Archive for category Film

Anakin’s Redemption

For the past three weeks my seven year old son has been addicted to Wii Star Wars Lego: the Complete Saga.   The game goes through the main parts of every episode.  Before that, he’d been building Star Wars Lego sets, and watched the films.  His brother, who turns five in a week, has been watching, learning and listening.  He even plays the Wii game, not as good as his brother, but better than his father (me).

On Sunday we made the trek to Portland for the Children’s museum, Christmas lights, and a visit to the bookstore.  There the boys found a book of Star Wars stickers.  As we waited in line to pay, they were going through, talking about the characters, what episode they’re in, as well as analyzing the weapons (different kinds of “walkers,” etc.)   Others in line chuckled, “wow, they’re into Star Wars,” one woman remarked.   I thought I was a Star Wars fan, but I don’t know the cast of characters the way they do.   And even though until recently the four year old still thought Darth Vader went to the “dark side of the forest,” they know the material.

I was thinking about this and a recent discussion on a different blog about the death penalty.  One amazing aspect of the Star Wars story is the ambiguity of the Anakin Skywalker story.   In The Phantom Menace Anakin is a lovable young boy, a slave living with his mom and owned by a junk yard dealer.  He wins his freedom, but must leave his mom behind, a very difficult choice.  He is befriended by Padme Amidala, the young queen of Naboo.   In The Clone Wars, now trained as a Jedi, he falls in love with Padme, and battles his own demons, as he feels distrusted by the Jedi rulers, and angered by injustice.  Finally in Revenge of the Sith he is tempted to the dark side of the force, joins the Emperor, and engages in a mass slaughter, including hundreds of children training to be Jedi.

George Lucas has a brilliant way of pulling us along with Anakin, showing how his tortured feelings, especially after the death of his mother and his visions of Padme, now his pregnant wife, dying in pain haunt him.   In weakness the emperor seduces him to embrace evil, telling him it is for the greater good, and that he can help save his wife’s life.   Yet out of anger he ends up being the one to kill Padme, hitting and weakening her to the point that she would die in childbirth.

Of course, in A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, the original episodes from the 70s and early 80s (episodes 4, 5, and 6), Anakin has become Darth Vader, the ultimate villain.   To his original war crimes he adds the destruction of an entire planet, torture, and presumably acts of murder and genocide that go beyond any human list of crimes.

The film turns from a rebel group fighting the evil empire to one of Luke Skywalker who, after being trained as a Jedi, learns the terrible fact that Darth Vader is really his father.  He had been told that Anakin Skywalker was killed by Vader.   This creates a similar drama of anger and weakness that Anakin experienced, as Vader tries to seduce Luke to join the dark side.

Luke, however, senses there is still good in his father, even as everyone else is convinced that Anakin has been lost.  In the end Darth Vader, seeing the Emperor ready to kill Luke, turns on the Emperor and saves his son’s life.  He tells Luke that he was right, there was still good in him.   Darth Vader dies, but now he is again Anakin Skywalker.   In a celebration scene we see the spirits of Yoda, Obe-Wan and Anakin together, reunited, as Anakin has rejoined the Jedi.   Luke and his sister Lea (twins born to Padme before she died; Anakin’s children) live to carry on the Jedi tradition.

In the blog discussion I opposed the death penalty, in part because people can change.  A couple of Christians supporting the death penalty made what I thought a rather weak argument – it’s OK for the state to kill because a verse of the Bible says states have the right to wield the sword.  The fact its been proven that the state is sometimes wrong and kills innocents didn’t seem to have an impact, but I also pointed out that it’s possible for hardened criminals at some point to turn their lives around.   Wouldn’t a Christian want life to continue so the soul would have a chance for salvation?  Isn’t that the same argument for opposition to abortion (the Christians arguing with me oppose abortion rights)?

One thing I like about fiction is it’s ability to build a thought experiment and then connect it to emotion in ways that lead us to paradoxical conclusions.  We all learn to love Anakin, hate Vader, and then celebrate his redemption.   Few would stand at the end and say “it’s horrible that Anakin was able to see his son and die happy (and live happy in the afterlife) after all the suffering he caused.”   In this fictional thought experiment, our knowledge of Anakin means we celebrate his redemption, and see his evil as having been caused by fear, hate, and anger — all too human emotions.   We even understand him, and empathize with how he shuts out all emotion when he turns to the dark side.

Clearly, murderers and dangerous felons need to be separated from society.   And most are far from being romantic Jedi knights serving the Galactic Republic.   But perhaps if we looked at everyone as humans acting out of human emotion gone in wild directions in sometimes painful circumstances ranging from child abuse to life stresses beyond what are normally faced, we’d understand and pity the criminal as much as the victim.   Perhaps the self-righteous condemnation of the “perp” and concern for the victim would give way to a more complex set of concerns for all involved.   Perhaps we’d be able to say that the death penalty is wrong — that while we may need to remove this person from everyday society, there still could be a chance he or she could do some good, or choose a different direction.  Perhaps even those close to victims would see that the death of a murderer does no good – it only adds to the tragedy of that death.

To be sure, most probably won’t find their redemption.  They will be more like Emperor Palpatine or Darth Maul, locked in a fog of fear, hate and anger that perpetuates and causes danger.   Many who are guilty of far less serious crimes than murder are likely not going to find a path out of a sad, violent existence.

Still, perhaps we need to see the humanity of all, as painful and ugly as it can be.  The way Lucas made Anakin understandable when he went through his fall was to show him battling with the same emotions we all encounter.   We could all imagine making those same kinds of errors in the right (or wrong) circumstances/moments of weakness.   That realization — that each of us is capable of both the best and the worst behaviors offered by humanity, breeds a sense of humility and compassion.  If we can touch that, we can forgive.   If we can forgive, we can both change and help others change.


Avatar: Best Movie Ever?

This was a good movie weekend.  On New Year’s Day we took the kids to see The Frog and the Princess.  It was a wonderful Disney children’s film, with a positive message, good music, and fun.  Nothing  political or controversial, just one of the better Disney films.  But yesterday we (sans kids)  braved a significant snow storm (20 or so inches) to see Avatar.   It was worth it.

I was skeptical at first.  I have never liked 3-D movies or other-worldly ‘fantasy’ films.   Lord of the Rings was utterly forgettable to me.   However, the 3-D effects were so woven into the story that you could literally forget you had the glasses on.  It didn’t have the gimmicky 3D tricks; instead, I felt transported into the beautiful, exotic, and intriguing world of Pandora.   The beauty of the film cannot be understated – James Cameron created a world that was both delightful and exotic, I would watch it again for that alone.

The story, however, was both timely and powerful.   Spoiler alert: do not read further if you do not want to know details of the movie. Pandora appears to be a moon of Jupiter, able to support life.  It is 2154, and the earth is in dire straights.  From the dialogue one hears that there have been wars in Nigeria, Venezuela and elsewhere, as apparently there has been a fight for oil and resources.  Pandora has a vastly sought after mineral, oddly named Unobtanium, which will earn the corporation mining it huge amounts of money — and perhaps save the earth from an energy crisis that will cause collapse.   A private corporation with hired “security” — mostly former military people — are there to protect the mining operation.  Alas, a primitive native tribe lives right where the mining is supposed to occur.  They refuse to leave, as the Earth folk have nothing of value to them.

This could be Dances With Wolves meets Star Wars.   As a sop to the scientists, there is an effort to reach out to the natives and bribe them to leave their hometree (a huge mega-tree).   To make communication easier “Avatars” are created, genetically engineered bodies which allow the humans to take the form of the natives, transferring brain functions from their own body (held in a coffin like chamber) to the Avatar.   The hero, an ex-marine there only because his scientist twin brother was killed and the Avatar is built around an individual’s genetic code, is to provide security for the scientists.   On his first mission he gets separated and lost, only to be rescued by a native who has a sign not to kill this “dream walker.”

I won’t go into much more detail.  The hero Jake (who in his human body has lost the use of his legs)  learns the ways of the natives and realizes that attacking them would be an act of evil.  Yet before he realized this, he had given very helpful information to the military.   The Navi accept him, and after learning their language and ways, initiate him into their clan.  But the military is ready to strike, and he has to somehow defeat a high tech military power.   The messages that stick out to me, however, go beyond the plot:

1) We killed our mother.   In a poignant scene of prayer at the spirit-tree, Jake in his Navi body asks for help in defeating the Earth forces.   He realizes that Pandora is a web of life, and in describing the forces about to attack he says “we killed our mother.”  We separated ourselves from nature and from our connections to each other, replacing it with cold, rational, materialist greed.    From the corporate geek heading the operation to the military Colonel who sees the Navi as not much more than blue monkeys, it’s clear who is evil and who is good.   This was reminiscent of Dances with Wolves, but more poignant in that it looked much like the US in Iraq or Afghanistan, not some past incident we can look back on and say, “well, that was a past generation.”

2) The value of life.   The Navi are discounted by the Earth people because they lack technology.   The Navi live off the land, and by all accounts are primitive.   Yet they value all life in a deep, spiritual way.   Their beliefs are laughed at — such silly naive creatures, believing in a deity!   When the hero and the scientists try to stop the military they are derided as tree huggers, and monkey lovers.  Think about how we in the US (and Europe during colonial times) looked at other peoples.   Towel heads.   Primitives.   Different.  Savage.  Their lives are worth less than ours because we have  better technology and material wealth.   We think nothing of wars to secure our “way of life.”   How many times have people privately admitted that to protect our “way of life” (read: material prosperity) it is worth wars that kill countless innocents and destroy cultures overseas.  By abstracting others into something sub-human because they aren’t like us, we rationalize evil.    They are different.   We need their unobtanium (or oil) and thus we can intervene and even destroy their culture.

3.  How does it feel to betray your race?   The Colonel asks that question as he confronts Jake as Navi.   Jake did betray his race — he is condemning earth to more problems by protecting the Navi.   A higher good exists than loyalty to race — or nation.  Just as Germans who worked against the Nazis in WWII were indeed traitors to their country, they were nonetheless doing what is right.   There is no dishonor in treason if your country is engaged in evil, and you are standing for a higher principle.    When the Navi are victorious the audience cheered.   When the film ended there was applause — rare these days in movie theaters.   The film caused people to root against what was clearly an American military operation in favor of a strange and exotic native race.  In a vivid and simple manner the film portrayed an undeniable truth: good and evil do not depend on nation or race.

The moral of the film is a time honored one of myths throughout history.   The intriguing relationships and interactions also fit the model of a mythic good vs. evil story, much like Star Wars.  I left the theater with emotions I’ve only experienced a couple times.   When I watched Star Wars in 1977, I left feeling like I had seen something amazing — a movie unlike any I had seen before.    When on January 17, 1991 I watched Dances With Wolves, the day after Operation Desert Storm began in Iraq, I felt I had seen a film with one of the most powerful moral messages imaginable, perfect for that time.     This was a mix of both.   The beauty of Pandora, the suspense in a nonetheless predictable story line, the powerful moral message, brought home in a way where there was a clear sense of good and evil, transcending nationalism, moral relativism, and self-interest, all make this one of the best movies of all time.

And now, as we see our environmental problems grow, increasing wars over resources, a tendency to put “stuff” over people, and a loss of connection with nature and the spiritual side of life, this movie is very timely.    In our western haste to declare our individualism, we forget that no one is truly an autonomous independent individual, we are all connected, our capacities, opportunities and core beliefs come from our culture and environment.   As a culture, we seem to have fogotten that.   I’m sure the right wing will mock it’s environmental message and how it gets audiences to root against the US military (albeit more a private Blackwater type group) during a so-called “time of war” here.   But as in the film, our wars now are wars are imperialistic, as we arrogantly try to alter other cultures for our own benefit.

Yesterday President Obama and his family saw the film while on vacation in Hawaii.  I can only hope that he ponders the moral of the film as he decides how to handle the military and economic problems facing us.   We don’t need a better military plan or new economic stimulus.   We need a sense of spiritual renewal.  Jimmy Carter called for that, but we never acted on it.   A movie is only entertainment, but it also reflects and impacts our culture.   I hope it makes people think a little about the hear and now, even as they enjoy a story about a mythical future.


Good Night and Good Luck

Monday was the first day of “May term,” and I’m teaching American Foreign Policy.  Since each day of class is three hours long, on the first day we watched the film Good Night and Good Luck, starring David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow and George Clooney as Fred Friendly.    It details the way in which Murrow helped start the downfall of Joe McCarthy and his witch hunts by using the power of the media to make clear to the public what was going on.  It’s fascinating both how many of the issues concerning the media and foreign policy still exist, and how much has changed.

At that time (early 50s) there were three big television networks, and they relied completely on corporate sponsors.   There were also a plethora of newspapers, as the print media thrived.    Newspapers and especially TV news self-censored, and as Murrow’s 1958 speech to the Radio and Television News Directors Association (reproduced in part in the film) made clear, concern about the media focusing only on entertainment at the neglect of serious issues was as real then as it is today.

It is hard to imagine the government having the power to terrorize now at a McCarthy level.   Sure, there was a lot of self-censorship and various forms of pressure — the Dixie Chicks not getting played by some stations after they criticized President Bush, Attorney General Ashcroft saying people should ‘watch what they say,’ Chris Hedges being heckled at a 2003 commencement address, and the weird and brief renaming of French fries as ‘freedom fries.

Yet if you didn’t care about public pressure, you could blog to your heart’s content, read news from around the world, and join protests against US policy.   Although the paranoia level post 9-11 was similar to the red scare days of McCarthy, there was more freedom, and abundant media outlets.  While CNN may be overly sensationalized, FOX leans to the right and MSNBC apparently a bit to the left, they still provide more variety than the half hour nightly news shows of the “big 3” in an earlier era.

I admit I have a strong pro-journalism bias.  I am convinced that the freedom of a country, as well as its ability to avoid corruption, relies on a free and open media.    Those who join the legions of reporters to bring us the news play just as important of a role, if not more important, than soldiers who defend the country or government officials who run the bureaucracies.   It is up to them to keep us informed, to take seriously the importance of public discourse on the issues of the day, and to recognize multiple perspectives and the fact that it is impossible to completely avoid bias.

However, by its nature the news media is independent of government and thus has to support itself and pay for the resources it uses.   Even public radio and television increasingly rely on grants and donations.   This also means they are beholden to the market — a market that exists on the basis of what sells, not what is important to know.

Emotion sells.   Glenn Beck scaring people about ‘coming tyranny’ sells, or Rush Limbaugh ranting about the ‘evil liberals,’ cherry picking outlandish statements to make it seem like all on the left are kookie extremists gets noticed.   Sean Hannity takes quotes and statements out of context to weave an utterly dishonest storyline designed to get his listeners mad, or to mock the left.  On the left, Keith Olbermann lists the “world’s worst person,” choosing a ill chosen statement or action to focus upon — riling up his viewers.   Jon Stewart uses humor, and left-wing talk radio demonizes Bush and the Republicans.   We’ve had yellow journalism for over a century, so this is nothing new (remember the Hurst legacy), and slanted humor is no big deal (Stewart admits his is ‘fake news.’)

But the Becks, Olbermanns, and Hannitys blur the line between pundit and journalist, and the general growth of emotion-laden media sources bleeds over into ‘serious’ news, which feels an increasing need to entertain in order to maintain ratings.   Moreover, following the lead of the ‘left vs. right’ politics from the gut, the media starts to paint it as simply ‘two different perspectives,’ with the idea you need to show ‘both sides’ to be fair.  In this kind of bipolar relativism the result is to silence views that don’t easy fit into ‘left vs. right,’ and magnify the importance of the extremes.    Instead of trying to dig for truth, explore multiple perspectives, or work things out through discussion, you’re given two sides, and it’s hinted that you have to choose which to believe.   Truth is pre-packaged into different interpretive vessels, you don’t have to do any work, it’s either A or B.

Of course, the choice of “left” or “right” as defined by political junkies is a false choice  requiring citizens to sacrifice logic and go with whatever side sells its product more effectively.

Great journalists like Murrow or Walter Cronkite were not without bias — but they also had a sense of wanting to tell things as they are, and cut through the BS.  That’s what we need from journalists — to decipher the political rhetoric and explain what is really being said, rather than just giving us the words of the different participants.   We need them to dig out the facts of the story, explain reasonable interpretations of those facts, and fairly assess the meaning.   They will have bias; total objectivity is impossible.  But if they put their duty to our democratic republic ahead of any political bias or personal whim, they can play a positive role.   Murrow was accused of bias in going after McCarthy — but it was a bias that reflected his honest assessment that McCarthy was acting against all that this country stands for, and that being silent on that would be to be complicate in the crime.

Ultimately, the media will do this for us if we reward it with higher ratings and more support than we reward the ‘discourse from the gut’ – the emotion talk radio and partisan rhetoric.   At this point we as a culture aren’t yet able to do this as well as we should.  But yet our media is free, we are able to access sources we never could before, and somehow I find myself optimistic.  Compared to the ideal we have a long way to go, and the prominence of manipulative emotional appeals in the media creates real dangers.  Compared to where we’ve been, however, there has been progress.   And that’s what democracy is all about — improvements over time.


They Cheated

SPOILER ALERT:  this blog post makes no attempt to avoid giving away information about the movie “Star Trek.”  Do not read further if you do not want to know how it goes.


My first thought upon leaving the movie “Star Trek” tonight was that they cheated.  I was excited to learn about the early days of Kirk, Spock and the gang, perhaps how they came together to be on the Enterprise, and other interesting bits about their history.   I hoped the movie would be character driven (it was) and mix action and a change to really get to know the main characters (it did).  But we didn’t see anything about the history of the cast of the original series.  This wasn’t their history at all.  Instead, it was an alternate history, from an alternate universe where Vulcan was destroyed, Kirk lost his father at birth, and the crew is brought together early as the Federation is in peril.

It’s not that I don’t like the idea.   Earlier this week I took a walk with my friend Steve Pane, who had already seen the film with his family.  He gave away nothing of the story, just noting that his wife enjoyed it even without knowing the original series, and his sons wanted to watch some of the original episodes after seeing it.   We started talking about episodes, and both agreed that “City on the Edge of Forever” was one of the finest, where Kirk stops McCoy from saving Edith Kieler (Joan Collins) in 1930s New York because it would change history allowing the Nazis to win WWII.  Changing history was a big no-no in the original Star Trek, it made time travel dangerous (the later Trek series did, to be sure, move away from that stance.)

I told Steve I thought the fear of changing the future was stupid.   If you got to the past and you changed something, it would just create a new timeline — the old timeline would have to still exist (otherwise there could not have been the creation of a new one) and you’d just have different realities.  So if time travel backwards is possible, so would be alternate time lines.   Steve smiled and said, “I agree and will say no more.”  I looked him quizzically — it seemed an odd response.  “We’ll talk Monday,” he concluded.  I knew then that timelines would be a part of the show; I didn’t realize it would be the device they’d build it around!

Still, I couldn’t help but feel cheated.  I still didn’t know about the past of the original series’ cast of characters, these were people of a different timeline creating different experiences.  That meant they weren’t precisely the same people.

Then it hit me: the film was overt about the fact it was cheating.  It featured Kirk cheating on the Kobayashi Maru, a Starfleet test designed to be unwinnable (mentioned in the original series, as well as the second Star Trek movie).  Spock was the designer of the test, and presses charges against Kirk.  It then features an elderly Spock coming back from the future (having gotten accidently caught in a black hole).   Before he can do anything he is captured by the bad guy (the Romulan Nero) and sent on a planet to watch Vulcan be destroyed.   There he meets Kirk, and, in Kirk’s word, “cheats.”  He tells Kirk what’s happening, and how he has to stop it.

In other words, cheating was a theme of the film, and I think the producer knew it was what he was doing too.   Doing it this way they can now reinvent the original Roddenberry cast, younger and gritier, without being tied down by all the ‘facts’ of the first series.   They aren’t condemned to be just younger versions of Kirk, Spock, et al., setting up a series that began 43 years ago.  They have their own uncharted universe, already profoundly different than the one of the original series.

That can be forgiven.  The original series played by ear early on, not quite realizing that every throw away line, reference to the past, or technological trick would become a holy grail to which all future Star Trek series and movies would have to be faithful.    Star Trek’s strength was not its science fiction, nor even its plot (by year three the scripts were often really bad).  The strength was its characters — likable, flawed, and working as a team.   Without cheating, there’d be no way to really recapture that.    A pre-quel that had to stay loyal to everything that came before (ie, after) would be too limited.   A new series with characters like the original would be seen as simple mimickry of the old.   This gives them a chance for a 21st century redo of a formula that worked.

To be sure, I don’t know if they’re going to make this into a TV series — or perhaps simple have a sequel or two.   But they have that option.

It’s also got some pretty cool philosophical implications.  What if there can be different realities, where even whole civilizations are wiped out in one timeline, but dominate another?   Is there an Earth history where Carthage defeated Rome and altered the entire civilizational history of the planet?  Where Rome took the next step and developed technology that allowed it to expand further, developing things like automobiles around 600 AD?   Where Jesus died as an infant, Muhammad was killed early by the Quraysh, and the main world religion became Zorastrianism?

Or to take it a step farther, if old Spock can meet young Spock (old Spock entered a new time line, and met that timeline’s Spock), is it possible that there could be multiples of each of us, living very different lives.  Or a step further, could all our different aspects populate even a single timeline, meaning that all the conflicts, love, and hate we have for each other in this world is really just different aspects of ourself interacting?

In any event, it was a good movie and hopefully a good take off to a new set of Star Trek adventures.    I’ve been a Star Trek fan as long as I can remember (probably back when I was very little and the originals were still on weekly), and have seen every movie that came out, many on their opening night.  So this was a treat.  But next week I’ll have another treat, a movie I’ve been waiting over a year for is out, and I’ll see it soon: Angels and Demons. But tonight was Star Trek night.   And, by cheating, the film’s producers and writers scored a true victory.