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.