Gather ye rosebuds – How I *almost* wrote for Star Trek

Close, but not quite…

A great deal of blogging advice says you shouldn’t talk about yourself.  I think I’ve been pretty good about staying true to that axiom, presenting my take on world events rather than extolling the mundane details of my boring existence.  This is one story about me however that I think is worth telling, not only because there’s a good lesson in it but because it involves my closest encounter with one of the biggest entertainment franchises on the planet – and if that doesn’t grab your interest, then don’t worry, I’ll be back to criticizing Republicans soon enough.

We flash back to an era when Star Trek: The Next Generation was coming to the end of its initial television run and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was taking over as the sole keeper of Roddenberry’s flame.  I’d grown a bit disenchanted with TNG as even at that age I had figured out that stories about deus ex machina subatomic particles and other varieties of technobabble weren’t remotely as compelling as the richer, more character-driven pieces DS9 was attempting.  The stories were more emotional and more consequential, as the space station couldn’t fly off at the end of the episode as the Enterprise could.  Characters had to live with their choices, and their mistakes would continue to haunt them.  For a young mind enamored with the idea of making storytelling his life’s pursuit, this was ambrosia.  Imagination soared with potential adventures for Captain Sisko and company (yes, nitpickers, I know he was a Commander during the time I’m talking about, but just roll with it, okay?).  Fortunately, because of a guy named Michael Piller who was one of the executive producers of the franchise at that point – and had arguably been responsible for turning TNG around after its wobbly first two seasons – those adventures did not have to remain confined to my brain alone.

Breaking into television writing is incredibly difficult because it’s a closed shop.  If you have a great idea for an episode of say, True Blood, and mail a script in to HBO, you’ll get it back without it even having been opened.  Too much history of litigation brought by angry writers hollering “You stole my idea!” has led to every single series accepting submissions and pitches only through registered agents.  Short version – you can’t land a TV writing gig without an agent, and you can’t get an agent unless you’ve had a TV writing gig.  When Michael Piller was running Star Trek, however, he enacted an open submission policy.  Anybody could send something in and have it considered – didn’t matter if you were a groundskeeper from Bangladesh, so long as you could write in proper teleplay format and enclosed the correct postage, they’d look at it.  Ronald D. Moore, who became one of Star Trek’s most prolific writers, working on Next Generation, DS9 and two of the movies before shepherding the reimagining of Battlestar Galactica, was discovered in this way.  It was possible – you didn’t need an “in” with somebody who worked there, you just had to write something that grabbed them.  You had the same chance as everybody else.

Over the summer of 1993, as friends either slung burgers or soaked up rays on cottage docks, I got to work.  I researched how to write a teleplay, learned about scene headings, dialogue formatting and stage direction, and started writing.  My premise?  It had been mentioned a number of times on DS9 that Dr Julian Bashir had been salutatorian in his graduating class at Starfleet Medical, that he’d messed up on a single question on the final that had resulted in him coming second.  Obviously someone had beaten him and been valedictorian.  What if this person came to the station?  And what if it was a woman with whom Bashir had had a romantic history, but their competitive nature had dashed the possibility of a lasting relationship?  What if they were forced back together to solve a mystery that threatened the entire station?  Once those questions were in place, the teleplay came together fairly naturally.  I opened with a scene on the Promenade between Bashir and Lt. Jadzia Dax.  Dax is going over some personnel reports with a bored Bashir who is longing for some adventure to come into his life.  (For fun, the names of the crewmembers Dax is discussing are all the last names of my closest friends.)  Bashir notices a comely figure strolling across the Promenade – his old flame, the valedictorian herself, Dr. Sabrina Keller.  Sparks ensue, old rivalries resurface, and eventually Bashir and Keller have to team up to save the station from a rogue comet that plays havoc with the Bajoran sun – a crisis in which all their shared medical expertise is worthless.  I type this up in WordPerfect, print it out on my cheap dot matrix printer, bind it, label it and mail it off to Paramount Pictures, 5555 Melrose Avenue.  And wait.

Fast forward to February 1994.  I’m home from my first year of university on reading week.  My family and I are coming home from an afternoon out when I spy a huge envelope shoved in our mailbox – from Paramount Pictures.  It’s my original teleplay being returned, along with a pile of resources – the DS9 writers’ guide, copies of two previously produced teleplays and a form letter from Ronald D. Moore inviting me for a pitch meeting.  For a 19-year-old Trekkie, the reaction resembles what happens to Louis del Grande’s character in Scanners.

They weren’t interested in purchasing the script I’d sent them, but they felt that I had shown promise and been able to write the characters’ voices well.  They wanted to hear more.  A few days later, I received a phone call from a very nice lady named April who was Moore’s assistant.  She wanted to know if I’d received the material and if I was interested in pitching.  I replied, naively and sheepishly, that I was a Canadian student and couldn’t afford to come to Los Angeles.  After what I’m guessing was an eyeroll on her end, she explained that they took pitches over the phone.  It’ll be a half hour conversation with one of the show’s writing producers during which you’ll present several story ideas.  Well, in that case, of course I’ll do it, said I.  Just one caveat – I’ll be back at university so here’s my dorm room phone extension.  Thank you, said April, and she hung up, and I was left there feeling a bit shell-shocked, and intimidated that now I had to come up with at least five more stories for this meeting.  Well, at least I had a whole month this time, unlike the year it took me to come up with the first one.  Gulp.

A month fades away.  I banish my roommate one night and sit on the bed awaiting this call, story ideas spread out around me, the Beastie Boys blaring from next door.  The phone rings, it’s April again, and she tells me I’ll be pitching to René Echevarria, a writer whose episodes of both Next Gen and DS9 have been among my favourites.  Echevarria comes on the line, we exchange brief greetings, and I launch into my pitches – beating down the butterflies roaring away in my stomach.

Star Trek has always been about big ideas couched in science fiction premises.  The coolest space anomalies and weirdest aliens are meaningless if there isn’t a strong social message underneath.  In coming up with my pitches I tried to start with the social message first and build the plot around it.  The first story I pitched was about religious prejudice.  The planet Bajor, which the Deep Space Nine station watches over, is a highly religious world.  What if, I suggested, there was a minority of Bajoran atheists?  And a few of them had done something really awful, like blowing up a monastery, resulting in every Bajoran who doesn’t believe in their religion being treated with disdain – the same way some blame every living Muslim for 9/11?  Arriving on the station is one of these atheists, suspected of selling out his world to the Cardassians.  He proclaims his innocence, and the Starfleet crew, who are secular, are more inclined to sympathize with him than the religious Bajoran Major Kira, who hates this guy sight unseen.  A few twists and turns later, it’s revealed – after the atheist is shot dead while affecting a very unsubtle Christ-like pose on the Promenade – that he wasn’t selling anyone out, he was buying time for his family to escape from Bajor.  Bajor’s conservative attitudes take another black eye as Kira is forced to reevaluate what she believes.

Echevarria doesn’t waste a beat.  There’s nothing particularly wrong with the story, he says, but for the third season they are trying to reinvent Bajor as a happier, more positive place for the audience to sympathize with and root for, and this would run contrary to that objective.  Plus there are a couple of plot holes he doesn’t like.  What else ya got?

I move on to my next story.  I’d always been fascinated by the concept of the “red shirt” – the nameless, non-speaking security officer who dies and is never thought of again.  I opened the story with a shootout on the station, and one of these guys goes down.  You are supposed to think nothing of it.  But we stay with his story as Security Chief Odo is filling out the paperwork regarding his death.  His name is Warrant Officer Charles F. Kensing (deliberate allusion to Citizen Kane, which my film class had screened recently), and as Odo digs deeper, it turns out he wasn’t a random casualty, he was a deliberate target as part of a conspiracy involving Starfleet Intelligence that leads all the way to Commander Sisko himself.

Echevarria isn’t sold on this one either.  He doesn’t buy that Sisko would keep Odo in the dark the way I’ve suggested.  The entire plot could have been resolved by the two simply having a forthright conversation.  Next.

I re-pitch the valedictorian story.  I’ve tweaked it since my original script to play up the romance and competition angles, and sharpen the sci-fi mystery element.  But it’s still a no-go.  Echevarria tells me they featured the valedictorian in a recent episode that has yet to air at the time I’m speaking with him.  (When the episode does air, although the valedictorian is female, her name is Dr. Elizabeth Lense, and not only does she have no romantic history with Bashir, she doesn’t even know who he is – and their fairly forgettable encounter is an unrelated B-plot in a story about Sisko and his son Jake building an interstellar sailing ship.)

With his comments about making Bajor a happier, sunnier place, I know he’s not going to like my last story before I even start in on it.  It’s a dark tale about a Bajoran militia exercise involving teenage cadets, and Jake Sisko somehow being shoehorned into taking part.  Eventually he is forced into killing one of these cadets to save another and grapples with the consequence of having taken a life.  I can feel the cringing on the other end of the phone – it just isn’t happening for me tonight.

Finally, Echevarria thanks me for my pitches.  He asks a little about me and is surprised when I tell him I’m 19.  He also invites me back to pitch again.  Clearly he senses that there’s some potential to be harvested here.  I’m a bit apologetic about some of the stories that he’s passed on and he laughs it off, saying, and I quote, “you wouldn’t believe some of the shit people pitch.”  We exchange goodbyes and I hang up.  Looking back on it now I can see how every one of those stories wasn’t ready for prime time, but the experience itself was invaluable.  It showed me at a very young age that I could play with the big boys – that my writing was good, that it could stand up to professional scrutiny.  And the door hadn’t been closed – they were willing to hear more.  I had my “in.”

You may be wondering now, two thousand words on, why I titled the post “Gather ye rosebuds.”  As you can gather based on the fact that you’ve never seen my name in the credits of a Star Trek episode, I never took them up on Echevarria’s invitation to pitch again.  Not long after this call, my mother’s cancer worsened and she landed in hospital, never to emerge.  Star Trek stories were the very last thing on my mind.  I don’t blame myself for not ever following up, at least, not to the degree where I mope about it constantly.  Life, as John Lennon observed, is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.  But these days, as I try to build a writing career, I think back to my “big break” and reflect on how I could have made better use of it.  Honestly, I was lazy and I chickened out.  I made excuses.  I could have fought through the grief – used it, shaped my pain into heart-rending adventures for Captain Sisko’s crew.  Perhaps.  For whatever reason, at the time I was not in the mood to try.  So I let the opportunity slip away like sand through fingertips.  DS9 is long off the air, Michael Piller has passed on and the open submission policy on television is history.  And René Echevarria certainly doesn’t remember me.

As the summer of 2012 draws to a close and new opportunities begin to present themselves, I’m determined to gather my rosebuds while I may, even if they may be fewer.  Carpe occasio.  That’s the advice I take from my Star Trek experience, and the best advice that the relating of this tale can bestow upon anyone.  Don’t chicken out of life.  The perfect time never comes.  And as they said in Vanilla Sky, every passing moment is another chance to turn it all around.  So send that book in.  Get your blog going.  Publish that article.  Submit your screenplay.  And if someone gives you a break, grab onto it and push until it hurts, until your fingers are bleeding and your arms are ready to fall off.  You have nothing to lose and the world to gain.

What are you waiting for?

Advertisements

“I Misspoke” and non-apology apologies

Rep. Todd Akin, Republican candidate for Senate (Missouri). Not pictured: Todd Akin’s brain.

By now, everyone with even a passing interest in the U.S. election has heard of Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin’s remark that “legitimate rape,” whatever on earth that is, doesn’t cause pregnancy.  Compounding the sheer idiocy of this comment was Akin’s follow-up non-apology apology, in which he claimed he misspoke and pivoted as hard as he could without acquiring whiplash to bashing President Obama on his handling of the economy.  It’s been observed that Akin likely isn’t sorry at all that he said what he did, that his original remarks come from a place of deeply-held convictions fuelled by religion and God knows – pun intended – what else.  Saying “I misspoke” is poll-tested politicalspeak for “I know what I said will probably lose votes but I don’t want to outright disavow it because that will lose the votes of my base and I really don’t want to be portrayed as a flip-flopper or give my opponent something they can use against me in a TV ad and… SQUIRREL!”  Akin’s hoping to ride out the news cycle and trusting that the rubes who would vote for Vlad the Impaler so long as he was running on a Republican “values” platform will still put him and his 15th Century views on women in the Senate chamber come November.  That’s what “I misspoke” really is, no matter who uses it:  a Get Out of Jail (or at least a Get Your Foot Out of Your Mouth) Free card.  It’s a stopgap half-truth designed to soothe the angry, reassure the faithful and ultimately prove what a spineless weasel the candidate is – a small person without courage, without integrity, and without any business occupying elected office.

Real men own their mistakes.  If Todd Akin says he’s going to take out the garbage and forgets, what does he say to his wife?  “In reviewing my remarks to you at the dinner table earlier this evening, it’s clear that I misspoke in our discussion and it does not reflect my deep empathy for the millions of trash bags left rotting at the curb every year as the truck drives away.  This is clearly a result of President Obama’s failed waste collection policies and an example of why we need new leadership in Washington.”  Wonder how that doesn’t end with him sleeping on the couch for a month?  If this hypothetical situation goes down, what really happens is that Akin begs on his knees for forgiveness, buys Mrs. Akin flowers and a spa day and never forgets to take out the garbage again.  Why don’t we demand the same level of accountability for those we entrust with the public purse?  Why are they allowed to say “I misspoke” and get off scot-free – or worse, get into office where they can screw our lives with impunity before retiring on a glorious pension after utterly hosing the millions who voted for them in the first place?

 When you think about it, the “I Misspoke” is genius.  It has the effect of feigning contrition where there is absolutely none – where the costs of doing so are deemed by a focus group to be politically suicidal.  It sounds amazingly remorseful, yet isn’t in the slightest.  From what I’ve observed, there are essentially three components to the “I Misspoke,” and none of them involve acknowledging responsibility:

  1. Point out that there may have been some confusion about the intent of the remarks.  Even if the remarks were abhorrent, it’s always about the confusion.  Shorter version:  It’s your fault you’re upset by what I said.
  2. Claim I’m really a nice guy because I love flowers and rainbows and kittens and I feel really bad for people who have to go through hard times (the subtext being, elect me and I’ll vote to cut funding for every single one of you, you freeloading bastards).
  3. Pivot to something completely unrelated as long as it’s a poll-tested, campaign-approved message.  “Yes, I probably should not have expressed my admiration for the German economy of the 1940’s but man, did you get a load of Ryan Lochte’s abs?  And what’s the deal with Nyan Cat?”

Notice too that the word “sorry” seldom, if ever, appears in the context of the “I Misspoke.”  That’s only used by people who feel genuinely distraught about the weight of what they’ve done, and intend by whatever means necessary to rectify it.  If Todd Akin is elected to the Senate, he will not experience any road-to-Damascus conversion and suddenly become a champion of abortion rights and women’s issues.  He’ll vote according to what was on display in that original interview, saying “aye” to every mandatory ultrasound-requiring, Planned Parenthood-defunding, women’s health care-eliminating bill that comes his way.  If Akin is upset at all it’s that he’s put his Senate bid in jeopardy – he does not give one-tenth of a rat’s ass about women, which is why his non-apology apology rings so false.  As Rihanna might opine, “don’t tell me you’re sorry ‘cause you’re not, when you’re only sorry you got caught.” 

Because voters treat political parties like baseball teams, supporting their side to the bitter end regardless of faults (Jan Brewer winning re-election as Arizona’s governor after spacing out during the gubernatorial debate is a prime recent example), Akin stands little chance of seeing any serious long-term blowback on this issue – despite calls for him to stand aside as the Republican nominee for the Missouri Senate seat, calls which as of this writing he is brushing off.  If I were Todd Akin’s campaign manager right now, I’d tell him to stay the course, that Missouri trends right and so long as he stays on message for the rest of the campaign (read:  Obama bad!  Taxes bad!) he’ll probably win anyway, thanks largely to Karl Rove and Super PAC money.  But I wouldn’t be his campaign manager, because I’d never support such a backwards-thinking, poorly-educated head-in-the-sand empty shirt for an office of such stature.  See, the problem with the “I Misspoke” isn’t that people use it.  It’s that we have lowered the bar so far that people can “misspeak” and carry on regardless.  So long as we fail to hold our elected officials accountable when they reveal their true character as Todd Akin has, and like Akin, refuse to accept responsibility for their dumbassery, we will continue to be outraged instead of inspired, and dragged down by the worst of us instead of lifted by the best.

And I do not misspeak when I say that.

Occupy Gotham City?

Bane strikes at the heart of the one percent.

The undisputed kings of the 2012 summer box office have both been comic book movies:  The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises.  While The Avengers is essentially a crowd-pleasing greatest hits package that you either dig or don’t (I dig, for the record), the final entry in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is a more complex tale probing the human condition behind the capes and cowls of its characters, and as such, opens itself to a wider degree of interpretation.  One of the most interesting of the responses to the film is in how certain critics have seen it as condemning the Occupy Wall Street movement and praising the nobility of the 1%.  For his part, Nolan has denied that the film has a political slant.  I’ve seen the movie twice now, and while the tropes associated with Occupy are certainly present, I can’t get behind the notion that the movie is Ayn Rand redux.  Great art reflects our times, and it’s natural for current history to bleed through the edges of the screen.  But reducing the themes of The Dark Knight Rises to a simple political didactic for easy cable news consumption is to perform a disservice to the deeper moral questions at play here.  Nolan’s Batman movies have always operated on a more primal level, exploring the nature of fear, chaos, and the case of the final chapter, consequences, and our ability – or our duty – to accept our responsibility for them, regardless of our means.

(Author’s note:  MAJOR SPOILERS ahead.  Please don’t read this unless you’ve seen the movie; I’ll hold nothing back.)

Eight years have passed since the Joker’s reign of anarchy led to the death of Harvey Dent, Batman taking the fall for Dent’s crimes and the caped crusader’s disappearance from Gotham City.  In the aftermath, a draconian “Dent Act” has allowed police to rid the streets of organized crime once and for all.  But the illusion of peace is built on a lie, and the two heroes who have allowed it to fester are being torn apart by their demons.  One, Commissioner Jim Gordon, hides in plain sight, while the other, Bruce Wayne, has become a crippled recluse.  Both know, instinctively, that the center cannot hold; Gordon prepares to read a speech denouncing Dent and admitting his role in the cover-up but chooses at the last second to hold back, while Wayne is restless in his isolation, like Sherlock Holmes without purpose in the absence of a case.  And then, from beneath the veneer of deception and fabricated security, and literally beneath the earth, evil begins to rise, as unstoppable mercenary Bane sets his dark plan for Gotham City into motion.  Gordon is wounded and Bruce Wayne is compelled to suit up.  But they’ve waited too long, allowed their deception to endure long past its limit.  They have forgotten that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.  Bane uses the time to outmanoeuvre the two, seizing control of Wayne’s secret armory, trapping Gotham’s entire police force underground and finally, breaking the ill-prepared and overconfident Batman.

Shades of Occupy first percolate through the narrative as Bane lays siege to Gotham, speechifying about punishing the corrupt and sending his minions to drag the wealthy and powerful from their mansions and haul them in front of a kangaroo court, in the name of “the people” of Gotham.  But despite the illusion of his rhetoric he is hardly a populist hero or a masked MLK.  Indeed, a man with a noble message doesn’t need the threat of nuclear annihilation to ensure that it’s heard – Bane’s goal is the total destruction of Gotham City, first envisioned by Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins.  After confining Wayne to the same prison to which he was condemned as a younger man, Bane admits that the greatest despair requires hope, and like the most accomplished sadists, he will provide the people with Gotham with hope so that they suffer more.  He wants them all to hurt.  He intends, like the American army marching into Baghdad, to present himself as a liberator, in fact using that exact word, while espousing himself as a sort of “Occupier,” because he knows this is a sensitive button that can be pushed.  Clearly Gotham is a place of great inequality, despite the false security brought on by the Dent Act, as noted when Selina Kyle tells Bruce earlier in the film over shots of the wealthy eating lobster and drinking champagne that “there’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”  But Bane has no allegiance to the Occupy philosophy and is most certainly not fighting for the people, he’s using them – as cynically as the billionaires, politicians and professional lobbyists who seized control of the Tea Party and convinced common people to protest and vote against their own best interest.  The theatricality and deception of a “people’s revolution” in Gotham is a mere smokescreen, as Selina comes to understand when the storm she predicted destroys everything it touches – not just the rich.  For its part, the Occupy movement has never claimed to want to tear the wealthy down, nor does it begrudge the acquisition of wealth; it simply believes in fairness, the enforcement of the law, and not rigging the game toward the singular interest of the haves.  Give everyone an equal chance to achieve a decent life, Occupy says, don’t purposely screw over those of us who’ve had a few bumps along the way to make it easier for the ones who already have it pretty good.  Bane’s attitude of killing them all and pillaging their treasures would hardly be welcome in the true Occupy movement – regardless of what the doofuses on Fox and Friends tell you.

To the second point raised by the critics, this movie purported to glorify the rich and the status quo of capitalism presents the rich largely as remorseless manipulators.  Bane is funded by billionaire construction entrepreneur John Daggett, who lets a terrorist wreak a trail of murder through Gotham City so he can seize control of the struggling Wayne Enterprises.  Daggett is not satisfied with his considerable wealth – like the Koch Brothers, he merely uses it to acquire more.  He cannot see his own complicity in what is to come, even at the very end, accusing Bane of being “pure evil” just before he has his neck snapped, when it was he who chose to release the genie from the bottle.  And the most accomplished and cruellest manipulator in the film turns out to be billionaire Miranda Tate, who wears the veil of a philanthropist trying to save the world, but is in fact Talia al Ghul, daughter of Ra’s, as committed to destroying Gotham as her late father.  She convinces Bruce to install her as chair of Wayne Enterprises’ board of directors and give her access to his dormant clean energy project, with the intent of using her other pawn – Bane, himself motivated by the easiest manipulation of all, his love for her – to bring her father’s wishes to fruition.  She does not care that there are innocent people in Gotham City; she scoffs at the mere mention of the word.  Her desire for retribution trumps everything – ideology, loyalty, even her own life.  Money for her is but a means to a horrible end.

Bruce Wayne, however, has never been one to let himself be defined by his wealth; it gives him no pleasure.  His flaunting of it in previous films has been a form of misdirection, convincing people that he is the worst of the stereotypes of careless moneybags; the last person who would ever want to become Batman.  However, when his wealth is taken away from him through a fraudulent stock transaction, he seems totally unconcerned about being broke.  He does not miss it, and does not care about regaining it.  He has long ago realized what Daggett never did – that more zeroes on the balance sheet don’t take the pain away.  That pain is a point of bonding between himself and the young cop John Blake, a man who has grown up poor and in and out of foster care, but has, like Bruce, channelled his anger into a sense of justice (and unlike Bane, who grew up in the worst cesspool on earth and consequently turned against humanity).  The film suggests that nobility, then, has nothing to do with wealth, and even the smallest acts of good are worth more, to invoke a cliché, than their weight in gold.  Indeed, when Bruce is reduced to his lowest, broken and lying immobile at the bottom of a prison halfway across the world, he finds the strength to rebuild himself from nothing, to escape and return to fight for his city.  These are qualities that cannot be bestowed; those who never confront desperation, loneliness and fear can never rise above them.  Those who are insulated by fortune never achieve their greatest potential.  Throughout the series, the moments that have shaped Bruce Wayne’s character for the better have come when he is separated from the life of luxury that is his birthright.  As Carmine Falcone tells him in Batman Begins, “You’ve never tasted desperate.”  Bruce Wayne may be a one-percenter, but he understands what it is like to have nothing – his empathy for the weak and powerless is part of what drives him to right Gotham City’s wrongs.  I would find it very difficult to believe that David and Charles Koch have ever had to choose between rent and food, that they have ever sat up nights wondering how they’re going to pay their heating bill, that they would deign to come within one hundred feet of a homeless man – which is why they are relentless in their funding of politicians who share their disdain for social equality and the common good.  They do not believe there are any wrongs out there, and if there are, it’s always somebody else’s fault for not trying hard enough.

The counter-argument goes, “see, Bruce Wayne pulls himself up by his bootstraps and works hard to defeat the bad guys – how is that not the attitude of the one percent?”  True, Bruce does have to rebuild himself from nothing, but what’s most important about his recovery is that he does not do it alone.  He has significant assistance along the way, from two of his fellow inmates in the prison, to Blake, Commissioner Gordon, Selina Kyle, Lucius Fox and the entire Gotham City police force.  The final act of The Dark Knight Rises is not so much the rise of a single man but of an entire city fighting for its liberation – in a sense, they are all Batman.  Perhaps the final act of heroism does belong solely to the caped crusader, but he does not get to that point without the help of his allies.  It is something of a paean to the nature of heroism when Bruce explains that Batman can be anyone – that we do not have to look to a single person to find the courage within ourselves as a society to make the kind of world we want.  The monument of Batman that is unveiled at the film’s finale is less a tribute to an individual than it is to a spirit, reflecting a time when the people rose up to take back their city from the thugs attempting to destroy it.  It is not a resumption of the status quo – it is an evolution.

Ultimately, the chief reason why The Dark Knight Rises can’t be pegged as allying itself to either the Occupy movement or the one percent is because that is too easy a question to answer – it’s easy to say that the rich are all evil and that there would be a tremendous satisfaction in watching every single one of them thrown out into street.  Our world is not that simple, nor is the moral universe of the Nolan Batman trilogy.  Nolan’s aim after the cartoonish wreck of the previous four Batman movies was to treat the character with a realistic approach, one that recognized the frequent real-world ambiguity of the nature of good and evil.  There are villains, but they are not simply forces to be destroyed – they upset the moral platform of both the heroes and the audience, and challenge us to re-examine what we think about the state of our world.  The message of The Dark Knight Rises, if there is one, is that we should not put off these questions, that we cannot sleepwalk through our lives and expect that what we sweep beneath the carpet in the interest of expediency, or a temporary peace, will not someday come back to wreak havoc upon us.  But it also assures us that no matter how deep we sink, we can come back.  We have it within us.  We can rise.

Selling out circa summer 2012

Like many things in music, The Who did it best.

What is the most annoying trend in popular music?  With YouTube and Auto-Tune making celebrities out of individuals who should never have come anywhere near a microphone, and genuinely talented singers continuing to struggle for any semblance of a break that doesn’t require an uncle in a senior management position with a record company, how could we possibly distil popular music’s faults down to the most egregious offender?  It’s ultimately a matter of opinion, but if I had to pick a single irritant that most damages my appreciation for today’s sound, it’s musicians recording multiple versions of their songs for different markets.  Nothing is more insulting to listeners than this shameless pandering to commercial interests.  Every time you hear one of these bowdlerized abominations oozing through your speakers, you can feel the greasy fingerprints of the Armani-suited marketing committee as they scrape at your eardrums.  Worse though are singers and bands bringing material to the studio they know they’ll have to re-record to ensure maximum market penetration (an apt metaphor if there ever was one).  It speaks of greed, cynicism, contempt for the fans and a fundamental lack of anything resembling artistic integrity.  And the worst part is, it’s totally unnecessary.

One of the big hits of the summer is Maroon 5’s “Payphone.”  Maroon 5 was every mother’s favourite band for their teenage daughters:  catchy and inoffensive with an easy-on-the-eyes lead singer.  They faded away somewhat after their initial explosion onto the scene but are experiencing a resurgent popularity with Adam Levine’s judging NBC’s The Voice and their infectious smash “Moves Like Jagger.”  But “Payphone” is an embarrassment.  It’s whiny emo nonsense that rings completely false – the complaints of a fifteen-year-old upset that his crush doesn’t love him anymore, with no more depth than a chewing gum wrapper.  Most irritating about the song, though, are the final two lines of the chorus:  “All those fairytales are full of shit, one more fucking love song I’ll be sick.”  What’s that, you say?  I must be making this up, you haven’t heard that?  Of course not – the radio version, the one you’ve heard, goes “All those fairytales are full of it, one more stupid love song I’ll be sick.”  And it isn’t Godzilla-esque bad dubbing either – Maroon 5 deliberately recorded two different versions of this line.  The reason?  They knew the line as originally written wouldn’t be played on adult contemporary radio, and that’s a huge audience to forfeit for the sake of some naughty words.  But that’s the thing – why did those words need to be in there in the first place?  The song isn’t great, but at least the message gets across without the potty mouth.  And don’t tell me it’s to express the depth of the singer’s anger; Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” is a much more honest scream of contempt at the woman who’s left him and contains absolutely no profanity (depending on your opinion of the weight of the word “screwed.”)  “Payphone” is juvenile, a kid giggling at the dirty picture he drew on his school desk, and Adam Levine et al. should know better.  And I say this as someone who admired Levine for telling off Fox News on Twitter after they used a Maroon 5 song in one of their promos.  However, swearing in their songs is just making the case for the likes of L. Brent Bozell and whatever suspiciously well-funded “Parents” group wants to fundraise for the evangelical right on the backs of those evil Hollywood liberals corrupting your children again, and the willingness to record and release a sanitized version for mainstream radio play is evidence of the emptiness of their commitment to branding themselves as rebels, badasses or whatever the point of dropping the F-bomb in the original version was.

“Payphone” contains another example of what pop songs do to try and broaden their customer base:  include a guest rapper in the middle eight.  A few of the singles from Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream contain rap:  “California Gurls” features Snoop Dogg and “E.T.” features Kanye West.  Not that you’d know it if you’ve only heard these on the radio – they play the version where, like with profanity, the rap section has been neatly sutured out for popular consumption, in the studio long before your local DJ gets his hands on it.  I have nothing against rap or the blending of genres (Aerosmith and Run-DMC’s “Walk This Way” collaboration continues to be awesome twenty-five years on), but these aren’t it.  These are stitch jobs.  In all likelihood the rapper and the main performer aren’t even in the studio at the same time – the result is a Frankenstein’s monster of a track where disjointed parts are cobbled together for commercial appeal rather than coherent performance.  The fact that usually the rap can be lifted out without any significant effect (or even notice – it was months after I first heard “E.T.” that I discovered Kanye was on the original version) speaks to the argument that forcing it in to bubblegum pop is misguided, cynical marketing at its most insidious – a way to ensure that even though we’ve got the white kids, let’s make sure there’s something for the black kids too.  More to the point – if the artists know they’re going to have to cut the rap for full radio exposure, why include it in the first place?  The other reason you know this whole phenomenon is marketing B.S. is that it’s never done the other way; sorry for those of you eager for that Jay-Z featuring One Direction number.  Here’s a radical thought – why not just write a better song that can appeal across color lines without pandering to them?

Since there is so much cross-pollination and cross-promotion of entertainment products these days, why not take pop music philosophy and apply it to novels?  (Oh wait, they’re already doing that – witness Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.)  But how ridiculous would it be if, for example, George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones came in both regular and sanitized versions, the latter where anything potentially offensive to Aunt Ethel was eliminated, so that Cersei and Jaime Lannister are just good friends, Bran fell out the window on his own and Eddard Stark died offstage due to a nasty throat infection?  Or if somewhere about two thirds of the way in we had a guest chapter authored by Stephenie Meyer where Sansa mopes over the sparkly Tyrion, because we have to make sure to get the youth vampire audience in as well.  Better yet, let’s do this in movies.  Let’s have the second act of The Dark Knight Rises directed by Brett Ratner featuring Chris Tucker as a wise-cracking Gotham City police officer and Jackie Chan as his kung fu master partner taking on Bane (“When you touch my goddamn radio, y’all have my permission to die!”)  Does that sound like anything we’d want to read or see?  Then why do we let musicians get away with it?  Chopped up, bastardized and sewn together alternate versions of songs ultimately please no one and only embarrass the artist.

In the end, quality is quality, and it begins from the ground and proceeds organically – piling stuff on top after the fact, or half-assing out a different version, is a sign of a last-minute lack of confidence fueled by focus groups and marketing gurus who need to look up from their spreadsheets.  Like books and movies, there should be one song, and one song only.  Putting out multiple versions for different demographic markets only reinforces the concept of music as product – the last thing I suspect anyone who fancies themselves an artist wants to admit.

Don’t “Like” this post

Marvin Hamlisch, one of the most successful and most honored composers of our time, passed away unexpectedly yesterday.  My better half posted a lovely tribute for him in her Facebook status update, acknowledging his decades-long career and some of the amazing songs he had a hand in creating, like “Nobody Does it Better,” arguably the best James Bond theme song ever recorded.  Hamlisch was Barbra Streisand’s go-to music guy and had a reputation as one of the most creative and nicest people in the industry, writing hundreds of tunes that have gotten stuck in your head at one point in your life or another – and I’m eulogizing him by clicking a little thumbs-up icon.  The Facebook Like is one of the most dehumanizing tools in social media:  wildly misleading, grossly inaccurate and ultimately, utterly useless.  The contradiction nags at me; by clicking Like am I saying that I’m happy that Marvin Hamlisch is dead?  When someone posts a status update about some horrible situation unfolding on the other side of the world, is me Liking it announcing I’m positively chuffed silly that people I don’t know are being oppressed and murdered?  Siskel and Ebert pretty well defined for all time the meaning of the thumbs up versus the thumbs down, and I can’t believe that saying I like something is anything less than a full endorsement of it (which is why I tend to be very reserved in doling out my Likes).  I can understand why Facebook doesn’t include a “thumbs down” or a “Dislike” button; such functions would only be opening up avenues to trolls.  But I suspect that the original intention of the Like has been corrupted leagues from its original purpose – to demonstrate acknowledgement and interest.  (Of course, an “I Acknowledge and Express Interest In This” button would be a bit unwieldy.)

Facebook users can get carried away with the idea of Likes.  Status updates are often posted as little more than Like Bait (I’m copyrighting that term if no one else has already), with shameless emotional bromides such as “Like if you wish cancer never existed.”  As someone who lost his mother to cancer I find these more than a bit pedantic and insulting, particularly since my click will do less than nothing to contribute to the cause of ending of cancer as a life-threatening illness – it certainly won’t bring my mother back.  “It’s about awareness,” comes the rejoinder.  First of all, I’m pretty sure that apart from those unfortunate souls so disadvantaged they do not possess the mental faculties required for basic comprehension, most people on the planet know what cancer is and why it is bad.  Rich, poor, cancer doesn’t discriminate.  It’s an evil f***ing disease and because there is more money in giving men erections we have fifteen different varieties of hard-on pills and we’re still decades away from a workable cancer cure.  The only thing clicking on these sad pictures will accomplish is rack up meaningless numbers on a Facebook server and give the person who posted it in the first place a transitory feeling of accomplishment.  People will still die from cancer every day.  Worse in the category of Like Bait© are those pushy status updates which not only play to your sympathies but then brazenly challenge readers to copy and repost them, sneering through the screen with remarks like “I know 90% of you won’t repost this, but I know the ones who aren’t selfish, uncaring, contemptible slime-sucking chunks of weasel vomit will.”  Which makes me wish Facebook had a “Drop Dead You Condescending Prat And Don’t Tell Me What I Should And Shouldn’t Post” button.

What is most ironic about “clicktivism,” as it is called, is that any social media expert worth their weight in pixels will tell you that Likes are meaningless.  Marketers, who as Gary Vaynerchuk reminds us eventually ruin everything, have conspired diabolically to pervert Likes into a bludgeon to try and sell you stuff.  It comes in so innocent a form:  “Like our page to help save kittens!  Once we get 6000 Likes everybody gets a popsicle!”  Your reward for Liking that one ad that made you chuckle last Thursday, of course, is to have your news feed clogged from now until the apocalypse with special offers for every crappy piece of kitsch that company’s marketing guys feel inclined to spam you with.  The majority are no different than the jerks who sold your home phone number from the application you don’t remember filling out to the window & door replacement and duct cleaning services who consider it good business practice to bombard you during dinner, and we know how much we love those folks.  Regardless, believing that a high number of Likes means you’re winning in the social media stream would be like a stand-up comedian thinking that as long as every seat in his audience is filled, he doesn’t actually have to say anything to them.  Likes are a snapshot of a fragment of time when for a moment you captured someone else’s fleeting notice.

Methinks therein lies the rub of the Like.  It is fleeting.  It’s saying “I don’t have time to contribute anything worthwhile to the discussion, but I don’t want to seem rude by not saying anything at all.”  For all the capacity of social networks like Facebook to present increased opportunities for human connection, our lazy first world brains have still found a way to spare it the barest minimum of our attention.  When someone wrote you a letter back in the day, the only way to let them know you’d received it was to write back – imagine the impropriety of returning the letter to sender with “LIKE” scrawled across the envelope.  No doubt the people of that era felt as busy and stressed out as anyone does today (everything is relative after all), but they made the time to respond.  It was the human touch, and a factor that is utterly beyond the capacity of the Like button.  When our friends take the time to upload photos of their family, their latest vacation, their amazing cake creations or a simple piece of wisdom that they want to share, clicking Like is quite literally the least anyone can do in response.  With this amazing tool at our disposal, it seems a colossal waste of resources.

I know 90% of you won’t agree with me, but… forget it, I’m not going down that road.  Like, don’t like, it’s entirely up to you.  Just pause to think about what you are actually saying when you click that little thumb – and wonder if there’s a way you could say it better.

Following the money, missing the point

 

It really is just a pile of dead trees.

It’s with equal degrees of bemusement and resignation that I read articles speculating on how the real-life breakup of Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart may affect the box-office performance of Breaking Dawn, Part II.  Nor is it any stretch of the imagination to suspect that the morning following the Aurora massacre an emergency meeting was called in a studio boardroom somewhere to discuss how that tragedy would impact the ticket sales for The Dark Knight Rises.  The biggest questions in the presidential election revolve around money – how much of it Mitt Romney may or may not have paid in taxes, how much his campaign is raking in from billionaire Super PAC donors, whether or not Barack Obama can become the first incumbent president to be outspent and still secure re-election.  Austerity, whether advisable or not, and deficit reduction dominate the agenda of every government on the planet.  The rich are vilified in one circle for acting like feudal overlords, and praised in another as job creators.  Money is the filter through which we examine everything – we have become a species of accountants obsessed with numbers and the bottom line.  And yet we’re more miserable than we’ve ever been:  impatient, demanding, and more prone to outbursts of rage for the most insignificant reasons.  Something is clearly askew.  Is it perhaps time to undertake the first step in recovery and admit that we have a problem – that obsessing over money isn’t getting us anywhere?

I’m not naïve enough to suggest that the acquisition of wealth is ever going to fade away as a motivating factor in human behaviour; it’s been that way ever since the first Australopithecus looked out with longing at the bigger, cosier cave his neighbour across the way was occupying.  But that motivation is rooted in the biggest lie of all – that having more means being happier.  Marketers and advertisers understand this, which is why every commercial you’ve ever seen is designed to make you feel inadequate and envious, and to suggest, in somewhat the same manner as a drug dealer would, that you just need a hit of whatever is being sold – cars, shoes, cologne or designer jeans – to ease the pain of your unendingly terrible existence.  We all know better, and yet we buy in – pun most depressingly intended – to the lie, sacrificing what we’ve earned for temporary relief, at least until the next ad comes on and we begin to think ourselves lacking in some other area.  It does not have to be this way, and yet we have been conditioned in the same manner to define success in dollars alone – not influence or reach or the fundamental amelioration of our collective humanity.  Somewhere along the way, the virtue of working hard as its own reward transformed into only a means to the end of securing one’s fortune at the expense of the well-being of our peers.  Men of business the world over with less moral integrity than the average cockroach are revered as leaders and held up as ideals to emulate because they have managed to accumulate piles and piles of cash, with little, if any, consideration given to the lives that have been destroyed by their greed.  We are forced to listen to their obscene rants and give credence to their perverted worldviews because we have decided that they deserve our attention based on the size of their bank accounts.  Opinions that would otherwise be dismissed the ravings of lunacy shape policy for billions of people, because money defines the parameters of the conversation.  To our everlasting shame, we have allowed it to – in whom we have voted for and whom we have chosen to place upon gilded pedestals to admire.

Enough is enough.

Some would argue that there is a moral imperative within each soul born upon this planet to leave it in a better state than which they found it.  This is an aim hardly served by pillaging and plundering the earth’s treasures for the benefit of a select few.  What is needed is a reorienting of our values and a new form of currency, one that cannot be tied to the whims of banks:  a currency of ideas, in which the ideas are evaluated on their substance and not on how much cash is flowing behind them.  Do I think this is ever going to happen?  Well, probably not in my lifetime.  The forces of money are too deeply entrenched within the corridors of power.  But we can get the process started – by refusing to grant those forces our slavish attention, and by shedding the ridiculous belief that someone is better than we are because they are wealthier.  By not caring anymore how much so-and-so gets paid for his latest album or her starring debut.  By emphasizing quality over quantity, and evaluating character completely independently of the size of a person’s wallet.  By making “successful businessman” roughly the same estimation of a man’s worth as “frequent water drinker.”  Not going so far as vilifying financial success outright, but making it the very least important of the measures of a human being.  Saying “oh, you’re a billionaire casino entrepreneur?  How nice for you – my kid just scored three goals at his soccer game last Saturday.”

We cannot achieve true fairness in this world until we stop worshipping those things that make the world unfair.  What’s most encouraging is that we still have the choice to do that.  We just have to make it.