Sunday, May 31, 2009

Star Trek 2009: Illogical...but Fascinating...

 The J.J. Abram's reboot of Star Trek is, as they say, "not your father's Star Trek." And yet, "the more things change"...The facelift is certainly notable, with an Apple store esthetic that renders the little touches of nostalgia, such as the sound effects, out of place. The music doesn't reflect the original score until the closing credits, wisely, the old theme just didn't feel right in this version. The effects, of course, are stunning, but there is something to be said for the "feel" of the old show. Even some of the intimations of the earlier actors are subtly captured in the new version (or not so subtly, in the case of Dr. McCoy!). 


 So what is the common denominator between the old and the new that does work? The heroism, of which there is a lot on display. Captain Kirk, of course, remains the space cowboy that we remember, fearless and capable. The whole crew gets their chance to show their heroism in their own way as well, from the physical (Sulu's fencing abilities, Captain Pike's courage, and, of course, the ill-fated red shirt) to the mental (Chekov, Spock, Uhura and Scotty). The story itself doesn't have a lot of meat, but the action speaks volumes, and everyone steps up to the challenge, capturing the "can-do" attitude of the original series. In an age of pyscho-vigilantes like Rorschach of Watchmen or the ineffectualness of The Dark Knight, this is a nod to an earlier era that discards the camp and keeps the hero.

 The story, while thin, is interesting in one respect; many have pointed out the lack of a "message" that was often found in the original series. The creators, I believe, have said that would wait until the sequel, so I'm going to take them at their word for the following. I don't believe they intended to plant a "big message," and the message that I detected was inherited from the original series. It is a message that brings the original series to its, uh, "logical" conclusion. The message is in the tension between reason and emotion. 

 The battle between reason and emotion is a classic theme of literature and mythology, most notably captured in Nietzsche's use of the archetypes of Apollo and Dionysus in The Birth of Tragedy. Nietzsche proclaimed the logic of Apollo useful, but Dionysus the winner. And so does this incarnation of Star Trek. In the original series, the tension was symbolized by the Doctor and the Vulcan, the bleeding heart and the logical, emotionless alien. Kirk was the man in-between, who consulted both sides. Often, Spock, who after all, is half-human, would be the butt of Kirk's jokes, but still respected for his contribution. In this version, however, the message is clear: emotion is superior to logic. Though Spock is welcomed aboard, in the end, it is in the inferior role. Even Leonard Nimoy's appearance to his younger self confirms this, with the push to "feel, not think." (Spock even wishes him "luck" in place of the standard "Live Long and Prosper." 

 Now why am I harping on this? Is it not true that logic is only a tool of life, not the purpose? Well, at least they recognized the importance of logic, but my problem is with the suggestion and embracing of a dichotomy to begin with. It was Nietzsche who formalized the duality, but it was Ayn Rand who smashed it with a rejection of any dichotomy, embracing a symbiosis instead. This view is the basis of the album Hemispheres by the band Rush. At its best, the original Star Trek did the same. In this case, logic is reduced to the technical work of building and flying spaceships, leaving the ethical, political, and psychological realms to chance and emotion. What possible defense is their for this interpretation? Why is this dichotomy so persistent?

 Arthur Koestler, in his book The Ghost in the Machine, theorized that the human brain, besides having two hemispheres which we divide as the emotional right-brained and the logical left-brained, was also made up of three larger divisions: the reptilian, the mammalian, and the neo-cortex. The evolution of these parts was not smooth; the neo-cortex was "slapped on" to the others, and they don't always communicate in harmony. Thus, in extreme situations, logic gives way to the older, animal structures, and the amygdala "hijacks" the brain in to a flight-or-flight response. Spock, being half-human, is not immune to this, apparently, as demonstrated in his outburst. This is where the plot fails; Kirk goads Spock into an emotional reaction, prompting Spock to relinquish his temporary control of the ship, and Kirk takes over. But having proved that Spock was not impervious to emotional breakdowns, how does that make Kirk qualified? 

 On Kirk's first encounter with "Bones" McCoy, we find the good doctor fretting over space germs, personal matters, and everything else that humans find themselves dealing with on a daily basis. We find Spock conflicted over his half-human, half-Vulcan heritage. Kirk, on the other hand, we find with a fearless, can-do attitude, one that puts him at death's door on more than one occasion. But we do not encounter an idiot; he is portrayed as a genius-level mind. This is presented somewhat superficially, however. We don't see him studying, it's simply implied through a few verbal demonstrations and assertions from Captain Pike, who has "reviewed his file." Ayn Rand demonstrates a similar characterization when she pits the main character of Arrowsmith against The Fountainhead's Howard Roark. One is superficially depicted as a genius, the other is demonstrated. To paraphrase Rand, this movie's Kirk is depicted along the lines of "sorry babe, I can't go to the pizza joint tonight; I have to split the atom!". She argues that such a character is impossible; to really understand such things, it takes a certain kind of dedication...Whether one could be like this in real life is debatable, but it is of no coincidence that many Objectivist are characterized as "Vulcans." 

 And yet, we can draw on real-life leaders to see that not all successful leaders are Vulcan in approach, and not all scientists are fit to be leaders. Some leaders get so caught up in "thinking" that they over-think, or "rationalize."  To bring it back to Koestler's theory, Koestler ends his book with the suggestion that the solution to the dichotomy is to be found in pharmaceuticals. Star Trek presents another alternative: creativity. That is where the character of Kirk, at his best, succeeds. He acts on the information at hand, but is not bound by it. Whereas Spock is trained in logic, he is not trained to think creatively. McCoy, who would panic in an emergency, is urged by Kirk to be more grounded in reality and less in fear. Kirk is not bound by fear or logic; rather, he uses logic to his ends, to find creative solutions where others would admit defeat. Refusing to be beaten in an unbeatable computer simulation, which is meant to confront the cadet with fear and the possibility of loss, Kirk simply cheats by beating the program. In battle, the enemy will not be expected to play fair. This infuriates Spock, who is confronted by his own paradox: how can he design a program to expose cadets to fear when he, a half-Vulcan, is trained not to embrace emotion? That, ultimately, is why Kirk is captain: the "instinct" to survive, even when logic says otherwise. In that sense, Kirk is a trickster in the vein of Odysseus, one who will break the rules in order to get the job done. It is not the always the "smartest" who gets the job done. 

 In it's own, clunky way, the lesson of the movie that Spock learns is not to disown logic, but to be human; to be human is not to be an emotional animal, or a rational animal, but a creative animal, and not accept fate as a given. When Kirk is confronted to be "something greater," it is not the "greater good" that is being invoked, but greater as being something more than a determined plaything of fate. That is what Spock learns, he is not bound by the dictates of logic, but liberated by it, to be not determined by his heritage, but free from it, from tribalism or fate. But James T. Kirk is captain because he is able to combine the use of logic and the primal "instincts" of life to create new possibilities. Where Dr. McCoy would get emotional and fly off the handle, and where Spock would not be able to think "outside the box," Kirk represents the romantic realization of not what is, but "what could be." That is the shared and lasting legacy of all incarnations of Star Trek.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Villains in Disguise

Part of the reasoning behind my post "Sometimes You Just Can't Side With the Hero" came from another example of something I wanted to side with but couldn't. What I'm referring to is the film An American Carol, which came out some time last year.

When I first heard about the premise I thought it had a ton of potential. Between Kelsey
Grammer's sophisticated intellectual humor sensibilities and David Zucker's silly slapstick it seemed like this film would have a little something for everyone. That is of course until it served to remind me precisely why the association between Objectivists and conservatives goes only so far.

The plot was a retelling of Dickens' A Christmas Carol with Michael "Malone" (Moore) in Scrooge's place and abolition of the Fourth of July as his goal. It starts out interestingly enough with Malone painting Cuba as an island paradise but it starts to fall apart quicker than you'd think. There's a lot of extremely vague Anti-American sentiment coming from Malone which, if someone were critiquing this (and I guess that I am), they could say that it plays right into Moore's regular statements that his view of America is the valid one and he's the real patriot while all the
Conservatives are the fascist bastards. Granted, you could say that this is just a comedy and I shouldn't think too deeply, but I don't like package deals and I refuse to laugh at someone if you try to lump in the (microscopically few) things he's right about with the (astronomically large) things he's wrong about.

The truth is that the film falls apart at this level and specifically on its treatment of Jihad. There's a common thread among a lot of conservative parodies of who we are at war with. The most common one is the whole idea that the suicide bombers aren't sincere in their motives or dedication; look at just about any parody of the modern
Jihadist movement and you'll see a scene where everyone is passing the buck on the suicide mission.

You do it!
No you do it!

A
corollary to this is the idea that "Radical Christianity isn't as bad as radical Islam." There is a scene in the movie where Rosie O'Donnell makes a statement about this and it's supposed to prove how stupid she is (so much so that the Moore analog distances himself from her after she says this). Meanwhile, just last week I saw a news story on ABC News Nightline discussing a sect of Christianity in Congo which convinces parents that their children are witches who require a costly, as well as painful and violent, exorcism procedure to be done. This isn't Salem in the 1700's; it's happening now, in 2009.

There are sections of the Bible which would condone and perhaps even encourage this practice, much the same way most if not all of the Koran supports violent Jihad to convert or destroy the infidel. The problem in the American/Western conservative movement is that they take the highly hypocritical practice of
American Christianity, which relies on modern people to bring a goodness to it which is not actually there.

These same people often complain about the hypocrisy of a Michael Moore or Noam
Chomskey for stopping short of supporting bread lines and Gulags, while their own hypocrisy stops them short of witch trials, inquisitions, and other draconian practices... when it actually does.

Moore tacitly tries to undercut capitalism, yet lives very comfortably because of it. And Sean
Hannity, Bill O'Reily and Michael Savage and their ilk praise capitalism and the concept of rights which are beyond a majority vote as outlined in the constitution, yet they support majority rule to rob individuals of their personal rights when it fits their particular standards (and they'll sell out capitalism any time one of their pet groups seems to suffer because of it.)

The film wasn't the cause of all this, only a symptom. It sometimes brilliantly and sometimes foolishly points out Liberal hypocrisy whilst wallowing in conservative hypocrisy. Sadly, after expecting to see some heroes worth rallying behind, I just see another set of villains.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Sometimes you just can't side with the hero

At the moment I have some personal issues that keep me away from the computer 99% of the time. This has been going on for about a month now which is why I haven't completed my first draft of Naked Souls or done any blog posts for a while. That being said I've been watching A LOT of movies. One in particular inspired me to write and I have a few days of computer access so here it is.


I'm sure this has happened to most of us seeing as the morality guiding any particular hero in any particular story is guided by that of the author whether implicit or explicit. I mean few people can question breaking up a mugging, but The Authority drowning an entire nation just to clear out the dictators in power or basically walking into the U.N. and saying "we're taking over." Or in The Simpsons video game, when you play through the Marge or Lisa levels where it's fun to play through but when you think about it you've just struck a blow for (not against) censorship or you've just violated all kinds of property rights and deprived hundreds of people of a way to make a living. Along these lines I could probably do an entire entry on Captain Planet, but I do want to stay on what got me started.


There's a film from the 1973 called The Wicker Man that presents a scenario that creates this type of dilemma for me. There was a recent remake that traded a number of the ideas and themes of the original which would not fly in today's society for an extreme feminism so it's of no concern to me since, at least for me I actually experience the level of ambiguity that the author had intended.


But the key idea behind this movie is that there is a police officer from the mainland United Kingdom who goes to a small island called Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. Once he gets there he realizes it's a island that still practices old time paganism and has an extremely pro-sex bent. Beautiful girls dance nude for rituals. The phallic sexual nature of the Maypole and Spring's direct relation to fertility is explicitly discussed in a class of young children. People have sex out in the open in large numbers. Christianity is openly mocked and in general the approach to life is far more rational coming from the pagans.


This leads to a conflict in the detective. He is devoutly christian and he is often talking about bringing down the wrath of the mainland's government to end the religious freedom of the people of Summerisle between leads in the case. But this leads to the film's ultimate contradiction.


The pagans are a largely agrarian society who still make sacrifices in order to ensure a good harvest. The previous year's harvest failed and so this year the gods will require a human sacrifice. The officer is convinced that the girl he is in search of is intended as the sacrifice, though he is proven wrong.


The whole search for her was an elaborate ruse to draw him to the island. For he himself was a far greater sacrifice. He is a representative of a king (through his legal standing), he comes to the place of sacrifice as a fool/king for a day (he steals this costume in order to infiltrate the festivities at the key moment... though once he's there it's quite clear he has actually come as a fool), and he is a virgin. He is thus sacrificed for the harvest.


The problem I have with this movie is that I side far too strongly with the "villains." They talk sense and seem to actively be working to improve their society while the "hero" is happy to see it stagnate. They sacrifice the "hero" but they give him dozens of opportunities to opt out. One of which is an offer to have part of his status of a perfect sacrifice ruined by a night of passion with the most beautiful girl in town. By the time he's sacrificed you certainly feel that he deserves it.


The worst part of the whole problem is that he always frames his arguments in the form of "My mysticism is better than your mysticism." Meaning that the arbitrary things he believes are more valid than the arbitrary things they believe. Never once does he approach things from a standpoint of "there is no rational justification for sacrifice." This simply makes the pagans seem even more noble. Their religion calls for absurd things occasionally and they don't shy from them whereas he would, while still claiming them as a value.


In short he wants to fight everything about this culture except the one thing that deserves to be fought. He spends the whole film feeling a sense of superiority over the pagans which by the end is proven to be clearly unjustified. And when faced with a lethal fate from a religion which is not his, the only thing he can do is quote bible verses.


I can't see the pagans as evil, and I can't see him as not deserving his fate. Though the feeling is a bit cleaner than my other examples in that I don't feel like I've been made an accessory to a horrible crime, ironically.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

DOOMSDAY. HERE. NOW.

That, Heroes, is how you do a season finale cliffhanger. Watch. Listen. Learn. I can't wait to find out what happened...


(Spoilers below)

So Clark flew. He FLEW. Or, at least, he leaped a tall building in a single bound!

Jimmy/Chloe: Say it ain't so! Is it true? Is Jimmy really dead? Really, truly, sincerely dead? It seems that way, the body's in the ground...but if Jimmy's part of the DC universe, than...how? Is the secret in the revealing of the full name, Henry James Olson? Is the little brother who received the camera destined to be the Jimmy Olson we come to know? (Maybe he's James Henry Olson...or, like in the comics...James Bartholomew Olsen???? Hrmmm...)

Of course, we don't know where Lois is; she was last seen putting on one of those damn time travel thingies...how I have come to hate time travel; it kills the consequences of moral choice. But the drama! If this sticks...if it truly sticks.*..well, if Doomsday, freed of the human morality of Davis Bloom (and damn that bastard) is truly gone for now, and with the setup of Clark "taking humanity off its pedestal, to embrace cold Kryptonian logic, and the reintroduction of General Zod...well, next season should make this one look like the last season of Heroes...(and to the haters out there: Yes, the fight was short, Yes, there are plotholes. I'm grading on a curve; this is the CW after all. NBC is a major network. If CW can do this, Heroes should have been much grander...).

I can't wait. Good show.

* (According to Entertainment Weekly, who knows a friend of a friend of an insider, the deaths are sticking.)

Friday, May 8, 2009

Smallville: Doomsday is (almost) Here...

  I'm going to wait until next week's season finale to give my full verdict, but I think I can safely say, at this point, that it will be MUCH better than the finale of Heroes...this has been an incredible season, chock full of tension, a gaggle of DC characters (Zatanna, Parasite, Legion...), and lots of nods to the Superman that we know and love that will one day be....


  And best of all, the Doomsday showdown is finally going to happen. Again, I'll have to wait 
'til I actually see it, but the buildup has been terrific, and the payoff looks promising. WB had definitely outclassed NBC; THIS is what a superhero show is all about! Heroes dropped the ball with the political angle, where Smallville, despite the smaller political scale, is taking the "responsibility for saving the world" angle in the right direction with the threat of Doomsday. Heroes should have been epic; it's devolved into mere soap opera.

  I just hope that if the cliffhanger kills me, I'll come back stronger for season 9. Will Zod reappear? Will Doomsday kill Clark? What will happen to Chloe? Will we see the Superman costume for the first time? Will Clark fly? Will Lex Luthor return? I can't wait.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Real-Life WATCHMEN?

And now, for a story made just for Superhero Babylon...

"They don't exactly strike fear in the faces of criminals..."

There's so much to say on this, I don't know where to begin...part Spiderman, part Donnie Darko, part Big Bang Theory...a real-life Allegiance of Heroes? They're making Alan Moore look like Ken Burns; is Watchmen now a documentary? While they're not unprecedented, they're not the Guardian Angels, that's for sure. (The red berets are certainly less silly than the spawn masks...).

But, like the commentator says, at least they're doing something...(and c'mon, don't act like you've never thought about it...)