Category Archives: Popular Culture
If you’ve managed to avoid The Force Awakens, I strongly advise you to read no further. In other words, “Thar be spoilers ahead!” If you’re like me and you’ve seen the movie one or five times, welcome aboard. In related news, the Blu-Ray comes out on April 5th.
Who is Luke Skywalker?
That’s supposedly the question that got J.J. Abrams interested enough to direct Episode 7. In my opinion, that’s the right question to be asking as the story of our favorite far away galaxy is fleshed out. Luke is the main protagonist of the original trilogy. In a space opera heavily influenced by Joseph Campbell’s philosophy of myth and the hero quest, Luke is the hero. So even as we follow new characters on an original quest, there’s no escaping from the one true hero of the Star Wars saga. (An argument could be made that Luke’s father, Anakin, is the true hero of Star Wars, but I don’t accept that. Anakin’s a tragic hero, where Luke is the positive ideal and embodiment of hope. Here’s a great blog post that reinforces Luke’s hero status.) And even though Luke only appears for about a minute at the very end of The Force Awakens, his presence is palpable throughout. We need to know what has become of him, and what happened that caused his apprentice, Ben Solo, to turn to the Dark Side? Luke has experienced an intense and unresolved trauma, which demands a resolution.
When I was young, I didn’t think of Luke’s duel with Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back as a traumatic event. It was cool and exciting, and the big father reveal caught me by surprise, but I knew everything would be made right. Luke is a good guy and good guys win. Besides, he gets a fun new hand by the end of the movie and that solves his problem. As an adult, I look at this moment in Luke’s journey and see his lowest point and deepest trauma. This is the quintessential father wound. His father injures him physically by cutting off his hand and pummeling him with large objects. He simultaneously wounds Luke by revealing that his father is an evil tyrant who has embraced the Dark Side. It’s an assault on Luke’s identity. And it goes even deeper than that.
This is also a moment of tremendous personal failure. Luke disobeyed both Yoda and Obi-Wan, abandoning his training to rescue his friends. He took a huge risk and accomplished absolutely nothing. Han Solo is frozen and sold to Jabba the Hutt. Leia and Chewy escape with Lando, but this is only made possible because Luke is unintentionally acting as a diversion. Luke doesn’t actually help anyone. He just walks into a trap, gets his hand cut off and narrowly escapes with severe emotional trauma. Add to that his realization that Obi-Wan has been lying to him about his father all along. No matter what nonsense Ben Kenobi says about “points of view”, Luke has been betrayed by his most respected father figure. And it goes even deeper than this.
In the Star Wars universe, the Force is a metaphysical entity that breeds life and directly influences people and events. It is the god of that world. Luke is the last Jedi. He’s the last hope for the Light Side of the Force. Certainly, he must have some sense of purpose as the torch bearer. In that moment, gripping the platform with one hand as Darth Vader reveals his true identity, Luke most likely feels betrayed by the Force itself. After all, the Force didn’t help him in his fight against Vader. It didn’t preserve his hand. It didn’t help him save his friends. What it did do was turn his father into Darth Vader and lead him to this agonizing place where his best option is to jump into a mile deep pit. Luke is wounded by the Force itself.
We know that in the years between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens Luke began to train a new generation of Jedi. At some point, his nephew Ben turned to the Dark Side as Kylo Ren, and likely killed the rest of the students. This mirrors the path that Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader took in the prequels. Han Solo says that Luke blamed himself for what happened and chose to seclude himself as he searched for the first Jedi temple. Surely, this fresh trauma opened up the old wounds that Luke experienced in Empire. Again, he is faced with an inability to protect those he cares about. And the legacy of Darth Vader has been revived in Kylo Ren. Luke has failed again, and perhaps the Force has betrayed him again. Shouldn’t it be the will of the Force to raise up a new generation of Jedi? How could this be allowed to happen? Luke’s choice to seclude himself is similar to his choice to jump off the platform. Just as Luke fell through space and ended up alone under Cloud City, he traveled through space to end up alone on that island. Again, Luke has been deeply wounded.
When Rey walks up the hill to find Luke Skywalker, she reaches into her bag and pulls out the lightsaber that was lost. The last time Luke saw that weapon was when his father sliced off his hand. For Luke, that lightsaber had intense negative associations. It represented his failure, and even a betrayal by the Force itself. I am sure he believed he would never see it again. But there it is, in the hands of a young girl who represents a great hope for the future of the Jedi. Somehow, the Force has orchestrated events to bring the lightsaber of Anakin Skywalker, his father, back to him. In this moment of catharsis, the Force is reaching out to say, you haven’t been forsaken. It’s telling Luke that he still has a purpose and redemption is at hand.
I’d like to take some movies that I enjoy and identify the one moment in each of them that stands out to me as “the best”.
Twister is a ridiculous disaster movie that’s also a lot of fun. In May of 1996, just a few months ahead of another bad/good favorite of many, Independence Day, Twister tore through the box office and collected nearly $500 million from audiences worldwide. These special effects were impressive for the day. Remember, at this time iPods weren’t even a thing and cell phones were just becoming a thing, sort of. CGI cows were noteworthy in this year.
Beyond the effects, Twister is essentially about the reconciliation of a nearly divorced couple amidst their harrowing attempt to learn more about tornadoes. Bill (Bill Paxton) and Jo(Helen Hunt…remember Helen Hunt?) learn to love each other again while driving around in an indestructible truck (which would ultimately be put to shame by the truck in 1997’s Dante’s Peak, but that’s for another day). Anyway, it’s all well and good for everyone except Bill’s lame fiancée, who’s lame because she prefers to avoid tornadoes.
So which moment is the best?
In the minutes before the twister chasing crew embarks on their main mission, they make a pit stop at a diner. Stepping away from the others, Bill looks to the horizon where the clouds are gathering. He picks up some dirt in his hand and lets it slowly fall. He observes the way the wind moves it. Somehow this will give him the knowledge he needs to make a wise move. Like a Native American of old, reading the signs of the natural world, Bill looks to nature to understand nature. It’s a silent standoff with the coming storm. Then, because Bill is the best, he makes his decision to move and everyone follows. This is the best scene in the movie. Dusty shares a story later in the film in which he identifies Bill as “the extreme.” He’s the craziest storm chaser there is. But he’s also the one who has a special connection with the weather. They are both wild and unpredictable. Bill gets it.
This is my favorite moment in Twister.
Now watch this Youtube video that takes the intro to Twister the Ride at Universal Studios and makes it even more hilarious.
There’s this idea that’s been floating around our society for some time now that Keanu Reeves is a bad actor. I’d be lying if I told you that I haven’t participated in the propagation of this belief. After all, outside of a Nickelodeon Kid’s Choice Award for best actor in his role as Neo in The Matrix, Keanu hasn’t received much of any recognition from the Hollywood establishment. He hasn’t had a Sandra Bullock or Matthew McConaughey-esque turnaround. There’s no Keanu equivalent to The Blindside or Dallas Buyers Club, at least not yet. Some might claim that he gets by on his looks, and similar to an incompetent politician or Miley Cyrus, remains employed due to name recognition. As the Oracle says in The Matrix, “You’re cuter than I thought. I can see why she likes you.” Only, replace “she” with the moviegoers of the world. But is that the end of the matter? Is Keanu Reeves in movies despite his acting chops, or are we missing something? What if there was something brilliant about this man that we’ve overlooked? Allow me to present a case for the misunderstood brilliance of Keanu Reeves. Whoa!
As a fan of the Zelda video game series it didn’t take long for me to question why the main character, Link, never (almost never) says a word. You play through 30+ hours with the same character and never get his input about the unfolding events. This is certainly odd, but upon analysis it’s actually quite ingenious. As you’re accompanying the hero on his quest you are allowed to imprint yourself onto his character. What might appear to some as a hollow shell is actually a ready vessel through which we can fill our own selves. In the same way, this most common critique of Keanu, that he’s a hollow shell of an actor, is actually a trait pointing to his brilliance. Stories of all kinds are meant to connect with an audience, and that is achieved through suspension of belief by way of approachable heroes. In other words, since we are ultimately reading ourselves into these stories (because what’s more interesting than yourself?) it is more readily achieved in a soft-spoken everyman persona, primed for relatability.
On the same note, Keanu’s “hollowness” and what some might deem as a lack of charisma is perfectly centered to connect with the maximum number of moviegoers. Let me explain using this professional scale.
Imagine that this scale measures two extremes of personality. The closer you get to 10, the more positive and cheerful you become. The closer you get to 0, the more negative and depressed you become. Now suppose that between these two extremes are the 7 billion people in the world today. Which number do you think is the closest to the majority of people? I’d say it is 5. Not only is it right in the middle, it’s the perfect balance between 2 extremes. Keanu Reeves is a 5, able to reach the multitudes.
The final way Keanu has showcased his brilliance is through the art of lowered expectations. By not peaking early in his career, or amassing a pile of accolades, he has left us vulnerable to the shock and awe effect of receiving a performance greater than mediocre. Like a lioness humbling herself in the grass, Keanu Reeves is waiting to pounce on an unsuspecting world. One great performance will bring down the gazelle of unfavorable public opinion.
As I eagerly await the release of Keanu’s next film, John Wick, I hope that the world will finally understand the genius of his craft. He isn’t a bad actor who got a few lucky breaks. He’s a brilliant actor, perfectly positioned to impact the greatest number of people by exceeding their diminished expectations.
In honor of the greatness that is How to Train Your Dragon 2 I’ve decided to make a list of my top 5 favorite animated films. As a qualifier let me say that I have not chosen these because I believe them to be the best animated films of all time. No, I’ve chosen these 5 as my favorites. Do I think they’re well made? Of course, but I’m not going to argue that they’re the finest artistic masterpieces ever produced. There are no Hayao Miyazaki films to be found here. So let’s begin.
#5 Monsters Inc.
This makes the list for the originality of its premise. The concept of monsters harvesting the screams of children for energy is brilliant, and the twist at the end is even better. It’s a simple message, that love and joy are ultimately more powerful than fear and despair, but wrapping such a profound truth in such a funny and interesting package makes it hit home. The relationship between the little girl Boo, and Sully, the “scariest” monster in the world, offers a lesson in the power of contrasts. There’s humor in how frightened a big monster is in the presence of a small child, and there is meaning in the fact that the small child’s effortless laughter is more powerful than all the screams the big monster could force. It’s original, funny, and touching. Also, I have a soft spot for Billy Crystal that probably came from watching the Oscars as a kid.
#4 How to Train Your Dragon 2
I know it’s rather soon to put this movie on a top 5 list, but let me explain my reasoning. I would have placed the original on this list, and in the #4 spot, but the sequel is better than the original. The characters are more developed and the world feels larger with more possibilities. The core relationship between Hiccup and Toothless is tested past the breaking point and then reinforced ten fold. When I find myself caring more for these animated characters than any live action characters I’ve seen in a long time, that tells me I’m watching something good. It’s moving, exciting, and full of lessons about life and family and sacrifice and human nature. I recommend it to everyone with a beating heart.
#3 The Lion King
When I was a kid they were pumping out Disney animated feature films that became instant classics. The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty & the Beast etc were in regular VHS circulation in my house. But really, and I mean really now, can we all agree that The Lion King is the best of these? It’s based directly on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, after all. I’m fairly certain that an entire park at Disney World wouldn’t exist without this movie. It’s epic, it’s funny, it has the best sidekicks and memorable songs. Also, Ferris Bueller is in it.
#2 Toy Story 3
The original Toy Story is an all-time classic. I remember going to Burger King immediately after seeing it and getting a Whopper Jr. and a Woody doll. Anyway, we should all be on the same page when it comes to the goodness and significance of the first Toy Story. The immediate sequel wasn’t all that great, in my opinion. Jesse the Cowgirl was a little whiny and melodramatic, that penguin was a jerk, and the heart just wasn’t there as the plot wrestled with abandonment issues. Toy Story 3 turned that around in a big way. Instead of being about abandonment, this one tackled the issue of letting go even before that Frozen song got stuck in your head forever. If Toy Story 2 asked the questions, “Does the master care about me and does life have a purpose?”, Toy Story 3 answered, “Yes of course the master cares, but that purpose involves painful self-sacrifice for the benefit of others.” You see, that evil bear couldn’t let go. He couldn’t forgive and move on so he got strapped to a garbage truck. The other toys recognized that their master loved them and that he had a purpose in leaving them with the little girl. This is all profound stuff about the nature of existence and I love it.
#1 The Iron Giant
Heart, heart, heart! This is about identity and purpose. The Giant was clearly created as a weapon by some aliens far away. He happened to find a boy who taught him that he could be a good guy, and not just a gun that kills. Violence begets violence but love saves the day. The characters are real and funny. The Giant is a reflection of the battle within each of our souls. “You are who you choose to be.” Will we destroy ourselves out of fear and give into our baser instincts of self-preservation? Or will we choose something greater than ourselves, and enrich the lives around us? The Giant makes his choice and it gets me every time.
The Brave Little Toaster
The Land Before Time
Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life. – Proverbs 13:12
You need to see It’s A Wonderful Life and you need to see it immediately. It’s difficult for me to understand how an American citizen can successfully dodge this most classic of films. What heroic lengths one must go to avoid their television during the Christmas season. This is a film that receives near universal praise from the viewing public, and is a staple of the American Christmas tradition. Every year, NBC ritualistically plays It’s A Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve night to be shared by all in the land. If you haven’t seen it, do so at your nearest convenience and don’t bother reading any further.
Today I’m writing to my old Building & Loan pals about a subject that I personally haven’t seen addressed in my perusing of internet articles and discussion boards. Everyone knows that George Bailey wanted to leave Bedford Falls to see the world. Walking home after the high school dance George says to Mary:
I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum. Then, I’m comin’ back here to go to college and see what they know. And then I’m gonna build things. I’m gonna build airfields, I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I’m gonna build bridges a mile long…
Of course, we know that George never does any of those things. And as far as we’re told, George never even leaves town. It’s like he’s living his own version of The Truman Show where forces have worked to keep him from stepping foot outside the borders of his little bubble. A man with strong desires to move up and out from his place of origin is destined to stay put indefinitely. How can this be? If George Bailey wants out so badly, what’s preventing him from getting his wish? Time and time again he has an opportunity to leave, but extenuating circumstances seem to beat him back like a pebble getting pushed onto shore by relentless crashing waves. Poor George, right? Well, maybe not. And that is what I want to talk about. Did George Bailey have to stay in Bedford Falls, and what do his actions reveal about the deeper desires of his heart?
The way I see it, there are 7 critical moments where George could have chosen a different path, allowing him to leave town to pursue his dreams. I’ll cover them quickly for you.
- Pa Bailey’s Death: When George’s father dies he chooses to forgo a trip to Europe in favor of taking care of his father’s business.
- Potter Moves to Dissolve the Building & Loan: Mr. Potter tries to convince the board that Bedford Falls no longer needs the B&L. George gives an impassioned speech about his father’s character and the reasons why his fellow citizens need the B&L to continue. The board decides that if George stays on they will keep the business alive. George chooses to give up college and lets his brother Harry go in his stead.
- Harry Gets Married & Breaks His Promise: When Harry returns from college, George learns that he has a wife and a new career. Unfortunately, the plan was that Harry would take over for George, giving him the chance to get an education and leave Bedford Falls. George chooses not to make a fuss and, though we don’t see the exchange, it appears that he doesn’t hold Harry to his original agreement.
- The Ground Floor in Plastics: This one is easily overshadowed by the loving embrace that follows, but when Sam Wainwright offers George an opportunity to get in on plastics, he effectively misses an opportunity to make a fortune. Sam even acknowledges that George turned him down in a later scene for the sake of sticking by the B&L.
- George Marries Mary: Now, this might be somewhat controversial for lovers of the film, but I see George’s marriage as another choice that results in him staying in town. Consider how fiercely he tries to resist his attraction to her. He knows that marrying Mary is another tie to Bedford Falls and another step away from the free life he wanted to live.
- The Bank Run: During the Great Depression, the citizens of Bedford Falls panic and rush to the bank to withdraw their funds. Those who have money at the B&L want George to give them everything they have, but George reminds them that it doesn’t work that way. He sacrifices his honeymoon and $2,000 of his own money to keep the B&L open. He could have ignored it all and went on his honeymoon, or he could have let the B&L collapse. But he fought to keep it open, choosing to stay tied down to it.
- Potter Offers George A Job: If you can’t beat ’em join ’em. Mr. Potter realizes that he would be better off paying George Bailey a fortune (about $300,000 a year in today’s money) than competing with him any longer. George quickly realizes that he can’t accept this deal with the Devil and storms out of the building. He chooses to stay with the B&L, giving up his last chance to be a rich world traveler.
You could look at all of these things as external factors that prevent George from pursuing his dreams, but at the end of the day it’s critical to realize that George made a choice at every critical juncture. If he wanted to get out more than anything else he would have left to visit Europe after attending his father’s funeral. Even if he stayed a while, he could have let the board dissolve the B&L. He could have fought with Harry to keep him in Bedford Falls, and so on and so forth. Yet, George Bailey stays in a town he wants to leave and works at a job that robs him of his dreams. There must be something greater below the surface.
Above all else, George Bailey is driven by the love he has for his father. Consider every major choice he makes. Every choice he makes reflects a desire to uphold his father’s “high ideals” and image. His whole life plays out in his shadow. He has the same job, co-workers, passion to serve his community, and even the same enemy in Mr. Potter. George wants to live his own life, but he ends up living his father’s life. He lives for his father. Before facing the frightened and angry crowd, George takes a moment to look at his father’s picture. Underneath it says, “All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.” This is the core belief of George’s father, and the core belief that George adopts throughout the film.
The reason George almost kills himself is that he has lived according to his father’s ideals without experiencing the gratification promised by them. George has given himself away: his dreams, his money, his pride. But when he is faced with jail-time and scandal and ruin, he looks back at a life lived for others as a complete waste. Not only has he wasted his life, he has come to believe that his father was wrong. Perhaps that terrible belief, the belief that his father was a fool who led him to a life of ruin, is what really made him want to jump into that icy water. The man who taught him right from wrong becomes unreliable. Mr. Potter, who tells George that he’s worth more dead than alive, now has more credibility. Mr. Potter tells George what he already fears, that his life of sacrifice for the benefit of others was in vain. All evidence points to the falsehood that his father now represents.
If not for divine intervention, George would have killed himself, and Mr. Potter would have viewed the whole affair as an affirmation of his warped worldview. The true turning point comes when George turns to another father for help.
Clarence, a guardian angel, is sent to show him the value of his life by giving him a glimpse of what the world would be like without him. George is brought to a point where he desperately wants to live again, and God gives George his life back, but not as it was before. All of the people that he sacrificed for, all of the hope deferred to give hope to others finally comes back in a joyous celebration of George’s worth within the community. Now it’s clear that his life was not a waste, and that his father is worthy of all the love and respect George lived to give.
Within all of us is this conflict between our desires and beliefs. George wanted to see the world and do great big things, but his beliefs about his father and the work he did caused George to deny his dreams. He served his community through the Building & Loan, all the while keeping Mr. Potter from harming the town. When it appeared that he had denied himself for no good reason, George despaired at the thought of a wasted life lived in the shadow of a fool. But the reality of God, the ultimate source of the meaning both George and his father lived for, redeemed the whole story. The focal point of George Bailey’s life is his father, and the linchpin of It’s A Wonderful Life is God the Father.
So Merry Christmas you wonderful old Building & Loan!
(The following contains Spoilers for: Man of Steel, Iron Man 3 and Star Trek: Into Darkness)
I’m about to say something that should be obvious to everyone. Now, when you read it I want you to keep in mind that there are plenty of obvious things in this world that people seem to forget all of the time. Things like “play fair” and “try your best” and “treat people the way you want to be treated” are pretty obvious to most of us, but how quickly we can forget them when the moment comes to put them into practice. I make this point, in all honesty, to validate the very simple statement I’m about to make. That statement is this: relatable characters matter more than anything when telling a story. Perhaps you disagree with that statement or have come up with a quick one or two exceptions to the rule (something artsy and abstract), but know that the stories I’m referring to are the ones that the general public will potentially invest themselves in. I’m talking about the stories that impact our culture and capture the hearts and minds of millions (billions).
Every summer we are exposed to a fresh batch of films. The biggest ones get to be called blockbusters. Yes, summer is open season for the movie lovers, and our game of choice is original spectacle. We want to see something new and awesome. Show me something that will fill me with awe, and give it a massive budget. I’m thinking of Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), Terminator 2 (1991), Independence Day (1996), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Avengers (2012), just to name a few. These movies were loved by the people who couldn’t help but throw millions of dollars back at them. But what makes these, and many other blockbuster movies so influential in our popular culture is not their massive budgets. Big budgets can make a good movie look better, but they are powerless to transform a bad movie into a good one. It’s similar to the way technology can improve a good business, but it can’t make up for the shortcomings of a bad one. Summer blockbusters can be as loud and big as they want to be, but if the characters don’t come alive or impact us within the story, we’ll be zoning out halfway through the first explosion.
So far, in the summer 2013 blockbuster season, I’ve been largely disappointed by a lack of relatable characters. Iron Man: 3 was really the only exception, with Robert Downey Jr. playing the well-developed and deeply flawed character of Tony Stark. Director Shane Black seemed to understand the importance of character, as seen most clearly in Tony’s interactions with a scientifically gifted kid who shares the same dark and sarcastic sense of humor. In the middle of this super hero blockbuster film we watched Tony Stark talk and joke with a kid in the middle of a small town, and it was one of the more memorable parts. They were characters acting like people, and I cared because I could relate.
After Iron Man came Star Trek: Into Darkness, which was a just fine movie, but I couldn’t seem to invest in the characters beyond what I’ve already invested as a fan of the Star Trek universe. The Wrath of Kahn will remain a more significant film within our pop- culture consciousness because we enjoy the characters more. Ricardo Montalban has a certain charm to him that was lacking in Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal. And Kirk was just another non-hero with a lot of issues that made him more irritating than charming. Worst of all, when many people are killed in the end, none of the characters seem moved by the tragedy. That apparent lack of compassion makes already unappealing characters into heartless monsters, which is unfortunately a perfect transition into Man of Steel.
I’m a big fan of the character of Superman. One of my favorite films is Superman:The Movie (1978) starring Christopher Reeve. In that film we see a Superman/Clark Kent who genuinely wants to help people. He does some big things to help, like stop California from falling into the ocean, but he also does some small things. I believe it is the small things that make Reeve’s Superman so relatable. He certainly has a genuine nice guy quality to him, but beyond that he portrays a level of compassion and societal awareness in every scene. This Superman talks to authority figures with respect, and goes out of his way to help them out. He is an inspiration to people, and isn’t too important to rescue a cat out of a tree. You just feel glad to watch him be so good to people. You want to be that good. I feel good just writing about it! Anyway, I came into Man of Steel with the hope that Henry Cavill’s portrayal of the character would reflect the same heart for service and compassion for humanity. You can imagine my horror when I watched him carelessly punch villains into skyscrapers full of people and destroy property like a child knocking over his Lincoln Logs. I understand that the filmmakers were trying to make a more realistic and gritty Superman, but they sacrificed his heart to do so. Even a tiny indication that he cared about the hundreds of thousands that were dying all around him would have gone a long way for me. Instead, it’s all about him finding his identity while punching bad guys through skyscrapers, and the little people in paper houses are objects to be used as fodder for explosions. Heck, all of these people are dead or trapped in rubble, and Superman’s more concerned with making out with Lois Lane (while making some random comment about being better than humans when it comes to romance) and finding new creative ways to punch down buildings. Even with that ending where he makes a huge sacrifice to save a few people, it was too little too late. He saves people when it doesn’t interfere with punching villains into crowded areas. Every life should matter to Superman, and because this Superman showed a disregard for the sanctity of life and property, I cannot embrace him. I can’t let this character matter to me, because he doesn’t care about what matters. He’s a false Superman, in direct conflict with the character I’ve been relating to for years.
So that was my overview of what has been a mostly disappointing summer blockbuster season. I’m sure many will disagree with my analysis, but I am confident that time will reveal these films to be insignificant within our popular culture because the characters in them weren’t relatable or particularly enjoyable. It is important to mention that all of these characters that I’ve mentioned have already existed for decades, and I’m confident that plays a role in reducing their cultural impact. Superman and Captain Kirk are especially troublesome, as they are associated with specific actors who no longer play them. But hey, I don’t want to end on a negative note…
There’s still hope for this summer. Pacific Rim comes out July 12, and from what I’ve seen, this thing has the potential for some original and relatable characters with heart. If all we get are big monsters and big mechs fighting each other amidst a sea of destruction, the movie will fall flat and lose any chance for cultural resonance. But if the characters controlling the big mechs are interesting and we can find a little of ourselves in them, this summer blockbuster could become a part of the larger conversation for years.
It’s all about characters we can relate to.
“And you just remember that your old man walked Ben Wade to that station when nobody else would.”
There are many good westerns that are worth your time, but if I had to pick one above all others it would have to be 3:10 to Yuma. I like it for the acting; Russel Crowe, Christian Bale and Ben Foster are phenomenal. It has a high production value and a beautiful score. But what sets it apart, at least in my book, is the theme at its core. More than a story about a man who escorts a criminal to his jail-bound train, 3:10 to Yuma is about the struggle of faith. It’s about a son believing in his father, and a criminal wrestling with his own beliefs about the nature of God and mankind.
If you haven’t seen the film, please go ahead and do that. I strongly suggest that you read no further until you’ve seen it. That being said, if you have no intention of watching a western, or if you’ve seen it and forgotten much of the plot, here is a summary. Dan Evans (Bale) is a poor rancher who lost his leg in the Civil War. He struggles to maintain his ranch for his wife and two sons. To make matters worse, the local authorities are giving him a hard time about paying his bills. His barn is even burned down as a threat. Enter Ben Wade (Crowe) and his violent gang, whose second in command, Charlie Prince (Foster), views Wade as a father. They hijack a wagon full of money and then retreat to the nearby town. Wade is captured, but his gang rides away. A wealthy and powerful man named Butterfield rounds up a posse, which includes Dan,and later his oldest son. As they trek across the western wilderness they face many dangers, and some of the men die. The remaining group ends up in the town where the train stops. Wade’s gang rides in and bribes many townspeople to join them in killing anyone who attempts to bring Wade to the train. Seeing the odds stacked against them, everyone but Dan tries to back out. Dan makes a final deal with Butterfield that will ensure his family and ranch will be taken care of, if only he can deliver Wade to the train at 3:10. Wade willingly runs with Dan to the station as they dodge bullets. Right when Wade gets on the train, Dan is shot down by Charlie Prince. Filled with rage, Wade kills every one of his gang members. Then, Dan’s son points his gun at Wade, contemplating murder. In the end, Wade is allowed to live, and boards the train to Yuma prison.
There is a clear parallel between Dan’s son and Charlie Prince. Both of them are looking to their father figure as a way to form their own identities. In the case of Charlie Prince, he loves and respects Wade. There is no doubt that he is entirely devoted to his “boss” and father. He is willing to kill innocent people for him and also to protect him. In one scene he burns a man alive to torture him into giving up Wade’s location. Charlie Prince believes in his father figure, but he believes only in the worst side of him. That is why his identity is defined by violence and cruelty, because that’s what he believes his father expects of him. Dan’s son is a little more complicated. At the start of the film he views his father as a weak shameful fool. He does not respect Dan. Then, as he interacts with Wade on the way to the station, he seems to find his power and confidence attractive. Throughout the film, there is an unspoken tug of war for this boy’s soul. Here is some dialogue between Wade, and Dan’s son, who is named William by the way. I believe it captures the essence of this struggle to form an identity.
Ben Wade: They’re gonna kill you and your father, William. They’re gonna laugh while they do it. I think you know that.
William Evans: Call ’em off.
Ben Wade: Why should I?
William Evans: Because you’re not all bad.
Ben Wade: Yes, I am.
William Evans: You saved us from those Indians.
Ben Wade: I saved myself.
William Evans: You got us through the tunnels. You helped us get away.
Ben Wade: If I had a gun in them tunnels, I would have used it on you.
William Evans: I don’t believe you.
Ben Wade: Kid, I wouldn’t last five minutes leading an outfit like that if I wasn’t as rotten as hell.
So you see that Wade is “as rotten as hell” when he leads his gang. It is this hellish persona that Charlie Prince loves and respects, and it is the same tough persona that Dan’s son finds so appealing. But Dan’s son isn’t entirely convinced that Wade is all bad. He views certain actions as heroic and selfless, like helping him and his father escape deadly situations. His desire to see the good in Wade reveals that he has something that Charlie Prince doesn’t: a good man to look up to. And when Dan chooses to deliver Wade to the train station against impossible odds, his son finally views him with respect. Consider Dan’s words to his son.
Dan Evans: I’m gonna be a day behind you, William. Unless something happens, and if it does, I need a man at the ranch to run things, protect our family, and I know that you can do that because you’ve become a fine man, William. You’ve become a fine man. You got all the best parts of me. What few there are.
[Dan shakes William’s hand]
Dan Evans: And you just remember that your old man walked Ben Wade to that station when nobody else would.
Dan tells his son that he is a fine man who can protect his family. The father gives the son his identity. Dan believes that his son is good, and then he leaves him with an incredible image of courage, loyalty, and perseverance. Dan proves that he is a man of his word when he delivers on his promise to get Ben Wade to the station. Dan’s son can believe in him, and believe the good words that will certainly shape his identity as a man.
We have seen two young men who look up to their fathers embrace the identity that the father has given them. In an interesting twist, Ben Wade develops his own identity in the image of the one he views as a father. For most of the film, that father is evil. Wade shares a personal story with Dan in the minutes before their fateful journey to the train.
Ben Wade: You ever read the bible, Dan? I read it one time. I was eight years old. My daddy just got himself killed over a shot of whiskey and my mama said “we’re going back East to start over”. So she gave me a bible, sat me down in the train station, told me to read it. She was gonna get our tickets. Well, I did what she said. I read that bible from cover to cover. It took me three days. She never came back.
Wade read the bible from cover to cover. In the bible, Jesus dies and then comes back three days later. In Wade’s life, his father died and his mother abandoned him. She didn’t come back after three days, which must have caused him to either hate God or not believe in him at all. Believing the worst of both his earthly and heavenly parent, Wade turned to a life of death and pleasure-seeking. He took on the identity of the father he believed in. Then he crossed paths with Dan, and Dan showed him a better father to believe in. Not the kind of father who abandons, but the kind of father who will give his life for his family. He’s the kind of father who will even run alongside an unworthy criminal to see that justice is done. Please take a moment to watch this powerful scene. The song is called, “Bible Study.”
Ben Wade sketched Dan into the front of the bible. Dan showed him a good father, which I think made Wade start to believe in a good God. Why else would he help Dan as they run together? Wade now believes in Dan, and Dan believes in something greater than himself. Even if getting on the train to Yuma results in judgement for a life of evil, Wade is willing to go if it means running alongside a good man he can believe in.
What if there was a theory that explained the way people are? What if this theory just happened to borrow heavily from a popular video game franchise? Well, if such a theory existed it would probably be called, The Madden Customization Theory, and it would probably blow your mind. I’m not sure if John Madden’s video games were the first to introduce the concept of character customization, but they were certainly one of the earliest and most popular. It is possible that some of you don’t know what I am talking about. You’ve never played a video game, or you’ve never had the experience of customizing a virtual character. Do not fret, explanations are coming.
We don’t have any control over when we’re born, who we’re born from, or even if we’re born at all. It’s really a sobering truth if you give it the thought time it merits. There is an infinity that came before you, and one way or another there is an infinity after you. If that’s not humbling enough, some really smart people believe that you don’t even have free will in this brief life. Either your circumstances, or genes, or God determine your every choice from cradle to grave. Wow, that’s a lofty concept, and I’m willing to bet humanity was never meant to fully understand it. Regardless, it is important to recognize these philosophical and religious concepts of time, will and eternity if we are going to have a foundation for this incredible theory.
In the above image you see numbers and categories. The numbers, or points, range from 0 to 100, with 100 representing the maximum skill in that particular category. Aaron Rodgers is a real football player, so his statistics have been set by the programmers of the game. The custom character screen is similar, except that you can choose how to disperse the points. So if I wanted a player to be fast, I could put most of the points in the category of speed. The catch is that you’re only given so many points to spread around. You have to decide what kind of player you want him to be. Sacrifices must be made. Priorities must be set.
What if we had the ability to somehow determine the kind of people we would be, before we were even born? It would only be fair that each of us would have the same number of “points” to disperse as we deemed appropriate. So, if I wanted to be book smart I could put points towards that, and might have to sacrifice some athletic ability. Or, if a woman wanted to be more attractive she could overload her points in the beauty column and sacrifice common sense. It is a rare person who excels in most categories. For many of us, there are clear strengths and weaknesses, which often appear to be random. The Madden Customization Theory offers an explanation to account for the big guy without a brain and the scrawny guy with an I.Q. of 150. We all had the same number of points, but we all have different priorities.
The Madden Customization Theory probably wouldn’t stand up to rigorous scrutiny from serious thinkers, but I’m willing to bet it struck a chord with you. It’s appealing to imagine that somewhere in a time long ago we had the power to choose who we would become. Maybe the best aspect of this theory isn’t what it assumes about the past, but what it says about the future. We are largely the result of our priorities. It matters who we want to become. That’s how real characters are created.
I can say without any exaggeration that The Simpsons has influenced me more than any other television show in existence. As a child I would watch in the presence of my older brother, noting what he found humorous, so I knew when to laugh. He would often explain why something was funny, since my 8-year-old self missed most of the high-level humor. For instance, when Homer becomes a big brother to a poor child named Pepi, Pepi says, “Papa Homer, you are so learn-ed.” Homer corrects him, “It’s learned, son. Learned.” If you don’t know how the word is really pronounced, the joke is lost. I believe this kind of humor, this “high-level” humor, is what made The Simpsons a great (perhaps greatest) comedy. It’s not what makes it great because, let’s face it, the show hasn’t been good for about 13 seasons. Right around season 10, it started the long and steady decline toward mediocrity. Now, when I do give it another chance, it is like visiting an old friend who is dying of a painful terminal illness. It’s sad, it’s tragic, and it’s at the point where you just want their suffering to end. The Simpsons needs to die.
It’s hard to begin. How does one describe the comic genius that made The Simpsons special? Well, here are 2 clips that I’ll use as examples. This first one comes from ” Deep Space Homer” in season 5. We’ve just seen a shot of Homer’s space shuttle and an escaped ant moved past the camera. Here is Kent Brockman’s reaction.
As a member of the media, Kent Brockman is prone to sensationalism. We see it in an earlier episode in which Kent claims, ” I’ve been to Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and I can say without hyperbole that this is a million times worse than all of them put together.” He is referring to a rebellion at Bart’s summer camp. The writers are poking fun at how ridiculous the news media can be in an attempt to make a story more interesting. But what really makes this funny is that Kent clearly believes his own sensational claims. He jumps from one radical conclusion to the next and even accepts that the invasion is a foregone conclusion, which is why he is already trying to convince the ant overlords that he can be useful. This is very silly, but we in the audience can see the work of intelligent people behind the scenes.
In this next clip, we find Mr. Burns attempting to win Homer’s trust. Homer has become the head of the union at the power plant and Mr. Burns is threatening to remove their dental plan. This clip comes from season 4, and the title is, “Last Exit to Springfield”.
There is this Infinite Monkey Theorem that assumes if a monkey were to hit the keys on a typewriter into infinity, it would eventually write Shakespeare. A variation is that an infinite number of chimps (or some really high number) banging on typewriters would eventually produce some great piece of literature. I actually wrote about this in A Universe of Infinite Chimps. Anyway, in the clip we can see that the monkeys are smoking and focusing intently on their work, just like a bunch of human writers. They are also chained to their typewriters. I’m sure the writers who wrote this scene were thinking of themselves. When Mr. Burns reads what the monkey wrote, it turns out to be the first line of Charles Dickens’, A Tale of Two Cities. But the monkey wrote “blurst” instead of “worst”, so Mr. Burns completely overlooks the incredible feat and judges the animal like he would some great author. It plays on our expectations, and Mr. Burns’ sincerity and serious tone throughout the exchange makes for the perfect contrast to the ludicrous event.
The main point I want to make with these clips is that the early episodes were cleverly written by intelligent people who were aiming high at their audience. Sure, there is plenty of slapstick to be found, but slapstick is only funny if it’s carried out by a person or entity with dignity and intelligence. The Simpsons often referenced classic literature and film in these great episodes. Even now, I find myself discovering things that I first learned from The Simpsons. Perhaps I’ll recall a scene after watching a classic Alfred Hitchcock film, or Citizen Kane. In 6th grade I got a congratulatory letter sent home for knowing what the scientific name for the Northern Lights was: aurora borealis. I learned that from Principal Skinner.
As I’ve previously mentioned, it was around season 10 that the show started to suffer creatively. If you search around the internet you’ll see a consensus on this moment in the show’s history as the beginning of the end. Some blame the shift toward a younger audience. Some blame new producers, or the exodus of Conan O’Brien from the staff (though he left after season 5). Others simply believe that the show had run out of clever ideas, like any long-running program. I’m sure there were a number of reasons for the decline, but the fact remains that The Simpsons has shuffled on into an endless sunset.
Here’s a preview of the first episode of season 23.
So here we have Homer in a ridiculous situation with a celebrity guest star. This is the norm. Critic Jim Schembri of The Sydney Morning Herald summed it up pretty well when he wrote, “Now the show has in essence fermented into a limp parody of itself. Memorable story arcs have been sacrificed for the sake of celebrity walk-ons and punchline-hungry dialogue.” He is absolutely correct. Once rich characters have been emptied of intelligence, emotion and dignity for the sake of selling out to the lowest common denominator of humor and entertainment. It’s pathetic, and a lesson in the cost of pride and greed.
This show is a cash cow, and has been for many years. The voice actors make millions and the producers make even more. They have nothing to prove and nowhere to go. I imagine Matt Groening, the creator, has become much like George Lucas. Both men made something that the people loved, and they gained incredible wealth and fame. But at some point they lost touch with the original vision, and traded it all for just a little more. Look at this quote from Groening in 2006.
I honestly don’t see any end in sight. I think it’s possible that the show will become too financially cumbersome… but right now, the show is creatively, I think, as good or better than it’s ever been. The animation is incredibly detailed and imaginative, and the stories do things that we haven’t done before. So creatively there’s no reason to quit.
You know that once a storyteller starts focusing on the “incredibly detailed” animation, he has lost his soul (i.e. James Cameron with Avatar and George Lucas with everything since Star Wars Special Edition).
It saddens me that The Simpsons now has more mediocre and bad episodes than good and great ones. It also saddens me that I wish for its swift death, so that the memory of what was right isn’t overshadowed by what is so very wrong. All we can do is re-watch those episodes from the golden age, and hope that future generations will understand that The Simpsons was at one time the greatest show on television. And not because it was the most popular, or the longest- running, but because it was clever and profoundly hilarious.