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Monthly Archives: December 2013

The Dark Territory of It’s a Wonderful Life

The Dark Territory of It’s a Wonderful Life

I looked up the writers of the classic Frank Capra flick It’s a Wonderful Life. Capra’s name was among them, and when I did some further-depth research about his own life, I was a little surprised to learn that he suffered occasional bouts of depression during an earlier downswing in his younger years. It seemed odd to me because It’s a Wonderful Life doesn’t come off as anything that could ever have been written by anyone who’s suffered from depression. It comes off like more the fantasy of a screenwriter trying to put his arm around the backs of depression sufferers everywhere and say “There, there, it’ll all get better.”

There was a brief window of my life when I made a tradition, like everyone else, of watching It’s a Wonderful Life during the holiday season. I was just a few years into it, though, when I noticed that there was something about it which really wasn’t sitting right with me. I had hit a low point in my life at the time and was contemplating suicide harder than I ever had – it’s fairly safe to say only my religious beliefs at the time kept me from going through with it. That, of course, puts me in a situation similar to that of George Bailey, James Stewart’s main character. The movies takes us through George’s life story, bringing us to the moment the movie begins, when God – yes, THAT God – is commanding an angel named Clarence to talk George out of his suicidal depression. Clarence visits George, shows him what everything would be like of he never existed, and George is magically happy again.

If only real depression were that simple. In real life, there’s no Clarence, and George offs himself. The problem with the movie’s premise is that George is set up and defined as a man of very significant impact. It’s true that George has thwarted dreams that are similar to my own in a couple of ways, but it’s difficult to get me to believe George really had it that bad. His dream of traveling the world, after all, is something he surrenders willingly, even if he does do it quite often. George first takes over a business that was threatening to stop writing loans out for the poor because the board heads would only continue doing that if George was running it. I don’t have any problems with this; but George gives his college cash stash to his brother Harry, and that’s where the problem begins. Harry takes George’s cue and then seemingly coasts through his life on a series of implausible breaks. Harry marries into a rich family and becomes a war hero.

George, meanwhile, runs his company and keeps roadblocking his own path. His gestures are admittedly noble: At one point, he gives his honeymoon money to depositors to satisfy their immediate needs. At another, he turns down the job of his dreams when it’s offered because his nemesis, Potter, is planning to take over his city.

Throughout all this, by the way, George is able to find the time and means to marry his longtime love and sire four kids. He buys a home, too. During the never-born sequence, George’s wife, Mary, ends up being a shy, perpetually single librarian, as if she could never have found a man who wasn’t George Bailey and a fulfilling career. (Well, okay, this movie is from 1946, so the career isn’t very likely.)

A supremely ironic point that occurs to me right now is that so far, the movie and I are in agreement over the main theme: George is leading a life most people would consider very significant and fulfilling. But that’s where our similarities end. George is very well known and beloved throughout his community because of the willing selflessness he shows, constantly sacrificing pursuit of his dreams in order to better the lives of those around him. Everything he did, except getting rejected by the military, was something he gave up by personal choice. He has good friends and a devoted wife and a good home in a nice community.

This is basically magical Hollywood depression. It’s sanitized nicely for people who believe a few inspiring words are more than enough to snap anyone out of a funk and return them to their jolly old selves. Just like real depression and real suicidal contemplation, I swear, knowing from experience. It’s basically the same, except take away George’s communal niceties, flowing opportunities, family, and largely decent job. Strip him of all the status, prestige, and trust he earned from the people around him, and put him in a much more menial situation in which the livlihoods of a lot fewer people depend on his fortunes and you’ll start to get the idea. I can’t imagine myself being the only person who ever watched this while depressed and thing holy shit, this movie is fucking mocking me!

The one inspirational thing that I did take away from It’s a Wonderful Life is actually the life story of Frank Capra himself. He got himself stuck in a life rut very similar to my own, and our ages during this rough patch weren’t that far apart. Capra was going through his during much worse circumstances. Yet, he still found a way to overcome his obstacles and eventually become one of the most important directors in the history of American film.

The Star Wars Holiday Special

The Star Wars Holiday Special

“If I had the time and a sledgehammer, I would track down every copy of that show and smash it.”

That was what George Lucas thinks of The Star Wars Holiday Special. Now, go back and read that last sentence again, and take into consideration the fact that the very same person who said that is the very person who later greenlighted the Ewoks, the Howard the Duck movie, and Jar Jar Binks. It’s no secret that Lucas hates it in a way which would qualify him for Sith Lord status. It aired just one time, ever, on November 17, 1978 as the entire prime time lineup that night on CBS. Then it presumably became one with The Force. Word of god says Harrison Ford spent a large chunk of his career denying its existence. It was never rebroadcast on any other stations or released on any home video mediums. Unfortunately, this valiant attempt at denouncement didn’t take into account the people who taped it and never erased the tapes, so it became something of an underground sensation until the internet came along and wiped out every bet on the issue. 

Lucas himself had virtually nothing to do with the production. It was handed off to a group of people who were known for those campy variety TV shows that were all the rage in the early days on television, who proceeded to write in variety material and create things which lend validation to every bad stereotype about the 70’s that exists. Using those tacky aspects of the era culture and throwing in a grab bag on Star Wars characters, the creators then proceeded to create an excuse to jump between celebrity cameos, character cameos, and music videos. If it was anywhere in their heads to create a memorable holiday special, they certainly succeeded, but for all the wrong reasons. The Star Wars Holiday Special sucks. It sucks hard. It reaches a Masters of Teras Kasi level of suckitude, says “I can beat that!” and takes shovel and drill to the solid ground. 

Lucas may have escaped, but the network folks managed to cop the top talent from the movie. Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and the others got forced into this thing. Even composer John Williams and James Earl Jones don’t get out unscathed. Jones, of course, is there voicing Darth Vader and Williams’s Star Wars Theme is there as the introduction. They should have just brought in Williams outright for the rest of the soundtrack which, without his input, comes off like a village side music in a bad 16-bit RPG. Maybe that doesn’t sound so bad, but through the first ten minutes, it gets unbearable. The first ten minutes don’t have any dialogue. Just a lot of growling and roaring from Malla, Lumpy, and Itchy, who are the relatives of Chewbacca. Yeah, ten minutes of muted muppet speaking, and half the time, we can’t figure out exactly what’s going on in the scene because there’s not even a courtesy translation rolling along the bottom of the screen. At one point, the kid leaves the house and walks on top of a rail between the balcony and a nice long drop. Why? Search me!

They really do look just like muppets, by the way, since this is TV stuff and there was no way in hell the network was going to pay for special effects which still rank among the very best ever seen in movies. They actually intersperse it in with archival movie footage. There isn’t much to disguise the fact that everything is shot in a studio. Suspension of disbelief is clearly a foreign concept to variety show people.

When the Holiday Special begins, Han and Chewie are seen doing something which is quite distinctly Han-and-Chewie-like: They’re trying to bust through an Imperial blockade. Chewie is on his way home to his family for Life Day, a Wookiee holiday. On the planet surface, we meet his wife, father, and son. They’re worried because Han and Chewie are late. Still though, they manage to exchange a few gifts, prepare some food, and entertain themselves with a hologram TV. Ah, holograms. Remember when they were The Next Big Thing?

Most of the Special takes place right in the Wookiee household. While a lot of things do happen, it feels like one of those Saturday Night Live sketches from the show’s worst years: Stretched to unbearable length, going on for so long after the punchline that the punchline is forgotten, and meant solely to milk the show’s running time. In one scene, one of the wookiees tries to prepare some food following the directions of an overly excitable TV chef, with hilarious consequences! Another scene involves the assembly of a transmitter. Both are longer than they need to be. At least the latter is important to the plot of the Special. The former, not so much. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that there’s some kind of wookiee porno machine in this thing too, which produces another music video.

There are Imperials in this thing, but you can’t go into it expecting more of the blaster and lightsaber action that makes Star Wars Star Wars. While it has what very well should have been a decent -and very Star Wars-like – plot about Imperial occupation, the entire thing takes a lot of really bad sitcom twists. Yes, worse than the Ewoks. For all their high training, the Special takes a rather dim view of the Stormtroopers, who are apparently easily distracted by the Wookiee version of television. The wookiee family uses their entertainment device to distract the Stormtroopers while they literally do everything right behind the Stormtroopers’ backs. The device the wookiees are trying to build is meant to trick the Stormtroopers into returning to base by imitating the Commander’s voice. I can’t help but think of the Star Wars novel The Truce at Bakura, which says that six Stormtroopers against one armed wookiee would be a fight that’s just about even. Yeah, there are a couple of Commanders and a pair of Stormtroopers there that the wookiees, despite being really fucking strong, don’t do anything about.

That magic box Chewie’s family owns is responsible for every weird, absurd twist the Special takes. At one point, it shows a video of the old Mos Eisley Cantina, which the Empire has decided to shut down. Bea Arthur is the bartender there for the final party. Apparently this is a video being broadcast by the Empire as required viewing for some reason. The official reason is subversive forces. The real reason is to present Bea Arthur, who is approached by a character who misunderstood something she said. We don’t know anything about this new and sudden plot thread, and at the end of it, there’s another song. However, it’s also the TV set which produces the famed cartoon. The cartoon is easily the best part of the Special. It has a much more interesting plot and even a bit of acceptable suspense.

The most ridiculous and insane thing about The Star Wars Holiday Special is that it appears to actually be canon! Chewie’s family of Malla, Lumpy, and Itchy were later given real wookiee names – Mallatobuck, Lumpawarrump, and Attichituck, respectively – and have small roles in other, later Star Wars stories. The animated segment introduced fucking Boba Fett, who became one of the most popular and badass characters in the entire Star Wars universe. The canon has to be the work of fans, because we all know George Lucas hates this thing. Honestly, after watching it, I can’t blame him.

Christmas, Christianity, and Commercialism

Christmas, Christianity, and Commercialism

It’s the most maddening time of the year. Now, don’t get me wrong: I love Christmas. What I can’t stand is this whole Christmas season that leads up to it. It’s really fitting that the popular image of Santa Claus is what we use to symbolize this season. Santa is centuries old, but the jolly fat man dressed in red was popularized by the Coca-Cola corporation, and let’s face it: Christmas is a corporate holiday right down to the very core of its being.

As Jon Stewart said, Christmas has become so large now that it’s engulfing the other holidays, and yet a disturbingly large proportion of people in this country manage to trick themselves into thinking there’s some kind of phantom war on Christmas. Only in America could we possibly get away with this kind of chutzpah. Christmas season even has a kind of official kickstart day of its own now – Black Friday – which comes immediately right after the day we give thanks for the things that go right with our lives. Then we get a solid month and a half of Christmas themes which overrun into November as people physically beat up and trample over each other to grab the hottest new items which some corporations are undoubtedly holding shipments on in order to create a false sense of scarcity.

Then we manage to conjure up the idea that this feeding frenzy is somehow being done in the good name of a man who, if he were around today, never would have been an American. Even if he was born in this country, he probably would have cast off the misnomer of “American.” No matter what the circumstances, it’s extremely difficult for me to imagine Jesus Christ elbowing his way through a line of shoppers in order to grab a new TV and being the first in line of a corporate bait and switch scheme. I CAN, however, imagine Jesus – at least somewhat – buying out a stock of HD television sets and simply giving them away, no questions asked. That vision requires a certain bending of Jesus’s character too, although not nearly as much as Cowboy Jesus does.

Furthermore, Christmas the season has become a kind of go-to attack against the Americans in the country who aren’t Christians, and that’s around 20-25 percent of us at the most wildly liberal estimate. I tend to identify with any one of the various non-religious people in the United States on any given day. Mostly, I call myself either an agnostic or an atheist, depending on how I’m feeling toward religion in general. Those who know me, though, know that I’m incontestably irreligious. I gave up organized religion years ago in a long and bitter fight with my own sense of cognitive dissonance, with my ideals of individual liberty clashing against everything every religious authority in my life had ever told me.

You would think the irony of Christmas commercialism would be a lot more obvious to people claiming to be Christians, but it seems like the people who wear their Christianity on their chests are the ones most oblivious to it. They’ve somehow managed to completely hijack their own holiday while spreading the blame on everyone but them. Which I guess makes sense in its own little way. The current version of Christianity is a religion which is about shifting blame onto someone who didn’t deserve it. Jesus dying for the sins of everyone? Yeah, it’s a pretty idea, but there’s a very sinister undertone to it which liberates its followers of personal responsibility. Believe in Christ and you’re saved no matter what sort of sadistic shit you’re into.

Christianity as introduced was a very radical lifestyle change which had nothing to do with religion. It emphasized the strength of community and the idea that everyone in said community was on equal footing; not equal footing as everyone having a theoretically equal chance to improve their living circumstances, but equal footing as the idea that no one had more power or greater status than another. It’s easy to see why the personal savior version of Christianity caught on – it doesn’t require very much work. Just abstain from – or limit – a few vices and condemn everyone to Hell and you’ve punched your ticket to a heavenly afterlife. Loving your enemies and standing up for the oppressed and forgotten requires a lot of going against human tribalism and accepting the fact that you’ll be defending people polite society would rather forget.

Instead, religion has become a de facto excuse to leave things the way they are. The religion that started as a method of rebelling against the Roman Empire and offering its untouchable low-caste members a way of empowering themselves is now the champion faith of a country which shows a lot of parallels to ancient Rome. And with a growing number of other people also starting to wake up to that fact, Christmas and this alleged war on it have become the rallying cry. People are very literally camping outside of large department stores and beating each other up over artificially-priced stuff a month and a half before Christmas, and yet, there’s a big war against it that no one seems to be waging anywhere I’ve ever lived. The vast majority of the country still claims Christianity as its religion, and most of them don’t even know the Pagan roots of virtually every aspect of our Christmas celebrations, and yet, somehow there’s a war on Christmas. Both the commerce capitol and national capitol of the United States throw fucking tax money at large, prominent, and garish display decorations to Christmas, and there’s somehow a goddamn war!

If you think I’m annoyed, yes, I am, because as an atheist, people keep finding ways to blame me for this war, despite the fact that the 20 million Americans who don’t identify with a religion don’t have any lobbying power. (As opposed to Christians, the only religion-related group that does.)

Yeah, how perfect it is that Christmas is considered the primary holiday.

One Semester Down

One Semester Down

This was it. The end of my first semester at the University of Buffalo. There’s still a lot going on in my head, too much to properly write about, so I’ll sum up some of the big ones in bullet points.

1 – Halfway through, nothing was going right. My textbooks were late coming in, and I was barely keeping my head above water even in the subjects I knew I could be good at. Then my psychology course dropped a fact about the way our heads work which gave me a big hint about how to study better, so I adjusted my routine accordingly. It seems to be working, and during the rash of finals, I finally gave the kinds of performances that I expect of myself and felt like I can reach my full potential for the first time since about the sixth grade. (I hope.) Unfortunately, they came too late for me to reach my academic goals this year, but at least I have a better idea of what to do.

2 – I’ll definitely be holding on to my math book and my nutrition and math notes. I’m going to be needing them in the future.

3 – I’m dying to study more about psychology, but after giving it some real thought, I decided to stay in exercise science for now. I should note that I do feel a closer connection to psychology than to exercise science, because psychology deals much more with theoretical and abstract ideas, which I’m a lot more comfortable with than the more mechanical facts of science and math. I don’t want to become an aimless major drifter again, though, and after my chemistry light finally began flickering (way too late), I decided I can probably learn it after all.

4 – Speaking of chemistry, never, ever take that subject at the University of Buffalo if it can possibly be avoided there. It will do more to rip you off than the average televangelist.

5 – I knew going into exercise science that it was going to require large amounts of math, so I decided to try out a new way of dealing with it: I would learn to love math and enjoy it. That’s exactly what I did, too. I still need a huge amount of practice before my algebra basics are fully functional again, but I did learn the general ideas enough to know what I’m being asked to do and understand how it’s done. It helped that I had an excellent math teacher.

6 – My human nutrition class killed many of the things I thought I knew about the subject.

7 – Is it possible that by aiming for a cross-board B average, I was aiming too low? I’ve noticed that the step by step approach never seems to work very well for me. I always seem to make the biggest gains by aiming for the highest, wildest, most outlandish goals I can reach.

8 – It’s really incredible how pervasive the internet is becoming. In my first chemistry class, there were 500 people, at least half of whom were using laptops to pay attention to the lecture. In a class preceding my nutrition class, I happened to see the whole room using laptops for an exam before my nutrition class started.

9 – Can we please stop categorizing chemistry as a science? Please? I don’t care how many acids I pour, that course is a math course. You cannot teach a math course via a somewhat overmatched Professor who also teaches at a high school talking at 500 kids!