Monday, May 27, 2013

The Traveller Has Come

Imagine there is a portal that will send you anywhere--but it's a one way trip. Where would you go and why?

I wonder if perhaps this question, upon reflection, has an unintended air of solace to it.  There's such a finality to it--you leave, never to return (though, I'm sure, the fine print reads "never to return by way of the portal." If your trip is from the attic in your house to the basement in your house, you can still walk upstairs.).  This, of course, differs from so many "voyages" of fiction and fact alike: the moon, Oz, the Death Star, and the new world are all places in the middle of a round trip home, of which there's like, it's been said, no place.

There also the issue of where one goes traveling.  If the port of call is some place inferior to ours, such as the past or an under-developed fictional world, you've the temptation to rule it--just as Hank Morgan so easily found in medieval England.  Sure, there's the whole microbial issue (if the vast array of germs for which we 21st Century lads and lasses are unprepared didn't zap us, the sheer stink of, say,
Franklin's Philadelphia with chambermaids pouring earthen pots filled with urine and feces into the street would certain pose a problem).  And also... I worry that upon arriving at that inferior place, one would be taken as a madman, not a prophet.  A pessimistic view, perhaps, but could one really an American Revolution in 1750?  A successful light bulb before 1880? Landing on the moon before 1969?  Twain's Hank Morgan might have become "The Boss" in a handful of months, but I'd skip the past for my portal trip.

It's the future for me.  Now, there's been much banter about as to exactly how useful one of we quaint, stupid people of 2011 would be in that advanced, far-flung future.  (Indeed, many a reader will doubtless be thinking of the character of Harry Bernard in Star Trek: The Next Generation's "When the Bough Breaks;" Harry, of course, at age 10 protested the fact that every child his age learns calculus.)  That said, if it was today, July 21, 2011 (the anniversary of the moon landing and the endpoint of the shuttle program, a disappointing footnote in American--and indeed human--exploration) that I was preparing to go through the portal to another place, it would probably be that world of Star Trek: The Next Generation anyway.

Now let me admit right off the bat, that I probably wouldn't have been Enterprise material even if I was born in the 24th Century--my work ethic leans towards efficiency as defined as having other people do things while I drink tea, Earl Grey, hot.  Nonetheless, imagine what a place it would be to live in--the starry frontier always around the corner, fabulous technology,  and the air of adventure in the air.  Perhaps I'm affected by the recent addition of TNG to Netflix, which has allowed me to start one epic rewatch.  This, in turn, has transported (pun intended) me back to being 7 or 8 again, as I was when TNG started to air.

Still, stepping through that portal, I can't help but imagine how grand it would be: the chance to step onto some ship and fly through the stars to whatever strange, new destination awaits.  Sure, a relative luddite to the 24th Century, I'd probably end up on the ham sandwich brigade of the tug boat fleet, but it's not like I'd be making less money for it.  After all, the Federation is moneyless, and the creature comforts (food, drink, material possessions) are all one synthesizer request away.  A future imperfect, perhaps, but I'll take it.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Visions of a Dirty Future

Though a hotly contested point across many a far, far away galaxies, I like Star Wars: Episode II: The Attack of the Clones. I enjoy its wide-eyed development of the behind-the-scenes machinations by which one man (Palpatine) can turn his republic towards a war

whose only goal is to consolidate power under that very man. (In the early 2000s, this story seemed oddly prescient, of course.)

Yet there is one enduring memory from Attack of the Clones that I find to be endlessly irritating. (Sorry, it isn't the acting of Hayden Christensen.) I despise how darned clean it is on Kamino. You remember, of course, the stormy planet upon which is the base for secret cloning operations, inhabited by the long-necked aliens and Jango Fett. (Those who have seen the spaghetti western Django will doubtless be hearing the theme song in their heads right now. But I digress.) You may recall that Jango's quarters were spotlessly clean, as were the hallways, doorways, and walkways. This is, of course, because it's all computer generated, and Industrial Light and Magic has become a sloppy place, what with the best of the best drawn to work either for Peter Jackson's Weta Digital or John Lasseter's Pixar. Odd, isn't it, that the eye doesn't bicker with an 8 foot tall alien lady, but the absence of a dirty floor is an eyesore. On that note, let's look at three visions of a dirty future.

First, fittingly, must be Hill Valley 2015 as seen in Back to the Future, Part II. Think of that reveal of Courthouse Square as Marty first steps away from the Deorean. Posters extolling one to "Surf Vietman" are seen in the background; so too are large "compact disc"-like bundles of trash. The cars are appropriately slick enough, but one almost mows down
young Marty Jr. The Max Headroom-inspired automatic waiter at the Cafe 80s isn't dirt-laden, per se, but the (intentionally) glitchy nature of its Regan and battling Iotolah are a far cry from that perfect future found on Kamino. Heck, the Cafe 80s even has that clunky, forgotten, unplugged Wild Gunman video game--the one in which a future ring bearer, in his film debut, declares, "You mean you have to use your hands?" Throw in the later instances of the worn out scene-screen in the McFly home, as well as the imperfect "eventuality" of the Japanese owning everything, and the future isn't looking too bright.

So too is the case in Demolition Man, an overlooked minor sci-fi/action extravaganza.
Initially it does present us with a squeaky-clean vision of the future, one that is so pristine that even swear words have been scrubbed from normalcy just as remote-controlled graffiti applications are zapped away moments after being drawn. Yet let us not forget that "terrorist" Edgar Friendly is no terrorist indeed: the utopian San Angeles is made possible only by the subjugation of the least among us, who literally live in the filth and squalor of the sewers, stealing food to survive. Add to that a rather whimsical irony, that the architect of peace and prosperity in the future is also behind the violence and death which propels the plot, and one sees that the film's future is very unsavory indeed. For those still in doubt, Jesse Venture is in the film, thereby making it stink of elk hide and mat sweat.

Lastly, ironically, is George Lucas' own THX-1138. If you haven't seen this true
masterpiece in its special/restored/directors edition, then stop reading and go watch it on Netflix immediately (this is not some haphazard redoing that risks riling fans (Han should always shoot first), but rather the completion of a visionary young filmmaker who had far too little resources to suit his grand imagination). On the surface (for those who have seen the film, that's a pun), the world of the film seems similar to that of Kamino--lots of white walls and soft light. Yet clearly the edges of this world are dirty indeed. Explosions at the factory tearing through people, inherit sadness of those looking for ease from life via their medicine cabinets,lustless porn and sexless marriage: these all speak to an uncaring, dispassionate world. Indeed, one of the enduring images from the film is the robot police officer quietly, inexplicably walking back and forth into a wall. That scene has no bearing to the plot; indeed, it is presented as merely shading--commonplace shading in a world that similarly is quietly broken.

Thus we return to that pristine world of Kamino. Perhaps the storms which rage outside its perfect-white cities are a bit of a hint of imperfection. I nonetheless declare "bantha pudu" upon the House of George for having birthed such a clean baby.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Giving Thanks: Some Like It Hot

I tend to like my cinema dark and moody, complex and metaphorical.  It should challenge the viewer, stand up to multiple viewings and, in a very large sense, be About Something.

Yet today I give thanks for a movie that, while having a complex and metaphorical backbone in the background, I appreciate for curves in all the right places: Some Like It Hot and its leading lady, Marilyn Monroe.  Now, I know, you might be thinking that to lust after Marilyn Monroe is old hat, and I'm only the billionth person in line.  Let me share a bit of context.

I rather resist seeing most classic comedies.  I prefer film noir or war pictures... I'll even take a thematically black and white western over... yuck... Jerry Lewis.  Further, I had briefly studied Some LIke It Hot as part of a film course I took in college.  Without seeing it, I intellectually appreciated it for its deep message hiding behind silly farce (which you can read more about here).  Thus I was rather nonplussed when my wife insisted that we watch it together when it appeared on our beloved Netflix.

I thought I understood the mystique of Marilyn Monroe: sexy for time when belly buttons were something that you saw only on newborn babies and your wife--and for the latter, only when you pushed your twin beds together for marital relations and there was some light coming through the shades and curtains.  I thought she couldn't act--after all, I read Joe DiMaggio: A Hero's Life by Richard Ben Cramer, where she is described as a barely-functioning child-woman whose dog would wet on the white carpet, and she wouldn't know what to do.

Thus I was unprepared to discover that not only is her performance great, but Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot is, in fact, hot.  Bewilderingly hot. Stunningly, jaw-droppingly, I'd-like-to-watch-the-movie-without-my-wife-around hot.  Monroe effortlessly oozes sexuality, aided by a bevy of costumes designed to be near-pornographic to the mind, but tame enough to get past the 1950s Production Code (indeed, it won an Oscar for costume design).

Yes, it's also a funny movie (Tony Curtis riffing as Cary Grant stands out).  Yes, it helped topple the Production Code.  Yes, it's considered to be one of top comedies of all time--if not the best comedy of all time, as feted by the AFI. And yes, it is About Something.  But those are all but icy tips on large mountains compared to the shakes and shimmies of its female star.

On this day of thanks, where we marvel at soft breast and tender thigh... won't you compliment your turkey with Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot?