Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Auburn and Alabama fans are driven by tribal instinct

If you think we’ve come a long way from our primitive ancestors, look around at your neighbors this weekend, and you’ll likely see we haven’t evolved all that much.

In fact, you may only have to look in a mirror.

A significant proportion of Alabamians will be decked out in tribal colors — either orange and blue for Auburn University, or crimson and white for The University of Alabama. But the odd thing is that most people wearing those colors in anticipation of the annual Auburn/Alabama football game didn’t attend either university.

It doesn’t end there. Some members of each tribe turn entire rooms of their homes into shrines filled with football memorabilia. They dress the family dogs in team sweaters. They walk down the wedding aisle to the tune of their school’s fight song. They name their children after dead coaches.

Making fun of such excess is easy. Actually, I encourage it. But that extreme behavior is, in a way, only natural. In fact, it has roots in 200,000 years of human pre-history.

Our earliest human ancestors lived in the African savanna and survived by hunting and gathering. The rule of the day was eat or be eaten. In such an unforgiving environment, cooperation within a tribe was a necessity.

Every living being, humans included, is a complex machine with one biological purpose — to spread its genetic material. “Be fruitful and multiply” isn’t just a Biblical commandment. It is encoded in our DNA.

Members of hunter-gatherer societies best fulfilled their genetic imperative by cooperating with the people they saw every day, mostly close relations. That’s how tribal bonds formed, and it’s why, even today, people have an enormous capacity for social cooperation. Evolutionary biologists call it “reciprocal altruism,” but everyone else calls it “you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.” (In fact, our chimpanzee cousins practice this literally when they groom each other.) Our brains are wired for it because it’s a powerful survival mechanism, and thus favored by natural selection.

But there is a downside to our mental wiring. While it encourages cooperation within a tribe, it often leads to conflict with other tribes, especially if those other tribes are competing for the same resources. We are “us,” and they are “them.”

Down through the centuries, that tribal instinct had led to racism, ethnic hatred, religious conflict and, on a larger scale, wars between nations fighting to control land, resources and wealth.

Fortunately, human societies evolve far more quickly than human biology does. So, we’ve come up with ways to close the distance between us and them. The most successful is trade. Frederic Bastiat, a 19th century French economist, said, “When goods don’t cross borders, armies will.” Today, large-scale trade between nations is the norm, not the exception. The more trade there is between any two given countries, the less likely those countries will end up at war with one another. As a result, the number of wars going on at any particular time has dropped steadily since the end of the Cold War.

Within nations, individuals are also interconnected by trade. We all do business with each other, and most of our old tribal divisions have broken down or substantially weakened. But we still have that tribal instinct, which now expresses itself, usually, in more peaceful ways — like identifying with collegiate and professional sports teams. We have rituals, like tailgating, that we share with fellow tribesmen, and we compete with other tribes by participating in office betting pools.

We’re driven to join tribes, which is why people who never attended Auburn or Alabama still choose sides. And all tribes seek to grow, which is why natives often pressure newcomers from out of state to pick a team.

You can join a tribe even if you don’t care about sports. For better or worse, tribes form around everything from TV shows (Trekkies) to rock bands (Deadheads) to political candidates (Obamaniacs).

So, when you’re putting on your war paint for the big game Saturday, remember that you’re part of a tradition that dates to the Stone Age. And if your team loses, just tell yourself that football is still better than hunting zebras.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

New ‘Star Trek’ prequel promises everything you don’t want to know

Growing up in the 1970s and watching reruns of “Star Trek,” I always wondered what Capt. Kirk was like when he was young.

Wait. No I didn’t. Actually, the thought never crossed my mind. But now that it has, I’m reasonably sure I don’t want to know what James T. Kirk was like before he became captain of the USS Enterprise.

But the idea of going back in time to explore the early years of beloved characters is just too tempting for Hollywood. So, on May 8, 2009, we’ll get to see Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest of the Enterprise crew as they were before they began their famous five-year mission.

The trailer for director J.J. Abrams’ new “Star Trek” debuted last weekend in front of “Quantum of Solace,” and it confirmed my worst suspicions. It’s no wonder some longtime “Star Trek” fans have already dubbed this latest installment in the franchise “Dawson’s Trek.” I, however, prefer to think of it as “Young Phasers.”

The preview opens with a vintage 20th century sports car speeding across a desert, and just before the car flies off a cliff, its young driver jumps out. That’s when a 23rd century police officer walks up and asks the boy his name. “My name is James Tiberius Kirk,” the mop-headed little punk says.
Yes, before he became the greatest captain in Starfleet history, Kirk was an annoying brat with authority issues. Does that remind you of any other famous sci-fi character you know?

The trailer then jumps forward, where we get to see a brooding, twentysomething Kirk (Chris Pine) riding a motorcycle and watching the Enterprise’s construction at a Starfleet shipyard. (My inner science geek insists that I now note how silly it is to build a ship like the Enterprise on Earth rather than in orbit.) Meanwhile, voiceover narration describes Kirk’s troubled youth and unfulfilled destiny, and I half expect Samuel L. Jackson to appear and tell me Kirk is the chosen one who will bring balance to the Force.

Sorry. I was thinking about that other sci-fi character again. You know — the one who used to be cool. The one who was the baddest bad guy ever to appear on a movie screen. Until, that is, we saw him as a whiny 8-year-old and then, later, as an even whinier young adult.

Darth Vader killed incompetent subordinates on a whim and struck fear into an entire galaxy. Anakin Skywalker, on the other hand, complained a lot and missed his mommy. Are we really supposed to buy that Anakin could eventually become Vader?

When you venture into an iconic character’s past you’re treading on sacred ground. We knew before the “Star Wars” prequels that Anakin had a tragic fall from grace, but seeing it only cheapened it. So, do we really want to take the risk of watching Kirk grow up? We know he was the only Starfleet cadet ever to beat the no-win scenario of the Kobayashi Maru test. (He cheated, and then received a commendation for original thinking.) Do we really want to see the gory details?

The fact that Pine looks like he just stepped out of an Abercrombie & Fitch advertisement doesn’t help. No one ever confused William Shatner with an underwear model.

Face it. No matter how cool you are as an adult, you still don’t want your parents showing your friends old photographs and home movies of you. Unfortunately, Abrams’ “Star Trek” reboot looks an awful lot like Kirk’s home movies. How is he supposed to score with alien women and the occasional android if everyone sees what he was like as a petulant youth?

Hannibal Lecter was a scarier villain before “Hannibal Rising” delved into his childhood and revealed the trauma that turned him into Hannibal the Cannibal. Darth Vader was more menacing before we learned he was an idiot whose only qualification for being a Jedi was a high midi-chlorian count. (They probably have antibiotics for that.) And, trust me, Capt. Kirk is cooler without our knowing about all of his youthful screw-ups.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Is ‘Star Trek’ actors’ feud real or a fraud?

Just when you thought it was safe to go to a “Star Trek” convention, Kirk and Sulu are fighting again.
Tales of how William Shatner is hated by most of his former “Star Trek” co-stars — with the exception of Leonard Nimoy — are legendary. But during the past few years, it seemed most of the old feuds subsided. That is, until the latest round of sparring broke out between Shatner and George Takei.

The latest flare-up began when Shatner complained on his Web site that Takei hadn’t invited him to his wedding. Takei then said he had invited Shatner. Takei issued the following statement: “It is unfortunate that Bill was unable to join us for our wedding as he indeed was invited to attend. It is our hope that at this point he joins us in voting NO on Proposition 8, which seeks to eliminate the fundamental right for same-sex couples to marry in California.”

The situation deteriorated from there. Shatner said something about Takei having a “psychosis,” and Takei responded by basically calling Shatner an egomaniac.

The back-and-forth continued. Takei sounded off on “Entertainment Tonight,” then Shatner retaliated with a video on YouTube.

It’s times like this that I’m reminded of a scene in “Fight Club”:

Narrator: If you could fight any celebrity, who would you fight?
Tyler Durden: Alive or dead?
Narrator: Doesn’t matter. Who’d be tough?
Tyler Durden: Hemingway. You?
Narrator: Shatner. I’d fight William Shatner.

Maybe Takei is like the unnamed narrator of “Fight Club.” He just really, really wants to fight William Shatner. At the rate it’s going, the Shatner/Takei feud will soon reach the epic heights of Bette Davis vs. Joan Crawford.

Or will it?

I don’t have any evidence to back it up, but I have a suspicion that the war of words between Shatner and Takei is an elaborate put-on, just like the feuds in professional wrestling. In fact, it reminds me a lot of the greatest faux feud of them all: Andy Kaufman vs. Jerry “The King” Lawler.

In the early 1980s, Kaufman started wrestling women as part of his comedy act, proclaiming himself the “World Intergender Champion.” Lawler, a popular wrestler in Memphis, became incensed, believing that Kaufman was making a mockery of wrestling by beating up women. So, he challenged Kaufman to a match, which lasted all of a few seconds, as Lawler quickly dispatched Kaufman with a pile driver. When Kaufman got out of the hospital, he threatened to sue Lawler.

From there, the feud continued on television. Both Kaufman and Lawler appeared on “Late Night with David Letterman,” where Lawler slapped Kaufman and Kaufman, after a profanity-laced tirade, threatened to sue, well, just about everyone.

That led back to the ring, where Kaufman schemed with wrestling manager Jimmy Hart to trick Lawler. The plan worked, and instead of Lawler pile-driving Kaufman again, Lawler fell to his own signature move, delivered by other rival wrestlers.

But as Lawler now admits, the whole thing was, in wrestling jargon, a work, a scripted stunt engineered by the two of them. And it worked so well that some people still believe that maybe, just maybe it was real.

So, is that what Shatner and Takei are up to?

Think about it. The feud serves both Shatner’s and Takei’s interests. Takei can use it as a platform to speak out for gay marriage. Meanwhile, Shatner can use it to do what he does best, which is play up his exaggerated public persona, something he has been doing successfully since he portrayed himself in the 1998 comedy “Free Enterprise” and in the first batch of Priceline commercials. It’s a win-win.
But maybe I’m guilty of wishful thinking. Having to take sides in a battle of “Star Trek” icons is like a child having to pick sides in a divorce.

Probably the only way we’ll ever know for sure is if Shatner tries to pile-drive Takei or Takei hits Shatner with a steel chair.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Orson Welles remains a study in fact vs. fiction

Tim Burton’s 1994 film “Ed Wood” features a scene in which one of the greatest directors who ever lived meets one of the worst.

Frustrated with the progress of his latest project, “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” Edward D. Wood Jr. (Johnny Depp) storms into a Hollywood bar only to meet his hero, Orson Welles (Vincent D’Onofrio). After complaining about his own struggles with financial backers, Welles gives Wood the confidence to return to the set and finish shooting “Plan 9,” making Welles, ironically, responsible for a movie frequently cited as the worst ever made, usually by people who have not seen “Doomsday Machine” (1972).

Of course, like many events depicted in “Ed Wood,” the meeting between Wood and Welles never happened. Oh, yes, Edward D. Wood Jr. was a real director who made some really bad movies, but one must never let truth stand in the way of art. And the meeting between Wood and Welles works beautifully because Wood and Welles had so much in common, except that Welles was a genius and Wood was, to put it charitably, not.

Several years ago, I met Forrest J. Ackerman, the original editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. Ackerman was also once a literary agent, representing such renowned authors as Ray Bradbury. He also represented Wood. “I was his illiterary agent,” Ackerman quipped.

Wood struggled to get money to make his schlocky sci-fi and horror movies, and after “Plan 9,” he faded into a more obscure obscurity than he had occupied before, directing sleazy sex films and hitting his friends up for work until his death in 1978 at age 54.

Welles’ problem, however, wasn’t a lack of talent. He had loads of it. Director, screenwriter, producer, actor — Welles did it all. At age 23, he conquered radio. During an Oct. 30, 1938, broadcast of H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds,” he fooled (inadvertently) more than a million listeners into believing the Earth was really being invaded by Martians.

He then moved to Hollywood and seemed primed to conquer it, too. But “Citizen Kane,” the film that would eventually establish Welles as a great filmmaker, was a disappointment at the box office. Afterward, Hollywood studios were reluctant to give Welles the total creative control he enjoyed with “Kane.” RKO, which had released “Citizen Kane,” re-edited and re-shot portions of Welles’ next film, “The Magnificent Ambersons,” and Universal took over Welles’ 1958 thriller “Touch of Evil,” which was finally re-released in a form close to Welles’ vision 10 years ago.

Welles turned to financing his films independently. He spent years trying to complete his adaptation of “Don Quixote” without success, just one of many projects he left unfinished, usually because of a lack of money. Only one of those films, “The Other Side of the Wind,” seems likely to ever be released. Director Peter Bogdanovich has been working on editing Welles’ footage into a finished product.

As an actor, Welles often took jobs just to finance his movies. Most famously, he became a TV pitchman. He would “sell no wine before its time.” His legendary voice lent authority to everything from frozen peas to a dubious documentary about Nostradamus. He even had a part — his last, as it turned out — in the animated feature “Transformers: The Movie.” As he put it, “I play a big toy who attacks a bunch of smaller toys.”

But still, Welles carried on, directing films that include an inspired adaptation of Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” and his not-quite-a-documentary “F for Fake,” which was his last completed movie.
Long overlooked, “F for Fake” is one of Welles’ finest films. It’s a meditation on art and fakery, taking as its subjects art forger Elmyr de Hory and Clifford Irving, who wrote a hoax biography of Howard Hughes and a real biography of de Hory. But more than that, “F for Fake” is a magic trick. Welles was an amateur magician and knew all the tricks, especially the fine art of misdirection.

You never let truth stand in the way of art.