A Little Escapism: Star Trek and Me

It’s been a tough year.

I’m not willing to recap it all, but you’ve lived it too, so you have some idea. Wildfires, hurricanes, volcanoes, UFOs (or at least the videos thereof), Coronavirus, the constant stream of horrendous news from the Trump administration, and probably a dozen other Disaster Bingo spaces I’ve forgotten–it’s getting to us all. I don’t blame anyone for engaging in a little escapism.

star trek tos

That gives me the opportunity to talk about my favorite escapist fandom: That other controversial space opera, Star Trek. I’ve spent enough time talking about Star Wars, after all; may as well talk about the other team!

It’s a great time to be a Star Trek fan–a Trekkie, if you prefer.* The past decade and a half have given us a wealth of new material, from movies to live action shows to animation to novels, and even a few audio dramas here and there. Trek fans being Trek fans, it’s also given us plenty of things to argue about; but that comes with the territory. Since Star Trek: Enterprise ended, I’ve watched all of that series, all of Star Trek: Discovery, Short Treks, half of Star Trek: Picard (still in progress at this time), and I’ve rewatched quite a bit of The Original Series and The Next Generation. Lower Decks also recently launched, but I’m not there yet, and haven’t decided yet if I will watch it; it looks like it might be Total Drama Island in space, and I don’t know yet how I feel about that.

*(On the topic of nicknames for the fandom: I grew up in the ancient times of the 1980s, when you still had some debate on the proper term for a Trek fan. Are we “Trekkies”, or are we “Trekkers”? There was always competition between the two; researching it now tells me that “Trekkers” were the more grounded fans, who loved the series, but didn’t do all the crazy fandom things–no costumes, no huge arguments, no conventions. “Trekkies” were those who went overboard, who lost touch with reality in terms of Trek–and also the most argumentative fans. Or, as Urban Dictionary puts it, a Trekker is a Star Trek fan with no sense of humor. All snubbing aside, I don’t really call myself by either name, but I identify more with the idea of a Trekker–someone who is a devoted fan, but, you know, just a fan.)

This week it’s Lower Decks that has the fandom in an uproar. Is this animated, comedic series worth it? Is it any good? Is it an affront to all that’s good? Is it even really Star Trek at all? I haven’t seen this much infighting since Enterprise‘s series finale.

At the same time, Lower Decks is doing us a valuable service: It’s reminding us that the Star Trek universe is big and inclusive and has room for everybody. And I may be getting ahead of myself here–giving away my point too early–but I think that’s the most Star Trek thing ever.

Discovery tried to do the same thing, and I suppose is still doing it. It made the leap to modern, arc-based television (all respect to Deep Space Nine, which did some of the same, but the market wasn’t ready yet, and DS9 had more than its share of good old-fashioned episodic and filler TV). It introduced the first openly gay characters that I can remember (apologies if there were others first). I have mixed feelings about those things on a personal level–being a Christian, I’m not in favor of homosexuality, though I don’t hate anyone who makes that choice; and I’ve talked before about my love of episodic TV vs. arc-based. But I can’t, and wouldn’t, deny that the efforts at inclusion and progress are definitely in keeping with Gene Roddenberry’s vision for both the franchise and the future. If you’ve been a fan long enough, you’ve probably heard stories of how he slipped social progress stories past the censors by setting them in space, among aliens–something to which we owe a great deal in terms of progress in entertainment.

Picard is doing something equally valuable, in my opinion: It’s showing us how the future works for everyday life. Now, I have to preface by saying that the galaxy of 2399 (the year in which the series is set) is still no paradise; there are pockets of poverty, such as the Romulan refugee world of Vashti; or even on Earth, when someone’s life takes a terrible turn (in this case, Picard’s friend Raffi). And yet, overall, the galaxy–or at least the Federation–has come a long way. The economy is divorced from personal effort, such that people are provided for regardless of what they accomplish, freeing them to work based on passion rather than survival. There’s comfort if you want it. You have ease of travel locally via transporter technology, and distantly by clean and efficient starship travel; ease of material production via replicators; health care that can repair nearly anything (if not Picard’s parietal lobe disorder). (And before anyone makes objections that involve the words “socialism” or “communism”, let me stop you and remind you that the title of this post as about escapism. I know our world isn’t ready for a reality like that. This isn’t our world.) Earth, at least, has been cleaned up, and as far as we know, other Federation worlds are at a similar standard of living. And, rather than breeding indolence and stagnation, that environment has spurred exploration and adventure–not only through Starfleet, but also on a personal level, as we see with Captain Rios and his privately-owned ship.

All in all, the Trek galaxy sounds like a nice place to live these days.

To me, it always did. I’ve been watching Star Trek since I was a child. One of my earliest memories of it is watching reruns of the original series (we didn’t capitalize it or make it a subtitle back then; there weren’t enough series to need the distinction) on my grandmother’s black and white TV on a hot summer afternoon, the dialogue almost drowned out by the roar of an ancient metal box fan beside me as I sat on the floor. I may have been as old as seven, but probably less. I was there with my parents for the premiere of The Next Generation in 1987, and there watching with my first girlfriend when it concluded seven years later. I’ve seen perhaps hundreds of episodes; I’ve read dozens of novels. Running through every single bit of it was a future that was bright and full of hope, even when the galaxy was threatened. I want that kind of future, even if the details don’t play out exactly the same.

There are different kinds of escapism. I could be could be like Walter Mitty, I suppose. I work a fairly bland office job, and I’m a fairly sedate, quiet husband and father; and so it wouldn’t be unexpected for me to look for escapism in violent, action-packed fiction. When we want a change, we look for what we don’t have, right? And sometimes I do that. I’ve talked before about franchises like Warhammer 40,000, which are full of insane military sci-fi–there’s definitely a place for those. Someone who works a high-stress job might want to indulge in fantasies that are quieter, that take the pressure off of them.

But it’s Star Trek‘s brand of escapism that brings me back. There’s plenty of adventure to be had; it scratches that itch. But it takes that adventure and puts it in a universe far different from our own. You see, you can get chaos by looking around nowadays. If you want betrayal and riots and violence and pain and suffering…well, you don’t need escapism to get that. It’s a rough world out there. Star Trek reminds us that there are better possibilities, more hopeful futures.

We’re far from there. But that doesn’t mean we can’t visit sometimes.

Thanks for reading!

30 Day Film Challenge, Day 30!

We’re finally there! We’ve reached the end of our 30-day film challenge. It was a near thing, but we made it!

30 day film challenge

Unfortunately, it’s going to be an anticlimax ending. I won’t have much to say today. Perhaps that’s thematically appropriate, since today’s topic is “A film with a beautiful ending.”

The film I chose for this day is 2003’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. If you lived through the last two decades and haven’t seen it, you may be living under a rock; but just in case, I’ll try to summarize. It is the conclusion of the Peter Jackson-led adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous The Lord of the Rings literary trilogy. (Even as I was writing this post, I just realized that we started with Return of the Jedi, and now we’re ending with Return of the King. Poetry, in my opinion.) It takes our now-weary heroes through their final battles against Sauron, the demonic lord of Mordor, as they vie for the destruction of the One Ring, the magical ring with the power to allow Sauron to reshape the world in his image. It, like the rest of the trilogy, deviates significantly from the books in execution if not in coverage; it reorders and reorganizes events from the books to fit the official timeline (the books themselves are not ordered so tightly, but rather, thematically). Still, it somehow manages to remain a thorough and excellent representative adaptation of the books, and has rightly been regarded as a highly influential work.

return of the king

I wanted to get into the details of the ending, in which the heroes return home before–feeling the weight of their struggles–they either die or pass across the sea with the last of the elves to the Undying Lands of Valinor. Even though the movie cuts out a major section (“The Scouring of the Shire”), it still serves as a great depiction of the ending, and is well worth a watch (or a rewatch, or two).

But my heart isn’t in it today. A few days ago I and my family dealt with an ending of a different kind. My younger brother passed away at the age of thirty-six, quite unexpectedly, from a health problem that no one anticipated. And while this post isn’t intended to be about him–there may be something of that nature later–his passing is on my mind, and is taking up my attention.

So we’ll slip out quietly on this challenge. Soon maybe we’ll start something else. For now, just remember that endings, whether good or bad, aren’t always what we expect; there’s no calling back our experiences once they’re gone. Likewise, I think, with the people we love.

Thanks for reading.

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30 Day Film Challenge, Day 29!

There aren’t many movies that leave me wishing for more. There are certainly good movies out there, of the kind that leave me a bit surprised when the ending comes around–but ultimately I find them satisfying.

30 day film challenge

And yet, that’s what we have today. Here near the end, on Day 29. we’re asked for “A film that you didn’t want to end.” One movie leaps to mind for me, and it’s a classic: 1964’s Stanley Kubrick masterpiece, Dr.  Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

It wouldn’t surprise me to find that you’re already familiar with this film, at least by reputation; you’ve almost undoubtedly heard a few of its jokes (“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the war room!”). You may have seen the classic scene of Major Kong riding an atomic bomb down to its explosive end (see picture below). It still bears a bit of explanation, though. Dr. Strangelove (we’ll go with the abbreviated title) is a dark comedy from the early days of the Cold War, in which the insane General Ripper sends the 843rd Bomb Wing on a mission to ignite an atomic war. Flying under radio silence, the unit is unreachable; and thus ensues a comedy of errors that will ultimately end in the mutually assured destruction of both the USA and the USSR. It’s not an upbeat story; there’s no happy ending; it never gets any better in the sense of its events. Calling it a “comedy”  has far more to do with the execution than the events. But none of that is why I’m presenting it for today’s topic.

dr strangelove poster

While the movie is great, and I’d love to have seen more, it fits the topic more for my experience with it. For years I’ve had an informal list in my head of films I want to see–you could think of it as a very abbreviated rendition of the many “x films to see before you die” lists out there. I’ve knocked out a few, such as Casablanca (on this list) and Zardoz (most decidedly not on this list), but there are quite a few left to go. For years, Dr. Strangelove was high on that list. At the time, it didn’t seem to be easily available anywhere–no streaming sites carried it, and finding it in home media was expensive. A quick search as I’m writing shows that that has changed; for example, you can rent it for about $3 on Amazon Video. That’s great, but it wasn’t so easy for me.

Then, a few years ago, the opportunity finally came! We have a local theater (currently closed, thanks COVID!) that plays classic movies for a criminally low price. I knew Dr. Strangelove would be playing, but I didn’t expect to see it. It’s not exactly a family film, and most of the movies I go out to see are family-friendly. But, as a late birthday present, my wife made time to hold down the fort at home (in the midst of paramedic school, work, and a million kid-related tasks), so that I could go and watch it. What she didn’t know was that, at this particular late-evening, mid-week showing, I would end up being the only person in the audience–so for all practical purposes, it was a private showing.

And it was worth every minute. I’ve never had another experience like that. And so, for the experience as much as the film, I didn’t want it to end.

Major Kong riding the bomb.

Once again, I don’t have a lesson here, just a personal anecdote–but, I do have an exhortation, of sorts. If you, in your town, have places like that wonderful old theater, please give them your support. We very nearly lost ours, because it couldn’t support its operating costs; it was only through a combination of efforts from the bar in the basement, and a subsidy from the city, that it kept its doors open. And if it were to close, that would be a shame. It’s a beautiful old movie house right in the center of town, adjacent to a local university; and it keeps the experience alive, of seeing these grand old films on the big screen, as they were intended. It would be a tragedy if that sort of thing went away.

One more to go! Thanks for reading.

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30 Day Film Challenge, Day 28!

We’re almost to the end here–which means, of course, there has to be a final obstacle. Every adventure has its boss battle, right? Except, this is less a battle, and more a wall, and I’ve run face first into it.

30 day film challenge

Day 28 asks for something very direct: “A film that changed your life.” And…I have nothing for that topic. Changed my life? How would a movie change my life? My marriage did that. My faith did that. My kids did that. But a movie? Are there people out there for whom a single piece of entertainment media would have that much impact?

I live my entire life steeped in fiction. It’s like the air I breathe. This site exists for that purpose, as does my Doctor Who blog. I was a reader and a tv and movie and video game fan long before I started doing my own writing, and I’ve done my share of that, too. It would be more accurate to say that it has all changed my life, rather than any one piece. And then as well, we’ve already covered all the most impactful films in my life. We’ve talked about the first movie I watched in a theater; the last movie I went to see with my dad; the first movie I watched with my wife. How could I top those?

So I’m going to alter the topic just a bit, because really, it’s that or skip today completely (and I won’t do that). I’m going to give you a movie that I watched at a time when my life was changing. That film is 1996’s The Ghost and the Darkness.

I’ll have to go ahead and admit that the movie itself isn’t that significant. It’s certainly a good movie; if you haven’t seen it, you should check it out. It’s a fictionalized rendition of the true story of two lions known as the Tsavo Man-Eaters, who plagued Tsavo, Kenya during railway construction at the end of the nineteenth century. The film had a very mixed reception–it was insulted by critics, and yet also managed to win an academy award–but I personally think it’s a perfectly serviceable piece of mid-nineties cinema. It’s neither a masterpiece nor, as Roger Ebert put it, so awful it “lacked the usual charm of being so bad it’s funny” (thanks Wikipedia for that bit).

No, as I mentioned, it’s significant for the time in my life in which I watched it. It’s a 1996 film; but I saw it at the now-demolished dollar theater in my town, whose gimmick was to play movies several months out of date and charge one dollar for admission, but charge outrageous prices on concessions. Maybe that’s a business model that’s prone to failure; but my friends and I loved it. With the show schedule, we saw it most likely in early 1997 (the particulars are lost to time, I’m afraid), just months before we all graduated.

I have a conflicted relationship with high school. It was a tough time in life, as I think–when we really admit it–it is for almost everyone. We don’t know who we are in high school, but we’re just beginning to have an idea of who we will be–and yet our skill sets aren’t up to the task yet. It’s the lab in which we learn to deal with other people, and labs can be brutal. I was a slow starter, too; I was painfully introverted through most of my middle school (er, junior high, as they called it then) and high school years, and I never really overcame it until much later, when I had gotten out into the working world. I had friends–I’ll get to that–but it didn’t come easy; and I made the dubious choice of dating the same girl for four years, only breaking up late in my senior year. She lived in the next town over, and didn’t attend my school, so our dating life was well compartmentalized from the rest of our lives. She was and is a wonderful person, and she helped me keep my head on straight through a rough time, but that also meant I had little to no experience with the whole dating phenomenon, and didn’t know how to talk to any girls except her. All of that makes for a difficult passage through high school.

But.

the ghost and the darkness poster

I did have friends, and they made everything better. There were half a dozen of us, mixed genders, who were together all the time, and a few others who came and went. We ate lunches together, hung out in twos and threes in mutual classes. We got together on birthdays and weekends sometimes. Ultimately we went to the prom as a group, though a few of us were also couples at that point. And we went to the movies, usually this old run-down dollar theater in the smaller (and more ailing) of the two malls in town.

I remember sitting in the darkened theater, just the six or so of us that were there that day. We were the only ones in the audience–there was another person there, but I think we loud teenagers ruined the experience for him, because he left not long after the opening credits. I remember talking and laughing and throwing M&Ms at the screen, because teenagers can be jerks sometimes. But no one got hurt, and we had a good time. This being shortly after the breakup that I mentioned, I had started a fledgling relationship with one of the girls in the group, and I remember holding her hand for the first time there (we had only been a thing for a few days; this wasn’t exactly a date, but it was close enough).

It was near the end. Less than four months later, we would graduate and go our separate ways. I went off to college. Two of our group–including the girl, with whom the relationship would end before the school year did–went off to the military. A few disappeared completely and lost touch with all of us; this was long before Facebook would put people back in touch, and none of us were good at keeping in track in those pre-social media days. Soon I would find myself wrapped up in classes and new friends and plans and the girl who would eventually be my first wife, and I didn’t have time to try to keep up with my old friends. It pains me to think that were it not for something like Facebook–which otherwise is a plague on humanity–I might have lost them all forever; but I’ve managed to reconnect with all of them to one degree or another. One friend re-established contact even before Facebook; one, on the other hand, passed away some years ago, of a serious health problem. In her absence, I keep in touch with her brother these days.

There’s a positive side to that break, though. Having moved on so definitively and abruptly back then, those years of high school–and the memories that accompanied them–are like a preserve in my mind. They remain unchanged, and unstained by any heartache that may have come later. Getting back together with my friends in recent years, after so long apart, I find that we have a respect for each other that is built on that foundation, and then unbroken by what’s passed between–even if our friendships aren’t as intimate as they once were.

I don’t have a lesson here. I’m not suggesting that there’s anything better about my situation than anyone else’s; I’m not saying you should live out your life the way I have. I’m saying that I treasure what went before, and that it’s a source of strength in my life now. And it was marked out by this movie about lions, and a few others. Those are memories I’ll hold onto as long as I can.

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30 Day Film Challenge, Day 27!

I was a high school student in the mid-nineties. Which, I have to say, makes it feel exceedingly weird to me that my oldest daughter starts high school in two weeks–didn’t I just graduate a few years ago?? Alas, no, I’m 41 now, and her numbers are the other way around (she’s 14), and high school was long ago. It’s a different world now!

But I am still the same person I was back then, if more mature (and if you were to ask my mother, she’d probably laugh at that part. Shut up, Mom). I was still as much into fiction of all types, and especially science fiction, as I am now–arguably more so, even, as I have less free time for it now. One of my interests, newly acquired around that time, was the comic book world.

Now, this was a time when being a nerd could still get you beaten up, so you better believe I kept it mostly to myself. But high school was a little more advanced than grade school, and where in grade school you’d be on your own if that sort of information got out, in high school I had a group of friends who were into the same things. Nerds rule the world these days, so maybe things have improved, I don’t know; at least my son won’t get pushed around for reading a book about dragons. That’s got to be a good thing.

But already I’m getting sidetracked. My apologies. Anyway: The nineties were a good time in comic books. Marvel Comics, especially, was having a heyday; some of their best storylines came out of that era. Unfortunately for Marvel, that heyday only applied to their content; on the financial front, for a variety of snowballing reasons, they were falling apart, and actually filed bankruptcy. That process only began to reverse in the year I graduated, 1997, and would take several years to fully recover. The era represented the endpoint of a long period in which Marvel sold film rights to several of its most popular characters, a move which would greatly increase the difficulty of getting the Marvel Cinematic Universe off the ground. That’s why it was such a coup for Marvel when Spiderman joined the MCU, and why it may happen again with the X-Men, Fantastic Four, etc.

But all this is nothing new (and really just gives me a chance to reminisce a bit), nor is it unique to Marvel. Superhero films have been a mixed bag of extreme proportions for decades. They’ve ranged from the great (most of the MCU, the Sam Raimi Spiderman trilogy with Toby Maguire, Logan, the Dark Knight trilogy) to the decent (the first X-Men movie, Wonder Woman) to the thematically dark (Watchmen) to the literally dark (anything made this decade by DC–please, turn up the stage lights) to the niche (The Rocketeer–anyone remember that one?) to the humorous (Deadpool, Hellboy, the Tim Burton Batman films), to the bad (Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman, Justice League) to the “what the actual hell?” (the 1994 Fantastic Four, which was not released, but was so bad it gets mocked relentlessly online anyway–wish I was joking, but I’m not).

30 day film challenge

So, out of all this material, which one is my favorite? That’s today’s question. Day 27 asks us for “your favorite superhero film”. And, despite the amazing production that is the MCU; despite my nineties comic book love of the X-Men; despite all the great performances in the Raimi Spiderman trilogy; I’m going to look further back, to the 1980s, and go with 1980’s Superman IIYou may remember it; it’s the most recognizable of its series. It features Superman facing off against villains of his own caliber, the newly superpowered Kryptonian terrorists General Zod, Ursa, and Non, who recently escaped from the Phantom Zone and arrived on Earth, bent on conquest.

1980 was a different era of superhero filming. There’s the obvious difference in filmmaking techniques. Modern superhero films are mostly computerized, shot against greenscreens and using motion capture and CGI techniques. I’m not certain exactly when the first CGI techniques were developed; but even if any existed in 1980, the art would have been in its infancy, and most effects were practical, or edited in later via manual techniques (painting, mostly). It’s done surprisingly well for its time; but there’s no question that when Superman flies, he’s not going to look one hundred percent realistic. (Of course, since people don’t actually fly, what is realistic, anyway?)

The larger, and more important difference, is thematic. Superhero story telling has shifted today. Actually, I say “today”, but that’s only as an endpoint; it was a gradual shift over a long period, and the bulk of the groundwork was done in the source material, the comics and books, rather than onscreen. Today, we want our heroes to be grounded in reality on a personal level, if not a technological level. We want to see their flaws. Iron Man is a hedonistic playboy, and we don’t just want to see him stand up to the villains; we want to see him stand up to himself. Captain America isn’t just fighting Thanos; he’s fighting himself, his own doubts, his disconnectedness with the modern world, his losses, even his best friends. Black Widow was used and manipulated and damaged for years (and never mind that that gets into a whole can of feminist issues–we don’t have the space here to address that. Let’s just leave it to illustrate that she, like the others, has problems). Hawkeye–excuse me, Ronin–is fighting his own grief and his own drive for revenge. Spider-man (the Raimi version) is fighting his own guilt at letting his urge for cheap revenge get his uncle killed.

It wasn’t always that way. In fact, if I had to slot this vintage of Superman films into a category like those I mentioned a few paragraphs ago, I’d call them “the idealistic”. It’s not to say that Superman had no problems; it’s that the focus isn’t on those problems. It’s an outward focus, not an inward. How will this hero handle the crisis? How will he defeat the villains? We don’t need to see proof that he’s a hero; we already accept that. We don’t need to watch him overcome his own demons–his credentials are in place. We need to see him in action!

I do hesitate to put it that way, though, because in this particular Superman film, there is a personal issue to be tackled. Superman, or rather, Clark Kent, is plagued not by his own guilt or fear or habits, but by his one real weakness (kryptonite be damned): Lois Lane. He struggles with whether to meet her at her own level by giving up his powers and becoming a normal human. He ultimately does choose to do so; and just in case you haven’t seen this forty year old movie, I won’t spoil the ending. (What are you waiting for? Go watch!)

But consider why that struggle is there. Superman is, well, superhuman, in every sense. If left at his normal capacity, there’d be no movie. You have to hamstring him in order to have a story at all. Writers have struggled with this for years. They’ve come up with any number of solutions, from creating villains ostensibly stronger than him (but how do you top a de facto god?), to hitting him with kryptonite of all varieties. Here they take two tactics: first, they give him villains who are equal to him–not superior, just equal; but they give him three of them. Secondly, they handicap him by having him willingly remove his powers. The struggle here isn’t to show his flaws or his humanities–in fact, he does it out of love, which is definitely not a flaw. It’s simply to make him able to function believably in a universe where he should be winning the fight in seconds.

Superman II poster

Superman II is my favorite superhero film for several reasons. It resonates with me for the sake of my childhood–it’s likely the first superhero film I ever watched. It’s a good old-fashioned superhero story. It’s well-made for its era. It didn’t have the expectation of a shared universe–Superman may as well be the only hero on Earth. (I like shared universes. They’re fantastic constructions. But they do require a lot, both from the creators and from the audience.)

But not least of all, it is idealistic. It holds up the idea that good is easily defined, that we can recognize it, that we should support it. Its hero is a hero, not an antihero. (There’s a place for those in fiction, but we may have gone too far with it.) He doesn’t seek vengeance; he doesn’t lie (except in hiding his identity, of course); he doesn’t gaslight us. In the one instance in which he wavers, it’s between two good things–love, and his mission. He’s unequivocally good. He inspires good in those he serves. He makes them want to serve truth and justice and goodness.

That kind of viewpoint, you may have noticed, is in short supply these days. I’m speaking of the real world, not the film world; film is, as always, a reaction to reality. This is a world without heroes, as much as it’s possible to be so. Now, more than ever, we need that idealism. We need the goal of goodness that is untempered. We need Superman; but since Superman isn’t here, we’ll have to settle for following his example instead. If we can’t have heroes, we should become them.

Because being a hero isn’t about having invulnerable skin, or the ability to fly. It’s not about heat vision, or freeze breath. It’s not even about super strength or speed. Those things are Superman’s tools; they don’t make him the hero he is. We know that’s true, because he gives them up in this film, and still stands up to the villains. It very nearly kills him, but he stands. up. ANYWAY. That’s what makes a hero.

Be that hero. The world needs Superman; but what it has is you, and me.

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30 Day Film Challenge, Day 26!

I left off a few weeks ago while things got busy around here; but I can’t stand an incomplete set, and so let’s finish this thing! Five days to go. I may try to squeeze them into less, but we’ll see. Anyway:

30 day film challenge

Day 26 asks for “a film that made you feel happy”. And for that we turn to a vehicle for one of my favorite actors, Ewan Macgregor: 2003’s Big Fish.

It’s the story of Will Bloom and his dying father, Edward Bloom, who for years haven’t seen eye to eye, owing to Edward’s fantastic stories from his life prior to Will. Will isn’t jealous; he simply believes his father to be a liar. And who wouldn’t? Tales of magic, of circuses, of finding your wife by being shot out of a cannon, of a town that shouldn’t exist–it’s all so far-fetched. But it all comes to a head when Edward is dying of cancer; and now Will has to decide whether to reconcile with the father who still insists that the most unbelievable things are true.

There’s something glaringly obvious here that should by all rights be the reason for my love for this movie, something I’ve touched on in several of these posts. My own father passed away in late 2017. He and I didn’t always see eye to eye on things; in fact I assumed he was crazy with regard to some topics. He had his own collection of fantastic stories. Most of them were small-time things, none of them were magical–but all were part of the lore I learned growing up, as most children do with regard to their parents. I never questioned whether those things were true; the things I questioned were his views on some things, notably politics (which I won’t dig too deeply into right now). Later, I would come to agree with him on some of those very matters, and to see that he was right–agreeing, that is, not because of him, but because I looked at the world and saw that I had been wrong. I only wish he was still around for me to swallow my pride and tell him about it.

Big_Fish_movie_poster

But that isn’t my reason. I didn’t see this movie until only a few years before he passed, and it was in a very different context. No, my reason for loving this one is much simpler: It was the first movie my wife and I watched together. It was 2015, and we had met in person only twice, though we had been in a long-distance relationship for a few months. The simple fact is that, while this movie is good enough and feel-good enough to make me happy all on its own, I’m happier because she loves it, and she shared that with me.

Putting that together makes today’s lesson a simple one: The best things in life are the people you love. Do what you can to get along with them and show them you love them, while they’re still with you. That’s one of the real sources for happiness in life…and a good movie never hurt, either.

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30-Day Film Challenge, Day 25!

We’ve reached day 25 of our challenge! Just a few more to go! And I’m ready. It’s been long, but fun, but I’ll be glad to reach the end. (Now if only I could pick a film for Day 28…)

30 day film challenge

Today’s topic is straightforward: A film that inspired you. And yet, it may not be easy to answer; after all, one of the hardest things we can do is unravel our own motivations, of which our inspirations are a part. We can pick at other people’s thoughts and reasons all day, but when it comes to ourselves…we flinch. We pull back. We miss the point.

But I hope that none of that will happen today. I’ve selected a film with an obvious hook on which to hang this topic: 1985’s Enemy Mine.

If you’re not a sci-fi buff, you may have missed this one. Directed by Wolfgang Peterson and based on a novella by Barry B. Longyear, it had moderate reviews at the time and consistently since then as well. Income was a harsher judge; it made back only a fraction of its $40 million budget, though I suspect that may have been a matter of timing more than quality. After all, it launched just days before Christmas, and went up against several other popular movies in the month–*House*, *The Color Purple*, *Out of Africa*, *A Chorus Line*, *Clue*–hardly the year’s hits, but well enough for December in a year when Christmas wasn’t expected to launch a new Star Wars epic. I myself saw it on television sometime later.

Enemy Mine poster

The movie does what science-fiction does best: It takes an important issue and couches it in sci-fi terms, so as to make it acceptable to those who might not otherwise accept it. In this case it’s racism, and prejudice in a more general sense. It gives us a human, Willis Davidge (Dennis Quaid), a pilot in a war against the alien Dracs. He is shot down by Drac pilot Jeriba Shigan, but takes Jeriba with him, and both crash in close proximity on an uncharted world. At first the two hunt each other, but over time they realize that if either of them is to survive, they must work together. Stranded for three long years, they become allies, then friends, working to overcome a language barrier and many cultural barriers. Davidge’s new loyalty is put to the ultimate test when Jeriba dies–but in so doing, the hermaphroditic Drac gives birth to a child. Davidge takes care of the child, which grows much faster than a human child, honoring Jeriba’s wishes and coming to love the child as his own. When the child, Zammis, is captured, Davidge tries to rescue him but fails–and then is found and extracted by his own people. But, after his recovery, when his attempts to gain support to find Zammis fall short, he steals a ship and takes matters into his own hands, eventually rescuing Zammis and taking him home to the Drac homeworld.

In the thirty-four years since I saw this film, I’ve never once forgotten its message. I grew up in a very racist area, though most people wouldn’t admit it. We weren’t taught to be evil to those who are different; but we learned a casual disregard and disrespect for them. It’s hard for me to shake it off today; my knee-jerk reactions to cross-racial situations are still much as they were years ago, and I have to actively stop myself. I hate it about myself, but I fear it will never fully go away. That’s why the message of Enemy Mine–that we can be better, that we can love and accept those we’ve been taught to hate–sticks with me.

To be honest, I thought we’d be past this point by now. I thought we were making progress back in the eighties. If this year has taught me anything, it’s that I was wrong about that; racism is as alive and well today as it was decades ago. It’s just that some of the facade is now being stripped away, and we’re struggling publicly with what we always struggled with privately–that is, the difference between personal racism and institutional racism. That makes me sad; but it doesn’t discourage me, because this institution must die.

I don’t recall whether the war in the movie ever ended. The description on Wikipedia is no help, so I’ll have to watch it again. But I read the novella last year (incidentally, *it* didn’t have a mixed reception; it won a Hugo award), and in the book, the war ends, decisively. And yet it’s the peacetime when Davidge must transmit what he’s learned; his efforts to honor his fallen enemy brother fall on deaf ears at first. Finally, though, he begins to win over those who resist change. Love really does conquer all–even if, for once, we’re not talking about romantic love.

I don’t need to make a lesson here; the story does it for me. Or maybe the Bible said it best, a long time ago: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” We’re just slow to listen.

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30 Day Film Challenge, Day 24!

If you were to ask me to name my favorite actors or actresses…well, okay, it would still be a bit of a challenge, I admit. “Favorite” is a nebulous topic for me; I usually don’t have one or two favorites, but a nebulous cloud of those that I like, in no particular order. I’d rather enjoy them all than worry about ranking them.

When we talk about directors, though, a hard task becomes an impossible one. Adding to the fact that I find the comparison hard, I also rarely pay attention to who directed a movie. I just don’t follow the directors the way we follow the actors. (It’s the same with other behind-the-scenes roles; this comes up frequently on fan subreddits, where the music and the composers are frequent topics of discussion.)

30 day film challenge

That made today’s topic a bit of a challenge–but not too much, as you’ll see. The topic for Day 24 is “a film made by your favorite director.” Now, ordinarily I don’t care if the movie was made by Stanley Kubrick, JJ Abrams, or your cousin Bubba, as long as it’s a good movie–but there is one exception: I am a huge fan of Mel Brooks.

I am a firm proponent of genre fiction. I recognize that mainstream fiction, drama, and all forms of “serious” literature and film, all have their place, and their worth. But I also hold that genre fiction is equally valuable. Science fiction, fantasy, action, thriller, crime, comedy, romance–these genres often receive mockery from those who really should know better; and yet they’re every bit as involved as any other art form, and they often bear more of a resemblance to the issues at the heart of real life. That, I think, is why I’m a fan of Mel Brooks, who is renowned for his comedic films–they reach a place in my life, and the lives of those around me, that no serious drama can ever touch.

I’ve already used my favorite Brooks film, Spaceballs, way back on Day 3. So instead, let’s go with another old favorite: 1993’s Robin Hood: Men In Tights.

RobinHoodMeninTights_Poster

Men in Tights is ostensibly a parody of 1991’s Kevin Costner vehicle Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. I’m not sure I knew what a parody was, prior to this movie; but at least, by the time I saw Men in Tights, I had already seen Prince of Thieves, so I was able to get the references and callbacks to that film. Costner’s movie (directed by Kevin Reynolds) is not a bad movie by any means, despite the fact that Costner films have become a bit of a punchline in later years (no doubt fueled by the disaster that was 1995’s Waterworld). I’ve seen it a few times, and enjoyed it, and still have fond memories of it (despite having to play that damn song repeatedly in junior high band). It certainly entered the cultural memory quite effectively. And yet, Brooks’s infinitely quotable (and singable!) film blows it away in terms of memory.

It’s so much more than a parody, though. The movie is great in its own right. It demonstrates that you don’t have to be serious to be taken seriously–and I’ll go ahead and out myself by saying that that will be part of the lesson for today. Kevin Costner may have robbed from the rich and given to the poor; Cary Elwes did it while singing about his men’s uniforms, fighting Little John (Eric Allan Kramer) to a standstill with a pencil-sized quarterstaff, and carrying around the key to his true love’s…err, heart. If that isn’t glorious, I don’t know what is (at least in movie terms).

I’ve talked a lot in these posts about having fun, not taking yourself too seriously, and loving what you love. I suppose it’s a grand recurring theme with me, because here in the internet world, it’s a bit of a lost art. We live in a world rich in things that ought not to be too serious–just take a look at the number of cartoons, webcomics, musicals, movies, anime, manga, etc. etc. etc. that are out there–and yet fans often take those things far too seriously. It’s practically a trope of the internet that fandoms are toxic, and rip their members apart. It’s insane, really.

Of course there’s a place for seriousness, even when we’re talking about something we love. That’s the implication I was making when I said that you don’t have to be serious to be taken seriously. You know it’s true; if it weren’t nothing would ever get made–all these funny people in the world do these things as their jobs, which is inherently serious. The problem is when things get too serious, as they all too often do. Then we find ourselves tearing each other apart. It’s only gotten easier with the anonymity of the screen.

Don’t be like that. Take a page (or a scene, if you prefer) from this great classic movie–maybe the scene with the pump sneakers (you know the one, if  you’ve seen it), or the scene with the blind lookout “guessing” no one is coming–and relax. Sit down and enjoy it. Have a good time. The place for seriousness will still be there afterward.

Thanks for reading.

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30-Day Film Challenge, Day 23!

Meaning is highly subjective, isn’t it?

I don’t mean “definition”. We’re talking connotation, not denotation. But, as every author knows–and some can’t accept–once your work is out there, it’s not really yours anymore. You meant it to have a certain effect on the audience, but what they actually take away from it is beyond your control.

30 day film challenge

That’s at the heart of today’s topic. Day 23 asks us for “a film that means a lot to you personally.” And I love it, because that topic is wide open! It could be anything to anyone. If, for example, you were to ask my sister this question, she’d likely give you a Rob Zombie movie, and expound at length about why it means something to her. (Full disclosure: she’s done this challenge already, but I can’t remember what she put down for this topic.) And she’d mean it! Meanwhile, I could never do that. It wouldn’t be me, and it wouldn’t be my experience. My wife, on the other hand, might tell you it’s Spaceballs, because it was a longtime family favorite when she was a child, or Hook, because it’s meant a lot to her over the years, or maybe Big Fish, because it was the first movie she and I watched together. (More on that one in a few days!) My brother would likely list A Nightmare on Elm Street, and he’d be passionate about his reasons. My mother would give you one of several Stephen King films, owing to her nearly lifelong love of his work. You probably wouldn’t have picked any of those, would you? Your answer would be uniquely you.

And so is mine. I’m going to go with 1994’s Star Trek Generations, the film that bridged The Original Series and The Next Generation. I can hear some of you recoiling–there’s a fan theory that all the odd-numbered Trek films are garbage, and this one is number seven if we take the entire collection, number one if it’s only The Next Generation. But bear with me! Because meaning is subjective. And this one does, indeed, mean a lot to me.

star trek generations poster

I’ve told this story before, but I appear to have only told it on Facebook. (I certainly can’t find it in this site’s post history.) I may even make it to the end this time. Anyway:

Back in 1994, I was fifteen years old. That sounds like a good place to start. My father was thirty-nine that year (had he lived, he would be sixty-five tomorrow). Makes sense so far, right? The part that didn’t make sense, to me or my mom or especially to him, was what was wrong with him at the time. You see, my childhood was normal enough, and so was he–but around 1990, he developed some psychiatric problems. It started out with anxiety, then progressed to depression. He developed severe panic attacks that centered around closed spaces, and guess what closed space we used literally every day? That’s right–cars. Soon enough he lost his ability to go anywhere in a car. For years, he walked everywhere. He briefly got a motorcycle before an accident took that away. Finally, many years later, he was able to get the right combination of medications to restore most of his abilities.

But in 1994, that was all in the future. Mental health care wasn’t exactly a prehistoric wasteland, but it wasn’t as advanced as today, and the medication options were more limited. I’m trying to say that life became a struggle for a very long time. My brother and sister, both younger than me, had the fortune and the misfortune to have only cloudy memories–if any at all; my sister was born in 1990–of what he was like beforehand. Fortune because they don’t know what they missed; misfortune for the same reason. I do, though.

No matter how sick he got, he still loved us. He still wanted to connect with us. We were kids; we didn’t always make it easy. Sometimes, though, it worked out. This was one of those times.

I’ve mentioned before that my parents introduced me to science fiction, and to Star Trek in particular. Dad loved the show–both of the then-extant versions of it. (Okay, okay, Deep Space Nine was current too, but it had just started the previous year.) And this, we all thought, was going to be a historic year for Star Trek, because, after years of TOS movies, the films were making the leap to The Next Generation! But I didn’t expect to see the movie in the theater; I was a broke teenager, and rarely ever saw movies that way.

Back then radio stations used to throw what they called premiere parties. (Is this still a thing, here in the world of midnight releases?) In partnership with the theaters and the film studios, they’d schedule a premiere showing of a new movie the night before it officially launched–late enough that in the pre-internet world, spoilers wouldn’t ruin it for everyone, but just ahead of the crowd. They’d give away tickets in various contests…and I somehow won a set. (Actually I think now that someone else won them and gave them to me, but the effect was the same.) Two tickets! To the biggest movie event of the (nerdy) year!

Before I get comments mocking me for not making it a date, I’ll say that I did have a girlfriend, and she was also into Star Trek (you’re welcome, Ruth, wherever you are), her family was very strictly conservative, and she would never have gone to a theater. That left exactly one choice of who I would want to go with me to this thing–Dad.

To my utter surprise, he agreed to go.

Remember, Dad never went anywhere. He struggled with open spaces and enclosed spaces, and crowds, and pressure, and this situation would have all of that. He knew that, and he agreed to go anyway.

And he kept his promise. My mom dropped me off at the theater; he left the house early and walked the three miles or so to get there at the same time. She hung out in the car throughout, just to make sure nothing went wrong. And we watched as the Enterprise-B took its first voyage…and the Enterprise-D took its last. We watched as Captain Kirk saved the universe for the last time, and as he died in the bottom of a canyon on Veridian III.

Somewhere around that time, Dad had reached his limit. The pressure got to him, and he had to leave. I finished the movie by myself in the crowd, watching with my jaw hanging open as the Enterprise met its fate halfway around the planet from Kirk and Picard, and as the credits rolled.

But I wasn’t really alone. People say “he was there in spirit”, and they’re trying to be nice–but there are times you feel it’s true. I haven’t had that experience often, but I had it that night. We got to connect over something we had both loved for most of our lives, and I will never forget it.

Dad never went to another movie theater. He got his mobility back, and in later years he even became a bit of a traveler, visiting me after I moved out of state, taking my mom and sister and niece to visit attractions in other states. But some things were always beyond him, and this was one of them. Much later, the day before Halloween (his favorite holiday) in 2017, he passed away at the young age of sixty-two from congestive heart failure. We all still miss him.

But I have this. And maybe it is a lousy movie as Star Trek films go (I don’t think so, but many people do). None of that matters, because the meaning of the film is so much more for me. It was something I treasure with someone I can’t get back.

Do you want a lesson from this? Here it is: What’s yours is yours–and I’m not talking about your clothes and your house and your car. I’m talking about your memories, and especially those that intersect with the people you love. They’re yours forever, barring accident or Alzheimer’s or some other dementia. Hold on to them, because they mean something to you that no one else will ever have.

I miss you,  Dad. I’d love to be talking this dumb old movie over with you now. I won’t forget the last time we did.

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30-Day Film Challenge, Day 22!

For all that I love science fiction, and spend much of my time delving into its many worlds, I have a mixed relationship with its sister genre of fantasy. It’s not to say that I don’t like fantasy; I do. I discovered Tolkien in junior high, and had watched any number of movies prior to that; I spent years waiting on the ending of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant; I’ve finished–and understood!–The Silmarillion.

But, I don’t move in those universes as easy as science fiction. I’m not drawn to fantasy the way I am to science fiction. There are a few science fiction books I’ve picked up and then failed to finish; there are a great number of fantasy novels in that category. I suppose it doesn’t help that fantasy novels tend to be giant doorstops weighing several pounds; but that’s hardly the entire reason. Truthfully, I’m not sure I can pin down the reason.30 day film challenge

Which brings us to today’s topic. Day 22 gives us “Your favorite film set in a fantasy world”. It’s a difficult choice for me, for a few reasons: First, the definition of “fantasy” (as, sometimes, the definition of science fiction) is subject to interpretation. Is Harry Potter fantasy? How about The Handmaid’s Tale? Or, watch the classic Doctor Who serial, Battlefield, which features characters from the King Arthur legends, but in the modern day–is that fantasy? (For the purpose of this post, I’ve tried to limit myself to more traditional fantasy of the sword-and-sorcery kind–but you’ll see from my selection that there’s some question even here.) And second, I’ve included a few other favorites elsewhere in this challenge, which makes a reservoir that already struggles for depth, even shallower.

So let’s dig deep! We’ll go back to 1983 for today’s selection: The cult favorite (but box office bomb), Krull.

Krull poster

This one, I’m ashamed to say, didn’t pass the “wife test”; my wife didn’t get very far before declaring that it was stupid, and moving on to something else. (She probably won’t even remember; it was a few years ago.) But it remains a part of my childhood, and I have good memories of it.

The film, set on another world, concerns a Prince Colwyn, slated to marry Princess Lyssa and combine their two kingdoms. A prophecy states their child will then rule the galaxy. Their marriage is interrupted by an invading monster called the Beast, and its band of shock troops, and Lyssa is taken away to the Beast’s mobile fortress. The fortress disappears each morning and reappears in a new location, making it difficult to track. Colwyn assembles a band of accomplices–or rather, a group coalesces of its own will around him–and sets out to find Lyssa. After several setbacks, he accomplishes his goal, and–with several of his friends slain on the way–he fights and kills the Beast, restoring their fate and their kingdoms to their rightful path.

It’s overdone and silly. There’s no getting around it. Audiences thought so, too; after ballooning budgets and a difficult production experience, the film did terrible in theaters, making back only about half of its budget. It holds a 35% rating on Rotten Tomatoes–hardly the worst rating out there, but hardly phenomenal, either. And yet it appealed to me as a child; I was fascinated by everything about it, especially the film’s signature weapon, the magical Glaive. As an adult, when I look at the film, the thing that stands out most strongly are its similarities to another fantasy franchise: the tabletop gaming franchise, Dungeons & Dragons. Colwyn’s team is essentially a team of adventurers from D&D; their mission, and their adventures, are textbook examples of in-game quests. As it turns out, I’m not the first to reach that conclusion; Wikipedia informs me that there were allegations that the movie was intended to be a tie-in to the game, but D&D creator Gary Gygax denies it, stating that no one ever approached the game’s publisher about any deal.

krull glaive

Colwyn with the Glaive

But I have to admit, even this movie I love does not hold up very well today. If you watch it, it will feel very outdated indeed. And that’s the lesson that I needed: That just because I love something, doesn’t make it good. It’s the converse of a previous lesson: that it’s okay to like what you like. Of course it is okay, but we sometimes have to admit that we only like something for our own reasons, not because it’s exemplary.

Think about it: We’ve all known that one person who insists on expounding at length about the thing they love, the movie they think is the greatest ever, the book they couldn’t put down, the game they can’t stop playing…and when we check out the thing for ourselves, it’s just not that good. I’m not suggesting that we have to correct that person; but I am suggesting we should be careful about being that person. Of course, we want to be enthusiastic about what we like, and that’s fine. But we should be aware of ourselves and how we’re presenting the things we love, because, in the end, the people we’re associating with are more important–and we can push them away with our enthusiasm.

I’m thinking this through on the fly, I admit. There may be ramifications I haven’t fully examined. So, feel free to take only what you want from these thoughts. But it’s perhaps worth considering.

And in the meantime, check out an old movie! Maybe you’ll like it.

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