5/9/09

BEAM ME DOWN A SCRIPT, SCOTTY!



Mr. Scott: I need a script. Now!

I’m an admitted Star Trek Sucker. Most folks think the first Star Trek film was a bore. Not me; I still recall losing myself in glassy-eyed delight as the camera panned the Enterprise in dry dock. Wrath of Khan? Loved it. And whose liberal heart could not be moved by saving the earth by saving the whales in Star Trek Four? Several episodes of The Next Generation were, in my eyes, just about as good as television gets and I’ll crawl out of my pod to club anyone who doesn’t think the Borg were the greatest sci-fi villains ever. I pretty much gave up watching TV when Deep Space Nine and Voyager went off the air. I’ve loved Trek in all of its iterations. (Okay, nobody liked Enterprise, but T’Pol was easy on the eyes!)

So why do I share Phoenix Brown’s reservations about the re-launch film? She’s certainly right—with one notable exception—that J. J. Abrams did a helluva job casting the new crew to look and act like the old crew. Karl Urban’s Leonard McCoy is fab, Simon Pegg’s Montgomery Scott captures the character’s crusty brilliance, and I want to see Zachary Quinto’s DNA records—he’s got to be Leonard Nimoy’s clone. Loved the cast, even the cameo bits such as Winona Ryder playing a Spocker mom.

Chris Pine’s portrayal of Kirk left me cold, though. Yes, Kirk was a cowboy full of swagger but he was a disciplined cowboy who resorted to intuition and the unorthodox when his back was to the wall, not as the default position. Let’s see if I’ve got this right. In the new film a drunken letch gets beaten to a bloody pulp in a cheesy bar and from that performance a Star Fleet officer, Captain Christopher Pike, realizes the lad’s potential and talks him into going to Star Fleet Academy. After three years of drinking, womanizing, breaking every rule in the book, and smuggling his way onto a starship against express orders in the midst of a pending cheating scandal he manages to get appointed First Officer!? But wait; it gets worse. After banishment and an improbable return to the Enterprise he gets a Vulcan to crack emotionally so that he can be appointed—straight out of cadet school, mind you—as captain of the fleet’s newest starship. And I thought some of the old Holodeck episodes rested on dodgy logic!

The new film has continuity holes big enough to drive a Borg cube through. The only way to sustain such logical inconsistencies was to turn Star Trek into a big f/x shoot-‘em-up. Explosions, fisticuffs, and thrills fly past at warp speed, but are as plentiful as ions in a particle beam. And—as is generally true of excess—ultimately they bore rather than excite. Moreover, they leave no time or room for character development. Those who already know these characters will read between the lines; those who don’t will give up on the text.

I’m delighted the film is doing well enough to stimulate discussions for new Trek spinoffs. But “dammit man,” as McCoy would say, they need a script that’s written for someone whose intellect exceeds that of a fifteen-year-old video game addict. The Next Generation set the standard for thought-provoking scripts that probed questions about violence, defining life, tolerating difference, the nature of memory, collective guilt, learning from other cultures, and other weighty matters. It won 18 Emmys, two Hugos, and a Peabody prize. You don’t get that kind of hardware with scripts whose idea of drama is “Let’s blow up some more stuff.” If the Enterprise is really going to have an ongoing mission, the franchise needs to let adults write the scripts and tell the little boys to be selective with the pyrotechnics. --LV

5/8/09

IT TAKES A THIEF





I got ripped off this week. In the time it took me to walk from my university office, use the bathroom three doors away, and return, someone walked into my office, opened my book bag, and walked off with my laptop computer and PDA. As crimes go, this is petty stuff—more of an annoyance than a catastrophe. (The laptop was insured.) The PDA was the worst as it had all my appointments entered and it took me most of the morning to reconstruct these. Stealing it was just pure perversity because it has no resale value whatsoever. I might have been the last person on the planet actually using a PDA!

What I’m really steamed about is class injustice. It just so happens that the same day this happened to me a local court sentenced a teenager to two years in jail for stealing $50 from another teen. Okay, he threatened violence so there’s a degree of difference, but it did bring back memories of days when I was a social worker. I used to go to court and see the same scenario over and over—a city kid (often a minority) is caught stealing and goes to jail; a middle-class kid gets busted and gets a slap on the wrist. Mommy and daddy come to court, sob, tell the judge that Little Johnny was an Eagle Scout, that he “just made a horrible mistake,” and beg the court “not to let a single mistake ruin such a promising future.”

My vindictive side hopes they catch the clown who stole my stuff just so I can go to court and say “Bullshit!” when the parental tears come. I want to know why their kid deserves better than the inner-city kid. I want to invoke the Biblical axiom “To those to whom much is given, much is expected.” I want to tell the judge that because the defendant got greedy, 120 students did not get their full educational benefit for two days. (I had materials on the computer that I use in class.) I want to suggest a fine of $12,000—roughly two days’ worth of tuition for those 120 students. I want to suggest that being a thief is not a “promising career,” and that being middle class is not an excuse for being a crook. And, yes, I’d like to see the kid kicked out of the university after serving some jail time. It would be na├»ve to think we can live in a society without thieves, but it seems like simple justice to treat them all the same.--LV

5/6/09

V for Vendetta

Scores of films appropriate ideas from elsewhere, reassemble them, and try to pass them off as interesting. Most are the equivalent of bad collages—jagged cut-outs in service of no discernible theme. Luckily V for Vendetta was assembled with far greater care. It is a mash-up of Cyrano de Bergerac, The Phantom of the Opera, The Three Musketeers, 1984, and Children of Men, but its storyline is so nicely crafted that we seldom notice the seams joining the pieces.


This 2005 film directed by James McTeigue is based on Alan Moore’s ten-volume graphic novel. Although Moore was reportedly upset by perceived sanitization of politics and social themes (such as drug use), there’s plenty of grit remaining and the film is superior in terms of narrative coherence. We are taken to the not-so-distant future—a dystopia in which an ill-advised American war has plunged the world into chaos. Only England has managed to avoid a collapsed civilization, a task accomplished by the rise of authoritarian rule. All malcontents are considered terrorists and are systematically eliminated, the news is manufactured, and High Chancellor Adam Sutler (played with Big-Brother-like creepiness by John Hurt) appears on large screens to congratulate Britons for their triumph over anarchy.


The machinery of tyranny is kept well-oiled by a compliant (and child-abuse-riddled) clergy, a medical establishment with a horrible secret to conceal, the ravings of a populist TV host (Roger Allman channeling Rush Limbaugh), and a police force that’s one part public safety and three parts Gestapo (icily headed by Tim Piggott-Smith, the unforgettable villain from The Jewel in the Crown).


Tyranny invites company, and it comes on November 5, Guy Fawkes Day, when a masked man calling himself V (Hugo Weaving) unleashes upon London a wave of bombings, revenge killings, and witty epigrams. In one year, he promises, he’ll do what the original Guy Fawkes failed to do: blow up the houses of Parliament, but in the name of truth and freedom. From here it’s a race against time. Can the government unmask V and preserve power, or will his campaign arouse the compliant masses? The Phantom bits come in V’s relationship with Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman), a young woman who inadvertently ends up on the government’s hit list.


Hugo Weaving deserves particular praise, since he manages to convey subtle and complex emotions despite having a painted mask completely obscure his face throughout the film. Luckily, the veteran actor (whose face, though you can’t see it in Vendetta, you may know from The Lord of the Rings, The Matrix series, or Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) is more than up to the daunting task.


The film raises a host of ethical questions which compensate in filmic tension what they perhaps lack in originality. In a world in which conformity is de rigueur, where do homosexuals (Stephen Fry, Natasha Wightman) fit? How does a government retain power if citizens cease to believe in it? How does unchecked power deal with unbridled ambition? How much evil can be overlooked in the name of a greater good? And, in a post 9/11 world, how do we resolve the film’s central moral question: What freedoms shall we sacrifice in the name of security? And what if—like Chief Inspector Eric Finch (Stephen Rea)—you’ve come to suspect that the powers you’re sworn to defend may have created the very crisis from which they have vowed to protect the public?


This is a highly entertaining and well-acted film whose recent release on video is all the more reason for seeing it.—L.V. & P.B.

5/3/09

FOR PETE'S SAKE



May 3, 2009—Pete Seeger turned ninety today. He’s robust for his age, but his voice has been shot for decades and neither his music nor his politics have been fashionable for quite some time. He won a 2008 Grammy on sentiment, but let’s face it—these days if people think of Pete Seeger at all, it’s with the sort of nostalgia one reserves for steam trains and manual typewriters. All the more reason to love the man. In an age dominated by cynics, trendoids, and schemers Pete is none of those things. Never was. Which is why he has been a personal hero for roughly half of his lifespan.

I hear the cynics’ metallic whine as they dismiss Seeger as yesterday’s news, a hopeless romantic, a self-righteous fool who still thinks songs, placards, and petitions can change society. There are even those who still hate him for having been a communist in his youth. But here’s what I remember. In 1980 some Vermont activists wanted to raise money for a Caribbean literacy project. The group asked Bob Marley, who demanded a $10,000 guarantee plus full expenses. So they called Pete and he did the show for gas money. What I cannot remember is a peace march, environmental rally, or human rights demonstration that took place without Seeger. The world should be cursed with such romance, folly, and foolishness.

I hear the au courant crowd yawn as they finger the latest shiny bauble or spin the hot CD from whatever Flavor of the Month is surfing the top of the pop wave. And as they do, I cannot imagine a world without “If I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have all the Flowers Gone?” or “Turn, Turn, Turn.” I muse on the hundreds of folk songs and tunes that rest in musical archives because Pete put them there. I contemplate how little we’d know of Woody Guthrie or Lead Belly if Pete hadn’t made sure their songs remained sung. Ask a banjo picker what Pete Seeger did for their art. Ask the purveyors of world music about the days before global music was popular and Pete Seeger was a one-man Fulbright Program.

I listen to the schemers sing their atonal praises to individualism and then I hear Pete exhorting the world to sing, the many voices blending into a harmonic one. I read the news and witness another Big Plan gone smash, then hear Pete singing, “We’re waist deep in the Big Muddy and the damned fool says ‘push on.’” I hear self-styled realists say that idealism is dead. Then I recall civil rights warriors singing Seeger’s rewrite of “We Shall Overcome,” and I study how Seeger’s battle against the House Un-American Activities Committee helped discredit that Star Chamber. Ask people living along the Hudson River whether the sloop Clearwater was important. Then ask the trendoids and schemers to justify their amnesia.
When President Clinton bestowed a Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Award on Seeger in 1994 he called Pete “an inconvenient artist.” Catchy, but I’d prefer the more plebeian “decent human being.” I suspect Pete would too. The true measure of the man? Woody Guthrie’s guitar bore the slogan “This Machine Kills Fascists;” Seeger’s banjo said, “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces it to Surrender.” As Pete put it in a song, “Old devil hate, I knew you long ago/Before I learned the poison in your breath/Now when I hear your lies my lovers gather round/And help me rise to fight you one more time.” Happy birthday Pete. I cannot bear the thought of a world without you.