Monday, June 25, 2012

More Bravery from Pixar

"Shall I always be left behind when the Riders depart, to mind the house while they win renown, and find food and beds when they return?" "A time may come soon," said [Aragorn], "when none will return. Then there will be need of valour without renown, for none shall remember the deeds that are done in the last defence of your homes. Yet the deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised." And [Eowyn] answered, "All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more. But I am of the House of Eorl and not a serving-woman. I can ride and wield blade, and I do not fear either pain or death." "What do you fear, lady?" he asked. "A cage," she said, "To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire."
-The Return of the King
Eowyn, in the guise of Dernhelm, later plays a crucial role in the battle for Minas Tirith. In fact, it is explicitly her rejection of Theoden's gender expectations that allows her to be present at the pivotal moment. She puts on a man's armor and deepens her voice; she actually appropriates masculinity in order to fulfill her destiny. It's doubtful that Mr. Tolkien was intentionally commenting on gender construction in The Lord of the Rings; nevertheless, Eowyn's transformation stands out in a book that is otherwise rife with silent women who sit on the sidelines.

I couldn't help but think of Eowyn, then, while I was watching Pixar's latest entry, Brave. Merida, the spunky, willful princess of an ostensibly Scottish kingdom, resents the obligation that is thrust on her in the form of an arranged marriage. A series of fantastic obstacles threaten the kingdom, but Merida, along with her loving but overbearing mother, manages to save the day and even avoid marriage.

I found myself pleasantly surprised by the unorthodox story. Like most people who have seen any movie in the genre, I expected the typical, Disney princess-encounters-conflict-only-to-fall-in-love-with-prince story. Instead, Brave gives us a strong, female character who isn't punished by the plot for wanting a different future for herself.

Even in the most beloved fairy tales, strong heroines are only at the helm of their fate until they find the right man. Suddenly, then, they become supporting characters in their own stories. Ariel, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White...they all were made complete by an archetypal, masculine prince. While there isn't anything intrinsically wrong with that narrative, I wonder why there aren't any other options for damsels; must they always be in distress? And if in distress, can none save themselves?

In Brave, we are treated to a refreshingly feminist take on fairy tales. The two women, Merida and her mother, seem to have everything under control while the bumbling men nearly destroy themselves in their thirst for violence. The two women overcome a series of dangers and their damaged relationship just in time to rescue the kingdom from threats within and without; all the while the men sit around boasting and cavorting.

What is incomprehensible to me is the great number of reviews (particularly the Top Critics portion of Rotten Tomatoes) that panned the movie for being too "safe". On the contrary, Brave presents a highly irregular and, if anyone dared to take it seriously, potentially controversial position on the question of how gender is constructed. The message to the little girls in the audience: it's ok if you don't want to be a girly princess who becomes complete once a man solves your inadequacy. I can imagine a more conservative, "boys should act like boys and girls should act like girls" perspective that would see Brave as a perverse redefinition of femininity.

I suspect that most girls, regardless of the shape of their formative years, will probably always imagine themselves as beautiful princesses who will one day be swept off their feet by a prince on a white steed. They'll play dress-up and have tea parties and eventually fall in love and get married. All of those things are wonderful, truly. But for those little girls who long for a different story, for those girls who pine after the "chance of doing great deeds," it's nice to know that there is at least one fairy tale that gives color to their dreams.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Gridlock

"If you want a picture of the future, imagine a flip flop stamping on a human face—forever."
-George Orwell
I had been warned about traffic before moving to LA. I wasn't prepared, however, for the staggering truth of it: a mass of humanity and steel and exhaust forced through a looping, labyrinthine sieve.

I don't hate it, though. That fact surprised me as much as the phenomenon itself. It is simultaneously oppressive and symbolic of the natural order of things. I don't hate it; I respect it. Humans have created this place; LA is a city of commerce, glamour, beauty and disease. It is the best of us and the worst. And the traffic is like a deep scar...sometimes noble and sometimes hideous.

Traffic, I propose, has made LA a patient city. The denizens of this former wasteland are willing to wait for their dreams to come true. They'll wait for opportunity, fate and yes, traffic. When lines of cars snake out to the horizon on gridlocked highways, I see a patchwork of different ambitions and hopes struggling to survive. They steer this way and that towards all the things they want in life.

Los Angelenos are willing to wait. The traffic may let up any minute...

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Promised Land

Los Angelenos
All come from somewhere

To live in sunshine

-Billy Joel
After 7 days, 1900 miles and lots of gas, I've finally arrived in Los Angeles.

What next? Job, apartment, relationships, destiny? All in due time.

For now I'll bask in the sunshine and chaos. I'll frolic under palm tree and overpass. I'll chuckle at reports of the frozen tundratic land I've left behind.

Not all my dreams may come to fruition, but it won't be because of the City of Angels. I don't suppose all things are possible here, but I aim to tiptoe along the boundary between fantasy and reality.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Steven P. Jobs 1955-2011

Humanity has lost a giant today. Many will mourn, and their reasons will be varied and perhaps unexpected.

I suspect that the full meaning of Steve Jobs' life won't be understood for many years. He was more than just a brilliant entrepreneur and cunning inventor; his genius extended beyond microchips and earnings statements. His life represented something deeper and farther-reaching: a vision for humanity. And, personally, he was a hero and luminary who I looked to for hope in my own future.

Our family's first personal computer was a Macintosh SE. It was 1987, and we lived on the bleeding edge of technology; it was the first Mac with an internal hard drive (32 MB!). All my computer-savvy friends at school had Commodore 64's and "IBM Compatibles". Debates often raged at the lunch table about which computer was best, but I vigorously defended our Mac even in the face of public ridicule. Without knowing or understanding it, I had joined a fraternity of consumers unlike any before or since.

It wasn't until several years later that I learned about the high priest of our cult. Steve Jobs, the nerd of all nerds, birthed a cultural force that lay dormant for decades in the hearts and minds of faithful Apple users. We happily clicked and fawned over our devices even as irrelevance seemed to settle finally upon us with the domination of Microsoft Windows and the ubiquity of the bland 'PC' moniker.

These days, the chic Apple logo is everywhere, and it's never been hipper to own one of the devices. How did this happen? And why? Is my iPod just that cool? Does the usefulness of my iPhone stagger me with awe? Nay! These things are just a conveyance for our imaginations and the medium through which Jobs' vision could be shared.

Steve Jobs was the last great Humanist, Apple's philosopher-king and America's quintessential tragic hero: bold, brave, flawed and able to overcome. The work he did and the products Apple has churned out year after year suggest a fascination with bringing humans closer together. He wanted people to be more closely knit and be able to communicate and work and understand each other with fewer barriers. This is a simple vision, perhaps, but it is remarkable in that it has been realized and appreciated by so many. President Obama probably put it best: "there may be no greater tribute to Steve's success than the fact that much of the world learned of his passing on a device he invented."

It is an unexpected turn of events that Steve's death is on the same day as my arrival in California. This day was meant to be the start of a new journey and a new life. I have been inspired by Steve's example in the past - not as a future tech leader but as a man following a dream - but this tragedy is still more poignant than I would have expected. I have been greatly comforted, though, by his excellent commencement speech at Stanford in 2005:
"Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."
I am newly inspired by Steve Jobs' life and death. He said in the same speech that death is the "single best invention of life...it clears out the old to make room for the new." While that is a macabre thought on this particular day, its truth is undeniable. What it means to me is that time is precious, and I don't intend to waste any more. I can best honor Steve's memory and life by following my "heart and intuition". And I think it's likely that his ability to stir the imaginations and actions of his fellow humans may even outlast iPods and iPhones.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The New King of Comedy?

David Letterman received the Johnny Carson Award for Comedic Excellence at The Comedy Awards the other night. Deserved? Probably.

While commenting on the annals of comedy is a bit like arguing about the most beautiful woman in the world, I am nevertheless intrigued by the evolution of the comic arts. Perhaps it's the human need for categorizing common lore or the pervasive nostalgic feelings that help make life meaningful, but some part of me sees a hierarchy in any discipline. Who was the best? Who had the most influence? Who was the most successful? These are the questions we ask about sports stars, movie stars, writers, scientists, CEOs and even chefs. We probably like to make these lists because we all hope to be at the top of one someday.

In the world of entertainment, Johnny Carson was the undisputed paragon of late night comedy. The Tonight Show ran for 30 years and started the careers of some of our nation's most beloved comedians: Jerry Seinfeld, Robin Williams, Joan Rivers, Bob Newhart and, of course, David Letterman. Much has been written and spoken about Carson's influence; certainly The Comedy Awards' presentation of the eponymous award fawned over his memory.

Who can follow in those footsteps? Surely not Jay Leno with his inelegant departure and return. Conan is a little too quirky. Letterman is funny, but his reach seems limited. Perhaps the show director at The Comedy Awards was suggesting a new name when he cut directly from Letterman to the audience that night: Jon Stewart. From the looks of it, Stewart was the first to stand and clap after Letterman took his bow. I suspect that he, too, had an inkling about the torch that is being passed to the next generation of comedy legends.

The Daily Show has won the Emmy for "Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Series" every year for the last 8 years. The Daily Show also has its own list of comedians who started as correspondents and have risen to new heights: Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert and Ed Helms to name a few. Though not yet as glittery a list as The Tonight Show's, it speaks to the ascendancy of Jon Stewart and The Daily Show as national icons.

Perhaps it's premature or just plain silly to anoint Stewart at this point, but I think he has changed the nature of the art. Besides establishing a comedic dynasty, interviewing kings, presidents and scholars, and becoming a necessary stop on any artist's new project promotion, he has also used The Daily Show to have a demonstrable impact on U.S. domestic policy. The best example of this is the 9/11 First Responders bill; The Daily Show's relentless focus on this topic seems to have created enough of a stir to move it past its stall point.

This makes me wonder: do we want more from our comedians in this new century? The early days of comedy involved mostly slapstick and silly musicals (think, The Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin). Today, however, a growing number of successful comedians are those commenting on current events and poking fun at presidents and despots; sometimes they even run for office.

Whatever role comedians play in the evolution of a public consciousness, they will at least continue to make us laugh. For those efforts, the torch-passing has been seamless and natural. There may not be a Jon Stewart Award for Comedic Excellence in the stars, but his ability to leave us in stitches is undeniable. And in the process of making us nearly wet ourselves, Stewart may find his influence growing in ways he can't yet imagine.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Glide on the Peace Plane

"What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children-not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women, not merely peace in our time but peace for all time." -JFK
Perhaps President Kennedy didn't realize how much money there is in selling American weapons of war.

A recent article in Fortune discusses the potentially disturbing circumstances surrounding the business of arms exports in the United States. Evidently President Obama is actively trying to increase sales and make it easier for our allies, or would-be allies, to purchase weapons from us.

The above picture is a Boeing-made F-15 fighter jet manufactured specifically for Saudi Arabia. I can't help but notice the Arabic letters emblazoned on the fuselage; the juxtaposition of those foreign characters and the classic, stenciled English titles would almost be hilarious if it didn't represent such a seemingly dark and chaotic reality.

The scope and magnitude of these arms sales, coupled with recent tumult throughout the Middle East, gives me pause. It's a dangerous world, and even the experts can't say for sure what our best move should be. So for me to weigh in is a little like trying to send forth some kind of personal cosmic energies towards and on behalf of a favorite sports team.

As a citizen of this planet, though, I have a vested interest in life moving on without death and destruction on a massive scale. And so, President Obama, what's the plan? The whole world is looking to you for an ingenious solution to terrorism, nuclear weapons, desert insurgencies, domestic woes and the tragically unrealized hope of a world without war and poverty.

The president has gotten criticism for not doing anything regarding Libya, then for doing too much, then for not doing enough. The criticism may be deserved in this case, however. Not because, as my conservative counterparts may insist, President Obama is weak and ineffectual. Rather, it's because nobody knows the answers or can identify the correct path.

I don't have a clue if we should bomb Libya, liberate Libya, or leave Libya the hell alone. Some critics have harangued the president about his lack of consistency in dealing with the various Islamic hotspots in recent months. Other, more liberal, critics have scoffed at the idea that the President would make decisions based on what was best for global U.S. interests(even The Daily Show).

There have been some well-branded doctrines and taglines in past administrations that have helped Americans understand and connect with the foreign policy choices and the reasons behind them. (Think Monroe Doctrine, Bush Doctrine, Shock and Awe, Axis of Evil) What is the Obama Doctrine? People have struggled to figure that out, and I tend to think that it's because there is no such doctrine. We seem to expect our presidents to develop and adhere to monolithic dogmas that act, at best, as guidelines for foreign policy decisions and, at worst, as blind templates to be used in any situation. The world is increasingly a place, though, where such expectations are foolish.

But what of arms sales? Where does that fit in to the president's plan? It is certainly disturbing to think of the U.S. selling arms to countries who might use those very weapons against us in the future. On the other hand, the Fortune article points out that, in virtually every case, the weapons we're selling aren't exactly top-of-the-line. The F-15, for example, is a 30-year old design. We sell Patriot Missiles, and those haven't been in vogue since the first Gulf War.

There are various theories surrounding the rationale for selling these weapons. The most interesting one suggests that the U.S. is essentially duping the Saudis and others into buying 'second hand' goods; we get all the upside: money, jobs, allies, and the buyers can't ever effectively use them to seriously harm us or anyone we care about. Moreover, nations like Saudi Arabia, armed with second-tier U.S. weapons, can help isolate wild cards like Iran.

I don't think there is an Obama Doctrine, but if there is, maybe it's an effort to reposition the United States as that girl in high school who tries to be everyone's best friend: not many really like her, but they definitely don't hate her. Conventional wisdom says that engagement and proximity are crucial for peaceful coexistence, whether it be in the form of global arms trade or navigating the dicey waters of a teenage girl's social life.

As a grad student 5 weeks away from completing his MBA, I tend to believe that it's hard to get mad at the people you do business with. So maybe that's our goal: let potent economic forces stir the cooperative self-interest in all of us.
"It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages."
-Adam Smith

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Mobile Nirvana

"iPhone 4. Verizon. It begins." This is the recent tag line that appeared in Apple ads for the new Verizon iPhone. Too dramatic? Not for me.

I'm a longtime Apple user. Maybe product loyalty is an inherent trait, since I'm also a fairly longtime Verizon customer. I couldn't have predicted the ascendancy of the iPhone, nor could I have envisioned the 4 year reign of AT&T's exclusivity agreement with Apple. So, needless to say, my technological ch'i has been noticeably out of wack for several years.

No longer. The Verizon iPhone 4 is my new companion. To know it is to know blissful, electronic enlightenment. After a 6-month stint with an Android phone, I have finally arrived. No more goofy usability problems or OS malfunctions. It knows my MacBook, and my MacBook knows it. I have emerged from my dark, primitive chrysalis, and now I can fly freely to and fro across the technoverse.
"If a man can control his [phone] he can find the way to Enlightenment, and all wisdom and virtue will naturally come to him.
-Buddha

Monday, February 21, 2011

Hoodwinked!

Oh Tim Burton, who have ye become?

I recently saw Burton's version of Alice in Wonderland, and I'm left wondering..what happened? He used to be a director with so much promise. He was unique and quirky. He made darkness nifty and entertaining. He made Batman!

After Pee-wee's Big Adventure, Beetlejuice and Batman, I remember thinking Edward Scissorhands was weird but not bad; I assumed it was either an aberrant misstep or merely not my thing. Then came Batman Returns. Ok, I thought, sequels are tough. He got a pass. Ed Wood? Just being experimental. Everyone is allowed a 1941, after all.

At Mars Attacks, I was still trying to give him the benefit of the doubt, but the doubt was clearly growing. Sleepy Hollow was weakly hollow, but still in the Burton vocabulary.

Enter Planet of the Apes. There aren't enough disparaging words available to accurately trash this horrid mess of a movie. And still I believed that, somehow, the best days of Tim Burton were still ahead. Maybe it's because I recall so fondly the twisted genius of Pee-wee and Beetlejuice. Maybe it's because I give him too much credit for causing me to believe that a superhero movie could touch brilliance and reinvigorate a ridiculous sub-genre.

Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Sweeney Todd all flew by in a blur of speckled mediocrity. The titillating murkiness of his earlier work had given way to full blown creepers. What was intriguing and subtly hilarious about Michael Keaton's Batman had been obliterated by the uncomfortably effeminate and Michael Jackson-esque Willy Wonka.

And now Alice in Wonderland. I'm not sure why I'm surprised. Maybe I continually hope for the resurrection of a promising career in a world of so much schlock. Maybe the redemption narrative just simply rules supreme in my psyche. Either way, I give up on you, Tim Burton! You won't hoodwink me any longer! Joel and Ethan understand me. Steven still has many wonderful cards up his sleeve, no doubt. Quentin, I'm tingling with anticipation. The Departed showed us that Marty still has some game, and even Oliver, though wussing out in his old age, may still surprise us.
"We've seen every conceivable battle sequence, every duel, all carnage, countless showdowns and all-too-long fights to the finish. Why does Alice in Wonderland have to end with an action sequence? Characters not rich enough? Story run out? Little minds, jazzed by sugar from the candy counter, might get too worked up without it? Or is it that executives, not trusting their artists and timid in the face of real stories, demand an action climax as insurance? Insurance of what? That the story will have a beginning and a middle but nothing so tedious as an ending?"
-Roger Ebert

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Tread Lightly...

...On the next page she came to a spell 'for the refreshment of the spirit.' The pictures were fewer here but very beautiful. And what Lucy found herself reading was more like a story than a spell. It went on for three pages and before she had read to the bottom of the page she had forgotten that she was reading at all. She was living in the story as if it were real, and all the pictures were real too. When she had got to the third page and come to the end, she said, "That is the loveliest story I've ever read or ever shall read in my whole life. Oh, I wish I could have gone on reading it for ten years"...
-Lucy, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Like many, I had a very active imagination as a child. Books like those in The Chronicles of Narnia, then, were the perfect escape for a young mind sometimes burdened by the hardships of youth. One gets the sense that Mr. Lewis wrote his books just for that very purpose: a literary city of refuge for children who haven't quite discovered who they are. The message while there, though, is that the real world is worth returning to.

I watched the movie version of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader this evening. Setting aside, for a minute, the unforgivable massacre of the plot, this movie is a total betrayal of the essential beauty of the novel.

Dawn Treader, like all of the Narnia books, springs out of the idea that the minds and imaginations of children are not just silly things; they are, on the contrary, a crucial part of maturation. The worlds we create as children are vital in that we learn how to see ourselves living, acting and choosing for ourselves. We go away to search for buried treasure, climb an impossibly high mountain, or explore a distant planet. But as we go, we are anchored to our real lives by story elements that are familiar to us. We may be suddenly ripped from our delicate reverie by a call to dinner or the end of a chapter, but joy from that world is still with us, and it may even help us deal with reality, however harsh it may be.

I didn't really expect the movie to explore any of that stuff, but I was holding out hope that it might somehow hit on the nature of childhood or simply show Narnia through the eyes of an awe-filled child whose dreams are boundless and bold.

Instead, the director, writers and producers chose to rearrange it into an unnecessarily high-paced barrage of special effects and regurgitated sci-fi/fantasy plot devices. A once-delightful story with complex and conflicted characters, unexpected twists and an interesting theological foundation has been lobotomized and fluffed.

This is the third movie in the series, and each has strayed further from the path. Since I have played out these stories in my head countless times, I suppose no movie could compare to what I've been able to conjure. Having said that, such an admirable and noteworthy set of writings is deserving of a more substantive attempt. Children are meant to enter Narnia for the nourishment of their souls, and, instead, this movie simply primes a baser desire for flash and swashbuckling.

Of course even this cinematic travesty can't ruin what lives in my mind and heart. I'm content to, every once in a while, return to the Narnia of my dreams. To slip away to a place in my mind, even if only for a few minutes, to a safe place where where colors are more perfect, breezes are always warm, and happiness is something that is easily accessible to all who yearn for it. It isn't an escape or even a respite anymore; it is a nostalgic pause that reminds me of who I have become and what steps it took to get here. Moreover, I can be encouraged by the fact that adventures aren't just for children's books and that we all have the chance to be the hero of our own story.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Unlikely bedfellows

Someone pissed off the Democrats. And everyone knows how feisty they can be while they're hot and bothered. The culprit? The leader of their party.

It has been truly fascinating to watch the Bush tax cut debate unfold over the last few days. The tax cuts, instituted in 2001 by President Bush, were set to expire at the end of this year. The fact that we're still in the middle of a massive economic slowdown has primed the pump for a classic tug of war between liberals and conservatives over the nature of taxation.

I don't think anyone really knew exactly how the situation would play out; President Obama wasn't really going to allow the tax cuts to become permanent, and yet he also couldn't get away with "raising" taxes in our current economy. The Republicans, still mid-victory lap from the midterm revolution, also have their ideological purity to maintain; they always have to fight tooth and nail for lower taxes.

Some kind of deal had to be made, and the Republicans have a hearty helping of leverage now that they'll own the House in January. I wasn't surprised about the particulars of the deal, but I have been shocked at the reaction from the Democrats: fiery rhetoric, murmurs of 2012 primary challenge to the president, and a refusal on the part of Nancy Pelosi to allow the bill to go to a vote.

(Why is it that conservatives are so much better than liberals at towing the line? Conservatives easily fall into goose-stepping stride while the liberals sidle up to the table, preparing to eat their young.)

This feels like an old school political dog fight. I just wouldn't have expected the cast of characters to be aligned in the way they are. In a weird twist, the president is essentially lining up with the Republicans(who are still in the minority, by the way) to push through a conservative tax plan.

I'm not sure what to make of this. Is the president, who I once thought was as shrewd a politician as there has been, making a huge tactical mistake? Is he truly weak and thus at the mercy of the outrageously vocal Republicans? Or is this really the best play available? It occurs to me that President Obama might be banking on the fact that the liberal base of the Democratic Party is the least threatening group of people in the cosmos. He knows he can get this deal punched through regardless of the objections of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. He also knows that he'll have to give up some stuff in order to be an effective president in the next two years. Perhaps he expects to come out on the other side of this thing looking like the only adult in an ongoing food fight. (I suspect he also knows that two years is plenty of time to win back the loyalty of the liberals. Liberals are, after all, fickle fish.)

I've always been a fan of harmony between otherwise disparate groups of people. Therefore it seems like a reasonable tax deal given the political and economic climate. I don't really think(having been warned numerous times about the severe limitations of fiscal policy) that extended tax cuts are going to save the economy. I think consistency more than anything would be helpful. Personally, though, I can't help but like the reduction of the payroll tax..that should help a bit. Tax cuts for millionaires? Hmmm. Perhaps I'll feel differently when I am one myself.