Thursday, May 28, 2009

Culture Shock 05.28.09: Alabama beer snobs can finally toast to victory

A proposal that state lawmakers once considered dead on arrival now has beer connoisseurs toasting victory.

Last week, Gov. Bob Riley signed into law a bill raising the alcohol content of beer sold in Alabama from 6 percent by volume to 13.9 percent. That has opened the door to a new world of beers that will finally be available here legally.

According to Free the Hops, the grass-roots organization that lobbied for the higher limit, only a couple of the 100 top-rated beers in the world were available in Alabama before the law took effect.

Distributors and stores still have some bureaucratic paperwork to sort through, but the new limit comes in time for the Magic City Brewfest on June 5 and 6 in Birmingham, which will feature a number of previously forbidden brands. Unfortunately, the bill passed too late for Huntsville's Rocket City Brewfest earlier this month.

This victory for beer lovers in Alabama follows years of setbacks. At the end of the Legislature's 2007 session, a similar bill to raise the beer alcohol limit won the Shroud Award as the "deadest bill of the legislative session."

In 2008, another attempt to raise the limit led to one of the most bizarre episodes of political theater ever to play out on the floor of the state House of Representatives. Questioning why anyone would want to allow gourmet, craft-brewed beer into Alabama, Rep. Alvin Holmes, D-Montgomery, uttered the now infamous line, "The beer we got drink pretty good, don't it?"

When informed that some Free the Hops supporters were German employees at the Mercedes plant in Vance, near Tuscaloosa, Holmes exclaimed, "From Germany!"

You'd think we fought two world wars just to keep from drinking German beer.

Mind you, the Germans are serious about their beer. Local legend has it that Cullman County lost the Mercedes plant to Vance because Cullman County is dry.

But this year, the Free the Hops bill finally passed, no thanks to Holmes, who voted no, of course.

Apart from his apparent grudge against the Germans, Holmes is a staunch defender of "the beer we got" — mass-produced brands like Budweiser, Miller and Coors. I guess you could say he's a blue-collar beer guy. And that isn't surprising, given that beer has, until recently, been mostly a blue-collar beverage.

When you think about beer's place in popular culture, you probably think about Homer Simpson chugging mugs of Duff at Moe's bar, or maybe you think about the Bandit hauling 400 cases of bootleg Coors from Texarkana, Texas, to Atlanta while trying to elude Sheriff Buford T. Justice.

Then there's David Lynch's 1986 film "Blue Velvet," in which the villain, Frank Booth, played by Dennis Hopper, colorfully explains why Pabst Blue Ribbon, the ultimate blue-collar brew, is better than Heineken.

Class may have played a role in prolonging the fight to raise Alabama's beer alcohol limit. Overcoming the state's usual religious objections to anything related to beer, wine and spirits would have been easier if all of the state's beer drinkers had thought they had a stake in it. But most probably agreed with Rep. Holmes, and they didn't care about expensive, craft-brewed beers with hard-to-pronounce names.

With most of the state's beer drinkers sitting on the sidelines drinking their Bud Lights, it was up to just the connoisseurs to get the bill passed. But now the fight is over, and Alabama is open to the best beers in the world.

Personally, I'm not too bitter that it took so long, and I'm willing to share the spoils. There'll soon be enough good beer for everyone.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Culture Shock 05.21.09: I am not Spock, and neither is President Obama

I don't know who started it, but it's gone on long enough. So, knock off the Obama/Spock comparisons.

It seems like every columnist, pundit and blogger inside the Washington, D.C., Beltway is comparing the president to the world's most famous pointy-eared, green-blooded extraterrestrial. But I'm not buying it.

President Barack Obama is not Spock. I'll grant that the president sometimes comes across as cold and emotionless, and with a little Photoshop manipulation, he even looks a bit like a Vulcan. But the similarities end there.

For one thing, President Obama isn't someone who makes decisions based solely on logic. When he describes what he is looking for in a new U.S. Supreme Court justice, for example, he says he wants someone with "empathy."

"I will seek someone who understands that justice isn't about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a casebook," the president said. " ... I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people's hopes and struggles, as an essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes."

Last I checked, empathy was one of those human emotion thingies.

If anything, the president seems a lot more like Dr. McCoy, who, I should note, had one of his finest moments in a "Star Trek" episode titled "The Empath."

Now, I am certainly not saying that the president is Dr. McCoy. As McCoy would say, "I'm a doctor, not a politician." And the last thing I want is to start another silly Obama/"Star Trek" character meme. Anyway, I'm surprised none of the president's supporters have likened him to Scotty, the USS Enterprise's chief engineer and resident "miracle worker," who can fix anything just in the nick of time. But maybe they're downplaying expectations.

The comparison of Obama and Spock is supposed to be positive, at least as long as you overlook that whole "pon farr" thing, the sometimes violent Vulcan mating season that occurs every seven years. Past administrations, however, have elicited more negative comparisons to sci-fi characters.

If I had a bar of gold-pressed latinum (that's a "Star Trek" reference) for every time someone compared former Vice President Dick Cheney to Darth Vader or Emperor Palpatine, I could retire the national debt and have enough money left over to replace those two Death Stars.

And don't think it was just a bunch of wacky liberals who got mileage out of comparing President George W. Bush's administration to the Galactic Empire in "Star Wars." Some of President Bush's most ardent supporters made such comparisons, too. Some friends they were.

Writing for The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine, Jonathan V. Last argues that "the truth is ... (George) Lucas confused the good guys with the bad. The deep lesson of Star Wars is that the Empire is good."

Last's reasoning is almost too twisted to be believed. He writes, "The destruction of Alderaan is often cited as ipso facto proof of the Empire's 'evilness' because it seems like mass murder — planeticide, even. As Tarkin prepares to fire the Death Star, Princess Leia implores him to spare the planet, saying, 'Alderaan is peaceful. We have no weapons.' Her plea is important, if true. But the audience has no reason to believe that Leia is telling the truth."

Now, maybe I'm reading too much into it, but I think Last just compared Princess Leia to Saddam Hussein and Alderaan to Iraq, which, as it turned out, also didn't have any weapons — at least not of the "mass destruction" variety.

If Republicans are wondering why they lost the most recent presidential election, maybe it's because they embraced their inner Empire.

As you can see, comparing political leaders to sci-fi characters brings nothing but trouble.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Culture Shock 05.14.09: There's no escaping the legacy of being a Trekkie

I suspect that no matter what I say about the new "Star Trek" movie, I'm going to come across like a deranged Trekkie.

If I say I love it, that means I'll lap up anything with the name "Star Trek" attached. If I say it sucks, however, that just means I'm an obsessive fanboy who can only nitpick the new movie for failing to live up to the sainted Gene Roddenberry's vision.

All of you newcomers to the "Trek" franchise have it easy. If the new movie is your first encounter with the USS Enterprise and its crew, no one is going to fault you for either liking it or hating it. But if you're an old-timer like me, there is no getting away from the past.

Regardless of what I think about director J.J. Abrams' reboot of the "Trek" franchise, it's seemingly impossible for me to escape all of the stereotypes built up in the past 43 years of "Trek" fandom. Middle-aged men who wear Spock ears. A woman who showed up for jury duty wearing her homemade Starfleet uniform. Couples whose wedding ceremonies were conducted in Klingon. Trekkie obsessions take the form of "infinite diversity in infinite combinations," as the old Vulcan saying goes.

As for me, I've never been to a "Star Trek" convention. I've never worn a Starfleet uniform, and I can barely read Klingon, much less speak it. I'm just a guy who has seen every episode and every movie and maybe read a "Star Trek" comic book or 20. So what if I can quote "The Wrath of Khan" pretty much verbatim? I can do the same thing with "Smokey and the Bandit" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Does that make me a freak?

Don't answer that.

If you prick me, do I not bleed? Is my blood green?

This is my Kobayashi Maru — the "no-win scenario" made legendary in "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan." But like Capt. James T. Kirk, I don't believe in the no-win scenario.

So, what's my verdict on the "Star Trek" reboot? It's OK. It's not terrible, like "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier" or the two last "Next Generation" films, "Insurrection" and "Nemesis." But don't let the hype fool you because it's no "Wrath of Khan" or "First Contact," either. Abrams has given us a film that, by "Trek" standards, is pretty much middle of the pack.

The new "Trek" gets a lot of things right. Zachary Quinto ("Heroes") gives a credible performance as the young Mr. Spock, and Karl Urban is near perfect as Dr. McCoy. After a while, even Chris Pine's Capt. Kirk starts to grow on you, even if he doesn't attempt to channel any of William Shatner's staccato delivery and Canadian accent, which is almost certainly for the best. No one is going to out-Shatner William Shatner.

Still, these are not exactly the same characters I grew up with. The plot involves an insane Romulan captain (Eric Bana), who travels from the 24th century to the 23rd century and changes history, creating an alternate timeline. The main fallout is that Kirk grows up without his father and seems destined never to become captain of anything — until, that is, he's challenged to enter Starfleet Academy.

Fortunately, the original Spock (Leonard Nimoy) arrives to from the future to set things back on track and, ironically, add a touch of the old-style "Trek" humanism to the proceedings.

But — and you knew there was a "but" coming — Abrams' "Star Trek" suffers from plot holes so large even a cadet could pilot a starship through them and science that's dodgy even by "Trek" standards.

And those are minor faults compared to some of the decisions Abrams and the screenwriters make. Turning the young Chekov (Anton Yelchin) into a hyperactive Wesley Crusher clone is not a good idea, nor is giving Scotty (Simon Pegg) an Oompa Loompa for a sidekick. Meanwhile, poor Eric Bana's Nero will go down as one of the least inspired villains in "Trek" history. He has no good lines and almost nothing to do but growl occasionally.

Still, "Star Trek" is an enjoyable thrill ride, and it sets up sequels that have a brand new "Trek" universe to play in.

Anyway, those nagging faults probably won't bother anyone but deranged Trekkies — like me. And who am I kidding? That's what we Trekkies live long and prosper for.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Culture Shock 05.07.09: Finding madness at the bottom of the world

When Werner Herzog told the National Science Foundation he wanted to make a documentary in Antarctica, he warned them in advance. This was not going to be a heartwarming movie about marching penguins.

Nevertheless, the most arresting scene in "Encounters at the End of the World" does involve a penguin.

On a rocky outcropping at the bottom of the world, Herzog interviews a researcher who has spent so much time among the penguins that he barely speaks to humans. Desperate to get the researcher to talk, Herzog asks questions about penguin sex habits. The researcher seems skeptical about reports of gay penguins. Then Herzog asks if there is such a thing as madness among penguins. Do any penguins ever get so fed up with their colony that they simply go insane?

The researcher says he has never seen a penguin bashing its head against a rock, but sometimes penguins become disoriented and end up in places they shouldn't be.

Then, as if on cue, a penguin demonstrates the madness Herzog is seeking.

The lone penguin refuses to follow the others to the water to feed and refuses to return to the colony. After a few minutes, it finally turns and waddles toward the mountains, located far into the bleak, icy continent's interior. Herzog tells us that when a penguin sets out like this, nothing will stop it. It will press on until it meets its fate, which is certain death.

No marching penguins. No penguins with happy feet. It is this one penguin, which Herzog describes as "deranged," that captures Herzog's interest and, one suspects, his heart as well. If the famed German filmmaker has a soft spot for anything, it's suicidal madness. He's a romantic, albeit one with a dark outlook on life.

His earlier documentary, 2005's "Grizzly Man," covers similar terrain. Herzog tells the story of Timothy Treadwell, using, in part, Treadwell's own movie footage, left behind after his death in 2003. Treadwell's derangement, if you want to call it that, cost him his life.

Over the course of 13 summers, Treadwell, an environmentalist and activist, lived among the grizzly bears of Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska. He clashed frequently with the National Park Service, which cited him numerous times for reckless behavior. In 2003, Treadwell and his girlfriend were mauled to death and eaten by at least one bear.

Treadwell thought he was protecting the bears from humans, when in reality he needed protection from the bears. For Herzog, that is a kind of madness.

Unlike Treadwell, the scientists and support staff in "Encounters at the End of the World" are professionals with a regard for safety and a respect for the dangers the remote, untamed continent presents. Working near an active volcano or underwater beneath several feet of solid ice, they find those dangers impossible to ignore.

After seeing some of the small but monstrous predators that lurk in the Antarctic's waters, Herzog speculates that it must have been similar terrors that drove our ancestors millions of years ago to evolve to live on land. Fish evolved into amphibians and escaped the ferocious depths.

But for Herzog, that was only a temporary reprieve, and humanity's eventual end can't be prevented by combating climate change or embracing New Age, environmentalist philosophies. Herzog is nothing but dismissive of people he deems to be "tree huggers." He takes a longer view.

The vast majority of all of the species that have ever lived on Earth — more than 99 percent of them, in fact — are extinct. Those are pretty long odds against us not eventually going the way of the dinosaurs.

Yet, as depressing as this all sounds, there is something captivating about Herzog's fatalism. In spite of it all, he thinks people's hopes and dreams matter, and he is fascinated by the odd assortment of dreamers who come each summer to live in one of the world's most hostile environments — people, like that penguin, who just want to get away from it all, no matter the cost. If that is derangement, Herzog seems to sympathize.

"Encounters at the End of the World" is now available on DVD.