Monthly Archives: March 2012

Frontiers New And Final

I’m feeling another funk coming on, but I’m going to see if I can turn it into motivation to do something distracting. Like, I don’t know, writing or something.

So here it comes. You knew it had to be sooner or later. The Star Trek post. This kid is a Trekkie. Deal with it. Anyway, I want to talk specifically about the original series of Trek. You know, the one your mom likes. Its cool though, cause they made a new version of it that was ‘deliberately’ retro and funny looking, so you can enjoy it and still be hip.

The original Star Trek is rightly hailed as a landmark both for science fiction and for television. It broke down barriers, asked tough questions, and generally pushed the boundaries both of its genre and its medium. Moreover, it cast the mold for an entire subset of science fiction that would broadly imitate the model established by Trek. Part of Trek’s popularity came in its idealistic outlook, the notion that mankind would one day leave politics behind, uniting in a spirit of mutual betterment. That said, Star Trek was not without an ideology. The central ethos of Star Trek was an extension of a system of ideas which under-girded the first years of the 1960’s and which Star Trek effectively stewarded through the latter half of the decade. These ideas resonated with the American public in part because they were articulated by this man:

President John F. Kennedy. His spirit is infused in every atom of Star Trek, which in many ways represents the ultimate expression of his scientific and social goals. The utopian society presented in Star Trek has some times been jokingly referred to as being pseudo-communist, with its rejection of currency as a unit of value and other such anti-capitalist trappings. However, the truth is that human society in Trek is much more akin to a vast “technocracy,” in which the predominance of scientific principles as societal movers has reduced all social ills to variables in an equation which can then be corrected for and eliminated. This is the logical end point of Modernization Theory, a school of thought which was really coming into the fore with the advent of the 60’s and which strongly informed Kennedy’s rhetoric. The opening monologue of Star Trek echoes sentiments of Kennedy speeches, particularly the famous “New Frontier” speech accepting the Democratic nomination for President.

“[W]e stand today on the edge of a New Frontier–the frontier of the 1960’s–a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils– a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats […] I tell you the New Frontier is here, whether we seek it or not. Beyond that frontier are the uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.”

Beginning to sound familiar? It was this ideology that gave us not only the space program but also the Peace Corps. This latter development also informs the Trek ethos, establishing the crew as missionaries of progress. Just as Modernization sought to divest itself of “the white man’s burden,” so too did Star Trek invoke its Prime Directive. Nevertheless, Moderinzation’s frequent conflict with ill-defined notions of “traditional” society made it difficult not to ascribe it a “civilizing” or “westernizing” quality. So too does Star Trek at times feel possessed of a kind of moral agency, a sense of carrying the light of “civilization” into the untamed blackness of space. While it deliberately avoids attempting to “lift up” less technological societies, rarely does it hesitate to “enlighten” them. This kind of high-minded imposition of values can’t help but seem a little poorly fitted with the rest of the series’ humanistic message, but in the context of the time it isn’t so strange. Modernization carried with it a current of objective morality that was in large part a reaction against more ethically subjective philosophies which, many at the time believed, had led to the excesses of the Nazis and the Holocaust. Consider that these events were scarcely twenty years removed from the cultural memory and this kind of sermonizing isn’t really surprising.

Consider also, the primary antagonists of the original series, the Klingons. They represent everything antithetical to Trek society. They are clannish, warlike, and duplicitous. The honor-bound depiction of Klingons most Trek fans are familiar with wouldn’t be introduced until The Next Generation two decades later. In fact, the original history and culture of Klingon society published in the early 70’s actually emphasizes their untrustworthiness. Even their ships hide behind cloaking devices. Certainly this plot-device had the advantage of allowing them to use fewer expensive models on set by rendering the other ships invisible, but it also served to drive home the notion that Klingons were cowardly and alien. Even the iconography used to communicate the Klingons’ “otherness” wasn’t new…

The top image is a Klingon. The bottom image is Fu Manchu. While Star Trek was trailblazing casting George Takei, a Japanese-American, in a leading heroic role it was also putting its villainous archetypes in yellow-face. Some of this was unintentional. The Fu Manchu style makeup provided an easy visual shorthand for audiences who were familiar with its use in villain imagery. On the other hand, the imagery in question was based on antiquated, racially-motivated caricatures. When you also consider that the Klingons were used to represent much the same things as the Fu Manchu archetype; savage outsiders who threaten good enlightened society, the case becomes more damning. More broadly, the Klingons represented the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. According to Modernization, the USSR was state in which something had gone wrong during the transition between “traditional” and “modern” society, resulting in a writ large Frankenstein’s monster with the capacity of a modern state but a savage worldview. So too are the Klingons an advanced spacefaring race like humanity, but possessed of a ruthless expansionistic quality . I won’t go into the problems of these assumptions right now, but content yourself for now knowing that they are there.

Does any of this invalidate Star Trek’s profound impact on our culture? No. Does acknowledging that Star Trek is a product of its time period, replete with compromises, rather than a spasm of divine inspiration mean that you can’t enjoy it without irony? Of course not. I still do. Amidst the unfortunate baggage there remains the fact that Trek created a time capsule for American idealism during an era when that was in short supply. It took the best of Kennedy’s vision and became its steward, its shepherd. Great men can be killed, but their legacies endure eternal. Star Trek is the legacy of the New Frontier, and though it may be long until we finally cross it, these shall be our voyages…

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马鞍上

Alright, I’ve wallowed enough. Time to get back in the saddle, as the title says. In more ways than one, really. The other day I was sating a profound desire for American Chinese food and was listening to the kitchen staff’s idle chatter. Time was, I could pick out at least a functional context from these scraps of conversation. Anymore though it is rapidly becoming an indecipherable mystery. I decided a while ago that Chinese language wasn’t where I wanted to go with my career, but that doesn’t mean its a skill that I want to let wither away either. Obviously not being in classes has helped things atrophy, with constant homework repetitions, but I also realized that I consume much less Chinese language media than I used to. I’m probably going to have to go back to square one to retrain myself completely, but I’m hoping that reviving my interest in mandarin television and film will also help prime my listening skills. This is a sort of segue into a discussion that I’ve wanted engage in for a while, simply because its kind of funny and weird doesn’t have a lot of parallels elsewhere. I would like to present for your consumption, the film canon of Chen Zhen.

Chen Zhen is a pop-culture icon and modern day folk hero in China. He is a kind of contemporary legend in both the martial arts and the broader spectrum of Chinese culture and history. He is also completely fictional.

Yes, Chen Zhen exists solely as a character in film. The thing is though, that he isn’t really the protagonist of a film ‘series’ per se, like James Bond or Rocky. Rather he is the central dramatic force of several film and television projects produced independently of each other over nearly forty years. In true urban legend fashion, the exact details of his exploits are somewhat different in each telling and have an array of apocryphal amendments. The portrayal you are probably most familiar with is this:

Bruce Lee’s 1972 Fist of Fury is the birthplace of the Chen Zhen character and it is irrefutably statistically proven that every martial arts film ever involving nunchaku contains at least one reference to the scene pictured above. Fist of Fury is arguably Lee’s most well-known film after Enter the Dragon, and Lee’s performance established Chen Zhen’s central story and iconography. Head student of a murdered Sifu, victim of racist imperialism, wears a white Mao suit (or Sun Yatsen suit, if we’re being true to the time period), uses nunchaku (an Okinawan weapon kind of out of step with broader narrative of Chinese nationalism but whatever its iconic), gets satisfying violent revenge against the invading Japanese thugs that assassinated his master, and goes out in a blaze of glorious martyrdom.

This is not necessarily the end of the story, however. In 2010’s Legend of the Fist – The Return of Chen Zhen it is revealed that the character survived his (spoiler alert) quixotic flying kick into a hail of gunfire and… well, returns. This time though he’s wrapped up in the intrigues of Shanghai on the eve of World War II, with the Japanese not-so-secretly planning to generally do bad things to China. Oh, he also dresses like Kato.

Yes, the character popularized by Bruce Lee wears the costume of ‘another’ character popularized by Bruce Lee. As goofy as the premise sounds, its actually a very enjoyable movie. Donnie Yen takes over the title role of Chen Zhen, having already cut his teeth punching out evil Japanese in his popular Ip Man films. He is a good fit in the part, comfortably following Lee’s easy charisma and athletic skill. Yen also manages to make the transition fluidly from the Wing Chun style used in the Ip Man movies, and which most western audiences probably associate him with, to the Mizongquan style appropriate for the Chen Zhen character. The film is as much a paean to Bruce Lee as it is to the character he helped create, but it works.

As fanciful as this sequel gets, its really not the end of the weirdness. I mentioned earlier about how there was an appropriate kung fu “style” for Chen Zhen to be using. Why does it matter if he’s fictional? Well, while Chen Zhen is fictional the murdered Sifu he is avenging in all of his incarnations ‘is’ a real person. Chen Zhen is the student of Huo Yuanjia, an actual Chinese folk hero, martial arts pioneer, and anti-colonial activist who lived in the latter nineteenth century and died in 1910. While never proven so, it has long been believed that Huo Yuanjia was poisoned by the Japanese, to the point that his remains were exhumed in 1989 to attempt to prove the assassination thesis. The debate will probably never be resolved, and Huo Yuanjia’s believed martyrdom forms the basis for the Chen Zhen mythos. Huo Yuanjia’s own life and exploits have been portrayed and embellished in movies and television over the years. Probably the most well known version is in the 2006 film Fearless, in which the central role is played by Jet Li.

 

For all that this film has its problems with historical accuracy (while still managing to at least be entertaining), it does not go all out and incorporate the Chen Zhen character. There is still a sort of narrative link there though. The themes of anti-imperialism and Chinese nationalism that permeate the Chen Zhen films are present here as well. It is possible for you to take Fearless, Fist of Fury, and Legend of the Fist together and find yourself with an effective trilogy of films. Films that were produced decades apart by different companies with different actors and without really intending to create any kind of “franchise” have created a kind of cinematic collaborative storytelling all based on a central popular myth. Also, now might be a good time to mention that Jet Li helped launch his film career starring in another unaffiliated movie titled Fist of Legend, which was a 1994 remake of (can you guess it?) Fist of Fury where he played the role of (ready for it?) Chen Zhen.

Yep. Getting too meta for you yet? There are still other works that I’m not going to discuss here, but the fact of the matter is that Chen Zhen is effectively a man-made myth. Somehow though that artificiality does not diminish his cultural presence. You talk about him less like he is a pretend character than an actual historical personage. In a way, he is. He is a unique specimen of the twentieth century zeitgeist, the ultimate urban legend. It is my belief that Chen Zhen’s film canon, and his legend, will only continue to grow and evolve. He has that precise alchemical mixture of mooring in true events, Shakespearean melodrama, and enduring cultural message that creates something more than the sum of its films. Also he does kung fu. That always helps.

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Just a Little T.C.K.

As promised, the story continues. Not thrilled with the wordpress formatting on it, but for the time being I will make due until a solution can be found.

___________

The highway rolls on ahead of us as Ahab’s corner of the universe fades into the middle distance. “Well, that was… That was a thing…” Seeing the inside of the place did nothing to help me wrap my head around its apparent existence. “Ahab is… Well he’s nice…” Its difficult to find the right words. I content myself simply with “Tell me, were those… were those real?”

At last Jack snorts, breaking the uncomfortable silence. “I was waiting for you to ask. As near as I can tell, yeah they are. Best not to give them any more thought.”

The satisfaction of my curiosity doesn’t bring as much catharsis as I thought it would. “Whatever you say… So do you think the tip is good?”

Jack is business now, contemplative. “My gut says yes. The timetable makes sense and the customer was buying suspicious merchandise. Now, we know generally where he’s going, but not where he’s going to hit. We need to narrow that down.” Ahab said the suspicious guy had borrowed a map and that he’d watched him plot his route. He could only tell us the general area of his destination, though. “Want me to call it in?”

“Sure, just make sure the old man wasn’t napping.” Atticus is our primary analyst and, for all intents and purposes, our boss. He can be a bit… cantankerous at times. Also he is probably the only man in the world to keep three pictures of Richard Nixon in his office. Three. I counted.

Jack puts us on speaker phone and plugs in the code for our secure line. Exactly one and two-thirds of a ring later, like always, Atticus picks up. “Radio Free Pimpin’ yo! Y’all got a song request?”

One of these days Atticus is going to snap and kill the coderoom guys. Jack and I have a pool going. “Requesting some four-one-one. Line is clean.”

The relief in his voice is audible. “Thank god, I was going to have to start saying ‘dawg’ next. You have a lead on the rover?”

“Word from Ahab is he’s heading west over the line, skipping Memphis but stopping somewhere east of Jonesboro.  Was hoping you could help us narrow the search.”

The way Atticus pounds keys sounds like gunfire. He wears out at least one keyboard every year. “The Spider likes smaller towns, but with big middle class pops and a good suburban sprawl. Thank god we just had a census. Wait, I have something. Bearwood. It meets the right criteria, and it just won some award in a homemakers’ magazine for ‘Happiest Little Town in America.’ Who wants to bet our guy has a subscription?”

Jack leans on the gas a little. “Sounds like a winner. Even still, that’s a whole town to comb through.”

I’m already working on the problem in my head. All this and brains too. More than just a magnet for maniacs. “I hate to say it, but but at least we have time. The Spider works slow…”

_________

Patience is a virtue. That’s what my mother always told me. How right she was. You can do anything with time and with patience. Anything. Centuries of consumerism have made us decadent and docile. We have lost the self-denial that makes lean predators. Not me, though. I am a wolf among lambs. A spider among flies. I need only three hours of sleep, which I take in fifteen minute increments. I need eat only once every four and a half days. Indulgence breeds weakness. Fattens us, sedates us. They don’t even know I’m here. They’re so perfect. Mother, father, son, daughter. They’re so picture perfect. So fucking perfect. Mustn’t swear. Mother always said. They aren’t perfect though. Not really. They can’t see all their fragile little flaws, suspended in glass like insects. Only I can free them. Free them from all their sticky wet cloying imperfections. Their flawed flesh. So perfect.  I’m tempted to climb inside right now. Set up my lair. It would be so easy. They’re so very ripe. No. I am patient. Patience is a virtue. My mother told me that. I am a spider among flies, and a spider waits.

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Smoking Gun

A little better. Still longer than I’d like though. Believe it or not, I have been updating. Just… not on here. I have a number of posts written out long hand in my notebook. It’s just a matter of transcribing them. Dumb excuse, but there it is. I’m working on it, alright? So, here’s ya go…

________

You ever just get the urge to smoke a cigarette? You don’t even have to be a smoker. I’m not really. Hard to say where it comes from. Just a situation where suddenly, a cigarette would really complete the moment. Does it have to do with neurochemistry; our brains crying out for a stimulant? Or is it socially programmed; Hemingway running headlong into Freud? I think that’s why, no matter how hard well-intentioned activists might try, you’ll never completely eliminate cigarette smoking in America. People want to smoke. It fills a niche. We have been conditioned for decades to associate the act of smoking with escapist wish fulfillment, and as long as there are people who hate the corner of the universe they’ve found themselves boxed into, there will be smokers.  Even beyond that, the notion of eradicating cigarettes is an impossible political goal. I’m not talking about corporate lobbying power in this case, I’m talking social and historical momentum. The anti-smoking movement is in many ways a sort of neo-temperance crusade. Unfortunately the grand victory of the temperance movement, Prohibition, was pyrrhic and ultimately unsustainable.

In addition to the mark on the national psyche still left by the Prohibition experiment, anti-smoking campaigns also find indirect opposition from another equally powerful social movement. Marijuana legalization. Both are passionate, both are noble in their way, but that fact is there just isn’t room for the both of them. Though not directly arrayed against one another, their currents simply run counter. You’ll never have it both ways. The notion of legalizing marijuana while eliminating tobacco doesn’t hold up to any logical or legal test. Sooner or later there’s going to be a showdown, and in the immortal words of Christopher Lambert, “there can be only one.” At this stage in American history, the winds seem to favor the ships of greater social freedom, and as such the more far reaching goals of the anti-smoking movement may I feel remain a pipe-dream at best.

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