13 May 2009

Confessions of a Closet Utopian

Spoiler Alert! This post will undoubtedly give away plot points of J.J. Abrams’ new Star Trek movie, so if you haven’t seen it, & you’re affected by ‘giving away the ending’ read no further.

Nerd Alert! Though I will endeavor to remain analytical, intellectual, and generally charming, I can not be held entirely responsible if I occasionally fall into bouts of gleeful gushing, obscure referencing, or utopic dreaming during the course of this post, as I am, admittedly, a Trekkie


J.J. Abrams’ reboot of Star Trek was, at least to this fairly hard-core Trekkie, superb. The new movie not only opens up the possibility for new fans to get their feet wet in the Star Trek mythos without feeling overwhelmed or mildly embarrassed, it also significantly ‘cools up’ a franchise that has been in desperate need of a make-over. (Nerd translation: Think Vampire: The Masquerade for role playing)…

While both earlier movie Enterprises had moments (say, Wrath of Khan and First Contact) of thrilling, adventure sci-fi, I’m sorry to say that what has most held Star Trek back over the past 15 years or so are its ties to Gene Roddenberry’s original vision (I know, I know – sacrilege). I don’t mean by this that that vision isn’t central to what makes Star Trek great (I’ll do whatever I can, short of wearing a uniform around town, to help foster the creation of our first warp engine sometime in the next 50 or so years), but it’s impossible to look at Trek’s more recent forays (Voyager & the later Next Gen movies particularly) as being overly tied to the somewhat false mission of Gene Roddenberry’s of creating not only a utopian world, but a utopic lesson-book of sorts. (Though the most recent Star Trek series, Enterprise, certainly had its share of fable-ous episodes, I think it might have been able to redeem itself with a full run of 7 or 9 seasons – the larger, more complicated story arcs of the Temporal Cold War and the Xindi were an attempt, I think, to keep the show driving toward something {namely the Star Trek timeline}). These longer narrative arcs also tend to give writers something better to do than moralize, the utopianism is embedded rather than being explicitly taught every week (or 5 years)…

To my mind, Abrams’ solution to the ‘problem’ of dealing with the canonized history of Star Trek was truly inspired. Of course there will be purists out there who will mourn the loss of certainty of things to come, but not knowing just how much of the future history of our galaxy has been altered makes for a much more interesting work of utopian fiction. Though critics may be right to point out that Star Trek’s time travel based plot might be a bit pieced together (likely just for an excuse to plop Leonard Nimoy in), it also brilliantly allowed Abrams (& Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman) to blur the Star Trek historical record. This Kirk (well played by Chris Pine) need not necessarily be our Kirk – hell, this Kirk wasn’t even born in Riverside, Iowa. This allows the movie some breathing room. We know Spock & Kirk & Bones will eventually become the very best of friends, but there’s a new pleasure in the unfolding.

And, speaking of pleasure in meeting old friends, Uhura (Zoe Saldana) is not only wonderfully sexy, but also slides perfectly into her pre-future-historical role. If you look back over the original series, all those sidelong glances and quiet smiles from Uhura make much more sense in lieu of what we learn from this new Uhura. And Scotty (Simon Pegg), oh my god, Scotty. When I first heard Scotty would be played by Pegg I was simultaneously ecstatic and flummoxed. I love Pegg from his work on Shaun of the Dead & Hot Fuzz (& anywhere, really), but I didn’t see the peppy Brit fitting the role of Scotty very well. But what Pegg gives us is a fuller understanding of the character of Scotty. Sure, we know Scotty’s a fun-lovin’ drinker, an engineering miracle worker, and a chronic nay-sayer, but Pegg wields all of those previously caricature-istics simultaneously, effortlessly. It’s the Scotty we see in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, when he’s playing around with a 1980s PC, but rarely see anywhere else in the entire run (at least not that fully). And Zachary Quinto as Spock, enough has been said about how perfect a choice this was, but to watch Spock’s emotions deep below the surface occasionally bubble up in a facial tick or a glance, really quite remarkable.

But all this, the casting, the characters, the plot (was anybody else concerned about starships flying around the galaxy opening up black holes everywhere? Jess Peterson told me it was ok, that black holes in fact have no more gravitational force than a normal star, but I’m not convinced… It seems like some sort of set up for a future galacto-eco-crisis in Abrams’ Star Trek 7: This Place Sucks) is really secondary to the fundamental vision, the fundamental voice of Star Trek. The stories are, at heart, truly utopian. It’s imagining something that might unfold tomorrow that’s a little better than today. It’s figuring a way that we make it, but what’s so great about Abrams’ take on it, is that his movie need not hit you over the head with these ideals. Instead, it hits you over the head with a good, crazy villain – awesome new/old beaming technology – Slusho – great fights… but through it all, that hope that makes Star Trek great is still there.

Score: 3 Shots

04 May 2009

Reformed, Refragmentalized, Referential


Note: Loyal RNJ readers will, i'm sure, quickly note that i already posted these ideas earlier, but i think i see them a bit more clearly now, and i'd like to offer them up for comment, ridicule, or questions before i submit them to my (as yet not fully formed) committee.

My prelim areas will focus on the postmodern concept of the fragment, but i'd like to tie this idea of, which i've referred to as 'supermodern' elsewhere, to the 'pre-postmodern' formulation of the fragment as well, which comes through especially for me in the work of Walter Benjamin in the form of the aphorism and short essays. Mostly, though, 'the fragment' or 'fragmentation' is being used as a way to connect seemingly disparate areas of interest for me, namely:

1. Fragmented Bodies - This section, which starts at my interest in zombies - and so, extends itself to ideas about corpses, death, funerary tradition, and display - might more aptly be called "Fragmented Bodies, Fragmented Lives". I want to consider not only the unfortunate case of the zombie, of the undead, of we might term 'bare life', but also the parallel bare life that is stripped bare by human forces, namely that of refugees, of die Fl├╝chtlinge. This section will also consider other implications of zombie theory, such as theories of revolution, consumption, and ressentiment (thanks Patrick). Fragmented Bodies is also the place in which i will explore representations of bodies (mostly dead, but also alive) in film (The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes), fiction, and exhibitions (from Body Worlds to funeral homes). Finally, this representation theory will bring me to the representation of non-human bodies (animals & Cyborgs, for instance).

2. Fragmented Cities - Again, i come to this section through a specific project, namely my interest in urban exploration, but my formulation of urban exploration as an alternative form of tourism gives me a larger body of work in which to place this section. Starting from 'theory of tourism' (Dean MacCannell, for one), i want to explore the concept of redefining and remaking place both from the perspective of the tourist and from the perspective of urban planning (think Milwaukee's Third Ward as one example of this). In a post-industrial economy, former warehouses, factories, and mills are being transformed into places of leisure, luxury, and amusement. A very different kind of rebranding occurs when places and events of atrocity become memorialized. The resulting Museum Kult, the draw of seeking out 'authentic experiences' of history, is a kind of 're-placing', a re-creation of space. The tourist's experience of an actual space of 'historical meaning' alters that meaning. I want to examine this process of alteration.

3. Fragmented Narratives - Finally, i want to look at places where 'pure narrative' breaks down: in postmodern narratives (Think House of Leaves), in frame narratives (and more interestingly broken frame narratives like Frankenstein and Transit), and, finally, in non-narrative forms such as avant-garde cinema. Traditional narrative theory (Noel Carroll? Lewis Carroll?) tells us that narrative is a construction of suspense. A sequence of readers asking 'whatnextwhatnext-whatnext?', but i will also investigate (through Ricouer at the outset, then others) what happens when the reader doesn't necessarily ask this question, or asks it out of fear or desperation (think of a Kafkian-bureaucratic nightmare). Alternately, in a novel of boredom (sorry, Ron), nothing seems to happen next, causing the reader instead to ask something more like 'so what?' (sorry, Professor Veeder).

How's this sound? Can i really go to school for this?