In any case, the freelance fanatics, or whatever they are, waterboard
Tony Stark, which, considering what some American interrogators and
their surrogates have done to suspects recently, is enraging to watch.
Such are the ways of pop: we cast our sins onto others. The complaint
sounds a little wan, but it’s worth noting that, possibly, more
Americans will see this dunderheaded fantasia on its opening weekend
than have seen all the features and documentaries that have labored to
show what’s happening in Iraq and on the home front.
I'm not sure Denby hasn't missed the point here; Jon Favreau, the film's director, is a pretty smart guy and I'm certain that if he decided to show Islamic extremists (or caricatures thereof) waterboarding an American billionaire arms dealer there's a reason for it - and I don't think it's because Favreau was rooting for Captain America during the Civil War story arc.
On the other hand, while I think it's a bit unfair to assume that the creative team behind Iron Man threw waterboarding in there simply to make the bad guys seem worse, Denby's point about Iron Man reaching a larger audience than, say, Standard Operating Procedure or Taxi to the Dark Side is a potentially valid one, given that they've decided to update Iron Man's origin story so that it now features scary brown people rather than scary yellow people. Is there a chance that certain less-informed moviegoers might have some of their negative racial stereotypes reinforced by the waterboarding sequence? Maybe. Does that mean Favreau shouldn't have included it? Well, maybe.
Pardon my equivocation, but I'm genetically unable to tell other artists what they should do with their work - which probably explains why David Denby is reviewing movies for The New Yorker and I'm reviewing his review. But if it were up to me, I'd go for it and waterboard as many superheroes as I could. You can't craft your work hoping the dumbest segment of your audience doesn't miss whatever point your trying to make; eventually you end up resenting your audience and once that happens your work starts to suck. Someone who doesn't know that the United States is waterboarding prisoners is probably clueless enough to think that Barack Obama really is a terrorist sleeper agent - that viewer's opinion of Muslims isn't likely to get much lower. Also, as I've written before, most people don't really know what waterboarding entails. If this scene gets just a few people thinking a little bit more deeply about what's happening in America today, then I'm for it.
Besides, Iron Man is a tool. Never liked him anyway.
There's a new line of Transformers toys called Real Gear Robots - rather than transform into vehicles these characters transform into everyday consumer electronics products such as cameras and cell phones. The character that transforms into an mp3 player, Booster X-10, is an evil robot whose motto is "DOWNLOAD. DISTRIBUTE. DESTROY." Because naturally, only a dastardly robot bent on the destruction of all that is good and wholesome would dream of distributing media.
(Crappy pictures courtesy of my crappy camera phone. Click for a version you can actually see.)
I’ve been meaning for some time to write about this now ancient Wired magazine article about Elon Musk, the inventor of PayPal, and his efforts to start his own private space program. A few things came to mind as I read it: one, starting your own personal space program sounds like a Lewis Black punchline. Two, the infinite variety of experience within this country alone, never mind the planet, is breathtaking. I’m hustling to make rent and put food on my family and this guy’s shooting his own rockets at the moon. Three, generations from now historians will still be trying to figure out the societal impact of the dotcom boom. On the one hand, multitudes had their pensions and retirement savings wiped out when it all finally collapsed; on the other, men and women whose earliest memory is Neil Armstrong walking on the moon suddenly found themselves with nearly infinite capital – and they’re all still young enough to do something with it. I don’t think we’ve even seen the beginning of what’s going to come of that.
It’s easy, especially when you consider NASA’s travails of late (forget about drunk astronauts- as of 2010 the United States loses the capacity for manned spaceflight) to point to the vigorous efforts of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson and conclude that once again the private sector is more aggressive and efficient and the future of space exploration belongs to it. It’s easy – and it’s wrong. I give Elon Musk credit for attempting something a bit more ambitious than flinging Justin Timberlake on a twenty-minute sub-orbital joyride, but even his grand plan is:
…to fly resupply missions — with astronauts! — to the International Space Station, at 250 miles up in low Earth orbit.
In other words, he’s not going to go any farther than NASA has.
Privately owned, for-profit organizations just don’t do exploration. It’s too risky. Even the private companies that established Europe’s first colonies in Asia and the Americas, such as the Dutch East India Company and Virginia Company, did so only after exploratory missions subsidized by their respective crowns. It pains me to say this, given NASA’s sorry state, but if any real exploration, any real science is going to get done, it’s going to have to come from them.
Governments matter. Governments are the only institutions that are willing to bring manpower and capital to projects that aren’t immediately profitable. Their reasons for doing so may not always be honorable (hell, let’s be honest, they almost never are) and sadly the not-immediately-profitable enterprises they pursue often include ill-advised wars. But programs like space exploration, curing diseases, poverty relief – they’re only going to come from government. You’ll get the occasional billionaire’s foundation to throw some money at a problem, but ultimately it’s a government that’s going to use that money.
You can’t walk away. You can’t write government off, no matter how tempting that is given the bloodthirsty goons on one end of Pennsylvania Avenue and the feckless milktoasts on the other, but Bill Gates isn’t going to end the war in Iraq and there’s no venture capitalist out there with a secret program to “invent” our way out of the global warming crisis. We’re stuck with government, the only viable tool we’ve got to address the various shitstorms gathering on the horizon. It’s not the greatest tool – let’s face it, we’re not talking about a Craftsman Strap Wrench here – but it’s all we’ve got.
Wandering about the Internet I stumbled upon this article by scientist and sci-fi author David Brin, which describes how the scientists behind the SETI program, which uses radio telescopes to sweep the galaxy in search of stray signals and communications from extra-terrestrial intelligences, want to shift their mission's emphasis away from passively listening for alien signals to broadcasting extremely powerful signals into space designed to attract anyone who might be interested in stopping by. (While it is true that any electromagnetic signal originating on Earth radiates into space for eternity, once you get a few light years out they become to faint to detect. The SETI scientists want to use their powerful radio telescopes to send a signal too loud to ignore.)
Brin and a number of other scientists think this is a spectacularly bad idea; since we have no idea what's out there, they feel it is much more prudent to listen to whatever conversation might be going on rather than start "shouting at the sky." History supports their position - indigenous people have never fared well against more technologically advanced invaders. It's tempting to dismiss Brin's point of view as a sci-fi writer's paranoid fantasy, but it should be pointed out that Brin commands a great deal of respect as a scientist, so much so that he helped author the SETI protocol for first-contact with an extra-terrestrial intelligence.
I'm with David Brin on this one - and if science and history aren't enough to sway the SETI scientists who want to pump up the volume I'll offer them another argument: the Earth is a bit of mess right now. No, really, look around. The gory clusterfuck in Iraq continues apace. The Middle East in general is unstable, to say the least. Most of Africa remains mired in nightmarish poverty and bloodshed. We teeter on the brink of environmental catastrophe. C'mon - do you really think we're in any shape for company?
My wife and I wouldn't dream of having people over unless we'd made damn sure the house was vacuumed, dusted, the bathrooms were clean and the dishes were out of the sink. Shouldn't we apply the same standard to the planet?
Let me put it another way: you're driving along and you pass a ramshackle disaster of a house - busted toilet on the lawn, rusted hulk of a car up on blocks in the driveway, the whole deal. Suddenly the bedraggled master of the house bursts from the front door waving his arms frantically with, what is that - blood? - all over his t-shirt, screaming at you to stop the car and come in for a cold one. You gonna do it?
(Between the VT shootings, the Baghdad bombings, and Debbie Schlussel, I’m too wiped out to post anything substantial. And so, trivia!)
Well, it looks like the producers of the upcoming Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer have given the matter a lot of thought and decided that the movie should suck.
Actually, I have no idea if the movie’s going to suck and frankly not that much interest since I wasn’t crazy about the first one. (Oh, will Reed ever let Sue know his true feelings? Oh, poor Reed. WHAT THE FUCK? This is the Fantastic Four. Where are the giant goddamn mole monsters?) But the whole business reminds me of something that’s been on my mind about the current spate of science fiction movies in general. Why has science fiction become so timid?
Printed sci-fi is in a deep dark hole, but sci-fi on film and TV seems to be riding higher than ever. Battlestar Galactica is one of the most highly regarded programs on television, and Children of Men* was one of this year’s best-reviewed movies – both deservedly so. The third X-Men film was one of the top grossing films of last year, and as Stan Lee would say the world will tremble when Spider-Man 3 drops next week. So why are they so afraid to show us a giant guy in purple metal armor who likes to eat the occasional planet?
I think part of it has to do with a fear of alienating the audience that seems to have recently discovered science fiction. Obviously, the success of and prestige granted shows like Galactica and films like Children of Men is due to their artful portrayal of the waking nightmare we’re all currently enduring. Fair enough – but have we come down so squarely on the side of science fiction “saying something” that we’ve forgotten how to have some fun with it? I’m not advocating camp. I hate camp. But science fiction can take off on some intense flights of fancy without having to become goofy. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a good example of this, as is Forbidden Planet. When was the last time you saw a well-acted, well-written sci-fi movie that had the scale and ambition of Forbidden Planet? That movie’s over fifty years old, for heaven’s sake.
Nerve.com recently compiled a list of twenty comics that will change your life. All the usual suspects were represented – Maus, Love and Rockets, Watchmen – but the Lee-Kirby run on the Fantastic Four also made the list, precisely because the stories were huge and completely and utterly mad while playing it straight. That’s an achievement; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
The only show I can think of that’s even attempting anything like this is Doctor Who, at least the Christopher Eccleston episodes. (I haven’t seen any of the David Tenant episodes so I can’t comment on them.) The Doctor’s survival guilt over being the sole survivor of a war fought across all of time and space that devastated entire civilizations including his own – talk about scale! – provided an anchor strong enough to secure our sophisticated, 21st century sensibilities, but it’s chain was slack enough for us to float with the story in whatever mad, wondrous direction it took us.
Wonder. That’s really what I’m getting at. Has wonder become too much to ask of an audience? How much grounding is necessary to make wonder palatable? Science fiction’s role as social critic goes back to H.G. Wells, but Wells’ work is also filled with wonder, and horror. Jules Verne was less of a social critic but even more an architect of dreams. Wells’ grounded his work, “matured” it for a broader audience if you prefer, with his social criticism while Verne “matured” his work with as rigorous a basis in scientific fact as possible. (In fact, Verne’s specifications for the rocket used in From the Earth to the Moon are remarkably similar to those of the actual rocket that took the first Earthmen to the moon.)
Wonder is essential, necessary, and I miss it, because lately I don’t need Battlestar Galactica to tell me life sucks, however brilliantly it does so. Lately I find myself needing time traveling phone booths, ten-mile deep planetary power generators, and titanic alien monoliths to remind me why I should care, and what I might miss if I stop.
*An aside regarding Children of Men: can you think of a single American or European filmmaker who could have adopted a Mexican aesthetic sensibility as well as Alfonso Cuaron adopted an English one for Children of Men? He used a King Crimson song, for God’s sake – and he used it well. What would the Mexican equivalent of that be? I have no idea.