Archive for the ‘Artistry’ Category

The movie Gladiator depicts the protagonist Maximus addressing spectators directly at gladiatorial games in the Roman Colosseum with this meme-worthy challenge: “Are you not entertained?” Setting the action in an ancient civilization renowned for its decadent final phase prior to collapse, referred to as Bread and Circuses, allows us to share vicariously in the protagonist’s righteous disgust with the public’s blood lust while shielded us from any implication of our own shame because, after all, who could possibly entertain blood sports in the modern era? Don’t answer that.


But this post isn’t about our capacity for cruelty and barbarism. Rather, it’s about the public’s insatiable appetite for spectacle — both fictional and absolutely for real — served up as entertainment. Professional wrestling is fiction; boxing and mixed martial arts are reality. Audiences consuming base entertainment and, in the process, depleting performers who provide that entertainment extend well beyond combat sports, however. For instance, it’s not uncommon for pop musicians to slowly destroy themselves once pulled into the attendant celebrity lifestyle. Three examples spring to mind: Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, and Whitney Houston. Others call hiatus or retire altogether from the pressure of public performance, such as Britney Spears, Miles Davis, and Barbra Streisand.

To say that the public devours performers and discards what remains of them is no stretch, I’m afraid. Who remembers countdown clocks tracking when female actors turn 18 so that perving on them is at last okay? A further example is the young starlet who is presumably legitimized as a “serious” actor once she does nudity and/or portrays a hooker but is then forgotten in favor of the next. If one were to seek the full depth of such devouring impulses, I suggest porn is the industry to have all one’s illusions shattered. For rather modest sums, there is absolutely nothing some performers won’t do on film (these days on video at RedTube), and naturally, there’s an audience for it. Such appetites are as bottomless as they come. Are you not entertained?

Speaking of Miles Davis, I take note of his hiatus from public performance in the late 1970s before his limited return to the stage in 1986 and early death in 1991 at age 65. He had cemented a legendary career as a jazz trumpeter but in interviews (as memory serves) dismissed the notion that he was somehow a spokesperson for others, saying dryly “I’m just a trumpet player, man ….” What galled me, though, were Don Cheadle’s remarks in the liner notes of the soundtrack to the biopic Miles Ahead (admittedly a deep pull):

Robert Glasper and I are preparing to record music for the final scene of Miles Ahead — a possible guide track for a live concert that sees the return of Miles Davis after having been flushed from his sanctuary of silence and back onto the stage and into his rightful light. My producers and I are buzzing in disbelief about what our audacity and sheer will may be close to pulling off ….

What they did was record a what-might-have-been track had Miles incorporated rap or hip hop (categories blur) into his music. It’s unclear to me whether the “sanctuary of silence” was inactivity or death, but Miles was essentially forced onstage by proxy. “Flushed” is a strange word to use in this context, as one “flushes” an enemy or prey unwillingly from hiding. The decision to recast him in such “rightful light” strikes me as rather poor taste — a case of cultural appropriation worse than merely donning a Halloween costume.

This is the wave of the future, of course, now that images of dead celebrities can be invoked, say, to sell watches (e.g., Steve McQueen) and holograms of dead musicians are made into singing zombies, euphemized as “virtual performance”(e.g., Tupak Shakur). Newly developed software can now create digitized versions of people saying and doing whatever we desire of them, such as when celebrity faces are superimposed onto porn actors (called “deepfakes”). It might be difficult to argue that in doing so content creators are stealing the souls of others, as used to be believed in the early days of photography. I’m less concerned with those meeting demand than with the demand itself. Are we becoming demons, the equivalents of the succubus/incubus, devouring or destroying frivolously the objects of our enjoyment? Are you not entertained?


I’m currently reading Go Wild by John Ratey and Richard Manning. It has some rather astounding findings on offer. One I’ll draw out is that the human brain evolved not for thinking, as one might imagine, but for coordinating complex physiological movements:

… even the simplest of motions — a flick of a finger or a turn of the hand to pick up a pencil — is maddeningly complex and requires coordination and computational power beyond electronics abilities. For this you need a brain. One of our favorites quotes on this matter comes from the neuroscientists Rodolfo Llinás: “That which we call thinking is the evolutionary internationalization of movement.” [p. 100]

Almost all the computation is unconsciousness, or maybe preconscious, and it’s learned over a period of years in infancy and early childhood (for basic locomotion) and then supplemented throughout life (for skilled motions, e.g., writing cursive or typing). Moreover, those able to move with exceptional speed, endurance, power, accuracy, and/or grace are admired and sometimes rewarded in our culture. The obvious example is sports. Whether league sports with wildly overcompensated athletes, Olympic sports with undercompensated athletes, or combat sports with a mixture of both, thrill attaches to watching someone move effectively within the rule-bound context of the sport. Other examples include dancers, musicians, circus artists, and actors who specialize in physical comedy and action. Each develops specialized movements that are graceful and beautiful, which Ratey and Manning write may also account for nonsexual appreciation and fetishization of the human body, e.g., fashion models, glammed-up actors, and nude photography.

I’m being silly saying that jocks figgered it first, of course. A stronger case could probably be made for warriors in battle, such as a skilled swordsman. But it’s jocks who are frequently rewarded all out of proportion with others who specialize in movement. True, their genetics and training enable a relatively brief career (compared to, say, surgeons or pianists) before abilities ebb away and a younger athlete eclipses them. But a fundamental lack of equivalence with artisans and artists is clear, whose value lies less with their bodies than with outputs their movements produce.

Regarding computational burdens, consider the various mechanical arms built for grasping and moving objects, some of them quite large. Mechanisms (frame and hydraulics substituting for bone and muscle) themselves are quite complex, but they’re typically controlled by a human operator rather than automated. (Exceptions abound, but they’re highly specialized, such as circuit board manufacture or textile production.) More recently, robotics demonstrate considerable advancement in locomotion without a human operator, but they’re also narrowly focused in comparison with the flexibility of motion a human body readily possesses. Further, in the case of flying drones, robots operate in wide open space, or, in the case of those designed to move like dogs or insects, use 4+ legs for stability. The latter are typically built to withstand quite a lot of bumping and jostling. Upright bipedal motion is still quite clumsy in comparison with humans, excepting perhaps wheeled robots that obviously don’t move like humans do.

Curiously, the movie Pacific Rim (sequel just out) takes notice of the computational or cognitive difficulty of coordinated movement. To operate giant robots needed to fight Godzilla-like interdimensional monsters, two mind-linked humans control a battle robot. Maybe it’s a simple coincidence — a plot device to position humans in the middle of the action (and robot) rather than killing from a distance — such as via drone or clone — or maybe not. Hollywood screenwriters are quite clever at exploiting all sorts material without necessarily divulging the source of inspiration. It’s art imitating life, knowingly or not.

Two shocking and vaguely humorous (dark, sardonic humor) events occurred recently in the gun debate: (1) in a speech, Marco Rubio sarcastically offered the very reform a healthy majority of the public wants — banning assault weapons — and revealed himself to be completely tin-earred with respect to the public he addresses, and (2) 45 supported some gun controls and even raised the stakes, saying that guns should be taken from people flagged as unstable and dangerous before they commit their mayhem. Rubio had already demonstrated his inability to think on his feet, being locked into scripts handed to him by … whom exactly? Certainly not the public he purportedly serves. So much for his presidential aspirations. OTOH, 45 channels populism and can switch positions quickly. Though ugly and base in many cases, populism at least expresses the will of the people, such as it can be known. His departure from reflexive Republican defense of the hallowed 2nd Amendment shouldn’t be too great a surprise; he’s made similar remarks in the past. His willingness to discard due process and confiscate guns before a crime has been committed sounds more than a little like Spielbergian precrime (via Orwell and Philip K. Dick). To even entertain this prospect in the gun debate demonstrates just how intolerable weekly mass shootings — especially school shootings by troubled youth — have become in the land of the free and home of the brave. On balance, 45 also recommended arming classroom teachers (a risible solution to the problem), so go figger.

Lodged deep in my brain is a potent archetype I don’t often see cited: the Amfortas wound. The term comes from Richard Wagner’s music drama Parsifal (synopsis found here). Let me describe the principal elements (very) briefly. Amfortas is the king of the Knights of the Holy Grail and has a seeping wound than cannot be healed except, according to prophecy, by an innocent youth, also described as a fool wizened by compassion. Such a youth, Parsifal, appears and after familiar operatic conflict does indeed fulfill the prophecy. Parsifal is essentially a retelling of the Arthurian legend. The music is some of the most transcendentally beautiful orchestral composition ever committed to paper and is very much recommended. Admittedly, it’s rather slow for today’s audiences more inclined to throwaway pop music.

Anyway, to tie together the gun debate and Parsifal, I muse that the Amfortas wound is gun violence and 45 is the titular fool who in the end heals the wound and becomes king of the Knights of the Holy Grail. The characterization is not entirely apt, of course, because it’s impossible to say that 45 is young, or compassionate, or wizened, but he has oddly enough moved the needle on gun debate. Not single-handedly, mind you, but from a seat of considerable power unlike, say, the Parkland survivors. Resolution and healing have yet to occur and will no doubt be opposed by the NRA and Marco Rubio. Maybe we’re only in Act I of the traditional 3-act structure. Other characters and plots devices from Parsifal I leave uncast. The main archetype is the Amfortas wound.

I remarked in an earlier blog that artists, being hypersensitive to emergent patterns and cultural vibes, often get to ideas sooner than the masses and express their sensibilities through creative endeavor. Those expressions in turn give watchers, viewers, listeners, readers, etc. a way of understanding the world through the artist’s interpretive lens. Interpretations may be completely fictitious, based on real-life events, or merely figurative as the medium allows. They are nonetheless an inevitable reflection of ourselves. Philistines who fail to appreciate that the arts function by absorbing and processing human experience at a deep, intuitive level may insist that the arts are optional or unworthy of attention or financial support. That’s an opinion not at all borne out in the culture, however, and though support may be vulnerable to shifts in valuation (e.g., withdrawal of federal funding for the NEA and PBS), the creative class will always seek avenues of expression, even at personal cost. The democratization of production has made modes of production and distribution for some media quite cheap compared to a couple decades ago. Others remain undeniably labor intensive.

What sparked my thinking are several TV series that have caught my attention despite my generally low level of attention to such media. I haven’t watched broadcast television in over a decade, but the ability to stream TV programming has made shows I have ignored for years far more easy to tune in on my own terms and schedule. “Tune in” is of course the wrong metaphor, but suffice it to say I’ve awarded some of my attention to shows that have up until now fell out of scope for me, cinema being more to my liking. The three shows I’ve been watching (only partway through each) are The Americans, Homeland, and Shameless. The first two are political thrillers (spy stuff) whereas the last is a slice-of-life family drama, which often veers toward comedy but keeps delivering instead tragedy. Not quite the same thing as dark comedy. Conflict is necessary for dramatic purposes, but the ongoing conflict in each of these shows flirts with the worst sorts of disaster, e.g., the spies being discovered and unmasked and the family being thrown out of its home and broken up. Episodic scenarios the writers concoct to threaten catastrophe at every step or at any moment gets tiresome after a while. Multiple seasons ensure that dramatic tension is largely dispelled, since the main characters are present year over year. (The trend toward killing off major characters in others popular TV dramas is not yet widespread.) But still, it’s no way to live, constantly in disaster mode. No doubt I’ve cherry picked three shows from a huge array of entertainments on offer.

Where art reflects reality is that we all now live in the early 21st century under multiple, constantly disquieting threats, large and small, including sudden climate change and ecological disaster, nuclear annihilation, meteor impacts, eruption of the shield volcano under Yellowstone, the Ring of Fire becoming active again (leading to more volcanic and earthquake activity), geopolitical dysfunction on a grand scale, and of course, global financial collapse. This, too, is no way to live. Admittedly, no one was ever promised a care-free life. Yet our inability to manage our own social institutions or shepherd the earth (as though that were our mandate) promise catastrophes in the fullness of time that have no parallels in human history. We’re not flirting with disaster so much as courting it.

Sociologists and historians prepare scholarly works that attempt to provide a grand narrative of the times. Cinema seems to be preoccupied with planetary threats requiring superhero interventions. Television, on the other hand, with its serial form, plumbs the daily angst of its characters to drive suspense, keeping viewers on pins and needles while avoiding final resolution. That final resolution is inevitably disaster, but it won’t appear for a few seasons at least — after the dramatic potential is wrung out of the scenario. I can’t quite understand why these shows are consumed for entertainment (by me no less than anyone else) except perhaps to distract from the clear and present dangers we all face every day.

Fan Service

Posted: December 27, 2017 in Artistry, Cinema, Culture, Idle Nonsense, Media, Taste

Having just seen the latest installment of the supermegahit Star Wars franchise, my thinking drifted ineluctably to the issue of fan service. There is probably no greater example of the public claiming ownership of popular culture than with Star Wars, which has been a uniquely American phenomenon for 40 years and risen to the level of a new mythology. Never mind that it was invented out of whole cloth. (Some argue that the major religions are also invented, but that’s a different subject of debate.) Other invented, segmented mythologies include Rowling’s Harry Potter series (books before movies), Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (books before movies), Martin’s Game of Thrones (books before TV show), and Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung (operas). It’s little surprise (to me, at least) that the new American mythology stems from cinema rather than literature or music.

Given the general public’s deep knowledge of the Star Wars canon, it’s inevitable that some portion of the each installment of the franchise must cite and rhyme recognizable plots, dialogue, and thematic elements, which is roughly analogous to one’s favorite band playing its hits rather than offering newly composed music at every concert. With James Bond (probably the first movie franchise, though book series written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agathe Christie long ago established the model for recurring characters), story elements were formalized rather early in its history and form the foundation of each later story. Some regard the so-called formula as a straitjacket, whereas others derive considerable enjoyment out of familiar elements. So, too, with Star Wars. The light sabers, the spaceships, the light and dark sides of the force, the plucky rebels, the storm troopers, the disfigured villains, and the reluctant hero all make their appearances and reappearances in different guises. What surprised me most about The Last Jedi is how frequently and skillfully fan service was handled, typically undercutting each bit to simultaneously satisfy and taunt viewers. Some indignant fanboys (and -girls) have actually petitioned to have The Last Jedi struck from the Star Wars canon for defying franchise conventions so flagrantly.

New media have enabled regular folks to indulge their pet theories of the Star Wars universe in public fora, and accordingly, no shortage of overexcited analysis exists regarding plots, family relationships, cat-and-mouse strategics, and of course, possible stories to be told in an ever-expanding cinematic universe promising new films with nauseating regularity for the foreseeable future, or at least so long as the intellectual property owners can wring giant profits out of the series. This is what cinematic storytelling has become: setting up a series and wringing every last bit of value out of it before leaving it fallow and untended for a decade or more and then rebooting the entire stinking mess. The familiar criticism is Hollywood Out of Ideas, which often rings true except when one considers that only a few basic narrative structures exist in the first place. All the different manifestations are merely variations upon familiar themes, another form of fan service.

Another modest surprise (to me at least) offered by Anthony Giddens (from The Consequences of Modernity) follows a discussion of reflexivity (what I call recursion when discussing consciousness), which is the dynamic of information and/or knowledge feeding back to influence later behavior and information/knowledge. His handy example is the populace knowing divorce rates, which has an obvious influence on those about to get married (but may decide to defer or abjure entirely). The surprise is this:

The discourse of sociology and the concepts, theories, and findings of the other social sciences continually “circulate in and out” of what it is that they are about. In so doing they reflexively restructure their subject matter, which itself has learned to think sociologically … Much that is problematic in the position of the professional sociologist, as the purveyor of expert knowledge about social life, derives from the fact that she or he is at most one step ahead of enlightened lay practitioners of the discipline. [p. 43]

I suppose “enlightened lay practitioners” are not the same as the general public, which I hold in rather low esteem as knowing (much less understanding) anything of value. Just consider electoral politics. Still, the idea that an expert in an academic field admits he is barely ahead of wannabes (like me) seems awfully damning. Whereas curious types will wade in just about anywhere, and in some cases, amateurs will indulge themselves enthusiastically in endeavors also practiced by experts (sports and music are the two principal examples that spring to mind), the distance (in both knowledge and skill) between experts and laypersons is typically quite far. I suspect those with high intellect and/or genetic gifts often bridge that gap, but then they join the ranks of the experts, so the exception leads nowhere.

Back in undergraduate college, when just starting on my music education degree, I received an assignment where students were asked to formulate a philosophy of education. My thinking then was influenced by a curious textbook I picked up: A Philosophy of Music Education by Bennett Reimer. Of course, it was the wrong time for an undergraduate to perform this exercise, as we had neither maturity nor understanding equal to the task. However, in my naïvté, my answer was all about learning/teaching an aesthetic education — one that focused on appreciating beauty in music and the fine arts. This requires the cultivation of taste, which used to be commonplace among the educated but is now anathema. Money is the preeminent value now. Moreover, anything that smacks of cultural programming and thought control is now repudiated reflexively, though such projects are nonetheless undertaken continuously and surreptitiously through a variety of mechanisms. As a result, the typical American’s sense of what is beautiful and admirable is stunted. Further, knowledge of the historical context in which the fine arts exist is largely absent. (Children are ahistorical in this same way.) Accordingly, many Americans are coarse philistines whose tastes rarely extend beyond those acquired naturally during adolescence (including both biophilia and biophobia), thus the immense popularity of comic book movies, rock and roll music, and all manner of electronica.

When operating with a limited imagination and undeveloped ability to perceive and discern (and disapprove), one is a sitting duck for what ought to be totally unconvincing displays of empty technical prowess. Mere mechanism (spectacle) then possesses the power to transfix and amaze credulous audiences. Thus, the ear-splitting volume of amplified instruments substitutes for true emotional energy produced in exceptional live performance, ubiquitous CGI imagery (vistas and character movements, e.g., fight skills, that simply don’t exist in reality) in cinema produces wonderment, and especially, blinking lights and animated GIFs deliver the equivalent of a sugar hit (cookies, ice cream, soda) when they’re really placebos or toxins. Like hypnosis, the placebo effect is real and pronounced for those unusually susceptible to induction. Sitting ducks.

Having given the fine arts (including their historical contexts) a great deal of my academic attention and acquired an aesthetic education, my response to the video below fell well short of the blasé relativism most exhibit; I actively dislike it. (more…)

For a variety of reasons, I go to see movies in the theater only a handful of times any given year. The reasons are unimportant (and obvious) and I recognize that, by eschewing the theater, I’m giving up the crowd experience. Still, I relented recently and went to see a movie at a new AMC Dolby Cinema, which I didn’t even know exists. The first thing to appreciate was that is was a pretty big room, which used to be standard when cinema was first getting established in the 1920s but gave way sometime in the 1970s to multiplex theaters able to show more than one title at a time in little shoebox compartments with limited seating. Spaciousness was a welcome throwback. The theater also had oversized, powered, leather recliners rather than cloth, fold-down seats with shared armrests. The recliners were quite comfortable but also quite unnecessary (except for now typical Americans unable to fit their fat asses in what used to be a standard seat). These characteristics are shared with AMC Prime theaters that dress up the movie-going experience and charge accordingly. Indeed, AMC now offers several types of premium cinema, including RealD 3D, Imax, Dine-In, and BigD.

Aside I: A friend only just reported on her recent trip to the drive-in theater, a dated cinema experience that is somewhat degraded unenhanced yet retains its nostalgic charm for those of us old enough to remember as kids the shabby chic of bringing one’s own pillows, blankets, popcorn, and drinks to a double feature and sprawling out on the hood and/or roof of the car (e.g., the family station wagon). My friend actually brought her dog to the drive-in and said she remembered and sorta missed the last call on dollar hot dogs at 11 PM that used to find all the kids madly, gleefully rushing the concession stand before food ran out.

What really surprised me, however, was how the Dolby Cinema experience turned into a visual, auditory, and kinesthetic assault. True, I was watching Wonder Woman (sorry, no review), which is set in WWI and features lots of gunfire and munitions explosions in addition to the usual invincible superhero punchfest, so I suppose the point is partly to be immersed in the environment, a cinematic stab at verisimilitude. But the immediacy of all the wham-bam, rock ’em-sock ’em action made me feel more like a participant in a theater of war than a viewer. The term shell shock (a/k/a battle fatigue a/k/a combat neurosis) refers to the traumatized disorientation one experiences in moments of high stress and overwhelming sensory input; it applies here. Even the promo before the trailers and feature, offered to demonstrate the theater’s capabilities themselves, was off-putting because of unnecessary and overweening volume and impact. Unless I’m mistaken, the seats even have built-in subwoofers to rattle theatergoers from below when loud, concussive events occur, which is often because, well, filmmakers love their spectacle as much as audiences do.

Aside II: One real-life lesson to be gleaned from WWI, or the Great War as it was called before WWII, went well beyond the simplistic truism that war is hell. It was that civility (read: civilization) had failed and human progress was a chimera. Technical progress, however, had made WWI uglier in many respects than previous warfare. It was an entirely new sort of horror. Fun fact: there are numerous districts in France, known collectively as Le Zone Rouge, where no one is allowed to live because of all the unexploded ordnance (100 years later!). Wonder Woman ends up having it both ways: acknowledging the horrific nature of war on the one hand yet valorizing and romanticizing personal sacrifice and eventual victory on the other. Worse, perhaps, it establishes that there’s always another enemy in the wings (otherwise, how could there be sequels?), so keep fighting. And for the average viewer, uniformed German antagonists are easily mistakable for Nazis of the subsequent world war, a historical gloss I’m guessing no one minds … because … Nazis.

So here’s my problem with AMC’s Dolby Cinema: why settle for routine or standard theater experience when it can be amped up to the point of offense? Similarly, why be content with the tame and fleeting though reliable beauty of a sunset when one can enjoy a widescreen, hyperreal view of cinematic worlds that don’t actually exist? Why settle for the subtle, old-timey charm of the carousel (painted horses, dizzying twirling, and calliope music) when instead one can strap in and get knocked sideways by roller coasters so extreme that riders leave wobbly and crying at the end? (Never mind the risk of being stranded on the tracks for hours, injured, or even killed by a malfunction.) Or why bother attending a quaint symphonic band concert in the park or an orchestral performance in the concert hall when instead one can go to Lollapalooza and see/hear/experience six bands in the same cacophonous space grinding it out at ear-splitting volume, along with laser light shows and flash-pot explosions for the sheer sake of goosing one’s senses? Coming soon are VR goggles that trick the wearer’s nervous system into accepting they are actually in the virtual game space, often first-person shooters depicting killing bugs or aliens or criminals without compunction. Our arts and entertainments have truly gotten out of hand.

If those criticisms don’t register, consider my post more than a decade ago on the Paradox of the Sybarite and Catatonic, which argues that our senses are so overwhelmed by modern life that we’re essentially numb from overstimulation. Similarly, let me reuse this Nietzsche quote (used before here) to suggest that on an aesthetic level, we’re not being served well in display and execution of refined taste so much as being whomped over the head and dragged willingly? through ordeals:

… our ears have become increasingly intellectual. Thus we can now endure much greater volume, much greater ‘noise’, because we are much better trained than our forefathers were to listen for the reason in it. All our senses have in fact become somewhat dulled because we always inquire after the reason, what ‘it means’, and no longer for what ‘it is’ … our ear has become coarsened. Furthermore, the ugly side of the world, originally inimical to the senses, has been won over for music … Similarly, some painters have made the eye more intellectual, and have gone far beyond what was previously called a joy in form and colour. Here, too, that side of the world originally considered ugly has been conquered by artistic understanding. What is the consequence of this? The more the eye and ear are capable of thought, the more they reach that boundary line where they become asensual. Joy is transferred to the brain; the sense organs themselves become dull and weak. More and more, the symbolic replaces that which exists … the vast majority, which each year is becoming ever more incapable of understanding meaning, even in the sensual form of ugliness … is therefore learning to reach out with increasing pleasure for that which is intrinsically ugly and repulsive, that is, the basely sensual. [italics not in original]

What’s Missing

Posted: May 9, 2017 in Artistry, Cinema, Consumerism, Culture

Pessimists, misanthropes, fatalists, and doomers (I’m all types) often find themselves defending the position that maybe we don’t live at the very best, super-duper, tippy-top time in history, that although technology in particular has admittedly delivered some amazing innovations and improved our material conditions considerably even over our fairly recent past, we nonetheless lack spirituality and meaning — unless of course one’s spirituality and meaning are mistakenly found in technology. The technological sublime is so deceptively glamorous and ubiquitous that it obscures the idea that maybe another time and place made for a more ethical, moral, and noble life. (Experience varied widely, obviously.) In addition, personal freedoms enjoyed in liberal democracies are difficult to argue against, though that’s more characteristic of those at the very top of the socioeconomic heap than those of us below who know to keeps things buttoned up lest we discomfit our betters. Perhaps the most broadly enjoyed modern development is increased lifespan borne out of improved healthcare. And quite recently, the grossly expanded communications age (the information age is nested inside) reputedly makes learning and keeping in touch far easier than ever before. I won’t dispel any of these. However, I have two complaints against modernity as evidenced by a body of posts extending back through the life of this blog: life lacks many salutary aspects delivered passively by bygone social structures and technology smuggles in a host of problems with its bounty.

Among the failed attributes are (1) lack of a cohesive narrative for what life ought to mean beyond grubbing for money, chasing fame and social cachet, and overpopulating the planet with progeny (many of whom suffer neglect while parents are away grubbing for money), (2) lack of true community and social conditions necessary to be properly situated within a wholesome context, (3) spiritual and emotional vacuity, (4) destructive social presences and bullying, especially online (as exemplified by the Bully-in-Chief) and by civil authorities, (5) unrelenting, disorienting technological and social change, including slang and memes that are impossible to track fully without being in the thrall of celebrities, pundits, and media in general, (6) little prospect of things improving near term, and (7) the still-dawning realization that, like the existential angst from the so-called Atomic Age and its threat of complete nuclear annihilation, we possess tools sufficient to destroy ourselves many times over (including rotting ourselves out from the inside in a fevered race to the cultural bottom) and have unwittingly fired the slo-mo suicide gun. We’re only just waiting for the bullet to strike its target. Since the gun is industrial civilization, the target is all of us. Dead men walking, or perhaps more accurately, the zombie shuffle.

A significant minority has replied to this set of miserable circumstances by voting into office our our current president, 45. According to one astute commentator, 45 was never understood as a solution but rather a murder weapon used by the disenfranchised to kill the host, namely, our sick society run by plutocrats maniacally hellbent on destroying everyone outside their immediate concern, which is just about everybody.


I see plenty of movies over the course of a year but had not been to a theater since The Force Awakens came out slightly over a year ago. The reason is simple: it costs too much. With ticket prices nearing $15 and what for me had been obligatory popcorn and soda (too much of both the way they’re bundled and sold — ask anyone desperately holding back their pee until the credits roll!), the endeavor climbed to nearly $30 just for one person. Never mind that movie budgets now top $100 million routinely; the movie-going experience simply isn’t worth $30 a pop. Opening weekend crowds (and costumes)? Fuggedaboudit! Instead, I view films at home on DVD (phooey on Blueray) or via a streaming service. Although I admit I’m missing out on being part of an audience, which offers the possibility of being carried away on a wave of crowd emotion, I’m perfectly happy watching at home, especially considering most films are forgettable fluff (or worse) and filmmakers seem to have forgotten how to shape and tell good stories. So a friend dragged me out to see Rogue One, somewhat late after its opening by most standards. Seeing Star Wars and other franchise installments now feels like an obligation just to stay culturally relevant. Seriously, soon enough it will be Fast & Furious Infinitum. We went to a newly built theater with individual recliners and waiters (no concession stands). Are film-goers no longer satisfied by popcorn and Milk Duds? No way would I order an $80 bottle of wine to go with Rogue One. It’s meant to be a premium experience, with everything served to you in the recliner, and accordingly, charges premium prices. Too bad most films don’t warrant such treatment. All this is preliminary to the actual review, of course.

I had learned quite a bit about Rogue One prior to seeing it, not really caring about spoilers, and was pleasantly surprised it wasn’t as bad as some complain. Rogue One brings in all the usual Star Wars hallmarks: storm troopers, the Force, X-Wings and TIE Fighters, ray guns and light sabers, the Death Star, and familiar characters such as Grand Moff Tarkin, Darth Vader, Princess Leia, etc. Setting a story within the Star Wars universe makes most of that unavoidable, though some specific instances did feel like gratuitous fan service, such as the 3-second (if that) appearance of C3PO and R2D2. The appearance of things and characters I already knew about didn’t feel to me like an extra thrill, but how much I needed to already know about Star Wars just to make sense of Rogue One was a notable weakness. Thus, one could call Rogue One a side story, but it was by no means a stand-alone story. Indeed, characters old and new were given such slipshod introductions (or none at all!) that they functioned basically as chess pieces moved around to drive the game forward. Good luck divining their characteristic movements and motivations. Was there another unseen character manipulating everyone? The Emperor? Who knows? Who cares! It was all a gigantic, faceless, pawn sacrifice. When at last the main rebels died, there was no grief or righteousness over having at least accomplished their putative mission. Turns out the story was all about effects, not emotional involvement. And that’s how I felt: uninvolved. It was a fireworks display ending with a pointless though clichéd grand finale. Except I guess that watching a bunch of fake stuff fake blow up was the fake point.

About what passed for a story: the Rebellion learns (somehow?!) that they face total annihilation from a new superweapon called the Death Star. (Can’t remember whether that term was actually used in the film.) While the decision of leadership is to scatter and flee, a plucky band of rebels within the rebellion insist on flinging themselves against the enemy without a plan except to improvise once on site, whereupon leadership decides irrationally to do the same. The lack of strategy is straight out of The Return of the King, distracting the enemy from the true mission objective, but the visual style is more like the opening of Saving Private Ryan, which is to say, full, straight-on bombardment and invasion. Visual callbacks to WWII infantry uniforms and formations couldn’t be more out of place. To call these elements charmless is to give them too much credit. Rather, they’re hackneyed. However, they probably fit well enough within the Saturday-morning cartoon, newsreel, swashbuckler sensibility that informed the original Star Wars films from the 1970s. Problem is, those 1970s kids are grown and want something with greater gravitas than live-action space opera. Newer Star Wars audiences are stuck in permanent adolescence because of what cinema has become, with its superhero franchises and cynical money grabs.

As a teenager when the first trilogy came out, I wanted more of the mystical element — the Force — than I wanted aerial battles, sword fights, or chase scenes. The goofy robots, reluctant heroes, and bizarre aliens were fun, but they were balanced by serious, steady leadership (the Jedi) and a couple really bad-ass villains. While it’s known George Lucas had the entire character arc of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader in mind from the start, it’s also fair to say that no one quite knew in Episode 4 just how iconic Vader the villain would become, which is why his story became the centerpiece of the first two trilogies (how many more to come?). However, Anakin/Vader struggled with the light/dark sides of the Force, which resonated with anyone familiar with the angel/demon nomenclature of Christianity. When the Force was misguidedly explained away as Midi-clorians (science, not mysticism), well, the bottom dropped out of the Star Wars universe. At that point, it became a grand WWII analogue populated by American GIs and Nazis — with some weird Medievalism and sci-fi elements thrown in — except that the wrong side develops the superweapon. Rogue One makes that criticism even more manifest, though it’s fairly plain to see throughout the Star Wars films.

Let me single out one actor for praise: Ben Mendelsohn as Orson Krennic. It’s hard for me to decide whether he chews the scenery, upstaging Darth Vader as a villain in the one scene they share, or he’s among a growing gallery of underactors whose flat line delivery and blandness invites viewers to project upon them characterization telegraphed through other mechanisms (costuming, music, plot). Either way, I find him oddly compelling and memorable, unlike the foolish, throwaway, sacrificial band of rebellious rebels against the rebellion and empire alike. Having seen Ben Mendelsohn in other roles, he possesses an unusual screen magnetism that reminds me of Sean Connery. He tends to play losers and villains and be a little one-note (not a bag of tricks but just one trick), but he is riveting on-screen for the right reasons compared to, say, the ookiness of the two gratuitous CGI characters in Rogue One.

So Rogue One is a modestly enjoyable and ephemeral romp through the Star Wars universe. It delivers and yet fails to deliver, which about as charitable as I can be.