Thursday, December 28, 2006

Culture Shock 12.28.06: James Bond gets real, but Superman returns as a phony

Two icons returned this year, one with renewed relevance, the other creaking under his own pretensions.

Strangely, James Bond, the character who shouldn't work divorced from his Cold War origins, showed new energy. Meanwhile, the supposedly timeless Superman, remained as stiff and lifeless as ever, not so much the Man of Steel as the man of rigor mortis.

Daniel Craig's steely eyed Bond in "Casino Royale" is as close as the movies have come to capturing the ruthless, flawed character of Ian Fleming's novels. The new Bond is lean, mean and rough-hewn. He fits in comfortably with the threats of the 21st century.

The clear divide between East and West, communist and capitalist, is gone. The good guys won, and, apart from Cuba and North Korea, even the communists are capitalists now. The new map is a fractured landscape of terrorists, crime syndicates and rogue states. You have to be nimble to keep your footing, and Craig's Bond shows us that he is — both literally, during the movie's foot-chase sequence, and figuratively, by actually growing as a character.

Superman, however, never grows. Officially, he is the champion of truth, justice and the American way, however vaguely defined. But in practice, he is the heavy-handed enforcer of the status quo and the Establishment. He started as the poster boy for the New Deal and, later, 1950s conformity. In the 1980s, writer/artist Frank Miller realized this and cast Superman as a puppet of a corrupt government in his graphic novel "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns."

This year, as played by Brandon Routh in "Superman Returns," Superman is an uneasy combination of underwear model and savior. Director and co-writer Bryan Singer sees Superman as a divine figure. He especially goes overboard with a scene in which Lex Luthor's henchmen beat the Kryptonite-poisoned Superman nearly to death in the mud. It's all shamelessly reminiscent of Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ."

Singer leaves no doubt that he thinks Superman, the strange visitor from another planet, is way better than us mere humans. While Miller distrusts authority and gives us a Superman degraded by his close proximity to it, Singer gives us a morally superior overlord. Miller has faith in humanity, while Singer puts his faith with the gods on Mount Olympus.

After the failures of Iraq and Katrina, Singer's faith in the great leader seems quaint at best and dangerous at worst. Worse still, his Superman is a cipher. You can read into him whatever values you like, but that doesn't mean you'll be right. Superman is like a politician who gives pleasant speeches utterly free of content. He's Barack Obama.

Dressed up as an ennobling figure, the Superman of "Superman Returns" is really a cynical reflection of everything wrong with the world — a pretend savior who can't deliver.

Meanwhile, the James Bond of "Casino Royale" may be a cynical killer, but he is honest about who he is. He is a blunt instrument in a messed-up world — an everyman hero, but cooler. His way of fixing things isn't pretty, but it's better than waiting for Superman to save us.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Culture Shock 12.21.06: Non-Christian elements of Christmas there from start

'Twas the week before Christmas, Bill O'Reilly in view
Shouting on the TV as his face turns Yuletide hue.
While his Fox pal John Gibson wrote a book just to say,
"There's a 'War on Christmas'! Purchase your copies today!"

OK, I'll stop now. You get the point. But, really, enough with the "war on Christmas" stuff already. With the shopping and the crowds, folks have enough to worry about without opportunistic blowhards making up a controversy.

Putting the name aside for a minute, Christmas has never been just about Christ. Early church fathers set the date for Christmas to coincide with (and co-opt) pre-existing pagan festivals centered on the winter solstice. Pagan elements have been with the holiday ever since, including the venerable Christmas tree. In fact, it was exactly such non-Christian aspects of the holiday that led many Protestants to virtually ignore Christmas until the Victorian era.

If you think Christmas is "too commercial," blame those same Victorians. They started the commercialization of Christmas back in the late 1800s, along with its transformation into a semi-secular holiday of gift giving and family togetherness. It's that commercialization that made Christmas "safe" for Christians who had religious objections to the celebration.

If keeping the Christ in Christmas meant leaving out everything else, then the result wouldn't really be Christmas. Besides, if O'Reilly and Gibson are looking for a fight, someone should tell them they've already lost.

The secular side of Christmas is firmly part of American culture, and it goes deeper than Rudolph, Frosty, saying "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" and bland Christmastime love songs by The Carpenters played ad infinitum.

The secular Christmas won when "A Christmas Story," the 1983 comedy about a boy's quest to get the ultimate present — a Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock and a thing that tells time — replaced "It's a Wonderful Life" as Christmas Day marathon viewing.

"A Christmas Story" is our new seasonal fairy tale. And it's all about presents and commercialism, with a dash of (dysfunctional) family togetherness tossed in for good measure. It doesn't have a manger scene, but it does have a Little Orphan Annie decoder ring.

The movie appeals to Americans because it appeals to the child in us all. Sure, my childhood Christmas is several decades removed from the early 1940s Christmas of Ralphie and his Red Ryder. For me, it was an Atari 2600, but the spirit is the same. We associate particular Christmases with what we got, and that reminds us of where we got it.

Given its diverse origins — Christian, Roman, Germanic, etc. — it's only proper that Christmas has returned to being a near universal celebration. It's observed even in Japan, where it's become strangely associated with romance and dining on KFC.

Christmas is both secular and religious, commercial and spiritual, Christian and pagan. It has something to offer everyone, including a message of "peace on Earth and goodwill toward men." The wording may be Christian, but the sentiment has many sources.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Culture Shock 12.14.06: 'Star Trek's' 40th birthday flies past at warp speed

Somehow, the year is almost gone. And yet hardly a word has been said about 2006 marking the 40th anniversary of an American institution.

It was in 1966, by way of the 23rd century, that the starship Enterprise set forth on its storied five-year mission. But four decades later, “Star Trek” has entered turbulent seas, or their outer-space equivalent.

For the first time since 1985, “Star Trek” is absent from both TV and movie screens, unless you count reruns. The only “new” Trek to be had is the 1973 animated series, which made its long-awaited debut on DVD last month, and the original series, returned to syndication with new, high-tech special effects in place of the ’60s-vintage models and matte paintings.

While it’s sad to see Trek’s anniversary pass quietly in the night, the Franchise, as it’s become known, clearly needs a rest. Its decline in quality, starting with the final two seasons of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and reaching rock bottom with “Star Trek: Voyager” and “Enterprise,” made a breather inevitable. Simply put, the creative team in charge of the Franchise at the bitter end had nothing left.

“Star Trek” had gotten away from the original vision of creator Gene Roddenberry and producer Gene L. Coon. And the attempt to recapture some of that frontier spirit during the last season of “Enterprise” couldn’t overcome that show’s dull, backward-looking premise. Prequels, by definition, don’t boldly go where no man has gone before.

The next “Star Trek” film, reportedly planned for 2008, is also rumored to be a prequel. If so, Trek’s keepers haven’t learned their lesson yet.

The original “Star Trek” was inspirational. Literally. You don’t have to look far to find scientists, engineers and astronauts inspired to enter their chosen fields by “Star Trek.”

But who could be inspired by Trek’s recent incarnations? By the time “Enterprise” was canceled, Trek was looking inward, at its own increasingly convoluted past, not outward.

Oddly enough, while “Star Trek” is slowly becoming a parody of itself, many of the people who have long lived in the Franchise’s shadow are finally emerging.

After winning two Emmy Awards for his portrayal of “Boston Legal” attorney Denny Crane, it’s safe to say that William Shatner has found a role to finally rival, if not eclipse, Capt. James T. Kirk. Leonard Nimoy has left behind Mr. Spock and found a new calling as a photographer, mostly photographing nude women, which is nice work if you can get it. Even George Takei, better known as Lt. Sulu, has moved on, recently taking a supporting role on the hit NBC series “Heroes.”

Sure, lots of “Star Trek” fans, too many in fact, will fawn all over anything bearing the Trek logo.

But those of us who really care about Roddenberry’s creation deserve better. And we’re willing to wait for it. No “Star Trek” at all is better than Trek in name only.

Still, the lack of recognition on Trek’s 40th anniversary is almost shameful. You can be sure that George Lucas won’t let 2007 pass without everyone on the planet knowing that it’s the 30th anniversary of “Star Wars.” And, if anything, the “Star Wars” franchise is even more tarnished than the Trek franchise.

What was I just saying about prequels being a bad idea?

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Culture Shock 12.07.06: Science fiction's outsiders find new respectability

There are snooty critics who see it symptomatic of civilization's decline. But the American literary canon is finally expanding to encompass some of our most influential, yet neglected, writers.

The Associated Press reported last week that the Library of America will release in 2007 a volume devoted to science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick. Although there is no shortage of Dick's stories in print, this is significant news because the Library of America is the closest thing the U.S. has to an official literary gatekeeper. If the L of A publishes your work, you are a Significant Author. To be part of the Library of America is to be one with Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hawthorne and Melville.

"Philip K. Dick: Four Novels of the 1960s" is scheduled for publication in June. It will include the novels "The Man in the High Castle," "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch," "Ubik" and "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" The last of those was made into the 1982 Harrison Ford movie "Blade Runner."

Jonathan Lethem is editing the volume. Lethem, author of "Motherless Brooklyn" and "The Fortress of Solitude," is considered a "literary" author, although he actually has written quite a bit of genre fiction, including the futuristic "Gun, with Occasional Music." But although Lethem sometimes writes science fiction, his books aren't marketed as science fiction. He isn't confined to the ghetto as was Dick, who died in 1982.

And he's happy to do his part to assist Dick's escape. In an interview with the blog The Elegant Variation, Lethem said, "I'm helping preside over the utter and irreversible canonization of one of my (formerly outsider) heroes ..."

But Dick's ascendance to the literati firmament wouldn't mean much if it were merely an isolated incident. It isn't.

Last year, the Library of America elevated an even more unfairly maligned and neglected figure of genre fiction: H.P. Lovecraft. And it was the positive response to "Lovecraft: Tales" that helped spawn the Dick collection, according Max Rudin, Library of America publisher, in an interview with the AP.

Lovecraft is America's most important horror writer since Edgar Allan Poe, although, like Poe, he seems to have earned greater respect in France, for whatever reason.

The works of science fiction/fantasy writers Ray Bradbury and Ursula K. Le Guin could be the subject of future L of A volumes, Rudin said.

Genre writers are at last getting their due, just three years after the National Book Foundation controversially gave Stephen King its Distinguished Contribution to American Letters Award and sent the snobs into apoplectic fits.

"But giving an award like this to a guy like me suggests that in the future things don't have to be the way they've always been. Bridges can be built between the so-called popular fiction and the so-called literary fiction," King said in his acceptance speech.

It's a two-way street. When Philip Roth, an undeniable member of the Literary Establishment, delves into science fiction with an alternate history novel like "The Plot Against America," it becomes far harder for critics to ignore those who've plowed the fields of SF for decades. Then the critics might learn that Roth's plot is such a cliche in SF circles that even most hacks wouldn't touch it without giving it some new twist.

If mainstream critics are forced to read unapologetic science fiction, horror and fantasy, there's no telling who will be admitted to the canon of respectable literature next. I suggest Harlan Ellison.