Saturday, May 25, 2013

Time Flies When You're Traveling at Light Speed

"Return of the Jedi" was not the first Star Wars film I ever saw. But it is the first Star Wars film I remember seeing. I have a vague memory of my mother coming into my bedroom as a child to summon me for a screening of "The Empire Strikes Back," and according to my parents, I was terrified of the Jawas in "A New Hope" as an infant. But I have very clear memories of "Return of the Jedi." Memories that are now thirty years old.


The memory that keeps coming back over and over to my mind is standing in a ticket line that wound through the parking lot outside the Century Theater with my dad and Steve Jones, my best friend. In those pre-internet days there was little more than vague rumor to prepare me for what I was about to see, but thanks to a quick glance at a novelization my mother had picked up at the grocery store--complete with a half dozen glossy photos from the movie tucked halfway through its pages--I knew two things about the third chapter of the trilogy:
  1. The rebels were going to win.
  2. Princess Leia was going to wear an iron bikini.
What I didn't know was whether George Lucas and co. were going to stick with this silly idea of having Darth Vader be Luke Skywalker's father. As a six-year-old who was wise beyond his years, I was still unconvinced of Empire's famous plot twist.

"Why do you believe what he said?" I would ask anyone who would listen. "It's DARTH VADER. HE'S A LIAR."

Of course, 45 minutes into the film, Yoda confirmed the relationship, then Ben went him one further and told Luke that Leia was his sister. I was totally fine with this, because as a Han Solo guy*, I wanted him to get the girl in the iron bikini.

The thing I was too young to notice was the Ewok controversy. They were far from my favorite Star Wars characters, but I didn't have any problem with them helping to overthrow the Empire. I think I would have been more disappointed if I'd known Lucas was originally planning for the planet to be inhabited by Wookiees. Live and learn, eh George?

This was also before I grew in my appreciation for Boba Fett, so I wasn't crestfallen when I saw the most notorious bounty hunter in the universe Abbott and Costello his way into the gaping maw of a sunbathing Sarlaac. Strangely, the pattern of not questioning a film in the moment is something that has followed me through to adulthood, though my current employment is forcing a more critical hand.

Even though I attended the opening day screening with my dad, it was my mother who took me the majority of the 19 times I watched "Jedi" over the course of that summer**. I'm sure half of the time it was me nagging my parents to go, but there were just as many times that the motivation came from my parents' own interest. Another lasting image from that summer is my dad swinging our brand-new 1983 Honda Accord up to the sidewalk in front of the old Center Theater on the corner of State Street and Broadway in downtown Salt Lake. Before I knew what was happening, my mom was pulling me out of the car and hustling me through the red velvet ensconced lobby on our way to a spontaneous afternoon screening***. That's the kind of thing I'm talking about when I refer to my mother's influence on my appreciation for popular culture.

But the best family memory of Jedi has to be the time we dragged my one-year-old sister to a screening and wound up on the front row. She sat on my dad's lap and stared bug-eyed at the screen for two full hours.

Man, I really miss the Center Theater. It's an office building and a multiplex right now.

Years later, even though Empire has become my favorite of the three movies, Jedi maintains the closest ties to my childhood memories. One afternoon as a teenager I was riding shotgun with my Priest's Quorum Advisor on the way to a temple activity when I related the story of my dad and Steve and I at the Century.

"I'll never forget it," I said. "May 25th, 1983."

"Wow, that's impressive," my advisor said. "When were you baptized?"

I thought about it for a moment.

"Sometime when I was eight."

Happy Anniversary, "Return of the Jedi." Jacking up my spiritual priorities for more than three decades now.


*See my blog banner for evidence.

**Yes, I kept track.

***Inside the theater they'd hung a huge banner advertising a film called "The Big Chill." Though I didn't relate to the story of a half dozen ex-hippies reflecting on the aftermath of the '60s in the wake of a friend's suicide, the film's soundtrack pretty much laid the childhood foundation for my musical appreciation, including this song.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

A Spoiler-Filled Analysis of Star Trek's Inevitable New Debate

Whenever a director gets involved in an established franchise, whether it's Peter Jackson adapting beloved Tolkien novels, Joss Whedon bringing Marvel comics to life, or even George Lucas returning to a galaxy far, far away fifteen years after his original trilogy, a unique challenge is issued: do you focus on keeping the fans happy? Or do you risk the wrath of the fanboy and make a film that will appeal to a universal audience?

It isn't always an either-or proposition, and most filmmakers (especially those noted above) have tried to satisfy both sides of the equation. Over the last few years, JJ Abrams has been staring down one of the most daunting fanboy franchises of all, and with "Star Trek: Into Darkness," he brings that debate to the forefront.

In 2009's "Star Trek," Abrams laid down the gauntlet with a timeline twist that told Trekkies they should consider his films a unique interpretation of the Trek universe instead of a regimented set of prequels to the original series. By transporting a villain from Trek's canonical future into its ambiguous past, then allowing him to alter that past, Abrams shook off the fanboy tether and got to work telling his own story. One that had Spock hooking up with Uhura and the Planet Vulcan biting the big one long before Captain Kirk could ever climb the steps of Mount Seleyah.

But instead of declare total creative independence, Abrams' Trek films have continued to forge ties to their original source material, offering frequent echoes that suggest certain events in history are rooted, regardless of your particular timeline. (Longtime Abrams fan will note the previous exploration of this theme in "Lost"). This idea is played out to unexpected degrees in "Star Trek: Into Darkness," primarily through its familiar villain.

For months, speculation has swirled around the identity of actor Benedict Cumberbatch's baddie. As the second film of the new franchise, many expected/hoped for the second coming of Khan Noonien Singh, the legendary baddie Ricardo Montalban portrayed in the second film of the first franchise. Others noted parallels to Gary Mitchell, a Federation officer featured in the original TV series back in the late 1960s. It was telling that a completely unique character never seemed to be an option, and even more telling that Abrams chose to give fans a brand-new interpretation of that eugenics superman gone bad.

By choosing Khan as his heavy, Abrams has offered thrills to Trek's longtime fans, but stifled the immortality of his own franchise at the same time. "Into Darkness" is an awesome film that boosts the Star Trek resurgence, and Cumberbatch is an impressive Khan. To rookie Trek fans and casual observers, it's a great movie, and to seasoned veterans, it's even better. But the film's explicit nods to "Wrath of Khan" (right down to Zachary Quinto's echo of William Shatner's most infamous acting moment) that propel it to new heights of meaning also force it to take a backseat to the Montalban film.

Once Cumberbatch revealed his identity halfway through the new film, I couldn't help but fall into a "which is better?" internal debate between the two Khans and their respective films. In the face of superior special effects and imposing marketing, I almost felt defensive on behalf of Montalban and "Wrath of Khan," which I see as "my" film. I guess that is what happens when you write a 15-page paper on Chicano Nationalism through the lens of a 20-year-old sci-fi flick. Or when you retain childhood memories of turning away from the screen when those bugs get dropped in Chekov's ear.

It's amusing that I/we feel compelled to do this whenever confronted with options in popular culture, or anything else for that matter. If it isn't Benedict Cumberbatch vs. Ricardo Montalban, it's Coke vs. Pepsi, or (for my fellow photographers) Canon vs. Nikon. Heck, one of the implicit purposes of the new Trek franchise is to give it more street cred in the Star Trek vs. Star Wars debate. For decades Star Wars movies have been cultural events while Trek releases were attended by a narrow sliver of sci-fi fandom. While this may not mean anything in terms of film quality, profits are what allow our favorite franchises to keep turning out product. Abrams has sought to address that gap, and I think he has made great strides in generating a more inclusive fan base for Gene Roddenberry's baby. (Of course, now that Abrams is helming Star Wars as well, things are about to get very interesting.)

But as far as the Battle of the Khans is concerned, my verdict is this: Cumberbatch is awesome, more than up to the task, and will earn his spot on Star Trek's Mount Rushmore of All-Time Best Bad Guys. But since that particular Rushmore only features two faces, and since the other one is the original version of Cumberbatch's character, the New Khan can only go so far. "Star Trek: Into Darkness" is a film that can stand on its own feet and be enjoyed even if you aren't familiar with Trek history. But if you are familiar with Trek history, "Into Darkness" becomes even more impressive, but also more derivative and dependent as a consequence.

When Cumberbatch glares at Chris Pine with hollow eyes and declares, "MY NAME IS KHAN," it is a powerful moment only to those who already know who Khan is. When Zachary Quinto prods Leonard Nimoy into his Doc Brown Moment later on, the original Spock's reaction is weighted because we too remember what Khan did the first time around. Without the source material, these dramatic moments ring empty.

Of course, rational people will understand that this debate is as pointless as arguing whether LeBron James would beat Michael Jordan in a game of one-on-one. It gives you great fodder for sports talk radio, but it doesn't really mean anything. There's no reason you can't enjoy and appreciate both Khans. But when you enter the waters of such an established franchise, these kinds of debates come with the territory.

For years I've been trying to get my English students to understand the difference between text and context, especially how context can hold so much sway over a text's full meaning. "Star Trek: Into Darkness" may have just become Exhibit A in that lecture.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

My Mother the Superhero

I've often thought of my mother as the primary influence behind my appreciation of popular culture. Whether it was the stacks of vinyl records in our basement, the regular visits to the Redwood Drive-In on summer weekends, or the simple fact that my parents were watching SNL when my mom went into labor with me, it's an easy connection to make.

But the influence of my mother has been far more profound than to just give me an appreciation of Motown or the great American tradition that is the drive-in movie theater. In fact, I'm not sure she even remembers one of the most important lessons she ever taught me: that she has super-powers.

I must have been four or five years old when I found myself next to my mom at the checkout counter of the B. Dalton Bookseller in Layton Hills Mall. While she was making her purchase (probably a new Star Trek novel, because this would have been in the pre-Martha Stewart era), I was browsing through the containers of writing utensils and other impulse-buy knickknacks at my eye-level when I became fixated on a set of brightly colored pencils topped with large, multi-colored erasers. The erasers were cut in a variety of shapes, like huge diamonds or stars, and their blue, pink, and purple patterns cascaded down onto the shafts of their pencils. As I sorted through the bin, I noticed that one of the erasers had broken off its pencil, so without a thought, I kept it.

About an hour later I was crouched on the orange shag of my toy room in the basement, slowly turning over the eraser in my tiny fingers, examining it with my curious little green eyes, when my mom walked in the room.

"What is that?" she asked.

"It's an eraser," I said. Duh.

"Where did you get it?" she asked with a tone of suspicion that should have signaled trouble.

"I got it at the bookstore," I explained. "It was broken off a pencil."

Within thirty seconds I was sitting next to my mom in the car on our way back to the mall. A few minutes after that, I was standing quietly at the B. Dalton checkout counter as my mom ordered me to hand the stolen property over to the bewildered clerk. I had assumed that a damaged product was fair game. My mother was instructing me otherwise.

That night I learned that, along with her great taste in music and sci-fi TV shows, my mother had been endowed with some kind of sixth-sense radar that allowed her to recognize a stolen eraser among the Legos, GI Joe action figures, and thousands of other toys and trinkets I regularly scattered across the floor of our toy room. I wish I could say it was the only time my naive youthful logic proved no match against her maternal wisdom.

Philosophers and sociologists have debated for decades whether our behavior is a product of genetics or our environment. I have no idea if that bookstore encounter prevented me from a life of petty theft or grand larceny, but either way, I'm grateful that my mom's super-power prevented me from finding out.

Happy Mother's Day, Mom. Here's a musical thank-you from me and Mr. T:

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Working Like a Man

When I finished grad school in the spring of 2004, I took a job on a framing crew for the summer. My first reason was practical: the teaching job I’d applied for didn’t start until fall, and I needed money. My second reason was psychological: I needed to prove to myself that I could handle a construction job.

As far back as I could remember I’d held a grudging respect for the world of hard labor. My childhood was dotted with images of men who seemed to have an essential gene I missed, whether it was my dad working on the family car, my uncle building us a shed in our backyard, or the thousand stories I heard about my pioneer ancestors who built up the Salt Lake Valley with their bare hands. Their long hours and difficult feats were badges of honor, and felt like the epitome of manliness. I’d dabble in these tasks here and there—on Christmas morning in the 8th grade I proudly presented my parents with a set of cast iron hot dog cookers I welded in metal shop—but ultimately I’d bury my inferiority complex in academic success.

So as my last semester wound to a close, I felt like I had something to prove. I got in touch with a friend of a friend, and two days after receiving an MS in American Studies, I was standing next to a concrete-lined hole in the ground above the Eaglewood Golf Course in North Salt Lake City, Utah. For the next three months I would help frame a 1.2 million dollar mansion at the bargain-basement rate of $8 an hour.

In two days I had traded a group of colleagues who prided themselves for their vast vocabularies for a crew who had reduced their vocabularies to variations of the same three words. Mike was tall and lanky with long, stringy blonde hair and baggy jeans that were always being pulled down by his tool bags. Robbie was shorter with dark hair, usually wore shorts, and acted as the crew’s unofficial conspiracy theorist and partier. Arash was the closest I came to a kindred spirit, if only because he was also a rookie. He’d moved to Utah to go to school after paying a man to smuggle him into Turkey from his home country of Iran.

“Iran, not Iraq,” he said the morning we met.

Our foreman was Dave, taller, lankier, and older than Mike, but with less hair. When I first met him I made the mistake of assuming his thin frame translated into an easygoing work ethic. My error was corrected quickly. Every day a lumber truck would dump a load of 12-foot 2X4s in a pile in front of the construction site, and Arash and I were tasked with hauling them up to a more accessible spot. To make the task more manageable, I started grabbing two 2X4s at a time and walking them over to the foundation. But Dave would have none of that. Without a word he stomped over to the pile, wrapped his wiry arms around a stack of eight or nine of the same 2X4s, and hauled them up the hill.

Message received. Framing wasn’t about making the job manageable. It was about getting the job done.

Inspired by that blunt lesson, I took to my new responsibilities quickly, and before long we settled into a routine: as carpenters, Dave, Mike and Robbie did most of the actual framing, while Arash and I carried stuff around and tried to cut boards to size without chopping our fingers off. Then every couple of weeks we would drive out to some work site in Salt Lake where we would meet up with several other crews to get our paychecks, eat free pizza, and hear a lecture on safety standards.

The new routine was tough, but doable, and it quickly forced me into some good habits. Being dressed and on site at 7am was a challenge for a career night owl. And I’d never been a breakfast guy, but the physical nature of the job demanded I eat something before work. It also saved me money, forcing me to pack lunches instead of meet up with a friend for an hour at some restaurant downtown.

But all the good habits in the world couldn’t disguise the moonlighting college professor who lathered up in sun block every morning to protect his pasty skin while his co-workers were draped in deep tans that testified to long years in the sun. I never really knew if my crew resented me for leaving the white collar world to sweat it out on a construction site for a few months. If they did they didn’t show it. One afternoon in July I was sitting around on a break with the other guys when I mentioned something about grad school. Mike shook his head and asked:

“What are you doing here, man?”

I thought about everything I could say in response. That I needed to prove I was man enough to work long hours with my hands in the summer sun, that I was more than a schoolteacher with a red pen. That I remembered working at a grocery store as a teenager when former classmates would come in to cash construction paychecks that were three or four times the totals I was pulling down, and that even though I knew they’d sacrificed their futures by dropping out of school to take their jobs, that somehow standing there in their grime and their grease, they intimidated me.

“I just wanted to learn something new,” I finally said.

Bit by bit, the million-dollar house took shape over the summer weeks, and along the way I scored a 50-cent raise. The cement hole became a framed basement, then a really big rambler, then a crane came by and a sweeping roof capped off the structure. As the pieces fell into place I realized that even if I’d only been cutting 2X4s, I could look at that obnoxious house and know I’d helped to bring it up out of the ground. My sweat was in that thing, and after jabbing my hand on a nail one afternoon, so was my DNA. Maybe the future owner wouldn’t let me in the door, and maybe it was insulting to be making $8.50 an hour with two college degrees, but as long as that house stood, I knew I owned a piece of it.

At the same time, I wasn’t working any harder on the house than I did when I lingered on campus long into the night researching my paper on Chicano Nationalism, or when I graded all my students’ freshman argument papers, or when I sacrificed my Spring Break to marathon my way through five days of sunrise-to-sunset work on my Master’s Thesis. Grad school never gave me a sunburn, but hard work was hard work.

As July neared August, plumbers and electricians started to come by and take measurements as they prepared the house for its next phase of construction. Soon it would be time for the framers to move on to a new project.

One afternoon Dave took me aside to give me the news. “Our next project is going to be down in Payson,” he said. Payson was about 100 miles away. 200 miles of daily commute at $8.50 an hour didn’t carry much appeal, and Dave knew it.

“I could probably bump you up to $9.00, but that’s the best I could do until we trained you as a carpenter,” he continued. “But that’s not going happen anytime soon.”

I don’t think he meant it as an insult, but the last comment still stung. Even if I didn’t want the promotion, I wanted to think I was good enough to do it. Sometimes you don’t want to go to the party, but you still want to be invited.

About three weeks earlier the teaching job I was counting on had fallen through. Quitting framing would leave me with no income and no prospects, since it was too late in the year to go back to school and get into a PhD program. But I knew the Payson job wasn’t an option. I also knew that I didn’t have anything left to prove.

I called the boss two or three times, figuring I owed him a verbal resignation, but eventually I just had to leave a voice mail. A month later I picked up a part-time job teaching for the local community college. It took another year and a half before the house in Eaglewood sold. I’ll still drive by it once in a while, but I’ve never stopped to meet the owner, and I’ll still see pickups hauling tool trailers on the freeway from time to time, but I’ve never second-guessed my decision to leave the crew.

Two weeks after I quit I went to my 10-year high school reunion. I was single, unemployed, and living with my parents. But it didn’t bother me. I knew something about myself that I didn’t know before. Plus I knew that when you go after a stack of 2X4s, you grab eight, not two.