Sunday, January 7, 2018

The True Origin of Star Wars Scripts

There’s been a lot of heated debate about the Star Wars sequels lately. Many longtime fans of the franchise are extremely angry about these new films. They seem to think that the writers and directors are taking unwarranted liberties with the Star Wars galaxy.

What they don’t realize is these stories were not invented by the filmmakers. They are, in fact, based on ancient scrolls discovered by George Lucas in the Mojave Desert during a peyote-fueled vision quest in the 1970’s.

Lucas found them in ceramic jars in a cave. With the help of the world’s greatest linguists, he was able to decode the writing. It told of a highly advanced, space-faring civilization that existed, as the text has it, “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” NASA scientists confirmed its authenticity through the discovery of elements in the jars that could not have come from our galaxy.

But Lucas didn’t keep this information secret to serve his own ego. The U.S. government allowed him to make his films based on the scrolls only if he presented them as fiction of his own creation. They were understandably concerned that public knowledge of this intergalactic communiqué would lead to massive riots, looting and a breakdown in the social order.

This revelation should chasten those who have been critical of the films’ content. The filmmakers have only taken small liberties with the details. The broad strokes are religiously faithful to the original text. But those who would question the motives of the writers are questioning the wisdom of a civilization that was far more advanced than our own, not just technologically, but culturally as well. So stop that.

We can’t possibly understand the wisdom of a purple-haired woman who refuses to tell her supposed comrades what their escape plan is. It’s beyond our puny human cognition. We would be better off letting these scriptures wash over us in the (perhaps vain) hope that they may enlighten us through osmosis.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Star Wars Remakes

When I saw The Force Awakens, I was underwhelmed. But everyone else seemed to love it, so I figured my ambivalence toward the movie was just a symptom of depression. I was willing to go along with the mainstream narrative of a Star Wars renaissance. Honestly, I didn’t wanna ruin anyone’s enjoyment of the film. I didn’t wanna be the stick-in-the-mud who insists that the new ones aren’t as good as the originals. Everyone seemed to think Star Wars was back on track, and I wasn’t going to stand in their way.

My reaction to The Last Jedi was similar. Although I thought The Last Jedi was better than the previous installment, it still didn’t rekindle my childlike enthusiasm for the franchise. (For the record, I enjoyed Rogue One much more than these two.) Once again, I was willing to accept the critical and popular consensus that it was superlative entertainment.

But I’ve been emboldened by the brewing backlash among Star Wars diehards. Now I’m thinking that maybe I was right all along. I wasn’t able to articulate my criticism until I watched this video.

The main problem with the sequels is that, so far, they’re basically just a reboot of the original trilogy. We’ve got a new empire and a mostly new Rebellion/Resistance. But we already defeated the empire! Why should I care about defeating another empire? That’s boring! As the guy in the video points out, even the prequels had a different arc, covering the rise of the empire. Sure, they did a really shitty job with it, but at least it was different!

When The Force Awakens came out, people said, “Yeah, the plot is identical to A New Hope, but so what? It’s a reboot.” I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that, except for one thing: THAT’S SO FUCKING LAME! The series doesn’t need a reboot! J.J. Abrams, Rian Johnson & company just wanted to go back to what “worked” in the original trilogy. They assume it was the basic plot structure that drove their success and doomed the prequels (instead of the artistic execution).

Just as The Force Awakens was a loose remake of A New Hope, so is The Last Jedi a rehash of The Empire Strikes Back. I’ll spare you the irrelevant details and tick off the bullet points. The movie starts with the Rebellion’s – er, Resistance’s – secret base being discovered by the Empire – er, First Order. Instead of Luke being trained by Yoda, Rey is (reluctantly) trained by Luke. We get an imperial walker battle, but at the end instead of the beginning, and on a planet covered in salt instead of ice. Kylo (basically) tells Rey who her parents are: “nobodies.” (That’s one of the more refreshing changes. Heredity has become so important in this series that I was beginning to think the Force was just a recessive gene.)

The First Order’s fleet chases the Resistance fleet. The Emperor’s – excuse me, Supreme Leader’s – huge ship is revealed. Just like with the updated Death Star (the imaginatively named “Starkiller Base”), the only real innovation is that it’s way bigger than its precursor. Also, the technical aspects of the film are above reproach. The special effects, sound design, art direction and fight choreography are all top-notch.

But, when it comes to the story, the filmmakers don’t have much new to offer. Women and POC’s figure prominently in the Resistance, whereas the First Order is the last bastion of white masculinity. This has triggered some alt-right (or alt-lite) dudes on YouTube, which is kinda fun, but it doesn’t bring any new energy to the plot’s tired beats.

To me, it seems like Disney has decided to play it safe in the interest of maximizing profit. I wonder how people will react if the next film has another Starkiller Base or something similar, and the Resistance has to disable its force field in order for their fleet to finally defeat the First Order. If they team up with a bunch of cute woodland creatures, I might just lose it. I might go full Sargon of Akkad on their asses.

Seriously, though, I think the backlash could go nuclear if the next one proves to be just another remake. Those who have enjoyed the sequels so far will have enough time to digest them and see the parallels with the originals and may finally come to the conclusion that they’ve been had. Or maybe they’re right and I’m the asshole. Who knows?

I just wish they would’ve told a different kind of story. I wanted to see the New Republic try to re-establish democracy in the galaxy through a mixture of diplomacy and warfare. I think it would’ve been far more interesting watching the Rebels make the difficult transition from resistance group to government. Surely, they would’ve been riven by internal conflict and challenged by other power centers in the galaxy, some of which may have had a morally equal claim to legitimacy.

By choosing the remake route, Disney has denied us a more complex, rewarding story. Then again, that may not be the kind of tale that blockbusters are made of. But, more likely, it’s just too morally fraught for a transnational behemoth to take that big a chance on.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Way Out

Last week, I started a month-long temp job inspecting (mostly holiday-related) photo cards. It’s in Eagan, so it’s been taking me about 35 minutes to drive there. Luckily, they switched me to a 11:30-8pm shift this week, so the traffic isn’t as bad. Unluckily, the roads have been covered in ice, nearly doubling my travel time.

It’s an easy job. We just flip through stacks of cards, looking for flaws in the printing or cutting or resolution, for instance. The challenge is the repetitiveness, since some orders have hundreds of prints, and doing this for 8 (or more) hours a day can be mind-numbing.

Strangely, I haven’t yet been tempted to stick in my ear buds. At most of my jobs this is the first thing I do. It always seemed like the best way to take my mind off the work and shift my focus to matters I consider more important or more entertaining.

But now it feels like doing so would cloud my brain and make the job more difficult, even though this is one of the most mindless jobs I’ve ever had. I think I’ve finally come around to the idea of mindfulness and given up on multi-tasking. Intellectually, I’ve long seen the benefits of concentrating on one task at a time, but now I seem emotionally ready to embrace the practice.

I think the main difference is that I no longer have to drown out my personal demons. These aren’t shrieking horrors out of the realm of nightmares, just the nattering nabobs of negativity. I used to call them “couch potato demons.” Unlike the anxieties that supposedly drive certain people to greatness, my demons kept me on the couch, snacking and watching TV.

But, given time and nourishment, they grew into terrifying giants. I’d been avoiding them until they grew too large to avoid. I had to stop hiding and meet them head-on. Once I cut back on my behavior of “avoidance” (a term my third-to-last therapist introduced me to), I started down the road to recovery.

Eschewing the ear buds is just the latest step in my path toward engagement with Reality. Instead of trying to distract myself from the job, I’m willing to accept the fact that I’m working as a temp grunt. I no longer have to be ashamed, because I’m not worried (as much) about what other people think of me in terms of social status.

I finally believe the hokum I’ve been spouting all these years about how what really matters is who you are on the inside, not what you have, that love and kindness and charity are more important than material possessions and appearances. This is because I’ve taken another big step closer to fully living by those principles.

That big step was accepting my parents’ love and reconnecting with my nurturing side. At heart, I’m just a big Stuart Smalley. (Sorry about the timing of that reference.) But it’s taken about 25 years to throw off the shame that was heaped on that side of me in my youth.

It’s especially nice to be free of that shame at this job, because we get to look at pictures of cute kids and families looking happy. I’ve really been able to indulge that long-dormant “caring nurturer” side of me. (I should say that my “caring nurturer” side hasn’t been completely dormant, but it’s been mostly expressed toward friends and cats, and even then in an oft-reserved manner.)

This is the first time since I hit puberty that I’ve been able to express that warmth fully towards kids, without being worried that someone’s gonna make fun of me. I’ve finally forgiven them (that is, “Kids,” writ large) for making fun of me when I was a kid. (The actual kids who made fun of me are not yet totally forgiven. But they aren’t kids anymore, so what am I holding on to?)

The Old Me would’ve (inwardly) sneered at the cute kids and the happy families. Eventually, he would’ve despised the person who invented photography for (indirectly) forcing him to do this work. (According to Wikipedia, there were a few Western European male-types involved in the invention of photography.)

But now I can revel in the vicarious joy and cuteness of the pictures, because I’m finally happy and grateful for my family. I’m forced to marvel at those who are happy despite growing up in broken homes. That’s a level of mental health I haven’t yet achieved.

I still wonder if all these people in the photographs are as happy as they appear. I know what it’s like to put on a show for the cameras. I resented having to do that for family pictures. Surely, some of the people in these pics fall into that category, but so it goes. This isn’t a perfect world.

I check out the couples in the pics to see who got the better of the deal. I assume the more physically attractive person got the short end of the stick, but they could be a real basket case. You can’t really make that judgment without knowing them personally. But it’s still fun.

One piece of advice for holiday pix: Don’t hire a Santa to pose with your kids. No matter how jolly that Old St. Nick is, it’s still creepy. It may be a sad commentary on our times, but there’s just something disturbing about seeing a little girl whisper into an old man’s ear, especially when he’s wearing an expression of surprise.

I look at the kids in these pictures and wonder: Which of them are going to grow up to be total fucking assholes? Statistically speaking, some of them will. It’s just science. I wonder if I can tell just by looking at them. I doubt it. That would fly in the face of years of experience. I’ve been obsessed with appearances for decades, and this is where it’s gotten me.

It turns out that most people who order fancy holiday photo cards have physically attractive families, or so this job has led me to believe. That, combined with the super-happy shots of kids frolicking and parents looking on lovingly, makes me wonder if these people are real.

There was also the card featuring the Soap Opera Family, a group of people who looked just like characters from an early-90’s soap, right down to the older gentleman with the white goatee. They made the Kardashians look subtle. I didn’t really think those people existed, except on TV.

I should thank the company employing me, and the temp agency that arranged it, for allowing me this time to write. On my first day, I came down with a cold. It wasn’t bad, but I really would’ve liked to stay home and recover and not infect all the people around me.

I didn’t think that was an option because I’d just started the job and it was my first assignment with this agency, so I kept going and spreading my germs. I cursed Capitalism for forcing me into this situation. Instead of just letting me stay home and rest, it was making me spread my contagion.

I finally called in sick on Wednesday, in the hope that one more day off (I worked Sunday.) would help me get over the cold. It wasn’t quite enough, so I called yesterday and told them I’d have to quit because it would take a while to get over this. The lady at the agency asked if I could just take the rest of the week off and come back Monday. I said, “Sure,” amazed that was acceptable to them.

So here I am, recounting the travails of a 40-year-old temp. I may not be where I wanna be, but, as someone (Robert Frost, apparently) once said, “The only way out is through.” I’ve already made it through the minefield of my own brain. Compared to that, the rest of the journey should be a cakewalk.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Street Scenes

Yesterday I was sitting in my (parents’) car at a stoplight on University a few blocks south of Broadway. A line of cars was crossing the intersection from my left. Just before the last one entered the intersection, a young black man on a bicycle (poppin’ a wheelie the whole time) crossed in front of the car. (It was an SUV or something like that.) The SUV screeched to a stop and the guy on the bike kept going, laughing like a hyena.

My immediate, vocal reaction was, “Whoa, he shoulda fuckin’ run that guy over.” Not a great thing to say, even to oneself, but that’s how pissed off I was. The SUV driver just saved his life, and he’s laughin’ his damn fool head off. Maybe he enjoys the adrenaline rush, because he clearly saw the SUV coming.

In the evening, I nearly got run over while using a crosswalk in Cedar-Riverside. As the car approached me, I put up my hands, hopped mostly out of the way and said, “Whoa, whoa!” The middle-aged lady at the wheel didn’t react much. I think she was embarrassed and ashamed, but maybe I’m just projecting, because that would be my reaction. I’m just glad I responded as quickly and forcefully as I did. It’s taken a long time to undo the middle school conditioning of pretending like nothing bothers me.

It made me sad to think the guy on the bike apparently places such little value on his own life. But I was still mad at him. That kind of behavior makes those of us who care feel like suckers. It’s like the panhandler conundrum: to give or not to give (a fuck). I googled it and found a The New York Times editorial citing Pope Francis’s advice.

He recommends giving, even if they use the money for alcohol. (Street drugs don’t seem to exist in the Pope’s world.) Whatever they buy, it will make them happy. He also says you must look them in the eye and touch their hands. That sounds good, but the money still presents a dilemma. If they use it to buy drugs and then die of an overdose, what then? Don’t you bear some responsibility for that?

Last week I got panhandled by a black guy outside Calhoun Square. (As Uptown has continued to gentrify, the number of panhandlers seems to have risen.) I looked him in the eye (like I usually do) and said, “Sorry.” He didn’t hear me, so I repeated it, just before opening a door to the mall. He acknowledged it and then added something like, “Ya don’t hafta frown at me just cuz I’m black.”

I turned around and glared at him for a moment as he walked away. “Yeah, thanks for callin’ me a fuckin’ racist,” I thought. “I’m sure black people just love gettin’ panhandled.” I know he was lashing out from despair, but it still sucked. There we were, sniping at each other, while the Fat Cats looked down from their penthouses and laughed.

Monday, November 13, 2017


Before I launch into another bitch sesh about my First World Problems, I’d just like to say how shallow and self-absorbed this feels. I should probably be lamenting the plight of the people who made my clothes, or the people we’re killing in Syria and Afghanistan and Somalia, etc., or whatever else is making Baby Jesus cry today. But I need to get this shit outta my system, and for some reason that means sharing it all with you.

I was able to stop for a minute today and relax. That might not sound like much, especially for someone with as much money in the bank as I have. But it was probably the most relaxed I’ve been since I moved in with my parents 8 years ago.

Since then, I’ve only had fleeting moments of real peace and tranquility. The other 99.9% of the time I’ve been suspended on tenterhooks of shame and anxiety. When you’ve been on tenterhooks for that long, you get used to it, but you also forget how it feels to be truly relaxed.

Out of self-preservation, I repressed the pain until it became background noise. I’ve been floating along on a cloud of ambivalence for years now. Because I was blocking the pain, the joy was blocked too. I didn’t take much pleasure or displeasure in anything. It’s getting better, but I’m still keeping the world at arm’s length most of the time.

This has resulted in "The Shadow Realm" effect, feeling like I’m not really a part of the world or that the world isn’t real. I thought I’d found my condition (by accident) online when I was looking up Adam Duritz of Counting Crows on Wikipedia. (I don’t remember why I was looking him up. I’m not a fan of theirs. I assure you my motives were benign.)

He apparently suffers from Depersonalization Disorder, which sounds a lot like “The Shadow Realm.” My last therapist called it “detachment.” It was a relief when she said that. I didn’t wanna have something serious, and I didn’t really wanna have that much in common with Adam Duritz. (Like I said, I’m not a fan, although I do like “Mr. Jones and Me.”)

I’m grateful for my material comfort and security. My parents have been great. But that only gets you so far. I still need friends. It’s taken me a long time to get to this point when I feel worthy of new friends again. So hopefully I can take advantage of that.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Space Princess

I’ve decided to take a stab at sci-fi. I’ve long had a wish to write a Hitchhiker’s Guide-type satire. I liked the Hitchhiker’s Guide series, but I thought I could do better. It may be a delusion of grandeur, but I think that’s usually what it takes to make great art. So, here goes:

The spires of Havamegnish City spiraled up to the sky. It was a gleaming pin cushion of silver from horizon to horizon, and somewhere amidst all the grandeur was a beautiful princess named Ambrosia Gentilicus. (Don’t ask me why they still have royalty in this galaxy. It’s a pretty backward galaxy. The whole idea of basing your government on heredity is ludicrous. But, hey, not every space-faring civilization follows the same path of political development. So deal. Besides, we all know who to blame for the persistence of this trope.)

So, anyway, this Princess Ambrosia- (Seriously, though, what is it with Star Wars having a princess and a queen in the movies? Why no princes or kings? I mean, maybe there are some in the books and video games and shit, but I’m pretty sure there aren’t any in the movies. What are you tryin’ to say, George? That women can only attain positions of authority through heredity? Do better, man. Do better. But I digress.) As I was saying, Princess Ambrosia was meandering through the back alleys of the galactic capital planet of Encendior. Seriously, that’s how big this Galactic Empire is. It takes a whole planet to run the darn thing.

But Princess Ambrosia was roaming around the ghetto, because that’s just the kinda girl she was. She liked slumming with the common folk, the Salt of the Earth. Not that she was a Woman of the People. No, far from it. But she liked getting her hands dirty sometimes just to remind herself she was alive.

She walked up to a door in the deepest, dankest, darkest back alley she could find. A video screen over the door flickered to life. A menacing, male face appeared with a crazy makeup job and no hair. Think Kratos from God of War. In the gruffest, scariest, deepest voice you’ve ever heard, he asked, “What’s the password?”

“The password is open the fucking door before I shove this phaser so far up your ass you’ll be sneezing rainbows.” Her voice had the cool calm and steely nerves of a street-smart hustler. She didn’t take shit offa nobody. She was super-sexy, but still tough enough to appeal to women.

The door slid open and the princess entered, just before the door slid shut again. She walked down the hallway. The walls were dirty, formerly white and bathed in fluorescent green.

That's all I've got so far. The problem is I don’t really care about the plot. I just wanna make jokes and write dialogue. That seems like it could be an impediment to writing fiction.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Video Game Memory Lane

Last year, they opened an arcade bar in Uptown called Up Down. (I think that’s pretty clever, but apparently it’s a chain, so I guess the neighborhood pun is a coincidence?) I’ve gone a few times, always solo. It’s one of the few places where I don’t feel super-self-conscious about being alone in public. (Actually, my self-consciousness about that has declined precipitously in the last few years, no doubt due to extensive, recent experience.)

The walls are covered with a collage of pop culture from the 80’s and 90’s: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Eazy-E of N.W.A., the Ultimate Warrior (wrestler) and Suzanne Somers with the Thighmaster. It’s a delightful trip down Memory Lane for a child of the 90’s like me. The TV’s show pro wrestling and movies from the era, like Demolition Man, Ghostbusters and Independence Day.

I’ve never been very good at video games. Despite my pleas, my parents didn’t get me a video game console until I was a junior in high school. At that point, I was too old to get addicted. (The window of video game addiction is different for everyone, of course.) I just played sports games by myself, not finding anyone to play with until college, and even then it was rare. But my high school and college friends weren’t really into video games, which was just as well.

The game I’ve played the most at Up Down is probably R.B.I. Baseball. My best friend in elementary school had a Nintendo and regularly kicked my ass at that game in the late 80’s. It was hardly fair, of course, since he was a wily veteran and I was a rookie, but I still took it as a sign of my inferiority. He was happy to reinforce that notion, as were many of my peers.

It’s my own damn fault for being friends with the guy. There were nice guys I’d been friends with before him, but they weren’t cool like he was, and I needed cool friends so I wouldn’t feel so vulnerable to getting picked on. One of those nice friends had a well-to-do friend with a Nintendo and Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!

I was enthralled just watching them play. I’ve spent far more time watching other people play video games than playing them myself. This is a pastime I’ve indulged more recently on YouTube with Battlefield 1 and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I generally prefer the voyeuristic aspect of video games to the participation. That must be why I’ve stuck with my first love: television.

Part of the reason I’d rather watch than play was my fear of failure. But that has faded as I’ve matured, so I’m more interested in having the controls in my hands now. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been anyone to watch me at Up Down. I actually got my name among the high scores on Super Sprint, but I think that was due to a glitch in the game. Even though I wasn’t winning every race, it let me play for like 45 minutes on 1 quarter.

Track & Field offers a surprisingly aerobic workout. You have to hit two buttons in alternation to run in the sprint, the javelin, the long jump and the hurdles. (That’s as far as I’ve gotten.) In order to beat the computer, you have to mash those buttons with seemingly superhuman speed. The javelin and long jump also require you to time your release or jump to the last possible moment before crossing the foul line. I remember playing that back in the day. At least now I can advance in a few events, even though I felt kinda lame pounding on the buttons like a lunatic all by myself.

Another favorite of mine is 1942 or 1943: The Battle of Midway. You’re an American fighter pilot fighting the Japanese in the Pacific during World War II. It’s basically you against the entire Imperial Japanese Navy, so you’ve got some weaponry at your disposal that isn’t historically accurate or, strictly speaking, real. I read up on this video game series on Wikipedia, because that’s what I do with my free time (i.e., make the most of it). In the course of my research, I had a startling realization: The people who made these games were Japanese.

Does it seem strange to anyone else that Japanese people made games in which their own ancestors are the Bad Guys? I mean, sure, I guess they were the Bad Guys of World War II, but they must’ve been tempted to make a game in which the Japanese were the Good Guys and call it something like Kamikaze: The Divine Wind.

Hell, we’ve already got a wildly successful video game franchise based on an alternate history in which the Nazis won World War II (Wolfenstein). Why don’t the Japanese get that treatment? The Nazis have an even worse reputation than the Imperial Japanese military. They’re considered the ultimate historical example of evil in the West.

So why no alternate-history video games for the Empire of Japan? It’s not like there are no apologists for Imperial Japan. They still have shrines to people whom the Chinese consider war criminals, although that seems a predictable response to Japan’s post-war status as an American client state.

Did you know the U.S. military wrote the Japanese constitution? It’s true! How would you feel about having another country set up the structure of your government and laws? I’d be pretty pissed. Sure, they did some really bad shit, but so did we. I think it would’ve been enough just to slip in that part about renouncing war forever (and never making video games in which you’re the Good Guys in World War II) and then let them handle the rest.

While in Hawai’i for my sister’s wedding, we went through an exhibit at Pearl Harbor about the history of U.S.-Japan relations. It started with Admiral Perry showing up in Edo Bay with 4 warships in 1853, one of the signature events of America’s “gunboat diplomacy” of the 19th Century. Japan had been shut off from the world for 250 years by an isolationist regime, but Perry was able to convince them to start trading with us.

The exhibit ended with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as though it had taken us almost a century to follow through on that initial threat. Upon reaching the end of the exhibit, I thought to myself, “Am I the only one who sees the connection between those two events? Am I only the one who can connect the dots?”

At the time, I thought I was one of the few who had made that connection. But now I think the creators of the exhibit probably had that somewhere in the back of their liberal, peacenik minds. What would’ve happened if we’d just left Japan alone? Would they have become one of the Bad Guys? Are we partly responsible for the atrocities they committed in World War II?

Sorry. That was a pretty long tangent. I usually try not to get too political on this, my personal blog. (For political shit, check out my other blog, Riding the Rubicon.)

Well, in conclusion, Up Down is a pretty cool place to kill some time and, if you’re a child of the 80’s or 90’s, take a jaunt down Memory Lane… if you dare!