Weight, Warmth, and Writing: Return of the Analog

 

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By Shawn Stjean

If only that were true; but the signs are there.  Signs that a few people yearn for a more authentic, true, immediate, and visceral experience, and that the shadows and echoes we’re being served don’t quite satisfy us.  I mean, why struggle through Paradise Lost, Homer’s Odyssey, or The Grapes of Wrath when you can get the Wiki-version, or better yet catch a Simpsons‘ parody?  When was the last time a movie gave you joy?  Follow-up: Good for you.  How much CGI did it have?

Somehow, people still wear faced wristwatches–not because they are in a hurry, but because the object emanates beauty: through design, precision, aesthetic qualities.  They still search the night sky, with their naked eyes.  A few even read, in their best if flawed voices, to their children.

Let’s not forget that both analog and digital are recording technologies–rather than see and hear a live performance (a play, concert, reading, interview, and so on) we get the convenience of having it to experience, not live, but at our leisure.   This usually means, of course, that we’ll be doing it alone rather than among a crowd–or with far fewer people around, at any rate.  I will never forget attending a screening of  Eastwood’s Unforgiven at Red Rocks Amphitheater on a hot July night in Colorado, along with three thousand other people, under an open canopy of stars.  That experience ranks second only to my eleven-year-old self seeing the original Star Wars in the local theater–never has a film received a standing ovation and cheering, in my memory, by an audience of adults, reliving their childhood enthusiasm for right over might.  However, these experiences pale in comparison to getting one’s chest thumped at a Bachman Turner Overdrive or Blue Oyster Cult show in a small club and amusement park, respectively–those were rehearsed and orchestrated, of course–but they sure weren’t Memorex.  They were live, baby.

And I have held pen-and-ink manuscripts more than one-hundred years old in my own hands, at the risk of them falling apart, to study the past, and pass on what I discovered.  I could not be present at the crucifixion of Christ, but I have the Pieta and the New Testament.

I won’t wax nostalgic about analog recording, which is being brought back most recently in the form of 180g vinyl LPs of many popular, classic albums.  Yes, there was tape hiss–hell, there was tape breakage.  Records are delicate, and they scratch.  Film gets exposed, or deteriorates.  Paint chips; sculptures erode; and readings fade into memory.  But you have to realize that digital recordings, even more so, are from the moment of creation MISSING SOMETHING.  The dynamic range is clipped off at the edges, compressed–the warmth goes away, and portability doesn’t come free: we trade away what used to be called “Hi Fidelity”–and fidelity, in its primary definition, means Truth.  It can be experienced authentically as a thump in your chest–but today, what is absent in the sound wave is substituted for/covered up by more power and volume.

This phenomenon is not confined to music and movies (they used to be called “films.”)  Your money has been digitized: what was once a barter of labor or product for something of like value, was substituted for precious metal, later non-precious metal, then paper, and now a bunch of ones and zeroes in a computer database.  It earns interest at perhaps one-quarter of the inflation rate, which means it’s shrinking all the time.  Furthermore, this compression and convenience has resulted in the fact that one man can hold a billion times more money units than his neighbors (this could never happen under a barter system.)  And you can now spend your whole roll from your chair, at places like Amazon.  Your friendships have been digitized: so much so that many of us prefer a text message to a phone conversation, which is a bastardized version of a visit.  Don’t even mention writing letters.  Your very identity is in the process of being digitized–don’t think it isn’t.  You, the sum total of tens of thousands of years of human evolution, can be represented by a bar code.  You’re being tracked and profiled by traffic cameras, GPS chips, your phone, advertisers, and the IRS.  And you are either a one or a zero: dangerous or harmless, a lead or not a lead, worthy of further scrutiny, or not.

Digital means two choices only, no gray:  Black or white.  One or zero.  The TV reception is either there, or it’s not.  You’re wise, or a fool.  Female, or male.  Rich, or poor.  Good, or evil.  Successful, or a bum.  See the limitation?  Analog may mean static, inefficiency, gradual loss, getting old, warped, dirty, wrinkled.  But you’re still there.

When we turn off the television, in our moments of sanity, and insist on HANDWRITING a note and READING a paper book, PAINTING and DRAWING, shooting PICTURES, conversing on the PHONE, we’re doing analog, one step closer to revealing how much we’d prefer to be TALKING, ARGUING, STEERING, WRESTLING ON THE GRASS, THINKING FOR OURSELVES, PLAYING BALL, HAVING SEX, USING INSTRUMENTS or otherwise PERFORMING and LAUGHING (a.k.a. living.)

analog-digital 1We need to hold on to the analog.  It has its ups and downs, literally, but at least there’s more than two choices.

Otherwise, it’s which are you?  Harmless, or dangerous?

 

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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

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X-Men: Days of Future Past. A Momentary Essay on Time Travel and Paradox

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By Shawn StJean

The Seventies were to be a long decade, verging well into the next, that preoccupied itself with time travel–possibly because the present looked more worth escaping than ever.  The Sixties had ended, and no predicted revolution after all.  At Kent State and Jackson State Universities, Spring 1970 arrived amid hails of gunfire and youthful blood.  Our leaders had all been killed off, or had fled the field.  Vietnam extended itself into America’s longest and most wasting war since the 1770s. Over in Britain, holdover hippies sent their North American cousins The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed and Pink Floyd’s interminable “Echoes,” but we kids had the freakish and edgy X-Men rising in popularity even over The Avengers, featuring its man-out-of-time leader, Captain America. Apocalyptic disaster films like The Towering Inferno filled the panoramic screens of theaters, until Jaws and Star Wars stuck us with the expensive blockbuster, and Science Fiction enjoyed its dark, silver age: Alien, Blade Runner, The Terminator, Escape from New York, and even Back to the Future assured us of a bleak, dystopian future over the horizon.

Still, as in most American storytelling, the underlying message, even in this era of pessimism, remained (with apologies to The Who,) that the kids will be alright.  No matter how many individuals have to die, the species will survive—and thrive.  In fact, the pages of Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s “Everybody Dies,” as the cover of X-Men issue #142 falsely declared, showed us that even death can be nullified by time travel, that in war no one needs to die.  But at the same historical moment, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. was being erected, in one of those fundamental nexuses of popular versus political culture.

Time travel functions as sci-fi’s ultimate Platonic/Romantic plot device, designed to dramatize the power of free will: “No Fate but what we make.”  The mode is, ultimately, only kids’ stuff: a sort of apology that grown-ups make to children—or the children within ourselves—for screwing the world up so badly.  It signals our wish and our intention to do better.  A long history of racial hatred (whether signified by machines against the human race, or white humans against humans of color—allegorical “mutants,” in Marvel-speak) stands as one of our most shameful legacies, gladly retracted if we could.  But, ultimately, such retraction can only be a gesture: not just because it can’t happen in the physical universe, but because it can’t happen psychologically.

Sophocles knew this, 2500 years in the past.  His great protagonist, Oedipus, receiving the famous prophecy warning him against patricide, flees Corinth.  But rather than resolving not to kill anyone, in his hubris he slays an unknown traveler at a crossroads (archetype of free will, whether here, in Ford’s 1940 The Grapes of Wrath, or half-a century later in Ron Howard’s Cast Away.)  Thus, in attempting to escape his destiny, by his own hand he brings it to pass, in one of literature’s quintessential dramatic ironies.  He fails to learn, “The worst things will turn out well, if they are taken well.” And in 1982, a defense super-computer-system named Skynet failed in exactly the same fashion. By sending its agent, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, into the past to kill the mother of its adversary, Skynet actually forced fugitive Sarah Connor to become the warrior woman who could train her son, John, to eventually defeat it.  It created its own destroyer.  Oedipus Rex and The Terminator share the same fundamental structure: By attempting to subvert the limitations/consequences of living in linear time, we actually conjure the very specters we most desperately fear into existence.  This is not that different from the average human being, backing off a cliff to avoid a snake.  We manifest our reality: we create with our minds what external reality cannot.  Any attempt to alter the past collapses upon itself.

Thus, no honest Time-Travel story can function without paradox, on either the plot or the character level.  A Wolverine (here I’m referring to the film adaptation that premiered this week) who can change the past and return to a utopian present in which Jean Grey still lives, for example, would never need to return to the past in the first place, nor would he be a man who could possibly appreciate his “revised” life as much, never having lost Jean.  The nonsensical closed-loop ending is pure wish-fulfillment fantasy that’s common to all of us: we’ve all said things we would have expressed differently, given a second chance, and done things we would gladly take back.  On the other hand, we can never change and grow if we don’t ram ourselves up against our own limitations, and make mistakes.  The only time travel possible is to live as we were made, one moment at a time, crawling into a future and trying to earn the good will of those who await us there, not apologizing to those left behind.

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Casting Call–Miscellaneous Characters–Angelic Mother, Demonic Father

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For William Wyrd’s parents (both of whom are only seen in flashback,) we add an even more international flavor to the cast of a hypothetical film production of Clotho’s Loom.  Irish actress Susan Lynch (known in the U.S. as Maggie from Waking Ned Devine,) and currently working in the TV series Monroe, could well handle the role of Will’s unnamed mother, who, like the heroine of the novel and her daughter-in-law, Nexus, has to raise her son alone following the disappearance of his father (in this case, into North Vietnam.)  Earlier, she even defends the boy against his father at several points, doing her best in spite of a clear lack of power–so she functions as a foil for Will’s future wife.

For Will’s father, known only as Sergeant Wyrd to us, no particular actor is needed because we would never seem him very clearly onscreen.  A black operator, possibly, or perhaps even CIA, his shadow is imposing and threatens to suffocate both his wife and son, and his voice gritty and vaguely Germanic (Will’s grandparents were German and Irish immigrants to America).  I tried to write into the novel the psychological trauma of the strong father, from many angles: even when moral, as with Nexus’ father Lambert, the voice of Vader can be paralyzing.

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From out of the unconscious to Oedipus Rex to Star Wars to the latest video game, HE just keeps turning up. . .