Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Mediums in Flux: Narrative Evolution in TV and Film

The proliferation of long form TV has not only revolutionized how we consume media over the past decade, but also the way we process narrative. While there have been countless think pieces on how television has usurped cinema as the ideal form of storytelling, I'm not sure if one is better than the other is the relevant question. Adrian Martin's 2019 article in Cineaste "The Challenge of Narrative: Storytelling Mutation between Television and Cinema" does a brilliant job of explaining these radical and not so radical innovations in narrative storytelling. It appears inevitable we've reached a tipping point, in the next decade our sense of narrative will continue to evolve. 

Martin introduces the idea of squeezing and stretching narratives. For example, an adaptation of a novel will rarely be a page for page visual transcription, but a distillation of key themes and characters. The essence must be squeezed out for the visual format of cinema. Rosemary's Baby, the 1968 Roman Polanski version, works perfectly at two hours. A four hour 2014 mini-series drained the power from the story. There are many other examples. Stanley Kubrick's The Shining used the Stephen King novel as a starting point, but made a film of his own vision. The more faithful 1997 TV version illustrates the limitations of the TV medium - lower budgets and boxy staging.

Conversely, a stretched narrative will extend the three act structure. For example GLOW, the Netflix series about women's professional wrestling set in the 1980s. The entire first season is devoted to getting the team together, which would typically be the first act of a feature film. Why not do a ten hour origin story? Or jump around in time within a known larger narrative, such as Better Call Saul. Stretching out these concepts can be risky, but when done right can be an enriching experience.

When a movie packs too much plot it can spiral into incoherence. The 1981 Sidney Lumet film Prince of the City crammed so much story and plot into its two and a half hour running time, I could not help thinking a mini-series would've better served the story. For any epic novel the possibilities in the modern TV format are limitless. In the hands of a master filmmaker and a first rate cast, Park Chan-wook's 2018 version of John le Carre's The Little Drummer Girl being an example, television can display its narrative possibilities.

There's also been a push back to long form TV. A taut 90 minute movie made in the classical style, thinking John Carpenter or Howard Hawks, can be very satisfying. Short and dense, every frame and moment adds to the unfolding story. A serialized television show cannot replicate the contained experience of a movie. Even if a movie fails, it's two hours of your life. A lackluster TV season will suck up 10-12 hours. Is it worth the time?

The past few years I've been going through The Rockford Files (74-80), a famous episodic detective show. There's a comfort in the show's lo-fi ambiance often shot at dimly lit 70s bars, sunny beach sides, and rustic dockyards. Like most 70s network TV, each episode introduces a conflict and by the end everything gets resolved. Previous episodes are rarely referenced. While the episodic approach has its limits, there's also something liberating, a sort of defiance against the idea of time moving forward. A great episode will be fondly remembered, but a serialized show is more about the overarching narrative, not the specific experience of an episode.

I don't think it's a matter if TV or movies being better, but a matter of expectations. The character driven/anti-hero style of New Hollywood movies is now the province of television from shows like Breaking Bad or Fleabag. With movies relying more on super blockbusters to keep box office numbers up and people going to theaters, the predictions of a crash Spielberg and Lucas predicted in 2013 could happen in the next decade. With Disney approaching monopoly status, movies are becoming more of a producer's medium at the expense of directors. Many promising directors have found a place in television, but within the confines of the series, while their independent projects go unmade. 

Established filmmakers have also migrated to television. Martin Scorsese's The Irishmen  had to go through Netflix. The long awaited Orson Welles film The Other Side of the Wind also became available through Netflix. The fact that Knives Out, a hit film with a middle budget and an A-list cast, can still be a hit is more the exception than the rule these days. A movie will always be a singular experience - unique and maybe in the long run more powerful.

Over the past few years I've neglected TV probably because I'm too impatient to get into too many shows. I believe in the 2020s entertainment will increasingly shift into the television format or maybe evolve into something else entirely. More interactive, or possibly a fragmentation that will make entertainment even more insular. Either way, we're in a transformative era.

Work Cited

Martin, Adrian. "The Challenge of Narrative: Storytelling Mutation between Television and Cinema." Cineaste: Summer 2019 Vol. XLIV, No. 3. 

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Counterfeit Woodstock

Counterfeit Woodstock

I was too young to recall the day Oswald got shot on live TV,
but I’ll never forget the frigid Monday night 17 years later.
A lot of dreams were killed that night, many other things too
Four kids from Ohio made it to the wake, carried there as if on a string.
Jeffrey remarked it felt like the last movie, the last rock and roll show,
the last waltz before doomsday all rolled into one.
Allison spotted Bill Murray smoking a cigarette.
Will thought of Zapata’s army gathering one last time.
Then it began to snow. And everyone sang.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Steven Spielberg's AmericaSteven Spielberg's America by Frederick Wasser
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A well written but slight overview of Spielberg's films up to 2008. Wasser places Spielberg's filmography within the context of the shifting sociological and political landscape of 20th Century America. The overarching narrative traces Spielberg's beginnings in television and rapid rise in Hollywood with the release of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Influenced by New Hollywood style of the 1970s, Wasser argues Spielberg's mainstream tastes paved the way for his domination of pop culture during the 1980s. While his suburban epics and action adventures with Indiana Jones appeared to be in sync with the zeitgeist of Reagan's America, Wasser traces a growing political awareness in Spielberg's work. By engaging with history in The Color Purple, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan , and Munich he's asking audiences to reexamine the past and present. His sci-fi films Minority Report and War of the Worlds dealt with a post 9/11 world. My main criticism with the book is that all these films deserve much deeper analysis beyond historical context (even that seems short on depth). Some of Wasser's conclusions appear superficial, stuck between Spielberg's naysayers and proselytizers. For example, Wasser contends Schindler's List appealed to audiences because it celebrated capitalism? Too much Fredric Jameson for my taste. At the same he champions Minority Report as a modern masterpiece, which I would agree. Overall a good overview of Spielberg's long and fascinating career and a good starting point for identifying some key themes and motifs, but lacking in razor sharp analysis.

View all my reviews

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Book Review: The City on the Edge of Forever: The Original Teleplay by Harlan Ellison

Often considered the greatest episode on the original Star Trek series, "The City on the Edge of Forever" by Harlan Ellison also fomented decades of acrimony over the heavily revised script that aired on April 6, 1967. Ellison's original script was altered at the behest of Star Trek creator Gene Rodenberry who did not consider it Star Trek enough. Ellison disavowed the episode in countless interviews over the years. His original script that earned a Hugo Award. The book includes the full original teleplay.

Ellison's 60+ page introduction attempts to set the record straight. Admittedly petty at times, Ellison wants to call out every falsehood about the creation of the episode, most of his vitriol is aimed at Roddenberry who often took credit for "saving" Ellison's unfilmable script.

The episode that aired focuses upon "The Guardians", ancient beings who oversee a time portal on the fringes of the universe. After a McCoy accidentally took some amphetamines he crosses one of the portals and changes history for the worse. Kirk and Spock also enter the portal and find themselves in the 1930s, trying to save their timeline. They meet Edith Keeler, a charismatic young woman who proselytizes for world peace. Kirk falls in love with Edith, but also learns that she has a certain fate planned for her that cannot be changed or there will be dire consequences for the future. The episode concludes with Kirk tragically standing aside as Edith dies to preserve the timeline.

A great episode full of great themes and inspired acting from the cast, one may wonder: What was Ellison so upset about?

First of all the teleplay is far more richer in theme and tone. Ambitious for 1960s episodic television, the script reads like a feature film. The original story involved drug dealing on the Enterprise and a more epic journey back to 1930 with some intriguing minor characters. Secondly, Ellison's dialogue is moving and philosophical. Not only a melancholy love story with Kirk and Edith, but also features some great dialogue between Kirk and Spock.

The script also explores the influence of individuals upon history, courageous sacrifices made by the nameless who were never recognized, and even on the ultimate nature and fate and humanity. All these are expressed through Eliison's eloquent language.

It's tempting to hope someday the script will be made as originally intended. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto would be ideal to play Spock and Kirk, but that will probably never happen. It's such a Kirk/Spock centered story, it would have be made at the expense of other cast members. Still, it would be a cool movie.

The book also includes some extra revisions Ellison made and some reminiscences from the participants. A compelling read for Star Trek fans, but also for writers interested in writing for the small and big screen. 

Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Marvel Movie Debate

Over the past year there's been a lot of noise in social media on the Marvel Movies. Marvel fans took victory laps when Avengers: Endgame shattered Box Office records. Some film critics were highly cynical at the mania surrounding these films, especially the backlash of writing a negative review. Other voices from the film making community have also come out and have taken a beating on social media for it.

So, what of it? Bill Maher made waves earlier this year when he decided to dismiss all comic book fans as spoiled children unable to deal with complexity. The reaction to Maher was justified, comics have played a positive role in countless lives. Maher's clumsy attempt to slam dunk on toxic fandom, which is a real thing, added little to the discussion. Comedian Marc Maron also lashed out against the Marvel movies on the Conan O'Brien show, completely echoing what Simon stated 37 years ago. Martin Scorsese dismissed comic book movies as amusement parks, which sparked a predictable flurry of twitter outrage. 

When Return of the Jedi was released in 1983, the final film in the original Star Wars trilogy, it was considered a watershed moment in 1980s pop culture. The two most famous critics of the era Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel championed the Star Wars movies and praised the films for taking cinematic storytelling to the next level. Yet not all critics were thrilled. Pauline Kael was generally cool towards the trilogy. Speculative fiction writer and media personality Harlan Ellison despised Star Wars as a mockery of Science Fiction. Perhaps the most vociferous review came from John Simon who dismissed Star Wars as a film of "overwhelming banality." On a Nightline episode Simon squared off against Siskel And Ebert. 

Simon was a cultural conservative who wrote for publications for National Review and New York Magazine. His film criticism was notorious for making light of actors' physical appearance. His brooding European perspective poured cold water on the enthusiasm of his peers for the wave of New Hollywood films during the 1970s.

Host Ted Koppel gave Simon the first word. He condemned Jedi as a "dehumanizing film" made for children or adults with a "child mentality," sarcastically adding many of his fellow critics lacked an "adult mentality." His argument was Star Wars made "children dumber than they needed to be" and that art should engage children on the level of reality, mentioning The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as an example.

Ebert responded by recalling the Disney films that inspired his imagination as a child, and that Star Wars was doing the same thing for the new generation. Siskel spoke of attending a screening of Jedi packed with kids having the time of their lives. Both viewed them as great works of art for children. But what about for adults?

Simon noted special effects should not be the tail that wags the dog. Ebert cleverly responded by arguing all movies are a special effect, since the film goes through the camera and is projected onto the screen by light, it's the closest experience we have to a waking dream. When asked if Jedi should be considered great art, Siskel said a film should be judged by its aspirations - and in that sense Jedi was a great film. He compared it unfavorably to the forgettable 3D movie Space Hunter also out at the time. Simon suggested taking children to see Tender Mercies, a more adult oriented film that will give audiences more to think about.

Watching the Nightline discussion now, both sides score some excellent points that take on a new meaning these days. Siskel and Ebert were correct in that Star Wars lit up the imagination of a generation. Yet Simon had a point that kids should be exposed to more complex stories.  Perhaps the long view has proved him right. 

Think of the fallout from the prequel Star Wars films, the sight of endless ranks of young men who grew up with Lucas now going on extended rants how he stole their childhood. Toxic fan behavior has metastasized into online harassment on social media and other childish behavior (a remake of The Last Jedi). Petitions to rewrite shows longtime fans find offensive are a daily occurrence. Part of this stems from a pop culture no longer serving up the fantasies of young white men, but also from a preference for the spectacle above art.

What we see are the child like mentalities Simon spoke of in 1983. I'm fine with Marvel Movies: they're well made, have created endearing characters, and are impressive feats of modern storytelling. But they never challenge an audience - and are almost chilling in their endorsement of the status quo. Do audiences want to be challenged by movies? Do we want movies that tell us something about our own reality. Going by the box office, the answer seems to be in the negative. So it's no wonder elder statesman of New Hollywood are lamenting they can no longer make the movies they want to make.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Book Review: The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the End of the Cold War by James Mann

In the years following Ronald Reagan's presidency it was fashionable among his conservative disciples to claim his policies had single handedly won the Cold War. As James Mann argues in his book The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan, many of these same people disagreed with Reagan's decision to pursue arms control in his second term. While Reagan's critics on the left often portray him as an amiable tool under the sway of right wing ideologues, Mann argues it was Reagan's independence and decision to go his own way that helped bring about the end of the Cold War.

Divided into four parts, the first explores Reagan's relationship with Richard Nixon. Despite his well documented character flaws, Nixon was an astute student of geopolitics and his detente policies of the 1970s reduced Cold War tensions by establishing frequent communication between the superpowers. Along his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger they attempted with mixed results to achieve a balance of power to keep the peace. They also believed the Cold War would last well into the 21st Century and the only way to prevent war was a live and let live diplomacy.

Reagan was more of an anti-communist, he viewed the Cold War as one of ideals, an existential struggle between two economic systems. He was confident the Soviet system was not sustainable and the American system had a long term advantage. He felt detente legitimized an immoral system and was too status quo. Upon his election in 1980, at a point of high tension after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Reagan's rhetoric like calling the Soviet Union an "evil empire" led to a tense first term full of confrontation.

At the same time, the reality of nuclear war terrified Reagan. The Made For Television blockbuster The Day After shook him. In November 1983, NATO exercises known as Able Archer had the Soviets convinced attack was imminent and things got really scary for a few days. He believed the only solution was to eliminate all nuclear weapons, or at the very least reduce them. As he continued to lean towards arms control, those on the right became nervous. Meanwhile, the realists Nixon and Kissinger found Reagan's approach to be erratic. 

Through his research Mann uncovered Reagan used unofficial diplomacy, specifically the historian Suzanne Massie, who reported to Reagan on her travels through the Soviet Union. Massie provided him with insight on the culture and people of Russia, suggesting to Reagan the people were ready for a political change, she proved to be a valuable liaison and catalyst for the shift in Reagan's foreign policy.

The ascent of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 signaled to Reagan the time had come to reduce tensions. Younger and more open to new ideas, Reagan wanted to make him a partner in ending the Cold War. Meanwhile his advisers considered Gorbachev no different from his predecessors. Mann argues the two had mutual interests, for Gorbachev to implement his reforms, he would need to improve relations with America. Reagan wanted to leave behind a legacy in the midst of the Iran Contra Scandal. Much of the book deals with Reagan's speech at the Brandenburg Gate where impelled Gorbachev to "tear down this wall.", which as Mann argues sped the process along of ending Communism in Eastern Europe.

The final 18 months of Reagan's presidency were characterized by successful summits in Washington and Moscow. Standing in Red Square, Reagan disavowed his characterization of the USSR as an evil empire. With arms control moving along smoothly, he left office with communism on the cusp of collapsing in Russia. Mann questions the thesis that Reagan's increased military spending pushed the Soviets to economic collapse, arguing the problems in the Soviet economy were systematic and long term. 

Mann's portrays Reagan as a leader who desperately wanted peace, understood the dangers of nuclear war, and employed wise diplomacy to bring things to quiet conclusion. If he had listed to the right, the Cold War might have continued to escalate. If the realists had their way, Reagan would've stayed in status quo thinking. He also knew the power of rhetoric to inspire - and used it to reach across cultural and political barriers. Whatever one's opinion of Reagan's politics he did leave the world more peaceful than when he entered into office - and to do it he had to rebel against his base. A valuable and thoughtful account of Reagan's diplomacy. 

Mann, James. The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the End of the Cold War. New York: Viking, 2009.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Robert Mueller: Last of the Wise Men

Pundits were quick to dismiss the Muller testimony last Wednesday. The "bad reviews" pointed to a lack of memorable sound bytes and smoking gun moments. Predictably, Trump declared total victory and downgraded Mueller for giving one of the worst performances in American history. There was chatter about "bad optics." After all, getting Trump for obstruction of justice was a little wimpy in the first place The hope that Mueller would be the new Elliot Ness taking down our modern day Al Capone never quite materialized (or will it).

The contrast between Mueller's Establishment disposition and the shameless Trumpists were on full display.

Mueller's background is from a line of doctors, lawyers, military officers - pillars of the Establishment. Mueller attended the exclusive St. Paul's School in New Hampshire where John Kerry was his classmate - they played Lacrosse together. In the Tobias Wolff novel Old School, set at an elite private school in the early 1960s, the young men idolize Ernest Hemingway. His writing influenced their ideas on everything from romance to courage. There's a strong chance Mueller and Kerry both read Hemingway as students - and those books influenced them.

Twitter voices spoke of Mueller as a man out of his time. They're sort of right about that. He's 74 and never sought headlines or the media spotlight. After earning degrees from Princeton and NYU, Mueller volunteered for the Marine Corps and served in Vietnam, earning a Purple Heart and Bronze Star in the service of his country. Afterwards he graduated from the University of Virginia Law School and embarked on a career in law enforcement, becoming an expert on white collar crime and the criminal underworld. From 2001-13 he led the FBI during a tumultuous era, serving under both the Bush and Obama administrations.

It goes without saying the Establishment which groomed Mueller left a mixed legacy, yet one that looks like the height of statesmanship by today's standards. Many tomes have been written on the Eastern Establishment in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. The Wise Men by Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas is one of the more sympathetic histories, referring to the group of men who transitioned America into a superpower after defeating Fascism. While they were white wealthy men who accrued all the privileges of their class - they also had an ethos of service and loyalty to America that went above partisan politics. The Marshall Plan to rebuild post-war Europe and decision to contain the Soviet Union shaped foreign policy for decades. 

When Mueller was appointed Special Counsel to lead the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, his old establishment values were destined to come into direct confrontation with the Trumpers. They repeatedly slurred his name and dismissed the entire investigation as an elaborate hoax. That was on full display during the hearing as well. 

Those who despise everything Trump stands for (me included) had faint hopes Mueller would pull off a Sherlock Holmes and present overwhelming evidence of the President's high crimes. What happened was for more complicated and dealing with complexity within the 24 news cycle is not the media's strong suit. Perspective comes with time.

In reality something did happen with long term consequences. Mueller made it clear the investigation never exonerated Trump (could be prosecuted after leaving office) and that Russian attacks are a real thing and will only get worse, the new normal in Mueller's words. 

Mueller's curious confrontation with the Trumpers mirrors the contradictions of the current moment. From the get go, Trump and his followers prided themselves on being unprincipled and crude, gleefully tapping into the darkest corners of the America psyche. Their open admiration for Putin's anti-liberal crusade makes them ideal bedfellows. For Mueller and the orphaned GOP "Never Trumpers", such a position would've been unthinkable a generation ago. Mueller's stoic retorts to the GOP grandstanding were tinged with melancholy and quiet defiance.

Obviously the "Mueller will save us" narrative was unrealistic. Does that mean The Mueller Report should be tossed aside? Absolutely not. As time passes, the Report will take on a new resonance. We know the shape of things to come if all this continues. The threats facing democracy are deep rooted and resurgent. Mueller's pursuit of the truth will hopefully not be the last gasp of democracy, but a written record that some still care about the facts. 

Monday, July 22, 2019

Long Day Into Night . .

It's been a long day, and now I'm all alone . . .

Friday, July 12, 2019

Let Us Now Praise Diff'rent Strokes

The 1970s and 1980s were the apogee of the family sitcom: All in the Family, Little House on the Prairie, Good Times, The Cosby Show, and many more. Among them was Diff'rent Strokes (1978-1986), a sitcom with a contrived, but well meaning, premise. Wealthy and affable businessman Phillip Drummond (Conrad Bain) adopts two African American boys to keep a promise he made to their mother who worked as his housekeeper. The two boys, Willis and Arnold are 13 and 9 and elated about going from rags to riches, but also have mixed feelings about the privileges foisted upon them. Mr. Drummond's teenage daughter Kimberly as played by Dana Plato was also a series regular for the show's run.

Early seasons consistently produced good episodes, at least by 70s sitcom standards. They never shied away from controversial issues, the early seasons dealt with busing, racism, class disparity, racial profiling, and identity. Gary Coleman became an instant pop culture sensation and carried the show for eight seasons. Watch Coleman's debut on Good Times and I dare you not to laugh, the kid had real acting chops. Willis was more skeptical and took longer to warm to his new lifestyle so far from Harlem, a recurring theme of the early seasons.

As the seasons pass by there's a sense of the doomed liberalism of the Jimmy Carter era morphing into the lopsided Reagan 80s . The progressive sentiments of the early seasons shifted into a Reagan era status quo. Story lines focused on moral issues instead of social ones. Pop Culture references and celebrity cameos also became a bigger part of the show. Much of the focus shifted to Arnold's adventures at school, while Willis is usually seen getting ready for a date or hunched over a desk studying for exams in the latter seasons. In season 5 Mr. Drummond marries a TV Fitness instructor (very 80s) and takes in her young son Sam, obviously there to replace Arnold (now a teenager) as the young jokester. 

There's something moving in the way a sitcom (as many others of it's time) tried to take on every serious topic imaginable. Bullying. Prejudice. Episodes on sexual predators, drug and alcohol addiction, and every issue on the news were common. Nancy Reagan appeared on the show to tell the kids to "just say no." Muhammad Ali traded insults with Arnold, Kareem-Abdul-Jabaar played a teacher, and Janet Jackson played Willis's girlfriend. The eight seasons are a treasure of pop culture collective memory. 

Whenever Diff'rent Strokes comes up in conversation, the tragedies surrounding the show's cast members are what most people remember. Dana Plato had a troubled history with the show, reduced to occasional appearances after a pregnancy and a follow up career plagued by drug and alcohol abuse. She passed away in 1999 at age 34. Todd Bridges had many public encounters with the law but managed to get his life together. He's the last surviving member of the cast. Gary Coleman found life after the series especially difficult, reduced to cameos in low budget movies and reality television.

To be a TV star in the 1970s was something akin to indentured servitude: movies got all the accolades, but TV stars were the grinders. Long days, financial improprieties, predatory adults, all thankless work for the masses watching the box. Coleman suffered from a kidney condition through the show's entire run, requiring dialysis 3-4 times a day, adds a subtle heroism to how he carried each episode.

For its final season Diff'rent Strokes moved to ABC, a shadow of what it used to be. The series farewell deals with Arnold working for the newspaper and breaking a story on a steroid ring at his school. Arnold's discovered a passion for writing - suggesting a follow up series that never happened, sort of a Lou Grant set at a High School. 

With the third season of Stranger Things now running on Netflix that's set in 1985, there could be no better time to revisit Diff'rent Strokes to satisfy your 80s nostalgia fix. Here's some recommended episodes for beginners:

S1E1 - "Movin In" The first episode with Arnold and Willis adjusting to life on Park Avenue.
S3E1&2 - "The Bank Job" Two part episode that finds Arnold and Willis taken hostage. Think Dog Day Afternoon as a sitcom.
S3E14 - "The Bus" White parents are outraged over forced busing laws to integrate their "safe" schools and of course Arnold and Willis are at the center of it. Did Joe Biden see this one?
S5E24 - "My Fair Larry" Andrew Dice Clay shakes up the Drummond household. Enough said.
S5E1 - "Arnold Meets Mr. T" Perhaps the most 80s episode ever.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Book Review: American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, and Technology by Diane Walsh Pasulka

Professor of Religious Studies Diane Walsh Pasulka spent six years researching the UFO phenomenon and the culture surrounding it. While the UFO craze no longer holds the place in pop culture it had in the late 20th century, many still devote their lives to the mystery. 

There's a lot to unpack in American Cosmic. The most significant revelation in the book is that the tin foil hat crowd are not alone chasing UFOs. There's a large number of scientists, engineers, writers, and "cultural elites" leading double lives as UFO researchers and seekers. Academics work in anonymity out of their colleagues will disassociate from them. They refer to themselves as the "invisible college."

Pasulka gained some access to this "invisible college" and becomes a character in her own book. She recounts her adventures with "Tyler D", a mystery man who's apparently a NASA scientist, MMA fighter, venture capitalist, and the guru behind cutting edge medical technology. Over the years Tyler came to believe "off world intelligence" guided him towards his discoveries through psychic communication. The opening chapter recounts Tyler taking Diane and a colleague to visit a purported UFO crash site in New Mexico. While there they discover an "artifact" that may or may not have been planted.

At the book's heart is the mystery of existence and consciousness. Pasulka approaches the subject matter as a religious scholar, in the tradition of Carl Jung who made connections between religion and UFOs. Insights are also gleaned from neuroscience, mass media studies, and quantum physics. Advances in these fields are contributing to understanding the paranormal. Comparisons are made between Tyler's experience and those of composers making music - neurology tells us we feel outside of ourselves when moments of intense creativity occur. Anyone can channel this part of their brain, not just the Mozarts among us.

We now live in a reality when most of our information comes from staring into screens. Pasulka's argument here gets a little cloudy, but the concept is that the reality of screen is starting to merge with actual reality. The simulation is more real than the real world - like The Matrix. While characters in a movie are fictional, they nevertheless exist in our minds. How many times have you heard someone compare a movie to a religious experience? An example is a new religion based on Star Wars. While Star Wars exists as fiction, the effect of these films on many is powerful and life changing - the logical next step is a religion based on the stories. All religions stem from narratives that in time become more real than real to its followers. 

The ubiquitous presence of media has also shaped the way we perceive the UFO phenomenon and everything else. Media shapes our memories to the point where they blend with the reality. American Cosmic is not proselytizing any "truth" about UFOs and other phenomena, but attempts to understand it. Media shapes our understanding and may be portals to understanding these mysterious phenomena people experience. Those who believe they've had contact with ET's express narratives that are similar to movies and TV shows, as if the idea of an encounter is already embedded in our brains.

Those who believe in alien contact are not sure of what it means either, but they are sure these beings are curious about us. Yet a voice in my head says these elites (mostly wealthy white men) are simply bored and have nothing better to do, what better fate than to be chosen by the visitors? Pasulka criticizes Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind as a simplistic movie, but I find it interesting that the protagonist of the film is an every man. Not some brilliant rich white guy. I come away from American Cosmic thinking the "invisible college" may be more of a diversion for those with tons of money and time on their hands.

Nevertheless, American Cosmic is a compelling mix of academic rigor and intellectual adventure, I would not be surprised if a movie or TV show will be developed from it. But  the book left me with more questions than answers. Skeptics get short thrift and that annoyed me. Carl Sagan is mentioned many times, and while he was intrigued with the concept of life elsewhere, he remained a skeptic about UFO encounters until the end of his life. We're left with the impression he was a believer in UFOs. Sagan's final book The Demon Haunted Earth lamented the rise of pseudoscience and conspiracy theory culture in America. 

Even more ominous is the idea of media becoming the new reality. We've seen the political ramifications of misinformation becoming fact in the minds of many. Some believe media saturation could ricochet into something else entirely, perhaps a spiritual awakening. If there really are intelligent beings meddling with us, the nature of their being would be so abstract it would make little sense to anyone is another takeaway from the book. Meanwhile life goes on.

Pasulka, D.W. American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, and Technology. New York: OUP, 2019.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Podcast Review: Blockbuster

Blockbuster is a podcast that dramatizes the friendship between George Lucas and Steven Spielberg during the 1970s. For some the rise of blockbusters heralded the demise of cinema (see Easy Riders, Raging Bulls), for others a paradigm shift on par with the Beatles (I'm in the latter camp).  

The podcast covers the making of their iconic films of the 1970s, showcasing Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Star Wars. Other figures from New Hollywood make appearances including Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, and Francis Ford Coppola. But the all star of the podcast is John Williams, a real mensch who not only believed in Lucas and Spielberg, but composed the brilliant scores for their movies. 

While the years covered in the podcast have all been well documented in books, there's never been a feature film about their friendship. They met in 1967 at a screening of Lucas's student film THX-1138 and stayed in contact, giving each other feedback. While they had much in common, their sensibilities differed in some ways. Lucas, along with Coppola, wanted to create an independent movie studio as an alternative to the Hollywood system. Spielberg worked within the system as a TV director for Universal and eventually broke into features. Yet both believed in technology and telling epic stories on the big screen made to appeal to a mass audience.

Lucas is played as introverted, but determined. Spielberg is more happy go lucky, always optimistic in the face of adversity during the making of Jaws and Close Encounters. The making of Star Wars pushed Lucas to the limit and one day ended up in the hospital with stress related chest pains after a special effects mishap. He swore he would never direct again.

A dramatization of the infamous screening of that rough cut version of Star Wars in for Lucas's peers. It was a disastrous evening, De Palma made sarcastic remarks throughout the screening, "what is this force shit?" Lucas's wife Marcia was certain the film would flop, while 20th Century Fox lost confidence and considered a limited release.

But Spielberg was a believer, predicting Star Wars would be a big hit, telling George "it will make millions." A reenactment of John Williams playing the Star Wars theme for Lucas is especially moving - as if you are hearing it for the first time. The recording of the soundtrack in London was one the few things that went right during the troubled production - those in the control room were moved to tears. 

The series runs six episodes, each one runs about 25 minutes so it's possible to listen to the entire series in a few hours. The voice actors did a great job and the production value is top notch. A nostalgic (and emotional) look into an exciting time in movie history. Highly recommended. 

Friday, May 10, 2019

Book Review: Foundation by Isaac Asimov

Foundation (Foundation #1)Foundation by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Groundbreaking Sci-fi from the 1940s, Foundation imagines a powerful Galactic Empire in decline (a parallel to the Roman Empire as told by Gibbon). Hari Seldon is a psychohistorian who employs mathematics to predict the future and to create a new civilization. To prevent a 15,000 year dark age of barbarism, Seldon sets up a small society (the foundation) on a planet at the fringes of the galaxy.

Different sections deal with geopolitical issues like trade, balance of power, and empire building. While most of the novel consists of characters simply talking, I found the story imaginative and never dull. Complex questions are raised. How does a weak power become a great power? What role does technology and innovation play? What about religion? Seldon reminds me of a "lawgiver" figure out of the bible.

Foundation has had real world influence on the sciences, specifically the idea of applying mathematics to predicting different futures. A central theme in the novel is how a civilization plans for long term issues. Climate change, misuse of technology, and poverty come to mind for our own time. At the same time Foundation is a page turning intellectual adventure full of suspense and plot twists.

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Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Book Review: Impeachment: A Citizen's Guide by Cass Sunstein

Cass Sunstein's Impeachment: A Citizens Guide explains the concept of impeachment from a constitutional scholar's perspective that's written in plain English. 

A Citizen's Guide explains the origins of impeachment, a concept that goes back to the English legal system, laws designed to set up parameters for a judge or public official to be removed from their position if they engaged in criminal activity. Sunstein walks the reader through the debates at the 1787 constitutional convention on impeachment. In creating three branches of government (Executive, Legislative, and Judicial) the framers realized there had to be a balance of power. Being well schooled in history, they realized the rise of a tyrant posed the greatest threat to a republic.

At one point the convention favored a committee to act as the Chief Executive, but determined such an arrangement would be too unwieldy. A lone President would allow for decisive leadership. What if a President engaged in illegal activity? What if a President openly broke the law? What if a President colluded with an enemy nation specifically to harm his own? What if a President used the position for financial gain? What if a President used their office to silence political enemies? What if a President was negligent to their assigned duties? Impeachment was placed into the constitution as a remedy.

At the same time, the impeachment process was set up like a gauntlet. Otherwise, Congress could easily remove any President for frivolous reasons. The framers used the term "high crimes and misdemeanors," language that was intentionally ambiguous to warrant an impeachment proceeding. If the House of Representatives determines such criminal offenses have been committed by a President they can vote to impeach. Then the President must go on trial before the Senate, where 2/3 of the members must vote guilty to convict him. In such a case the President would be immediately removed. Knowing impeachment would cause political upheaval, it was made into a step by step process, but always an option on the table.

Only two Presidents in American history have faced an impeachment trial and both were acquitted (Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton). As Sunstein points out, both of those attempts were partisan and legally questionable. President Richard Nixon faced imminent impeachment and most certainly would've been convicted in the Senate (he was told so by his own Party) so he resigned from office.

Later in the book Sunstein takes the reader though some hypothetical situations. Some are open and shut cases such as a President openly acting in accordance with another country to harm America or offering bribes in return for political support. Other cases are not so clear cut and fall down to legal interpretations, such as a President misleading the American people during a war or an administration infested with corrupt officials.

No reference is made to the brewing constitutional crisis, there's no need. Instead, Sunstein encourages readers to do a thought experiment in neutrality. What if a President you loved and agreed with engaged in blatantly illegal activity? What if a President you despised on ideological grounds was being impeached on questionable legal grounds? Finally, put a blindfold on. You are simply presented with the facts. Then decide.

A worthwhile book, written in the tradition of Tom Paine, that also cuts through the media spin. Sunstein concedes impeachment is a serious matter, heightened in an era of fake news. Public officials must be held up to high standards - otherwise democracy will collapse. 

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Book Review: Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen by Brian Raftery

There's no doubt the year 1999 marked a high point for American movies, each month brought out one challenging film after another. Brian Raftery's book revisits these movies and the people who made them.

Raftery takes the reader through a year marked by erratic mood shifts. The economy was booming and the international situation appeared stable. At the same time fears of Y2K and global terrorism had folks on edge. As the year unfolded the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal would end with an anti-climatic impeachment trial, while the Columbine Massacre would be a dark harbinger of the future (gun violence would play a big role in many films of the year). Meanwhile the omnipresence of technology and the internet would a foment a more existential sense of unease, an unease the movies would channel.

Mega-blockbusters of costumed heroes had yet to conquer the big screen. Adult themed dramas still had a place at the multi-plex. Robert Downey Jr. was still known as an eccentric character actor; Netflix was a start up company that offered DVD rentals through the mail.

Unbeknownst to many, television was about to give movies a serious run for their money. The Sopranos debuted in 1999, heralding the birth of long form story telling in the TV form. Prestige TV from Breaking Bad to Game of Thrones would hold a privileged place in the culture, a place movies held for decades.

What makes 1999 memorable were the sheer variety of movies that transfixed audiences. The Blair Witch Project, an ultra low budget horror movie, would terrify movie goers more than any other film. The "found footage" approach presaged reality TV, but also resorted to old school gimmicks in the tradition of William Caste. Alternately, The Sixth Sense from newcomer M. Night Shyamalan perfected the Hitchcock approach, proving a PG-13 movie could terrify.

The teen movie underwent a brief renaissance from post John Hughes movies like 10 Things I Hate About You to the raunchy humor of American Pie to the dead on satire of Election

Meanwhile adults took in American Beauty (the Oscar Winner for Best Picture), The Limey, and The Insider. Paul Thomas Anderson's epic drama Magnolia proved the appropriate last major American film of the 20th century - a soul bearing examination of mortality and broken lives in modern L.A.

Older directors also returned to the screen. George Lucas's Star Wars: The Phantom Menace divided fans. The posthumous Stanley Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut perplexed many, leaving more questions than answers from the mysterious director. Terrence Malick, at one time known as the J.D. Salinger of American cinema, returned with the subdued and philosophical WWII film The Thin Red Line

New voices also produced some gems. The Matrix from the Wachowski siblings blew everyone out of the water, stealing some of the thunder from The Phantom Menace. Fight Club from David Fincher perhaps best captured the mood of the year with its satire of repressed masculinity. Office Space from Mike Judge sent up workplace malaise and Being John Malkovich by Spike Jonze wreaked havoc with definitions of identity. 

Best Movie Year Ever proves through nostalgia and incisive analysis of why 1999 was a landmark year for movies. As Raftery point out, many of these films under performed at the Box Office and it was only as years went by when they were recognized, a sign many were ahead of their time. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Concert Review: Jeff Tweedy At Cincinnati Music Hall

I was in attendance for Jeff Tweedy's penultimate show of his solo spring tour at Cincinnati Music Hall last night. The evening featured Tweedy playing a selection of old and new songs, some well known and others on the obscure side. Tweedy kept the tone of the show light and comical, playfully bantering with the audience throughout the evening.

Before performing his set Tweedy made light of the fact he felt like a wedding singer, due to the wedding reception type layout of the venue, "these will all be songs about the fragile nature of humanity - perfect songs for a first dance." And while many of his songs are about mortality and sadness, they can also be like a friend telling you things will be all right.

Tweedy's solo work is more stripped down than the Wilco records, lyrically direct and introspective. Early songs on the set included "Bombs Above", "Some Birds", and "I Know What It's Like" - all from his 2018 album Warm. These songs are deeply tied to his recent bestselling memoir Let's Go (So We Can Get Back). Three tracks were also performed from his 2019 Record Store Day release Warmer: "Evergreen," "Family Ghost," and "Guaranteed."

Songs from the Wilco catalog allowed Tweedy to showcase his guitar skills. "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" gets whittled down into a folky demo. "You and I" ,the song he performed with Feist on Wilco: The Album from 2009, got the McCartney treatment. Crowd favorites from the 2001 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot "Jesus Ect"; "I'm the Man Who Loves You"; and "Heavy Metal Drummer" allowed the audience to sing along. 

My personal favorites were some of the deep cuts. "Radio King" from the Golden Smog album Down by the Mainstream and "The Ruling Class from the Loose Fur album Born Again in the USA (both side projects from past decades). The big surprise of the night was "Plateau," a Meat Puppets cover made famous by Nirvana. He closed out the show with the surreal "A Shot in the Arm" from the 1999 Wilco album Summerteeth.

Tweedy appeared to enjoy the back and forth with the audience, and I suspect enjoyed even more the chance to remix his familiar tunes outside of the Wilco context. By going outside the Wilco box, Tweedy has continued to evolve as songwriter and author, while maintaining the Wilco machine, conscience of the Midwest since 1994. 

Friday, April 12, 2019

The Twilight Zone 2019 #3 "Replay"

In "Replay" Sanaa Lathan (Nina) and Damson Idris (Dorian) are a mother and son who are repeatedly harassed by a racist cop (Glenn Fleshler). Nina is driving Damson to college for freshman orientation and discovers her old camcorder can turn back time. "Replay" is in the tradition of Rod Serling who never shied away from controversial topics, in this case racial profiling and the abuse of power from law enforcement.

The episode begins in a typical American diner on a lonely highway. Nina feels apprehension about Dorian starting college so she's documenting every part of the trip. Alienated from her family for unspecified reasons, she passes up on an opportunity visit her estranged brother Neil (Steve Harris). In the diner an ominous cop appears to be eyeing them, reminiscent of the policeman tracking Janet Leigh in Psycho

On their first encounter the officer pulls them over and immediately gets belligerent and things don't end well. Nina accidentally hits the rewind button on the camcorder and she's back at the diner. What follows is a variation on the Groundhog Day situation of knowing what's coming and changing your actions to avoid negative outcomes.

Fleshler plays the stock villain of trump era to a tee: the aggrieved middle aged white man who feels emboldened to harass and even hurt groups he resents. You imagine him stocking on ammo and consuming a steady diet of Fox News and trump tweets. In one of the scenarios Nina attempts to make a human connection with him to absolutely no avail. As Nina tries to decipher way out of her deadly time loop, she must confront her own past.

An understated episode with some quiet and powerful moments, "Replay" taps into the more hopeful side of The Twilight Zone.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Book Review: Parkland by Dave Cullen

Parkland by Dave Cullen tells the story of the group of students who galvanized the world by calling out their elders for years of inaction about mass shootings. On February 14, 2018 a shooter armed with automatic weapons walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and killed 17 individuals. Occurring a few months after the the Las Vegas mass shooting that took 59 lives and the Sutherland Springs church shooting in Texas where 27 were killed - mass shootings were the new normal. The ritualistic aftermath of wall to wall media coverage, perfunctory wishes of thoughts and prayers, and then just waiting for the next one. Gun control was a non-starter in the GOP controlled congress. 

The narrative changed when a band of High School students, none of them old enough to vote, declared ENOUGH WAS ENOUGH. Survivors of the Parkland shooting decided to revolt: Senior Emma Gonzalez called BS on the NRA and their puppet politicians. It was the start of a new movement. Cullen provides a fly on the wall account of how these kids took on the status quo.

Cullen paints a vibrant portrait of these kids as he walks us along on their journey. The book describes the culture of the High School, with over 3000 students and countless cliques. On the day of the shooting most of them spent hours in lockdown wondering if they would live. From day one they proved adept at handling all media, wielding social media like a samurai knife. 

Media sensations less than 12 hours after the shooting, a flurry of criticism also came their way. Conspiracy theorists claimed one of the leaders Davd Hogg was a "crisis actor" for the deep state, followed by more far out nonsense from the fringe right. Harassment by online trolls were an everyday occurrence for them, with encouragement from Fox News and the NRA. 

The kids decided to not align themselves with any political party, nor endorse any candidates. Being mostly privileged white kids, it was not lost on them that fact alone accounted for the media attention. Youth movements by African-American kids in Chicago were mostly ignored. So they outreached to Chicago and other cities plagued by gun violence, places not on white America's radar. The March For Our Lives on March 24, 2018 brought students and adults from all walks of life together.

Cullen also writes about the PTSD survivors were going through and social pressures they faced. There was jealousy and hard feelings as they took on responsibilities most adults shy away from. Over the summer of 2018 the kids embarked on a bus tour of the country, intentionally driving through Red States to engage with those who disagreed with their message for more gun control (not a repeal of the 2nd Amendment). The goal is for smart gun control. They understood their mastery of social media could only go so far, there was no substitute for face to face contact.

Cullen also wrote the definitive book on the Columbine shooting and confessed his growing apathy on gun violence in America as no hope appeared on the horizon. He ends the book citing Bruce Springsteen reflecting on how the March For Our Lives renewed his faith in America in the grim trump era, it was "a necessary day . . . to remind Americans what they stood for." Parkland tells of a generation's awakening - highly recommended.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

The Twilight Zone 2019 Episode #2 "Nightmare at 30,000 Feet"

In the third adaptation of the 1961 Richard Matheson short story "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," Adam Scott takes on the role of the terrified airline passenger. William Shatner starred in the 1963 TV version and John Lithgow in the 1983 segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie. Written by Marco Ramirez with story credit to Jordan Peele, this 2019 version takes a different approach with mixed results.

Scott plays investigative journalist Justin Sanderson who is renown for his war reporting. He's about to board an international flight. On the plane are a group of diverse passengers that adds a layer of cultural tension that never quite pays off. Post 9/11 movies set on passenger jets have played on those anxieties ranging from the 2005 Jody Foster vehicle Flightplan to the 2014 Liam Neeson thriller Non-Stop. Remember Snakes on a PlaneOnce Justin is seated he starts listening to a podcast about famous plane crashes - maybe not the best idea. 

The strength of the episode is the almost Sci-Fi setting of the airplane, creating a contrast with the claustrophobic feel of previous versions of the story. Despite the differences, this story moves in a predictable pattern, Scott's performance lacks the sense of urgency that's Shatner and Lithgow brought to the piece. On a brighter note the episode pays a nice tribute to the 1963 teleplay. The previous episode "The Comedian" is also referenced, suggesting these new stories exist in the same universe.

Monday, April 1, 2019

The Twilight Zone 2019 #1 "The Comedian"

The Twilight Zone has returned again with Jordan Peele as Executive Producer and narrator. With some intriguing trailers and star power behind the reboot, The Twilight Zone premiered today on CBS All Access. 

"The Comedian" stars Kumail Nanjiani in the title role, and also features strong supporting performances from Tracy Morgan and Jessica Williams as a rival comic. Coincidentally, one of Serling's most celebrated teleplays was also titled "The Comedian" and starred Mickey Rooney. In the 2019 version Kumail is a struggling comic. The episode begins with him doing a failed routine on gun control. The audience is more interested in their phones. Later that night Kumail meets a legendary comedian played by Morgan who encourages him to put himself out there more. Morgan takes a surprising turn as a sinister and enigmatic presence.

So Kumail begins to use people in his personal life for material. He performs routines about his dog going to the bathroom, his nephew's facility with social media, and past arguments with his girlfriend. Things get darker when he turns to social media for more material. These routines kill and suddenly his career takes off.

Of course this is The Twilight Zone and Kumail's new found fame comes at a high price. Much is written today of the state of comedy in the current political environment. Mainstream comedies tend to avoid politics in favor of bathroom humor and insult comedy. Even attempts at satire from stalwarts like Saturday Night Live and late night TV often come off as obsolete. "The Comedian" implicates zoned out audiences and on a superficial level comics that go for the lowest common denominator. Perhaps the script by Alex Rubens could've taken these themes a bit further. Still, the episode is well acted and moves along at a quick pace.

Jordan Peele's Twilight Zone will inevitably be compared to Black Mirror. I don't think his Twilight Zone will go as nihilistic as Black Mirror. After all, Serling's series had just as many optimistic endings as bleak ones, yet it's those shocking twists everyone remembers. Serling was always more cerebral, and I think Peele will take the series in that direction.