Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Book Review: Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman, published in 1985, delivered a harsh critique of television and its negative effects on culture. Postman's thesis comes down to a basic premise: a civilization based on print communication will foster critical and analytical thinking, while TV trivializes everything.

Postman frequently notes George Orwell and Aldous Huxley's opposing visions of a dystopian society.  In 1984 Orwell imagined oppressive governments banning books and keeping citizens under constant surveillance.  Huxley's Brave New World envisioned a future with a population kept at bay through drugs and endless entertainments.  Why ban books when no one cares to read them?  Although Orwell's often invoked these days, Brave New World seems more prescient. 

Amusing Ourselves to Death goes to great lengths to establish differences between TV and print, whether it be news, political, or religious programming. TV will always favor entertainment above all else.  An example being the presidential debates: they are rarely critiqued in terms of how the candidate argues their points, but rather on who scores the most zingers or flubs the most lines. Entertaining content always trumps thought provoking content.

In the past 30 years since Amusing Ourselves to Death was written TV has changed and yet stayed the same. Critics often speak of a new "Golden Age" of television when writing about cable dramas like Mad Men and Breaking Bad.  But dramas have always occupied a high place in television and while they are getting more sophisticated - television remains mostly junk! From reality TV to Cable News, there's enough mindless babble to keep anyone hypnotized for hours.

Postman offered a few solutions to offsetting television, but the book is mostly a lamentation. There's a quiet eloquence to it. One can see the influence of Postman's thesis in writings to come later, David Foster Wallace especially comes to mind.  The literature of the future will no doubt confront and attempt to make sense of the post-print world Postman predicted.

Don't get me wrong, I believe in books. I teach freshman composition and I can say students do place some value on literature, but it's not a major part of their lives.  Walk around any college campus and you will rarely see undergrads immersed in On the Road or The Bell Jar. More likely they are in the middle of a Netflix binge

The generation born after 1995 (anyone under 21) are totally at ease with digital technology and they are building their own reality around it. Whatever happens, it will be a brave new world.  

People have mused upon the effects of technology since the beginning of civilization, a clip from The Magnificent Ambersons reveals how silly and profound these discussions can get: something is always gained and lost.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Comic Book Review: Millennium by Joe Harris & Colin Morimer

With The X-Files slated to return to TV, another cult classic from the 90s has returned in comic book form, Chris Carter's Millennium (1996-99). Unlike the UFO/conspiracy theory obsessed  X-Files, Millennium took a more philosophical approach to the supernatural.

Millennium examined popular anxieties as the year 2000 approached, especially the idea of an apocalyptic event that will change the course of history.  The protagonist Frank Black, brilliantly played by Lance Henriksen, can use his psychic gifts to aid criminal investigations. The series began with Frank settling in Seattle with his wife and daughter while working as a consultant for the ultra secretive Millennium Group.

Much of the show's mystery comes from the group who trace their origins to the ancients and have apparently influenced much of human history. While their agenda seemed ambiguous, Frank comes to believe they have sinister intentions.

Unfortunately many story lines were left unresolved, leading to the 'Back to Frank Black" campaign to revive Millennium in some form, especially since many of the themes explored on the show have come to pass: the spread of newer and deadlier viruses, a medicated society, acts of mass terrorism, and a growing convergence between humanity and technology.

Earlier this year IDW comics released a five issue set updating the story of Frank Black. Written by Joe Harris with art by Colin Morimer, the first issue begins with a haunting prologue set on December 24, 1999 and then moves to the present.  Now in his 70s, Frank's still haunted by his time with the group. He's been off the grid for the past decade trying to reconnect with his daughter Jordan who shared his gift. Mulder from X-Files appears and we even get a cameo from the Lone Gunmen.

Harris includes many references to the show fans will recognize. Meanwhile, the Millennium group remains at large.

Millennium worked because it reached beyond the headlines and suggested more mystical forces were driving the world. Each episode posed fundamental questions: Why does evil exist? What does it mean to be good?  Where can one find hope? A post-modern Pilgrim's Progress.

The comic book revival of Millennium stays loyal to the tone and look of the series and hopefully there will be more to come.

Remember: This is who we are.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

New Wilco Album Review: Star Wars

Earlier this evening Wilco released a new album entitled Star Wars, available for streaming on their website, their first batch of new songs since The Whole Love in 2011.

Composed of 11 tracks with a total running time of 33 minutes, Star Wars is heavy on pop hooks and sound collage.  As with many Wilco albums you are in 1978 one minute, then a jump ahead to 1989, and then you zoom back to 1972, only to rematerialize in 2001.

I hear some David Bowie on "You Satellite"; "Cold Slope" sounds a bit like Bowie's "Fame" (released almost 40 years ago to the day). And even some John Lennon on "Magnetized."

Jeff Tweedy sounds more like his old self on Star Wars, in contrast to the somber solo album he made last year. The lyrical word play from A Ghost is Born and sound experimentation from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot are both back.

Wilco also beat someone to the punch with the album's title, surely some rock band in 2015 would title their album Star Wars, with the film series returning to the cultural conversation (maybe the 70s did survive?). 

With a mid-summer release, Wilco's set of ornately produced tunes will help fight back the inevitable summertime malaise.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Book Review: How Star Wars Conquered the Universe by Chris Taylor

With most of the civilized world anxiously waiting for the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a few recently published books have taken stock of the uber pop culture phenomenon, foremost among them How Star Wars Conquered the Universe by Chris Taylor.

The book chronicles the creative journey of George Lucas, including chapters on the global influence of Star Wars.  Everything is covered from the inception of Star Wars in the early 70s, the heady process of making the original trilogy, and the fan backlash to the prequel trilogy.

The final section covers recent developments in the Star Wars universe, namely, Lucas's decision to sell the rights to Star Wars over to Disney, a move that will change the course of pop culture for decades to come.

A few chapters examine the "fandom" subculture surrounding Star Wars. The 2011 documentary, The People vs. George Lucas, marked the apotheosis of Star Wars fan outrage.  They love Lucas for creating the stories, but feel betrayed at his choice to alter the original films with CGI effects and their hatred of Jar Jar Binks and numerable other creative missteps made in the prequels.

Taylor, a journalist by trade, is at his best when tracing the life of Lucas in his triumphant and melancholy journey from experimental filmmaker to media mogul.  When his low budget 1973 film American Graffiti became a box office smash, Lucas found himself in a position he never expected: financial backing from a major studio to make his own movie.  

So he wrote a space opera against the advice of everyone around him.  By going against the grain, making a crowd pleasing movie in an age of cynical downers, Lucas tapped into an entirely new audience crazy for comic book space adventures sprinkled with the subtext of the hero's journey.

The book also does a great job of deconstructing the myth Lucas had a master plan of nine movies. The story went as follows: the original script had enough material for nine films so he took the middle section and made that into a movie. The truth is far more complicated.  

To make a long story short, Lucas has made conflicting statements on the issue over the years.  While it appears he had an epic story in mind, most of the details and plot developments remained sketchy and unwritten.

While the making of the original Star Wars trilogy is an often told tale, Taylor fills in some of the gaps. After the release of Return of the Jedi in 1983, Lucas eschewed making personal films in favor of being a producer. In a way he became the very thing he was always against - a micromanaging CEO consumed with financial issues.

After the final installment Revenge of the Sith was completed in 2005, Lucas declared the Star Wars saga finished.  Plans for a TV show, Star Wars: Underworld, a darker take on the universe, never materialized.

Now the lion in winter, Lucas has stepped aside and is now "creative consultant" for the new films. As his former mentor Francis Ford Coppola once observed, Star Wars overtook Lucas's life and we'll never see those other movies he planned to make.  When revisiting THX-1138 or American Graffiti we see an artist with a vision of amazing depth, and one cannot but wonder if Lucas had decided direct his other pet project which went to Coppola, Apocalypse Now.  Ironically, he got trapped in a universe of his own making.

How Star Wars Conquered the Universe tells the saga of Lucasfilm with wit and clarity, a worthy purchase for any Star Wars fan.