Monday, December 30, 2013

The New World Symphony, and Life

Note: An older article, here republished.

"He said unto them, He that has ears to hear, let him hear." (Mark 4:9)

This being my New Year's Eve post, I find myself in a reflective mood.  That's to be expected, of course.  That I'm writing this at an exceedingly precious moment requires a bit of an explanation.
It's the evening of December 16, 2011, the 118th anniversary of the premiere of Dvorak's New World Symphony.  I am listening to it in its entirety with my daughter who, at 9 months old (in two days time), isn't particularly listening to it.  (She does look up at the TV from time to time, where the screensaver is showing animal pictures, to her delight.)  The point, though, is that she's hearing it.  There's always been something hypnotic in the New World Symphony, something which has spoken deeply to me since I first heard it in high school.  The Wikipedia article on the symphony references Dvorak's desire to imbue his music with Native American and African-American influences.  To my moderately-tuned ears, I don't hear that--I hear a great deal, though. 

I'll pause for a moment to say that I'm no audiophile.  I played saxophone in middle school and high school, and I also partook in high school chorus.  I never particularly practiced and could only be considered above average in that I was in the upper 50%, but rarely in the top 10.

Yet art--great art--speaks to its audience.  The first movement speaks of something terrible and wonderful, as one might view a new city from afar.  It is big, bold, organized, mechanic, its sounds looking towards venturesome progress with a vague wonder of what's been left behind.  In the second movement of the symphony, it might not be Native Americans, but I do hear trees and grass and pristine nature.  The third movement is an optimistic progression, with settlers in bonnets, the happy clanking of iron and steel making swords, railroads, and again the quiet look backwards to something hauntingly lost.  Or left behind.  It turns genteel, with hoop skirts and braided-hair women, and mustachioed gentlemen. The fourth movement is strong and affirming, a spinning glisten with gold, happiness and pride.  It says, "Some did fall on good ground.  Be proud of this land; use care.  Be proud of its people; use care.  Be proud of yourself... use care."

That is the best I can describe it.  It's like talking about the color orange.  Calling it "not red" and "brighter than blue" doesn't really give a definition to the thing.  It's the same thing with the 9th (the piece being alternatively called Dvorak's 9th Symphony):  I've described it is as I've described it.  No musicology, no glance over Dvorak's intent.  Just the laser-like beam between the music and my soul.

A year and a half ago, before my wife and I started our family, I was able to see the 9th performed by the New Jersey Symphony.  We were in the first few rows (which, I admit, isn't where real hob-nobs sit, as it's too close.  Oh well.), and it was heavenly.  Not only was it one of the first concerts conducted by new music director Jacques Lacombe, but it was joyfully different from the well-worn copy I have on my iPod.  (Well, as well-worn as digital copies get....) Not very different, mind you, but to hear it performed organically, to see it conducted with nuance and feeling and no concern for the length of a CD... it was heaven.  It also was the only time I've ever heard music with a sense that I can only describe as "out of time."  When Lacombe lowered his hands for the final time at the end of the fourth movement, it felt as though less than twenty minutes had gone by, when close to fifty had transpired.  It may not have transformed me, but it most certainly did transport me.

And, as the symphony enters its final minutes as I type, I cannot help but look to my daughter.  This year has brought her, my very own new world.  She has, I suppose, origins in places across seas and oceans, but, like Dvorak's masterpiece, is here to make her future in this new world.

Some did fall on good ground.

It's been quite a year.

Monday, December 23, 2013

A Community Christmas Miracle

I have just rewatched one of the greatest television high-wire acts--an achievement of 22 minutes of Christmas greatness, compounded by how far-fetched its great success is.

I only started watching NBC's Community in between the first two seasons, at the behest of my brother.  Courtesy of the magic of DVD, I raced through the first season and a half, having most recently watched "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas," which originally aired on December 9, 2010.

For the sad uninitiated, Community takes place at a community college where seven disparate folks from seven different walks of life have come together in a study group. The requisite "craaaazy guy" (ala Urkle and Balki) is Abed, a Pakistani/Polish-American who wants to be a film director and has Asperger's syndrome.  This oftentimes leads him to make meta comments about the show, suggesting that sometimes his view of reality skews towards seeing his life as a TV show. 

"Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" has a cold opening where everything in it is stop motion animation--to us, anyway.  We are seeing the show through the third person limited narration of Abed, who conjectures that everything is now in stop motion because this is the most important Christmas ever (after, you know, the first one).  As the plot unfolds, the dialogue of his friends starts to make it clear that they do not share his view--that the episode is taking place in the normal continuity of the show, and those around him do not see things in animation.

Ultimately, Abed is (marginally) treated by the (marginal) psychology teacher, Professor Duncan.  They decide to go, in Abed's delusion, anyway, to Planet Abed, where everything is Christmas.  Slowly, we realize that Abed's friends are gamely playing along in an attempt to be there for him in his strange time of need, if not understand him.

Reaching Santa's Workshop, it is empty and cold.  Professor Duncan (dressed as a warlock) returns, saying that he knows why Abed has had this break from reality: Abed's mother, divorced from his father, always used to visit on December 9 (the airdate of the show).  They would watch a Christmas movie together.

But this year she has sent a card saying that she cannot make it--that she has a new family, that he is a man now, and he should understand.

The show turns surprisingly poignant at that point--doubly so since the sad emotions are being communicated by claymation dolls.  Yet the emotions are real.

Stop motion Abed is consumed by ice, literally... but also a heart-felt metaphor for what has caused his break with reality.  Abed's mother, the person who kept the Christmas spirit alive in him, is now gone.  The show--a comedy, mind you--suddenly is sad, having cut into the viewers heart.  Abed's friends return and sing of the meaning of Christmas, thawing him: that it can be whatever you want it to be, so long as you are with people you love.

It is sappy.  It is effective.  It is true.

I expected the show to then turn back to its normal photography, but it instead cut back to their study group meeting room, all still in stop motion animation.  Fixed, healed, Abed wonders if the stop motion should stop.  He is interrupted by a friend who says no, that it should continue for the holidays.

We then see the whole clay group in Abed's dorm room, watching the end of a stop motion Christmas movie.  "The End," the clay TV reads, and it fades to black.

In the screen, we see the real life cast of Community reflected back.

Sweet, heartfelt, sad, funny, and wonderful: can a 22 minute snarky hipster comedy be all that--and stop motion?

It truly is a Community Christmas miracle.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Star Trek, The Mother Load

Yes. It looks like a penis.
It's Star Trek.  

It's always been Star Trek. 

Where else can you find the widest range of fans around--or fans with such longevity?  Some of the most meaningful Trek is over 40 years old; some of best Trek is the most recent iteration.  Trek, and its fans, can encapsulate the very best about popular culture, television viewers, and, I daresay, humanity itself.  In the 1960s, the fandom latched onto the notion that with cooperation and understanding, peace and prosperity could become a universal ideal.  To that end, fans have seen the (then) far-fetched notion of a multi-racial incorporation of individuals who advance based on their skills, not adherence to the old boys club.  Just consider the bridge of the Classic Enterprise: Black, Asian, WASP, Jew (insofar as Misters Nemoy and Shatner are Jewish), Russian, and Southern American (this last one being its own category in some circles).  Aside from Uhura being made to wear a skirt to work everyday, all are blindly equal.  This is what Trek fans have embraced.

Then there's the seedy underbelly--and underbelly fed by the 1980s glut of Trek.  They were high times then: films every few years, the start of The Next Generation, and merchandising.  Ah, the merchandising that was eaten up by any loyal fan.  Toys weren't for children--they were collectors items!  Pocket Books wasn't for pedestrian paperbacks--they were for semi-official Trek novels, of which one needed to read... all of them!
He's an Admiral now.

And then there were the fan clubs.  Hello, my name is Matt, and I'm a recovering Star Trek fan club member.  I know of what I speak, having inauspiciously served "aboard" the USS Challenger for a time in my pre-driving teens.  My parents, I'm sure, were thrilled to drive me and my friend to our monthly meetings.  And what a bunch it was, meeting in an empty, cold, sparse first aid building.  In retrospect, it was like the worst up-and-coming religion ever, just kind of sitting around and praising great god Trek.  Captain Bob was engaged or dating the first officer; she, in turn, seemed to have some rather serious illness.  The typical meeting started with some sort of whole group "thing" (perhaps a report of whoever had gone to the latest convention), and there would be a look ahead to upcoming things (probably the upcoming convention).  Then we'd break into "section time," or some such name.  I was in engineering.  The... sigh... yes, I'll say it... "chief of engineering" was in the process of overseeing our ships... sigh... refit.  How one refits an imaginary ship, and how it takes longer than a moment, I do not know.  I do recall that he was dead set on the ship having four engines (which I'd venture gives you little benefit but more work for the engineering crew), and demanded that the new boat be painted in gunmetal gray.  He spat hate talking about how the stupid show dared light its ships, claiming that the bad guys couldn't shoot what they couldn't see.  I, as an early teen, dared not point out that a) the bad guys used sensors that detected more than the visual spectrum and b) it was just a show.  He further stated that he had never watched TNG, as it was impossible to build a ship with curved, fluid lines.  I dared not point out that the whole of Star Trek was rather silly, from a nuts-and-bots, realistic point of view: aliens, transporters, warp drive, etc.

I stopped going to Challenger meetings shortly before my 13th birthday.  You see, at the time there was a funny television program called Saturday Night Live.  I think that it has no relation to the unfunny show of the same name on now.  Patrick Stewart hosted, and even though the show was in decline at the time, I as a Trek fan, watched.  It wasn't that great.  The "erotic cake" bit seemed like the future of SNL: drawn out and stupid.  But here's the kicker: everyone at Challenger saw the episode.  Live.  The night before our Challenger meeting.  And you know what everyone did after "section time?" We went into the next room to watch Patrick Stewart on SNL.  For the second time.  In a little over 12 hours.

This was also the time that I stopped being a part of "Starfleet," the national officially-sanctioned Trek fan club.  They had the most stupid of controversies: some Vice Admiral (running for election as Head of Starfleet or whatever stupid title was bestowed upon the president of the fan club made) made a joke about Klingons.  Pan-de-mon-ium broke out. She (a woman of color, ironically) was branded a racist.  In classic "how not to handle a crisis" mode, she first fought the onslaught, then gave a half-assed excuse (she was speaking "in character as a movie-Trek-era person," then ultimately had to give up her aspirations to be Head of Starfleet.  The pound of flesh was her resignation from the organization.

Thus, then, is what makes Trek the mother load for crazy-ass fans.  Born of an aspiration for a better world, its fans at the height of the franchise would meet in cold first aid buildings to watch a lousy show because it had "a guy from Star Trek."

Monday, December 9, 2013

A Beloved Graphic Novel

It's not often that something entertaining can truly blow you away--that "I can't breathe because I never saw it coming" sort of moment in a story.  If you saw The Sixth Sense without being spoiled, that's probably one time.  The LOST episode "Walkabout" comes to mind as well, though some wise few (me) called the zinger about 20 minutes in.

At the top of my list, though, is the graphic novel Kingdom Come.  To borrow a line from old J.R.R., it is precious to me.  The basic story is this: ten years from the perpetual "now" of DC Comics, Superman has retired, our well-known heroes have aged or moved on, and a new, more violent breed of superhero has taken to protect--and wantonly carouse--in our world.  We quickly learn that this violent "protection" has lead to a nuclear disaster of catastrophic proportions, leading in turn to a showdown literally of Biblical proportions between goodies and baddies, humans and superhumans alike.  The narration of the story is set by Norman McKay, a minister whose faith is slipping after the nuclear disaster.  He is led by the Spectre, a fairly familiar DC character able to transcend time and space.  Together it's a Scrooge-and-a-ghost dynamic which, conveniently enough, lets us flit from hither and yon across the globe to see the story unfold. 

Two other points should be made.  First, all the artwork has been painted by Alex Ross; second, it was originally released, as graphic novels often are, in four issues.  When I first read it, the former was apparent, as I was aware of Mr. Ross' work in the Marvels graphic novel.  As for the second point... for that I was not prepared.

I mistook the first issue--coming in at about 50 pages in a paperback (i.e. not comic paper) issue--as the only issue, as a one-shot vision of an alternate future.  McKay sees some horrible visions to open the story, visions of Biblical gloom and doom.  As the rest of the story unfolds, and we see fun and interesting ways that familiar characters are being "re-presented." Norman's visions are largely forgotten, and if remembered, relegated to the dustbin of artistic flourish.  At the climax of the story (in the issue, anyway), Superman returns, saving the day and putting the new non-heroes on their place.  It's stunning and amazing and cheer-worthy, a truly cinematic moment made out of static art.

And on the next page, Norman's visions of apocalypse return, ending the story, telling us that there's much, much more to come.

I love Kingdom Come.  I wrote my college thesis on it, comprising a whopping 30 pages of critical analysis on it, arguing that it deserves to be elevated to the realm of postmodern fiction.

The climax of the novel is the showdown between Superman--but a Superman who is older, one step slower, and who turned his back on humanity for ten years--and Captain Marvel.  For those not in the know, the basic DC backstory for Captain Marvel is that Billy Batson, a 10 year old boy, can yell "Shazam!" and call down magic thunder to turn him into the powerful adult hero.  In the course of Kingdom Come, Billy Batson grew up under the brainwashing employ (and vaguely-suggested sexual abuse) of--wait for it--Lex Luthor.  Ultimately, Marvel goes rogue from goodies and baddies alike, being an X factor as fighting moves closer and closer to Armageddon.  He is the only one powerful enough to stop Superman.  He is the harbinger of death.  It leads to the showdown of a lifetime, that of all our heroes and villains fighting towards the very brink of their end.

And that is just about the biggest game that you could count on: every single character you've ever cared about (at least in the DC universe) battling lest they be, quite simple, no more.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Cringing At Trek; or, When Riker Turned A Gay Alien Straight

Star Trek: The Next Generation's fifth season is punctuated by a litany of episodes About Something: politics, rape, suicide, language, abortion.  In "The Outcast," Trek takes a sci-fi look at homosexuality.  The J'naii are presented as a genderless society who occasionally have members that exist in an alien closet with secret desires of being one gender and being attracted to the opposite.

I remember watching this episode in 1992.  As a 12-year-old, it wasn't exactly fun to sit through what is ultimately a heavy-handed missive on gender and sexual orientation.  In one scene, the alien Soren (played by Melinda Culea of A-Team fame (a female actress was required by the producers because Soren would end up a-kissin' Riker)) asks about the differences of gender.  Seeing Jonathan Frakes bridge the gap between Rikerian charm and a clinical explanation of "male insemination and females carrying the baby" and "the intimacy of procreation can be quite enjoyable" was, to say the least, not fun to watch with my family.

There are further scenes which serve the story, but in a clunky manner.  Sorren comes out to Riker, stating that Soren's preference is female, and her attraction is to males.  She describes how this is a secret one identifies at a certain age, and that it is a tightly-guarded secret.  She tells the story of a classmate in school who was maligned at school for being male, how he was beaten up in school for being that way, and how the solution was mental whoosy-whatsit programming to erase his culturally-unacceptable thoughts.  

Ultimately, Soren and Riker share some secret canoodeling in the woods; Soren is caught, brought before a court, and gives a rousing speech about how she isn't a deviant, and how "the state" cannot dictate how people love each other.  Her dialogue ends the act on a high note.  After the commercial break concludes, the judge basically says, "Great, now that we know you're this way, we know for sure to take you to the mental whoosy-whatsit programmer."

Trek has a long tradition of boldly taking viewers to new cultural territory--the first interracial kiss on television between Kirk and Uhura being an oft-cited watershed moment.  (Indeed, that the modern movie Spock and Uhura kiss was of no cultural significance, and that movie Spock is played by a gay man has become a mere cultural footnote.)  Yet in "The Outcast," Trek half-asses it.  The gay metaphor is so thinly set that it isn't a metaphor (living in secret, bullying at school, "deviant urges," etc).  The show wanted to tackle homosexuality, but gave itself "takeaways" and wiggle room.  Soren is normal by our standards, whereas normalcy is gender neutrality by J'naii standards.  It's not, the show seems to say with showmanship, about anything, just the ideas between the two made-up cultures!

I'd also argue that it's a bit of a counter message to have Riker be so damned dashing that Soren voices her sexual orientation in his manly, musky presence.  Granted, her dialogue establishes that she's felt this way all her life, but it takes someone of sufficient masculinity to out her femininity.  Couldn't that be evidence for the reverse: that with sufficient mojo, Riker could turn a straight man gay?  Or a gay woman straight? 

I suppose a counter argument was that the Kirk/Uhura kiss had equal wiggle room, as in "Plato's Stepchildren" they are forced to do so.  That said, it was 1968, the height of the civil rights movement--the year MLK was shot!  The Kirk/Uhura episode also was championed by Gene Roddenberry, who locked horns with the network; NBC wanted a "non-kiss take" to show in the South.  Nichele Nichols and William Shatner, wanting to support Roddenberry and the idea in general, gave them the non-kiss take--with over the top (for Shatner!) acting, flubbed lines, crossed eyes, and other unusable takes. 

Thus, I suppose it is rather sadly fitting that "The Outcast" would air a few months after Roddenberry's death (though to be fair, his participation in Next Gen had waned since the second season).  There was no one to champion a proper Star Trek take on homosexuality--no one to fight the studio, other producers, and the world.  And thus "The Outcast," while brave in its attempt, ultimately falls flat--an outcast itself.