Monday, November 18, 2019

Four Short Reviews

Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019, Columbia Pictures/Marvel Studios) 
This film is a transitional narrative that acts as an extended epilogue to the Infinity War storyline, while pointing the direction that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) will take over the next decade. The audience is shown a world irrevocably altered by the events of the last two Avengers films, where eulogizing the recently deceased Tony Stark has become popular obsession. In the midst of this milieu, a narrative unfolds; a parable about climate change and the nature of reality in a post-truth era. Elementals, raging behemoths that appear as giants comprised of water and fire, are revealed to be special effects created by an illusionist, which mask a swarm of destructive human-made drones. Even the public revelation of our hero’s secret identity in the final scenes of the film can be perceived as a commentary on the click-bait culture of ‘gotcha’ moments and online shaming, although editorial bias is far, far older than the Internet.

The Boys (2019, Amazon)
A world without moral absolutes is a world of shifting power dynamics, where hierarchical structures jockey to maintain an unnatural asymmetry between have and have-nots. In The Boys, we see these power dynamics play out in a setting where super-humans are tools of corporations, and marketed to the public like pop stars and sports idols. In so many ways, this series is antithesis to idea of the super-hero presented in the MCU; these characters are emotionally stunted, ignorant and self-absorbed to the point of narcissism. The most celebrated collection of these so-called heroes – a group known as The Seven - are a law unto themselves, and yet they are beholden to their corporate masters, who are - in turn – held in thrall by the prospect of state-level influence (ie, government defense contracts). Each episode of this series can be considered an extended meditation on the misapplication and misuse of power in all arenas of human existence, from the biological to the political to the metaphysical.

Legion (2017-2019, FX Productions/Marvel Television)
There can be little doubt that this three-season series is the most aesthetically nuanced, surreal and challenging of any Marvel onscreen property to date. Viewers are initiated into the labyrinthine psyche of a gifted yet psychologically-wounded telepath whose personal journey goes from incarcerated mental patient to cult leader, while transcending the bounds of time and space. This psychedelic hero’s journey is truly a trip down the rabbit hole, and probably as close to pixelated LSD as television is likely to get. Psychic conflict on the etheric plane envisioned as a rap battle or a dance-off would never have been considered by most viewers prior to seeing this series; now, popular representations of super-mental abilities – telekinesis, for example – seem archaic next to the consciousness-changing power of shaping reality itself, as imagined on this program. Visionary and provocative, Legion is the most demanding of Marvel Television productions, but it’s also the most rewarding.

Watchmen (2019, HBO)
Perhaps the most relevant to North America’s current political climate, Watchmen revisits many of the perennial themes that made the original graphic novel seem prescient, even though it was published in mid '80s. This updating of the story introduces a new cast of characters in a world that’s like ours, but just a little bit different. Vietnam is a state of the U.S., for example, there’s no Internet, tobacco is a controlled substance, and everybody drives electric cars. Viewers who have read the book (or seen Zack Snyder’s 2009 film adaptation) know why this is so; newbies get to play catch-up as the murder of a police chief in Tulsa, Oklahoma takes center stage. This series is still unfolding at the time of this writing but holds great promise as heir apparent to one of the 20th century’s great fictions. 


Friday, May 3, 2019

The Last Blockbuster

Blockbuster film sequels used to be liabilities. Now, they’re an essential part of any large motion picture studio’s long-term success. 

Over the last 20 years – since the turn of the century - Hollywood has garnered a significant portion of this success by creating hundred-million-dollar blockbuster franchises based on pop culture icons. 

Yet the era of the blockbuster may have peaked with the release of Avengers: Endgame. It’s an audacious proposition, since the film is on track to become the highest grossing movie ever. But times are changing, and so is the entertainment industry.

If Endgame represents the peak achievement of its genre, popular films will still be made in coming years and lucrative franchises will persist, but the reach of these productions is likely to be increasingly limited by economic and societal factors. 

Growth in the video game industry (which matched the U.S. film industry for revenues in 2018) as well as the presence of online streaming services have permanently disrupted film production, distribution and marketing models of the past century.  

Starting with the motion picture adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (2001-2003), two decades of movie blockbusters have made unprecedented use of cultural and commercial content that wasn’t initially created for the big screen, but for novels, television shows, toys, and comic books.    

This long list need not be revisited at great length, but it includes Transformers, Bladerunner, Twilight Saga, Hunger Games, Chronicles of Narnia, Star Trek, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Hobbit, et al. 

These franchises, however, are not in the same league as the juggernaut known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which, since the advent of the first Iron Man in 2008, has grown to dominate pop culture like nothing before or since: 22 movies comprising a consolidated, reasonably coherent epic mythology for the new century.    

By one evaluative model, which would measure total box office receipts, production and artistic innovation, and cultural resonance, we can identify three high points in history of movie blockbusters: The Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983), The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003) and the two most recent Avengers films, Infinity War and Endgame (2018-19). 

These franchises earned billions of dollars in worldwide receipts and produced the highest grossing films during the years they were released, excepting The Fellowship of the Ring in 2001, and Endgame, which just arrived in theaters, but had surpassed $1 billion worldwide at the time of this writing (05/01). 

In the case of production and artistic innovation, note the breakthrough special effects of the original Star Wars trilogy, the digital wizardry that brought Middle Earth to life (Gollum, my precious), and the fact that Infinity War and Endgame represent the first time that Hollywood feature films were shot entirely using IMAX digital cameras. There are many more examples, but for sake of brevity, these three will suffice.

Cultural resonance is a catch-all term used to get at not just a film’s popularity but how it speaks to audiences, contextually and historically. If box office receipts represent the span, or width, of a film’s influence on society, cultural resonance is the depth of that influence. 

Part of Star Wars’ success resulted from its appeal to myth. The idea that technology and magic could exist alongside one another was novel, and because the hero’s journey - a term borrowed from philosopher Joseph Campbell - was integral to the original film’s plot, it connoted ancient, pervasive and recurring cultural notions of identity and purpose. 

As a result, this coming-of-age fairy tale fantasy about space travel and sci-fi samurai changed films and film-making forever, while making later blockbusters possible, including Lord of the Rings (LotR) and The Avengers.

The cultural resonance of LotR requires little (if any) qualification. Author J.R.R. Tolkien created a modern English myth that achieved global popularity and became a template for a unique form of genre fiction after it was published in the mid-20th century.

One can hardly imagine the millennial pop culture landscape without LotR. Middle Earth has a gravity all its own, and holds in its orbit a vast constellation of books, movies, music, games and art. 

The triumphant film adaptations of Tolkien’s books tapped a deep vein in Western culture’s collective consciousness. And as observed earlier, tapping the vein yielded an unprecedented proliferation of films based on numerous pop culture sources

But there was none to equal LotR’s cultural resonance until the MCU got underway.                

There are many reasons for the unique success of the MCU films, not the least of which is the financing and production resources of Disney, Marvel’s parent company. 

Another factor is the remarkable consistency and quality of casting, which gave the films recognizability and star-power in a crowded media landscape.  

But perhaps most important is the fact that the MCU films draw on a great legacy of story, a legacy created by generations of artists and writers working in an industry that, until recently, was considered second-tier to “serious” art. 

This legacy of story, which – in the MCU’s case - originated with the earliest Captain America comic books in the 1940s, is itself linked to an even older tradition of story exemplified in the ancient tale of Gilgamesh, the poetry of Homer and Hesiod, and the epic verse of John Milton and William Blake - all works which spoke of powerful beings having adventures and doing battle in a moral universe governed by gods.

This is the secret behind the success of these films and the stories they tell: We like them because we always have. Movie producers will try to repeat Marvel’s success; DC will focus its scattered efforts into some cinematic distillation, but the result is unlikely to have the coherence of the MCU. 

When the final chapter in the nine-part Star Wars Saga is released into theaters this December, it will conclude a story that captivated a worldwide audience for several generations. In its place will remain a larger, denser, and arguably less accessible "expanded universe" of related films, books, television and games.        

The MCU will go on as well, with a new canon of films brought from page to screen. And even as video games and streaming services vie for more and more of the public’s attention, it will be obvious to all concerned that movies are here to stay. 

Avengers: Endgame may be the last film of its kind, but it isn’t the end.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Time: Genealogy of a Concept

It surrounds us, yet we only observe its effects. It shapes every aspect of our lives, but we don’t interact with it directly. 

We make it, measure it, save it, waste it, compress it, bend it, extend it; we can’t even hold it in our hands. And when we’re asked to define it, every description seems ephemeral and contingent, as if it’s beyond words to explain. 

It is time

What is it? How to explicate time? By a moment, which - whether experienced subjectively or intersubjectively – seems to flow, like a river, from the past to the future? Perhaps time can be quantified by the metrics of cause and effect, and the laws of thermodynamics? 

Will we know time by its absence, when we contemplate eternity? Can we even posit, with intellectual honesty, what time is when we’re always inside of it, three-dimensional beings embedded in the fourth dimension?   

To unpack these questions, it’s useful to think about time’s conceptual evolution like a genealogy, one that’s been mapped onto Western scientific and cultural paradigms of the past two-and-a-half millennia. 

There exists a limited interval in which to complete this genealogy, so some aspects of temporality (used here as a variant of the word time) – its practical relevance in relation to duration, measurement and technological invention, for example - will remain unaddressed so metaphysical issues can be investigated. 

Here, as in all things, time is against us…or is it? 

As we survey perspectives on temporality, a case can be made that there is an inherited prejudice in relation to time, or - to be precise – an inherited prejudice in relation to certain ideas about time. 

This shouldn’t come as a surprise since, next to knowledge of death, temporal awareness is the most persistent reminder that humanity – for all its civilized progress – will never be fully emancipated from nature’s dominion. 

From an evolutionary perspective, modern humans aren’t far from the savannas of Africa where our prehistoric ancestors are thought to have wandered for many centuries, unprotected from nature in the form of sickness and disease, changing weather conditions, and violent or accidental death.

When our ancestors began living in cities and developing written alphabets, ambivalence towards problematic aspects of nature – including time – found its way into language, which informed the way temporality was thought about and discussed. 

Like civilizations before and after them, the Greeks mythologized their relationship with nature, the psyche and society using a pantheon of gods. 

Multiple deities became associated with various concepts of time, but one of the most revered was the titan Chronos. He was also the most feared, having been believed to have eaten his own newborn children to prevent them from taking his place as king of the world. 

By the earliest decades of the Common Era, ambivalence towards time had been sublimated into numerous philosophical and religious systems. 

Plato’s Theory of Forms and the Christian belief in an afterlife were just two of the Western ontologies that established transcendent orders which biased the absolute, the eternal and the everlasting over the transitory, the temporary and the temporal. 

Mathematics and geometry, too, with the stress on fixed shapes and formulas, represented a transcendent reality untainted the vagaries of time.

An example of the ongoing ambivalence towards all things temporal can be found in the beliefs of the ancient Gnostics. This early Christian cult taught the initial descent from the divine state – the primeval fall – didn’t take place in the Garden of Eden, or even when Lucifer was cast from Heaven. 

The first fall occurred when the universe was created, when time itself began. 

For a Gnostic initiate, matter, the material world, and all that proceeded from it – including time - was corrupt. Their goal was a return to a region of light called the Pleroma.

Elements of this doctrine have been articulated in our era, reformulated by physicist David Bohm, who once enigmatically suggested that all matter is light, frozen in time

Of course, to a Gnostic living two millennia ago, the inverse to that viewpoint seems the truer statement; that without time, everything is light

It’s here, reasoning by negation - via negativa - that we intimate what remains in the absence of time; an opportunity to recognize, like Michelangelo seeing a statue in a block of marble, what pieces of stone must be removed to reveal the figure within.  

Maybe Saint Augustine of Hippo used his own sort of negation when he famously uttered, “What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to a questioner, I do not know.” 

Had he been more forthcoming on the subject, Augustine might have said something like, it is the eternal in us that allows us to perceive time, the eternal part referring to the human soul. 

Like time, the concept of soul is larger than a single religion or philosophy; in the 21st century, scientists call soul consciousness, and seek to know its laws. 

Most of humanity believes soul to be their birthright. This eternal essence of a person, thought to consist of subtle numinous energy, is a wide, soaring arch in the metaphysical lattices of countless worldviews, both ancient and modern. 

Soul was a powerful idea to humanity’s prehistoric ancestors, offering existential certainty alongside a communally acknowledged mortality. 

The idea serves the same function today, even though the focus of the drama is now the soul’s redemption from suffering, death, and the ravages of time by adherence to religious tenets or – more recently – faith in immortality technologies.

The 17th century European Enlightenment traded the transcendent religious abstractions of time and eternity for the transcendent mathematical abstractions of science and the cosmic clock. 

The cosmic clock was invisible and operated perfectly, in perpetuity. Time became an axis on a graph; one of the innovations that allowed the physics of the emerging scientific paradigm to operate with unprecedented predictive power over the natural world. 

This predictive power led, incrementally, to the Industrial Revolution and ultimately made Western modernity possible.  

But the idea that time could be measured the same way - no matter where a person was in the universe - only lasted until 1905, when Albert Einstein married the spatial and the temporal in his Special Theory of Relativity and exploded the cosmic clock forever

After that, it was impractical to think of time in the same absolute terms as people in previous eras had. Temporality – in applied and conceptual considerations - became an area of interest for many fields of inquiry.  

Questions about time, and its relationship to memory, sentience and aging; to society, technology and the physics of gravity, continue to shape our lives in the 21st century. 

Yet even in our high-tech civilization, the temporal prejudice persists, not least in the fact that there never seems to be enough time

Is there a way to mitigate this bias so that a renewed appreciation of time may be affected?    

Human perception was shaped by pressures of natural selection, and senses that ensured better opportunities for reproduction were favored by evolution. We might conjecture this included spatial and temporal awareness, which can be thought to have developed alongside one another. 

The parallel yet differing progression of these two streams of awareness are envisioned by H.G. Wells in The Time Machine:  

“There are really four dimensions, three which we call the three planes of Space, and a fourth, Time. There is, however, a tendency to draw an unreal distinction between the former three dimensions and the latter, because it happens that our consciousness moves intermittently in one direction along the latter from the beginning to the end of our lives.” 
Infants learn to navigate the spatial dimension from the moment of birth. For each of us, it is perhaps as close to innate knowledge as we might truly be able to claim; the inner pedagogy that taught our kind to walk upright, with heads raised. 

Perhaps temporal awareness is another sort of innate knowledge, one that develops similarly to the spatial, but more gradually - over a lifetime - so that elders appreciate the folds and creases of temporality in a way that isn’t experientially accessible to the young. 

That, much like infants learning to walk, we embark on a sort of fourth-dimensional ambulation throughout our lives, and it’s only in maturity that an advanced understanding of time becomes possible. Might we call this sort of temporal sense wisdom, if it didn’t undo the nuance of the description just provided…?

With this wisdom comes deeper knowledge of time as a generative force of nature, a force that makes manifest all possibilities - creatio ex tempore, tempore ex creatio – the creative essence from which the world emerges. 

This is the antidote to the prejudice observed in the temporal genealogy; the insistence that time devours all

To this valuation is put the notion of a prolific temporality, and the wisdom to know that when the universe speaks to us, it speaks in time.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Astrological Monograph: The Fire Triplicity

One grouping of zodiacal signs – called the triplicities by astrologers – is organized thusly: fire for Aries, Leo and Sagittarius; water for Cancer, Scorpio and Pisces; air for Gemini, Libra and Aquarius; and earth for Taurus, Virgo and Capricorn. 

The triple aspect of the triplicity refers to the number of signs associated with a given element, a word used here in its anachronistic sense to represent the four basic constituents of the physical – and metaphysical – universe, rather than materials on the periodic table. 

An element assumes variable states when occupying different signs of a triplicity grouping. The fire of Aries, for example, can burn out of control, destroying forests and property, or it can be used to clear land of dead wood to make way for a new crop. 

The fire of Leo, in its turn, is literally and figuratively connected with the Sun, since - in the northern hemisphere, at least – the sign rules the height of the summer season. 

There is something to this association, for certain; however, it’s worth noting that while the Sun is dignified in Leo due to its natural placement, its exaltation in Aries; which is to say, the Sun’s potentiality to achieve its highest spiritual expression in the sign, implies a profound and transcendent fire symbology. 

This symbology might be informed by current scientific knowledge about the Sun, which shows how celestial energy is the result of titanic forces of gravity and pressure acting on millions of nuclear explosions in a star’s core. 

The symbology might be developed with the concept that Earth orbits the Sun in a Goldilocks Zone – a region hospitable to life as we know it – as opposed to more problematic vectors of other planets. It serves as a reminder that solar effects vary, depending on location. The energy output of a star, assumed in its totality, is uncontrollable, and what results of that output is difficult – maybe even impossible – for human minds to grasp entirely. 

The Sun shines on without prejudice or restraint, but its light falls differently, depending on whether one observes from Earth, Venus or Mars.         

Yet the Sun is essential for the existence of life on this planet generally, a fact that aligns well with Aries zodiacal position at the vernal equinox and the renewal of spring in the northern hemisphere. Light becomes surplus, and days get longer and warmer during the Season of the Ram.

Conceptualized in these ways, the Sun – as an expression of elemental fire - does seem to have more in common with Aries raw dynamism than Leo’s regal largesse.
Despite these arguments, the elemental fire related to Leo will remain associated primarily with the Sun because of its constancy – it rises everyday, whether we see it or not – than for its life-giving qualities. The fixity of the Leonine fire endures; rather than creating or destroying, it is life-sustaining. It is the fire one might use to cook a meal; an apt metaphor for this utilitarian elemental state.

In Sagittarius, the elemental fire becomes expansive and mutable, like lava; liquid fire. The bestial quality of the Centaur’s sign – represented by its animal half – is connected to the natural world, the material world, so the association with molten rock emitted from the Earth is well-founded. 

Another metaphor for this aspect of the fire triplicity could be elemental fire in its explosive or volatile expression, as both states are characteristic of the Sagittarian temperament.

Electricity, too, being a manifestation of elemental fire energy, might be considered aptly represented by Sagittarius, as the sign is ruled by Jupiter - a planet named after the chief sky god of Roman myth, and a deity who wielded lightning bolts in battle.  

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

On Conspiracies (Part One)

I have a dear friend with whom I discuss all sorts of subjects. The two of us are particularly adept at a kind of conversation that is loose and rambling. These qualities, in and of themselves, are not unique; most people could probably name one or two other individuals with whom they share such a rapport. 

One of the things that made our correspondence special, however, is the fact that we’ve known each other for over a quarter-century, and as such, we enjoy the kind of conversational shorthand that all long-time colleagues share. Also, he lives on the other side of the world now, in Asia, and so he brings those experiences to bear on our discourse, which widens the scope of its proliferation.

It was during one of these loose and rambling discussions that he and I found ourselves speaking the subject of conspiracy. Now, the two of us share many perspectives in common, so it came as something of a shock to find unsettling differences revealed during our discourse, and it led to a response, which is presented in the exposition I proffer here.

There can be no doubt that conspiracies exist - in nature and human society - and have, for as long as living beings have been able to breathe together (which is the original meaning of the word conspiracy, generated from the Latin conspirare: con-[together with] and spirare [breathe]).  

Even among our faunal cousins, sympathetic forces align to disrupt the status quo; a head chimpanzee is displaced by a rival who is aided by other like-minded chimps; or the alpha of a wolf pack is tore to bits by would-be usurpers, who then turn on each other until a new leader emerges. 

Could these coups be accomplished without secret alliances, albeit ones formed on an instinctual level of awareness, using means of communication other than language? That seems unlikely...  

But it is conspiracies of the human kind that are, by far, the most imaginative and complex. This is entirely in order, since the peculiar property of Homo sapiens’ sentience is to make abstract realities seem almost tangible to the senses, while remaining just beyond reach of them. 

These realities are not just intellectual abstractions, but emotional ones, too, and more often than not, a combination of both. They can be identified by everyday nomenclature, in the language of law, mathematics, politics, commerce, art, religion, science, and so on. 

Realities represented by language, and the artifacts they produce are the stuff of imagination and reason set to work in the world; the mythos and the logos. My philosophical antecedent called these realities ‘true world theories’, which is as good a signifier as any. Civilization itself, in fact, is built upon the intimation of these realities, which arose in the deep well of time like a flame, a-lighting the dark…  

Steering clear of metaphysics for now - and having established that human awareness has the aforementioned property of conferring reality to a given perspective - we can bring that knowledge to bear on the subject of conspiracy. 

Firstly though, for the purposes of this essay, let’s define conspiracy as the intent of a few individuals to control the majority of the population using coercion, deception, misinformation, disinformation and propaganda.

Secondly, we’ll acknowledge that conspiracy narratives are about power and keeping the mass population in the dark, prostrate to those who benefit from the conspiracy, whether that is banks, big pharma, government, elites, et al.

With these basic definitions in place, a metric can be contrived to measure a range of conspiracy theories, from the proven to the fantastical.

Of three broad categories that will exist within the spectrum of this metric, the first is comprised of conspiracy theories that have been shown to be factually, historically and scientifically verifiable by institutions and persons charged with guarding the gate, metaphorically speaking, between what is known and what is unknown.

I know what you’re going to say now, reader - what if the guardians themselves are conspiring to keep us in fetters, putting blinds over our eyes to conceal and dissemble what truth can be found in this world? “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” as a Roman poet once asked, only the context here isn’t marital fidelity, but fidelity to an idea of knowledge that is incorruptible.   

In this case, I must offer a conceit concerning the subjects classified in this first category:  it is because of legal, historical, academic and scientific rigor that the conspiracies listed have been shown to meet the definitions of conspiratorial intent described a moment ago: coercion, deception, misinformation, disinformation and propaganda. The evidence offered as proof in each conspiracy’s case is nigh irrefutable.

If measurements on the conspiracy spectrum are made horizontally (ie, along the x-axis), the first category occupies a range of degrees closest to zero.

Proximity of one category to another along the x-axis is an effort to demonstrate a progressive tendency towards more extreme, fatalistic and fantastical beliefs represented in the conspiracy spectrum.

The x-axis measures epistemological veracity and dissonance (or the tension between knowledge and belief). As integers increase along this axis, associated conspiracy theories become less credible.         

Cognitive dissonance (or if you prefer, psychological tension) experienced by a conspiracy theorist is measured along the y-axis (vertically). The rate of change here is represented by the rise of an upward concave parabola.  

Least affected by cognitive dissonance are conspiracy theories classed in the first category, called Demonstrable Conspiracies (DC)

Few people would contest these conspiracy theories. Some of the more well-known include the N.S.A surveillance program revealed by Edward Snowden, the Bush administration’s intent to mislead the United Nations about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the Iran-Contra affair, Watergate, among many others. 

Strategies employed by the tobacco and lead industries to hide the dangers of their products in the early and mid-20th century would also appear in this category (although, as I’ll present in a moment, this wasn’t always the case). 

Many of the conspiracies in this category are nefarious, like Kristallnacht, or the Catholic Church’s cultural assimilation of indigenous people and suppression of priest sex abuse scandals; others are so famous they’re the stuff of legend - Socrates trial and execution, Jesus’ crucifixion and the assassination of Julius Caesar are good examples… 

The DC category acts a control for the rest of this imaginary metric, and the conspiracies listed here will be obvious to motivated, informed, and curious observers – like you and me. These are events that are recorded in history, studied by scholars, documented by legal precedent, affirmed by experimentation, validated by institutional analysis, and so on. 

As certain as one might be about anything in public life, the DC designation indicates conspiracies that have been shown to be, for all intents and purposes, factually and positively true (or, for equivalency’s sake, real), in an Aristotelian – that is to say, quantifiable - sense. 

It’s worth noting, however, that events listed in the DC category did not start out there; it is by a sort of psychological rigor and due the passage of time that conspiracies are exposed.  

Bias is limited, too, as more information about a conspiracy becomes available. Of the classifications represented on the spectrum, the DC category is the one most associated with what might be described as objective knowledge, if such a thing might be imagined to exist…  

Degrees along the x-axis of the metric represent a gradation which corresponds with the epistemological veracity and dissonance of a given conspiracy theory, as I mentioned earlier. Suffice it to say, the conspiracies listed along the far right of the DC category might be considered verging on demonstrability

These conspiracies include the influence of the American military industrial complex, domestically and abroad, and the oil industry’s campaign of disinformation related to effects of pollution in the atmosphere. 

Here also we can observe the institutional and societal structures underlying the systemic oppression of women and people of color in the West, which have been created to benefit a white male minority. 

Economic and financial collusion between the members of a small group of global corporations would be classed in this designation as well.    

The distinction between degrees in the DC category as a whole is the presence of overwhelming legal precedence, coupled with ongoing and intense institutional analysis, and the passage of time. Societal change over successive generations coincides with the collective public response to the conspiracies classed in this category. 

Widespread acknowledgement of the conspiracies listed here results in revolutions, and leads to the prosecution (and sometimes termination) of corrupt entities and agents. 

This fact highlights the most obvious and important aspect of the theories classed in the DC category: Society and its culture are transformed in fundamental ways by the unmasking of conspiracy - provided the conspiracy has affected the lives and-or the well-being of a critical mass of people in that society.  

There is, nevertheless, ongoing resistance to disrupting the status quo and revealing the extent to which people are manipulated from the highest levels of government and commerce. 

Yet even in this time, the male-centric power structures and patriarchal-enforced hierarchies are under siege on all sides. Appeals to traditional authorities are not completely ineffectual, but this is an era of profound existential doubt in the West – a time of fake news and false prophets – and the way ahead is unclear, even, I think, to the most prescient among us.    

Overcoming pernicious doubt requires novel optimism, a spiritual disposition that is resilient in the face of life’s suffering, and not a denial of that suffering. If history provides a guide, political and economic hegemonies are impermanent; even with maintenance, they eventually falter, like a decrepit body, or an old machine. 

That’s why the passage of time is important, in relation to conspiracies involving civilization’s superstructure, its culture, economy and politics. For example, when oil companies fully transition to green energy production - some 20 years from now – it will be easier to acknowledge the corrupt veneer under which the industry operated for more than a century.

In short, conspiracy theories deposited in the DC category are verifiable. And if the conspirators haven’t been outed already – and punished - controlling the classified information they once attempted to suppress has lost value.

(End of Part One)        

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Last Jedi, Fantasy, and the Art of Defying Expectations

Emerging from a movie theatre on that Saturday in December 2017, I didn’t know what to think. The latest offering in the nine-part Star Wars saga – Chapter VIII: The Last Jedi (TLJ) - had been so different from what I’d expected that I was reluctant to form an opinion about the film. Instead, I sputtered to friends and family about how "I needed to see it again” or that full appreciation would take “a couple times through, to get the whole thing”.

Truth is, I didn’t really know if I liked the movie or not, but as an ardent Star Wars fan, I was compelled to examine my apprehension more closely. After all, I’m invested in the franchise, like millions of other people around the world; not with money, per se, but with devotion to this particular space fantasy.

I explored this devotion at length in a 2016 essay I wrote about The Force Awakens (TFA). In it, I looked back on my personal interest in a process called worldbuilding, an interest inspired in my youth by both George Lucas - the creator of Star Wars – and J.R.R. Tolkien, academic and author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, as well as by role-playing games and comic books.

Worldbuilding is premised on the idea that an imagined story and setting might be so complete, it could be said to have a reality of its own. Though worldbuilding can be thought of as metaphor and/or allegory for our shared human experience on Earth, the imagined setting actually comprises a separate place, containing qualities of internal logic and consistency that encompasses and expands our everyday milieu.

"Enchantment" was the word that Tolkien used to describe the transcendent effect of fantasy that results from effective worldbuilding. I used criteria outlined in Tolkien's treatise, On Fairy Stories, to frame part of the argument in my piece on TFA; essentially, that the enchantment of the Original Trilogy (OT) was also present in the first film of the new Sequel Trilogy (ST).  

It’s worth revisiting Tolkien with regards to TLJ, as well, since he made a demarcation between  a fantasy of enchantment, and fantasy where a person might, for a short time, suspend disbelief.

Tolkien wrote, “Enchantment produces a Secondary World into which both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while they are inside,” while suspended disbelief was a substitute for “the genuine thing, a subterfuge we use when condescending to games or make-believe, or when trying (more or less willingly) to find what virtue we can in the work of an art that for us has failed.

Reflecting on TLJ with Tolkien’s conceits in mind, I was struck suddenly by what I think was the essence of my initial objection to the new film: that I was – upon first viewing - taken out of the fantasy too often; compelled to suspend disbelief - and so had become aware of that disbelief. And while this state of mind had immediate consequences for what I'd just seen in TLJ, I was also reminded of my fraught opinion on the Prequel Trilogy (PT).

I’ll explain what I mean by that statement, but there’s certainly no need to revisit all the difficult aspects of the PT. Most longtime fans have one or two moments (at least) in Chapters I-III that they feel are cringe-worthy, and I’m no different.

In some cases I’m willing to accept the shortcomings were, at least, partially the result of seeing the movies through an adult’s eyes, rather than a child’s. But that's not the whole picture. In my estimation, it wasn’t until after the first act of Revenge of the Sith (RotS) that viewers experience the sustained enchantment of the Secondary World described by Tolkien; to that point, and in the prior two PT films - The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones - moments of this sort were fleeting.

Almost certainly, the lore surrounding the origin of Darth Vader – which had been percolating in popular culture for decades – engaged the imagination of both 'designer and spectator' (to use another Tolkien-ism). From the moment that Palpatine reveals he is a Sith lord to Anakin, RotS takes on a mythic, nearly spiritual, dimension. 

Overall criticism notwithstanding, when it came to the PT, it wasn’t difficult for me to envision a galaxy in which the Jedi Order were the feared and respected "guardians of peace and justice" Obi-wan Kenobi described in A New Hope (ANH), the original Star Wars film. 

The notion, too, that there would be a science to explain the biological antecedent of the Force – midi-chlorians – seemed reasonable in the PT setting, so the introduction of these microscopic beings  deepened the fantasy for me.

Some viewers did not feel the same way, however; and in their opinion, the ineffable qualities of the Force were debased by such an explanation. For them, the materialist description of this “mystical energy field” was enough to take them out of the fantasy.

This phenomenon repeated itself again and again with the PT, whether as a consequence of iffy writing, poor chemistry between performers, Jar Jar Binks, etc., and those of us who had been fans since the OT were particularly vulnerable to having expectations dashed by the second trio of Star Wars films.

We should have known, though, that there was no going back home after George Lucas released the updated versions of the OT in the 1990s. His tinkering with the Cantina scene – the infamous Greedo-shoots-first debacle – became the ultimate symbol of being taken out of the fantasy that is Star Wars.

Part of the appeal of Han Solo’s character in the original theatre edit was that he is an amoral opportunist until Luke and Leia give him a cause in which to believe. He begins a scoundrel, yet he gains honor and a heart of gold, a metaphor that’s made explicit by the medal ceremony at the end of ANH.

That character arc doesn’t exist in Lucas’ revised version of ANH. Instead of gunning down Greedo in cold blood, we are shown that Han reacted defensively after the bounty hunter shoots first. Yet somehow, by portraying Han as reactionary, this one change redefines who he is, giving him a morality that the original character initially lacks, then gains, in the course of the film.

Deprived of this arc, Lucas’ revised Han is a tepid antihero, and less dangerous than the original theatre edit would have had us believe.

TLJ presented some viewers, myself among them, with a similar dilemma; in that we are to accept that the same Luke Skywalker who resists killing his father and succumbing to the Dark Side of the Force in the OT, is the same Luke Skywalker who’s willing to murder his nephew (Ben Solo, or if you like, Kylo Ren) while the boy sleeps (albeit in a moment of weakness, and for a seemingly good reason).

The threat that Ben represents is, by no means, on the same scale as Vader, who kills a group of children in his first murderous act as a Sith lord. Ben, at the point when Luke considers ending him, has done nothing but be implicated in Supreme Leader Snoke’s machinations; as Vader, Anakin Skywalker presided over genocidal acts on a planetary scale.

The gulf between the two is wide, and if Luke was willing to show compassion to his father – who did so many awful things – he would be even more likely to show it in the case of his nephew, who wasn’t yet complicit in any crimes, right? Not so, it would seem!

While Luke’s characterization in this way was jarring enough, it was something else to see Leia Organa flying through the vacuum of space, unaided by anything but the Force.

For me, as a viewer, this moment demanded the greatest amount of suspended disbelief; not because I thought Leia incapable of such an act, but because I wasn’t shown that she had received any sort of Jedi training. Consequently, in my assessment, this entire sequence of events lacked the internal consistency required for effective worldbuilding. Again, I was taken out of the fantasy.

I don’t doubt that the extended universe of the Star Wars franchise – which I define as both Legends and Canon content streams, or the accumulated texts, games and television that supplement the Skywalker movies – has a lot to say about Leia’s education in the ways of the Force.

But as a self-proclaimed fundamentalist when it comes to Star Wars (see my essay on TFA), I believe the narrative must be comprehendible using only the contents of the nine-part saga exclusively. Leia’s sudden Force mastery challenges this conviction, since the only power she’s demonstrated to this point in the Star Wars films is a profound intuitive connection with the people she loves.

It is, perhaps, this moment – Leia’s use of the Force – that persuaded me to resist the urge to judge TLJ too quickly. When I watched the film again, it became clear to me that director Rian Johnson had intended to defy expectations with TLJ. There are, at least, two important reasons to take such an approach.

The first has been a subject of discussion for some time already; basically that TLJ brings the Star Wars franchise forward, making it fresh for a new generation of fans. Defying expectations, in this case, is a calculated business risk aimed at ensuring the Star Wars franchise’s profitability (and ubiquity) for the next 10-20 years. 

(For some viewers in the 40+ age range who were fans of the OT, Rogue One (R1) has become the standard for a modern Star Wars film. In fact, a case can be made that TLJ suffered some ill will from segments of the fan community because it wasn’t like R1, which was based in the familiar setting of the OT. In short, R1 met the expectations certain fans had for a Star Wars film by adhering to the established internal consistency of OT worldbuilding.)     

The other, less obvious reason to defy expectations at this point in the nine-part saga is to put audiences off certain pre-conceived notions about the final film. The untimely death of Snoke is a good example of one such notion, in that many viewers saw him as a Palpatine-type antagonist whose backstory would be instrumental to the ST’s ultimate resolution.

Now that Snoke is gone, and Kylo Ren has taken on the mantle of supreme leader, the direction of the ninth film is less certain.

A similar effect is achieved by Kylo ‘revealing’ Rey’s true parentage, that the girl was born to junk traders and sold into slavery for drinking money. This is intended to put to rest speculation about her genealogy, which has been a central mystery of the ST. Here, defying expectations feeds into Rey’s fears about herself, and puts the audience off the possibility that she is familially related to the saga’s central characters.

While this ‘revelation’ is very likely to prove a deception, Kylo clarifies and obscures Rey’s identity at the same time by telling her a believable story about her origins, which sets the stage for a final reckoning between the two characters in the saga’s last chapter.

And just what will be the nature of this final reckoning?

The fact that Leia still lives suggest she has a part yet to play in the drama, an outcome foreshadowed by Kylo’s decision not to kill her in TLJ. Some meaningful exchange between mother and son seems fated for the last film, as does validation of Rey’s parentage by an authority other than Kylo. Will these situations be connected?

Quite possibly, but as conjectures they must remain the subject of speculation. At least for now…

(Carrie Fisher’s deceased status is not a deterrent to her appearance in the saga’s final film, as R1 demonstrated. Audiences might find out about Leia’s demise in the opening crawl of Chapter IX, but it’s also possible that a combination of archival footage and CGI will be used to recreate her likeness, despite claims that have been made to the contrary.)   

TLJ may not be my favorite chapter of the Star Wars saga, but I remain enchanted by these films still; or at least willing to suspend disbelief long enough to see them through to completion.

If the franchise gets away from me after that, I don’t mind. Old testaments are invariably followed by new ones; titans are supplanted by gods; cable replaces dial-up – change is the way of things, and it is the way of the Force.

Like Yoda tells Luke as they watch the Jedi Temple burn in TLJ, “We are what they grow beyond”. That’s good advice, no matter what galaxy you’re from.


Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Same but Different: Vision and Revision in Blade Runner 2049

It was director Denis Villeneuve’s intent to create something fresh with the highly anticipated sequel to the 1982 film Blade Runner, and it’s fair to say he accomplished that goal. 

Also true, however, is the assertion that Blade Runner 2049 is not as much a departure from the original picture as some claim. There are many tonal and thematic similarities between the films.

Viewers knew to expect something of the original aesthetic. The score – augmented considerably by 21st century sound design – is homage to the music Vangelis composed for the first film, yet has its own unique aural character. 

The milieu – grey, irradiated, punctuated with neon incandescence, and buried beneath depressed haze – is also familiar. These nods to the original movie maintain the fantasy that both films take place in the same imagined world.  

But the acid-rain vision of post-modern urban blight conceived for the first Blade Runner is noticeably transformed in the sequel. Changes in climate have left Los Angeles under constant siege by winter storms and the advancing Pacific, which is held at bay by massive coastal levees.       

Villeneuve also borrowed many implicit themes from the first movie, making them more explicit for 21st century viewers whose lives are regularly impacted by pervasive use of technology.

When the original movie was released, artificial intelligence and gene-splicing were not topics of common parlance, but in 2017, it’s a different story. Villeneuve takes full advantage of the paradigm-shift in public consciousness to explore the meaning of memory, of sentience, and the consequences of enslaving technology to corporate-capitalist ends. 

Spoiler alert – many humans end-up as slaves, too, doomed to scratch out a miserable existence in a dilapidated industrial landscape, or among huddled urban masses. Elite sapiens – known as ‘off-worlders’ – live on other planets, in settlements built by replicants, while humans left on Earth are either very wealthy or very unlucky.

The experience of memory – the act of remembering and the memories themselves – are essential aspects of both films.

In the original, memories are given to replicants in order to ensure behavioral compliance and to allow for safe integration of their mimicked sentience; a ‘cushion’ is the term used in the movie.

But it's the lived experience of renegade ‘skin job’ Roy Batty that demonstrates the human-like behavior of replicants, as Batty dies and his remembrances are “lost in time, like tears in rain.”

Memory, and its role in identity, is an important component of the sequel as well. 

Agent K, the film’s blade runner protagonist, finds he is connected by childhood memory to the only known instance of replicant pregnancy, and comes to believe he is the sole offspring of homo sapien and homo androīdē (my term).

But it’s not to be. The child of man and machine is, in fact, a melancholy ‘bubble girl’, who lives in a hermetically-sealed capsule due to auto-immune deficiencies. She designs memories for replicants – including Agent K.

The Tyrell Corporation in the original film is updated as the Wallace Corporation in the latest picture. Both businesses profit from replicants and their exploitation; however, it is the recent incarnation that most represents one logical extreme of techno-capitalist enterprises.

Where Dr. Tyrell shows paternal admiration for Roy Batty in the original film, the Machiavellian Wallace sees replicants as a slave class, essential for humanity’s colonization of the solar system. 

In this future, it isn’t enough that Wallace has tamed extraterrestrial environments; his corporation is creating a new consciousness as well. Agent K is enamored with a holographic artificial intelligence, Joi – created by Wallace Corp. - with whom he comes to share a close bond. 

Joi, however, is commodity – all algorithms and tricks of light – and while ‘she’ feeds Agent K’s growing sense of purpose by affirming his belief that he is the child of human and replicant, a later scene suggests the tendency to encouragement is a quality shared by all ‘Jois’. 

‘She’ is, in the end, a product manufactured for mass consumption, and not just for one individual.

The relationship between father and child is another shared aspect of the two films, providing the essential impetus that advances both plots. 

Roy Batty’s quest to extend his life in the original film leads him to Dr. Tyrell - the man who created the replicant’s brain. Like a post-modern Frankenstein’s Monster, Batty kills Tyrell, gruesomely murdering both ‘father’ and ‘god’ in the same terrible act. “It’s not an easy thing to meet your maker,” Batty says just before the bloody display.

The latest film puts the parent-child drama front and center, re-introducing Rachael and Rick Deckard from the first movie. 

When the pair is revealed as parents of the new progeny, Agent K finds himself in a race of time to discover Deckard’s location and the secrets of his own identity, before he and the retired blade runner are killed or captured.

One interpretation of the original film posits Deckard himself as a replicant, which is not confirmed or denied in the sequel; that said, since Agent K is a replicant, it could be considered a directorial conceit to that perspective (although K knows he’s not human). 

If Deckard is a replicant, the interpretation doesn’t negate the importance of his offspring. 

Wallace is obsessed with finding the means by which replicants might reproduce. If the machines can ‘make themselves’ instead of having to be made, he reasons that he will have a ready and available source of slaves to realize his colonialist ambitions. 

The best to be expected from any movie sequel is that it has qualities that recall novel aspects of the original film, while transfiguring what was previously made. 

Villeneuve’s cinematic vision (or revision), brilliantly realized in Blade Runner 2049, admirably satisfies that criteria.