Stan Lee: A Marvelous Legacy

©2016, Rubin Safaya and Cirqus Media.

The Man of the Hour at THE ROAST OF STAN LEE. Image ©2016, Rubin Safaya & Cirqus Media

Since Shel Dorf and others founded the San Diego Comic Con in 1970, the popularity of science fiction, comic book, and special interest conventions (commonly “Cons”) has grown immensely.  This past weekend, the Sheraton Dallas became host to the MARVELOUS NERD YEAR’S EVE convention.  Included among the myriad discussion panels, photo ops and meet & greets was  the celebration of Marvel Comics’ founder Stan Lee’s 94th birthday and several New Year’s Eve parties.

At a press conference on Dec. 29th, Lee opened, “What can I tell you that you don’t already know?”

The son of Romanian Jewish immigrants, Stanley Martin Lieber was born in New York City in 1922.   Not by coincidence, some of his beloved characters, ranging from Spider-Man to Captain America, call New York home.   Among his personal heroes, Lee counts Errol Flynn, who rose to stardom with Warner Bros. 1938 picture, THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD.  Apropos, Warners’ Robin Hood was perhaps the first cinematic franchise.  The following year, Lee toiled as an assistant at Timely Comics which would by 1960 become Marvel Comics.  In addition to rejecting the Comics Code Authority, Lee took a page from Campbell and, in stark contrast to Action/DC’s Superman, introduced us to relatable characters with a flawed humanity.

Whereas Lee and his creative partners at Marvel once held sway at the bleeding edge of the counterculture revolution in a manner not unlike the works of Melville, Godard, Truffaut, Cocteau and others of the French New Wave, the evolution of the Marvel Cinematic Universe today, wholly owned by Walt Disney Studios, seems to have succumbed to what Kael called “The Numbers”.   In terms of box office alone, Marvel Cinematic Universe has pulled in $10.7 billion in a decade, compared to the $35 billion STAR WARS franchise that now spans 40 years.  One can feel the pressure… none of which is heaped upon Lee who casually dismisses the Cinematic Universe as a responsibility/property from which he is far removed.

Fandom in the twenty-first century has moved beyond examining the struggles of the white, Jewish immigrant in Protestant America.  As Washington Post contributor Michael Cavna noted in 2015, social media has shifted the dynamics of fandom to a point of gender parity, partly because nerd culture is pop culture.  Whatever the reason or catalyst, here we are and yet I find myself loathing the fifteen minutes or so of CLERKS star Brian O’Halloran’s misogynistic jokes at Stan Lee’s Birthday Roast.  Did he look out into the crowd to see the diverse audience to whom he’s playing?

Full disclosure: I’m the kind of nerd who had the Star Fleet Technical Manual schematics of every starship designed for the original series.  However, I never understood the individuals who failed to see the forest through the trees.  Gene Roddenberry’s STAR TREK was always about the human story.   Science fiction and comics, especially Marvel comics, were always a vehicle for getting social commentary past media and government censors in times of social oppression.

The ongoing backslide of social discourse has led us to this moment:  A narcissistic egomaniac whose own biographer deems a sociopath is now our President Elect.  He wants to roll back every bit of progress women and minorities have made.  Not so much out of any long-term vision for this country as bullet points to boast to his already-captive audience of intellectually bankrupt devotees.  As I chatted casually with STAR TREK screenwriter David Gerrold, I wondered, what role will conventions play in the twilight of the Republic and the dawn of new fascism?

When asked what his greatest wish at 94 was, Stan Lee replied, “To have a 95th!”  That’s something to fight for.  So is inclusiveness.  So are the values that elevated Marvel to prominence.  The arts and entertainment have always been vessels of social commentary, and to abrogate that responsibility is to resign ourselves to the belief that we, as humans, as fans of fiction, cannot live up to the ideals of our heroes… be they Captain America or Errol Flynn.

 

From the Editor: A Letter to Senator John Cornyn

Dear Senator Cornyn,

 

Your recent comments trivializing the potential interference in our democratic process by a foreign nation concern me deeply because you seem to be more preoccupied with party than country.  Why, if Benghazi was a priority for you, are you not pushing for all the facts to come to light?   Why do the American people not deserve to know whether or not our democracy is threatened by outside influence.  Senate Majority Leader McConnell has joined the call to continue a bipartisan investigation of the matter, and your social media people have tweeted as such.

 

You were the one who called for a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton’s emails.  But you characterize this as “not news”.  How do you think that builds confidence in your constituents that you are in fact looking out for America? You are the Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution.  As it stands, there are numerous questions arising about Donald Trump’s allegiance to the United States and his ability to carry out the Oath he will be administered on January 20th unless Electors deem he is unfit for office.  And they may. Two days after the election, I spoke with my elector Chris Suprun who I’m sure you know has decided not to cast a vote for Trump due to grave concerns about his fitness for office. That was before the CIA report. Mr. Suprun, like myself and other constituents of yours has in fact stated that he supports a deeper investigation.  Today, at least ten electors want to be briefed by the Director of National Intelligence prior to their vote on the 19th.

 

As Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, you have no more important task than preserving the integrity of our election. Abortions can wait.  Obamacare can wait.  If you do not put this matter forward first, then what does that tell us about you? What legacy does that leave?  As I told Mr. Suprun before he made his choice: You have a choice.  You choose how you want to be remembered.

 

Thank you.

The Blue Pill: LGBT Romance in the Anti-Matrix

Black Mirror, ©2016, Netflix.

(L-R) Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Kelly and Mackenzie Davis as Yorkie in the Season 3 episode, “San Junipero” of BLACK MIRROR.

BLACK MIRROR may be the series that breaks the idiotic fad of multi-episodic arcs concocted purely to fabricate vacuous suspense for an entire season while nothing of import actually occurs. This trend reached its zenith with six seasons of J.J. Abrams’ LOST, the last four of which appallingly exploited one’s patience. We aren’t completely rid of the habit. MR. ROBOT thrives in spite of its ongoing arc, but that’s in part because its characters are each fascinatingly layered and complex.

Created for Channel 4 and migrated to Netflix, this anthology’s episodes each run a full sixty minutes in which not every question is resolved. However, we are meant to ponder the ones that aren’t rather than waiting like dupes for an answer promised that never comes, perhaps until after death. Does that make network television a religion?

Writer/Producer Charlie Brooker’s BLACK MIRROR is part Twilight Zone, part Amazing Stories… Both series explored how the modern world, culture, and technology, affected our lives by turning one or another element on its side. In BLACK MIRROR, the result is often a sobering social commentary on our sociocultural trajectory, given how technology enables our narcissism and distances us just enough to obliterate our empathy. “San Junipero” tries the obverse route, a world that steers away from Orwell and Bradbury’s dystopias… or does it?

SPOILERS AHEAD: If you haven’t already seen the episode, drop everything you’re doing and watch it now.

In 1987 a bespectacled, diffident Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) finds herself in a bar/arcade called Tucker’s.  An awkward teen, Davis (Billy Griffin Jr.), chums up to her by explaining that the coin-op she’s playing has multiple endings.  Davis strikes out through no fault of his own. A good kid who means well, he might write parodies of 80s pop music some day. Yorkie looks and feels out of place even in a time to which she’s perfectly suited.  We don’t yet make anything else of learning that her eyeglasses are purely for effect. Enter Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the fiery club kid in a sequined denim jacket–riffing off Appollonia in PURPLE RAIN. She and Yorkie hit it off immediately, by which point you think you see where this is all going, but you don’t. What follows will take you through an emotional and temporal journey on par with the series finale of Six Feet Under.

As the episode progresses, clues drop that all is not as it seems.  Yorkie observes that the fashions look like they were copied from a movie, as if Tucker’s were a carefully crafted facsimile of the 1980’s.  We might dismiss this as evidence of the pop culture echo chamber the 80’s really were–fashions copied from MTV, Miami Vice, Pretty in Pink… But the seams in the curtain start to rip: Repeated references to time limits and the differences between seeming and being alive.  San Junipero, it turns out, is a virtual space where the elderly and the terminally ill go to die.

As the veil lifts on San Junipero’s inner workings, we discover that Yorkie fell into a coma at 21 following her attempt at vehicular suicide, and Kelly’s health is failing but they’re both roughly the same age.  A romance ignites, but what could these two have in common?

The episode’s leitmotif dwells in Kelly and Yorkie’s separate but constant gaze westward to the ocean.  Symbolically, it fits that Yorkie’s youth was spent on the open coast with an uncharted future ahead of her, whereas Kelly had planted her roots firmly in the landlocked soil of the Nevada desert. Kelly had a husband, Richard, for more than forty years, and a daughter, Alison.  In San Junipero, named for the Franciscan priest Junipero Serra y Ferrer who founded 21 missions along the California coast, she shows Yorkie the house that reminds her of her younger days.  It’s not her childhood home.  It’s where she raised Alison (that’s her in the photograph, not Kelly’s mother) who died at 39.

While Yorkie is scheduled to “pass over”, to become a permanent resident of the nostalgia-laden cybersociety, Kelly refuses.  She cannot bear the guilt of having the second chance her daughter never did.  There are allusions to religious faith (or the lack thereof) which poke around the edges of the question burning at the center of the episode: In what sense does our existence matter?

Let’s ignore the fact that cosmically we’re all pretty irrelevant in a universe that has, it turns out, ten times as many galaxies as previously thought (2 trillion for those counting).  For Yorkie’s ultra-religious family, passing over is out of the question.   The workaround presents a moral dilemma for Kelly who could spend her remaining days mourning her daughter, or she could spare Yorkie an eternity of the same loneliness she suffered in a life likewise cut too short.

Is there a meaning, a purpose to that virtual existence?  Is there a meaning to this one?  If our identity is the product of our collection of memories and experiences, then aren’t the digital copies of Yorkie’s and Kelly’s memories and experiences also them?  Perhaps not in the sense of biological continuity, but a transcendent “them”, breaking off from the continuity of space and time that their physical bodies experience–a virtual alternate universe.  Will they find it difficult to relate, separated by fifty years of experiences?   Will they get bored in this universe?  Then again, what kind of a life was Yorkie really living as a closeted young adult trapped in the body of a comatose quadriplegic -or- Kelly waiting to die to, ironically, seek relief from harsh realities–abandoning rather than confronting her fear of attachment, twice?  If we were talking about two people in the living world, my answer would be: Is it any of our god damned business?

And perhaps that’s the point that “San Junipero” drives home more cleverly than any LGBT romance I’ve seen to date.  Mainstream attempts to tackle LGBT issues over-sexualize the story, particularly with regard to women’s same sex relationships as if they exist solely in service to the male gaze.  On the other hand, within the community, story after story emphasizes victimization at the hands of our homophobic culture.  We never see Yorkie’s parents and we never once are presented with a version of Kelly and Yorkie made to satisfy the egos of male broadcast network executives.  This is Yorkie and Kelly’s slow dance; naught else matters.

There’s a scene at the Quagmire, another bar in San Junipero where full-timers go to mosh, to fight, to push extremes in a feeble attempt to try to feel anything.  When Yorkie’s searching in vain for Kelly who seems to have fallen off the face of the server, one of Kelly’s exes suggests trying other time periods.  If I had to guess, I’d say Kelly’s daughter was born in the 00’s.  Why did he help Yorkie?  It’s not clearly established, but it hints that Wes (Gavin Stenhouse) realizes what all the Red Pillers, MRA and PUA types don’t.  It’s not about you.

Then why, my wife wondered, is there an overwhelming response from men shipping Yorkie and Kelly’s romance as it’s presented?  The space-and-time-crossed lovers aren’t even heavily fleshed out as characters.  We know nothing about them outside of this story.  SIX FEET UNDER took six seasons to build our relationship with the characters to a point that made the series finale so devastating.  How the hell does Brooker manage this in a single episode?  That’s where the 80’s comes in.

Albeit anecdotal, I’d surmise that a survey of male Gen X’ers and Millennials would single out the 80’s as the decade for which we feel the greatest degree of nostalgia.  Fans of BLACK MIRROR have commented on how fantastic the soundtrack is, how many nods and winks there are.  But there’s something deeply philosophical at work underneath the retro trivia:  some are too young to know that the upbeat tone of new wave and pop was our form of escapism from the realities of the Cold War, de-industrialization and mounting national debt–hurdles no child wants to have to deal with.  It’s hard enough finding your identity and learning to be comfortable with it.

And here we are.  Millennials are searching for that same escape, as the first generation to be poorer and less educated than their predecessors.  One by one our heroes fell over the course of the two decades hence: Freddie, MJ, Bowie, Prince whose party anthem was, presciently, a polemic about nuclear armageddon.  The punchline: Donald Trump is running for president.

Through these brief interactions of our story’s heroes, we’re transported back to childhood (a recurring device in film; poignantly revisited in FIELD OF DREAMS during James Earl Jones’ baseball monologue that isn’t really about baseball).  In youth, our senses are more raw: Crushes hit us intensely; one song can save or destroy you.  Adolescence is the place where our memories pop, where colors and sounds play the loudest. It’s the place we all go to when we long to feel again.

That’s why we get Kelly and Yorkie.  If the mundane cynicism of adulthood is a Quagmire, Tucker’s (Flynn’s?) is the escape.  Fuck the apocalypse.  Down the blue pill, throw on your Vans or slouch boots and party like it’s 1999.  Y2K forever…

 

Steve Rogers: America’s Underdog, and the Importance of Representation

Captain America statue in Brooklyn, NY

Captain America statue in Brooklyn, NY

In recent weeks, there has been a slew of online editorials penned about the confluence of the internet and fan entitlement, and how social media often acts as a conduit for hatred and bigotry. With the violent misogyny of reboot Ghostbuster-haters (sharpened to a crude peak in the form of Leslie Jones’ online harassment and abuse) and their gate-keeping, privileged ilk – so accustomed to being catered to – I felt it important to highlight how vital social media has become in providing a bullhorn to marginalized groups.

Comics are both an art form and a product shaped by capitalism. Creators are encouraged to be creative, but not too much; it is safer to appeal to a built-in, guaranteed demographic (presumably straight, white men) than risk losing their patronage by reaching out to “fringe” demographics. Creators themselves are primarily straight, white men who tell stories from the point-of-view of straight, white men. It is a self-sustaining cycle of benign neglect, consequently silencing and overlooking individuals in a world that already ignores them.

These marginalized voices have circumvented content creators by utilizing social media to raise awareness about their exclusion, and to fight for positive, healthy representation in mainstream pop culture. For years they have been relegated to combing film, literature, and comics for subtextual themes or metaphors that remind them of their own experiences and identities. They have watched as these subtextual nods have gradually become textual, largely resulting in assurances that a harmful, cartoonish stereotype or a side-kick character is “good enough, so stop whining”.  It’s not surprising that under-represented voices are still demanding more than these meagre offerings.

Granted, more strenuous efforts have recently been made; most notably, Marvel Studios’ decision to cast African-American actress Zendaya Coleman in the famed role of Mary Jane Watson in the upcoming Spiderman: Homecoming. It is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, and for the very same reason that Paramount’s decision to reveal Hikaru Sulu’s husband in Star Trek Beyond is a beneficial choice. These two characters are both established and well-loved; people have already formed an empathetic bond with them because of their long history. By introducing a new trait (race, sexual orientation, etc.), the audience must incorporate that detail into their pre-existing opinion of the character. A subtle change in perception can influence how individuals who possess these traits are perceived in the real world.

Marvel’s recent effort to evolve and “modernize” iconic characters is much-needed and commendable, and must continue. In this vein, the subject of the recent trending twitter hashtag #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend is an ideal starting point. Steve Rogers is the very definition of iconic; a deeply personal character created by two Jewish men during the spread of pro-Nazi propaganda in America before its involvement in World War II.

Rogers was an avatar for his creators, representative of their desire to vanquish bullies and fascists, his righteous fists pummeling Hitler on the cover of his debut issue. At the time, the imagery was considered politically risky. It was also the morally just decision. After the character’s 75th anniversary, it would be fitting for Marvel to update Steve Rogers to reflect the modern era he now inhabits.

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Steve Rogers is introduced to us as short and scrawny, with chronic health issues and a shocking lack of self-preservation; his need to fight oppression much larger than his frail body. Out of historical context, it is difficult to convey how Rogers’ Irish heritage and status as an “invalid” and a “burden on society” (he suffered from scoliosis, asthma, astigmatism, partial deafness, arrhythmia, and anaemia) would have made him a social pariah in pre-World War II America. Essentially, he was a man of “questionable” genetics in an era obsessed with eugenics.

Rogers was also a man with pretty, almost effeminate features and a talent for art, traits that would have unfairly made him a target for entirely different reasons. He lived Brooklyn Heights, a neighborhood known by historians as a haven for artists, bohemians, and others who occupied society’s fringes (like W.H. Auden and Gypsy Rose Lee). His run-down tenement apartment was likely only a few blocks from the swinging drag balls in Greenwich Village and St. George Hotel, a place notorious for homosexual cruising. Steve Rogers was smack-dab in the vibrant, and secret, LGBT culture of the 1940s.

Unsurprisingly, Rogers was never the John Wayne-esque symbol of American conservatism that so many interpret him to be. He attended a college for fine arts; based on his residence, it was likely City College of New York. In the 1930-1940s the school had an 80% Jewish student body that organized student trade unions and anti-fascist political rallies. Odds are he had more than one lively debate with a fellow student on the subject of Norman Thomas Socialism vs. the New Deal.  Rogers benefitted from FDR’s Public Works of Art Project (which paid artist’s a hefty $23.50 a week).  He was likely a democratic Socialist and an original “Social Justice Warrior”.

By any definition, one of “the little guys”, Steve Rogers lived both in the cultural fringes and at the forefront of political movements.  It wouldn’t be a radical departure from his established character for Marvel to grow a backbone and make him canonically LGBT.

Unlike the comics, where Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes are separated by an age gap, the Marvel Cinematic Universe instead establishes that they grew up together.  Interestingly, the details regarding their strong childhood friendship were borrowed from the comic book character Arnie Roth; a gay, Jewish boy who saves young Steve from a back alley brawl, thus forging a lasting bond between them.  (Unfortunately, the hybridized film version of Bucky Barnes retained neither trait.)

Instead of a bright-eyed teen seeking Captain America’s mentorship, film-Bucky Barnes is depicted as his contemporary; virile and masculine. He affectionately calls Steve a “punk” (slang for an effeminate gay man, per George Chauncey’s Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940) whilst simultaneously urging Steve to join him in socially accepted, heteronormative activities like double-dating.  The physically mismatched duo is remarkably reminiscent of the heartbreaking protagonists in William Maxwell’s subtextually queer The Folded Leaf.

The decision to alter Steve and Bucky’s ages and origin story also lends a brother-in-arms element to their relationship that mirrors warrior-lovers and equals like Alexander and Hephaestion or Achilles and Patroclus in a way that the comics couldn’t. Their dynamic becomes even more complex post-serum; Bucky’s sense of protectiveness evolves into something almost possessive. His self-appointed role as Steve’s only champion is threatened by the introduction of Peggy Carter, an exceptionally capable woman who appreciated Steve even before his transformation.

A very unorthodox “love-triangle” emerges; the two most important people in Steve Rogers’ life are Bucky Barnes and Peggy Carter — he is equally in love with both, but for different reasons.

Bisexuals suffer from very poor media representation, whether they are depicted as promiscuous and untrustworthy or fetishized for the heterosexual gaze. Imagine how these harmful stereotypes would be shattered if Marvel introduced a bisexual Captain America – an established and beloved character known for his unyielding, moral center and perceived purity – the diametric opposite of the “greedy bisexual who will sleep with anyone” trope.

The Captain America trilogy has all the pre-existing narrative beats of a love story. Bucky was the “damsel in distress” to Steve’s rescuer in The First Avenger. In The Winter Soldier, Steve’s devotion is so strong he literally choses to lay down his life rather than harm his “shield-mate”. Similarly, Bucky breaks through years of torture, mind-alteration, and dehumanization after simply seeing Steve’s face and hearing a handful of words: “I’m with you to the end of the line”. (Essentially, the vow “‘Till death do us part”.) In Civil War, Steve Rogers battles his teammates and the world’s governments to protect Bucky. After everything is said and done, Rogers forfeits the mantle of Captain America so that they can escape together.

Their story is epic. It spans decades and defies all odds, including death. A profound idea: two soldiers serving in World War II, when such a relationship would warrant a dishonorable Blue Discharge (requiring them to keep their feelings secret – maybe even from each other – for decades), only to find one another in the present day, in which same-sex marriage is now legal.   The emotional weight of such an arc is compelling and devastating.

It is without question that Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes love each other. Officially, Marvel has stated that their love is platonic, brotherly. The depiction of deep, loving bonds between men is important, and despite the prevalence of male friendship in media, society’s fear of making heroes appear “un-masculine” often prevents any intimacy, let alone romance. This antiquated concept of masculinity must be rejected. LGBT individuals, young and old, deserve a character to whom they can relate and to see themselves depicted in a positive, healthy way. Straight, white romances are ubiquitous in popular media. The unrepresented and the marginalized deserve something new, something ground-breaking. Marvel Studios (and others), I implore and dare you:  don’t take the path already laid before you.  Pioneers leave a trail for others to follow.

THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.  – Thomas Paine

 

Frank Herbert’s STAR WARS

@2015, Lucasfilm/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

@2015, Lucasfilm/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

 

One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.

-T.S. Eliot, “The Sacred Wood”

This op-ed discusses numerous plot and character details.  It is intended as a discussion for the benefit of people who have already seen the film.

In STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, J.J. Abrams commits great effort (and money) to imitate the pathos if not the ethos of a galaxy far, far away.  We could deconstruct Abrams’ work as a pedestrian exercise in fan service vis-à-vis Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, but that would be just as much a slam dunk as handpicking not one but two movie franchises, each for its built in audience.

The babbling spring, in this case the “best watering hole in the galaxy”, is a bar run by Maz Kanata (Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o), who bluntly tells Rey (Daisy Ridley) of The Call, leading her to the amulet (Luke’s original lightsabre).  Along with Rey’s refusal, Abrams dances through a facile re-creation of Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) Journey which begins with a premonition in the cave on Dagobah in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.  I’ve always wanted to know at least a little bit more about that cave, but I’m content to keep wanting.  George Lucas, that master of annihilating suspense with ponderous explanations, fortunately never revisited the subject.  J.J. did, in a slapdash manner more akin to visual cacophony than mystical omen.

As I mentioned in my review of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, there’s a well-paced, kinesthetic initiation in the duel between Rey and Luke’s fallen pupil, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).  A tremendous opportunity was missed here.  We have already seen the initiation rites of the light side of the Force, but why not the Dark Side?  Why not see his Call and Refusal?  Kylo Ren can be a fascinating character, if writer/director Rian Johnson tugs on that thread farther than Kasdan and Abrams did.

You might have the underpinnings of a social commentary:  On the one hand you’ve got an underprivileged young woman, taken from birth and left on a ball of sand to scavenge for a trader who looks like a walking blobfish.  Then you have the privileged white male teenager whose parents are a Princess and a General.  He was boarded with the finest of teachers, Luke Skywalker himself.   How is it that the underprivileged woman keeps her chin up despite her circumstances and yet the privileged white boy succumbs to the forces of darkness and kills his own father?

Joseph Campbell once stated that George Lucas was his best student.  As I re-read Campbell’s Hero, I begin to understand, partially, why he stated this even though it was Kasdan and Irvin Kershner who did most of the heavy lifting after the financial success of a standalone story allowed them to run with the world Lucas haphazardly laid out.  The chapters describing the Hero’s Journey read like a reference manual.   Mind you, I love reference manuals.  However, the cold, analytical fact-reading tone of Campbell’s book is  devoid of passion, quoting passage after passage from classical prose.  This seemed to fit Lucas’ documentary mindset toward world-building and archetypal characterization.  Lucas embraced Campbell’s technical instructions for re-creating the pieces of the Hero’s Journey, if not the philosophical motivations.  Abrams merely sought to imitate the parts of Lucas’ technique to appeal to the pocketbooks of fans disgruntled with Lucas’ foundering, self-indulgent prequel trilogy.  To quote Walter’ Chaw’s brilliant writeup at Film Freak Central, “Abrams doesn’t always hit the notes, but he hears the music.”  Well, he hears the money.

In the final scene of THE FORCE AWAKENS, Rey finds Luke atop a steep cliff (typical of Abrams’ literal-mindedness).  Like Rey’s theme, one of Williams’ most original works in decades, the music swell evokes the same awe as during Indiana Jones’ raising of the Staff of Ra in the Well of Souls in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.  The name Skywalker, aside from sounding vaguely tribal, has an aura about it, and now monomyth becomes metamyth.  Luke’s defeat of Vader and the Galactic Empire is fundamentally reduced to prelude of a retread—the doomsday device plot already exhausted twice.  How could he??  Vader’s redemption is Luke’s apotheosis.  In the final scene, the now-godlike Skywalker, last of the Jedi, expresses simultaneous anguish and dread—already having established powers of premonition in films prior.

Part of me wishes to see Rey complete her training under Luke’s tutelage and liberate Kylo Ren from the clutches of Supreme Leader Snoke (Kim Jong-Il would like to have a word with the screenwriter).  However, wouldn’t that too be repetitive?

It’s a given, too, that Snoke is a direct stand-in for Oz, giving orders from afar appearing only as a giant holographic projection.  Who wants to bet that he’s just as short as Yoda or any other Campbellian crone in the paint-by-numbers Star Wars universe where everything is so deliberately and harshly delineated?  Why not imbue the characters with meaningful conflict.  Campbell did a great job of explaining the idea of monomyth and how the Hero’s Journey manifests, but he didn’t necessarily seem to subscribe to the idea that it was a good narrative.   But if I had to pick a mythology for which both he and Lucas shared affection, it would probably be Buddhism.

The STAR WARS universe is replete with unexplored possibilities and implications.  Consider the will power it takes for Vader to defeat the Emperor; his extended invitation to Luke is perhaps borne out of foreknowledge that Luke will be is his salvation.  Now take a step back…

The Jedi and Sith are both fighting for what they believe is subjectively good.  But in context of Buddhism and its intellectual grandfather, Hinduism, they’re both failing to see the forest through the trees.   The saga of STAR WARS is narrower than the ideas it embraces.  In a galaxy (ours spans 100,000 light years; there are 200 billion galaxies in our known universe), how do you contextualize such conceits as “good” and “evil”?   What ultimately is the objective of the Sith?  They’re evil. We get it.  But evil doesn’t exist for its own sake, except in the minds of the mentally ill.  The Sith have no ideology whatsoever, but its an ideology not an heritable illness.  Tyrants always believe, in their minds, that they’re doing good.   To write it off as, “The Sith only deal in absolutes,” is simply mediocre storytelling.

In post-Vedic Hinduism, there’s much introspection on dharma, the cause of doing right for its own sake.  But Lucas so hastily cribbed from Kurosawa’s tales of a thousand-year old warrior class protecting the peasants that he neither understood the outdated context of that narrative in terms of post-imperial Japan and American military pre-eminence, nor did he really digest the cosmic implications of creating a far-spanning galaxy in which those motivations would scale to the infinitesimally trivial.  Abrams was too shallow-minded to improve upon it and the common excuse given is that he’s setting things up for the next film.  It’s now a perpetual franchise, like the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Is that to be the excuse given by every writer and director who gets a paycheck from Disney from here until the end of time?  It need not be.

If the Saga stayed true to the ideals of more than just Lucas’ sophomoric read of Buddhist philosophy, how might its denouement manifest?   Rey and Ren would transcend the banal concepts of good and evil, light and dark.  Luke might merge with Ben, Anakin and the Force and ascend to a demigod, a semi-objective arbiter.  They might come together to defeat the ruling class of Princesses, Generals and Supreme Leaders, who, like our own ruling class, creates “others” out of everyone to manufacture the consent of the bourgeois to send peasants to fight wars that profit only the elites.

Wouldn’t it be something if the Saga concluded not with more battles to titillate and desensitize us.  Why, when they can move objects with their mind and see into the future, are they not already liberated from the petty ambitions of their teachers who are, to paraphrase Sagan, strangely transfixed on being momentary masters of a fraction of a dot somewhere in one galaxy among a couple hundred billion?   I suspect that every director who ever cribbed from Campbell never actually finished the book.

“The community today is the planet, not the bounded nation; hence the patterns of projected aggression which formerly served to co-ordinate the in-group now can only break it into factions….

“It is not society that is to guide and save the creative hero, but precisely the reverse. And so every one of us shares the supreme ordeal—carries the cross of the redeemer—not in the bright moments of his tribe’s great victories, but in the silences of his personal despair.”

-Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces

The Loudness Wars -or- Death Magnet: How I Learned to Stop Hearing Anything

©2010, Cinemalogue

1982 original and 2010 remaster of Steve Winwood's VALERIE

The following are Parts I & II of a video editorial on the so-called Loudness Wars—an escalating practice of pumping amplitude levels in sound recordings to the limits of digital media in such a way that induces distortion. Wikipedia’s entry on the subject may give you some useful background on the subject prior to viewing this material.

Part I:

Part II:

Technology and the Music Industry: Part Two – Media Going Social

©2010, Cinemalogue

Photo: Rubin Safaya. Copyright ©2010, Cinemalogue. All Rights reserved.

In 1996, I wrote a paper on internet-based music distribution, which I saw as the inevitable evolution of the recording industry. Unfortunately, not many record labels saw it that way at the time, but Apple was already making plans. The roadmap toward a digital appliance-based approach to computing began here. Upon Steve Jobs’ return to Apple in the summer of 2007, a central strategy emerged redefining the computer’s role as only the digital hub of a lifestyle of mobile devices. Thirteen years and many iPods, iPhones and iPads later (we are informed as of today this market consists of an estimated 120 million devices), Apple announces its foray into social media with Ping and Game Center.

Game Center capitalizes on the user interface of the iPhone and iPad, and like the App Store brings a centralized distributor to social gaming—what the console market had sadly never understood because they don’t generally develop top-to-bottom product ecosystems the way Apple does. On the other end of Apple’s core competencies, multimedia delivery (of which gaming really is a part, if you think about it) is going to be transformed by Ping, Apple’s entry into music-based social media.

Ping essentially provides social interconnectivity between users of Apple’s iTunes and iTunes Store. Users can create and share lists, post comments, and, as with Game Center, be connected to people of similar tastes. With the installed base of 160 million iTunes Store subscribers, it’s easy to see how Ping could once again transform the music distribution business that Apple now dominates, but also how they will find themselves directly competing with behemoths like Twitter and Facebook.

For the recording artist, a number of possibilities are opening up. While social media networks allow them to keep in touch with fans and gain insight into what trends are emerging the instant they bubble forth, Ping has the potential, combined with other media such as HTML5-based interactive videos (see http://www.thewildernessdowntown.com/), to create a two-way channel of development. That is, the narrow-minded will only see the potential for viral marketing with their audience. But the truly adventurous artist will see it as an opportunity to test demo material, authorized “bootlegs”, impromptu recording sessions, videos, etc. and get the fan involved in shaping the creative process before the final product is done. The entire fascination with social media is that it elevates the average person to celebrity in their own right, so why not capitalize on this? Yes, yes, design by committee is the antithesis of good product but if you’re in the business of selling records to lots of people, then you’re already there. Accept it and reach out to your fans, and pull them into the control room with you.

In this regard, I still think the album is going away… but so what? If it costs $75,000 to make an album, and 76,000 to 142,000 copies sold to recoup the costs, then isn’t it more sensible to spend a fraction of that on just the good singles that are guaranteed to sell and forget the whole album business? True, mediocre artists still have to throw more darts to hit a bullseye… but at some point A&R people have to stop being lazy and find real talent that’s less expensive to promote, and can record a session in one take as opposed to four months. I understand that the impetus traditionally was that more esoteric material isn’t fit for radio. But for a retailer that this year is projected to surpass CD sales, one has to think differently. iTunes and Apple are the distribution AND promotion engine in one. The system of previewing and searching is totally dynamic, at the user’s command, uses information about the user to dynamically present titles relevant to their tastes, and exposes them to material they may not have thought to explore. This makes it a much more useful tool than radio for exploring music. The presence of the social network on iTunes will shift the balance of power away from radio, just as Twitter has shifted trend analysis away from comScore. I can count in one minute at least fifty talented artists whose material I found through iTunes that would never go into rotation on any commercial radio station even in a market as large as Dallas-Ft. Worth.

There are several other possibilities worth noting here, but the two that strike me as most relevant are: Apple’s test case for entering social media as a whole, and the potential for Apple to control the user experience to the extent that the convenience of file sharing can now take place within the legitimate domain of licensed, legal distribution. Let’s take a step back for a moment: In 1992, the Audio Home Recording Act made it perfectly legal for individuals to copy music for their own private use, and to some extent, for private, direct sharing with personal acquaintances. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, one of the most poorly written pieces of legislation to pass Congress, altered the governance of the AHRA. Piracy, however, has never really been a threat to the industry so much as the potential for internet distribution to level the playing field with independents and essentially remove the barriers to entry that made major labels a necessity. The music industry didn’t spend hundreds of millions of dollars on attorneys to retrieve pennies on the dollar in actual collected damages. They did it to slow down the inevitable creep of a distribution paradigm they could neither control nor dominate.

But in attempting to dominate this distribution system, the product/program people at Apple understood that you have to treat piracy (read: “free”), however illegal it may be, as a real alternative to any pay based model if you are designing a system that has to compete with it. File sharing’s principal disadvantage, however, was the inconvenience of required technical savvy and/or a clunky user interface that offered no distinct advantage to file sharing other than cost. So, Apple set up a Trojan horse, first acclimating people to the iTunes interface in 1999, then deploying iPod in 2001, and then creating an end-to-end product ecosystem with iTunes Music Store in 2003. The interdependency is clear… It’s far more convenient now to surf iTunes, let it find and recommend based on your library and purchasing history, and click “buy” than it is to navigate the clunky interfaces of P2P file sharing systems with libraries of varying and unpredictable quality.

With Apple’s push toward cloud-based services, including the industry’s penchant for rental-based models, lower pricing for temporary access can be positioned as an advantage, in exchange for more freedom for the user to access a centralized library of content from multiple mobile devices tied to one account. Apple’s now using the Trojan horse in reverse, having already convinced the music industry to abandon DRM, they’re providing users an incentive to pay for the convenience of access anywhere, and making a compelling case by providing the data centers, the user interface, the products and the libraries to support it.

This is where Apple’s ecosystem comes full circle, and poses an interesting threat to Facebook, Twitter and Google, only one of which has tried, and failed, to achieve Apple’s hardware-software integration with a physical product of their own. Google will continue to be successful licensing Android to other manufacturers, but there will always be the inconvenience of two vendors pointing fingers at each other when a customer service issue arises. Twitter and Facebook have substantial social networks, but they generate their revenue almost entirely from selling access to user demographic and trending data… completely intangible products that, as any website analytics will show you, are dubious products at best. But Apple’s strength is that they don’t see social media and intangible revenue generating systems such as advertising as the means unto itself. They see these services as merely the ecosystem which necessitates the hardware they design. It is precisely because of this that Apple has the potential to integrate Game Center, Ping and whatever else they come up with, into a social media network necessitated to far greater degree than Facebook and Twitter combined, because of the convenience and interconnectivity of all forms of media they will enable on hundreds of millions of mobile devices that they already design, manufacture and distribute.

A Decade in Music (1969-1979) – Part I: Get Back

From 1977, several memories converge into one of the greatest decades of the five I have lived through. While George Lucas put me to sleep with his laboriously-written, but visually groundbreaking, Star Wars, my babysitting cousin could only rock me to sleep with music. I had Steve Miller Band, Kiss, Cheap Trick, Nazareth and Heart among many others keeping me company. It was my cousin Pam’s copy of Kiss’ double-album, Alive II—the first truly successful live concert recording—which revealed to me the raw energy that rock music was capable of producing.

Nearly talentless musically, KISS elevated arena shows to a standard of stage performance that held in place through the next decade, until at least 1992 with the birth of the grunge movement—often falsely credited to Nirvana. Also in ’77, The Runaways, virtually unknown outside of Los Angeles, were rocking the Tokyo Music Festival with their own brand of irreverent stage antics—Cherie Currie’s scanadalous outfits providing tabloid fodder and recycling an ancient argument about artistry breeding delinquency. I’m not sure it could be called artistry, what they did, but again the absence of technical skill was overshadowed by showmanship. The studio cut of “Queens of Noise” plays blandly, as if Kim Fowley’s manufactured assemblage of five teenagers having little else in common would, just one year after landing a contract with Polygram/Mercury, rather be anywhere else. However, the same song on Live in Japan bristles with electricity—even if Sandy West kept shifting tempo.

By the end of the decade, arena rock gave way to the emergence of punk and new wave, and would only see a mediocre resurgence in the form of kitschy hair metal, at its height from 1987 to 1989. Here I’ve only explained how the decade in which I was born, too late I would argue, had ended. Where did it begin?

On April 11, 1969, The Beatles released “Get Back” as a farewell to their fans. Paul McCartney attempting a more middle-American tenor, backed by country-blues guitar and triplets on the backbeat, briefly tells the story of Jo-Jo and Loretta Martin. It’s unusually visceral for a song that lyrically pales in comparison to the spellbinding Eleanor Rigby. Yet it’s important to me, because there in my parents’ metallic-blue Oldsmobile Cutlass it was the first time I had heard the group that came to define twentieth-century music—Lennon and McCartney the Godard and Truffaut of pop.

Sgt. Peppers spawned all the prog-rock bands chiefly out of Britain, including King Crimson, Yes, Pink Floyd, Genesis and Electric Light Orchestra. By the early-1970’s the movement spanned from Greece’s Aphrodite’s Child to Canada’s Rush. More rock artists of the period would cite the diverse catalog of the Beatles as their primary influence than any other group or solo artist. Why? Their adaptation of classical musical phrasings and literary-grade, visually-evocative lyrics in a dynamic repertoire that spanned just over half a decade is unmatched in popular music history to this day.

The Grammys® Transcript – Facebook Style

Watching the 52nd Annual Grammy® Awards, I was on a bit of a tear posting nonstop updates to my friends on Facebook as the show went on. Filmmaker Nina Paley suggested I post the entire collection as an article on Cinemalogue. So here are my comments and observations, unedited:

Rubin Safaya No WAY… GaGa just intro’d Pokerface in the lyrical meter of Bohemian Rhapsody!

Rubin Safaya That’s SIR Elton Freaking John, ladies and gentlemen. 52nd Annual Gramophone “Grammy” Awards.

Rubin Safaya Go to hell, Jay-Z. Have a sense of humor about your ridiculous-ass self.

Rubin Safaya Speaking of American Idiot… J-Lo, ladies and gentlemen.

Rubin Safaya Ok, Lincoln commercial… Listen, “which artist will CREATE the next song” for your commercial? CREATE? Um, that stupid ass band covering Major Tom did not WRITE it. Peter Schilling did. Thanks for contributing to music history illiteracy already furthered enough by P. Diddy and every rap producer this side of Los Angeles.

Rubin Safaya Security, please keep your eye out for that moron Kanye. Taylor Swift is on stage accepting the award for her dumb-assed watered down garbage.

Rubin Safaya Oh dear god. Beyonce you are NOT Michael Jackson. You can’t make this military marching thing work for you. You just look like an ass-clown. Works for me. You’re married to Mr. Ass-clown.

Rubin Safaya She’s covering Alanis? A bad artist covered by a far worse artist is like holding up two broken mirrors pointed at each other.

Rubin Safaya The Grammys are now officially known as The “this person feat. that person” awards. Seriously, NARAS/RIAA is desperate to boost sales by pairing up everyone because aside from GaGa, not a one of these morons possesses half the talent of a single recording artist.

Rubin Safaya Metro un-PCS. Wow, I’ve rarely seen a more racist commercial…. or a funnier racist commercial. And I’m Indian!

Rubin Safaya Ok, Seal is class. I can tolerate him.

Rubin Safaya Ok they’re not ALL morons. P!nk takes the stage. Good work collaborating with Linda Perry. Keep her employed behind the console, because I couldn’t stand another Four Non Blondes album.

Rubin Safaya P!nk, you’re wearing too much clothing!

Rubin Safaya Who the hell are these people? Best New Artist? I have no idea what anyone listens to any more.

Rubin Safaya (Referring to dancers’ costumes) What is this? Transformers?

Rubin Safaya Swift is really strangling the cat tonight, and every other time I’ve seen her perform live.

Rubin Safaya It is an interesting coincidence that Conan O’Brien’s run on the Tonight Show, which ran for the seven months since MJ’s death, ended with Conan asking us all to be a little less cynical. MJ, who like us, grew up in the Post-Kennedy era of American cynicism, asked the same of us… to be less cynical and more conscientious. He asked us for decades. When will we begin to listen?

Rubin Safaya Ok what the hell kind of dance is whatsherface doing back there behind Ritchie Sambora?

Rubin Safaya PLACIDO! MOS! There’s a range of talents for you.

Rubin Safaya Best Rap/Sung Collaboration… just call it the Kanye West Award already, since he inserts himself into EVERY freaking production.

Rubin Safaya Thanking Nike and your tux designer first? Jesus Christ, Jay-Z, you couldn’t be more tacky if you had a diamond studded grill and a bottle of Courvoisier in hand…. or a diamond studded grill with the word Courvoisier embossed on it in platinum.

Rubin Safaya René Angélil looks like a museum piece. Hang him in the Louvre… Céline too.

Rubin Safaya Oh great, Andrea Bocelli… the Soulja Boy of tenors.

Rubin Safaya Bridge Over Troubled Water? Apropos for the recording industry.

Rubin Safaya Hey, Emilio… I loved you in St. Elmo’s Fire.

Rubin Safaya I have never liked Dave Matthews… for the sole reason that there’s a famous person named Dave Matthews.

Rubin Safaya Dave Matthews is apparently re-enacting his autistic savant character from House.

Rubin Safaya Yo, Beyond-Sane, I’m really happy for you and I’mma let you finish but Dee Snyder had the best hair of all time… OF ALL TIME.

Rubin Safaya L.L. Are you a banker from the 1940’s now?

Rubin Safaya RIP Maurice Jarre, Teddy Pendergrass, Ali Akbar Khan, Les Paul and that guy from The Godfather.

Rubin Safaya I think it’s hilarious watching Jeff Beck lean like a modern rocker while strumming “How High The Moon.”

Rubin Safaya Lil Wayne performing “Blankety blank blank.”

Rubin Safaya Pull up your goddamned pants, Lil Brayne.

Rubin Safaya Apparently the producers forgot to bleep a word in that performance. But there was no man-on-man kissing, so I don’t expect the religious nutcases in America to complain. Maybe the grammys should have more action scenes with lots of explosions and deaths… I’ll bet money the Christian fundamentalists wouldn’t phone in a single complaint.