DisclaimerMy strongest complaints against the movie are couched purely in terms that demand spoilers. I will be creating a separate post for discussion of The Force Awakens as a literary endeavor some time in the near future. This review should be read to be praising the moviemaking but questioning its place in Star Wars canon. Diagnosis and prescription for the storyteller will be shared in the later post.

JJ Abrams is an avowed Star Wars geek and, conveniently, the second most prolific science-fiction writer/director of the modern age behind Joss Whedon. From Forever Young to Armageddon to Mission: Impossible to Cloverfield, Abrams has spent the last twenty years on a march toward more and more grandiose science fiction, and many cite his foray into the Star Trek universe to be a thinly veiled audition for the keys to the house George Lucas built.

To be sure, Abrams’ film is a rolicking homage to the franchise. There’s a storytelling approach that understands, to quote George Lucas, Star Wars “rhymes” with itself, an internal structure that constantly recapitulates Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey archetype toward tragedy or comedy depending on the particular iteration. Characters and scenes echo A New Hope, and Easter eggs scattered throughout give visual references for longtime fans.

Abrams seems to have a deep understanding of Lucas’ own approach to storytelling as demonstrated by his 2007 TED talk. Every piece of the narrative exists as the next level of a matryoshka doll, a box to be opened to reveal another layer of mystery. Unfortunately, an understanding of a tool doesn’t necessarily translate to using it (or at the very least, using it properly). Indeed, some of the mysteries are revealed long before the boxes are actually opened, and events not foreshadowed so much as telegraphed.

George Lucas is not a great character writer, as anyone who’s suffered through his dialog can attest, but he is a creative storyteller. He has fun in taking familiar stories and twisting them into fresh material. Abrams lacks that sense of whimsy, opting instead to graft levity onto the story’s superstructure by dint of physical humor and action.

And it’s in those moments that The Force Awakens is unmistakably Abrams’ endeavor. Gone are static camera angles and faked extended shots fueled by computer imagery. There’s no power of plot convenient devices given to R2-D2. The cute soccer ball droid BB-8 does its own stunts flowing naturally from his design. As the Millennium Falcon turns on its side and barrel rolls through a dog fight, the spherical droid rolls up and around the molding of the ship’s circular hallways. It’s a ton of fun to watch until BB-8 suspends himself with grappling cables, which just fuels a further joke as the ship levels off and the droid is left suspended in midair for the other characters to discover. Chase sequences with fantastic monsters echo the fun of a moment from the Trek parody/hoage Galaxy Quest as well as Abrams’ own Star Trek. But these gimmicks are not part of Star Wars, which is fueled less by devices and more by universe and ideas.

So this is Abrams’ filmmaking approach glossed on top of a beloved franchise. And that’s where it ultimately suffered. Birthed from the approach of a TV producer – Alias, Fringe, LostSix Degrees and Undercovers appear on Abrams’ impressive resume – The Force Awakens felt like one of his great pilots: it sets up characters to be followed across a long narrative arc, establishes the conditions in which they will be operating, and suggests various plot threads to be resolved at a later date. Because of this, it lacks the emotional satisfaction of a standalone movie, whether the down ending of Empire Strikes Back that nonetheless encapsulated the hope of finding Han – we as viewers believed Lando when he said “we’ll find Han” – or the celebration at the end of A New Hope.

Maybe JJ Abrams is afraid of emotion, to let a franchise widely loved to be kicked off on such a dark note. The evil of the First Order is established, but their actions have no spillover to the happy-go-lucky cinematic mood of the Resistance and our heroes. It completely lacks emotional risk or investment. I mentioned earlier that George Lucas’ creative twists could have helped the story standout instead of being an echo of the past, and the largest part of that is an inability to get the audience to buy in to this particular movie. It wants you to buy into the franchise, but not this particular moment in it. It wants you to come back but not linger.

The Force Awakens will take viewers on a very familiar journey, and it will be a ton of fun for new moviegoers invited into a universe they may not know. The nostalgic references to the original trilogy will be enough to grip Star Wars aficionados as well. But what’s really missing is a bridge between these two generations. There’s a literal bridge (a cat walk) that brings the new generation and old generation face-to-face, yes, and new characters, but how does this connect to the previous span? Long pauses for exposition at the speed of dialog give breathers between action sequences and serve as a backstory, but not as character motivation or explanation.

And all this dialog takes place between characters that lack strong identities. Rather, we appear to be watching cookiecutters. Yes, I know, the theme of echoing and rhyming is the crux of the Star Wars universe and the praise of this review. But staring at a mirror gets incredibly boring. We need a funhouse to distort the image rather than show us the same thing, new interpretations and warps in the frame.

The Force Awakens is a good movie. But is it enough to be a good movie in a universe populated with mediocre ones? As a Star Wars fan, I don’t care for great moviemaking. I care for great storytelling. And Abrams missed the opportunity to transcend mere levity to joy or mere apprehension to fear.

Grade on its own merit: B+
Grade as a Star Wars movie: C+


In Which He Sells Himself

I wrote a long cover letter (much too long to actually be a cover letter) for an open business development internship at Grist Magazine. I really liked it. But it was too long to function as my actual cover letter; I shaved the final cover letter down from 1,200 words to 500 words. Aw yeah, skills, that.

Nick, however, suggested I make the original draft a blog post. I’m very sorry that you have to read this because I caved to his pressure. And by pressure I mean singular Facebook comment. Some info for those of you who did not click on the link: Grist is a digital magazine and blog website that reports and analyzes environmental news and issues. As you might guess, their readership (and staff, for that matter) tends to lean politically left. They currently have an opening for a “business development intern,” which requires some college but not a bachelor’s, to help (and learn, it’s an internship) the Grist brand expand its advertising partnerships. The job listing requested a “personalized cover letter” that would allow the team to get a sense of “[my] writing style” and “sense of humor.” I think I succeeded.

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Invisible Ink

I have two posts sitting as rough drafts on my computer right now. One I started back in April, and it is complete, but to call it anything other than rough would be ludicrous. The second, though it tries to deal with the same idea, isn’t a revision so much as it is an essay in its own right. They look at a problem from two separate angles; I would say one of them is thematically coherent if stylistically broken, and probably looks from three or four angles on its own. Both fail as public expressions of observation and subsequent ideation. To an extent, I’d say they fail as private expressions as well. Though I know what I am trying to say, to read these essays is not to read what I am trying to say. Their intended meaning is only discernible because I know the intention behind them.

Maybe that’s okay; hell, maybe that’s the point. This blog was birthed that two writers saw the world and from it crafted a narrative. Those people across the street arguing: I do not know what the argument is about. But I can make up a story. That lonely lady behind the counter at a bookstore: I do not know why she watches me her only customer so closely. But I can make up a story.

These stories provide substantive meaning rather than accidental meaning. These are vaguely philosophical and theological terms, so I will try to clarify. “Who is Michael?” is a tough question to answer. If someone were to ask you that in a large gathering of people, you might point me out in the crowd, red hair and glasses, the scruffy beard growth I’ve let define my jaw line, straight leg boot-cut jeans and a button-down shirt worn untucked. I am for my personal style and physical appearance fairly recognizable. But though it is true I am at the same party, perhaps holding a bottle of porter with my left hand shoved in my pocket, this is not really me. After all, if I am only the observation of my physical self, then you might as well pull out a photo and say “This is Michael.”

My physical appearance is to an extent accidental to who I really am. But if someone asked “who is Michael?” you also would not tell them he is the guy who writes for Indefinite Crisis, is working with an independent print house to get his poetry published and really just wants to teach high school English but is financially hamstrung so hasn’t finished his Bachelor’s degree. Though these things are true as well, they are equally true of Nick (except the whole wanting to teach high school thing); they are not who I am. On the other hand, if I were not any of these things – including the physically defined body – I would not be me.

Accidents are those parts of being that are not essential to a thing’s identity. They are that which we perceive without being what we define. Substance, however, is the core identity, the underlying Michael-stuff that makes me Michael. In the case of human beings, substance and accidents are pretty much inseparable. The most obvious example of this in bodily form comes in our physical sex. I, Michael, cannot be a mother because I cannot bear children. There is a function of the body that in turn defines my intellectualized form. My body has a bearing on what my identity is. On the other hand, I can manipulate my body. If I wanted to be a professional athlete, it would do well for my body fat percentage to be 12% instead of 19% with lean muscle mass; it would also do well if I developed keen reflexes and flexibility. I could teach via repetition the muscle memory of, for example, striking a moving baseball with force and horizontal direction. My body’s form would become accidental to the non-physical identity dictating its behavior.

So a story Nick or I create to define the accidental appearance of a situation is substantive. They are essential to our understanding of the person; they define what the person is. However, these substantive creations are in turn accidents of both personal fancy (we, after all, create the story) and our perception of the persons involved. The people are the substance behind the accidental story, but by putting them in a story they become accidental to the story’s substance. People are, of course, not stories, but mere parts of stories, mechanisms through which stories are expressed.

This recursive property plays crucial rolls in relationships, defining our perception of another person and thus how they react to us. Consider how you perceive your friends. Because you believe certain things about them, you behave a certain way around them, treat them a certain way. Because of this, they in turn perceive your accidental behavior, interpret that behavior into an idea of substance, and respond via behavior. This gives you behavior to perceive, reshaping your idea of who they are and your behavior toward and around them. What one believes is how one acts, and how one acts is what one believes.

This process is thus progressive and infinite. It is ongoing work toward a union of perception and behavior, toward what I present being consistent with what you perceive, where accident and substance become indistinguishable. Problematic, then, is projecting our perception into the future. Since it doesn’t account for shifting accidents of others, it assumes the substance of our understanding is consistent with the substance of another’s understanding, that conclusion based on perception is absolute.

So relationships begin and end on the idea that what we perceive now is going to be what we perceive in the future. I like you, so I will date you to discover…possibly that I still like you, in which case I may marry you, or possibly that I was wrong to begin with and, in fact, I don’t really like you – which isn’t necessarily true, I am merely perceiving something differently now than what is the substance of you and our relationship.

We cannot go back and undo; there is no spell-check in life. There is only one life, and it is the rough draft, imperfect, unrefined, saying what we wanted to say – hopefully – but never quite how we wanted to say it. This is, at long last, a final draft of two posts. You will read it, wonder, perhaps comment, and I will reply. There are no posts sitting as rough drafts on my computer. I leave them here for your perceiving.

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I have a very dear friend whom I have not seen in a number of years. In fact, despite the easy connectivity of Facebook, texting, e-mail and instant messaging, I haven’t even talked to her in about eighteen months. It’s odd, you might say, that I consider her a very dear friend given these facts. On the other hand, she literally posts to Facebook/responds to posts maybe once per month (stalker feeds hooray!), has abandoned the world of instant messaging and even in high school wasn’t so hot at responding to a text.

If you asked me how I felt at any given moment, and I replied with “the light on that fan is crooked,” and you looked around to see there was no fan, no light and in fact we were standing in a THX 1138-style endless white expanse, you would have no idea what I was talking about except maybe to assume I was hallucinating the existence of a fan and light to supplement my under-stimulated sensory input. Molly, however, would know exactly what I meant. She will always know exactly what I mean by that and she alone will ever have the opportunity of distilling meaning from the phrase.

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Confessions of a Seattle Extremist

Author’s note: I’m in the process of writing what would classically be referred to as a pamphlet. It is about what this post is about. This post is a condensed version. This post is a lengthy autobiographical commentary compacted into a story-essay.

The extremism of one’s views is only properly recognized as extremist relative to the normative bands set by the actor’s peer group. This isn’t new or exciting information; it’s rather intuitive. But consider the graph below:

If this were the graph equivalent of a Venn diagram and each wave was representative of a certain group of people, members of the blue arc might consider members of the green arc far left, and members of the red arc might consider those same persons far right. The defining center of the blue group is heavily shifted to the right, and the defining center of the red group is heavily shifted to the left, and in a feat of social parallax, the relative position of the viewer determines their perception of another’s absolute position.

Moreover, the leftist members of the blue group only overlap so far into the rightist members of the green group. Going anywhere beyond the lower vertex of the blue wave, coincidental with the upper vertex of the green wave, may not even be perceived as a possible or plausible reality. You can reasonably imagine someone on the far right of the blue wave to not even believe in the existence of a far left of the green wave, let alone the very existence of the red wave. The same can be said for members of the red wave moving left to right.

Anyway, onto the story!

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For the last year I have tried to find my voice.  I have tried to rediscover whatever it was that was inside me that spoke out.  I don’t know when I lost it.  I don’t know how I lost it, but none of this comes easy anymore.  It’s not a lack of ideas, more so it is a lack of commitment to ideas.  Stagnant thoughts that don’t go anywhere, that have no meaning and no purpose, so, what’s the point?  What is the point of communicating an idea that isn’t fully developed or even of merit.  I don’t even know when what I wrote became important to me.  When each word had to be carefully chosen, selected for some greater value to the whole. Continue Reading »

Writer’s Note: There have been mild edits in this post facilitated by a friend who was kind enough to, completely unasked, send me an e-mail that pointed out errors in grammar and spelling. We share the same symbolic language of English, and in order to better purify our communication and clarify the truth being communicated, there was a system in place that allowed her to correct my heteropraxy. Thus our religion maintains the purity of its truth content.

I struggled for a long time on what I was going to write for this post. Nick and I, see, have a New Year’s Resolution with each other that we are getting up one blog post per week. He wrote for week one, week three, and I of course wrote two weeks ago (week two) and now (week four). It’s a great alternating process. So I am supposed to have a blog post this week, and I had thought of a few different things to write about but shelved the initial idea because I am trying to avoid letting my theology leak into the blog. And now I’m back, writing about a similar topic anyway. Things are weird like that.

Anyway! Let’s talk about New Year’s Resolutions. It’s a bit of an annual ritual that a good number of us do; we commit to a change or to developing a habit or to doing one thing or two things. A few years ago I wanted to learn how to play the piano, and I am satisfied to report that I learned how to plunk out Lightly Row from the first book in the Suzuki piano series and that I can now sight-read music well enough to give myself the melody when I’m working on vocal music. This year, I will learn how to actually play the piano instead of playing at or with the piano.

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