Art and Donald Trump: Where did we go wrong?

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Tomorrow, I get to wake up to two realities: one, on Tuesday, November 15, I am going to launch my first novel; and two, Donald Trump will be the 45th President of the United States. And while I’m still excited about the former, the latter has simultaneously enveloped the whole thing with the darkest, or maybe just dimmest, of shadows, for results like the ones we saw yesterday are enough to make you ask some serious questions about your own motivations, in life and in art.

I am, first and foremost, a storyteller, so I will be plenty happy if people pick up my book, give it a read, and feel as though they were entertained and stimulated. But a person doesn’t pick up a pen, put it to paper, and spend three years issuing heart and soul to characters, situations, and themes, without hoping that the words also offer some semblance of provocative insight into our flawed culture. A writer’s mind is occupied by many things while writing a book—some political, most philosophical—and it is inevitable that a certain worldview, even a temporary or ever evolving one, will work its way into the prose. A reader can decide whether they want to latch onto it or not, but the important thing is that the option is there for them. If they do latch on, the experience is bound to be more fulfilling, and in some cases, life altering.

But then, suddenly, Donald Trump happens, and you start asking yourself, what was the point? Because surely if someone whose brand is xenophobia and misogyny and anti-intellectualism can get elected to the highest office in the world, art’s basic message has failed. For who should art be directed at, the people who understand its fundamental power, or those who really need it? The people who appreciate art are the people who already appreciate its function: to act as a counterbalance to the mad, forceful realities we live with on a daily basis. Whatever the method—satire, history, or straight drama—art is a doorway to clairvoyance, to helping humanism meet its moral potential. But there’s a problem: it is people’s lack of exposure to art that makes them blind to art’s guiding hand, and they will retain that blindness as long as people like Donald Trump—fear monger, panderer, person who “loves uneducated people”—continue to actively propagate the idea that they don’t need artistic inspiration, they just need him.

 My friend Bryn, for her Master’s degree, wrote a thesis claiming that literature, at its best, can turn people into more morally upstanding and empathetic people. I believe books have that power, as I believe it about movies and music and theatre and paintings. For storytelling, in any form, is a way to transport an isolated mind into someone else’s. Experience a day in the mind of Oliver Twist, and learn some sympathy toward orphans. See things through the eyes of Offred, and better understand a woman’s voiceless day-to-day challenges. It is not perfect empathy, of course. It never can be. But it is better than merely standing by the whims of an authoritarian despot who simply “tells” you things, and has no interest in showing you.

Some people close to Donald Trump have implied that he hasn’t read a book in twenty years. Whether that’s true or not, one thing that cannot be argued is that the man is short on empathy, at least towards people who share much more than superficial differences with him, so I’m not shy to conclude that art is not a big presence in his life, unless, of course, he sees profitability in it. I’m sure he’d be happy to let art touch his wallet, not so much his soul. His book, after all, is called The Art of the Deal (which he didn’t actually write, by the way). Matt Good once said that “politics is the art of passable corruption.” I agree with that sentiment, mostly, except that it’s kind of hard to call Donald Trump passable. His racism isn’t passable, it was simply ignored. His misogyny isn’t passable, it was just underwhelming. To his supporters, that is. They weren’t interested in Trump’s horrors because they lacked the ability to identify with its effects. To the white man, he is no burden; to the uneducated, he requires small thinking.

And so I become depressed, because I am now faced with the reality that my book is unlikely to land in the hands of people who need to feel a better connection to their fellow man. They aren’t interested in such things. My readers will be mostly people who can sort through the madness and properly glimpse our problematic future. And, in a way, that’s fine—I’m happy to add to their arsenal of perspective. But I write because I want to speak to people, and many people just proved that they cannot, for now, be adequately spoken to. Spoken at, yes, but not spoken to. I finished my book thinking that I may have created something impressionable, something forward thinking, but the world just took a major step back, and I’m not sure if my book is about to land on store shelves or a fire pit in a town square. Surely, great literature has sprung from hard times, a reaction to the emergence of evil, but, at the time, the wrong people were reading it—only those who read because reading helped them cope. Trump supporters need to read, and watch, and listen, and let their insides become expanded from the experience. Oh how I wish they would pick up a copy of 1984 right now, but they are not going to—they are too busy wanting to keep things simple and marginal. There is a future, and art will have a place in it, but right now, as an artist, my place in the conversation is feeling limited. And there is no worse feeling than spending three years pouring blood, sweat, and tears into a work of art, and then find yourself asking, why did I bother?

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A little something about Trump (because I had to)

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Donald Trump is all surface. And some—repeat, some—of his support comes because surface politics are far more appealing to people who get excited by politicians but know little about politics; people who love hypotheticals but pay no attention to actualities. These are the people who say things like, “Immigrants are ruining America,” and then, when asked how, reply, “Because they are.” These are people who say things like, “Hillary Clinton should be in jail,” then, when asked why, say, “Because of that thing.” And they can hardly be bothered to notice when a person uses a lot of words but says absolutely nothing, much like ole’ Donald, who promises something “terrific” to replace Obamacare, who says he’ll get rid of Common Core because “it’s a very bad thing.” Specifics are something that have been sadly missing from elections for a while now, in all democracies, but Donald takes it to new levels. He’s the vacuum cleaner salesman who promises the “cleanest carpets.”

But what about those of us who dig a little deeper? What about my brethren who like their politics with a touch of coherence, a sprinkle of acumen? Well, we get to feel superior, which is fun for a while but eventually just becomes worrisome. And we get to joke. We joke because we have to. How else do you deal with what we are seeing? Before this election, we only suspected that Americans knew nothing of their own history, now we know for sure. Before this election, we knew that America had a bigoted past, we were just unsure how bigoted is its present. The racists who support Trump may not know their history, but they sure are good at representing it.

It is hard to describe what Donald Trump makes me, and people like me, feel. There is plenty of literature out there for Trump supporters to read to better understand all that is wrong with the man, most of it historical, some of it sociological, but it was their disinterest in literature that got them supporting him in the first place. Trump himself has never read it, so why would they? For that matter, why am I even writing this? Why should I expect them to show any interest in learning what they actively don’t want to? You wouldn’t ask a vegetarian to go fishing with you.

Well, I’m going to write it anyway. Anything to feel some sanity in an insane moment. For the idea that Trump might be elected is as crazy as the man is. Trump remains, as he has been all along, an open and committed enemy of liberal democracy and constitutional republicanism, and yet he is at most a few polling points from power. Indeed, we can be confident that, whatever the play of the polls this week, we will certainly arrive at next Tuesday with Trump retaining at least the chance that any candidate of one of our two major parties always has—a real one, with much depending on things that happen outside anyone’s control, often at the last minute, and in ways that cannot now easily be envisioned. Those are the stakes, and they legitimately make me nervous. Back in 2008, us liberal minded people wanted Obama to win because we were depressed by the preceding eight years; today, we want Hillary to win because, assuming a Trump victory, we are terrified by the next eight years. And the two feelings are incomparable. 2008 was a superficial want; 2016 is a devastating need. And this coming from a person who has never felt as though political figures are as directly impactful as people make them out to be. As George Freidman once wrote, “The finest statesman ruling Iceland will not dominate the world; the stupidest ruling ancient Rome could not undermine its power.” Once upon a time I believed you, George. I’m finding it much harder today.

Come, the skeptic alongside or within us protests, surely this account is at least a little hysterical, or exaggerated. Can Trump really be that bad? And would he truly be unguarded by constitutional constraints? For haven’t we heard all this, or something too much like it, before? It has been a convention of our quadrennial liberal pieties, after all, to insist that this election is the one that uniquely matters, with repeated spectres of looming apocalyptic authoritarianism often (and perhaps too carelessly) invoked. People said the same things about Goldwater in 1964, and about Richard Nixon in that grim year of 1968. Even Ronald Reagan, now as comforting an American icon as Ozzy Osbourne, was greeted in the summer of 1980 with fearful warnings about the dangers of putting the nuclear button in the hands of a shallow and untested actor. The country survived. Hell, the country thrived. Can the oafish and absurd Donald Trump really be worse?

Well, if one lesson liberals learn from 2016 is to be more discerning about the difference between bad policies and constitutional crises, between falling rain and onrushing meteors, it will surely be salubrious for them, and for us all. But, in truth, this time is different. Barry Goldwater worked within, and respected, all the norms of democracy—during his time as a senator, he and J.F.K. were not only friends across the aisle but talked of barnstorming together in 1964.

“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” may not be a slogan all can embrace, but (to sound like Walter Sobchak, in “The Big Lebowski”) at least it’s an ethos—something to respect and debate, to argue over. The condition of the country in 1968 was surely worse than it is now, and Nixon had an inner life more paranoid than even now is quite believable—but he was also a normal politician who had followed a normal path, and when, in fact, his anti-democratic tendencies were revealed, he was expelled by the same constitutional order that he had betrayed. One never thought to have to say this in his praise, but Richard Nixon accepted the system that distinguished itself by ejecting him. And Ronald Reagan, whatever anxieties he awoke in the year of his election, could point credibly to his time as a successful two-term governor of our largest state. Meanwhile, the true previous American demagogues—Joe McCarthy and Huey Long and George Wallace—never captured the Presidential nomination of a major political party. Back then, Americans were at least smart enough to not let that happen.

Donald Trump is not normal in any of these ways, and yet we continue to treat him as though he were. Those of us who warned last spring that he was being underestimated and normalized by a sinister process of gradual acceptance of the unacceptable turned out, tragically, to be right. Trump is not normal. Nothing about him is. One need only look at his rallies, track the rhetoric they offer and the vengeful orgy of hatred and misogyny and racism they induce, to see just how different he is. His followers are not, shall we say, there to root on their favored libertarian in his pursuit of free-market solutions to vexing social problems; they are there to scream insults and cry havoc on their (mostly imaginary) enemies, to revel in the riot of misogyny and racism that Trump has finally given them license to retrieve from the darkest chapters of our past. (“Not politically correct” means openly brutal to minorities and women.) A ten-year-old screams, “Take that bitch down!” to laughter. One need only track the past month’s series of outrages, each quickly receding into the distance, to recall that he has done not one but almost innumerable things that in any previous election would have been, quaint word, “disqualifying.” His Twitter assault on the former Miss Universe was followed by his confession and boasts of being a sexual predator, which were followed by the confirmation of numerable women that, yes, indeed, he is a sexual predator—met only by his snarling denials, none of them the least bit convincing, and the familiar big-lie technique of insisting that their stories have been “debunked” when they have not even been effectively denied.

As you can probably tell, I have recently started to become skeptical of the idea that the system is to blame for the rise of Trump, that voters who are frustrated with the status-quo have been magnetically pulled the “different” microphone. My new fear is that Trump isn’t an alternative to the status-quo, he is the status-quo, at least within the dark recesses of American minds. It has become almost an essential piety, even among his opponents, that a special pathos clings to his supporters, who know not what they do, but are themselves victims of forces larger than they. The misérables of the postmodern period, the dispossessed of the globalized planetary era, his supporters are not really the “racists” they are thought to be—and if they indulge in the blind hatred of his message it is only because their alienation from mainstream America, and their increasing hopelessness in the face of job losses and meaningful occupation, makes them vulnerable to a demagogic ideology. They embrace from ignorance and misplaced hope rather than from shared hatreds.

The trouble with this view is that, while Trump has his share of disaffected white working-class voters, the correlation between Trumpism and economic discontent is a false one, as has been demonstrated many times. One particularly detailed and persuasive example appeared on Vox: “Trump support was correlated with higher, not lower, income, both among the population as a whole and among white people. Trump supporters were less likely to be unemployed or to have dropped out of the labor force. Areas with more manufacturing, or higher exposure to imports from China, were less likely to think favourably of Trump.”

Even if the correlation were minimally robust, the notion that belonging to the largely fluid category “the white working class” puts one in special possession of virtue is, in a polyglot, cosmopolitan country, absurd. The white working class built unions and raised children and fought wars—and lynched black people and supported Joe McCarthy. Sometimes those attitudes could be held together in a single personality. No group is invulnerable to bad causes. We should have no hesitation in calling deplorable attitudes deplorable, but do it without imagining that those who hold them are deplorable people. They can be wrong without being bad. And, in any case, it would be good to balance the endless hand-wringing about the pathos of the Trump voter with some countervailing sense of the pathos, still larger, of the Clinton voter: the Latina motel cleaner in Nevada or the single mother in Brooklyn. No category of voters in a democracy is especially virtuous, none immune from evil.

Louis Menand once said, “The biggest single error, and the most tragic, that ‘progressive’ or liberal thinkers made in the twentieth century was to imagine that ethnic grievances could be reduced to economic grievances, and that if the aggrieved could be made to see their ‘true’ class position the grievance would go away, the nationalism, or racism, would vanish. It never has.” Trump’s supporters demand our attention and deserve our empathy—but that doesn’t make the ideology they so feverishly share any less toxic or dangerous. And the notion that they have no agency or choice is the truly condescending one. (The reality, more hopeful, is that the views behind such grievances do not get out-argued; they just evolve out of us. The most encouraging of the poll-borne truths may be that Trump’s support drops among those younger than thirty, of whatever racial or ethnic or educational background.)

The mistake in the analysis lies deeper, perhaps—in the assumption that only a strange and traumatic sequence can have made this happen. What can be causing Trumpism? We ask, and seek for an earthquake, or at least a historical oddity or a series of highly specific causal events. The more tragic truth is that the Trumpian view of the world is the default view of mankind. Bigotry, fanaticism, xenophobia are the norms of human life—the question is not what causes them but what uncauses them, what happens in the rare extended moments that allow them to be put aside, when secular values of toleration and pluralism replace them.

It is a touching thing that Oscar Hammerstein had his people sing, apropos racial prejudice, that “You’ve got to be carefully taught.” Alas, as poor Oscar would have realized if he had stopped to think about the events that had led all those American soldiers and sailors to the South Pacific in the first place, you don’t have to be carefully taught to hate. The Hitlerians and the Japanese militarists hadn’t been carefully taught; they rushed to their lesson in the face of all evidence. Human groups, particularly those fuelled by religious fanaticism or the twentieth-century equivalent, blind nationalism, always tend toward exclusion. To eliminate the tribal instinct may be impossible, but to raise the accidental practice of pluralism to a principle is what enlightened societies struggle to accomplish. And they have.

It just turns out to be a horribly hard triumph to sustain. Along comes 1914, or 1933—or, God forbid, 2016—and the work comes crashing down. What really needs explaining is not why the Trumps of the world come forward and win. It is why they sometimes lose.

I once read an article (forgive me, I forget its author) about the divide in virtue that separates us from Shakespeare, making the point that Shakespeare believed in fate, order, and forgiveness, whereas we believe in history, justice, and compassion, and that, superior though our moral progress may seem, there are bitter truths in the old trinity. For, as Shakespeare would have grasped at once, there is no explaining Trump. He is one of those phenomena that rise regularly in history to confound us with the possibility—and black comedy—of potent evil: conscienceless, cruel and pathologically dishonest. That evil magnetizes followers of all kinds is another permanent truth. Over-explaining its rise is as foolish as pretending that it can be easily defeated. The threat it makes to an order that, however imperfect, is worth sustaining and defending reminds us of that order’s fragility. As to forgiveness, much will be demanded, even if the best happens—or the worst, at least, is avoided.

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2016 kind of sucks at the movies

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The past few months, I’ve found myself attending the movies far less than usual. While I may have attempted to chalk this up to a lack of time, the truth is that the desire simply hasn’t been there. Once upon a time, I would find myself with nothing to do during the day and rectify that by simply wandering to the theatre. Now, I read books, or I eat food, or I watch Love It or List It. Strangely, it hadn’t occurred to me until recently the probable reason for this: 2016 has, thus far, been a terrible year for movies.

It’s hard to excite ones self to go out to the movies when hardly any of those movies have ended up exciting me in their own right. Batman Vs. Superman was watchable only if your expectations were as low as mine. Ghostbusters was charming, but failed to give purpose to its own existence. And even movies I was legitimately excited for have disappointed. Captain America was fine, but not as ground breaking as some have suggested, and Independence Day: Resurgence is what happens when effects move into the new decade but storytelling techniques don’t budge an inch.

Let me put it this way: if I were to make a list of my five favourite movies of the year so far, The Shallows would probably be on the list. Thats not a good thing.

So, I’m not seeing movies, even ones that, in any other year, would not pass me by. I missed out on X-Men: Apocalypse, I didn’t make it to The Conjuring 2, and I even found myself with zero desire to see a Spielberg film. What’s the deal?

And I’m not alone in my frustrations. As many a critic has noted, there has not been a single movie this summer, or this year, that people are really talking about – no Inception, no Mad Max, no Guardians of the Galaxy. There has not been that standout film that fields both commercial and critical success, thereby ensuring that the next few years will see a breed of copycats. Which makes me wonder, what will be 2016’s ultimate effect? Will it merely be seen as a glitch in the system, and film branding, sequels, and formula will continue on as usual? Or might we be seeing a crossroads, where audiences finally show their fatigue with the laziness in filmmaking, the studio’s condescending confidence that we will eternally choke down the same stuff they’ve been throwing at us for a decade? Because the thing is, they were actually doing pretty good. For a time, it seemed like Hollywood had finally figured out the sequel (the script and the actors are more important than the spectacle), had finally figured out the blockbuster (don’t go too fun, and don’t go too serious. Find the perfect medium). But I guess they finally got lazy again.

So, might Hollywood be seeing a new look, a rebranding if you will? God I hope so. As much as I enjoy a good superhero movie, I don’t need one every four months. As much as I enjoy a good haunted house story, I could use a different type of horror movie now and again. And as much as I enjoy any movie, I don’t need to see that movie again in two years, and then again two years after that.

Speaking of which, of the ten sequels released this summer season, only two – Captain America, Finding Dory – have been unquestionable financial successes. And you can be all but assured that the whole “splitting a book in two” fiasco has finally seen its last days thanks to the disaster that was the Divergent series’ latest installment. This is all good news. Come 2020, we may actually see something original.

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All Star Trek movies ranked

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There’s a bizarre myth out there, one I’ve been hearing for decades. It claims that every second Star Trek film is good, which would otherwise indicate a 50% quality rate with the films in general (you can even find this myth mentioned on the series’ wikipedia page). Since I was a kid and first started watching the Trek films, I’ve never really understood this belief. I first watched The Wrath of Khan, the second instalment, at around age 11, and have ever after always scratched my head at the film’s eternal popularity. I watched number III, The Search for Spock, not long after and found that I enjoyed it considerably more. I’m also not nearly as partial to number IV, The Journey Home, which has a strange popularity because of its “comedy.” In short, I find that when ranking the Trek films, my tastes are scattered all over, and by no means do they have any sort of odd/even pattern to them.

Am I the exception? I used to think so, but over the past few years, following the strangely polarizing Star Trek Into Darkness, I’ve come to find that, when it comes to Trek, there are a lot of diverse tastes out there. And while I’ve always tried to maintain a “to each his own” attitude toward film watching, I’ve often found the Trek phenomenon to be confusing. People’s opinions about it vary for so many weird and superficial reasons. Into Darkness has been called the worst Trek of all, but by critical consensus at rotten tomatoes, it’s the fourth best film. Screen Crush has ranked the films in a way that is more on par with myself (though, of course, Wrath of Khan is their number 1), but then the drunks at the Toronto Sun had to go an criticize some of the movies for their marketing campaigns as opposed to their actual quality. And then there’s good ole Darren Franich at Entertainment Weekly, who never ceases to amaze me. If nothing else, he prides himself on being “different,” and he recently made a list with which even Spock would have trouble finding the logic. (Nemesis as the best of the Next Generation films? There’s different, and then there’s just stupid.)

Okay, am I being a hypocrite because my list is also against the norm? Maybe, but as you’ll see, my list is not about finding the abstract meaning or the “accidental” profundity in each film – mine is just based on fun, smart, escapist quality. I’m not a Trekkie, so there will be those who claim I have no nerdist right to dictate the terms. Good thing that’s not what I’m trying to do – all I’m trying to do is show that, given its many incarnations, Star Trek does not, nor can ever, exist by a singular ideal, even if everyone wants it to. There have always been some strange conservative impressions at play with Star Trek fandom, an almost religious scripture that must be adhered to if you want to call yourself a fan. So let me lead the reformation and shout it from the rooftops – Wrath of Khan is NOT the best Trek film, the new series is better than the original, The Journey Home is stupid funny, not haha funny, Into Darkness is a fantastic film, and integer mathematics has nothing to do with how the films should be judged.

So, in honour of Star Trek’s 50th anniversary, and the current release of Star Trek Beyond, here is my ranking of its best in film.

1) Star Trek

As this blog should show, I’m no modern apologist. Just because 2009 means the effects are better, the action is more sophisticated, and the script is more playful, the real reason I think the new Trek films are better, the best, is because I truly, sincerely believe they are the most human. Newly at the helm of some of film’s largest blockbuster properties, J.J. Abrams’ best gift is his willingness to treat actors like they aren’t just props in a popcorn brand. And it’s never been put to better use than with this first entry in the “rebooted” series. All the actors shine; all the set pieces dazzle. Sponging from three decades of Trek films, Abrams took what worked, discarded what didn’t, and assembled it into Star Trek’s first fully realized, dare I say, perfect motion picture. Okay, perfect if he had taken out about half the lens flares.

2) Star Trek: First Contact

The Next Generation crew’s only legitimate success, First Contact terrifically immerses us in a little Trek history, as the Enterprise is forced to battle the frightening Borg and reestablish the set of events that lead to Earth’s technological advancements. With a ship infestation plot that is semi-reminiscent of the Alien series, this is perhaps the only Trek film that could be called scary. It was also, to me, the moment when Star Trek became cool, and stopped being a bunch of people in pyjamas complaining about warp drives.

3) Star Trek Into Darkness

In today’s digital age, fans and moviegoers live by a strange sense of entitlement, whereby they believe they are owed the right to know as much about a film before it is even released (just read that Toronto Sun review). Because of this, there is an instilled animosity toward Into Darkness that stems from a single thing: Why didn’t they just tell us Benedict Cumberbatch was playing Khan? Seriously, that’s it. For some reason, a simple attempt by the filmmakers to save some element of surprise has turned the film itself into a sort of traitorous rival to all Trek fans. Perhaps the film was clumsily promoted, but are we ranking the marketers, or are we ranking the films? If the latter, let’s not forget that Into Darkness is an exciting and cleverly plotted feast for the eyes, with star making performances from the entire cast. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Khan with the ruthless confidence that should accompany any genetically superior sociopath, as opposed to Ricardo Montalban, who played him like a confused child who got his toys taken away.

4) Star Trek VII: The Undiscovered Country

It is surprising that this sophisticated plot was so well received. As much as Trekkies like to claim Star Trek is the thinking-person’s sci-fi, they are often quite averse to thinking.  With a nifty Cold War theme, beautifully Shakespearian performance by Christopher Plummer as the villain, and perhaps the best space battle featuring the original cast, Star Trek 1.0 reached its zenith in its final turn at the helm. Good job, helmsman.

5) Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Christopher Lloyd’s villainous Klingon Kruge is a better and more threatening villain than Khan. There, I said it. People get tired of the Klingons, forgetting that this was their first real showcase as the big bad. In Wrath of Khan, we really just hear about Genesis. Here we get to see it, and it makes for an exciting lava-filled climax. And who would have thought that blowing up the Enterprise would ever be so awesome? Don’t be manipulated by allegiances – this a fine film, even if the recasting of Robin Curtis as Saavik was a step down.

6) Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

I’ve asked the question before on this blog: what is it about this movie? It tops almost every list. Honestly, I urge someone to try to explain it to me. Is it Montalbano’s single effective moment as Khan – “I stab at thee” – which, itself, was derivative? Is it the melodrama? Is it the unexciting action? Or does it all boil down to that climactic Kirk/Spock goodbye in the engine room? Yes,  Shatner may never have done better work (and certainly never will again), and Leonard Nimoy never pierced our heart strings more than with that simple statement, “I have been, and always will be, your friend,” but one classic scene does not a classic movie make. So please, I’m begging you, explain it to me!!

7) Star Trek: Generations

There has perhaps never been a bigger mixture of the good and the bad. And the good is really good, and the bad is really bad. The good: the Enterprise cleverly outsmarting the Klingon bird of prey after being outsmarted themselves. We’ve heard captains say “Fire” before, but never with the chilling superiority of William Riker. The bad: the fact that the Nexus, even if it’s merely a McGuffin, makes zero conceptual sense. The good: the opening sequence, which is both funny and sad, and features the best use of a champaign bottle in, I dunno, movies. The bad, the baddest of the bad: the major squandering of the meeting between Captains Kirk and Picard. Somewhere, in a writer’s room, they decided that the teaming of Star Trek’s two most iconic Enterprise bosses should be to…fight a guy on a rock. Rock bottom, I say.

8) Star Trek: Insurrection

Insurrection probably feels the most episodic of all the films. You get far enough into a series and it can stop feeling movie-ish, it just feels like a villain of the week show, and Insurrection is no exception. And even by show standards, the villains here are pretty lame.

9) Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

All right, allow me a bit more hypocrisy when I say that there is something accidentally interesting about this film. What is considered by most to be the bottom of the barrel for the original cast (and probably rightfully so), Final Frontier is still kind of fun, if only because of its ambition gone weird. The Enterprise sets out to find God, and finds some weird transparent dude who yells a lot and is actually…an alien? Whatever. The film’s often maligned climax is nothing compared to Shatner teaching the words to Row Row Your Boat during the crew’s nature vacation in Yosemite Park. Cringeworthy, even by his standards.

10) Star Trek IV: The Journey Home

Make no mistake about it—this movie is about whales. A movie about whales is considered one of, if not the best installment in the Trek canon; a movie about whales is considered hilarious; a movie about whales, apparently, “saved” the series. Is the whale meant to be some purposefully unprofound metaphor for the film’s fish-out-of-water plot? If so, firstly, a whale is a mammal, not a fish,  and secondly, Star Trek is meant to be sociologically metaphorical, not biologically. It’s also meant to be intelligent. Throw in the fact that the movie has aged terribly, and almost had to age terribly—the 80s are meant to look primitive to the Enterprise crew but now, naturally, just look primitive to everyone—and this film isn’t just overrated, it’s downright inconsequential. Also, did I mention the whales?

11) Star Trek: The Motion Picture

It’s interesting that this film probably only got made on account of Star Wars reinvigorating space movies in the 70s, because The Motion Picture has a lot more in common with 2001: A Space Odyssey, which came nine years earlier. It’s slow, it’s strange, it’s open to interpretation, and it’s not nearly as good. The infamous pacing issues can be summed up by this: Kirk and Scotty spend a total of 4:49 transferring from a space port to the enterprise (I counted). The entire thing is one big “look at what we can do,” forgetting that what they could do was not that impressive anymore following Star Wars. Thirty-seven years later, The Motion Picture is still pretty to look at, but it’s not much fun to watch.

12) Star Trek: Nemesis

It’s most telling that this film is not that old and yet I remember hardly a thing about it…except that Tom Hardy is bald, and that it’s bad. No wonder it took seven years to get another film off the ground. The Next Generation crew deserved better, especially since this ended up being their swan song.

 

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Cyber-Bullying: Who’s in the driver’s seat?

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About six months ago, on a drive home, I was turning left onto Academy Road. I had a green light, and all of my training, all of my experience, all of the legislated rules of the road said to me that a green light means it is safe for me to make a left turn, assuming I’ve let the cars on the opposite side drive through first. I moved into the intersection and saw, from the corner of my eye, as another car came burning through the intersection at top speed, completely ignoring the red light above its head. In the split second that I had, I somehow managed this thought: I am about to die. I slammed the breaks and watched as the car missed me by what couldn’t have been more than half a foot. Another five feet and that car would have barreled directly into my driver’s door. I would have been dead.

I was shaking when I got home, not just at the fact that my life had been mere feet away from its end (though that was probably most of it), but also because of the darker, more unsettling thoughts that start to invade your mind in such instances. Thoughts like, We are so dependent on other people. Thoughts like, My very existence is so strongly connected to people’s aptitude for rightness. People always talk about the right to life, and why shouldn’t they? – it’s a pretty important one. But they should likewise keep an understanding of what the right to life really means. In our regulated society, it simply means that I hold the right to not be killed by another person. We, as a culture, decided upon that for moral reasons, and we turned said morality into legality. I don’t know what was going through that driver’s head when he ran the red light. I assume he just had a brain freeze, that his awareness got away from him for a second (it was two in the afternoon. I’d like to think he wasn’t drunk). If I had died, he probably wouldn’t have intended my death. But is that an excuse? When I have the right to life, another person doesn’t have the right to end my life because of a quick lapse in judgment.

There are so many places in the world where we have learned the “solution,” or at least have attempted a solution. We learned that in order to respect another person’s right to life, we must be careful around other people, we mustn’t be reckless. We also learned that in order to respect another person’s dignity, we mustn’t be reckless with our words, we mustn’t slander them. And we’ve also managed to turn that into legality. But traffic laws are almost a hundred years old. Slander laws are more than two hundred years old. In terms of what the “right” thing to do is in those situations, we’re doing okay. But new innovations will lead to new lessons in rightness.

If there’s one thing that has always disturbed me about internet trolls, or cyber bullies, it’s how they can so easily manifest themselves into “wrong” people simply because of the lack of accountability. I find the same thing whenever I sit down in a bathroom stall and read some of the fine literature that paints the walls. Misogyny and homophobia are constants, as well as murals of serpentine women and disembodied penises. With four walls surrounding you, no one is there to witness your real thoughts. Thus, no accountability.

And it makes me wonder: when an internet troll uses naughty language to insult someone— and I mean REALLY naughty language; language that may see authorities involved—is it because they know of their own anonymity? Is it because they know that the chances of being caught are nil? Which itself leads into a more disturbing question: would a person drive through a red light and kill me if he knew that he would never be caught for it?

Likely not. I, as a member of our Western culture, have to believe that we as a species have progressed far enough that casual manslaughter is as much a “no-no” in people’s hearts as it is in law.

Our digital culture, on the other hand, is nowhere near that. So far.

It may take proper legislation, it may take the courts, but assumedly the digital revolution will move far enough forward that our morality may finally start to get a handle on it and enact a legal code of ethics, and one that can be properly enforced. One would hope. But one might also hope that the courts needn’t have anything to do with it. Making people feel terrible, shaming them to unhealthy and sometimes even deadly levels, is probably something we can do away with as a matter of compassion before a matter of law.

Is it a lack of awareness, is it boredom, or is it a disregard for rules that leads a person to become a cyber bully? Maybe all of them, and maybe none. Personally, I just think it’s a lack of empathy. Put yourself in a person’s shoes, or better yet, put yourself in my driver’s seat. Do you want to be sitting there when a car is plunging toward you? Of course not. So don’t be the car!

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Has social media become the new Big Brother?

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I’ve been told to answer this question, or at the very least to ask the question and then talk about asking it. Big Brother . . . er, CreComm asked me to do this. And I’m glad that it did, because it got me to thinking—Twitter as an enigmatic dictator? Yeah, the idea kind of works.

There’s no question that social media has moved in an interesting direction the last few years. From media to marketing. From social to sociopath. If you want to brand yourself, in life and in business, social media is now the fastest and, indeed, the laziest way to do it. Did you hear about that movie? Here’s the trailer for you. Been to Home Depot lately? Here’s the latest catalogue for you. Are you following Donald Trump? Here’s a racist diatribe for you. But with great power comes great responsibility. Social media gives with one hand and takes away with the other. A series of right choices can point you in the right direction; one bad one can sink the ship. Which is why people, if they’re smart, are forced to keep with the goodness. Happy thoughts, people, happy thoughts! One bad thought—or bad by the standards of a single niche market—can become a Thoughtcrime. And then the Thought Police come for you. And then you find youself strapped to a chair in Room 101 facing a deathly rat as it bores toward your skull. Or, if I may dispense with the Orwellian analogies, everyone starts hating you and you are suddenly a tabloid enemy of the state.

In Orwell’s book (we’re talking about 1984, by the way, in case you hadn’t guessed), Thoughtcrime was punishable by death, but you were only captured for it if you let your scandalous, anti-establishment ideas be known. Even in that dystopian future, Big Brother wasn’t advanced enough to get inside your head. And the real world isn’t either. Yet. Which means that if you have controversial thoughts, the kind that might see you culturally crucified, you actually have to speak them. And Twitter lets you. And people do it. They don’t have to, but they do. It’s as if they stand in front of their telescreen, glare deeply into it, and shout “2 + 2 = 5.” In 1984, such an act would earn you a quick trip to Room 101, and in our world, it gets you our everyday equivalent—a guest spot on Jimmy Fallon where you apologize for swearing at the paparazzi.

Granted, unless you’re a celebrity, Twitter has the benefit of anonymity. It’s like the bathroom stall of social media. Or at least people think it is. They assume they can get away with politically incorrect bombast because they don’t have to face those angry faces in the crowd, forgetting that, in the end, a Twitter handle is attached to a name, and a name is attached to a face, and, sometimes, a face is attached to a future political candidate who desperately wishes that they hadn’t once used social media to brag about spitting on a homeless person.

Then again, should social media be conversely dull? Facebook seems to think so. Facebook is more inherently friendly because, you know, “friends.” Everybody and their dog has five hundred Facebook friends, including the Facebook friends who are dogs, and after a while it becomes impossible to ignore the fact that everybody on my Facebook list sounds more or less the same. Every status update, every comment, every little blurb of consciousness that gets posted to that site sounds like an attempt to look smart, sound detached, and act aloof, as if life really were an endless series of caustic remarks and mild annoyances. It’s like being trapped in a nightmarish Oscar Wilde theme park, where everything is surface and snark and everybody has an animatronic smile fixed on their face. It’s not what’s said on Facebook that amazes me. It’s what’s left unsaid: minus a few execptions, nobody is vulnerable or depressed; nobody is on anti-depressants. At least Twitter has the decency to try to show society for what it really is.

But is it that dangerous? There’s no question that the advent of the Internet slowly eased us into a culture of rampant over-analysis. Apparently it’s a big deal that Kim Kardashian takes nude selfies. But is it? Who has time to ask that when there are enragements to be Tweeted? So far our rage has remained confined to words . . . and fun. The trolls, the PC principals – their reactions on social media are less about righteousness and more about pleasure. It’s fun to misinterpret things, and it’s fun to hate people because of it. But will the time come when we’re no longer watching for fun and are instead just watching?

Maybe, maybe not, but in the meantime, I think people are slowly becoming prepared for it. The Internet is no longer that safe space. Some will argue that it never was, but there’s no question that people, for a while, thought it was. For some reason they hadn’t quite comprehended that a written thought online actually equates to a spoken word in person, and without the benefit of hearsay. They felt that if it’s only on a computer screen, somehow that doesn’t make it real. Now we know better. The Internet is real, social media is real, and the way we use it is real. It’s no longer just Thoughtcrime, it’s Newspeak. And Big Brother is watching every word of it. Act accordingly.

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Reservations about Reservations

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Frankly, it’s not very hard to be smarter than me. And I like it when people are smarter than me. I like going to academic lectures where the speaker is smarter than me, knowing that I have things to learn from their particular topic. I like going to theatre productions where the writer is smarter than me, knowing that I have much to take from their dramatic output. Yet for some reason, when the two become intertwined, it doesn’t work. Suddenly, it feels less like you’re showing me that you’re smarter than me and more like you’re telling me.

Such was the feeling I had while watching Reservations, actor/writer Steven Ratzlaff’s newest stage show about the complexities of indigenous issues in modern Canada. The play is actually two plays, Pete’s Reserve and Standing Reservations, each running about an hour long, and each devoted to a specific subset of indigenous controversy. Pete’s Reserve focuses on the colonial conquest of Native lands, while Standing Reservations is more about the dark “assimilationist” ideals of 20th Century Canada. These are complex issues. Indeed, these are important issues. Yet they are issues that require “speaking of,” not “speaking at.” The play, however, climaxes with a long (too long) mock academic lecture about the importance of indigenous children being exposed to indigenous culture . . . and something to do with Heidegger. In some respects, the sequence works. The play’s audience is subtly invited to act as the real life audience to this lecture, and one of the main characters, Jenny, joins the audience and becomes that antagonistic person sitting in the front row (don’t you just love that person?). She does have reason to be upset, however, and the confrontational aspect of the sequence is its strength. Its weakness is everything else, where the play blurs the line between dramatic intellectualism and literal intellectualism. The latter, typically, is not why most people go to the theatre. I’m never against being challenged by a piece of fiction, but I prefer it to happen through theme and characterization, not scholarship.

It’s hard to call Reservations preachy. It has a lot on its mind, but it is smart enough to present both sides of its arguments, and both end up being equally compelling. Mostly, it is the age old debate between morality and pragmatism, which is never a bad place for creating dramatic tension. Yet I can’t help but feel the opportunity was squandered. Too often it feels like a debate for the brain, not one for the heart.

There are a lot of big words in the play. Grown-up words for grown-up issues, right? Are they though? In the end, Reservations isn’t saying you should “do the right thing,” because the right thing is never decided upon. Nor can it be. It really just wants to say, “Be good to each other,” and that’s not an adult idea. That idea is as old as time. So while Reservations is hard on concepts, and does feature some clever dialogue, it might have served itself better to be more upfront with its emotions. People get angry in the play, yes, but it always seems to be for some logistically grounded reason. I’d rather watch people get upset because they are human beings, for theatre is at its best when it is just that – human.

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