Making a paganism from pop culture

Another level of New Age syncretism:  Going to a Star Wars filming location to await the Mayan apocalypse (scheduled for tomorrow) because “the force is strong here.”

At the center of the rebel base where Luke Skywalker took off to destroy the Death Star and save his people from the clutches of Darth Vader, Guatemala is preparing for another momentous event: the end of an age for the Maya.

Deep inside the Guatemalan rainforest stand the ruins of the Maya temples that George Lucas used to film the planet Yavin 4 in the movie “Star Wars,” from where Skywalker and his sidekick Han Solo launched their attack on the Galactic Empire’s giant space station.

This week, at sunrise on Friday, December 21, an era closes in the Maya Long Count calendar, an event that has been likened by different groups to the end of days, the start of a new, more spiritual age or a good reason to hang out at old Maya temples across Mexico and Central America.

“If it is the end of the world, hopefully Luke will come and blow up that Death Star,” said Alex Markovitz, a 24-year-old consultant and Star Wars fan from Philadelphia, looking out over the site of Skywalker’s rebel base. “I see why they shot here. It doesn’t look real. It looks like an alien planet.”

Once at the heart of a conquering civilization in its own right, the ancient city of Tikal is now a pilgrimage site for both hard-core Star Wars fans and enthusiasts of Maya culture eager to discover what exactly the modern interpretations of old lore portend.

In the 1960s, a leading U.S. scholar said the end of the Maya’s 13th bak’tun – an epoch lasting some 400 years – could signify an “Armageddon,” though many people trekking to the old temples believe it could herald something wonderful.

Discovered in 1848 when locals unearthed human skulls whose teeth were studded with jade jewels, Tikal draws tourists from around the globe. Visitors this week said they felt a powerful presence in the blue skies above them.

“The force is strong here,” said Jimena Teijeiro, 35, an Argentine-born self-help blogger. “The world as we know it is coming to an end. We are being propelled to a new age of light, synchronicity and simple wonderment with life.”

Maya scholars and astronomers have dismissed the idea the world is on the brink of destruction but mystics and spiritual thrill-seekers have flocked to feed off Tikal’s energy. Park guards said they had to throw out 13 naked women who were dancing and chanting around a fire pit near the temples last week.

“Something big is going to happen,” said the president of Guatemala’s Star Wars fan club, entrepreneur Ricardo Alejos. “The Maya were an incredibly precise people. Something big is going to happen and we’ll find out what in a few days.”

via Maya apocalypse and Star Wars collide in Guatemalan temple | Reuters.

The next paganism currently being constructed may well combine mysticism with pop culture, which has become our main medium of  thought and sensibility.

How was the Hobbit?

On another, appropriately escapist note, who has seen the Hobbit last weekend?  We plan to take it in later this week in a lull between family Christmas visits.  I’ve heard of people who loved it greatly, who were disappointed, and who were made nauseous by the twice-as-fast photography and rate of projection.  (One can see it without that effect, in the 2-D version.)  I’d like to hear what you thought of it (including your reaction to the special photography in the 3-D version).

Here is the Hobbit soundtrack

The soundtrack for the upcoming Hobbit movie has been posted online, for free. Listen to it here:  Hobbit.

Bilbo Baggins is being played by Martin Freeman, who plays Dr. Watson in BBC’s excellent modern-day update of the Sherlock Holmes saga, Sherlock.  And the actor who plays said Sherlock, who has the splendid name of Benedict Cumberbatch, has a part in the Hobbit, playing the Necromancer.  (I believe that’s the mysteriously sinister figure who turns out to be Sauron in the Lord of the Rings.)  By the way, Sherlock is many times better than the American attempt at the same scenario Elementary.  Wouldn’t you say?

Noah as Al Gore

As you may have heard, a movie about Noah is in the works starring Russell Crowe.  But don’t get too excited.  Christian screenwriter Brian Godawa has seen the script.  The flood is being played as an environmentalist disaster, and Noah, in effect, is its Al Gore.

Having got a chance to read an undated version of the script for Noah I want to warn you. If you were expecting a Biblically faithful retelling of the story of the greatest mariner in history and a tale of redemption and obedience to God you’ll be sorely disappointed. Noah paints the primeval world of Genesis 6 as scorched arid desert, dry cracked earth, and a gray gloomy sky that gives no rain – and all this, caused by man’s “disrespect” for the environment. In short, an anachronistic doomsday scenario of ancient global warming. How Neolithic man was able to cause such anthropogenic catastrophic climate change without the “evil” carbon emissions of modern industrial revolution is not explained. Nevertheless, humanity wanders the land in nomadic warrior tribes killing animals for food or wasteful trophies.

In this oppressive world, Noah and his family seek to avoid the crowds and live off the land. Noah is a kind of rural shaman, and vegan hippy-like gatherer of herbs. Noah explains that his family “studies the world,” “healing it as best we can,” like a kind of environmentalist scientist. But he also mysteriously has the fighting skills of an ancient Near Eastern Ninja (Hey, it’s a movie, give it a break).

Noah maintains an animal hospital to take care of wounded animals or those who survive the evil “poachers,” of the land. Just whose animal rights laws they are violating, I am not sure, since there are only fiefdoms of warlords and tribes. Be that as it may, Noah is the Mother Teresa of animals.

Though God has not spoken to men or angels for a long time, Noah is haunted by recurring dreams of a rainstorm and flood that he surmises is God’s judgment on man because as Noah says, “At our hand, all he created is dying.” The trees, the animals, and the environment. “If we change, if we work to save it, perhaps he will too [save us].” Or as grandfather Methuselah reiterates, “We have destroyed this world, so we ourselves will be destroyed. Justice.” Oh, and I almost forgot, they kill people too, but it’s not really as important. In another place, “We have murdered each other. We raped the world. The Creator has judged us.” The notion of human evil is more of an afterthought or symptom of the bigger environmental concern of the great tree hugger in the sky. . . .

Meanwhile, Noah has himself become a bit psychotic, like an environmentalist or animal rights activist who concludes that people do not deserve to survive because of what they’ve done to the environment and to animals. Noah deduces that God’s only reason for his family on the boat is to shepherd the animals to safety, “and then mankind disappears. It would be a better world.” He concludes that there will be no more births in this family so that when they start over in the new world, they will eventually die out, leaving the animals in a humanless paradise of ecoharmony and peace. As Noah says, “The creatures of the earth, the world itself, shall be safe.” (Except for slamming intergalactic meteors, non-anthropocentric global warming, ice ages, sun spots, volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and that “survival of the fittest,” eat-or-be-eaten thing. But other than that… “safe.”)

His ethical reasoning? The same as all environmentalist activists: The ends justify the means. “We must weigh those [human] lives against all creation.” Shades of Malthus and Al Gore.

There’s only one problem. One of the women on the ark is pregnant, and Noah decides that if it is a boy, it can live, but if it is a girl, he must kill it. We can’t have more of those nasty little virus-like humans swarming the earth. So most of the last half of the script is a family killer thriller like Sleeping With the Enemy, that asks the dark dramatic movie question “will Noah kill the child if it is a girl or not?” Ancient sex-selection infanticide.

via Darren Aronofsky’s Noah: Environmentalist Wacko | Godawa’s MovieBlog.

HT to Anthony Sacramone, whose commentary you should read and who ends his post with this:  “I only wish God could sue for copyright infringement.”

May the Mouse be with you

Disney has bought Lucasfilm and is promising a reboot of the Star Wars series, with Episode 7 promised for 2015.

Given that the Star Wars episodes have been more or less disappointing since the original trilogy and that the imaginary universe has been given a certain closure, do you welcome more Star Wars movies?

Do you expect a Disneyfication effect on what was originally an innovative independent production?   (Will the aliens now wear white gloves and have long eye-lashes?)

Connected TV dramas as the new novel

Since the time of the ancient Greeks, a dramatic production seldom lasts much more than two hours, about the limit of human endurance sitting in one place.  Thus, plays, movies, and TV shows tend to be relatively short.  Novels, though, can take weeks to read.  That means that novels can take up stories of greater length, complexity, and depth than the typical play or film.  (Not that those forms don’t have their own complexity and depth–I mean, think of Shakespeare–but there can’t be as much story as in a novel.)  When a novel is made into a film, we generally say, “The book is better than the movie,” but that’s to be expected.   How can you compress the incidents in a 350 page book into the two hours of a movie?

But now it’s possible to develop a filmed story that can go on for hours, days, weeks, even years.  Dramatic series on television are no longer self-contained one-hour tales.  Rather, the episodes are connected with each other to tell a bigger and bigger and longer and longer story.  Now filmed versions of novels can be quite faithful to the original.  And now TV series can constitute creative long-form fiction in the same way that a novel does.

Film scholar Thomas Doherty comments, proposing to call the new series “Arc TV”:

Long top dog in the media hierarchy, the Hollywood feature film—the star-studded best in show that garnered the respectful monographs, the critical cachet, and a secure place on the university curriculum—is being challenged by the lure of long-form, episodic television. Let’s call the breed Arc TV, a moniker that underscores the dramatic curvature of the finely crafted, adult-minded serials built around arcs of interconnected action unfolding over the life span of the series. Shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Downton Abbey, Homeland, Dexter, Boardwalk Empire, and Game of Thrones—the highest-profile entrees in a gourmet menu of premium programming—are where the talent, the prestige, and the cultural buzz now swirl. Fess up: Are you more jazzed about the release of the new Abraham Lincoln biopic by Steven Spielberg or the season premiere of Homeland (September 30, 10 p.m., on Showtime)? The lineup hasn’t quite yet dethroned the theatrical feature film as the preferred canvas for moving-image artistry, but Hollywood moviemakers are watching their backs.

This being from the medium that inspired the wisecrack “Imitation is the sincerest form of television,” Arc TV has antecedents aplenty. The format owes obvious debts to a swath of small-screen influences—the mid-70s explosion in quality TV, the BBC’s Masterpiece Theater imports on PBS, Steven Bochco’s Hill Street Blues (NBC, 1981-87) and L.A. Law (NBC, 1986-94), and especially Stephen J. Cannell’s Wiseguy (CBS, 1987-90), the show usually credited with bringing the multi-episode arc to serial American television.

Yet its real kinship is literary, not televisual. Like the bulky tomes of Dickens and Dreiser, Trollope and Wharton, the series are thick on character and dense in plot line, spanning generations and tribal networks and crisscrossing the currents of personal life and professional duty. Episode per episode, in milieux that stretch from the ruthless geopolitics of a medieval off-world to the gender dynamics of a post-zombie apocalypse, the tide of action ebbs and flows in a meandering but forward direction, gaining momentum over the course of a season (now likely to be a mere 13 episodes), before congealing and erupting in a go-for-broke season finale.Traditionally, even late into the age of cable, television thrived on two durable genres, the weekly 30-minute sitcom and the hourlong drama. Play the theme song, rack up the signature montage, and a virgin viewer has no trouble following along. Each episode was discrete and self-contained, wrapped up on schedule, with no overarching Ur-plot, designed to be digested full at one sitting, and meant to spiral autonomously ever after in syndication: Gilligan stranded forever on his island, Columbo freeze-framed in his trench coat.

The dramatis personae existed in a realm that was picaresque, a pre-novel mode in which a one-dimensional protagonist is hit by one damn thing after another. A viewer could spend years, maybe decades, with the likes of Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke or Steve McGarrett on Hawaii Five-O and not know a whit about the hero’s psychic interior or personal history. Many of the surviving remnants of network television follow that time-worn template. The repetition compulsion of Homer Simpson—always the same, never learning from experience—is an ironic homage to the picaresque legacy: “D’oh! D’oh! D’oh!”

By contrast, Arc TV is all about back story and evolution. Again like the novel, the aesthetic payoff comes from prolonged, deep involvement in the fictional universe and, like a serious play or film, the stagecraft demands close attention. For the show to cast its magic, the viewer must leap full body into the video slipstream. Watch, hour by hour, the slow-burn descent into the home-cooked hell of the high-school-chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-kingpin Walter White in Breaking Bad, or the unraveling by degrees of the bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison, falling off her meds and cracking to pieces in Homeland.

At its best, the world of Arc TV is as exquisitely calibrated as the social matrix of a Henry James novel.

via Cable Is the New Novel – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

I would argue that the novel still has advantages over what can be portrayed visually on television.  A novel can present a character’s thoughts and feelings and experiences directly and completely, right into the reader’s imagination. Some of that can be hinted by good acting and clever filmmaking, but it isn’t the same, just watching everything on a screen.  Reading has huge advantages over watching.  (I agree with Charles Lamb that it’s better to read Shakespeare than to watch a production of Shakespeare, that his plays work best performed in the “theatre of the mind.”)

Still, we don’t always want to give our imaginations a workout, so it can be pleasant and relaxing to let  someone else imagine the stories for us.  So I pay tribute to the fictional possibilities of this new artform.