Saturday, December 19, 2015

What I Thought of the New Star War Movie

George Lucas has done it again. He fooled me once, shame on him. He fooled me twice, shame on him. He fooled me three times, shaame on him. He fooled me a fourth time and now I'm starting to think I'm the one that should be ashamed, like I did something wrong. But really, I did nothing wrong. I just bought a ticket to see the new Star War movie. It's not my fault the movie was just as bad as if not worse than the prequels. And let me tell you why.

First of all, I don't know how the idea of doing Star War at Christmastimes got past the drawing board. These movie executives are supposed to be smart guys, so I don't know what they were thinking. I've always felt Star War is supposed to be a summer thing like going to the beach. So having the first scene of the new movie be a Christmas Tree lighting ceremony on Tatooine where it doesn't even snow just seemed like the opposite of what you'd want to do to open the first Star War to come out in a decade.

Secondly, I love Han Solo. Han Solo is my favorite character in all of Star War. But making him the lead in this movie was a huge mistake. Because now that Harrison Ford is elderly and confined to a wheelchair, he just isn't in any condition to anchor an action adventure story in my opinion. Whenever Chewbacca had to push Han Solo really fast to get away from the stormtroopers, it really strained my ability to suspend disbelief and be whisked about in a galaxy far, far away. I also felt that the newer younger characters looked pretty disgusted and sometimes disturbed whenever Han took out his dentures in the middle of a conversation.

I never wanted to see Han Solo like this.

Speaking of bad casting, George Lucas should definitely not have cast himself in the movie. He has never appeared in front of the camera in Star War before, and I think it was a big mistake to break that convention now. I know he wants to be remembered by future generations, but I didn't understand why the scenes he appeared in had to be in the movie. They seemed more like home movies, because most of his scenes were just shaky camcorder footage of Lucas wandering around his mansion in the dark mumbling about Ewoks and Gungans and things. Though I did enjoy the scene at the end where George Lucas and a  woman I didn't recognize waited in line at a theme park to get on a Star War ride. That reminded me that I need to go back to Disneyland soon to check out the new Star War Land they have there now.

George Lucas in Star War Land
I should also warn you that this new Star War movie included a lot of offensive material, and I'm not easily offended. Giving the villainous Snoke an oversized nose and a yarmulke suggested to me that Lucas wants us to think one thing: Jewish. I think other members of the creative team tried to cover up Lucas' racist caricature by making Snoke look like Voldemort. Also his name reminded me of Snape, another character from Harry Potter. But these choices just served to muddle things further without really hiding the fact that Snoke is basically an offensive and old fashioned Jewish stereotype. I thought those had been consigned to the dust bin of history, but leave it to that wily bigot GL to bring such trash back into fashion.

This is apparently not an image of Snoke. Main difference: no yarmluke.
Star War has gotten a lot of flak over the years for lacking diversity. It's true that the series hasn't had many very memorable black characters (though when people forget about Captain Panaka I always take them outside and show them what it's like). But I think this new movie was overcompensating by putting an interracial relationship at the center of the whole story. It's the 21st Century guys, you're not getting credit for that anymore. Make it about a human and alien both of the same gender, and then maybe we're talking.

Okay, this is a minor quibble, but Admiral Ackbar's role in the movie was not nearly as significant as I was expecting given that he was easily the coolest new character to be introduced in Return of the Jedi, and this Star War movie was supposedly a sequel to Return of the Jedi. But I guess when you introduce a character that cool you always raise expectations for what he (or she!) will do in the next entry of the series. This same thing happened with Boba Fett too. It's a trap, I guess.
Aw, yeeeeah.
By far my biggest problem with the movie was the sense that the whole thing was coasting on my nostalgia and deepest affection for the original Star War movies. Every movie nowadays seems to be targeting me on the basis of me remembering something I liked from my childhood. But I never would have liked the original Star War movies if they had starred Harrison Old (sorry, that's a cheap shot I know) as a character who you know is going to die in the end because he's geriatic and needs to be put out of his misery. There's no dramatic tension in Han Solo being cut down by a lightsaber when he's moaning and grumbling throughout the whole movie about how painful it is to still be alive when you're 92 years old.

I don't know, maybe the movie just wasn't for me. I know a lot of big blockbuster movies these days are intended for the growing Chinese moviegoing audience. Perhaps I missed out on some context for what the filmmakers were trying to accomplish because I've never even been to China. I know what you're thinking, what have you been waiting for? And the answer is that I haven't been waiting, it's just very expensive to fly to China. I've been meaning to do it ever since I saw Iron Man 3, and I promise to get to it before I write another movie review.
Iron Man 3 will make you want to travel and see the world.


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

They Might Be Fascists

10. This week, the National Front Party, led by reliable fascist Marine Le Pen, won the first round of regional elections in France.

9. Another thing happened this week that you may have heard about. Donald Trump, the presumptive frontrunner for the Republican nomination for President of the United States, proposed a total ban on Muslims entering the United States. 
But he hasn't called for the deportation of all Muslims residing in the United States. At least, not yet.

8. Senator Marco Rubio believes a woman's right to choose to end a pregnancy via abortion should be banned totally even in rape cases. But that stance is within the Overton Window, so he's not a fascist as such.

7. “It’s not about closing down mosques. It’s about closing down any place — whether it’s a cafe, a diner, an internet site — any place where radicals are being inspired.” 
- Senator Marco Rubio of Florida (source), who is definitely not a fascist and we shouldn't call him one because that would be an overly shrill and partisan thing to say.

6. The Golden Dawn, an explicitly neo-fascist party in Greece, won 6.8% of the vote in that country's election this year despite most of its leadership being behind bars. Golden Dawn operatives have been accused of carrying out acts of violence and hate crimes against immigrants, political opponents, LGBT folks and ethnic minorities. They have also vandalized holocaust memorials, and outside observers frequently draw comparisons to the Nazis when describing them. 
This is not from a movie. This is a Golden Dawn rally.
Meanwhile, the brand new left-wing political party that actually won the Greek elections this year cannot implement its platform due to German intransigence at the European Central Bank. Germany's lending policies towards the smaller European economies have been criticized by some of the most prominent economists in the world as totally counterproductive and stupid, and are sure to lead to the further immiseration of Greece, Spain, and Italy. Recent research suggests a strong correlation between economic failure and the rise of far right wing political extremism.

5. Candy at school???


4. "After more than an hour of solemn ceremony naming Rep. Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, as the 2007-08 House speaker, Gov. Jeb Bush stepped to the podium in the House chamber last week and told a short story about 'unleashing Chang,' his 'mystical warrior' friend. Here are Bush's words, spoken before hundreds of lawmakers and politicians:
Chang is a mystical warrior. Chang is somebody who believes in conservative principles, believes in entrepreneurial capitalism, believes in moral values that underpin a free society. I rely on Chang with great regularity in my public life. He has been by my side and sometimes I let him down. But Chang, this mystical warrior, has never let me down.' Bush then unsheathed a golden sword and gave it to Rubio as a gift. 'I'm going to bestow to you the sword of a great conservative warrior,' he said, as the crowd roared.
"The crowd, however, could be excused for not understanding Bush's enigmatic foray into the realm of Eastern mysticism. We're here to help. In a 1989 Washington Post article on the politics of tennis, former President George Bush was quoted as threatening to 'unleash Chang' as a means of intimidating other players. The saying was apparently quite popular with Gov. Bush's father, and referred to a legendary warrior named Chang who was called upon to settle political disputes in Chinese dynasties of yore. The phrase has evolved, under Gov. Jeb Bush's use, to mean the need to fix conflicts or disagreements over an issue. Faced with a stalemate, the governor apparently 'unleashes Chang' as a rhetorical device, signaling it's time to stop arguing and start agreeing. No word on if Rubio will unleash Chang, or the sword, as he faces squabbles in the future." 
The Gainesville Sun, Sunday, September 18, 2005. 
Chiang Kai-Shek, Mystical Warrior
The Chang referred to in the above story is actually Chiang Kai-Shek, the Nationalist Chinese Warlord who took refuge in Taiwan after Mao won the Chinese Civil War in 1949. Starting in the 1950s, the U.S. Navy began protecting Taiwan from invasion by the much stronger mainland Chinese communist regime. Far rightwing loonies of the day (such as John Birchers) believed that the U.S. Navy was actually protecting the Chinese mainland from Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalists. In their view, the Navy was keeping Chiang Kai-Shek "leashed." They periodically called for the U.S. Navy to "unleash Chiang Kaishek" so that he could reconquer mainland China. Yeah.

When George H.W. Bush played tennis badly in the 70s and 80s, he threatened to "unleash Chiang" as a goof on the rightwing nutcases of the day and on his own dweeby lack of serious tennis skills. Those Bushes are some charmers, aren't they?
Former President George W. Bush, a moderate conservative who instituted a regime of torture, bombed and invaded Iraq thus planting the seed of al-Qaeda in Iraq which later became Daesh (aka the Islamic State), and illegally fired U.S. attorneys in order to intimidate his political opponents. Now I understand he paints lovely watercolors of himself in the shower. Such charm. So wow.
How this was transmitted into the family lore that Jeb describes above in which Chang is a mystical warrior "who believes in conservative principles, believes in entrepreneurial capitalism, believes in moral values" is a mystery we may never solve.

3. Meanwhile in Hungary:

2. Nate Silver is as good a predictor of electoral results as we have in the United States of America. He continues to argue that Donald Trump has very weak chances of winning the GOP nomination. So we're okay right? 
It's not as if Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio want to do anything crazy like ban entry of Muslims into the United States. Ted Cruz just thinks it's really cool and fun to tell made up stories about district court judges threatening teenage girls with jail time "if they say the name of Jesus." So I'm relieved, that's for sure.

1. Remember in 1989 when liberal democracy won and history ended? Francis Fukuyama does. And Fukuyama is the most influential scholar of political development in the world today according to Stanford University.

Monday, December 7, 2015

God, Guns, and Science: A Humble Proposal

There's terror in the air once again. Guns, terrorist sleeper cells, metastasizing civil war in the Middle East, a new season of Game of Thrones that could disappoint fans.1 There are ordinary decent citizens asking: what's next? Must I buy a gun to protect myself?2 Right now, in this country, we've got liberals terrified of the endless stream of mass shootings, and conservatives arming themselves to the teeth because they're terrified of terrorists who suddenly seem to be encroaching with unimaginable rapidity on the West. So what are we to do?
A lot of religious folks out there see guns as a kind of balm against the fearsome and devilish world out there.3 But there are plenty of scientists and followers of the scientific path who feel the same way. Likewise regarding those of us with a disdain for guns: you'll talk to believers and non-believers alike who feel we need to have fewer guns in fewer hands, or no guns in no hands at all. There's no single profile for a gun control supporter or a total gun freedom die hard, no matter the stereotypes you may have heard.
Activists for gun control, if they do not call for an outright ban on guns altogether,4 generally suggest we need common sense regulations on the manufacture, sale, and use of guns, comparable to laws on the books in places like Australia or Japan.5 Members of the NRA, as well as also opponents of gun control who aren't total nutcases, believe something very different about the gun violence that wracks our country on a daily basis. They believe we actually need fewer regulations on guns, so that everyone can carry a gun wherever they go just in case a fight breaks out and we need to settle this like men.6 In extreme cases, they might even believe in the opposite of a total gun ban, that is to say they want to institute mandatory gun ownership and usage.
But today we are looking for answers, for consensus. And I think it's high time we found some common ground. It can't be that hard. We all have teeth and toes and belly buttons.7 So where's our common ground? Well, believers think that God created Earth8 in seven days. A reasonable hypothesis. And humans of a more scientifically-minded persuasion tend to think we should test hypotheses to see if they're actually true. I bet you see where I'm going with this.
But you're wrong. What you're thinking is wrong. I'm sorry, it's just wrong. Get it out of your head. Is it gone? Good. Now we can move on.9 Instead of using one of the ways of thinking to test the other, which would be really stupid and wouldn't please anyone,10 I'm suggesting we combine the two, to renew our way of dealing with guns.
If God created the world in seven days, then surely a week of total gun proliferation - as in a gun carried by every single man, woman and child on the planet at all times - would be enough to satisfy the religiously-inclined that respect has been paid to the idea that the problem is too few guns. And then, after that week is over,11 we can throw all the guns away, and have seven days with no guns at all anywhere. And with that, we satisfy the scientists, because that will be a double blind study of whether more or less innocent people are hurt during "all gun week" or "no gun week." After these trial weeks are over, I think we'll be all be ready to agree on what to do next. That's right, you guessed it! We'll all agree it's time to go back to anticipating the next season (or being disappointed by the current season) of our favorite television program.12

1 I'm not saying it will, but it MIGHT.
2 The answer…is yes. Or maybe not. Full story at 11.
3 You're saying you think I used the same clumsy and cliché formulation twice in one sentence?. I don't know, buddy, that sounds pretty out there.
4 HAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAHA!
5 Because we wouldn't want to be like Europe, now would we? I mean, there's a reason we sent Mad King George that strongly-worded letter all those years ago...
6 Or apes. Apes have always settled disputes with firearms, ever since the U.S. began outfitting troops of apes with top-of-the-line weaponry in the 70s to fight communism following the sage advice of Charlton Heston who had personal experience with the ferocity of apes and absolutely knew what he was talking about and was not at all exploiting Gerald Ford's fondness for late night pot smoking sessions, not even a little a bit.
7 Well, not all of us, but I'm not looking to find common ground with fucking freaks! Are you?
8 Formerly known as Joe's Planet.
9 Where do you go get all these big ideas all the time? They're just not going to happen you dumb stupid ape.
10 Except for you smug scientists. We are so sick of you riding around on your tall horse made of ivory. It's not even real ivory. And if it was, we wouldn't care.
11 Thank God! Wait, I mean-
12 Because we get to choose what television program we like to watch! That's freedom! Can you taste it? Because I can.

Friday, December 4, 2015

To All the Whiners Who Whine About My Generation Whining Too Much


Dear Whiners of Generation X and Generation Boomer and also those Self-Loathing Whiners of My Own Cohort,

I have noticed a certain kind of an opinion editorial that pops every other month or so. Sometimes it shows up on some random blog, and sometimes on an established opinion journal such as The Atlantic. The editorial generally goes like this: college students and twentysomethings today really are the worst. They are entitled, childish, coddled and absolutely hopeless as people because they are too obsessed with trigger warnings and participation trophies. They think they are all special snowflakes, but really they are not special snowflakes at all. They need to wake up and face reality because their parents aren't going to be around to hold their hands forever.

If you write or share this kind of piece that I have just described, please stop it. You are only adding to a perpetually dull subgenre that without exception fails to engage with contemporary life at such a fundamental level that your work is not even wrong. You’re not wrong, you’re just deeply incurious and seemingly unwilling to do any real work to understand what’s going in the world around you. You say my generation is overly sensitive but that’s so far from the problem as to be laughable. 

Snake people (a term I think most of us millennials prefer to use so maybe you could give us the right to self-name at least) are a generation that has been pretty seriously fucked over by previous generations both in economic terms and far more permanent environmental ones. We came of age into a piece of shit economy facing factors that are unprecedented in the U.S. since the Second World War: zero wage growth1 and zero job security. This is an economy engineered by boomers and Xers to redistribute all the wealth of the nation to the top one percent and to say fuck you to everyone who doesn’t make it there. The results are unimpressive and we have every right to bitch about it. Previous generations (read: not snake people) also decided it wasn’t important to make any effort at all since at least the 1970s to try to prevent their bullshit consumption patterns from permanently ruining the planet we all have to live on. Frankly, given the hand we were dealt, we shouldn't be complaining. We should be taking hostages.

OK, let’s leave all that to the side for a moment. Pretend none of it matters, or maybe even didn’t happen. Some people think the climate is just fine (Republicans). Some people think the economy is just fine (Upper Middle Class Obama Supporters). Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. Even then, pretty much everything you talk about in your dumb snake-people-are-too-whiny articles is the result of boomers and Xers (read: not snake people) choosing to privatize and/or otherwise restructure all the civic institutions of this country to function more like shopping malls, which always have a primary mission of keeping the customer satisfied.

And see I don’t know if you’ve ever worked a retail job in your life. Most snake people have worked this kind of job, since it’s been one of the only growth areas of the labor market since we’ve been of age for ‘full-time employment’ – a term that itself is pretty much a joke for any of us who weren’t lucky enough to be able to purchase a college degree. But if you have worked retail, I’m sure you’re well aware that a lot of customers can be entitled, tantrum-throwing, humorless mouth breathers. That’s no accident. In fact, it’s pretty much part of what defines being what’s called a customer. If you don’t find evidence for that claim in the dictionary, please direct your attention to reality because it’s obvious and you’ve been one. I have. We all have. It’s part of the game.

Being a student is supposed to be something entirely different. A student is not supposed to be concerned with being satisfied by a product or service, but rather solely about learning for its own sake. Unfortunately, some folks in the generations prior to ours got the idea it would be more profitable to throw that distinction away. And so here we are, where universities and colleges are competing to keep customers satisfied. That means the growing corps of administrators that manage these institutions are pressuring teachers, professors, and staff to treat students not as thinking human people, but instead as consumers of the lowest common denominator. You know, these kind of folks. Folks who we certainly should condemn for playing the roles that have been written for them by a thing we all really like called the market.

I haven’t yet addressed that your editorials always tend to erase the vast majority of my generation in favor of focusing on a narrow band of extraordinarily privileged snake people. I count myself among that lucky caste, and I will defend how we act at least to the extent that we are certainly no more intellectually lazy or self-involved than our parents were when they were our age. And if it irritates you that we’re trying to get people to stop using the word ‘faggot’ so casually, please remember that you are getting old and one day will be the crotchety grandpa that exclaims over one embarrassed Thanksgiving dinner “What? I don’t see what’s wrong with calling them coloreds. I have plenty of colored friends.”2

However, there has been so much writing about the snake people of my class that to belabor our defense would be very much beside the point. Instead, allow me to introduce you to the millions of people born in the 1980s and 90s who did not have helicopter parents, and did not know anybody with helicopter parents. These are the people who have been told by every president in their lifetime that they are entitled to pretty much nothing – not fair wages, not stable jobs, not pensions or 401ks, not vacations, not homeownership, and certainly not anything fancy like the right to whine about their teachers being too hard on them. The only thing they were told is to work hard and get an education because that's the only slim chance they have at something resembling decent living conditions. But most K-12 public schools are in the shit, and even if they managed to finagle an education out of one of them, they had to confront a higher education system designed by and for (comparatively) rich people.

These folks I’ve just tried to introduce to you, since it doesn’t seem like you’re aware they even exist, form the majority of us snake people. Get to know them, because once they win a $15/hour minimum wage nationally, they’re going to be cleaning up every other mess made by people who should know better. They come from a rich tradition of doing exactly what I’m describing and you better hope I’m right because otherwise our species is pretty much doomed maybe actually for real this time. You owe them an apology, and a thanks-in-advance note too if you’re feeling generous. But you’re probably not feeling very generous since otherwise you wouldn’t have written all that shit that inspired this letter.

In short,3 before you write another article about snake people (or millennials, if you insist) go try harder at thinking and please read more books because as it stands now you write in the manner of a spoiled, unlearned twat.

1 This is despite steadily rising productivity. I am of the funny opinion that as societies become wealthier, living standards should rise. John Galt, eat your heart out. 
2 A hat tip to Sarah Silverman for articulating this last insight in similar words. She is one of those rare adults who actually understands something called an intergenerational compact.
3 Or, TL;DR as snake people like to say. You may be able to tell I'm not very good at TL;DR. Sometimes I fail as a snake person.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Genuine Article


Flying saucer occupants
More than a decade ago I chanced upon an old and forgotten Canadian telefilm called Zero Hour that was playing on Turner Classic Movies. The ZAZ filmmaking team had made the movie Airplane! by using this old movie's screenplay as a template for their spoof. They just took the script and added a mountain of jokes. And due to my familiarity with the spoof, I found watching Zero Hour to be both hilarious and peculiar. I had seen it before, and yet this was the original and genuine article that I never even knew existed.

Reading Flying Saucer Occupants felt like a similar experience to the one I described above. This is a completely earnest 'non-fiction' book focusing on eyewitness accounts of aliens supposedly associated with UFOs. It is written by a well-meaning husband and wife team of "UFO researchers" who "like" to put "odd" "quotation marks" around various words for oftentimes inexplicable reasons.

There is no version of this book with jokes added, though I'm quite tempted to write it. But given the endless numbers of parodies and spoofs of belief in Flying Saucers and alien abductions that now exist, perhaps its unnecessary. Once The Simpsons and South Park have covered this ground so thoroughly, is there anything left to goof on? That's probably why I felt like I was reading material ripe for satire - because the whole body of literature that this book is a part of is known to me mainly through satire, parody and spoof.

There are moments when my heart almost ached for how sincere and serious these folks are about the phenomenally silly work they are doing. They write so quaintly about alien kissing (referring to it as osculation, natch, because they are true nerds deep down) and so gingerly about alien sex, you really have to read it to believe it.

On the other hand, though they try as hard as they can to be progressive on the subject of race, there are some real howlers on that score. Like the couple from New Hampshire that discover under hypnotherapy that they were abducted by aliens. Early on, the authors comment that it is an interracial couple (not that there's anything wrong with that, they add in slightly different words). Near the end of the chapter, they speculate that the couple was abducted because the aliens were curious about how they were of different races. Really. And in the conclusory chapter, they muse that the wildly differing descriptions of aliens by different eyewitness may be explained by different alien races, adding in a parenthetical that "we have three different [races] here on earth." Ï cringed and I cringed, but I read on to the very last page.

A warning in case you want to seek out this book for yourself: while many parts of it fall under the category of 'wonderful curiosity' just as I've described here, much of the book is taken up by endless catalogues of alien encounters that become very boring and drab as they accrete. I guess that's why I've got to write to spoof version, to mine the comedy out of the big hunk of wasted tree matter that is Flying Saucer Occupants.
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