Sniper-Think, Killer Narratives, and The Loss of Presence

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By Shawn Stjean

No cultural phenomenon could better support the U.S. government’s interminable “War on Terror” than the current wave of sniper hagiographies on screens and in bookstores in 2015.  It’s not surprising, given a public forced to accept drone strikes as some kind of moral and even righteous activity.  But I say, hey, let some of those shooter-turned-writers cash in on their experiences–they earned it better than the guys who sent them into harm’s way.  But it’s all killing from a distance, isn’t it–presidents have been doing it since long before the Mexican and Indian Wars of the 19th century.  And now the average guy can do it vicariously from his armchair, raising a glass to “Reaper” or the next one, as he flips the page on yet another patriot claiming to be “the one” who got Bin Laden.

Partially because I was a Marine long ago, and knew several snipers, and received a fair amount of long-distance weapons training myself, I devoted a good portion of my novel Clotho’s Loom to a sniper narrative, in order to show its dehumanizing effect on the shooter.  Hey, these guys have red blood like the rest of us: some are as decent as anyone you’ll ever meet, some are relentless fools.  But let’s not kid each other–what they do is not heroic, and not anything a mother or father should want sons and daughters to aspire to.  Thirty-three confirmed kills may sound cool on your video game board at 17 years old.  If you’re older than that, it should start to bother you.  At best, it’s a necessary battle tactic; at worst, murder.  It sure ain’t fighting fires.

But I’m not really here to talk politics.  Like a submarine story, there’s no denying the inherent suspense in writing about military adventurism on the ground.  And a novel ought to present the story, and let the reader judge.  The problem is, biographies and pseudo-biographies and autobiographies like the present ones aren’t confined by that limitation. So by definition, the “pro” position gets articulated, while the rest of us with hesitations stand mute.

No, then, I’m really here to point out the underlying lack-of-thought process that is echoes in our everyday lives by the sniper mentality, which is: Get More Distance.  And how to do that?  Simple: Better Technology.

Wait! you might say, what about skill, discipline, commitment? True, but the rest of us are living a diluted version.  We have the distance, in spades.  The rest?

Think about it.  We have: headphones with artificial rhythms insulating us from the natural rhythms of our respiration, LCD screens blocking us from our views of the world and each other, mirrors distorting our sense of self-worth, drugs and alcohol deflecting the pain, noise between us and the silence or our own thoughts, texts saving us from lengthy telephone conversations, telephones saving us from inconvenient visits to friends and family, two tons of steel, glass and airbags between us and the next driver, navigation systems telling us which way to steer, calculators doing the math for us, Google searching for us, virtual dating and break-up by text, contact lists remembering numbers and even names for us, long-distance college classrooms taught by God-knows-who, kevlar and rubber cushioning our feet from the grass, an average 38-minute commute between home and job.  Cameras digitize our faces to keep our loved ones apprised of our appearances.  Tattoos and piercings take the place of scars.   We do our best trash-talking online [ahem].

And 7000 miles between us and the wars.  So many that we don’t think about them for days at a time.

From my list above, half of the items did not exist a generation ago.  A century ago, almost none.  In 1915, you visited with your people if you could, wrote them letters if you couldn’t.  And you wrote “I miss you,” because you really did–no technology dulled the pain for you, because that kind of pain is normal, it’s healthy, and it’s designed into us at the genetic level in order to help us keep our priorities straight.  And in those days, if you wanted the land or the resources or the lives of another country, you had to send tens of thousands of your own husbands and fathers and sons, with a very real probability you’d never see them again, over there to either take those things, OR decide they weren’t worth the risk and violence after all, and come home or stay in the first place.

We’re all snipers now.  Most, risk-free.  Are we heroic?

You’ll be a better hero to your kids if you hug them when they need it, and scold them or grab them by the shirt-collar when they deserve it, and put up with the discomfort-level, either way.  A text and emoticon just keeps you too far away.

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Issues for Indie Authors: Revising The Script, one Strong Verb at a Time

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By Shawn Stjean

Ever catch yourself substituting a wrong word for the right one, on purpose?  Dumbing your language down?  No?

Liar.  (As Emerson once opined, sometimes only one word works.  Like “Damn.”)

The collapse and convergence or shrinking of our language should be apparent to anyone who’s listening and reading: just observe how the word “way” (original meaning: path) has begun to permanently replace at least three other words in modern English: much, far, very.

“It’s way too easy” / “Mine’s way better”

“We go way back”/ “This happens way too often”

“That skirt’s way cool”

These in addition to its now-standard colloquial uses: “There’s no way I’m going there.” [slang for “possibility”]

We, as a literate culture, have somehow managed to lose our way [ahem.]

No, it isn’t just kids.  Watch your own language.  Authors and editors of published books and even what’s left of our newspapers have accepted such sentences as correct for twenty years.  But there’s something not so obvious here, like a complicating infection from an original illness.  And what we do once on purpose–to fit in, to seem up-to-date, for verisimilitude in dialogue, and so on, we repeat out of habit.

It’s all about verbs–weak ones–like the one in this sentence.  Go ahead–I’ll wait while you seek it.

You unearthed the problem, apprehended it, discovered it.   You found it.  Got it.  Yeah, my bad.

The verb IS (infinitive “to be” conjugated further as “was,” “were,” “are,” “being,”) lurking underneath those apostrophes and contractions, stands low as the base of a problematic pyramid, but the issue goes very deep, to the base foundations of illiteracy.  “To be,” as the weakest verb in our language, gets the most use.  It serves slave-duty.  Other third-tier infinitives: “To go” “To do.” “To say.” “To see.”

Next come hundreds of second-tier verbs, and even people who read frequently can get mired at this level, for their entire lives.   “I see what you mean.”  “I get it.” “I said so.”  “I went there.”

Crucial point: I remind my students, ad nauseum, that we don’t just desire better sounding verbs–we require more efficient verbs–ones that do more work.  “Attempt” may work no better than “try,” depending on context.  This advice runs counter to everything they assume–because everybody knows, the longer your essay, and the fancier the vocabulary, the higher the grade, right? (or the more pages in the book, the more money you can charge.)

One-dimensionality needs vigilant guarding against.

Now, among young folks I often like to point to pop culture for my examples, along with occasional pedantic references to Shakespeare and Milton.  Pop music functions well–great, thoughtful artists struggle right alongside horribly mediocre ones. Take:

Rush–the band’s name itself is a multi-signifying verb–though it’s also a noun.  Like the members themselves, the name works hard.  Check them out–and pay attention to the lyrics.

But let’s examine a more current example.  As I attended high school sporting events and practices this summer, I heard much motivational music blaring from loudspeakers:  here’s a YouTube link for the uninitiated, to the The Script’s excellent video for “Hall of Fame”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mk48xRzuNvA

The music video reaches a potential that the song itself does not.  As good and catchy and emotionally stirring as this tune featuring will.i.am is, and as genuinely great as it aspires to be, it ironically relies on some of the weakest language available in English.  And remember, student-athletes hearing it are absorbed in the act, at that very moment, of pushing themselves to become better.

Be students
Be teachers
Be politicians
Be preachers

There’s a certain limited value in the repetition, or parallelism here.   And there’s the musical issue–the stanza requires one-syllable verbs.  HOWEVER, take a look at what just a little more thought can accomplish:

VS.

Be students
Seek teachers
Hear politicians
Heed preachers

The revision emphasizes the process of becoming over the state of being, as every kid jock (not all deaf ballerinas or scrawny boxers) in the grind of rehearsal, workout, or practice knows at a gut level–you have to work hard at it.  And real students–of life–require more than simple classroom attendance, or book learning.  One must venture out and interact with others–listen, try, do, fail, succeed, fail again, try again, work harder.  I’d argue that a great deal of resonance has been added by these revisions: rather than substituting meaning, they multiply it.

Third tier verbs function merely as connectors (“Jack was happy.”)  Second tier [vague and nondescriptive] verbs communicate the basic idea and no more (“I said it,”) and First tier [the best word for the job] verbs ennoble us: make us think, challenge us, inspire us, reward our effort.

Here’s a better verse from the same song:

You can move a mountain
You can break rocks
You can be a master
Don’t wait for luck
Dedicate yourself and you can find yourself

“Way” better.  And it so happens that a one-syllable word like “wait” can be the exact, perfect one.

POST-TEST.  Some might object that pop music makes an easy target.  Fair enough.  For you writers out there, here’s another example of how commercial success does not require anything like the higher standards I’ve described above.  Tune in on that frequency as you read.  Perhaps these opening paragraphs of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo could be improved?

It happened every year, was almost a ritual. And this was his eighty-second birthday. When, as usual, the flower was delivered, he took off the wrapping paper and then picked up the telephone to call Detective Superintendent Morell who, when he retired, had moved to Lake Siljan in Dalarna. They were not only the same age, they had been born on the same day—which was something of an irony under the circumstances. The old policeman was sitting with his coffee, waiting, expecting the call.

“It arrived.”

“What is it this year?”

“I don’t know what kind it is. I’ll have to get someone to tell me what it is. It’s white.”

“No letter, I suppose.”

“Just the flower. The frame is the same kind as last year. One of those do-it-yourself ones.”

“Postmark?”

“Stockholm.”

“Handwriting?”

“Same as always, all in capitals. Upright, neat lettering.”

With that, the subject was exhausted, and not another word was exchanged for almost a minute. The retired policeman leaned back in his kitchen chair and drew on his pipe. He knew he was no longer expected to come up with a pithy comment or any sharp question which would shed a new light on the case. Those days had long since passed, and the exchange between the two men seemed like a ritual attaching to a mystery which no-one else in the whole world had the least interest in unravelling.

The Latin name was Leptospermum (Myrtaceae) rubinette. It was a plant about four inches high with small, heather-like foliage and a white flower with five petals about one inch across. The plant was native to the Australian bush and uplands, where it was to be found among tussocks of grass. There it was called Desert Snow. . .

Now, in America we all seem to believe that one can’t argue with success.  Yet, if this remains the best we professionals can do, I’m a little concerned about the future of the amateurs.  Because let us not forget: reading and writing remain the best activities for promoting critical thinking and growing the human brain.  Students have been taught to write in the passive voice (sentences have no actor in them, as this one.  Who taught the students to do it?,) which solves a few problems (overuse of “I”) but the cure becomes worse than the disease.  It leads to cliche’d and passive thinking.

I have no opinion on the plotting, characterization, attention-getting ability, expositional effectiveness, or any other aspect of Larssen’s work here.  He may well be a genius beyond my ken.  My example only applies to his use of language, which, by the standards described in this article, scores “mediocre” at best.  His characters certainly should be forgiven for their terseness and inarticulateness, designed in by the author as part of a shorthand between intimates.  In fact, in many ways, they speak better than the narrator (who, in two cases, uses “to be” forms three times in one sentence.)  This may sound pompous of me and hopelessly outmoded, but I would never let one of my own students get away with that.

Now lest anyone object that these can’t be improved–that sometimes one must use a lesser word–you are correct.  It’s true.  But, most of the time, it only takes another pass.  And some sweat of the brow.

REVISION:

The plant, native to the Australian bush and uplands, grew [hid, nestled, waited discovery] among tussocks of grass.

Much more efficient–AND the emphasis shifts to the important element under discussion–the plant itself.  But then again, not the best way to get paid by the word, fill up more pages, consume people’s time, or, much like the rare flower of the book, encourage the growth of readers, among stagnant masses.

Perhaps the world does know Larsson’s name–for the moment–and I’m sure he’s made his money.  Will he, or The Script and will.i.am, ever share company with that other famous William, of the 16th century, master of i.am.bic pentameter?  I wonder: After all, no one ever rode into the Hall of Fame on their third- and second-best.

Most sink to the master standard of our time–“Good enough”–or tread water as the Good many were born with.  Only the few rise to Greatness.  Because they’re willing to earn it.  Learn.  Sweat.  Think.  Work harder, smarter, and better.

But hey, as the Most like to say: it is what it is.

Right?

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Colors On the Street: Red, White and Blue

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By Shawn Stjean

This may seem like I’m simply nostalgic over the past, but believe me, I’m not.  So bear with me.

When the snow-plows only take a single, half-hearted pass down most of the side streets, but make the main roads whistle clean, it’s hard not to notice what’s on them.  By main roads I mean not just highways, but streets occupied by one thing, predominantly: stores.

When I was a kid, my hometown didn’t support more merchants than the average American small city:  a few markets, toy store, library, newsstands, jeweler, cobbler, pharmacy.  Most of our citizens worked in the factories scattered along the river.  Those jobs and businesses have all but bled out now, or moved first to Mexico and later to China, but the ghosts of the old buildings remain today.  Not all bad news: ‘cuz back in the ’80s, along with cable TV, we got a big, shiny new mall and some big-box stores.

Somewhere along the way, one of the elementary schools was closed, and burned down after remaining vacant for about a year.  The lot was cleared.  It might have seemed slightly perverse in those days (Sunday night television, for example, featured Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, followed by The Wonderful World of Disney) to directly replace a school with the liquor store that stands there currently.  After all, we already had a couple of them on the strip.  So the rebuilt building functioned as a Chinese restaurant, for awhile.

During that era, the local hardware store succumbed to the competition from the new Home Depot a couple of miles to the south, and the Lowe’s to the north.  Today, it’s a liquor store.  Not far away, the pharmacy where I bought my comics from the husband of my 5th grade English teacher, transformed into a bank for about a decade, is now. . .a liquor store.  Mid-sized mom and pop supermarket: a liquor store.

Just lately, as I was forced to avoid the back roads and use the snow-cleared main artery, I passed what I expected to be one of the few bookstores in the region.  A large nationwide chain, that recently closed its doors.  I’m sure you remember it.  The building?  You guessed it: now a cavernous liquor store.

Meanwhile, the new LED road signs warn us all to “Drive Sobah,” conjuring images of cops who will run you down, if they haven’t already towed you away or ticketed you for parking on the street in front of your own house, that won’t get cleared anyway.   (Where is that revenue going, anyway, if not to the snow removal budget?)  I’d have thought that the local government controlling, through licensing, the number of outlets that sell spirits would have helped a bit–the same way the blue laws used to prohibit sales on Sunday–but it’s a free country, you can’t stop progress.

Notice some patterns here?  What’s the message, accumulating like unshoveled drifts, year after year, in Small Town, USA?  After surviving a childhood in overcrowded classrooms with underpaid teachers: take your compromised education down the street to work a non-union retail job selling cell phones, computers, packaged food; then drive home, if you can get there; turn on the boob tube;  by all means do not read a book;  watch kittie videos on the internet; and most importantly. . .keep drinking.  But, as you return to that job–which is probably much more of a commute than you’d like, though, hey, you have a new car (and five years of payments to go with it,) right?–stop by, spend some money, and always drive sober.

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Needling The Winners: Football, Hypocrisy, and the next Patriots Scandal

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By Shawn Stjean

One of the first critical acts children are capable of is to observe the often-wide gulf between how the adults around them speak, and how they act.  They do this unconsciously, even before they can articulate their conclusions.  And yeah, there’s a word for what they see *cough* in my title *cough*.

So what are they perceiving as the 2014 NFL season draws to a close?

1. Americans are, as always, at-any-cost ultra-competitive.  Ever hear “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing”? If not, you didn’t grow up in the USA.  No one complains about stupid little endzone dances, or Gronk with his signature, juvenile spike of the ball following a touchdown, or “We’re number one” foam fingers or terrible towels, all of which would have been called poor sportsmanship by every previous generation of human beings to inhabit this planet.  Is it any surprise when we hear, then, in the wider culture, of wiretapping foreign governments and citizens’ phone calls, an income inequity between rich and poor that staggers the mind, and drone strikes? There’s a chilling consistency there.  Doesn’t Brady himself pull down more yearly salary than most of us could see in six lifetimes?  Um, unfair advantage, anyone?

2.  Football is a sport of deception.  Like chess.  Hell, like tennis, volleyball, or poker, with perhaps a bit more planning.  At its core level, it’s lying.  Are they going to run or pass?  Who’s getting the ball?  Will it be a trick play?  What do those signals mean?  What’s that hurry-up offense about, anyway?  We could have predicted something like another impending “cry foul” when Tom Brady had to remind reporters following the Ravens game that the Patriots do read the rulebook, and then take every advantage allowed them.  In an age where athletes are routinely busted for steroid use, beating their wives, and even murder, and yet are still valorized and lavished with 1000 times more media attention than a battalion of firefighters, doctors and nurses, or teachers, a few PSI more or less in a pigskin are supposed to matter?

3.  BUT we have fast become a culture of childish and narcissistic whiners.  There is nothing more pathetic than grown men playing drama queen after a play they didn’t execute, throwing up pointed fingers at opponents in a “He touched me!” gesture.  Well, maybe one thing.  And that’s a so-called news media with nothing better to do than fan the flames of outrage, because their very livelihoods depend on having a wide-open piehole every day.  Plus, they love to hear the sound of their own voices.  “Deflate-gate”. Wow, that is so incredibly clever, and not in the least predictable.  Like any number of headlines using the word “Balls.”

Grow up.  It’ a game.  None more so than the Super Bowl, which functions as much as a delivery device for advertising, not Football, as a pill does for Ritalin or a syringe does for saline, or a needle does for air.  For crying out loud.  Everybody loses.  Even Patriots.  Most of us lose more than we win.  And the last lesson any kid needs to take away from her or his role models is this: Fire up the Excuse Machine when you sense a loss coming.  Because the next logical step is to lay down and stop trying, ‘cuz if you lose it’s never your fault.

By the way, Kids, turn on any screen device and imbibe the clear message to drink, smoke, eat crap, waste your days on games and more TV, consume mindlessly, go into debt, go to work all day every day, pay the government and insurance companies half of all your earnings, BUT: don’t ever cheat.  That would be taking unfair advantage.

By definition, a football is a gasbag.  There’ a lot of that going around.

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Traps For Indie Writers: Thematic Ambiguity, or Why Revenge Doesn’t [and Does] Work

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Earlier this year, I wrote about the overlooked importance of plot complication (Act 2 in a 3 or 5 act structure, whether play or novel.)  In Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, the protagonist receives his mission from the ghost of his dead father:  “Revenge [my] foul and most unnatural murder.”  Sounds straightforward enough.  So much so that young Hamlet immediately vows to do it swiftly, and without distraction.  However, the youth (and many readers) overlook the Ghost’s further, vital instruction: that no matter how his son pursues the act, “Taint not thy mind.” Now, invest the time to spin out the implications of “taint.” To paraphrase, Get justice for my murder, with extreme prejudice, yet do not in the process become that which you hate the most.

Most, though not all, of my university students, when this paradoxical pair of charges is brought to their attention, agree: this isn’t Mission Difficult, it’s Mission Impossible.  Take revenge, but remain pure.

One of the more challenging tasks for intermediate writers (which includes pretty much everyone who’s ever published anything–no ever masters writing,) because it takes so much self-discipline, is to communicate thematic meaning through plot, dialogue, symbolism, and other literary elements like motif, without either moralizing through the narrator or using a character as a mouthpiece.  And I think this temptation stems from the very real possibility that readers routinely mistake the intentions of writers.

The idea that Revenge simply isn’t a viable way to obtain justice, while endorsed by most of the literary classics we treasure, remains controversial.  Popular film and television continues to treat the subject on a rolling basis, sometimes with much more depth than manipulative stuff like the masochistic  Death Wish franchise.  And the more complex the writer and audience, the more ambiguous revenge gets.  Just catch some Sopranos reruns.  Because, as human beings, most of us have either done it, or wanted badly to do it.

Television, unlike film, can be dangerous in the messages it sends, because of the continued need to preserve characters for next week and next year.  Tony Soprano does seem to get away with it.  But examine his quality of life.  And. . .watch that final episode carefully, and experience the absolute sense of dread.

Let’s say you got away with it. So you feel great, right?  The world seems sweeter, your life is cleaner, food tastes great.  Hmm.  No–what you did was exchange a cheap sense of justice served for a subtly degraded life.  Because someone hurt you, you hurt back–and now the world is just a bit worse: the trust has eroded like ice caps melting over the course of years.  It’s like the price thieves pay: they must always lock their own doors.  And liars can never trust what people tell them.

Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “A Cask of Amontillado,” a deeper work than the much-anthologized “Tell-Tale Heart,” fools untrained readers into thinking that bad deeds can go unpunished, but a close reading demonstrates that the narrator is uttering a deathbed confession in dire fear for his eternal soul.

The coat-of-arms of the Montresor family is that of a serpent bruising the heel of man, which in turn is crushed under that heel.  The common biblical allusion to Genesis signals what, in modern terms, we might call an endless circle of violence, which can be abstractly represented by the common recycling sign below.

As I teach works that use revenge plots, a minority of students usually don’t agree with the textual evidence–we call this “reading against the grain”–or find that evidence ambiguous.  In other words, a theme that does not seem to accord with basic human truths–such as “Revenge DOES work” always resonates with a few readers.  People who believe that may value personal satisfaction above all else.  This is probably why most fictional revenge plots raise the stakes to life-and-death–so that there’s no mistaking the moral implications of punishing another human being, in pursuit of personal justice.  Even so, ambiguities do persist.  Hamlet may be dead, at the end of Shakespeare’s play, along with his girlfriend, her father and brother, and various members of the royal family and a few friends, BUT the “something rotten in the state” of Denmark has been purged.  We have some reason to believe that Fortinbras will make a better king than any of the Danes, and so the greater good has arguably been served by Hamlet’s quest, if only unwittingly.

On a personal level, however–spiritual remorse of the Poe variety aside–all revenge does is make the world that much more fallen and perverse, which is why the Arthurian mythology stands as antithetical to the medieval “might makes right” ethic–an outmoded code of a vanished epoch.

So, as always, resist the urge to tell, and SHOW revenge not working, if that’s what you believe.  Let your characters suffer for it.  Twist the plot.  Embed the symbology.  Freight the dialogue with irony.

Or, if you believe differently, let them prosper.  And don’t forget to lock your door.

 

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(Re)Awakening the British Spirit in the Star Wars Mythology

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By Shawn Stjean

No more basic example of cultural criticism exists than to recognize that the original Star Wars offered a subtextual retelling (in production during our nation’s Bicentennial,) of the American Revolution.  And even though it enjoyed success worldwide, US citizens, whether they thought consciously about it or not, had an extra layer of identification with Luke Skywalker and his outgunned band of rebels, battling the evil Imperials.

As the teaser trailer for the next iteration in the mythology has appeared, I’m reminded that there’s an even deeper subtext that runs through both trilogies, running counter to American mythology, that apparently will move forward.  I refer to the films’ far-less discussed British-ness.

The screenshot above from the The Force Awakens teaser invokes nothing so much as a knight, straight out of Arthurian legend, leaving the shelter and protection of court, to enter the wilderness with medieval broadsword, and fulfill his quest.  The hilted sword itself, while functional in its ability to turn an opponent’s blade from the wielder’s wrist, also in its time functioned as a readily identified icon for the cross, as carried by the Crusaders.  Do not underestimate the connotative power of this image, especially when featured in a 88-second text that reintroduces us to a whole new phase of George Lucas’ canon.

The 1977 original mixed in but downplayed, as much as it could, such elements.  Filmed substantially at Elstree Studios outside London, and employing many Brits among crew and cast, including a real knight (Sir Alec Guiness) as Obi-Wan Kenobi and Hammer films veteran Peter Cushing as Governor Tarkin, the story recounted not a civil war (as the opening crawl claims) but an open rebellion against a corrupt empire.  In finally defeating its ultimate weapon, the Death Star, everyman Luke employs a Force for humanism bequeathed to him by his father.  This is key.  Because I doubt there was an 11-year old boy sitting in those theater seats in 1977 who didn’t feel the strength of the thematic message of that climactic space battle.  When Luke puts away his computer, and freely chooses to use the Force to guide his hand, we not only witnessed the superiority of the human spirit over technology (expressed in cheers and standing ovations by the crowds as the orgasmic explosion of the space station filled the screen). No gimmick or special effect could have achieved such a response.  The film spoke to us at a much deeper level, told us that great feats of courage are possible by anyone, no matter how low their birth or background, no matter how small or weak their physical body, no matter how powerful the tech and resources arrayed against them.

Years later, as the second trilogy premiered with The Phantom Menace, commercial success welcomed it in arms of inevitability.  But die-hard fans made no secret of their discomfort and dissatisfaction–these are a matter of public record.  But the reasons cited were often unarticulated (“something’s missing”) or silly.  Jar-Jar Binks could not have sabotaged that film, any more than British-butler droid C-3P0 could.  I propose an alternate explanation: while catering intermittantly to an American sensibility, the Star Wars films progressively adopt disturbing (to us) trends from other cultures.  Here I’ll ignore the oriental, and direct my focus right across the pond.  PM‘s plot hinges on a search for The Chosen One–unnamed by prophecy–and we discover that he was fathered by the Force itself (immaculate conception.)  He’s a born noble, like Oedipus, hidden in obscurity.  Already this sounds much less North-American to me.  We proceed to learn that this universal cosmic force which “surrounds us and binds us, all living things,” as Obi-Wan had explained to Luke years earlier (or later, chronologically,) is in fact very elitist in its function: only certain special people have the gift, so much so that they are identified at birth and whisked away to be trained in the Jedi temple.  It undoubtedly served Lucas’ larger canvas to introduce slow compromises to the Jedi Order (beginning with Kenobi’s initial lie to Luke about Vader murdering his father.)  However, the audience’s sympathies shift more and more away from the unconscious/mythological level to the conscious, intellectual level.  Eventually the second trilogy pares down to a few moral characters with whom to sympathize, fighting on the side of internally degraded forces in a vain attempt to restore the principles of the Republic.  This may all be much more “grown-up,” and therefore more satisfying in a certain cerebral way.  But Americans, especially, would much rather look away and point the finger at corrupt forms of foreign democracy (see Jon Stewart’s 2014 Rosewater) than accept an allegory of the decline of their own.  Here, the Republic works!

The initial resistance to The Empire Strikes Back is telling in this connection, for it stands as a film with a much less romantic, more “grey,” European aesthetic: life as a series of disillusionments, defeats, and loss, sometimes compensated by survival.  Many throughout the world welcome this sort of philosophical realism–but it is far from the “Everything will be alright” handholding that define 90 percent of American films (including Return of the Jedi, with its childish proposal that Vader could find redemption).  Living Americans never have had to live under sustained aerial bombardment and blockade such as the English did during the mid-twentieth century, or occupation such as the French endured, or the sacrifice of many millions to outlast invasion, as the Russians, or had weapons of mass destruction unleashed upon them, as the Japanese.  We have the luxury of our illusions, observing the world in exclusive terms of “the dark side, [or] the light.”

So the six films increasingly reveal that the Force, like the truth itself, really resides in the custody of the few elites, to be employed against non-sensitives in such forms as mind tricks, telekinesis, and dueling/acrobatic skills.  Anakin finds the Jedi order itself to be very hierarchical, in which padawans answer to knights who answer to masters who ultimately answer to the Council (or just Yoda, or even the Chancellor.)  I’m not claiming that the United States is without its elitism or its class system–but we are very fond of telling ourselves that, and films defy that collective ego-image at their peril.

It isn’t authentic British-ness (if there is such a thing), then, that undergirds the films, so much as the American vision of that entity: unquestioned authority and hierarchy by birth, elitism, exclusionism, expansionism, and a sense of racial/moral superiority, versus American democracy, inclusiveness, and tolerance.  Obviously, to claim this “Yank vs. Brit” dichotomy is real would be absurd–but it certainly is what young people learn from Hollywood film and television.  These dubious truisms may be more visible in Disney’s Pirates of the Carribbean franchise, though no more palpable than in Star Wars.

Even though Lucas’ films are truly postmodern, mixing languages, racial and cultural traditions, and visual iconography (Mark Hamill, for example, trained in Kendo for his lightsaber duels, and Lucas has acknowledged his debt to Japanese director Kurosawa), it’s useful to unpack the various elements, to separate the less- from the more-meaningful.  Will U.S. audiences embrace an even further push east as the Empire rises again, or will they insist on a return to their own cultural values?

link to the teaser trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=erLk59H86ww

knight

Blueprint for your Obnoxiously Perfect Family Holiday Letter–Happy Ironicah!

keen wreath

You probably get one to five of these every year–you know, an estranged sibling or childhood frenemy whose brood just by coincidence or moral superiority or by just being generally better always has scads of wonderful accomplishments to brag on every year. How can you resist reading between the lines of all that glorious repression?  It’s about time you repaid them by sharing your own news. So break out your favorite box of wine, dust off the bong, and polish up your calligraphy skills. . .

Dearest Friends:

Greetings on what some folks like to call “Black Friday”–a day on which so many of us cash those early Christmas bonuses from our husbands’ places of employment.  Heaven knows what all they do there, it’s beyond us women folk [deep sigh].  Anyway, since Dad was laid off for the summer months, because of the economy, and he didn’t qualify for a bonus in 2014, we decided to make all our own gifts this year.  It’s been so much fun bonding as we create treasures from the old tinfoil, unused building materials, and scraps of my wedding dress.

Well, our family dodged several bullets again this year.  We are so blessed.  First, the children.  Tad’s grades at college are not everything they could be–but since he chose to be an English major, we’re at a complete loss to figure out what kind of job he could possibly get, anyway, so it doesn’t really matter.  As for Susie, her election not to complete high school in protest against Establishment fascism has had a silver lining: her boyfriend decided, out of the blue, to propose to her after a long talk with Dad and Dad’s long lost brother, Uncle Fat Mario, who’s recently returned from finding himself after seven to ten years upstate.

Meanwhile, Grandpa realized the one thing he hadn’t finished from his bucket list–besides remodeling the bathroom he tore apart three years ago–was to become a triathlete.  So he began training in late May, bought several hundred dollars worth of supplements down at GNC, more Ace bandages than Florence Nightingale would know what to do with, got a membership to Planet Fitness, and proceeded to burn himself raw on their newest tanning bed.  After he got out of the trauma ward, he vowed that sports had not seen the last of him.  As far as I can determine, this means he spends Saturdays, Sundays, and Monday nights avoiding Grandma by dodging behind the big screen down at McClusky’s.

The pets have been their usual adorable, incorrigible selves.  Skipper got us off to an early start this year by finding all the chocolate Easter eggs that Dad had decided to to hide the night before (so he could sleep in, ) in such brilliant locations as the dirty laundry basket, behind the toilet, my coat pocket, and under Skipper’s water bowl!  So we spent most of the day at the animal hospital inducing charcoal vomiting–but luckily for the rest of us, ham is every bit as delicious on cold sandwiches at 10:30pm as it is served hot with all the trimmings at two in the afternoon.     As for Optimus Prime, she hasn’t enjoyed her organic diet so much, and has mysteriously hit a new high of 24 pounds (possibly a record for a short-hair cat.)  But, then again, we never did find all those socks we thought were in back of the dryer.   Finally, a few weeks ago, the tropical parrot we never got around to naming just flew away when someone left the door open for the hundredth time.  But Dad says it isn’t that cold yet in November and she’s bound to come back.

Merry Xmas and whatever alternative Holiday you may choose to observe,

The Joneses (Dick and Carol Smith-Jones and the kids)

The mother of all Christmas trees,