Category Archives: pop culture

Quote for the Week

I say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit. I am then asked if I know of any artists who pulled that off. I reply, “The Beatles did.”

–Kurt Vonnegut, in Timequake (1997), Ch. 1, p. 1; courtesy of Wikiquote.

If You See Yoda on the Road, Kill Him! A Defense of The Last Jedi

I am, of course, aware that Yoda is already dead, and has been for decades (to say nothing of being a fictional character).  Bear with me on this….  Beginning in 2015, the long-dormant big-screen incarnation of the Star Wars franchise was revived.  All the original cast returned, playing their iconic characters, and fresh new faces playing new characters were also present.  It was the first time since Revenge of the Sith in 2005 that a big-screen Star Wars movie had been made at all, and the first time since Return of the Jedi in 1983–thirty-two years previously!–that the original cast was back in action.  As of this writing (July 2019), two of the movies of the third and final trilogy–The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi–have been released, with the third, The Rise of Skywalker, slated for release in five months.  Two standalone movies, Rogue One and Solo have also been released, and further movies with a new cast are projected; but the main attention has been focused on the three movies which conclude the Skywalker saga.  Fan and critical reaction has been sharply divided on the two released so far, with seeming storms of controversy regarding The Last Jedi in particular.

I don’t really have anything to add to the discussion in terms of a conventional movie review or rating.  It’s been forty-two years since the original Star Wars debuted, and I still don’t think The Empire Strikes Back has been topped.  I certainly don’t have any interest in further stirring the pot of accusations and counter-accusations of sexism, racism, political correctness, and so on and so forth.  More heat than light has been generated on this front, and I doubt there is much likelihood of dialogue in this area, anyway.

What I do want to look at is the metaphysics, or perhaps more precisely, the philosophical and spiritual themes that are present in The Last Jedi and which have been little remarked on in all the tempestuous arguments about other issues.  I think The Last Jedi has definite flaws (some of which, in fairness, were inherited from the plot of its predecessor, and some of the stupid and cockamamie decisions J. J. Abrams made in writing the script for said predecessor), drags somewhat in the middle, and arguably loses focus a bit by expanding the already expanded cast even further.  I definitely would not place it above The Empire Strikes Back.  All that said, I would argue that Last Jedi is actually the second-best movie of the seven Skywalker-centric sequels and prequels to the original Star Wars, right after Empire (and allowing for the fact that Episode IX has not yet been released).  This, I assert, is because of the themes I have already alluded to, and because The Last Jedi is the only movie in the entire Star Wars franchise to take those themes seriously since The Empire Strikes Back (Rogue One made a nod towards some of these themes, but not to the extent that Last Jedi does).  Some of these films have been around quite awhile, and some not; but just to play fair, SPOILERS ABOUND for all the movies in the franchise from this point onward–tread with caution!

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Do It Again! Pop Culture Prologue

This is the very much belated first installment in my series on sequels and repetition in pop culture.  In the brief essay on the index page for this series, I said:

My basic thesis, which I’ll be examining in posts to come is this:  Repetition, in the form of series, serials, remakes, and quotation of various tropes is at one and the same time the most characteristic feature of modern pop culture (all genres) and also the sign of its decadence and creative decline.

In order to do that, I’ll need to lay a bit of background, starting with this post.

In his classic book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton makes this interesting observation:

The sun rises every morning. I do not rise every morning; but the variation is due not to my activity, but to my inaction. Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life.

The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony.

It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore.

This rings true.  As humans, we love repetition.  As Chesterton notes, “Do it again!” is indeed the refrain, the battle cry of the young child.  We adults, having “sinned and grown old”, are not nearly as capable of infinite repetition without being wearied.  Still, even adults like things that are familiar and reliable.  Few enough things in life are, so it is small wonder that we cling to those things the we perceive as being so.  I think this is a big factor in human material and intellectual culture.  Nature is as it is, and is all too mutable for our taste.  When we build a building or paint a picture or sculpt statues or spin tales, we are trying, by our art, to make something permanent out of the impermanence of the cosmos we find ourselves in.  Aristotle noted that poetry (by which he could be taken as meaning more or less what we call “fiction”) is more philosophical than history (“nonfiction”) because while history tells us only what happened, poetry tells us what could happen or might happen or ought to happen.  In short, it gives us lasting structure in an ephemeral world.

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Fandom

Last time we looked at the rise of mass media and the resultant birth of pop culture as we know it.  Over time, as even cheaper forms of print came into being (penny dreadfuls, dime novels, and pulps) and new media were developed (movies, radio, and television), there came into being the phenomenon we know as fandom.

“Fan”, of course, is originally an abbreviation of “fanatic”.  A fan is fanatic about his favorite books, TV show, band, or whatever.  The term originated in America in the late 19th Century–not surprising, since America at that time was rapidly becoming the epicenter for all the various media that made fans and fandom possible.  “Fandom” appears around the same time, but is very rarely seen until the second half of the 20th Century, becoming more and more common from the 1970’s onward.  “Fandom” is the subculture of fans of a given franchise, property, or other media entity.  Such subculture includes, but is not limited to, networking among fans, fan clubs and societies of various sorts, fan-produced magazines (“‘zines”, often produced on the cheap with mimeograph machines in decades past), fan-written fiction (“fan fiction” or “fanfic”–with modern technology, fan films have become common, too), fan conventions (“cons”), cosplay, and various forums, discussion boards, and zones on the Internet.

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Einstein and the Millennium Falcon–the Timeline of The Empire Strikes Back

After forty-one years and counting of the Star Wars franchise, which has brought us ten movies, seven television series, and God knows how many books, comics, works-in-progress, and various other media artifacts, I still maintain that the pinnacle of them all was the second movie (Episode V), The Empire Strikes Back.  I will take that statement as self-evident 🙂 and thus I don’t intend to make that argument here.  Rather, I recently wrote a post about space in which I mentioned time dilation in The Empire Strikes Back, and said that that would be material for another post.  This is that post.

I watched The Empire Strikes Back when it came out in 1980, the summer after my junior year in high school.  It was long-anticipated, and as I’ve mentioned before, some loud-mouthed acquaintances, having read the book before the movie came out, spoiled the big reveal about Darth Vader being Luke’s father.  Despite this, I found I enjoyed the movie enormously, more even than I had the first.  I think this is a good demonstration of an argument made by the Plaid Adder, a blogger I follow.  She says that if a reveal is properly done, then a spoiler–finding out about it ahead of time–doesn’t, in fact, spoil the show.  This was definitely the case with me and Empire.

Anyway, I don’t know when I got to thinking about the specific issue I want to discuss today, but it gradually presented itself to me over the course of a few years.  I don’t think I was aware of it at the time I watched the movie for the first time; but I think I had the matter articulated by the time I was in college.  To make it clear just what I’m talking about, let’s have a quick recap of the relevant events of the movie.

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Star Trek or Star Wars?

Star Trek, of course–what kind of question is that?  Actually, if I’m going to write an essay, I should have more to say….

Star Trek, in its original incarnation (which I will henceforth refer to by the standard fan abbreviation TOS for “The Original Series”) began its prime-time network run on NBC in 1966, at which time I was three years old.  Its last season ended in 1969, at which time I was six, and about to begin the first grade.  I know Mom and Dad watched it, so I no doubt did, as well.  I’ve seen every episode multiple times since, and given that, it’s hard to sort out any genuine memories of the series’s original airing.

It doesn’t really matter, though.  Throughout my childhood and young adulthood, TOS was more or less constantly in syndication somewhere on one channel or another.  Every time it was available on any of the channels we got, I always watched it.  For reasons that are obscure, certain episodes (e.g. “The City on the Edge of Forever” and “A Piece of the Action”) were in very heavy rotation, whereas others (such as “Errand of Mercy” and the insanely elusive “The Mark of Gideon”) were rarely if ever aired.  I made it my goal to watch every one of the original seventy-nine episodes at least once.  I set this goal at the age of around twelve or thirteen, and it took into my mid-twenties to complete it, but complete it I did.  In the meantime, my involvement with Star Trek was expanding far beyond watching reruns.

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What Is Needed for Good Science Fiction

This is a follow-up of sorts to my recent post on aliens, robots, and perpetual motion.  There, I rather harshly criticized the tendency of many science fiction (henceforth SF) writers to portray robots, androids, and sometimes aliens as being capable of functioning with no energy inputs of any kind.  It gets a bit irritating for those of us who are scientifically inclined, and it would be nice, once in a while, to see someone actually address the issue—having a robot being charged, for example.

Despite this, I have still enjoyed many books, movies, and TV series with such perpetual-motion robots.  I watched Star Trek:  The Next Generation throughout its run, despite the fact that Data never once was shown being charged.  I also have read all the robot stories of the granddaddy of robot stories, Isaac Asimov.  Even he, to the best of my knowledge, never explained how robots are powered (I am open to correction on this if anyone has any references).  Certainly, Asimov knew better.  The thing is that, as he himself pointed out, the appeal of robots in fiction is not mainly about how they work, but our fascination with human-like beings we ourselves have created.  It is the mixed fascination and fear, expressed as far back as Frankenstein—fascination that we ourselves become like God; fear that our creations will rise up against us.  The very play that gave us the word “robot”, R.U.R. (an abbreviation for “Rossum’s Universal Robots”), by Karel Čapek, expresses this fear explicitly—the robots rise up and overthrow mankind.

The point is that sometimes SF gives us potent themes that are more important than details that get the science exactly right.  This leads to the topic I want to talk about here:  What should one expect from good SF in terms of scientific accuracy?  That is a long-debated topic, and I make no claims to come to a definitive conclusion here; but I do want to look at some of the things that work for me, personally, at least.

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Where Have You Gone, Carl Sagan?

Sagan and Carson

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?  A nation turns its lonely eyes to you–Simon and Garfunkel, “Mrs. Robinson”

Sometimes I feel that way about Carl Sagan.  Carl Sagan, for those of my readers who may be too young to know of him, was probably the greatest and most familiar science popularizer of the last century.  He was especially visible throughout the 1970’s, which was a partial inspiration of this series, of which this is the long-delayed first post. Sagan was more than just a 70’s icon, though.  I think he is a symbol of a bygone–and in some ways, better–time.

Carl Sagan had an M.S. in physics and a doctorate in astronomy and astrophysics.  At various times, he worked closely with NASA (he conceived the idea for the plaque placed on the space probes Pioneer10 and Pioneer 11) , had Top Secret clearance at the U.S. Air Force and Secret clearance with NASA, was a consultant to the RAND Corporation, published research on the atmosphere of Venus, and researched the possibility of extraterrestrial life.  For nearly the last thirty years of his life, he was associated with Cornell University.  Beyond his professional and scientific accomplishments, substantial as they were, Sagan was best known for his extraordinary effectiveness in bringing science to the masses through all the available media of the day:  print (magazines, newspapers, and books), film, and TV.  Had he survived to today (he died, tragically, of complications related to myelodysplasia at the age of sixty-two in 1996), I don’t doubt he would have had a substantial social media presence.

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The Dread Pirate Robert Explains the First Noble Truth

MST3K: The Return

Awhile back, I wrote a series on Mystery Science Theater 3000.  My main focus was on what I saw as the archetypes of the Trickster and the Holy Fool that one could discern in the series.  However, I also talked a little bit about how I came to be a fan of the show, and my thoughts on the two hosts, Joel Hodgson and Mike Nelson.  The previous seasons have been around long enough that I assume everyone has seen them by now, and I won’t be discussing them, anyway.

As MST3K fans are doubtless aware, in April of 2017, the show, after many years off the air, returned with much fanfare and popular acclaim, as well as with new cast.  I watched the new season–the 11th–and enjoyed it.  It occurred to me that having written previously on MST3K, I should post something about its newest iteration.  However, alas, at that time, I had lapsed from regular blogging.  Of late, I have got back to at least periodic writing here at the Chequer-Board.  I decided, therefore, that it was high time that I should return to MST3K and to write about my thoughts on the revived show.

Spoiler Alert:  There will be mild spoilers for Season 11 below.

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