The Range of Light

Looking eastward from the summit of Pacheco Pass one shining morning, a landscape was displayed that after all my wanderings still appears as the most beautiful I have ever beheld. At my feet lay the Great Central Valley of California, level and flowery, like a lake of pure sunshine, forty or fifty miles wide, five hundred miles long, one rich furred garden of yellow Compositae. And from the eastern boundary of this vast golden flower-bed rose the mighty Sierra, miles in height, and so gloriously colored and so radiant, it seemed not clothed with light but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city…. Then it seemed to me that the Sierra should be called, not the Nevada or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light. And after ten years of wandering and wondering in the heart of it, rejoicing in its glorious floods of light, the white beams of the morning streaming through the passes, the noonday radiance on the crystal rocks, the flush of the alpenglow, and the irised spray of countless waterfalls, it still seems above all others the Range of Light.
– John Muir, The Yosemite (1912) chapter 1.

Over the past year I have had the great good fortune to drive the length of this state – or at least the bits between Ventura and San Francisco – no less than seven times. That each trip was made for business hardly mattered. Having been back home a year after two decades abroad, I have yet to tire of the vistas – even those afforded by Interstate 5, which is admittedly less picturesque than State Highway 1, US 101, or even State Highway 99.

I Saw a Picture of Taylor Swift Jumping the Shark

Why is Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” No. 1
Chris Molanphy
Browbeat
1 December 2014

I have had a soft spot for Taylor Swift ever since Kanye West jumped up on stage at the Grammys in 2009, grabbed the mike from her, dissed her award for Best Female Video, and proved to the world, including the President of the United States, what a jackass he was and what a class act Taylor was.

But I cannot help but feel that somehow she has hit an invisible peak. Maybe it was back-to-back chart-toppers. Maybe it was the Time cover. 

Or maybe it was something bigger, what Chris Molanphy calls the Imperial phase in her career where she can do no wrong, no matter how far overboard she goes. Harsh. But he goes on: Swift, he says, has hit the peak of her career and the peak of narcissism at the same time.

You might find all of this a little too perfect, as so many things involving Taylor Swift these days are. What’s more, all this perfection is in service of one of Swift’s most solipsistic songs, which is saying something: Her self-deprecation and self-satire also inevitably mean self-absorption.

What concerns me is not the image of Taylor Swift spending her days looking into a mirror. I am more troubled by what this portends: artists who rise to a peak and then find themselves as their best subject ultimately find their work derivative to the point of self-parody (Examples: Hunter S. Thompson, Janis Joplin, Elvis and, I would argue, Eminem.) Down that path lies misery, and possibly a premature exit.

But I am most troubled by all of the rest of us celebrating her self-absorption like its almost a good thing. What can you say about a society that lauds narcissism in their role models? Are we not disturbed by the sight of a talented chanteuse who at the grizzled old age of 25 finds herself bereft of any other subjects but herself?

I am, and I will end 2014 with the silent wish that 2015 offers Ms. Swift a comfortable bridge to her next chapter. Because I discern through the fog the outlines of a precipice that I would not wish on my worst enemy.

Will Star Wars Fail?

As I watch the online excitement build for the coming series of Disneyfied Star Wars sequels, I find myself taking pause and wondering if it will do as well as we all think. 

An Old Story in a New Day

I wonder whether the earnestness of the series and its storyline will play to 21st century audiences. I wonder if we have grown past the space opera, or at least the space opera in its George Lucas form. I wonder if people want Jedi and Sith, or whether they want more morally ambiguous characters. Do they want grand tales of white knights and dark knights fighting for the soul of a vast realm? Or do they want ordinary guys being thrust unwillingly into roles that demand that they make really hard choices?

The Big Test, of course. will be how Episode VII does at the global Box Office against, say Avengers II or Guardians of the Galaxy. Are the Star Wars films playing to an ageing cadre of die-hard fans? Or can the story attract the passion and fervor among new audiences that the original films did 35 years ago?

I am not sure. We may well find out that what Star Wars needs is not a sequel, but a complete revisioning of the earlier episodes to reflect the sensibilities of an audience that is more at home with less morally monochromatic characters. 

That’s not going to happen, of course. There are too many people for whom Star Wars is a religion, and you don’t mess with the canon when fanatics are involved. But we can hope.

The Lapsed Jedi and the Flawed Master

Okay okay, I’ll confess. I am a lapsed Jedi. I used to love Star Wars. From the time I was 12 to the time I was about 35, I was a huge fan. And I awaited each new Star Wars movie in a way that only a member of the 501st Legion could truly understand. But somewhere, the series lost me.

It wasn’t just the prequels: yes, they were awful, but they could be treated as a mistake independent of the earlier films, just as the fourth Indiana Jones movie is treated by many of the fans of that series. But I’ve been back to the original films (part of my duty as the father of a pre-teen son). And even those have lost their magic.

Why?

The problem is not just the prequels. What the prequels manage to do is throw into stark relief the fact that behind the SFX and the epic scale of the story, the tale is second-rate. You cannot blame all of this on the fact that George Lucas cannot write dialogue to save his life.

At the heart of the problems with the series is that the characters seemed too much like archetypes and not enough like, well, real people. Characters who should have been more interesting were cardboard cutouts, even caricatures. And Lucas never figured out that “backstory” and “narrative progression” are not the same thing as character development. It was as if Lucas was really trying to do an exposition of Joseph Cambell’s Hero’s Journey rather than actually tell a story in an absorbing way. 

Star Wars may yet go down as the best fairy tale told against the backdrop of a galaxy far, far away. But it will fade, as all fairy tales do, from the center of our culture to the collective bookshelves of our minds. And I fear that nothing that J.J. Abrams and the Disney Imagineering machine will do with the story can do much to change that. 

The True Hope

Not long after the first Star Wars came out, I was raving about it to my older sister Bonnie. She listened patiently, then looked at me knowingly and told me to go to Pickwick Books in Westwood Village and pick up a copy of Frank Herbert’s Dune. There, she told me, I would find the story that Lucas really wanted to tell. I bought the book, and in so doing opened the door to the world of speculative fiction that I occupy yet today. 

I would wager that I am not alone, that an entire generation – perhaps two – of speculative fiction buffs, writers, video game developers and players owe their passions and otaku obsessions to that moment in a movie theater when an Imperial Star Destroyer filled the screen with its immense techno-cool evil. For that, if nothing else, we owe Star Wars a debt. 

And for that reason alone I hope that I am terribly, terribly wrong about what is to come.