Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Phantom Menace, Indeed.

Something JUST hit me about the Star Wars prequels: ostensibly, the entire plot of them are about Anakin being frustrated with not having enough power to fix all the stuff in his life that stinks. If he could just control enough – say, for example, whether or not people live or die – everything would finally work out and everyone will be happy and everyone will love him. Instead, doing this turns him into the most hated and evil man in the universe, because the actual problem is not that Anakin can't fix problems, but that Anakin is a flawed, small man who has never learned how to exist within the limitations of the life he has.

Now here's the brain-twistingly insane, yet embarrassingly obvious when you actually say it aloud, thing I just realized: THIS IS, VERBATIM, WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED TO GEORGE LUCAS WHILE MAKING THESE SAME PREQUELS.

It is well-documented that Lucas has always been very vocal about his frustrations with both the original trilogy and how Hollywood functions. He's yearned for the day he could exhibit his personal vision directly, translating whatever it is he sees in his mind directly to film. Here's the problem: what's in his mind is a schizophrenic mess. He is a good filmmaker in the literal sense: he knows how to get a shot, how to light it and frame it and block it. But it's also well-documented that actors absolutely loathe his directorial style and producers cringe at his scripts. He is a cinematographer, not a storyteller. And he just can't accept that.

So: a strapping young lad with a head full of dreams helps to build an empire by exploiting the self-same system that annoys him so much. When he amasses enough raw power, finally able to exhibit total control over every aspect of his world, he does so; and in that process, he completely ruins what was beautiful about his universe and makes everyone despise him.

Just like Darth Vader. George Lucas IS Anakin Skywalker! And like Vader, Lucas is now a broken man; as a younger, more adventurous lad he did many great things (Powaqqatsi, Monkey Island, Indiana Jones, Labyrinth, Grim Fandango, Maniac Mansion – just off the top of my head). Now? He's a breathless clown encased in machines; a slave to technology, even more frustrated than ever, embittered by his inability to escape karma, lashing out at anyone who criticizes him with ruthless viciousness. Imagine being George Lucas. You can't go ANYWHERE; you get hungry for a Subway run, you can't just show up and order a meatball sub. It takes 19 underlings, a delivery car, a pseudonym, a secure system of communication between all elements in play; that sandwich costs $5000 now and by the time you get it you're not even hungry anymore, it's cold and soggy, someone probably spat in it when they figured out it was for you for “ruining their childhood”, and you hate everything.

The weirdest thing about all this is that neither the character nor his creator seem like they could do anything to stop it in the fake OR real worlds. Art doesn't just imitate life here; they are literally exact copies of one another, with parallels so vast and intricate that it boggles the mind how anyone could be inside it and not see it glaring them in the face.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Going Back To Tapes

It's finally happened: the realization that I no longer understand young people, and am therefore by definition not included in their number. I can't say exactly when this inevitable metamorphosis began. I tried to fight it. I was hip for many years of my 30s. I listened to Boards of Canada and Chromeo and Jedi Mind Tricks while simultaneously posing ironically down with the latest Beyonce single. I blogged without reserve or censorship, unafraid to be labeled a troll or an exhibitionist (or, at times, an outright racist). I straddled that fine line with young, skinny, crazy white girls, between "respecting" them as "people" while still angling to smash them in their ratchet asses. I used blatantly co-opted street terms like "smash" and "ratchet". I was a boss.

Then one day, I found myself flipping through Hip Hop Weekly, staring at pictures of Waka Flocka blazed out of his gourd and Gucci Mane with a tattoo on his face that, no matter how hard I tried to convince myself it was an ice cream cone with a lightning bolt coming out of it, still looked like an ejaculating penis, and that terrifying confession forced itself into my consciousness: I had no idea who any of these people were. Like an Alzheimer's sufferer in a nursing home, I suddenly found myself surrounded by unfamiliar faces. Who are you people? Where's my house? Are you my daughter?

I didn't want to know who they were, either. Fuck your hip hop! I grew up in the 80s, you little bitches! I was in this game when Doug E Fresh and the Fat Boys were on the radio! I got up early to be there when the record store opened the day Public Enemy's He Got Game soundtrack came out! I own vinyl! I... wait. This is what old people say, the 21st century equivalent of boasting about walking barefoot to school every day uphill in the snow. There was no turning back now, I had played my hand. I was, by my own admission, out of the loop.

I saw two options before me. I could, pathetically, try to reclaim some semblance of hipness. Download the latest Kimmy Blanco diss album, see if I can work some Taylor Swift tracks into a mashup... people still make mashups, right? I'll look that up later on my wifi-enabled Palm Tungsten when the kids at the coffeeshop can see me... huh? What's a 4G network? What do you mean everybody drinks Neuro instead of coffee now? Jesus, this is going to take some homework. I'll need some new brand names... Wet Seal? Do they make clothes for men? God damn it, I'm so fucked.

The other path, obviously, was to resolve myself to fate and bask in the glory of being blissfully free of the demands of pop culture. Delete your Facebook and Twitter accounts! Pull out the oversized plaid shirts and Doc Martens! Load up the De La Soul and Pearl Jam! My life will no longer be Y2K compatible: anything conceived after 1999 will be promptly given the Gas Face. Oh, how it feels so good to say "Gas Face", so natural and familiar. Truly this was the correct option.

I dug out my old box of cassettes and my Scott DD700B dual deck. Cassette recording was a huge part of my life for over a decade; I was a veritable master of the mixtape, back when that term meant you could expect both a mix and a tape. Nowadays, the word has been co-opted by the modern hip hop school to mean "a haphazard pastiche of my own lame-ass bullshit that I'm too embarrassed to call an album". Ha! That felt great! You damn kids, get off my lawn!

The artistry of the mixtape comes not from being able to put anything you want on it. That's easy; everyone thinks they have taste. The true beauty of the cassette come from its limitations, which have been lost in the era of infinite online cloud space and instant Music Beta accessibility. The physical limitation of a normal bias C60 is 30 minutes of content per side and no frequencies higher than 16 kHz. Even a cursory music listener would cringe at those restrictions today: what! My iPod holds 12000 songs, and I use Beats headphones!

Yes, it's true that you have 12000 songs that you kind of like on tap, but you fast forward through virtually all of them trying to find the one that strikes your mood, which is itself ever vacillating due to the schizophrenic nature of modern civilization... which that iPod and devices like it help to create. We old folks call this a "vicious circle". The vast freedom of choice becomes an enabler, creating an additive feedback loop from which there can be no escape without intentional limitations. If your tools are always changing and expanding, then by definition you can never become their master.

Which may be why so many young people today seem so lost, undirected, unsure, and scared. As John Taylor Gatto has noted:

Rich or poor, schoolchildren who face the 21st century cannot concentrate on anything for very long, they have a poor sense of time past and to come, they are mistrustful of intimacy like the children of divorce they really are (for we have divorced them from significant parental attention); they hate solitude, are cruel, materialistic, dependent, passive, violent, timid in the face of the unexpected, addicted to distraction.

It's hardly surprising that they've ended up so. Pathos is absent in the modern world. What do children of the modern age have to look forward to? Only twenty years ago, there were yet massive obstacles to overcome. The internet as we know it had yet to exist. The notion of a black president was still relegated to the realm of science fiction. Certainly we have not eradicated all problems of society, but that's not the point. To a child, the world seems infinite and unrestricted, and so they grow up believing so; with no perceptions of barriers, they develop with no drive to break them. They're like a species that evolved on an island without natural predators. Rebellion becomes passe when nothing remains to rebel against.

Even an artificial deadline creates tension; anyone who's played the original Super Mario Brothers can tell you that. As I roll gracefully into middle age, I find that what I've been most missing is that driving force, that wall to climb over to see what's on the other side; it might be as boring and disappointing as what's on this side, but so what? The act itself is an accomplishment. Ultimately, the walls of the world exist not to restrict us, but rather to keep us from overthinking. If I decide to write, I have chosen a restriction. If I decide to write a steampunk novel in an alternate Civil War history, I have chosen a large restriction. I don't need to worry about those variables anymore, which frees me to concentrate on the more important details. As religion often fills the vacant space left by nihilism, so too do limitations fill the uncertainty of directionlessness.

Don't be afraid of getting old and set in your ways. As David Mamet wrote: "The purpose of technique is to free the unconscious." That applies to living as much as film; you've figured out the generalities, now move on to the particulars.