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Peak Star Wars

Since the debut in 1977 the franchise Star Wars has maintained a flowing current through our ever changing popular culture landscape. Unlike Star Trek which ebbed into near oblivion several times since its television debut in the 1960s, Star Wars held on as a memory of longtime fans. Its characters spread throughout the globe with Yoda and the Force two of the elements quick on the tongue of even the most facile devotee.

Then something happened. The franchise that perfected the art of tie-ins, toys, and merchandising exploded again brighter and louder than the two Death Stars detonating combined. It came before the Disney buy-out, when the Lucas-helmed Episodes I, II, and III. Since then, and re-energized by the empire of the mouse, Star Wars has become pervasive, ever expanding, and omnipresent. As a life-long Star Wars fan I never thought I’d say this…we’ve reach peak Star Wars and I am jumping off the bandwagon.

I saw Rogue One a few weeks after its opening. That alone is unheard of for this fan of the Rebellion as every other film in the franchise, in my recollection, I saw on opening weekend. Why didn’t I leap aboard Rogue One? Many reasons. The election wore me out, school has been demanding, and most importantly, I realized I was burned out by all consuming Star Wars.

Rogue One was a serviceable film. Not terrible, but not great. Its flaws were mostly aesthetic, in my opinion. While set in the weeks preceding A New Hope, Rogue One felt strangely discontinuous. The film’s directorial style, guided by the talented Gareth Edwards the man responsible for the solid indie sci-fi film Monsters, was uninspired and akin to 21st century cable film-making. It was supposed to be within and emulate a movie made in the 1970s, in a universe crafted with 1970s hairstyles and costume materials, with gear and guns from World War I and World War II. Rogue One had none of those elements or feelings. What Rogue One lacked was ‘texture.’ It lacked the texture of the time its universe was created, the weapons were plastic, not real steel, the costuming was canvas and leather, not nylon and plastic. The hairstyles were 21st century, not coifs squarely in the heart of the disco-era.

This command to direct a “period” film with modern touches, textures, and aesthetics alienated this old timer. It is tricky to direct a film like Rogue One. It won’t be great film making but it also won’t be good enough for the old school fans, such as me. Ultimately, I do not fault Rogue One or its director. Instead I criticize the business that has turned something that was somehow both cult and successful into a product that has become so bland, at times derivative, that it lacks the energy and innocence. Star Wars was George Lucas homage to Hidden Fortress. Star Wars was space opera. Star Wars was a western in space.

Star Wars today, all of its sequels and ‘Star Wars Stories’, is a machine without inspiration or texture. It sits on a mountain of toys and diffused financial interests. It is less about entertainment and more about capital. Movie-making is a business, full stop. I get it. But what has happened to a film franchise known for its kit-bashed aesthetic and boot strap ethics? It panders to fans who refuse to leave the past behind. It regurgitates the same basic story over and over. It i a franchise which has lost its energy and has confused the bottom-line with genuine entertainment.

A copy of a copy looses its vibrancy and its texture. Rogue One, as Star Wars goes, has lost its texture.

 

 

 

Star Wars Movies Need to be Period Pieces

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The costumes! The weapons! The Hair!

To me when I think of Star Wars I think special effects, Chewbacca, Darth Vader, and sideburns. What? Let me explain.

I finally got around to re-watching The Force Awakens last week. I found it fairly entertaining the first time, but during the second viewing I was a little bored. I am not sure why and it is not a wholesale indictment of the film, my disliking it. There was something off. Perhaps it was the vague whiff of rehash of a New Hope. Or maybe I couldn’t ignore the echoing howls from fans demanding a romance between characters. No offense folks, but I paid to see a Space Opera not a Soap Opera.

However I realized between the first and second watching of The Force Awakens there is a certain amount of aesthetic authenticity missing in this nascent cinema go-around. Yes, The Force Awakens looked sort of like Star Wars IV, V, VI in costumes, but the blasters were a weird mix of cheap plastic feather-light Nerf props and weird 21st century video-game plasma melee weapons. The new Stormtroopers looked like an advance generation of the classic design, so that worked. Same for the new X-Wings and pilot jumpsuits. Then what was off, aesthetically? Everything. Yes, I know The Force Awakens takes place some 30 years after Jedi and only Rogue One and the other spin-offs take place in the same time frame as the “original” trio. Let me explain.

First off, this is not an indictment of lens flare or director choice color pallets; nor a complaint about casting or even the basic plot. My beef is the original Star Wars movies- New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi- weren’t movies conjured from a galaxy far, far away. No, they were creations of aesthetics of the 1970s and very early 1980s. This is vitally important to understanding why for some of us, the new films seem a little off and we can’t put our finger on why. Go back and watch the Star Wars prequels. For all their issues, they are films that look kind of like Star Wars but not really. They crib from the design sheet of the original trilogy but lack the production/costume/makeup/hair continuity to them. Stylistically it would make sense to have pushed the aesthetic to the dawn of the space age, say the early 1960s. Instead they look like late 1990s movies.

But back to aesthetics, let me show you.

Via starwarsscreencaps.com

The above image of Luke and Aunt Beru is vintage 1970s. Hair especially. Clothes, like Beru’s wide collar farmer print shirt and denim smock, are products of costume designs of the 1970s. Now, remember, its about aesthetics.

                                                     Via NotShallow.org

Above is a classic denim ad from a department store catalog. Bits and pieces of these everyday clothes could have easily been thrown on working class extras at Mos Eisley or blue milk farmers.

via Starwarsscreencaps.com

Here, in the infamous scene where we see Vader encounter skeptical techno-crats, the style of the Star Wars universe is directly influenced by the aesthetic of the 1970s. Gloss black table, probably plastic, and the single piece chairs are the sleek yet dated decor of four decades ago. They work because they are objects out of time. Also, notice the hair again. By example, here is a 1970s coffee table.

       Via Panomo.com

Very Star Wars like, no?

via Starwarsscreencaps.com

Finally, the Cantina. This is 1970s barroom at its most glorious. Plastic race-track top, padded bumpers and a kit-bashed appearance that made a New Hope so different. It was design in a messy way. It was the original shabby-chic. One part production design, one part budgetary constraints.

So, my point is this…if you want to make a aesthetically authentic, therefore subconsciously pleasing Star Wars film without having to slavishly meet the needs of fandom, production and costume design the movie as if you were making a film in the 1970s or even early 1980s, about a story set in a distant time. Think coarse polyester and rotary phones, think American Hustle or Studio 54; and expunge touchscreens or cellphones from your creativity memory. Future Star Wars movies need to aesthetically echo the time the universe was originally created, not just mirror a design philosophy in perpetuity. A copy of a copy gets dull with each pass.

 

 

Cusp of New Year

Hello friends…

I wanted to write a quick note to both occasional visitor and loyal reader. The blog has obviously been on an unannounced hiatus during the summer and fall. For a variety of reasons- from a serious health scare to classes- the world of Asymmetric Creativity has taken a back seat.

We are a week away from 2016 and I hope to be blogging regularly as the last of my medical issues go by the wayside and I settle in once again as a full-time college student.

Again, thanks for continuing to visit the site and I look forward to seeing you all next year (in a week.)

K

Assault on Original Sci-Fi: Have Fans Become Agents of the Machine?

Something has happened to original celluloid science/speculative fiction in recent years. Creators of new ideas, those stories generated through inspiration or ideas scribbled in notebooks as a child, are assailed and mercilessly pilloried for seemingly minor entertainment transgressions.

Somewhere along the line some vocal fans- yes every film is designed for public consumption as part of the entertainment industry- have gone from spectators to participants in the shaping and marketing of science fiction films. Money is to be made by giving the fans what they want, true. But what about original works that make it the silver screen? Advocates for original, not adapted stories, are few and far between. It seems a fashion to deliberately mock and attack creators of original science fiction ideas on film.

If you await the next big-named science fiction/superhero franchise, there is no quarrel. We find comfort in the familiar and escapist. But the quarrel lay with those who hoist these new movies above all others and denigrate ideas that aren’t spawned, in particular, from sequential art exemplified with the recent release of Avengers: Age of Ultron.

What seems to happen as of late are directors berated by “sci-fi” fans for their efforts. I posit that fans seeking voice online are in fact fans of the comfort/familiar form of science fiction, particularly from comic-books And in a way, many have become agents of the studio marketing machine. By enlisting in this marketing effort would-be pundits become thought-leaders and influencers of the wider viewing public, especially online and within their social media circles. Just as we love comfort, we also as a species love to follow the leader. In war-time you can always tell a leader on the battlefield by the person waving their hands and shouting the most. That is the marketing role adopted, seemingly unwittingly, by many devotees of high visibility, comic-book type science fiction. I enjoyed the inaugural Iron Man effort, thought Captain America: Winter Soldier had a plot and turns worth investing it. And Guardians of the Galaxy was a riot of space opera fun.

In the past decade we’ve seen a plethora of superhero science fiction franchises dominating the box office. The Avengers I and II, Spider Man, Thor, Captain America, Wolverine, X-Men and Iron Man have been tent poles, well-known titles that have become the standard bearer of movie science fiction. Appealing to a broader crowd than tights and superpowers crowd have been YA book spin-offs Hunger Games, Maze Runner and Divergent. Each of these projects relies on such rigid source material that any deviation is unthinkable, resulting in at times bland, consumed with CG that renders the film a two hour video game, or such ham-fisted films that defy the most generous label of good films. When a film does deviate, like Man of Steel, the vox populi erupts with such righteous indignation that attempting to defend the project makes you a scurrilous Neanderthal who knows nothing about morality in science fiction film making.

Related, tangentially, is actor/writer Simon Pegg’s comments on the dumbing down of the industry and film-goers here and here.

But back to the issue of originality.

When was the last truly original science fiction film that transcended the genre viewer and become a lasting cultural phenomenon? In James Cameron’s Avatar we had a massive financial success, but as pointed out in Forbes, the film left no footprint on the wider popular culture. Last year’s Interstellar from Christopher Nolan, was an achievement in blending in-camera traditional visual effects, digital creations and a thought bending plot. Yet for all the money it made, the critics were numerous and many came from the hallowed halls of science fiction websites. The last ground-up science fiction franchise to peak culturally was the Matrix trilogy. Funnily enough, the Wachowski’s most recent effort, Jupiter Ascending, was joyfully picked apart and derided for its story telling, style and even its creatures. Uh, like grown men running around in skin tight primary colored uniforms is a shade of reserved normality? And cheese filled dialogue and banter worthy of a adolescent’s joke book is the height of mature story telling.

The one film that seemed to rebel from the stigma of original sci-fi pillorying was the magnificent Mad Max: Fury Road. Yet if you look at box office totals Fury Road still could not find the pole position in its first week.  Losing to a musical sequel, Pitch Perfect 2, despite being in over 200 more theaters Fury Road pulled in $20 million less for the weekend.

There should be comfort science fiction- popcorn movies. But there needs to be room for original ideas, something created through a life-time’s worth of sensory experiences. Not every original work will be flawless, but neither are the glut of superhero science fiction films overtaking the cinemas. Search out, hard, for complaints about plot holes and leaps in basic film making with the genre and you’ll find them. We face an adventure and science fiction film landscape where Hollywood studios and genre fans have become intertwined. Hollywood is all about making money, its their goal, and they follow the trends. Right now its all about  the superhero and for that reason we all lose.

The Great Vaccine Debate: What’s Old is New Again

smalllpxIn recent weeks the debate over vaccinations has risen to a fevered pitch, pulling in every walk of American life into the argument. I find it interesting to look back into Colonial American history to see our earliest collective discourse on the safety and validity of vaccinations.

We can return to 1721 Boston when smallpox was a true scourge of the peninsula town. A pitched argument was underway between clergyman Cotton Mather and university trained physician William Douglass, the former a proponent while the latter a vocal opponent.

For a complete overview of the 1721 debate and perspective on how some anti-inoculation beliefs of the period have echoes today, check out this Harvard piece on the subject.

Time Away

Hello readers. I wanted to write to apologize for my absence in recent months. I have been dealing with some personal issues (yes I am sure many a blogger has typed those very words) and I hope to get back into the posting flow in the coming weeks.

Just a quick note of apology and thanks to those who continue to stick with Asymmetric Creativity.

Thank you so much.

Asymmetric Creativity: Writing Through Personal Problems

We’ve closed the most public period for writers in the age of social media- NaNoWriMo. This one month free-for-all of would be authors and established writers plugging away at new projects or long-delayed ideas. The shared encouragement, venting or problem solving is a unique way for the otherwise solitary profession to become communal.

The rest of the year writers occasionally divulge projects online, give us sneak peeks at frustration or triumph. And in those good times the ecstasy is something a writer wants to share. Yet when the block strikes like an iceberg, the pain and frustration are legendary exemplified by dozens of writers block suggestions that make the rounds daily.

There is another trouble plaguing writers (and those of all professions)-  returning to work after trauma. Whether its mental or physical trauma the ability to recover one’s creative self and return to writing can be incredibly difficult and sometimes feel impossible.

We often see it online when writer websites go quiet for weeks or months without explanation. Inevitably we come to expect the standard off the shelf explanation- too busy with life. Often, I’ve come to realize, this is code for a personal problems or issues that has gutted or slowed the writer. It is a very personal act, creation. It is also a personal act to admit when life has dealt us some tough times. Yet our ability to share online those traumas that halted our creativity is incredibly hard. Call it the artist’s temperament, we writers can be a fickle and emotional lot. We tend to clam up or over share.

But we are creatures that explore and explain through our creations. We burrow deep within our minds and imaginations, so should we be surprised that when life deals us troubles that it is especially daunting to return to the creativity that defines us?

Perhaps the key is reminding/remembering every day through these traumas and trials that we are creative and it has been with us in good times and bad. There is no reason why we should use the tribulations as a new way to create. Perhaps its purging the ill feelings through fiction or song? Maybe these life problems are merely potholes in creative highway. You wouldn’t  stop driving down a road just because there were a few potholes. You drive forward, you keep an eye out, but you roll on.

Roll on, fellow writers, past the potholes of life and realize that no matter what is happening your creativity is who you are. It sees you through adversity. The rest are just potholes.

 

 

 

 

Asymmetric Inspiration: Interstellar’s Heroes

interThis weekend I had the pleasure of seeing Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar in the theater. A visually brilliant, at times emotional and utterly breath taking venture into space; while finding a deeper spiritual connection between humanity.

I left the theater wishing I loved math more.

I’ve had an on-again-off-again love for physics. Mostly easy to digest popular non-fiction works on physics, but on occasion wandering into the harder theory side of the field. Yes, math is a big part of that. Interstellar made math and scientific curiosity traits of the heroes, women and men of different races, rather than devices for destruction.

The silence of space is unnerving. Its celestial violence is jarring and absolute. The warping of light or its complete avoidance is mind numbingly scary, yet beautiful. Not because its flashy or visually menacing as many movies portray space, but because you understand the physics, the overwhelming and unfathomable powers concealed in these black holes or worm holes. Like the monster concealed in the shadow, the terrible power lost in blackness of space is equally as riveting.

Surely Nolan’s film is not perfect and it does seem to borrow inspiration from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Contact. Yes, you do rebel against some of the climactic devices, straining what you understand about the theoretical physics of black holes. Then again, worm holes don’t exist so we’re allowed a level of creative license, especially if the bulk of the movie treats the perils and wonder of space exploration tonally realistic.

At times I was amazed at the broad efforts the actors and script exerted on my intellect and emotion. In these moments I was reminded heavily of the fantastic PBS series Closer to the Truth. I HIGHLY recommend this series as it not only delves into physics, but religion and consciousness. It just so happens to include interviews with Interstellar’s theoretical physicist and producer Kip Thorne.

But Interstellar works because the most heroic people in the story are not muscle bound, gun totting badasses but thoughtful, intellectual and adventurous astronomers, physicists and engineers. And that alone makes the film worthy of inspiring, or aspiring to, greater creativity.

Interstellar makes me wish I was a bit braver. And a lot better at math.

Asymmetric Creativity: Down the Research Rabbit Hole

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I’m a fiend for research. I am addicted to the chase of ideas and facts throughout history. When I conjur up a story idea I often know how I will tackle my research before I have a fully fleshed out plot. Sometimes the research serves the story, fleshing out concepts or imbuing characters with more authentic voices. Sometimes, the addiction, the jonzing for new and more information can overwhelm, bog down, and drown a story in its earliest stages. Occasionally I dive into the creative process only to get lost in the rabbit warren of journals, books and articles.

For years I would start the research and essentially kill the idea because I exhausted all of my inquisitive and curious creative energy on the research process. Realizing this only just recently has given me a new lease on life as research addicted author. I now let the story outline lead the horse, rather than the research as cart.

Seems like a no-brainer, wanting to put your all into research in order to wring out the most from source or background materials. Yet the energy is sometimes expended, leaving nothing but a snake skin of the original inspiration. If creativity strikes like lightning for you as it does for me, then grounding the lightning bolt by burying your brain in research only diffuses all the writing energy. Back in the day of libraries and bookstore visits, this wouldn’t be so much a problem, but in the day of Internet research indulgences can be fed into gluttony.

My newest tactic in combating this obsessive level of research, denying the creative process,comes by setting a deadline. As a former journalist, deadlines don’t scare me. But denying the rush and thrill of research feels like denying yourself Halloween candy after spending all night going door to door collecting it. Instead of indulging this rush, I merely channel my research into a time-frame, say two hours, before returning to the writing process, whether that’s outlining or character development.

Most important, trust your creative instincts and voice. Let the story flow with the basic framework of research. Trust your outline, trust your wandering words and new strange directions. If you write yourself into a corner, perhaps generated by a lack of information you’d need through research, then dive back in to solve the problem. But immediately reemerge to finish the creative writing.

While this is easier said than done, requiring a discipline that eluded me for ages, I think that this simple advice may help keep you on track.

Magic in New England’s Fields: People of God in the Devil’s Lands

There was a magic in the woods and glens of Colonial New England. Puritan settlers while quick to eye the forests and mountains with suspicion and fear of maleficium, they just as easily looked upon fellow men and women of God-fearing English stock with fear. The Natives of the region, exemplified by the Abenaki of the northeast, practiced their own form of ‘magic’ in land’s that Puritans believed was once the Devil’s dominion.

To Cotton Mather it made sense that the Devil would stalk the lands of New England as where else would he be than among a group who hated him the most, “Where will the Devil show the most malice, where is hated, and hateth the most.” From his Wonders of the Invisible World of 1693 we get a glimpse of the Devil’s power over not just man but the world itself, creator of wars, heresies and storms, ” Once more, why may not Storms be reckoned among those Woes, with which the Devil does disturb us? It is not improbable that Natural Storms on the World are often of the Devils raising. We are told in Job 1.11, 12, 19. that the Devil made a Storm, which hurrican’d the House of Job, upon the Heads of them that were Feasting in it.”

According to a 2012 lecture by Stephen Mitchell, professor of Folklore and Mythology at Harvard University, everything which happened on Earth was connected morally and physically in the Puritan mind. These groups saw ship wrecks, storms and infant death with equal suspicion of the Devil’s handiwork as a product of God’s divine plan. Disease or ‘possession’, according to Mitchell, were handled by Puritans through fasting and prayer. These actions further ratifying the connection between the spirit and physical.

Mather wrote of the Natives of Massachusetts at the time of colonization, “The Indian Powawes, used all their Sorceries to molest the first Planters here; but God said unto them, Touch them not!” Mather continued, “The New-Englanders are a People of God settled in those, which were once the Devil’s Territories.”

One can imagine the pious indignation Puritan’s experienced when they witnessed Native American ‘magic’ in New England. In 1624’s Good Newes, Englishman Edward Winslow wrote, “The office and duty of the Powah is to be exercised principally in calling up the Devil, and curing diseases of the sick and wounded.” The Powah is the Native “powwow” where priests with special powers of divination were exercised over nature, often for the benefit of man but also as a weapon. According to Winslow’s Newes, which preceded Mather’s work by nearly 70 years, the magic men of Native New England, “can raise storms and tempests which they usually do when they intend the death and destruction of other people.”

The most potent conjurer figure from the colonial period was a Pennacook sachem known as Passaconaway who is said to move rocks and return leaves to life. From a modern perspective Passaconaway was a member of a magic practicing tradition that appears to have a marvelous and intimate connection to nature. Yet viewed with the suspicions of Puritan New England Native sorcerers share talents with the Devil himself.

Roger Williams, theologian and New England colonist leader, viewed the healing actions of Native priests with more nuance, “They conceive there are many Gods or divine powers within the body of the man: In his pulse, his hearts, his lungs.” Instead of pulling from Satan for power, these priests, removed the malignant forces within man, an intimate power connected to a larger ideal. However, Williams did write, “These priests and conjurers (like Simon Magus) do bewitch the people,” going on to say rather contradictory, “most certainly (by the help of the Devil) work great cures.” (For Williams reference of Simon Magus, see Acts 8:9.)

One such skilled practitioner was Pennacook sachem Passaconaway, known for leadership skills as well as magic, Passaconaway oversaw a confederation from northern Massachusetts deep into New Hampshire. Uniting tribes from Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire to bulwark Mohawk aggression, Passaconaway also is said to have possessed powers as a m’teowlin, ‘deep seeing one.’ or powwow.

The native sachem exploits were chronicled by William Wood in his 1634 work, New England’s Prospect, “(Passaconaway) can make the water burn, the rocks move, the trees dance, metamorphize himself into a flaming man.” Going on to describe Passaconaway’s skills, Wood wrote,”in Winter, when there is no green leaves to be got, he will burn an old one to ashes, and putting those into the water, produce a new green leaf, which you shall not only see, but substantially handle and carry away; and make of a dead snakes skin a living snake, both to be seen, felt, and heard.” Wood, who said powwow practitioners were imbued with exorcist and necromancer charms, did note that the sorcery talents of Passaconaway may be nothing more than, “deceptio visus” or visual tricks.

Men and women of the m’teowlin, shamans or the Midewiwin, the Grand Medicine Society, held a unique place in their communities as healer and shapers of nature. These figures could not only heal, but said to command the course of a river, seeing the future, working with spirits of the departed, aiding in hunts or communal ceremonies. These figures were important mediators with the coursing power around them as their special connection to every tree, rock or animal. One example of the power of shaman is told about the Abenaki at war where a seer consulted with spirits and determined a group of Iroquois foes were on an island and if the Abenaki attacked the next day they would wipe out the opposing force. According to the story, the battle was joined and not a single Iroquois survived, each victim having their head cleaved off and placed on a poll.

An interesting footnote to the belief that New England was filled with heathens thriving in the Devil’s dominion was that when the witchcraft hysteria swept New England in the 17th century Natives were not singled out for punishment. Puritans, it appears, were more suspicious of the Devil working through their fellow English than of the Natives of New England. Even though the New English wilderness contained Biblical evil, Native’s of the region were rarely prosecuted or suspected of maleficum.


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