Monday, December 27, 2010

Time I Want Back

One of the inevitabilities of the holiday season is the glut of Christmas-themed movies, specials, and television shows.  Some are good, some are so-so, and others notoriously bad.  I would like to begin this entry by talking about the absolute worst Christmas special in existence, The Star Wars Christmas Special.  I'm not an expert on television and film, so there may be another, more mediocre Christmas offering, but that is extremely doubtful.

The movie revolves around Chewbacca and his family who he is trying to reunite with so that they can celebrate "Life Day."   Chewbacca's family, who were never even mentioned in any of the Star Wars movies as far as I can recall,  are introduced to the viewer in the opening scenes of the movie.  These scenes contain very little entertainment value.  After the necessary introductions, Chewbacca's wife Mala, father Itchy, and his unfortunately named son Lumpy, communicate through a series of growls and grunts.  In order to figure out what they are saying, one needs to interpret their body language and there is little payoff for the effort.  After some primal howling, presumably because Chewbacca might not make it home for "Life Day", Mala calls up R2D2 and Luke Skywalker to see if they know where Chewy is.  Thus the cameos by the more beloved characters are injected into the plot.

From there things go more downhill, not that it had far to go.  There are a number of reasons why this special is one big flop.  One of the primary reasons why it dragged on is that the audience has no investment in Chewy's attempts to get home.  His family is unknown to the viewer, and their grunts and howls do nothing to endear them.  Nor is it really explained what "Life Day" is or what significance it has to his people.  To be frank I couldn't have cared less whether or not Chewy got home in time.  I think that it was a strategic error for George Lucas to write a special centered around new characters which the audience doesn't have a history with.  Also, the fact that their language requires body language interpretation is another stumbling block that Lucas should have anticipated.  Another aspect that bothers me is the fact that he used a clich├ęd "I'll be home for Christmas" plot rather than being a trifle more inventive.  In fact the whole special reeks of laziness, from the pedestrian storyline to the second-rate special effects.

One of the reasons that my boyfriend wanted to watch the special is that Lucas tried very hard to suppress it after it first aired.  He was rightfully embarrassed and felt that this misstep might jeopardize future box office successes, so he did everything in his power to stop the public from viewing it.  I wish he had been more creative, and that the hour and a half that I spent watching it was used more productively.  There are other specials out there that use tried and true holiday plots that still manage to bring something new to the table.  For instance, how many good productions have been based upon A Christmas Carol?  Also, there are other Christmas specials that introduce new characters/plots, but those are few and far between.  What bothers me is that Christmas seems to be a bit of a cash grab where studios (movie, television and music) pawn off second-rate material.  It makes movies like The Nightmare Before Christmas and other great holiday movies seem like unlikely masterpieces. Maybe I should just stick to the classics and leave the curiosity to more adventurous people. 



Monday, December 20, 2010

Talking About My Generation

Before I talk about Douglas Coupland's recent book Generation A, I must confess the mixed success I have had with his novels. Whether it was the writing style or my own restlessness, I could not get three pages into his previous work, JPod, though I'm told it is good.  Despite the fact that JPod was relegated to the large pile of books that I need to reread in future, Generation A managed to hold my fickle attention.  

The story revolves around a small group of five people from all over the world who had the misfortune to have been stung by bees.  At this point, bees are considered virtually extinct and fruit is sold on the black market at exorbitant rates.  Thus, scientists want to figure out why the bees were attracted to these people in particular, so that they can turn around the insects' fate. These twenty-somethings are whisked off to be examined by scientists and held in isolation for months while being poked and prodded.  After a period of examination and a brief homecoming, the people are then transported to Haida Gwaii where they undergo further scientific study.  Their isolation allows them to reflect on their position as research subjects, and gives the reader an opportunity to think about how aspects of modern life connect and push people apart.  

Coupland discusses how the lives of Generation Xers are both interconnected more than ever before and disconnected at the same time.  The group of people are brought together by their experiences and quickly grow into a collective which is in contrast to the rest of the world.  Those who surround them are checking out of life and dependent on a new pharmaceutical called Solon that destroys peoples' need for community.  Additionally, there is an environmental bent to the novel.  By showing how disastrous the virtual extinction of one species may be to our future, Coupland shows the importance of conservation.  With these themes, Coupland touches upon some of the large issues dealt with by my generation.  The use and abuse of prescription drugs, the way in which the internet encourages us to live in isolation and connect at the same time, and the worries of our changing environment are huge problems for people my age.  

What impresses me the most about this book is how Coupland uses his great powers of observation and equally effective wit to reveal the foibles of Generation X.  There are many moments in this book that are laugh out loud funny, especially those involving the shameless farmer, Zack.  He will do anything for quick cash and momentary gratification, and is a figure that effectively satirizes the vices of his time.  I identify with a lot of the characters in the book, and think that everyone my age can recognize a bit of themselves in them.  The message of the book really shines through and it is made memorable due to the sheer entertainment Coupland's characters provide.  I'm clearly going to have to give JPod another chance. 

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Grappling With My Food

The other day my boyfriend and I were in the produce section of our local grocery store, when we were stopped in our tracks by another example of genetic tampering.  My boyfriend, being a curious soul, picked them up and simply had to try them.  So we tried our first grapple.  

A grapple is an unnatural genetic amalgam between an apple and a grape, something that needs to be experienced to be believed.  And experience we did.  Before we even left the grocery store parking lot, he bit into it and shared it with me.  I would describe it as having the familiar crunchy texture and appearance of an apple with an artificial grape taste. To be honest, the whole concept of it bothered me and continues to creep me out.  As an avid reader of Michael Pollan's explorations of food production, I was well aware of how corporations are taking food genetic modification to an uncomfortable level, but seeing such irrefutable concrete proof of it at the Country Grocer put me over the edge.  Though I know that farmers have used genetics to alter their crops for centuries, I'm not as disturbed by a farmer creating a new variety of pear by combining two different kinds of pear, than I am about this new cross-species gene splicing.  

Genetic research has made a lot of medical advances possible, so I'm not averse to it in general, but I draw the line when it comes to food and profit-driven experimentation.  I get that companies like Monsanto want to create larger corn yields, and some customers would rather their roses last longer without scent.  But I don't have to like it.  There is something to be said for food that resembles something my great-grandmother would recognize and not some unnatural lovechild of two dissimilar species of fruit.  After we finished the grapple, my boyfriend, the avid environmentalist, tossed the core out of the car window and onto a grassy median.  I freaked out about it, worried that, when introduced to the natural world, grapple seeds might produce a tree/vine that would take over.  We talked about how a tree with vine-like branches may take over that median and crowd out indigenous trees, kind of like the Scotch Broom.  

I don't think that will happen, but while the seeds germinate I need to figure out what to do with the three remaining grapples.  I'm thinking muffins.   

Friday, December 3, 2010

It's Payback!

I must confess that I feel really guilty about how neglectful I've been to my blog.  Without getting into too many details, there has been too many things on my mind and so a lot of aspects of my life were put on the back burner.  I was feeling down about more stuff I can't control, when I thought that I would stop my self-pity and write.  I recently finished Margaret Atwood's book Payback and I believe it's very pertinent to the holiday season.

As hard as it is to be looking down the barrel at another head-on collision with our consumer culture, Atwood makes me feel better.  She wrote this book prior to the economic downturn and there are definitely moments where her work is eerily prophetic.  Particularly when she describes how banks in the United States began handing out sub-prime mortgages to those who could not afford them, she shows how an educated person could have predicted some of these issues.  Atwood also delves into the language that people use to describe debt and being in debt and how this affects our psyches.  She points out how indebtedness is compared with drowning or limbo, and that this negative connotation only furthers the shame many experience when they confront their finances.  The book explores these attitudes and how they are rooted within society and connected to our sense of justice and fairness.  Though it is hard to reconcile a mortgage with monies owed in ancient times, the origins of debt can be found in early mythologies. Female goddesses involved in justice and death abound in ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt and their histories helped in the development of our notions of debt.

Another stretch of history that Atwood believes is instrumental our ideas of debt is the Victorian period.  She references Charles Dickens' story A Christmas Carol a lot to express how deep-seated economics was in that particular society.  Most of Dickens' writing contains a dreary picture of the dispossessed who have fallen on hard times in an unforgiving society.  Debt and money play a large part in the writings of his contemporaries as well, with Heathcliff using his fortune to manipulate Cathy in Wuthering Heights and the constant reminder of fortune in the background of most Jane Austen novels.  Getting back to her study of A Christmas Carol, a portion of it that I particularly enjoyed was her characterization of "Scrooge Nouveau".  "Scrooge Nouveau" is the modern-day equivalent of Dickens' character that Atwood creates to illustrate how he translates into today's society.  She uses her trademark wry wit to lampoon the overpaid CEO's we're accustomed to and adds a little levity to such a heady subject.  

This book is such a good read because it allows the reader to challenge their notions of debt and forces people to delve into why they feel the way they do.  Money has a large amount of power in our society which is evidenced with every Christmas list and Canadian Tire flier.  I was trying to make a Christmas list for myself and I had a hard time.  There isn't anything material that I want, with the exception of a Starfrit collapsible dish rack.  I have no space in my tiny kitchen and it has the possibility of making my life easier. Unlike most things I've bought, Margaret Atwood books tend to be regret-free purchases, and Payback is yet another example of her excellent observational skills and dry humour.