Thursday, January 31, 2008

Father Al

This week, U2’s Bono (unwittingly or not) reinforced the fact that Global Warming pseudoscience is less science and more religion. Speaking of a conversation he had with Al Gore, he said:

"It's like being with an Irish priest. You start to confess your sins. Father Al, I am not just a noise polluter, I am a noise-polluting, diesel-soaking, Gulfstream-flying rock star. I'm going to kick the habit. I'm trying father Al, but oil has been very good for me -- those convoys of articulated lorries, petrochemical products, hair gel."

It is getting a little ridiculous, but it is also very successful. People have begun to accept the dogma of Global Warming and its reduce-your-carbon-footprint-or-destroy-the-planet rant without question.

More and more science is emerging that if nothing else shows that the Global Warming preachers are utter failures at prophesying. If the Biblical principles of Old Testament prophecy were applied to people like Gore, they would have been stoned to death long ago. Thank goodness this is no longer an Old Testament world. However, the way people blindly accept the teachings of Father Al, you would think we lived in a pre-scientific age and not the enlightened world we supposedly entered hundreds of years ago with the scientific revolution!

How long will it be, and how much damage will be done by power hungry people like Gore, before the world wakes up and starts to think again?

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

J.J. Abrams, Cloverfield, Star Trek, and the Teaser

There are generally two types of teaser trailer in Hollywood. One that raises curiosity about an unknown project, and one that reminds audiences of an already expected film.

J.J. Abrams has been dubbed a publicity genius lately, thanks to his “Cloverfield” and its unusual marketing campaign. It all began when a strange commercial/trailer appeared for an unnamed and totally unknown movie. The design of the trailer was perfect. It caught the audience off guard, heightened interest, and single-handedly put the unnamed project among the top of the most anticipated movie lists for 2008.

Jump ahead six months. “Cloverfield” finally makes its way to cinemas, and a new J.J. Abrams teaser is introduced. The movie: “Star Trek XI.” The difference: complete. First of all, while the Cloverfield teaser was designed to introduce an unknown, Star Trek is of the other variety of teaser. It simply reminds all the Star Trek fans that it is coming out. Note to Abrams: the Star Trek fans needed no reminding. They probably get on the Internet every day looking for new information about your film.

The problem is that the film falls into the genre/series category, and it has a lot of competition this year. With Batman, Indiana Jones, Bond, etc. there are a lot of anticipated movies like Star Trek this year. What does the new trailer do to interest the fringe-fan or the non-fan? Not much. In fact, it could be an ad for just about anything, and only the revelation that the workers are working on the Enterprise at the end makes it Star Trek.

Maybe this is just a little nod to the diehard Trekkies and a more interesting, Abrams worthy trailer will come soon. One that causes the kind of stir that makes everyone want to go see this film, not just the people that were already going to see it anyway.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Driving in Europe, and Salzburg

There are many cultural differences between life in America and life in Europe, one of the largest being driving.  

It takes several months to get used to the way people drive, the way roads flow and the way signs direct the driver to their destination. For instance: take one driver new to Europe, one up to date map and navigator, and send them into Salzburg, Austria headed downtown. Ninety minutes could realistically go by with no success.
Even after a good year of driving experience things could be bad. For some reason, a driver beginning in downtown Salzburg headed out of town looking for the highway to Munich is directed by the signs in a big, seemingly unnecessary circle before finally hitting the autobahn. Perhaps they want the visitor to see as much of town as possible.
And what a town it is. Everyone knows that Salzburg is a beautiful place to see, but the way parts of the historic downtown are built, even carved, into the cliff face along the river is just amazing. There is an obvious attempt at some degree of uniformity. Not that all the shops look alike, but the signage and store fronts never deviate too far from the norm. Even McDonald’s has replaced its Golden Arches in favor of the wrought iron sign style that everyone else has.
Once on the Autobahn, don’t think things will get better. Sure, you can theoretically go as fast as you dare on some stretches, but the flipside to the Autobahn coin are the traffic jams. The stretch between Salzburg and Munich boasts some as long as 20 km or more. This is such a bad problem in Germany, that all car radios are capable of interrupting any station, tape, or CD with the periodic traffic alerts.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Acts: Healing (3:1-9)

This healing is similar in many ways to the healing of the blind man in John 9. The healing causes a commotion and the religious leaders investigate the occurrence and persecute those involved. In both instances the people questioned (the blind man in John and Peter here) use the opportunity to declare who Jesus is and what He has done. In both cases it appears as though many people believe in Jesus as a result.
It is amazing when God chooses to use supernatural events to get His work done. It appears as though generally, these things happen where a work is just beginning and in such a way as to spark a large movement. How does a person used by God in this way feel? How do they know that is what God desires? It must be like fishing, you wonder what a bite will feel like and think you get one every once in a while, but the real one is unmistakable.
Does God still use such methods? They certainly are not commonplace (miracles by definition are not) but supernatural and unexplainable things are still used to bring people to a knowledge of Christ.

Healings are not the only thing that would fall into this category. In the late nineties, North Irving Baptist Church prayed for the Muslims in their neighborhood after a study on what Islam teaches. The very next day, a Muslim woman approached the church wanting to know more about Jesus, after He had appeared to her in a dream telling her to seek Him! About one month later, she was baptized.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Top Ten Films: Part Ten

It has become somewhat stereotypical for most men to place Braveheart on their top ten movie list, but there are several good reasons for that.

It has some groundbreaking battle scenes that spawned the whole battle-is-confusing editing technique. Most people forget that Mel started this trend, which by the way has not turned out so great. (Most filmmakers make the mistake of thinking the view will accept total confusion in the place of action… Michael Bay anyone?)

It is also one of those truly inspiring epic movies. Say what you will about Mel Gibson, he certainly wants to make people think and not just entertain.
The best aspect about this movie though, is the themes it plays with. First, there is the whole (somewhat obvious) “FFRREEEEDDOOMM” theme. There is a price to pay for freedom. It may be a right, but it has to be fought for, and once it is obtained there is a tremendous responsibility to guard it.

However, most people miss the way this film brilliantly analyses leadership. King Edward I, Robert the Bruce, and William Wallace are perfect examples of leaders set in different molds. “Longshanks” is the tyrant who rules with a heavy hand, thinks only of power, and crushes the people he is ruling. Robert the Bruce is the politician. He lacks confidence and seeks to please the powers that be. Wallace could care less about power or leading and instead only he wants what is best for his people. He is a reluctant power, which is the best kind.

2008 is probably a good year to pull this movie out and watch it again. Into which mold of leader do the current presidential candidates fit? Oh… then again, that might be too depressing.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Convenience? Whassat?

Observed 9:05 AM: German man, checking out at the local grocery store, items: 1 pack of individual coffee creamer packets, 1 local newspaper. Said man paid for said items, walked past the in-house fresh bakery and out the door, and got into his car.

Observed 9:07 AM: same man two blocks down the street, parking at and entering another local bakery to purchase his bread for the day.

This sort of situation is seen all over Germany every day. People will visit several shops on their morning round of purchases. They have a series of stores where they have traditionally bought things and they continue to do so over time. In the end, it is not price, quality, or convenience that determines where they make their purchases, but tradition. That is the way they have always done things, so that is the right way.

This is one of those cultural things that astounds Americans living in Germany. For the American things usually boil down to convenience with price running a close second in the decision making processes. This is one reason why Wal-Mart never managed to be successful in Germany. It is built on the idea of people being able to make all their purchases in one place for a good price. Germans ultimately don’t care about either of these factors in deciding where to shop.

This is the number one hurdle that Americans have to overcome in their cultural adjustment to life in Germany, greater than language, cuisine, and rules of social conduct. America is first and foremost a shopping culture, and convenience reigns supreme in American shopping. Germany is not shopper friendly, and no one cares about convenience.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Top Ten Films: Part Nine

Teenagers are strange creatures. They yearn for autonomy, yet they are so easily influenced. Most pride themselves on “individuality” but would not be caught dead actually standing out. They are so clueless, but they actually think they have all the answers.

“Dead Poet’s Society” is great at showing this aspect of the teen years. Most “teen” movies seem to be made completely in a teenage mindset: clueless, yet self assured and “cool.” Dead Poet’s does a great job of observing real teen behavior and showing the insecurities and helplessness along with the fun and abandon.

The real greatness here though, is the way the teacher, Keating, is able to excite a group of boys to learn. Daring them to dream and to be excited about life, Keating is an inspiration to anyone who would like to influence the lives around them. The danger of teaching is also shown when a boy Keating inspires is unable to blend the dreams he has with the reality around him.

This is where the film frustrates. You wish you could stop Neal from taking his own life. You wish you could make him see that life requires patience. That true greatness lies in how we handle the Ordinary, not just the outstanding moments which in the end, while they make life exciting, are just a small part of the whole. Life is lived, and is worth living, because of the ordinary moments.

Keating’s Humanist inspiration is empty in the end. What happens if the dreams you dream become unattainable? Why live that life? There is no answer beyond the self. Where is the hope? Hope is only found in the realization that the human spirit is eternal. This life is not the end. Even in the darkest moments, there is always a tomorrow. Always.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Leipzig, First Impressions

Leipzig, to hear them tell it, is an amazing city. They are not shy about tooting their own horn. They are the biggest town in Saxony. They are the real capitol of Saxony. Oh, and they also single-handedly brought down the iron curtain.
There is a saying in Saxony, regarding the three major cities of the state. It basically describes the character of each city by saying that Chemnitz is for work, Dresden is for celebration, and Leipzig is for shopping and trade. Stepping out of the train station (the largest one in Europe and itself a shopping mall) and heading into the town center, one is struck by the concentrated nature of the buildings. The streets are narrow and most blocks are bisected with alleyways and the whole place is full of shops. This is indeed a shopping town.
Three buildings stand out to the first time observer. The Nicholas Church, named for the patron saint of tradesmen, is the site of the historic prayer meetings that helped bring down the wall. The Thomas Church a few blocks over was the church where J. S. Bach worked. Finally, the new Town Hall is probably the most stunning town hall anywhere. It has been built on the ruins of the castle where Martin Luther debated Johann Eck. Like everywhere in what used to be East Germany, half of the city center seems to under reconstruction. The new University building looks like it will be a sight to see.
One day is just enough to get a glimpse of downtown, and that is not nearly enough to get a true idea of this wonderful city. They may be a proud town, but it seems they have some reason to be.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Acts: The Early Church (2:42)

They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”
Theology should always be built on every passage addressing a topic in the Bible, never just a verse here or there. When discussing how to do church, one must take most of the New Testament into context and not just focus on one verse or even one book of the Bible. This is a huge temptation however. Many groups have sought to discover just exactly how these first believers did church and then try to emulate that. The problem is that there is a lot more said about what the church should be than the simple example of how it started out. Jesus had a lot to say about how His followers should behave. The epistles have a lot to teach about what church should look like in different situations.
That being said, what would church look like if all you had were the church from Acts chapter two? This is the kernel on which everything else must be built, the essential. There are four elements present in this early church: Teaching, fellowship, the Lord’s Supper, and Prayer. What is missing? Music, witnessing, outreach, deacons, age-targeted ministry, tithes and offerings, and buildings are all missing. Many of these elements will be introduced quickly. Some such a witnessing were already occurring, but not as a “church program,” but rather as individual practice. Some are never introduced in the Bible at all.
Any church should be built on these basics. There should be a total devotion to the Biblical teaching, and nothing should be added to that authority. Believers should spend time together; sharing what God is doing in their lives and building each other up. The Lord’s Supper (and Baptism) should be observed, and everything should be bathed in constant prayer. Anything else is built on these foundations.

Friday, January 18, 2008


A recent study of 250 children between the ages of four and sixteen found that 100% thought clowns were scary. Duh. Psychologists have a name for the fear of clowns: Coulrophobia. But Coulrophobia is defined as the “exaggerated or abnormal fear of clowns” so that must be something else, because the state of normalcy is to find clowns creepy. They simply are scary.

Some people think Stephen King and his book "It" are to blame, but the truth is that fear of clowns has been around forever. Long before Pennywise, there was Ronald McDonald and Bozo. Sure, you may think that kids love those clowns, but that is not entirely true. Watch a kid being introduced in person to their first clown sometime. They have to be taught not to fear. The natural instinctive reaction is usually unbridled terror.

It’s not hard to understand. Their feet are too big. Their noses and lips are blood red. Their skin is a deathly, pale white. They act strange. They like kids…a lot…maybe too much…maybe…like…to eat them. Sorry, just creeped myself out there.

Say you’re at a birthday party and a clown is sitting off in the corner waiting to go on. Every time you look at it, you catch it staring at you. Quick! Look away! You look back, and it waves at you, offers you a balloon, beckons to you. That’s what clowns do, and it’s really creepy for a kid! Not convinced? Imagine you open your door after dark some night and there’s a clown standing there.

Where exactly did the idea of clowns really come from? What is the socio-cultural root here? Ten to One there are some dark roots in this tradition.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Self-Reliance vs. Independence

Self-reliance is a big deal in Germany. Kids are taught early on how to do things for themselves. Two year olds are expected to dress themselves. Six year olds should be able to get across town by themselves. By eight, they should be able to shop for and prepare a meal.

The interesting, perhaps problematic, side of this is the way it is done. Discipline plays a small role in the process. When man and his two-year-old need to climb some stairs, he tells the kid to start climbing…and then waits. The child is not made to climb and seldom helped. They may be there for thirty minutes, working their way up. If a child needs to get dressed, the order is repeatedly given and the child eventually does.

With this process, the kids learn how to do things faster than in cultures where they are helped. However, with self-reliance they also learn who’s the boss; they are. When a parent tells them to do something, they decide to do it or it doesn’t get done. Sure, they learn to get dressed, but they also learn that they don’t have to do something until they want to. In another culture the child may take another year to learn things, but they also learn that when they are expected to do something, it will be done.

All of this may be a bit of an exaggeration, but the end result is a German culture where people have a sense of duty that is self-imposed. People do things because they have decided they want to, not because of any authority in their lives. This creates a problem with the ultimate authority in life, and perhaps goes some distance in explaining why so many Germans reject God altogether.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Three Unforgettable Meals

Every once in a while, a meal becomes an experience that is remembered for a lifetime. Some people consider dining a form of entertainment, but this goes a little far…usually. Here are three meals that have triggered a lifelong pursuit to repeat the experience:
Grilled Salmon, on the shores of Lake Llanquihue, South Chile. Often atmosphere plays a part in the dining entertainment experience. The shores of this southern lake are definitely the case. However, atmosphere is never enough all by itself to qualify as an amazing dining experience. For instance, Congrio eaten in the Giratorio restaurant in Santiago, Chile does not count in spite of the memorable view. The eel just wasn’t that great. The resort hotel on Llanquihue with its spectacular view of the Andes and its beautiful gardens contributed perfectly to the most wonderful grilled piece of fish ever cooked. Many another salmon has been tried since and they all fall short.
Black Bean Soup, Cuban Restaurant, Houston, Texas. Yes Houston. Proof positive that food is supreme in the dining experience was this soup served in a hollowed-out hard roll and topped with just the right amount of cream. Often a simple hole-in-the-wall can be the source of a great meal. While this restaurant in Houston was a nice upscale place, a couple of great hole-in-the-walls that need to be tried include: Dino’s Pizza, Punta Arenas, Chile and La Cocina Mexican Restaurant, Sweetwater, Texas.
Ostrich Steak with Ratatouille, in the shadow of the Frauenkirche, Dresden, Germany. Whatever happened to that Ostrich boom that was supposed to happen? This is the other red meat. Ostrich is like beef only leaner, better for you, and it tastes better. Pound for pound there is more meat on an Ostrich than any cow. Why has this meat not taken off?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Top Ten Films: Part Eight

“Thus have we made the world…thus have I made it.”

This quote sums up the point of 1986’s movie “The Mission.” It is a historical piece, telling the story of Catholic missions in South America. The whole story is told from the perspective of a Catholic official writing a report back to the Pope on whether or not the Church should protect the indigenous population from slavery.

This movie has good aspects (cinematography, musical score, screenplay) and questionable ones (De Niro and Irons as Spaniards with New York and British accents!) But it was nominated for seven academy awards (of which it won one) and many other prizes.

The amazing thing about this film is its positive and straight presentation of the Christian faith. Issues such as repentance, penance, the Christian stance on war and violence are shown with great complexity. One of the most interesting takes in The Mission is the way they present the native life.

Most of the time, primitive man is shown as being in a sort of paradise without the evils of modern institutions and religions. Here, however, the jungle is a fearful Hell until the missionaries come and bring Christianity to the Guarani. When they are told that the Church is abandoning them and they must return to their previous life, they reject that idea and decide to fight for this new life they have found.

This film provokes a lot of thought and discussion, and presents sides of Christianity in a very positive light, while at the same time showing the dangers and negative sides of institutional religion. It is a must see for the Christian film fan.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Acts: Pentecost (2:1-41)

Imagine trying to direct a film adaptation of Acts chapter 2. How do you do it? What do the flames look like? Does everybody see them, or just the believers? What about the wind? When they talk, what does it sound like?
This effect seems to be presented in a way that is familiar to science fiction readers today, used both in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the television show, “Doctor Who.” In both cases, characters do not speak the same languages but everybody understands each other thanks to certain technologies.
The result is that the disciples and believers in Acts 2 were speaking intelligently and understanding everything they were saying. At the same time, people hearing them understood everything they said as well. How does that measure up to most “tongues” used in the church today?
Peter proceeds to preach one of the most important sermons in the history of the church. How long did it last? It’s not how much you preach, but what you say. For that matter it is not how eloquent, but how empowered you are that makes a sermon.

Three thousand people are saved, and the church starts down a road of steady growth followed by repeated persecution, two aspects of church life that are apparently closely related.

Friday, January 11, 2008

NonModern Rules

This blog was created as an exercise and a way of maintaining a discipline. Also, it serves as an outlet for all of those ideas that pop into one’s head when walking, trying to sleep, or washing dishes. However, NonModern is not just another blog. There is a deliberate attempt to avoid certain “Blogisms.” There is also a philosophical basis for the whole thing that dictates a certain style.

On the discipline side, the goal is to try and write between 250 and 300 words on a subject every weekday. Subjects basically involve anything that is rattling around the brain here at NonModern. Repetitive subjects tend to be issues in popular culture and issues facing a cross-cultural witness in Europe. Pet subjects are science and art, especially film.

The main “Blogism” avoided here will be first person narration. Everyone uses this style (as an online diary would be expected to) but stylistically it tends toward a certain subjectivism. This will be hard to do, because this style comes easier and is my preferred style. (There I go.) However, while a non-first person presence is not a “better” style, it will be practiced in the sense of flexing a less used muscle.

That being said, there may be rare occasions in which first person narrative or self-referential examples are used. In the future, the format may change altogether, allowing for a more personal entry once a week.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Cry, Baby, Cry! Exploitation... Seriously?

Art exists to communicate. Good art communicates truth. Gifted artists have a way of getting truth across in a way the reaches the masses. If you can’t present your message in a way that appeals to people, maybe you are out of touch. Being out of touch with mainstream opinion is by no means a bad thing, but plenty of the world’s greatest artists were only appreciated after their time. Then again, some artists are not just out of touch with their audience, they are out of touch with the truth. Their art doesn’t connect because it doesn’t communicate.

"There will be no movies made in the next five years like Planet Terror and Death Proof."

That was Kurt Russell chastising moviegoers last year for not attending his film “Grindhouse.” He lamented the fact that it was the audience’s fault that this sort of movie going experience would not be repeated in the near future. Russell is a great actor, but it seems as though he, like many filmmakers today, looks at audiences with disdain.

Film-making as art is challenged by the fact that it depends on money. Many filmmakers resent their dependence on an audience to continue making films, but it is something that can be overcome. Hitchcock, one of the greatest auteurs of all time, always made his films with the audience in mind.

Grindhouse may be a great film. Half of it at least has been critically acclaimed. If it failed to connect with audiences, though, it may not be because the audience is out of touch. Perhaps Tarantino, Rodriguez and company should ask themselves if they have a nostalgia for seventies dreck that is simply not shared by many people. Either way, when faced with a box office failure, don’t blame the audience—make a better movie next time.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Top Ten Films: Part Seven

Hitchcock made several films that should place in the top ten, but here we will merely cheat and place three in the seventh slot: Rear Window, North By Northwest, and Psycho.

"Rear Window" is a near perfect piece of filmmaking. The story is largely told without the aid of dialogue. Instead, the viewer comes to understand what is occurring as the main character does, through observation. We identify so closely with Jefferies, that when the killer finally looks straight at us, we are not scared for Jefferies’ safety, but for our own. This is a story of the commonplace nature of evil, in fact it is right next door.
In Hitchcock’s world, people are usually forced to fight evil or face death. This is shown best in "North by Northwest," the ultimate “wrong man” picture. What is the evil Thornhill must face? Who cares? The point is he will die if he does not outsmart it.
Evil is real and it is often irrational. Usually people die when they face it unaware or unprepared. In "Psycho," Hitchcock shocked audiences killing of the main star halfway into the film. He even killed off the “good guy,” Detective Arbogast. When the evil is finally revealed it is anything but commonplace. Yet Hitchcock tacked on a final scene, not to rationalize the evil, but to show that there was a natural explanation.

Evil may be irrational, but it is the norm in this world we live in. It can live right next door, or for that matter even in us. (For this see Vertigo another great Hitchcock film.) Hitchcock’s films are fear inducing, not in a shock filled, mindless, roller coaster ride sort of way, but rather in the thought provoking reality of evil they portray.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Prague: "The Most Beautiful Large European City"

Agreement among most travelers is that Prague is the most beautiful city in Europe. The size qualifier exists, however, because large cities have certain advantages and disadvantages over smaller towns.
The top six most visited European cities are London, Paris, Rome, Madrid, Berlin, and Prague. The fact that they are all large (all but Prague are over 3 million) and have a lot to see and do makes them ideal targets for tourists. Therefore, they have a distinct advantage over small towns that only have a few sights and nothing to offer in entertainment.
Some cities may have better known beauties or more historic significance, however, Prague holds claim to the most beautiful city due to the sheer expanse of its three downtown historic districts. Every building is an example of wonderful architecture and history.
All that changes if one strays too far. Get outside the tourist haven downtown and you will find yourself in the classic example of former communist block, gray, cookie-cutter apartment cinderblocks. The only possible way to describe Prague outside of downtown is UGLY. And therein lies the small town advantage.
Smaller towns may be less well known the world over, but they have the ability to be beautiful everywhere, and street for street, there are probably hundreds of towns more beautiful than Prague. Nevertheless, Prague is the most beautiful city of its class in the world.
Perhaps the ideal town would fall somewhere in between; big enough to offer a lot for visitors to do, but small enough to manage to keep a majority of the city picturesque. A top candidate in a lot of people’s opinions?  
Dresden. Unfortunately, it is off the beaten path, so not a lot of people know it is there.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Acts, Introduction (1:1,2)

As with anything else, there are positive and negative things about Postmodernism. There are even things that are positive and negative at the same time. Take textual meaning. Modernism depended on authorial intent. To discover what a text means, discover what the writer intended it to mean. Postmodernism values reader interpretation. Texts can be taken however the reader wishes, there is no one meaning.
Perhaps an example would help. J.K. Rowling recently declared that Dumbledore (one of the main characters in her books) is gay inspite of the fact that she didn’t explicitly write him that way. The modernist allows this intent to shade the story and is either upset or pleased, depending on their desires for the story. The postmodernist ignores it as irrelevant.

(The NonModernist, incidentally, thinks that if Rowling had wanted Dumbledore to be gay, she should have made him so explicitly and let the chips fall where they may. To only declare it after her books had successfully run their course speaks to a fear of offending readers before the money had come in.)
There is a huge downside to this lack of real meaning, however. It is difficult for the Bible, the book about the meaning of life, to communicate to a culture that doesn’t believe in meaning anymore.

All that to introduce the book of Acts. Acts has a clearly spelled out authorial intent. It is written in the style of other historical books of the day, and it has been researched and experienced by the writer. A sequel, it ties the events of the Gospels to the situations of Paul’s letters, thus unifying two thirds of the New Testament books. It needs to be carefully read and its true meaning needs to be understood. Try not to add to the text. Read what has been carefully, precisely written.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Top Ten Films: Part Six

It is a little difficult to admit to being a fan of the original Star Wars trilogy now days. That is how negative the impact of the prequels has been. In spite if that, the originals (or at least “The Empire Strikes Back”) deserve a place on this list. The cultural impact of these movies cannot be overstated. Lucas did not invent the archetypes that appear in his story, but he created today’s definitive examples of them. While “Empire” shocked audiences with Vader’s revelation, today people jokingly expect almost every villain to be the hero’s father.

So, why so much hate for the prequels? We find out that the Jedi were clueless and incompetent. Darth Vader is revealed to be not the ultimate bad guy, but a whiny pain in the butt that Obi Wan should have killed when he had the chance. And most of all there is no cool character like Han Solo to role there eyes at all the cheesy, nerdy characters they are surrounded by.

Because it must be admitted that there is a lot of cheesy dialogue here. Yes even in the originals. When the original audience saw these as kids, they loved how cool they were. However, as grown-ups they cringed at Jar Jar, and shuddered at how annoying Anakin was. Never mind how cheesy C3P0 was or how insufferably annoying Luke could be, and those Ewoks…

The truly groundbreaking element in the original trilogy though, is in its straightforward introduction of religion into fantasy films. The problem is that it is a confusing mix of eastern philosophies, and when in the prequels there are more hints of Christianity, they merely serve to show the corrupt and failed nature of the establishment.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror--the Greatest of Genres

There are those who mindlessly enjoy these genres in literature and film, (think of the sci-fi buffs who debate the plausibility of hard sci-fi or the fan-boys who dress the part) but they miss the point. These genres are a source of some of the greatest stories ever told because they tend to hide a message. They can communicate great truths, (and they can mask dangerous lies.) Either way, they can do so more effectively than straight dramas, as dramas with a message tend to come across as preachy or amateur. (There are great message dramas; they’re just few and far between.) 
Horror fiction has long served as a morality tale, exposing the reality of evil or warning against going where humanity was never intended to tread. Dracula and stories in this vein (ha-ha) always boil down to the nature of evil and what it takes to withstand it. Frankenstein is the other side of the coin, where mankind itself is the monster. These stories are retold and reinvented constantly because they are so relevant.
Greatness in Science Fiction is never about which stories have the most authentic science. Our understanding of science is always changing and no story will ever manage to stand up to the test of “progress.” Nevertheless, some of the pre-space age sci-fi remains great today because it does not ultimately tell about science, but rather about reality.
Even the great Fantasy epics, seemingly just exercises in escapism, are more about reality than most realize. Early examples were a reflection of what the writers went through in the First World War, written as World War Two was in progress. They spawned the whole genre, admittedly populated with some fluff, but many works stand out because of the perspective they cast on our world today.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Straight Poop

Proof positive of Evolution is on display everywhere along the Elbe River banks in Northern Europe. Everywhere one looks in the warmer seasons of the year, hundreds of dung-like slugs are doing their best imitation of turds. Why are there so many that people cannot avoid stepping on them? Because they look so unappealing to predators! Why do they look like crap? To the rational observer it is plain to see: wonderful evolution!
Here is the way science describes the process these lowly slugs undertook, going from bright juicy and colorful slugs preyed on by every animal that saw them to today’s perfect shape and hue—mirroring ordure:

The slugs began by realizing that it was their bright and appealing color that was causing them to be picked off so easily. So they began an intense reproduction campaign, concentrating on closely related matches combined with plenty of contact with the then highly polluted Elbe waters to increase mutation incidence.

Not just any mutation would do though; the slugs knew that the most effective look would either be something resembling excrement or some chameleon-like ability to change their color to blend into the surroundings. Little by little the right shade of brown was achieved.

The question as yet unanswered is how they managed to survive as a species long enough to reach current results without being completely consumed. Sources close to the slugs do report that the R&D slugs are still hard at work going for the camouflage look, as most slugs are less than happy being mistaken for feces all the time. The process has been complicated recently due to the fact that the Elbe has become much less contaminated since the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Dresden, New Year's Eve

There are laws in the U.S. that make New Year’s Eve and the Fourth of July somewhat tame events. Not so in Germany. Fireworks are heard year round but New Year’s things get a little crazy. As darkness falls, pedestrians feel like they are caught in a war zone, with pops and flashes going off on all sides and sirens blaring through the streets.
That parallel increases at midnight, as the church bells all over town begin to ring, and the whole city explodes with rockets. The skyline all around is lit up with color, and the streets literally fill up with smoke from all the celebrating.
One cannot help but think about another night in 1945 when the city of Dresden was completely destroyed by firebombing toward the end of Word War II. Every year on the anniversary of that night the church bells ring out at 10:14, the very moment of the first attack, and continue to ring for two minutes, the amount of time it took the first attack to level the city.
This attack has had a huge impact on popular culture ever since, from songs by Iron Maiden and Pink Floyd to books like “Slaughterhouse-Five.” Erich Kรคstner (author of the book that inspired “The Parent Trap”) wrote in his autobiography:

"I was born in the most beautiful city in the world. Even if your father, child, was the richest man in the world, he could not take you to see it, because it does not exist any more. …In a thousand years was her beauty built, in one night was it utterly destroyed".
Thankfully, it does exist, and is becoming one of the most beautiful if not the most beautiful cities in Germany again. Check it out some New Year’s Eve.
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