How do Bergman's films about faith in God and in family relate to racial and economic slavery in the real world? Next I'll look at a film and a story with more direct relevance to the issue.