Culture Mulcher: Colson Whitehead is Taking Names

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Culture Mulcher

Colson Whitehead Is Taking Names

by Michael Larkin
illustration by Jairan Sadeghi

WHEN THE RATHER conspicuously unnamed lead character of Colson Whitehead’s novel, Apex Hides the Hurt, takes on the job of renaming a town that’s trying to reinvent itself, he invites us to more closely scrutinize the bold-faced brands and everyday names that are so ubiquitous we barely pay them any mind. Once you do start paying attention, as The Character Who Goes Unnamed discovers, some discomfiting revelations may follow.

The town of Winthrop is at a crossroads. Its glory days as the seat of the Winthrop family’s barbed-wire empire are over. Its economy is in decline, its downtown going moribund. When a Steve Jobs-like software CEO named Lucky Aberdeen decides to relocate his eponymous software company to the town, it spells Winthrop’s salvation. Yet the city council is at loggerheads over whether this rebirth should signal a rechristening as well: Should the town keep its existing name? Should it instead go with the one the lead character’s consulting firm has supplied: New Prospera? Beneath the surface of this public debate, there is the question of whether to revert to the original marker bestowed by the freed slaves who founded the town: Freedom. In light of these buried roots of the town’s origins, the novel’s extended consideration of our modern form of “branding” takes on an even more sinister cast.

Into this mess rides our hero, the nameless “nomenclature consultant” who enters the novel in something of an existential crisis, having left his firm as a result. However, he’s a virtuoso in his field, a master of papering over past histories or inventing false ones with the brush of a well chosen word or two, and the townspeople are clamoring for him to bestow his righteous approbation on them by blessing their city with a handle befitting its resurrection.

He’s cool, this character, too cool. He holds everyone and everything in his life at an emotional distance, if not in outright contempt, coldly reading every one of them and applying the easy bandage of a label, some of which are to be found on store shelves and signs around the world. He adds a “Q” here or a timely “New” there, and products suddenly sell. The names spill forth, the character’s brainstorms sounding like they’d be right at home at our local malls: Redempta, Outfit Outlet, New Luno, Apex. We hardly notice such names. Brand names lead to commercials, they are commercials, and as he says of the newly descending (mostly white, mostly affluent) townspeople, “They were used to commercials, commercials were a natural feature of existence, like dawn or rain.”

Yet each name has a resonance. He says admiringly of the prospective new town name, New Prospera, which one of his former colleagues has come up with, that it “had that romance language armature. … The lilting a at the end like a rung up to wealth and affluence, take a step. A glamorous Old World cape draped over the bony shoulders of prosaic prosperity.” But is New Prospera a better choice than the reminder of slavery denoted by long-buried Freedom? The consultant, who is African-American, isn’t so sure.

In the transforming town, he comes across expatriate Silicon Valley-ites drinking Brio energy drinks and Admiral Java coffee. There on the town square is the soon-to-open Outfit Outlet, the chain store whose “parent company was a successful purveyor of low-priced low-quality goods that had decided it wanted a different piece of the action. So [after the character’s naming of the franchise] the same sweatshops stitched together flashier clothes from the same fabrics, and midwifed profit.” He later finds, appropriately enough, that the store has taken over the building that previously housed the library, the repository of the town’s history. “Probably not the first time one of his clients had displaced a library,” the character informs us. Who needs books?

If it all seems a thin excuse for a narrative, the story’s deceptive simplicity is just the point. Whitehead has tapped a deep well here. If his trenchant and troubling observations about consumer culture, history, marketing and race seem obvious, might that not be of concern? We hold these Truths to be self evident, that all Men are created to shrug in the face of these Truths.

How often do we take a close look at the names that dot our landscape? Bed Bath & Beyond: Buying towels and sheets is a mystical journey, perhaps to the edge of the world, perhaps to the afterlife. Barnes & Noble: A book seller with the gravitas of a law firm, haute literature for the masses. Whole Foods: what you’re buying is wholesome, holistic, wholly natural, unsullied by partially hydrogenated corporate oil… and you’ll pay a whole price, too.

One could play this game for hours. Brand names and band names. Place names and MySpace names. Gain and Tide and Cheer and All and Bold. It’s detergent, for Christ’s sake!

For Christ’s sake, indeed. In Judeo-Christian cultures, and most other religious traditions as well, the first to have the privilege to name is the deity—“God called the light ‘day’ and the darkness he called ‘night’” (Genesis 1:5)—and this conjures a vestige of the divine in every act of naming. Certainly any parent who has named a child has felt it. We’ve long recognized the power inherent in a name, in the bestowing of times just as careful about when we don’t use a name, whether it is to guard the sacred or deny the profane: the sacrilege of saying or writing the name of God in some religions; “the love that dare not speak its name”; the denials of Armenian (or indeed any) genocide. Or, in some cases, we name things in the hopes of filling a void, creating a self-fulfilling prophesy: weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Naming is believing. And believing equals sales.

Towards the end of Apex, as The Character Who Goes Unnamed reaches his breaking point, he looks around at a gathering of his colleagues and imagines what the world would be like if everyone went around with name tags bearing their “true names”: “LIAR, BED WETTER… ROMANTIC… GRIFTER… PEDERAST” or the one he reserves for himself—“FUGITIVE.” He muses that we “spen[d] our lives trying to keep our true names inside and hidden, because if they were let out we would be known and ruined.” This observation is of a piece with an even sharper one he makes later, that “He liked his epiphanies American: brief and illusory.” The “true name” labeling idea is particularly American: Break it down for me, fellas. In five words or fewer, sum it up. Give me the PowerPoint, I’m a busy man. Distill the essence.

With Whitehead himself, recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, you can play the label game if you like: Genius. Gifted Writer. Black Dude. The next coming of Wideman, Baldwin, Ellison, Wright. Author on whom Richard Ford spat. The limitations of the American epiphanic approach begin to reveal themselves rather quickly.

And while we’re on the subject: Apex Hides the Hurt? Perfect tagline for a fictional bandage, mediocre title for a novel, at least for a good one like this. Just goes to show that you really can’t judge a book by its cover.

What’s in a name? Everything and nothing, as it happens. Whether it’s a book title, a company name, a stereotype, a talking point, or the handle our parents have saddled us with, a name may contain multitudes, or it may be as shallow as a puddle, sometimes both. As Whitehead reminds us, the trick is in recognizing the differences, striving to mine the rich layers of meaning in a name while also taking care to tease out its dangerous limits and, sometimes, its lies.

Michael (“Who is like God?” in Hebrew) Larkin (“fierce” in Irish Gaelic) can’t figure out why he’s got such an inflated opinion of himself. 

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The Diviners: Software Abuse, Guitar Chatter and the Poetics of Fake Forecasting

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The Diviners

Software Abuse, Guitar Chatter and the Poetics of Fake Forecasting

by Kurt Newman and Michelle Detorie
photos taken by Chris Cogburn
illustration from photos by Nicole Neditch

DAPHNOMANCY: an ancient form of divination based on listening to the sound of laurel branches crackling in an open fire.

Materials: hollow-body electric guitar, FX, amplifier, ViaVoice voice-recognition software, laptop computer, projector.

Process: Voice-recognition software is fed a signal from Kurt’s guitar amplifier and thus generates text from the sounds of the guitar. Text is broken, amended, and in other ways altered by Michelle in real time. Everything is 100 percent improvised.

Kurt (guitar):
Michelle and I have been thinking of a way to collaborate on an improvised music and text performance practice for some time. We were not drawn to the most immediately obvious idea—“talking and playing.” Michelle pointed out that as a writer, her materials are keyboard, screen and text, not voice and speech, so we started thinking about ways to combine instrumental improvisation with typing improvisation. The first decision we made established the performance set-up—projecting the computer screen on a wall, so the audience could read the text that Michelle typed while I played guitar.

What next? Well, we were attracted to the idea of a collaborative practice that was both conceptually elegant and relatively simple. Undoubtedly it would be cool in its own way to have improvised music and improvised typing happening at the same time (an approach that was pioneered by John Cage and Merce Cunningham in their music and dance collaborations), but even cooler would be the discovery of some connective tissue more integral than mere simultaneity.

We were also concerned about the music simply serving as a background for the text, or worse, the text “interpreting” the music in a programmatic way. Since the way I improvise tends to be abstract—unconnected with any purposeful symbolic meaning-making—this question of an integral link between the music and the poetry was nettlesome.

The solution came from Michelle’s interest in ancient forms of divination as models for poetic experimentation. We guessed that divination might be a useful motif for structuring our collaboration. Michelle brought up the example of “daphnomancy,” a kind of divination that was conducted precisely by close listening to “meaningless” sounds (the crackling of burning laurel leaves). A few months earlier, I had marveled at the voice-recognition software that a professor used to compose papers. It occurred to me that the computer would attempt to render any sound, not just the human voice, as English text. If that was true, then the guitar noises I make while improvising would be as likely to produce random language as any other source. I thought that this computer technology might be a good intermediary between music and text, serving as Ouija board or crystal ball, attempting to read meaningful messages in the sounds of the guitar. Extending this metaphor, Michelle would be the diviner, structuring and shaping the seemingly chaotic chunks of text into coherent poetic form, and the guitar music would be the raw communication crossing over from beyond.

Thus far, Daphnomancy has been presented once in public (at an event in Austin that also featured the improvised music/poetry collaboration of percussionist Chris Cogburn and poet Joshua Beckman), and many more times in the privacy of our home. Playing with Michelle and the voice-recognition software/ computer interface is unlike any other collaboration I have pursued. Typically, I play continuous passages of music until the screen fills up with a few lines of text. Then I wait until Michelle has organized the words and symbols into lines and images. The musical result is thus a kind of minimalism, with long stretches of silence between musical events, but without the sense of hushed solemnity that often attends ultra-sparse music.

Michelle’s transformation of the text—the redaction, compression, augmentation and ornamentation of the words and symbols summoned by the guitar—provides a great deal of continuity and excitement. Words are formed and then erased, or combined with other words, to produce unexpected meanings. The text therefore comes to include all the words made by the guitar- and voice-recognition software, as well as those written and then erased, possibilities perceived by the spectator differing from those Michelle realizes. Also, the text includes the music, the process and the whole perceptual gestalt. Even the flashing cursor contributes to an enhanced perception of the passage of time and highlights the stakes inherent in making one decision rather than another. Daphnomancy foregrounds the importance of “possibility” in both music and poetry—how we hear and read not just the finished product, but also the errant and digressive lines not followed in the final text.

Michelle (poetry):
Daphnomancy undermines the Romantic conception of poetry—what Wordsworth described as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” This subversion of the Romantic ideal is inherent in both the practice of improvisation and the art of divination. The dynamics of divination and those of experimental music/improvisation have much in common; both require that the practitioner relinquish control over the content but assume a heightened responsibility for the form.

In Daphnomancy, there is not one, but two diviners/listeners—the software and the writer. In this paradigm, the writer/listener is neither the creator nor the initial interpreter of the data. Thus it’s through the inversion of the Romantic poet/speaker model and the subordination of the listener/diviner that meaning and expression are assigned and altered.

In this context, language is unstable. As Kurt’s guitar chatter scatters words and letters over the screen, I sort and sculpt the text into lines and stanzas, a process which often involves moving, changing and deleting words and letters. It is a performance that is at once generative and destructive. In this sense, the poem that emerges is most analogous to the pile of ash left after the laurel branches burn. What’s made is what remains:

DAPHNOMANCY 6.20.06

Owl on a low howl in a cattacombed cave concocted a crawl’s clear call: cox-comb caw-cawing through an old wound committing calm amid moonlike wands. An assassin. An abandoner. She permits Mating only amid the dead. Cured keys wandering looms amid luck. An influx of the uncaught, an alliance of grammar.

DAPHNOMANCY 6.09.06

I hone our
luminous tools:
our warm rulers
and tin cocoons.

Razors wooed
our tar knuckles
of unknowable lumber—
an unbeknown nevering.

DAPHNOMANCY 6.04.06

Coda dyed in tresses
ever nearer the dress,
even nearer the accursed
looming and thickening.

Gliss unmoving
and unhurried:
an unloosed will
of luminous doing.

She cannot undo
the era ahead, nor
the unheard.

Dyed doves
hang her above
abandoned dams
where the good anglers coax

their ink into inland
channels, blooming all
along: an analogue

for caged lots.

Read more DAPHNOMANCIES at daphnomancy.blogspot.com.

Kurt (kurtnewman.blogspot.com) has been playing free improvised music since the mid-’90s. He spends most of his time trying to rethink the nature and capacity of the electric guitar. He has long been interested in collaboration with artists who work in other media—primarily, dancers and movement artists.

Michelle (mdetorie.blogspot.com) is nearing the end of her tenure as the writer-in-residence at the Katherine Anne Porter House. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in How2, Chelsea, Typo, Diagram, and elsewhere. Last year, her poem “Three Divinations” was nominated by the editors of Blackbird for a Pushcart Prize. 

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Celluloid Jukebox: I Like the Christian Life

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Celluloid Jukebox

I Like the Christian Life

by Jen Burke Anderson
illustration by Aaron Farmer

MY CHILDHOOD church lashed us with warnings about the rampant Satanism of rock ’n’ roll. Pop music could provoke commentary from my elders that now seems like hallucination: Deacon Speyer confessing that his copy of Bing Crosby’s “Pistol-Packin’ Mama” was a stumbling block between him and Jesus; Pastor Petersen testifying that the Captain & Tenille’s sexy new early-’80s image was another sure sign that the book of Revelation was on the eve of its fulfillment.

The umbilical cord between religion and rock refuses to ever snap completely. While clergy despair over the African, “pagan” rhythms of Satan’s sheet music, it’s not hard to trace rock back to R&B’s roots in gospel and the Christian church. But rock ’n’ roll got away from its uptight parents and ran off in search of all those things mom and dad promised but never quite delivered: rapture, joy, freedom, truth. Sometimes it ran so far away it came back home again from another direction.

A spate of recent rock documentaries explores the surprisingly razor-thin line between Christianity, pagan recklessness and cutting-edge creativity.

Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus

The BBC follows alt-country songsmith Jim White as he takes a rusty-Cadillac spin through the Deep South of his childhood, exploring the sensual underbelly of fundamentalist Christianity and its role in the imagery of murder ballads, country and gospel music. Watch for spectacular on-location performances by the Handsome Family, 16 Horsepower, Trailer Bride and storyteller Harry Crews.

Danielson: A Family Movie

Plunging headlong into art-school weirdness and creative rapture, the charming and intelligent Danielson Famile uses its Christian beliefs as a springboard for creating some of the most otherworldly music available today. The film is not just about the group, but is a thought-provoking glimpse into the vagaries of the music industry and the meaning of family in modern society.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston

The Christian church may not provide much of a remedy for the manic-depressive Daniel Johnston, but its good-versus-evil framework has obviously made a deep impression on the singer-songwriter’s creative powers.

New York Doll

Arthur “Killer” Kane’s bass lines were the backbone of early ’70s proto-punk band the New York Dolls. But by the ’80s, Kane was falling down a spiral of drugs, alcohol, failed relationships and suicidal depression. This documentary takes an irony-free look at how the Mormon church gave Kane not only a support system as he cleaned up his life, but the inspiration for a Dolls reunion in London! Watch for themes of reconciliation, tolerance and forgiveness—as well as commentary by an out-of-his-shell Morrissey.

Not rock docs, but in the same spirit:

The Education of Shelby Knox

Teenage Shelby Knox may come from a fundamentalist home, but she’s on a mission to save her classmates from pregnancy and STDs by campaigning for forthright sex education.

The Notorious Bettie Page

Smart cookie Bettie Page apparently didn’t see much of a conflict between posing for bondage porn and believing in Jesus.

Jen Burke Anderson is a writer in San Francisco’s Richmond District. She sees all her indie rock docs at the Balboa Theatre (balboamovies.com). 

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In Case of Rapture: Jesus and Mr. T Tell You Where to Go

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In Case of Rapture

Jesus and Mr. T Tell You Where to Go

by Catherine McEver
illustration by Rick Baker

WHEN AN estimated one-third of the American electorate believes it gets to go directly to heaven when the shit hits the fan, it behooves the rest of us to figure out what the hell is going on. The Evangelical Christians among us are looking forward to the Rapture, basing their hopes on creative interpretation of the Revelation of Saint John the Martyr in the New Testament. If you think none of this concerns you, think again: Their numbers include the President of the United States and key members of his administration. These are people who consider the end of the world to be a good thing, and they’re currently running the country.

Fortunately, two media-savvy televangelists, Canadians Peter and Paul Lalonde, have provided complete operating instructions to the end times in two separate but parallel movie series released by Cloud Ten Pictures. The Apocalypse series was produced in association with televangelist Jack Van Impe, who pops in and out of the fictional plot with biblically correct doomsday messages. The better-known Left Behind series is based on the best-selling book and sequels of the same name by Canadian televangelists Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. The first installment in this series, Left Behind: The Movie (2000) beat out both Toy Story II and The Green Mile in its first week as a video release. While the Left Behind series also made a stab at the big screen, the primary venue for both series, other than viewers’ homes, are church screenings. At this point the curious can pick up used copies of any of these movies in VHS or DVD format for pennies online.

Swept Away

Since the plot in each series is based on Revelation, a quick recap won’t give away any secrets. The world teeters on the brink of apocalypse, and full-scale global havoc is imminent due to escalating conflict between Israel and the Arab nations. Just as oblivion seems certain, a portion of the planet’s population vanishes, leaving clothes, eyeglasses and assorted accessories behind. The group is comprised of the righteous true believers who get a free ticket out of this hellhole, corporeal selves intact, via the Rapture. Everyone else is abandoned to their biblically prophesied fate, including not only atheists and agnostics, but Jews, Arabs, Buddhists, Hindus and those from all other wrong-minded religious sects. Among the human offal are all of the Christians, from Catholics to Quakers, who made the fatal error of choosing the wrong church. The exact tally of those swept up by the Rapture is 142,380,000 in the Left Behind series and 187,000,000 in the Apocalypse series. With the current world population at over six-and-a-half billion, it’s clear that most of us aren’t worth the spit on the bottom of Jesus’ sandals.

After the Rapture, the antichrist (aka Satan) steps to the fore and declares himself the messiah. There is one message that both film series make perfectly clear: Beware of organizations working for international accord, nuclear disarmament, global harmony, peace in the Middle East and/or the end of global hunger. They’re all the work of the devil. In the Left Behind series, the antichrist is Nicolae Carpathia (Gordon Currie), Secretary General of the United Nations, and in the Apocalypse series it’s Franco Macalusso (Nick Mancuso), head of the European Union.

The antichrist proceeds to “form a covenant with the many” for seven years, luring everyone into believing in him and abandoning Christ. During this period, known as the Tribulation, the remaining humans get a second shot at saving themselves by embracing Christ as their savior. They are discouraged from doing so by the minions of the antichrist, who are determined to track down and either convert or kill every Christian before the seven-year period is over. The game is over when Jesus stages a second coming and metes out final judgment.

Armageddon Outta Here

The first film in each series is the most fun, when people mysteriously disappear and it slowly occurs to the protagonists who are still here on earth that they’re screwed. Left Behind: The Movie features child television star Kirk Cameron from Growing Pains, all grown up as TV reporter Buck Williams, the world’s last, best hope. In this version of the Rapture, cars crash as their drivers disappear, and airplane passengers freak out as seatmates vanish. Anyone with the misfortune to have a pilot who has a friend in Jesus is out of luck. Fortunately, the plane that Buck Williams is on when the Rapture hits has a pilot at the helm who is not only a nonbeliever but an adulterer. Pilot Ray Steele (Brad Johnson) and Buck eventually form an alliance to rescue the world from the antichrist’s nefarious plot to end world hunger and bring peace to the planet. If, like me, you think world peace and an end to hunger are good things, you’ll start rooting for Satan at this point in the film.

The Left Behind series goes downhill from the initial movie, continuing the struggle of the Christian underground against Satan’s plans for world harmony with Left Behind: Tribulation Force (2003), also starring Cameron and Johnson. They succeed in convincing the world’s foremost theologian, a Jewish Rabbi, to stand before a world press conference and thwart the devil by declaring Jesus Christ to be the true messiah. In Left Behind: World at War (2005), Louis Gossett Jr. enters the apocalyptic picture as the beleaguered President of the United States, a plague hits, and you begin to wish for total annihilation of the planet and this tape along with it.

In the Apocalypse series, the Christians are called “haters”—an epithet that seems apt, considering that they, too, are fighting global harmony. Those aligned with Satan sport the “666” sign on their right hands and are able to perform magic tricks and seeming miracles in return for selling their souls. Instead of using his supernatural powers, the antichrist relies on a virtual-reality headset to convert Christians to his side. The Christian rebels run a mobile pirate television station broadcasting real-world clips from the series’ televangelist producers.

Apocalypse: Caught in the Eye of the Storm (1998) begins with an odd, Martha Stewart-style touch: The vanished leave their clothes in meticulously folded piles with shoes and accessories placed neatly on top. One wonders where an ascending soul finds the time. Television reporter Bronson Pearl (Richard Nester), “the world’s most trusted man,” and his TV reporter wife, Helen Hannah (Leigh Lewis), are the heroes in this story. After the Rapture, they see the light, embrace Christ and become part of the underground fight against the devil. The Helen Hannah character continues as rebel, martyr and saint in the rest of this series, along with a rotating cast of second-rate talent.

In Revelation (1999), Thorold Stone (Jeff Fahey) is a counter-terrorism expert working on the side of Satan as Helen Hannah and her Christian underground try to dodge the devil’s virtual-reality headsets. In Tribulation (2000), a pot-bellied Gary Busey plays a confused cop, Howie Mandel a confused schizophrenic, and a gaunt and crazed-looking Margot Kidder a devout Evangelical Christian. In Judgment (2001), Mr. T appears as a disgruntled Christian freedom fighter, and an apoplectic Corbin Bernsen stars as a defense attorney for Helen Hannah in a court battle that “puts God on trial.” At one point Bernsen’s character, beginning to wonder if maybe God really does exist, digs up his long-dead, God-fearing dad to see if the corpse has disappeared and ascended to heaven in the Rapture. It has, making Bernsen’s character a believer and making the rest of us wonder about moldering corpses shuffling around in the afterlife.

Travels With My Antichrist

In the interest of objectivity, it should be noted that the Rapture is never mentioned in the Bible and did not appear as a teaching of any church until the 1830s. Further, many believe Revelation to be little more than a covert political message to Christians forced underground by the Roman Empire, using symbolism easily understood by those living at the time. However, there’s a fine line between fact and fiction in the Evangelical world. If you’re willing to breach the slippery boundary between fantasy and real life, there are any number of ways you can join in the fun and become part of the eschatological plot in addition to, or in lieu of, watching either of these series.

A new video game, Left Behind: Eternal Forces, appearing in the second half of 2006, allows you to become a virtual participant in the apocalyptic showdown between good and evil on the gritty streets of New York.

Like the “haters” in the Apocalypse series, you can huddle in front of your TV set and listen to televangelist Jack Van Impe and his wide-eyed, peroxide-blonde wife, Rexella, who appear Sunday nights across the country in the syndicated show Jack Van Impe Presents. In a recent broadcast, Van Impe warned that the Rapture is almost upon us, the signs are everywhere, and the mark of the beast will manifest itself as a subcutaneous international identification chip we’ll all be required to wear. Rexella and Jack were also eager to share some late-breaking news about the Rapture: There is no need to worry about what will happen to your pet when you’re whisked off to heaven. “Fido’s gonna be there,” Van Impe asserts, and he can prove it. He’s selling a brand new Rapture-related video, Animals in Heaven?, for just $24.95.

You may also want to check the Rapture Index at raptureready.com. Forty-five indicators from “false Christs” to “wild weather” are combined to generate a numerical rating indicating the imminence of the Rapture. If you’re reading this article after the main event has already happened, note that the site also includes a thoughtful section titled “Information for Those Left Behind.”

Catherine McEver is a freelance writer planning ahead for her next incarnation by practicing the following death chant: “Buy real estate, real estate, real estate.” 

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Instant Replay: Joe Versus the Volcano

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Instant Replay

Joe Versus the Volcano

John Patrick Shanley’s Joe Versus the Volcano came and went pretty fast in 1990. I still managed to catch it twice, the second time finding myself behind a couple who argued loudly about whether they could get their money back. Joe’s following has grown since then, but not by much.

The setup’s certainly offbeat, especially for a comedy: Office drudge Joe Banks
(Tom Hanks) is informed that he has a rare medical condition that will destroy his brain within six months. He is promptly presented with the opportunity to die in style.

Depending on my mood, Joe is a) a silly romp in the company of Hanks, multiple Meg Ryans (she plays most of the women in the movie), Abe Vigoda and Ossie Davis; b) a wonderful musical showcase for the late film composer Georges Delerue; c) the lighter side of Brazil, following a hero whose grasp of reality may be increasingly in doubt; and/or d) a surprisingly well-thought-out expression of the archetypal Hero’s Journey.

In recent years, Joe Versus the Volcano has acquired an entirely new, unintended subtext. Post-2001, it’s impossible to ignore the small detail that the protagonist is a former New York City firefighter. His experiences are only alluded to: We are left to imagine what catastrophe could have broken his spirit and led him to hide away in a pointless, unchallenging job. It makes his return to life, love and risk that much more inspiring. —Thor Klippert 

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Reality Bites: Lowering the Bar to the Basement

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Reality Bites

Lowering the Bar to the Basement

by Yank Wildebeest
illustration by Johnny Destructo

THE 2006-07 REALITY TV season is off to an exceptionally mindless gallop, despite the anemic protestations of a concerned but apathetic minority. Fuck the concerned but apathetic minority! They’re watching too, even if they turn their righteous and thought-burdened heads away in disgust every now and then.

This year’s spawning shows lower the limbo bar of tastefulness and dignity almost straight to the ground. Though borrowing a few gags from the Theatre of the Absurd, reality TV lacks the philosophical contours of the productions of Beckett and Ionesco, or even the faintest sonar blip of meaningfulness. But what reality TV lacks in importance, it more than makes up for in pretense and lunacy.

Any studious viewer of the new season can gather a glorious bundle of important life lessons. As life deals its inevitable sequence of shit cards, it is important to maintain your inner strength and focus by being pathologically self-absorbed, ferociously catty, unfettered by the boring limitations of conscience, demonically ambitious and utterly without shame. In a rat-eat-rat world, it’s the sociopaths who truly get ahead. And, really, why be alive at all if you are not ahead?

Other important moral insights to be gleaned by this new century’s cathode-addict children include the following:

• Nothing is more entertaining than the humiliation of another human being.
• Just as it is far better to watch Friends than to have friends, it is far better, or at least cleaner and safer, to be aroused by pixilated body parts than to get the Full Monty of an actual human body in your face. Far less smelly, too.
• The word “reality” now means offensive people in ludicrous and unlikely situations.
• You can be superficial, base, vicious and petty, yet still perceive yourself as likeable and entertaining.
• If you are not getting enough attention and people don’t seem to like you very much, try going into a relentless histrionic rage or taking off all your clothes.
• Fame is more important than dignity. Wealth is more important than health.
• If you are not good-looking and thin you should just die right now, and spare people the unpleasantness of having to deal with you at all.

But this isn’t a critique; it’s a celebration! At long last, the ignored and shallow have a forum to express their deeper inanity and fashion sense. Just be sure that, along with the wonderful regular shows you have come to know and tough-love, you check these new additions that skip the dawdling prattle and cut straight to our cultural core.

American Idle

The definitive reality show of our milieu. Sullen, bovine and inert Americans compete to be the next most apathetic, morose, resource-devouring American Idle. The nation’s elite tier of couch potatoes compete in compelling competitions to determine the most vacuous TV addict, the most successful eater while lying down, the person least likely to form an opinion, and the most motionless person during an emergency. The final winner, or total loser, is determined by the votes of the viewing audience, who coincidentally are also sullen, bovine, and inert.

The Great American Wal-Mart Employee Search

Tyra Banks, Donald Trump, George Hamilton and Kato Kaelin insult, ridicule and torment a group of the increasingly common desperately poor as they jump through a labyrinth of hoops in hopes of winning a job at Wal-Mart without healthcare.

Serial Killer House

Everyone loves the witty, brilliant and insightful house show Big Brother. But more people should be appreciating Serial Killer House, a new show that is just as entertaining and controversial, along with being far more savagely violent. Famous death-row serial killers are given free run of a suburban household in a thrilling contest to see who can remain on the show longest and win the reduction of their death sentences to mere life imprisonment. Unlike their death-row cells, the house contains knives, ropes, guns, chainsaws, biological warfare agents, and a nice collection of poisons. “Can’t we just all get along?” Jeffery Dahmer says to Charlie Manson in the riveting Episode 1. Apparently not!

Celebrity Anus

We can’t get enough of our glorious celebrities! At long last, here’s a show that gives us the real dirt on celebs we’ve been dying to know. You can’t get much dirtier than an anus, and Celebrity Anus uses a Beverly Hills proctologist and a famous fashion photographer to examine, probe and reveal the anuses of several almost A-list celebrities. The viewing audience gets to participate, along with the C-list celebrity panel, in trying to guess, in a series of increasingly revealing clues, which anus belongs to which celebrity. Is that dirty hole Angelina’s or Brad’s? See if you can be the first to recognize your favorite star’s secret backside smile. First-season panelists include Jamie Farr, Barbara Walters, Christina Aguilera and P Diddy.

The Reel World

Well, not every reality show this season worked out. I have to admit, I had high hopes for The Reel World, which takes the MTV show of a similar name to a more mature market. In this spinoff, aging fishing enthusiasts are forced to live together in a small RV while roaming the country for great fishing spots. Sounded like a no-lose formula for madcap fun, high jinks and catty controversy. However, as the first episodes played out, there were more quiet evenings, extended footage of nothing at all, and serious napping than any of the producers had anticipated.

Black Death House

Streets filled with rotting corpses. Unattended, deranged livestock. Deadly plague-carrying rats around every corner. Welcome to life in 1357! With the runaway success of Colonial House, PBS has tossed together another acclaimed, compelling and educational period-reality show in which modern families are forced to experience the difficulties and challenges of life in the days of yore. Black Death House painstakingly recreates the stressful times of the Black Plague in the 1350s, when one third of Europe died gruesome and untreatable deaths. Laugh aloud and learn a little, too, as you watch families abandon each other in horror, decompose into bulbous black lumps, dodge plague-riddled slimy sputum as it spews from the orifices of the dying, run madly away from leering rats, or simply pile their neighbors’ festering corpses into wooden carts on the way to the burn pile. This show may change some of your misconceptions about the plague years, and help you lose weight by seriously suppressing your appetite forever.

Yank Wildebeest has been commenting on Bay Area culture for several hours now, between TV breaks. 

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Celluloid Jukebox: Prince, Auteur

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Celluloid Jukebox

Prince, Auteur

by Kaya Oakes
illustration by Ethos

PRINCE IS many things to many people: brilliant musician, albeit arguably past his prime as a composer; spiritual dilettante; hardcore eccentric; lover of a series of practically identical muses; and, yes, wearer of assless pants. Yet the cinematic oeuvre of Prince is underappreciated. Both Purple Rain (1984) and Under the Cherry Moon (1986) are enjoyable romps through Prince’s fantasyland, full of purple leather, cameos by the guy who plays keyboards in a doctor’s outfit, and really, really great soundtracks. Graffiti Bridge (1990), however, is wretched. Madonna is rumored to have turned down a part in it because she thought the script was so awful, and Madonna knows awful when it comes to film roles. Mix in cute-kid one-hit-wonder Tevin Campbell, wasted cameos by George Clinton and Mavis Staples, and a cheap set (the entire film was shot at Prince’s Paisley Park compound), and you’re guaranteed an hour and a half of suffering. Even the songs suck.

I’ve long been a defender of Under the Cherry Moon, the soundtrack of which, in my opinion, is far superior to Purple Rain. Unlike Purple Rain, Cherry Moon doesn’t take itself seriously… at all. It’s a ridiculous fantasia of Prince and borrowed Morris Day sidekick Jerome romping through the South of France in glam black and white. It’s also, oddly, the screen debut of Kristin Scott Thomas, later the ice queen of The English Patient, who looks bewildered throughout. The real sexual sparks in this movie are between Prince and Jerome, who take bubble baths, gaze fondly at one another, and generally appear to be living like pop stars in paradise. Purple Rain is Purple Rain: a series of scorching concert scenes interrupted by plot and lots of Prince attempting to eye-fuck the audience. Worth seeing, but not much fun.

So, in the interest of spanning the short, happy film career of Prince Rogers Nelson, writer, director and actor, here is the Prince filmography rating scale. Put on your best assless pants and enjoy.

Purple Rain

• Prince’s hair: Asymmetrical jheri curl w/John Waters moustache
• Love interest’s acting ability on a scale of 1-10: 2
• Jerome screen time (approx): 15 minutes
• Jerome holding mirror: 2 scenes
• Homoerotic quotient: Mostly confined to Wendy and Lisa
• Most ridiculous Prince costume: Lace facial half-mask
• Crowd spontaneously bursts into choreographed dance number: Once
• Great songs: Many

Under the Cherry Moon

• Prince’s hair: ’20s screen-siren finger waves
• Love interest’s acting ability on a scale of 1-10: 5
• Jerome screen time: 1 1/2 hours
• Jerome holding mirror: Pretty much constant
• Homoerotic quotient: Off the charts
• Most ridiculous Prince costume: None, but he does wear a turban
• Crowd spontaneously bursts into choreographed dance number: Once
• Great songs: All of them (soundtrack aka Parade)

Graffiti Bridge

• Prince’s hair: Shoulder length, pressed, with bizarre Abraham Lincoln half-beard
• Love interest’s acting ability on a scale of 1-10: negative
• Jerome screen time: 15 minutes
• Jerome holding mirror: 1 scene
• Homoerotic quotient: Confined to Morris and Jerome
• Most ridiculous Prince outfit: Harlequin poncho with matching pants
• Crowd spontaneously bursts into choreographed dance number: In every scene
• Great songs: “Thieves in the Temple,” maybe.

Kaya Oakes is a senior editor of Kitchen Sink, and “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” is probably her favorite Prince song. 

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I Feel Your Pain: Just Tell Me When It’s Over

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I Feel Your Pain

Just Tell Me When It’s Over

by Sam Hurwitt
illustration by Salgood Sam

I CAN’T STAND this part. Even when I see it coming, it doesn’t help. I have to squirm down into my creaky cinema seat, convulse, turn my head, hide my eyes, stifle a whimper deep in my throat. Oh god, I can’t look, please, no no no no no.

Because, see, Frances McDormand is losing it. Not in a Kathy Bates sledgehammer-to-the-ankles way—that would be fine. I don’t mind people having their heads blown off or being impaled by a fireplace poker. I grew up watching horror movies from an early age, so for better or for worse (scratch that—definitely for worse), I’m desensitized to shock and gore. A guy gets decapitated by a pane of glass sliding off a truck? No problemo. A bunch of schoolgirls jump onto the bullet-train tracks, splashing onlookers with a wave of blood like bystanders at a theme-park log ride? Awesome. Somebody’s eye pops out and flies across the room into someone’s screaming mouth? Hilarity!

No, what McDormand is doing is much worse. She’s making a scene. Having spent most of Friends With Money (2006) grousing about crappy restaurant service or confronting an acquaintance who nabs the parking space she wanted, she finally throws a screaming fit about someone cutting in front of her in line at Old Navy. I may be inured to death and dismemberment, but I can’t stand to see people embarrass themselves.

That’s why romantic comedies are my Kryptonite. Not because of their mawkish meet-cutes (yes, there’s actually a term for the ridiculously implausible ways true lovers meet in rom-coms) and far-far-far-fetched happy endings. Even the sense that my balls might drop off and my cherished testosterone might bleed from my eyes is not really the issue. It’s just that I know it won’t be long before someone makes an ass out of herself.

You’re the Only One My Eyes Bleed For

Friends With Money isn’t a rom-com, but I suppose it looked like a “chick flick” in the sense that the poster showed four women standing side-by-side, best friends forever. Now, I have no real issue with chick flicks per se. It has much more to do with for whom the movie is packaged than for whom it’s actually made, and this one was clearly being marketed primarily to women.

But the four women on the poster were Joan Cusack, Catherine Keener and McDor- mand, any one of whom is sufficient reason to see a movie, plus Jennifer Aniston, about whom I really couldn’t care less. More importantly, it’s a Nicole Holofcener film, but it was the first of her films that I’d seen, so I didn’t yet know what that means. (I immediately Netflixed her previous films, 1996’s Walking and Talking and 2001’s Lovely & Amazing, so now I have a pretty good idea.)

Friends With Money is about the ways old friends grow together and apart, and the ways couples interact with each other, other couples and their single friends. And of course it’s also about money, and therefore about class. When Aniston tells her friend’s Latina immigrant housecleaner, “I do what you do now,” the gap between the two of them and their reasons for doing the same work is palpable. That’s what makes the moment funny, and it’s also what makes it excruciating.

So while I thought it was a great movie, I’m not sure I can honestly say I enjoyed it. Over and over, something would happen that would make me squirm in my seat. The well-paid lummox who demands a cut of a housecleaner’s paltry wages because he essentially hangs around and ogles her (or fucks her) while she works. The way the couples constantly snipe at each other. All the guys hitting on the one husband everyone assumes is gay. And worst of all, McDormand’s righteous indignation at the small injustices that are only unjust if you feel entitled to have the right of way 24/7.

The thing is, we’ve all been there. We’ve all been testy with people in the service industry, yelled at someone in traffic or at least cursed under our breath. Unless we’re Mary Fucking Poppins, we’ve all been the asshole. And unless we’re horrible people, we don’t particularly relish that feeling.

Writer/director Holofcener isn’t at all sadistic in the mode of Neil LaBute or Todd Solondz, but she excels in capturing the thoughtless gesture that suddenly becomes magnified, the unwarranted, muttered-under-the-breath “asshole” that makes someone say, “Excuse me?” Hers is a world of sympathetic losers, people who love their friends and family but are going through a really hard time right now and are putting everyone else through a hard time with them.

I’m particularly sensitive to this kind of thing. I’ve had trouble watching people do embarrassing things onscreen ever since I was a kid watching Leave It to Beaver. “Don’t listen to Lumpy,” I’d groan. “Your dad’s gonna yell at you.” I don’t think Ward Cleaver ever yelled on that show, but the anxiety was always there for me.

There are movies I loved the first time around but can’t see again because I know there’s that one scene I just can’t watch, like the string of answering-machine messages in Swing- ers (1996). When Joey Lauren Adams whispers “Don’t say it” in the scene in Chasing Amy (1997) where everything falls apart, I’m right there with her. Oh, don’t. Please, just don’t.

Sympathy for the Dumbbell

It’s a fine line, though. Shows like The Office or Curb Your Enthusiasm don’t affect me, because characters who do horrible and embarrassing things all the time aren’t sympathetic enough for me to be too concerned about how they acquit themselves in society. I don’t feel sorry for assholes. The same goes for any character played by Ben Stiller or Will Ferrell, because everything they do is almost by definition a stupid, stupid thing to do.

Felicity used to drive me up the wall. She kept doing things, and it would always have been far better if she’d done nothing at all. The show started with her giving up a plum educational opportunity to move across the country and stalk a guy who barely knew she existed. You go, girl! You follow your heart! You sublimate your own goals and promising future in hopes of maybe someday dating some jerk! At first I was embarrassed for her, then frustrated with her, and finally I just loathed her. The only character I liked on that show was her sullen roommate, because she didn’t like Felicity either.

Reality television for the most part is out of the question. I couldn’t even watch talk shows in the Oprah/Ricki/Jerry/Sally Jessy mode, because the guest would say something so unintentionally degrading that I’d feel like I’d just walked in on him taking a shit. I rarely make it a few minutes into one of those shows before I have to leave the room for the guests’ sake as well as mine.

So please, try to understand. If I beg off when you ask me to go see The Bartender I Boinked at My Cousin’s Bat Mitzvah Is Marrying a Law Student So Skinny I Hate Her, it’s not because I’m an insensitive male. It’s because I’m far too sensitive. I just can’t watch.

Reverse Angle editor Sam Hurwitt needs a glass of warm milk. 

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Bottom Shelf: Pompoko

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Bottom Shelf

Pompoko

It’s a little-known fact that Studio Ghibli, best known for Spirited Away (2001) and Princess Mononoke (1997), is responsible for what is probably the only pro-raccoon propaganda film in history.

Pompoko (1994), or Heisei Tanuki Gassen Pompoko (which means something like “the Pompoko raccoon war” in Japanese), teaches children that raccoons are not sneaky varmints out to steal your cat food, but eco-warriors. Imagine The Monkey Wrench Gang meets Wind in the Willows against a backdrop of Japanese urban sprawl.

In Pompoko, adorable raccoon terrorists guzzle energy drinks and devour McDonald’s hamburgers to fuel murderous attacks on truck drivers in an attempt to stall Tokyo-area suburban development. Then they tie bandanas around their heads, expand their testicles to enormous sizes and fling themselves through hails of human gunfire to crush and kill their enemies. However, their favorite trick is to use their trippy transformation magic to convince people they’re vengeful spirits and goblins. The whole enterprise is narrated in mock-documentary style.

Is it any surprise that Disney, which has the U.S. rights to all Studio Ghibli features, quietly slipped this subversive gem straight to DVD? But thank goodness it did, because once I picked my jaw up off the floor and stopped trying to understand some of the more obscure cultural satire, I was in love. As animation for children, everything seems wrong with Pompoko, and that’s how you know it’s so, so right. —Jeremy Russell 

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I Was A Teenage Mouse Jockey: My Life Among the Lucasites

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I Was a Teenage Mouse Jockey

My Life Among the Lucasites

by Lisa Drostova
illustration by Nina Bays

IF YOU’RE watching the original Star Wars trilogy quietly by yourself, and can get past the question of whether Han shot first, you might notice something interesting. The lightsabers vary. Not just from film to film, which you would expect of any series produced over several years. Not just from shot to shot. Sometimes within a single shot, the way two lightsabers move is completely different. One bends as it swings through space while another remains rigid. One is slender for its whole length, while another is much wider at the base than the tip.

It’s a charming idiosyncrasy, and one George Lucas was determined to stamp out when he created the new trilogy. Which is why, in 1998, I was sitting in a Marin County screening room surrounded by men ranging from their mid-20s to late 50s, watching a reel of lightsaber fights spliced together from the original films. No sound, no dialogue, just duels: Obi-Wan versus Darth Vader, Darth Vader versus Luke, Han versus that poor dead thing with the laundry-hose innards. We were going to develop a consistent lightsaber look and behavior that would set the standard for Episodes One through Three.

I believe I was the only person in the room who hadn’t been dreaming since childhood about working for Industrial Light and Magic, which is probably why I was the only one who wasn’t making the sound. Yeeeeang. Eeeeeywiiing. Shwwwuuuuh. The lightsaber sound. So quietly at first you might miss it, and then at increasing volume, my coworkers were losing themselves to the children they had been when the films first came out, blown away by the vision of a “lived-in universe” that was light-years beyond anything that had been put to film before, a place where an uneducated punk kid from the boonies could save the universe with a bare minimum of training but plenty of resourcefulness, spirit and a lead foot.

Working for a company where your coworkers openly admit that they’ve built themselves lightsabers—as adults, from scratch because the kits aren’t realistic enough—is a little weird. After a while I started to think it was a prerequisite of employment and wondered how I, who had owned one of the cheap pre-made flashlight ones as a kid, had ever managed to get a job. But then there was a lot that was strange about being at ILM in the ’90s, just when the FX industry was making the transition from physical models and sets to whole creatures and worlds built entirely of pixels. Only now, nearly a decade after I threw down my mouse in exasperation, am I starting to see how odd it was.

It’s Not Tracing

I made a living drawing lines around things. As a rotoscoper, a kind of animator, I used to explain my job by holding up whatever was closest—a pen, a salt-shaker, a surprised chihuahua—and waving it around. “There’s this synthetic element,” I’d say, “your dinosaur or monster or spaceship, and it has to merge perfectly with the live-action background. I make the element” (and here I would trace a finger in the air around the chihuahua) “that keeps either the foreground or background opaque, making the illusion possible, so that one doesn’t show through the other.” For years, I watched people’s eyes glaze over. “Just tell them you draw the dinosaurs,” my mother advised, “that’s what I’ve been doing.” I also cleaned things up, added shadows and light effects, and removed stray stuff: wires, boom mikes, Gary Sinise’s lower legs. I can separate blond hair from a bright sky, shattering auto glass from the street scene behind it, flying water droplets from a pirate ship’s bow. In other words, I spent seven years being a professional compulsive, at a company where that kind of sickness was encouraged.

When I started at ILM, I was 21, with a bachelor’s degree in anthropological linguistics. My professional experience consisted of waiting tables in a sandwich joint and assisting in a Minneapolis animation house. At my ILM interview I described how I developed motion film by putting on a dishwashing glove, wrapping all the film loosely around my hand, and then sticking it into big mason jars full of chemicals and counting off the time in my head. Somehow that seemed like qualification enough, that and my willingness to learn the tedious things that nobody else in the department wanted to do, and I got the job. Eventually I was transferred to the digital department, then just 70 employees strong, as the company wasn’t sure this computer thing was going to pan out. There is no way that could happen now for one of the technical positions. If you try to approach the place without an advanced degree in computer imaging, I imagine helicopters pick you off from the sky.

Laugh It up, Fuzzball

Now other houses—smaller, faster, able to take different kinds of risks—have eclipsed ILM, but at the time we were constantly redefining what it was possible to make real on the big screen, and being rewarded for it. But we still felt like a cowboy operation, a bunch of eggheads in T-shirts and jeans working out of a mismatched pile of unremarkable buildings in a forgotten corner of San Rafael. We’d say of models or shots or software that they were “kludged” together, but that spoke for the whole campus, composed of office buildings that had never been intended for the use to which we put them. We were sandwiched between a taqueria, a Circuit City, the unemployment office (convenient for the day after a project ended), and some trash-strewn wetlands that rewarded the lucky smoker with the occasional view of a heron or jackrabbit, which invariably looked fake after a day of virtual beasts.

It isn’t just animals, or the sky, or actual spaceships that start to look wrong when you become an FX geek. The whole process of watching a movie mutates. Your friends stop seeing movies with you unless they can ignore you vibrating in rage at badly executed effects and then sitting through the credits. All the way through the credits. Mumbling. At the special employee screenings a few days before the movies officially open, people show up at 10 a.m., coffee in one hand and popcorn in the other, and hiss at anyone who dares leave before the credits are over—opening that exit door lets the light in! As a new person, I didn’t expect a credit on Hook, my first film. But there was my name, spelled properly and everything; I was real. I’d really been part of this amazing project. (Yes, I am talking about a movie where Julia Roberts played Tinkerbell. Shut up.) I was so blissed out that I accidentally sideswiped someone’s truck in the parking lot afterwards.

Actors start to seem like a real nuisance. They move unpredictably, making creating effects around them tricky; Woody Allen’s twitching is cute until you have to remove a visible mic wire from his rippling rumples. Jim Carrey is a dream to draw lines around—when he moves, he does it very cleanly. When he’s still, he’s still. Actors don’t always care for effects folk either. Just before I started at ILM, an action star told Dave Letterman that the reason movies are so expensive isn’t actor’s salaries, but the union wages for the crew. Soon after, this gentleman came in to shoot some bluescreen. I don’t know if it’s true that once he was safely harnessed and dangling, several proud union members snuck out and spat on his car.

Do, or Do Not. There Is No Try.

When I was there, employees could read the scripts of the shows on which they worked. But when we started on the new trilogy, seeing the script wasn’t an option. Not that some of us wanted to, planning to plead plausible deniability on the Jar-Jar Binks question later. But when you don’t read the script and all you know about a film are the special effects shots, seeing the whole thing put together can be anticlimatic. Shots you labored on for days or weeks flash by in seconds, and there’s all that distracting dialogue and music and, well, mushy stuff.

There was a time-dilation effect to some of the work. Problems that didn’t get fixed the first time were now coming back to haunt us. On the Star Wars Special Edition, one of my officemates re-did a shot he’d worked on 20 years before. “I said at the time that if I just had a little more time I could do a better job,” he’d say. “Guess I got my wish.” He suggested icons for the credits—a baby’s rattle for the new people, a tombstone next to the names of those who had worked on the film the first time. I sat at my computer and added things, or made it possible to add things: banthas, backup singers, the windows in Cloud City. I made new shadows for Jabba’s sand barges, kludging a model out of index cards and toothpicks to hold under my desk lamp for reference.

The work could be tedious. I bitched and moaned about my job for years, especially after I developed the same hand problem that kept a local RSI clinic steadily stocked with my colleagues. And every time I tried to operate something that wasn’t a computer by “mousing” it, I wondered if I was losing my mind.

Some of the challenges were fun, and I always loved seeing my credits. I admit that wearing my company jacket into places where movie geeks would claw off each other’s limbs to get my digits was a nice perk. But mostly it was wonderful to work with such smart, creative people. Even if they did all have their own lightsabers. Or maybe because they did. Neeeeeeeoooooooowwwng.

San Francisco-based theater critic Lisa Drostova doesn’t like to admit that the opening bars of the Star Wars theme still excite her, 30 years later. 

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