Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Fears Awaken - Star Wars Anxiety Disorder, Episode VII

Have you felt it?  It’s only a couple of weeks now until it happens.  No, not Christmas, that comes every year.  I mean the premiere.  The Force Awakens.  Star Wars.

It’s a difficult time for a lot of fans.  We want to be excited, to think that this time, maybe, we won’t be disappointed, that we’ll finally see a Star Wars movie worthy of the name, of the legacy.  That will make us feel like the first one did.

And by ‘first one’, I don’t mean Episode I, I don’t even mean ‘Episode IV - A New Hope’, I mean ‘Star Wars’, just plain old 1977 Star Wars.  So yes, I’m on of those poor unfortunates for whom everything Star Wars lives in the shadow of the original.

I’m not alone - there’s a raft of us, thousands, millions.  We’re old enough to have seen the original in theatres, on the big screen.  To have had that moment of disbelief as the star destroyer swept into view in pursuit of Princess Leia.  To have been there when, for a generation, movies changed.

But we were also young enough for it to have been magic - actual magic.  That was a transformative moment for everyone who saw it, and it wasn’t just the movies, but the world that would never be the same.  For at that moment we learned that we could be dazzled, we could surrender ourselves to a story that was larger than us, larger than our world, in a universe where good was good and bad was bad.  It was easy to know who to cheer for, without guilt or hedging.

The original trilogy fulfilled the promise - Empire Strikes Back being widely tapped as the best of the three - and, other than some grumbling about the Ewoks, satisfied most fans.  It was a bit of a letdown, but not a surprise, when George Lucas confessed that he didn’t really have a trilogy of trilogies - nine movies in all - mapped out.  What was there, really, left to tell?

And then there were the prequels…

Episode I was rabidly anticipated, but left a large swath of fandom shaking their heads and sighing.  The franchise - for that’s what it had become - was tainted by unconvincing story-telling, suspect casting, and Lucas’s trademark clunky dialogue.  (Harrison Ford had the first and last word on the subject during the filming of Episode IV, when he told Lucas, “George, you can type this shit, but you can’t say it.”) 

Ever since, the release of another Star Wars movie has been an occasion for excitement, yes, but also anxiety - a desperate anticipation of what might be, or further disappointment.

The announcement of JJ Abrams as the director of Episode VII was certainly a mixed-emotion moment.  Yes, he is unquestionably a skilled, talented director, whose movies are always, at least visually, compelling.  There have been some mis-steps, of course - launching Lost without determining where it would land is perhaps the most egregious - and the off-hand way in which he ‘re-imagined’ the Star Trek universe - keeping many things from the series, but casually discarding others because….well, I’m not sure exactly why - does give cause for concern.

And that’s the root of a lot of the anxiety.  Yes, Han, and Chewie, and Luke, and Leia are back - that’s gotta be good, right? - though, I imagine they are a bridge to the new characters who will be called on to carry this trilogy.  But as he demonstrated with Star Trek, Abrams isn’t making his versions of these stories for the existing fan base.  He is - and I guess that’s his job - trying to  build a new audience for his movies.  And it might not be possible to please both.

To be fair, the trailers have looked terrific - adequate scale and scope, no lack of menace, and apparently the stakes are high.  But the trailers for The Phantom Menace looked pretty good too, and I remember being excited for its premiere.  The film itself - Darth Maul notwithstanding -didn’t live up to the promise, and the story we got was somehow less interesting than the story that had been suggested.

And maybe that’s the problem.  Perhaps the Star Wars we get can never be as awesome as the Star Wars we imagine.  Our expectations are so out-sized that nothing, and no director, can ever live up to the dream.  Every villain will always suffer by comparison with Darth Vader, seeming merely a pale imitation.  No one will ever equal the insouciant bravado of a young Han Solo.  No image will surpass that emerging star destroyer.

So, we’re forever cursed by our knowledge of what came before.  In 1977, it was all so new, and no one had made a film like Star Wars - with its unrepentant homage to the cinema serials of Lucas’s childhood - for a long time.  Now, we understand the cinematic language of the series, and its familiarity is both a strength and a weakness.  It’s comfortable, yes, but ‘comfort’ and ‘excitement’ are rarely compatible bedfellows.  (Remember how thrilling, how fresh The Fellowship of the Ring was?  Did you feel the same way with the first instalment of The Hobbit?)

I‘ll see the movie, of course.  I have to.  Like a junkie always hoping that the next hit will deliver the same great high as ‘the first time’, I’ll pay my ten or twelve dollars, and sink into my seat in the darkness, ready, willing to be swept away.  I still believe it’s possible.  I have to.

Obi-Wan said it best: “You must trust your feelings.”

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

My Cell-Phone, My Self

I’ve been recently dis-employed (‘re-structured’, they say, though I feel just the same), and I’m still adapting to the new routine, an absence of routine.  And I don’t really miss it: the commute, the meetings, the necessary but pointless on-line courses, the things that come with the job, but aren’t the job.  But I do miss my phone.

It was work-provided, and so work-returned on my exit.  An iPhone 6, white, with a gold metal back (I was working with the mining industry at the time it was ordered).  I liked it, the size, the weight, how it felt in my hand.  How it worked.

We do, of course, have another phone, another mobile.  We cut the land-line years ago, and the family phone - the house phone - is a near-identical iPhone 6.  I use it, sometimes.

But it’s not my phone.  Its settings, its contents, its apps, are a compromise, a neutral Switzerland intended to satisfy a variety of users: me, my wife, our kids.  It’s not appropriate for me to make it too much my own.  I’m not, after all, the one who carries it most.  So, while I’m not, from a communications standpoint, ‘cut off’, the fact remains: it’s not my phone.

Now, of course, I notice it’s absence.  Not like a missing limb; I’m not experiencing phantom buzzing in my shirt pocket, hearing its ringtone in an empty room.  There is a physical aspect of it, and it’s funny how quickly our phones (mere devices for communication) have become talismans, good luck charms, something vital to be checked for when we leave the house -  wallet, glasses, keys, phone.  There’s a reassurance, reaching into a pocket and knowing it’s there.

But no, it’s more than that.  I miss our … conversations.

Think about it: how much time do you spend interacting with your smartphone?  (One recent study suggests Americans are spending, on average 4.7 hours per day with them.)  A good phone, our loyal companion, tells us things (when we’re late for meetings), answers questions (where have we seen that actor before?), and entertains us (that one game you just can’t stop playing).  It advises when to bring an umbrella, or when to turn left, which new restaurants we should try and when we can see that movie.  It’s a best friend, the best of friends, who will help get you home from the airport, but never asks you to return the favour.

And the music - how I miss the music!  True, I haven’t actually lost any of it - it’s all there in iTunes, and available via my desktop computer.  But I don’t have any way to play it: with the phone’s capabilities, there was no reason to have an iPod or mp3 player.  Now, my only-recently-acquired armband sits on a dresser, unused and unwanted, as I make my silent way to the gym.  Like so many things, it didn’t seem really important until it was gone.

For these aren’t just phones, any more, are they, but our servants, assistants, concierges.  The access to banks and our money, to our friends and colleagues.  Where we go for news, sports, and weather; how we get reservations, how we get on planes.  They have become, as a result, a part of us, an object into which we can pour our personalities.  Just think what your phone’s cover or case says about you.

We’ve even lessened their role as a communicator.  Do you ever really answer a call any more if the number isn’t linked to a contact?  Do people even exist if they’re not in our address book?  That, more than ‘missing’ a call, is why (along with Caller ID) we have voicemail: to employ two levels of instant screening.  Greater, more constant access is actually making us less reachable: only those whose number I have can have me.

It’s incredible that the immediacy of a phone call has been replaced by texting.  To be fair, it does eliminate the need to dial, or wait for the other party to pick up, but how incredible that we’ve accepted typing over speaking.  Except, of course, that now we have voice-to-text apps.

But are we really just nothing more than the sum of our apps?  Merely a collection of circuits, copper, aluminum, glass and plastic?

I prefer - I want - to think not, that a smartphone is simply a tool, albeit a remarkable, adaptable, personalized one.

It’s not really that we are our phones - no, it’s fairer to say our phones are us.  The aspects of ourselves that we implant in them, we share without losing.  The phone did not take those parts of me with it - I have them still, waiting to impart them to the next willing receptacle.

Maybe Space Grey next time?