Category Archives: My Thoughts

Can Modern Dances Possibly Get Worse?

pexels-photo-341858On Friday night, my wife Teresa and I attended the world’s largest cake fight, held at the UCCU Center at UVU. When I saw the banners advertising the event, I was an instant sell. Teresa and I had also attended what was, at the time, the world’s largest water balloon fight at BYU. It was glorious. So I didn’t have to think twice about the lovely prospect of standing in the midst of a thousand cake missiles. We even purchased premium tickets so that we would have the privilege of being the ones to hurl the cake.

I admire the people who made this event happen, a service to the community that was undoubtedly a labor of love. And what a labor it must have been to clean up such a mess! By the time the last wad of cake was hurled, the floor was covered in a thick, gray sludge, so oily that one could slide around. As we evacuated the building, covered in frosting, everyone had a smile on his face, and it was clear that such a celebration of life had made the world a better place.

Having said all that, I wish to expound on the horror that preceded the bliss. This is in no way a criticism of the good people who put this wonderful event together but of a broad, societal phenomenon. I wish to speak of what is now termed music and dancing.

The event started at 8:30 PM. The official description was vague, so only upon entering the building and speaking to some of the coordinators did we realize that the cake fight wouldn’t take place until midnight. While this was disappointing, our children were spending the night at their grandparents’ house, so why not enjoy a good three hours of dancing?

When we entered the indoor stadium, however, we found the music off-putting. The DJ was blasting heavy … gangster stuff. While I ask you to pardon my ignorance of the proper terminology, I think you can imagine a grinding, distorted bass, relentless boom-booms, and angry, shouting, male vocals. Somewhere in the vicinity of rap, hiphop, and dubstep, these in-your-face slams, blasting at ear-splitting decibels, could have a certain appeal … under the right circumstances … for a limited time. While not our cup of tea, we could at least enjoy moving our bodies to a common beat until something more in line with our preferences came along. After all, there were still three hours to go, and with such a vast world of music to draw from, we looked forward to the classic hits, the jazz, the slow dances, the party songs, and maybe even a little country.

Only the boom-booms just kept going … and going. Interesting to note, over the course of the evening, I don’t recall hearing a single instrument. Every sound was synthesized. Every vocal was pitch-corrected and heavily processed, almost robotic. The sounds were disheveled, chaotic, crazy. When, on occasion, we made out the lyrics of the current angry gangster … they were horrible: rude, profane, sexually explicit, degrading to women.

Though Teresa and I were only inches apart, the cacophony was so loud, we soon grew hoarse from shouting to each other just to talk. We had to get away. Moving to the other end of the stadium wasn’t enough. To find somewhere quiet enough to think, we had to go to the end of a hallway, into a stair well, und up a few floors. Even there we weren’t free from the omnipresent thumps of the bass, but at least we could talk.

IMG_20171117_233449304

As we passed the time, a lot of people would go up and down the stairs, and we overheard conversations. One was about all the “grinding” that was going on in the dance. In the tight crowds, men were forcing themselves against the dancing women in front of them. Lovely.

From time to time, Teresa and I heard the beginning of something we actually wanted to dance to. A-ha’s “Take on Me”, Europe’s “The Final Countdown” or the Champs’ “Tequila”. We ran back into the stadium and started busting out our swing moves. But within seconds, the merciless DJ’s would corrupt the classics by mixing in more boom-booms and … gangster stuff … until the songs were nothing but the latter. Teresa and I would then walk back out, deflated.

In our defense, the music wasn’t really danceable. It sounded as if it was made by drunken chimpanzees banging on garbage cans. How were supposed to move to such chaos? I mean, no one else was really dancing. They were just doing their mosh thing like a throbbing amoeba.

I know I must sound snobby. But believe me, I tried to dance to this stuff. Wanting to experience the rave culture, I spent many songs in the midst of the moshing crowd, waving my arms, hopping up and down, and trying, whole-heartedly, to submit myself to the gods of fornication. But I just couldn’t find the appeal. I realized, then, why older generations have never been able to connect to modern music. (And yes, clocking in at a whopping thirty-four years, I was one of the oldest in this crowd of young, beautiful college students. There were a few older couples at first, but when they discovered what the night was about, they took off running.)

The reason that older generations struggle with embracing popular music is because they know too much. We know that there used to be a thing called chord progressions. It used to require instruments to make music. In the days of yore, vocalists used to sing, and lyricists were required to have something to say (besides about sex). All in all, the music was supposed to move the listener, inspiring them with emotions (besides anger and … well … sexuality isn’t really even an emotion). When one reached the end of a song, there used be a sense of conclusion, catharsis, progress. Music didn’t have to be “cool.” It could be warm. It could make people feel good. You could move to it, because it had a sense of direction.

As Back Eyed Peas apply put it:

“They don’t want music,
They don’t know how to use it.
All they want, a boom boom boom boom.”

I found myself staring at the man on the stand, the DJ, who was throwing up his gangster arms before the moshing crowd. “Should we turn it up?” he would shout. “You want more?” Unfortunately, there was no real way for the crowd to express themselves. Whether we shouted, “Yes!” or (as I did), “This music sucks!” The cumulative effect was always the same: more noise. And that was all the validation the DJ needed.

This is why I’ve always hated DJ’s. They have too much power. They alone can subject the minds of hundreds to their bombarding whims. And they just seem so spineless, religiously pandering to the latest consensus of what’s “cool.” I’m sure there’s good DJ’s out there; they just seem to be few and far between. And on this trying night, there were, in my book, three exceptionally bad ones.

As the event appeared to be a competition between them, each was bent on outdoing the other with louder, crazier, and even more in-your-face gangster stuff. And nothing but gangster stuff. The music would frequently cut out as the DJ’s would shout, “One, two, three, four!” But what were they counting toward? It was just more boom-boom.

Boom-boom!

BOOM-BOOM!

During one of mine and Teresa’s first escapes from the hysteria, we were in an elevator with other people. I wanted them to hear me as I made disparaging remarks such as, “I can’t imagine hell sounding any worse than that.” Or, “Each one of those songs crucifies Mozart anew.”

When we were in private, an embarrassed Teresa chastised me. “What good are you doing?” she asked.

I replied something to the effect of, “Does anyone actually like this stuff? Or do they just accept it because everyone seems to think it’s cool? It’s the crowd mentality at its worst, an instance where democracy fails miserably and none of us are as dumb as all of us. The only way to cut the circle is if we speak out. Then maybe others will too. We need to make it cool to express how terrible this music is. I know we’re not going to make a difference, but it’s the principle that counts.”

We had a long talk in the car. While Teresa agreed with me, she didn’t want to be in public with me if I was going to act like this, and in the end, I agreed to keep my feelings to myself. Reluctantly (because it was freezing cold outside), we went back to the dance.

But as the evening progressed with more of the same booming torture, Teresa began to lose it too. With a look of exasperation, she started doing interpretative dances of the crazy sounds, her eyes open wide, her teeth barred, her fingers outstretched. Like the freaky gangster dancers, she got in my face as if hexing me. It was funny. At least it should have been. The whole evening was so sardonic, it was hard to figure out why no one was laughing at the irony of it all.

Toward the end of the long wait, as I was half-heartedly moving my body to the boom-booms, Teresa reached her snapping point. She apologized for chastising me. “You were right,” she said. “People need to speak out against this.” Then, as another gangster man shouted more sexually-charged lyrics, Teresa said, “All I can hear are giant penises. I want to castrate them. All of them.” When, at last, the cake was distributed, she threw it at the crowd with unbridled fury. She said it was very cathartic. In fact, her arm still hurts from throwing a little too hard.

I’m going to end with a quote from my upcoming novel, Gideon Versus the Gods of Cool:

“Gideon imagines it takes a guitar to make that noise, though it certainly doesn’t sound musical. If not for the agonized scream of a human voice – or something that resembles a human – the sound would be indistinguishable from radio static.

“Meanwhile the adherents to this bizarre noise look on in reverence.

“Gideon wouldn’t mind them if they didn’t force everyone to submit their minds to their hellish droning. As is, the relentless noise beats upon him like crashing waves. There’s something alive in that sound, a demonic creature trying to pound its way into his skull.”

As Mozart put it, “Music must never offend the ear, but must please the listener, or, in other words, must never cease to be music.” Unfortunately, it seems, they no longer play music at dances.

On the positive note, I can’t imagine how popular music could possibly get worse. Surely, having hit rock bottom, we’re at a turning point, and future musicologists will refer to our time as a dark age (not because there’s a shortage of good music but because the crowds are too inane to appreciate it). If you’d like to hear less Eminem and more Mozart at public dances, if you also believe that the word dance has lost its meaning and that our swing-dancing grandparents would scoff at this societal breakdown, this reductio ad absurdum, then please share this article.

Jesus of Nazareth and the Gospel Triforce

fdf2ca21ee17c380a0975a681d47c833Here’s my Sunday thought. Much as been said of the gospel of Jesus Christ, but what, exactly, is it? One answer can be found in 2 Nephi 31:

“And now, behold, my beloved brethren, this is the way; and there is none other way nor name given under heaven whereby man can be saved in the kingdom of God. And now, behold, this is the doctrine of Christ, and the only and true doctrine of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost …”

But what is the way? What is the doctrine? The answers are in the preceding verse, but I wanted to read it in reversed order to stress how important this preceding verse is. It contains three essential principles:

“Ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ [(one) faith], having a perfect brightness of [(two)] hope, and a love of God and of all men [(3) charity]. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life.”

Nephi tells us that the “doctrine of Christ” is not an exhaustive work of rules and commandments but three simple principles. I’d heard before that faith, hope, and charity are good virtues to have, but not until reading the scripture yesterday did I make the connection that these three virtues ARE the gospel. Imagine with me a triangle, which we’ll endearingly call the gospel triforce. According to Nephi, it’s not enough to just exercise these virtues, we must “press forward with a steadfastness in Christ,” so in the center of this triangle we’ll put the face of Jesus Christ. And there we have it: the complete, encapsulated gospel.

It’s not hard to see why faith, hope, and charity are good things, but why must they center around the man Jesus of Nazareth? Have there not be many good prophets, wise men, rabbis, shamans, pundits, and imams who have taught these same principles? What makes Jesus so special? And is not the idea that he is the only name by which salvation comes narrow-minded, tribalistic, and old-fashioned? I will attempt to answer these questions.

First I’ll discuss the principle of faith, which, as Nephi describes, is not just faith in anything but faith in Jesus Christ. This immediately begs the question: why should we put our faith in Jesus, a Jewish carpenter, whom, as far as the secular world is concerned, lived on the other side of the planet and died nearly two-thousand years ago? Is putting faith in such a person not the definition of insanity? To anyone who would ask this question, I would respond, “Have you read Jesus?”

As far as we know, Jesus himself didn’t write anything, but his disciples recorded his life and teachings, and attempts to prove that Jesus never existed are no longer taken seriously by historians. What is fair to ask, however, is whether the gospel narratives contain Jesus’ true, unadulterated teachings, and whether or not the events described within them actually occurred. On these points, it does not appear that current science can confirm or deny their absolute veracity. For example, while there is overwhelming circumstantial evidence to suggest that Jesus was actually resurrected … the idea of resurrection is so far-fetched to the secular world that, understandably, they cannot accept it. However, this does mean that there is a better explanation for what happened. To me it seems like a divinely-instituted stalemate, where the burden of proof cannot be assigned to any one party but is placed on the individual reader, as if Jesus himself is saying to each and every one of us, “But whom say ye that I am?” (Matthew 16:15).

We could respond, “You’re a great spiritual teacher, who I may or may not be interested in following, because I’ve got my own spiritual teachers, thank you very much.” Or, like Peter, we could say, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Which camp are you in, and how can you discover which idea is correct? Jesus of Nazareth is either the Christ, the Son of God, the only way to salvation, as he himself said, or he was just another Jewish rabbi, and we’re a bunch of wackos for putting our trust in a dead guy. Hence my question, Have you read Jesus … seriously read Jesus? You are not only judge and jury, but your soul is on trial, and the stakes are eternal, and therefore you must consider the evidence.

I, of course, cannot read Jesus for you, though for what it’s worth, I can share my testimony. I love the words and stories Christ. Here is a man who single-handedly takes on the evils of the world. He’s bold, yet kind, powerful, yet merciful. He sees the good in lowly fishermen and looks right through the facades of kings and priests. His wisdom is profound if not otherworldly, and he practices what he teaches even while forgiving those who crucify him. Yet he’s the one in control, his sacrifice an unparalleled act of courage and love, not defeat. The bad guys cannot catch him. The doctors cannot out-think him. He inspired thousands, who inspired millions, and whatever he did, it so profoundly affected those who knew him, that they gladly walked into the jaws of death for his sake. These are facts. If Jesus, whose words depict the most honest man I have ever read of, is not who he says he was, then where did this unparallelled endowment of light and truth come from? There are no words that can inspire me like the words of Jesus.

Of course, not everyone perceives his words as truthful, as his gospel was not designed to be forced upon us. Each one of us must choose what we’ll do with this fruit. Some find it sweet and precious, others find it bitter and common. Though the question at hand is not only whether or not the fruit is sweet but what the long-term effects will be for those who make it a regular part of their diets versus those who do not. As demonstrated by the lives and examples of his disciples, I believe we can find further and quantifiable proof that it is good for us to put our faith in Jesus Christ. In other words, all hope of another world aside, look what faith in Jesus Christ could do for you now. And if you like what you see, what’s left to lose?

Jesus Christ is more than a man, he is a movement, a legacy, an ideology. And central to this ideology is the idea of the flesh submitting to the spirit, of putting off the natural man and becoming a saint. Jesus not only taught us but showed us how to do this through his many examples of will-power, which led to his divine power. From his humble birth to his even humbler death, marked by a forsaking of riches and constant service, he showed us that worldliness (i.e. wickedness) never was happiness. He showed us that no amount of outward ordinances, generous contributions, large phylacteries, or hems on our garments are of any value if the soul isn’t right before God. This is an idea worth sharing.

But Jesus is more than an idea. He’s a man. His physical birth, life, death, and resurrection showed the world that God is not some abstract idea rooted in Greek philosophy but is a literal being with body parts and passions. What more, Jesus taught that each one of us is a god in the making, and that, therefore, what we do with our time on this earth is of tremendous consequence. As if that weren’t enough, he commanded us to be perfect, even as he and his father in heaven are perfect (3 Nephi 12:48). Jesus Christ is the way because he was perfect, and any way that does not require perfection of us will ultimately fall short of our goal of exaltation, because “no unclean thing can dwell with God” (1 Nephi 10:21).

Of course, none of us are perfect, and that presents a problem. We are in need of mercy from one who can lift us beyond the broken rungs of our spiritual progression. And who could we trust to do this but one who has, himself, mastered this perilous ascent? At this critical point, no prophet, hero, or teacher – or anyone who has not gone the full distance to perfection – could be adequate. Through his conflict-ridden life and his ultimate trial in Gethsemane, Christ learned and demonstrated more than any man that evil, sin, death, and the destroying powers are real, but that we, like him, through him, can and must overcome. He commanded us to follow him and continue his works and promised us that divine witness and power would attend those who courageously did so.

I have felt this divine witness, and it is my testimony that if anyone is worthy of our faith, it is Jesus Christ. Some might argue that no one’s worthy of our faith, but unless we’re completely stagnant, we can’t help but put our faith in something or someone, whatever ideal we aspire to become. Personally, I don’t believe that the question of faith or no faith is an option, only where we’ll put our faith.

Once you believe, as I do, that it is not only good but essential to put faith in Christ, we naturally come to the second principle of the Gospel triforce: hope. Of all the major wise teachers who have come and gone, by their own traditions, Jesus is the only who is even rumored to still be breathing. With the doctrine of his triumphant rise from the tomb comes a bright universe of endless possibilities. We learn that good will, indeed, conquer evil, that life will conquer death, that love is eternal, and that joy is boundless. In Christ’s own words: “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26). We have hope in Christ, because only he has conquered sin and death and opened the gate for us to follow. I do not know how this works any more than I can fully comprehend the miracle of how my wife and I created our children. But there they are in God’s own image, and similarly, I’m content to take it on faith that, somehow, Christ has made possible a second birth for all of us.

As King Benjamin put it, “… ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you” (Mosiah 5:7). When we put our faith in Jesus Christ as we would in a kind, protecting, and powerful father, we needn’t fear death. We needn’t fear opposition. We needn’t fear. Christ is hope.

And having found faith and hope, having tasted from the living waters, it becomes pretty hard to go back to regular water, which leaves us thirsty in the end. If we’re to “press forward with a steadfastness in Christ,” as Nephi puts it, we must not only have “a perfect brightness of hope” but “a love of God and of all men.” Charity, the third point of the gospel triforce. This charity comes naturally, because having found purpose in life, seeing light ahead of us, and comprehending the great plan, we can’t help but feel God’s love for us and love him back, and when we’ve found this love, we can’t help but feel joy, and when we feel this joy, we can’t help but want to share it. As Joseph Smith put it, “Love is one of the chief characteristics of Deity, and ought to be manifested by those who aspire to be the sons of God. A man filled with the love of God, is not content with blessing his family alone, but ranges through the whole world, anxious to bless the whole human race.” (History of the Church, 4:227).

The Gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t about a mystical connection with deity, a checklist of ordinances, an elect membership, or a free pass to heaven. It’s about becoming like Christ, doing his works, and renewing the whole world through his goodness and love. It is our mission to not only save ourselves but to help build the kingdom of God and assist in the salvation of all of our brothers and sisters. When people have found faith, hope, and charity in Christ, they can find peace in lions’ dens. No opposition is too great. And only when we’ve found this faith, hope, and charity is Zion possible, because these virtues are the foundation for integrity, accountability, duty, service, and equanimity. No government program or police state could ever shape from the outside what can only come from within. The world is in desperate need of disciples of Christ. Without them, we are all ripe for destruction. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not just to prepare us for some elusive heaven. It is the way of eternal life, which has everything to do with right now.

As Jesus himself put it, to which I add my testimony, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6).

Free Beer in Slabobia!

beer-introIn the alternate country of Slabobia, suppose I have this great idea for helping the poor: free beer. It’s delicious, high in calories, and gone should be the days when self-respecting Slabobians had to beg for their beer. So I contact my senator, who likes the idea, and, lo and behold, a bill gets passed providing free beer for everyone beneath a certain annual income. The streets are alive with drunken celebrations, and living in Slabobia has never been better (provided you’re making less than the certain income). Meanwhile people above the certain income start to feel jealous, especially those who are teetering on the line. They realize that, when comes December, if they were to just turn down that seasonal job, they’d more than make up for the difference with free beer. Plus they’d get a whole extra month of vacation!

So annual incomes drop, demand for seasonal jobs increases, alcoholism reaches an all-time high, drunken fistfights are everywhere, and the tax-payers’ completely fruitless expenditure on beer is tanking the economy. Free beer, it turns out, was a bad idea. So I call up my senator and ask him to try to repeal the act, but he responds, “No can do. The Free Beer Act guarantees millions of votes for me and my party.”

While it was an honest mistake, everyone knows that bureaucracy never dies, so rather than griping about the past, I’m just going to pick my battles and move on. Beer, I realize, was not a need. What the poor need is good, nutritious food. So I call my senator, who likes the idea, and once again, lo and behold, a bill gets passed providing free, healthy food for all Slabobians beneath a certain income level. By taking their vouchers to grocery stores, the poor are entitled to all the spinach, celery, and rutabagas they could ever want.

The only problem is that no one actually wants spinach, celery, and rutabagas, and when the grocery stores realize this, they also realize that they’re missing out on some serious revenue from government reimbursements, so they collaborate with local manufacturers to invent three new products that will technically meet the governmental standards: spinach ice cream, deep-fried celery chips, and rutabaga beer.

The products are a huge success, so much so that obesity among the poor reaches an all-time high. On the up side, this means there’s a major spike in the health industry, but on the downside, because these are the poor we’re helping, none of them actually pay for their services, so once again the economy is tanking.

My benevolent idea, it turns out, resulted in some unintended consequences. Perhaps it was due to loopholes in the text, and the senators should have hired better lawyers. Regardless, because passing a new bill is so much easier than repealing an old one, I decide it’s time to look at the bigger picture in determining what the root causes of poverty are. I decide that everyone, not just the poor, should have free health care and free college educations. So I call up my senator, and once again he likes the idea, and lo and behold, a bill is passed providing exactly what I wanted.

Though the lines get long … really long … everyone gets the primary care they need. Because of the government’s increased bargaining power (they’re flipping the bill for everyone, after all), they can get the lowest bids from medical professionals, so our taxes only rise by a bout 400%. The down side is that half of the doctors in Slabobia are no longer able to pay their bills, so they move off shore, and many of the high-tech medical developments and pharmaceutical research firms are dissolved due to limited funding, but that’s okay, because there’s all those other countries (like the U.S.) that haven’t turned socialist yet. At least they’re still producing good stuff.

And hey, free college! Now that everyone’s got a fraternity or a sorority to join, and the minimum university class size is in the hundreds, campus life has never been more packed with parties and free from education. Of course, we’ve effectively inflated the education system, making the high school diploma beyond worthless and the bachelors degree a prerequisite for flipping burgers, but at least everyone now has the chance to flip burgers. But then there’s the other down side: now that it takes seventeen years of education to qualify for burger flipping, young adults aren’t expected to move out of their parents’ basements until well into their thirties, an unpleasant reality that leads to an even faster halting of the Slabobian population growth. With fewer and fewer people to pay into a welfare state that doesn’t pay back, the economy is once again tanking, and the general quality of life is looking dismal.

For a moment I wonder if government intervention could have had something to do with Slabobia’s problems. I decide that it has. So I call up my senator with a great new idea for a social program to help people who has suffered from the effects of government intervention. And until that bill gets passed, at least there’s still free beer.

Paradoxical Intention and Why Unbelief Should Lead to Spirituality

hands holding the sun at dawnHere’s my Sunday thought. According to Wikipedia, “In psychotherapy, paradoxical intention is the deliberate practice of a neurotic habit or thought, undertaken to identify and remove it.” Founded by the German psychologist Viktor Frankl, the idea is that if you’re suffering from insomnia, rather than trying to sleep, which will most likely backfire, you should try to stay awake as long as possible. In trying not to sleep, you’ll naturally tire yourself out, and the body’s the sleep mechanism will automatically kick in with no further effort. Trying to sleep is like trying to forget: it’s indistinguishable from remembering.

If we believe that there’s no afterlife, it’s reasonable for a philosophy of nihilism to follow. Believing that it doesn’t matter what we do, it’s then reasonable for a life of hedonism to follow. As we inevitably fear the impending termination of our being, it’s reasonable to try to distract our senses with entertainment, sensations, and stimulants. But if all this is in response to a meaningless life, does it succeed in adding meaning, or, like trying to sleep in response to insomnia, does it exacerbate the problem?

Dr. Frankl demonstrates that when it comes to solving psychological challenges, our intuitions are often wrong. What if, in response to concluding that there is no God, instead of rebelling against the idea of God, we tried to become as godlike as possible?

For the vast majority of human history and cultures, the idea of deity played a central role in every day life, because while people lied, it was believe that God could not be deceived. Beneath pragmatic social contracts was an underlying contract between individuals and a transcendent ideology. For every action, word, and possibly even thought, individuals would be held accountable. And how could such accountability not improve individuals and societies? Anyone who’s tried to transform their body through exercise or healthy eating knows self-destructive temptations are a real thing, and accountability is crucial. One needs a friend, a deadline, or a beach party by which to gauge his salvation or damnation.

But if one honestly doesn’t believe in God, how can one feel accountable for his actions? Perhaps the French philosopher Voltaire had the answer: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” I interpret this to mean that, when we see God as an ideal to strive for, the question of whether or not God actually exists is, at least in some ways, irrelevant. To allude back to the fitness metaphor, while it would be nice to see pictures of ripped muscle men for inspiration, whether they actually exist or are Photoshopped illusions should have no bearing on the progress of one’s bodybuilding.

If we believe that there’s no God to overlook the affairs of humanity, then we must become the gods, because the world desperately needs goodness, love, knowledge, power, and principle. Ironically, atheism really shouldn’t lead to hedonism but a more astute sense of purpose, accountability, and even spirituality, because with atheism should come a realization that everything depends on us.

Far from deluding one’s mind with dogma, it is my belief that everyone should choose to believe in the principles of God because of the inherent value in so doing. And who knows, one might actually discover God in the process.

The Force Awakens: Star Wars for the ADHD Generation

Star Wars: the Force AwakensFew things excite me like John William’s Star Wars theme. Hearing those blasting trumpets and seeing that amazing yellow logo glimmering with all the scifi wonder of 1977 against the panoramic backdrop of a vast starscape, this is the stuff of magic. This familiar moment at the opening of The Force Awakens had me literally bouncing on my seat, as my embarrassed wife will attest. Needless to say, I had high hopes for this movie, especially as so many have raved over it.

My first observation was that I was glad to read a familiar, thoroughly cheesy intro with phrases like “the Sinister First Order” and “searching the galaxy for Luke Skywalker …” I could tell right off that this movie was going to be another great Space Western with clear-cut good guys and bad guys, almost like an extended Sunday school lesson but far more entertaining. Though it also begged the question, “Do I really want another melodrama?” I mean, we’ve already been through six movies cataloguing the rise and fall of the Galactic Empire and the eventual triumph of the righteous underdogs. Wouldn’t it be a little counterproductive to throw away all that progress and start over? Surely that’s not what the film is going to be, is it? Of course not. The Imperial days are over. It’s time for a new period, a new conflict, new themes, and new wonders. I mean, there’s a whole galaxy to explore.

Of course, my fears turned out to be spot on. I won’t dare call the movie a remake, as apparently there’s been a touchy debate on the subject, but it was at least a “soft reboot,” strongly reminiscent of A New Hope. I’m almost certain the making of the film started with a conversation like this:

“So those prequels didn’t turn out too well, and we’ve got way too much money on the line to risk another box office bomb. So let’s just follow the proven formula of Episode IV. And while we’re at it, let’s throw in a lot of Episode V, because that one also did well.”

This wasn’t necessarily a bad idea as The Force Awakens succeeded at fitting right into the Star Wars universe. The filmmakers clearly went to great pains to be true to those 1977 designs and motifs, even with retro screen visuals and flashy lights on the walls that serve no purpose. Awesome. They knew exactly who their target audience was: people like me who had grown up with a religious zeal for Star Wars, who had been hurt by the prequels, and wanted to return to the comfort of their beloved galaxy from long ago and far away with pseudo-religious overtones, inspiring the inner-heroes within.

And yet, for me, this movie was too familiar: another lost droid holding important information, another sandy planet with a trapped, young Jedi in the making, a new galactic empire (with virtually no explanation as to its roots or financial backing), a new Darth Vader, a new cantina full of monsters, a new Yoda-figure, a new Death Star, new Yavin’s to blow up, and so on.

I get that they wanted cohesion with the earlier episodes, but with so much budget and technology, why not get at least a little more creative and show some non-earth-like terrain? I mean, every single habitat in the Star Wars universe so far has a direct counterpart on earth. Why not show us a planet with a pink sky where it rains sulphur and the trees look like giant frog eggs, and there’s half the gravity of earth? What’s with Hollywood’s obsession with boring desert planets? Don’t get me wrong: Tatooine was beyond cool in 1977, when Star Wars pioneered the possibilities of scifi cinema. But in 2016, have we now reached the outer limits with nothing left to do but pander to nostalgia? Why not take that pioneering spirit further?

And now I’m going to completely contradict myself in adding that it was too bad that the filmmakers didn’t learn from all of the mistakes from the prequels, namely the use of CGI characters. I know I speak for many when I say we just don’t want them. We just don’t love them. They’re just … no good. The use of puppets is one bit of Star Wars nostolgia that should never be compromised.

I was able to overlook all of these disappointments  but one that hit too hard: the reintroduction of Han Solo. We discover that, as a seventy-something year-old-man, he’s long-since left Leia and backslid to his smuggling days. I can also imagine the conversation that led up to this choice: “What do we do with him? He can’t just be happily married. Where’s the conflict in that? And he certainly can’t have attained some level of maturity and sagacity in his old age. That would just depress our audience. The Han Solo they knew and loved was a rough, sarcastic smuggler, so that’s what we’re going to give them.”

Which reminds me of a rumor I’d heard about Cookie Monster. Perhaps it’s just an urban legend, but as the story goes, there was a time when Cookie Monster overcame his urge for cookies and grew a liking for fruits and vegetables, encouraging children to eat more healthy. Audiences were enraged, insisting that Cooke Monster was betraying his true nature, and, accordingly, the familiar Cookie Addict soon returned. In large, our world rejects the concept of progression and insists on unaltered, platonic ideals.

Han and Leia’s relationship and characters had developed over three wonderful movies, in which they’d both passed through the refiner’s fire. Contrast their flippant attitudes in Episode IV to their softer, more altruistic, and genuinely loving attitudes by the end of Episode VI. It’s sad to just throw that all away for the sake of a new conflict, and it came at a cost.

Sure Han and Leia had some token lines exhibiting their wisdom of age, but these, for me, fell flat, as they had so little to show from the last thirty years. For example, consider Han’s lines about the reality of the force and the Jedi. His testimony might have meant something if I could see that the Force had influenced his life for good, making him who he was. But it’s as if all he really said was, “I used to think Luke had a stunt double, that it was all a bunch of simple tricks and nonsense. But I was wrong. He totally does he own stunts. True story.”

Furthermore, what good is a testimony of the Force in a galaxy where the effects of the Force can be so obviously observed? Which brings me to my next observation: the supplanting of the principle of faith. In Episode IV, when Luke is introduced to the Force by Ben Kenobi, the Force is presented as a belief system. It requires faith in an unseen power. Luke has to develop this faith through acts of courage as he chooses to let go of his imperfect judgment and trust in a higher power. The process requires a loving mentor, gruelling tests, and deep spirituality.

However, in The Force Awakens, the new Jedi in the making, Ray, develops her “gift” in the same way that young Anakin did in Episode 1: dumb luck. Without any real mentor, any real knowledge, no apparent belief in a higher power, and no leap of faith, she simply maneuvers her way through adventure after adventure with inexplicable ability, until, at last, she realizes (don’t ask me how) that she has Force powers. She then proceeds to develop this gift as one would develop a knack for martial arts. No need for the dispelling of doubt or the learning of a transcendent principle such as  “Luke, trust me” or “do or do not” or “judge me by my size, do you?” She just gets the force.

What does this say about our audiences? Is a belief in God now no more than an extension of our abilities? Do we now worship ourselves?

Correct me if I’m wrong, but there used to be something special about Star Wars, something different form your usual swords and sorcery. I don’t really see the filmmakers at fault as, once again, they did a great job in giving audiences what they want. What disturbs me is that this is, apparently, what audiences want. Philosophy, religion … those are so 1977. Just give us lots and lots … and lots … of action.

Action: what you do when you don’t have a story. Because without action, characters would start talking, and when characters start talking, they start exploring ideas, and when characters start exploring ideas, they start making decisions based on their own volition and not as compelled by extreme circumstances,  and when this happens, you’ve got a character-driven story instead of a plot-driven story, and this would undermine the very foundations of melodrama, which the audience paid good money to see. Thus the characters were seldom permitted to complete two sentences in a row before being interrupted by an explosion.

My wife argues that this is exactly how the original movies were. I believe she’s half-right. Yes, my bias will always be with the Star Wars of my youth. And yet, before the MTV generation, stories, in general, were slower, more thoughtful, more character-driven. Before the dark times … before CGI.

I don’t mind some thematic action here and there, especially when the world has been well built, the stakes have been set, the characters have been established, the journey has been made, and the goal is within reach. But when the story is action — scene after scene of over-the-top fantasy violence against impossible odds with unbelievable, unqualified success — this is not to be confused with a story. It’s gratuitous. It’s tedious. It’s boring. I don’t want to watch superheroes, who, in virtue of their birth, can do what I’ll never be able to. I want to learn how can become a Jedi. Otherwise, what’s the point? The Star Wars I still love had so much more to offer than mere entertainment value.

There was so much action that there was little room for character. Ray, for example, didn’t actually have character. She was a concept of uncompromising good. In that she was likable, but she wasn’t a character. Aside from a vague memory from childhood, she had little to no background, no friends, no culture, little to no personality, and once again, no time to think, talk, or make a decision that wasn’t absolutely forced. Notwithstanding, she was an amazing acrobat, martial artist, mechanical genius, and … somehow … pilot?

Hooray for girl power.

Fin was another interesting concept — a conscience-pricked, deserting storm trooper — but again, with almost no background and no time to make a less than extreme decision, he was two-dimensional at best.

As plot was so important to this movie, it was too bad that the main plot — to find Luke Skywalker — really had no weight whatsoever. Characteristic of sequels, this device was a shameless fallback to previous setups, dogmatic instead of self-evident. I mean, what do we care if there’s no more Jedi? I might have cared in a previous movie, but in The Force Awakens, what even is a Jedi? Just another action hero? We’ve got plenty already.

And what’s with the silly “map” that leads to Luke’s hiding place? If he wanted to be alone, why did he make himself into a geocaching game for treasure hunters, putting part of the map on one droid, part on another? The concept of a map in space travel is silly to begin with. All you would need are coordinates. I hear that a lot of missing information can be found in the novelization, but if the film is an independent art form, I would think it should be able to stand as such.

While there were some intriguing scenes, my brain had had enough by the time we reached the completely unnecessary action sequences at Han Solo’s smuggling station. Or were we in someone else’s smuggling station? I lost track of who was smuggling whom. I really wanted to walk out of the theater and likely would have done so if I weren’t so curious about how this film was going to redeem itself and why so many people liked it. In large, I felt that the story didn’t really even start until Han Solo was killed by his Generation Y, schizophrenic son, Kylo Ren. Finally something new and interesting!

I thought the story would begin a moment earlier, when Han tries to persuade Kylo to step down from his pedestal of evil, and Kylo appears to soften. I thought, “Wow, this is unprecedented. A new Darth Vader has been painstakingly set up to reign with blood and horror, and now he’s just going to renounce it all? Talk about character! This is wonderful. I’ve never seen anything like it. This must be why everyone likes this movie.”

Then I thought better. “Wait, no, this is obviously a false climax. He’s going to harden again, the good guys and the bad guys will polarize, and there will yet be many long sequences of storyless action.”

Alas.

Of course, the visuals were amazing, the sets breathtaking, the acting superb. I even loved the impossible physics.  I’m all for a fantastic universe so long as there’s a fantastic story to go with it. And the music … ah, the music. It was there, and yet it wasn’t there. John Williams’ masterpieces are a quintessential part of any Star Wars film, and I don’t think he failed to deliver this time. Yet I didn’t hear anything that really stood out as new or particularly moving. I think he did as bast as he could for this movie. The problem was that the movie (1) had no new ideas, and (2) was so fast-paced and scatter-brained that the only suitable music was long sequences of your average twentieth-century high-tension riffs, mixed in with some occasional classic Star Wars themes.

And … that’s pretty much it. Thanks to this film, I think I’m done with Star Wars for good. I have no desires to see any more sequels nor any other PG-13 melodrama so long as I live. Though I had hoped for something new and inspirational, as Star Wars used to be, as Soloman put it, “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” Apparently this is true in other galaxies as well.

My conclusion: at least for my generation, Star Wars has fulfilled its purpose, and it’s time for us to move on. It succeeded at inspiring us to think of the big and beyond, to develop and master ourselves as Jedi Knights amid an epic war of good and evil. But for an old man trapped in a young man’s body like yours truly, I’ve found nothing more to be gleaned from this galaxy that never was. I see little value in recreating and dragging on a story that was already finished … unless of course the artists doing so truly have something better to add, but I doubt this will ever happen with this franchise, as there’s way too much money to be made from gratuitous fantasy violence.

Again, I blame the audiences. It’s only too plain: we don’t want inspiration anymore. We don’t want to become Jedi anymore. We just want mind-numbing escapism.

A Defense of the Mormon Mind

HumanmindHere are some thoughts I composed in response to an online debate. In an effort to be non-contentious (and to spare strangers the burden of reading a novel), I’m posting them on my blog instead.

I find it funny how points of minutia are turned into all-or-nothing arguments. How often, at church, do the exact age of the earth or the origins of race come into discussion as topics pertinent to salvation? In light of the arguments for the need of science to adapt and refine, why criticize religion for doing the same? Religion was never meant to be in the business of answering “how”, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find many Mormons who view nineteenth-century speculations that rightfully belong to the realm of science as final. BYU has a fantastic evolutionary biology program, because Mormons aren’t afraid of discovering truth, whether or not it appears at first glance to be scripturally-supported. Of course there are exceptions to this rule as we’re all only human. But Joseph Smith defined the word Mormon as literally meaning “More good.” If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report (including any and all scientific data that sheds greater light about the origins and destiny of our planet), we seek it out. Whatever you think of Joseph Smith, nearly every section in the Doctrine and Covenants came as a result of asking a question and seeking an answer.

Much has been said of cognitive dissonance. But every time you point a finger, four point back at yourself. What about the cognitive dissonance that would come from abandoning a moral framework, a purpose to life, a family bond, a tie to our ancestors, a world-wide force for good, a personal accountability to God, and a quest for eternal progression and perfection … solely on behalf of the appearance of intellectual incongruities? There is no scientific principle or historical fact that I can’t learn and internalize as well within the church as without it. From my experience, this so-called Mormon thought-policing doesn’t exist. Yes, church isn’t an appropriate place to discuss contraversial history or the latest in string theory any more than lobbying for Rand Paul is appropriate at a Democratic rally. But those who really understand the Gospel know that the acquisition of knowledge and truth is entirely up to the individual. Are we going to search for information that fits within our world view and be skeptical of information that doesn’t? Of course. Everyone does this, because anything less would be unscientific. We have to stick with what we know, not what we don’t. People stay in the church because of an abundance of evidence that the fruits of the church are good.

Furthermore, it’s ironic how these appeals to the finality of science are, in themselves, nothing short of religious. Can science tell me how to live a fulfilling life, how to raise a family, or how to build a strong society? It’s possible that the answer to all of these questions could someday be yes, but in the mean time, are we going to live out our lives as lab rats? In his documentary “The God Delusion”, the famous atheist Richard Dawkins makes the argument that children are wired to receive instruction from their parents, because children can’t afford to learn through scientific observation. E.g. a child cannot test whether or not it’s a good idea to crawl off a cliff. To use this same logic, what if Dr. Freud concludes that sleeping around is perfectly natural and acceptable, and a few years later, everyone’s dying of STD’s? Do we not all need a roadmap that transcends the latest worldly opinions? Science is a terrible epistamology for determing moral frameworks. To state otherwise is nothing short of a religious opinion.

Genetic research has not disproven the Book of Mormon. There is overwhelming evidence that Joseph Smith possessed gold plates, just as the resurrection of Jesus Christ is one of the best-attested facts in ancient history. It’s not science that contradicts these points, it’s religion, a religion that believes that such fantastic claims could not possibly be true. While this is a perfectly understandable belief, my point is that pure religion is not un-scientific anymore than what’s often deemed as science is non-religious. It is a matter of faith to say that we know that all life evolved from a single cell on earth. This appears to be plausible, but there are so many unknowns. How do we account for the anomalies of the Cambrian Explosion, for evolutionary advantages that appear out of order, for the apparent introduction of a new species every million years or so, and then the sudden cessation of such upon the arrival of humans? Perhaps a better question is how do we explain how these facts seem to mysteriously align with Genesis 1?

When you look for contradictions, you’ll find them. When you look at the bigger picture, there is so much harmony. Photons that mysteriously behave in consequence of human will … evidence of paralellel universes that could be interacting with our own … the question of what it was that could have incited the big bang … a mind-blowing number of expolanets that could harbor life … the nearly-perfect calibration of Earth … the fact that only 5% of the known universe is even observable … It’s not just that the universe is wide-open for the existence of transcendent beings or that no one can disprove their existence. Those aren’t good arguments for faith. It’s that either way you look at the universe, you’ll see what you want to see. Science presents us with little more than an open book with which to define our purpose and destinies. We can’t escape religion. We can only choose what to put our faith in.

Rather than branding everyone who hasn’t abandoned their faith for your faith as brain-washed simpletons, tell us what we could actually gain — not lose — from leaving the church. I’d love to know. Statistically, being Mormon makes me pretty well off as far as health, income, education, and happiness. Mormons report among the highest of answered prayers. Mormons, in contrast to much of the religious world, present an anomoly where higher education does not result in decreased faith. Mormons live longer. They’re among the most charitable. They’ve introduced a huge number of invdentions and scientific advances. There’s something good going on here, and I have yet to learn of anything better.

Socialism, Capitalism, and Parenting … What I’ve Learned

monopoly-manIf ever you’re in question of whether capitalism or socialism is the better system, I suggest the following experiments:

Experiment 1

  1. Have lots of babies; the more the better.
  2. Wait a few years.
  3. Tell your children to clean their room.
  4. When, instead of cleaning their room, they lie on the floor, pout, and procrastinate for endless hours, motivate them by offering a guaranteed and fixed allowance, your generous and non-discriminatory compensation for the working class, for which they, of course, should be grateful.
  5. When, after they receive their allowance, they continue to lie around and do nothing, motivate them with speeches about the good of the family and the evil of the individual. Promise them more and bigger benefits of which they’re fully entitled to solely on behalf of their births, and urge them to zealously give back to the welfare family.
  6. When, after receiving said perks, they continue to lie around and do nothing, and you realize that your house is sinking into a bog of chaos, it’s time to administer some good, old-fashioned discipline. So as to prevent them from predicting patterns, inconsistently switch between guilt-inducing talks, vociferous shouting, and endless varieties of chore charts. Of course, all the while continue to pay them their allowance, of which they’re fully entitled to in your enlightened, egalitarian household.
  7. When you grow exhausted of policing your children and discover that your tactics have only made their behavior worse, still continue to pay them their allowance, buy them whatever they demand at the grocery store, and show your kind-hearted benevolence by letting them essentially rule your household, because after all, the working class should have the say. Accept that they will grow up to be brats and propagate the abuse cycle.

Experiment 2

  1. Complete steps 1 – 3 of Experiment 1.
  2. When your children don’t clean their room, don’t pay them.

10 Proverbs for You to Ponder

leaf with rain droplets - Stock Image

  1. If religion produces blind sheep, then atheism produces deaf dogs. Between the two, there’s some pretty good comic potential.
  2. If to live for tomorrow is to miss today, then to live for today is to miss tomorrow. Best to avoid linear time altogether.
  3. Go with the flow. True, you’ll eventually hit rapids and be sucked into a watery grave. But at least you’ll be well-liked.
  4. From Vladamir Lenin, we learn,  “The way to crush the bourgeoisie is to grind them between the millstones of taxation and inflation.” From elementary school, we learn that there are ants in your pants, causing you to do the boogie dance all the way to France. What God hath hidden from the wise and prudent, he hath revealed unto babes.
  5. There are spiders all around you. In your vents. In your couches. Under your covers. Yet when was the last time you told them … any one of them … that you loved them?
  6. Zero population is the answer, my friend. Unfortunately, no one seems to have yet formulated the question.
  7. Of all the constants in the universe, the one that has the most bearing in our lives is the speed of Grandma.
  8. Who needs reality when there’s consensus reality? I mean, if it wasn’t posted on Facebook, did it really happen?
  9. It is better to be feared than to be loved. It is best to be so feared that you confuse people into thinking they’re loving you. That way you’ll get unquestioned obedience plus chocolates.
  10. From the legacy of George Washington Carver, we learn that that by small and simple things are great things brought to pass. From the legacy of Andre the Giant, however, we learn that bigger is better.

Well, that was an interesting exercise. Good night.

Thoughts on “The Woman in Black”

The Woman in Black

In which Harry Potter takes on a homicidal ghost lady with a brilliant sense of dramatic tension

I feel like writing a review. Teresa brought this one home from the library, saying a coworker had recommended it. I’ve never been big on horror films, (1) because the genre has always seemed a little too … evil … for my tastes. (2) (this is the real reason) because Watcher in the Woods traumatized me as a child, and after I saw The Others as a teenager, I found myself literally afraid of the dark. So why purposely give one’s self PTSD?

However, I’ve since come to appreciate horror as an art form, and having also since studied film in college (a very demystifying process), I seriously doubted any film’s ability to actually scare me. I watched the film with this attitude, and I’m not sure if it was the attitude or the film itself, but I was right. Not scary. Funny.

One of the first realizations I had was that there are few things ghosts can actually do in movies. The instant a ghost comes out of obscurity and starts throwing knives at you is the instant the ghost has lost its status as a supernatural unknown and has reduced itself to just another physical danger. And the instant this happens, you no longer have a ghost story but a mind-numbing action film. Thus ghosts are required to stand at the end of hallways, partially obscured, making subtle noises, jumping out at you, then promptly disappearing, looming everywhere but not actually being anywhere. In other words, they’re all moonshine.

While this realization may ruin the fun of a good horror film, I found it enlightening, because (1) I guess I don’t like feeling vulnerable and, perhaps as a self-defense mechanism, I view horror films as a challenge, and (2) if the opportunity ever arises to claim an old, haunted mansion by spending the night in it, a la The Ghost and Mister Chicken, I intend to show up the paranormal by exposing their cheap tricks for what they are.

And speaking of ghostly tricks, this woman in black was the queen. In mortality, she must have been an accomplished magician with a masters in filmmaking. She knew how to compose each shot, placing herself just around the corner, standing where she knew the protagonist would glance, then vanishing as the suspense began to mount. To add to the ambiance, she dressed her set with all sorts of bizarre, custom-made toys with unbelievably scary faces, ominous music boxes, and wind-up dolls that no child would ever touch. Most impressive of all, she got her entire ensemble of murdered children to work with her in standing in opportune places with ghostly looks on their faces while not actually saying or doing anything. To think how she could have so masterfully orchestrated such horrific art without betraying it all by communicating something intelligible is beyond me. But then, I guess that’s how ghosts work. It’s their jobs to remain aloof, anecdotal, and strictly unquantifiable, lest someone were to disprove their existence.

And yet … come one. Is the afterlife really so dismal to explain one’s only pastime being sitting around in an empty house for decades on end, crafting spooky, yet subtle encounters with the living? How in the world are these haunting dead not bored out of their minds and moving on to something new? Among the living, I doubt even the most guilty mass murderer with “unfinished business” could bring himself to sit around for decades bemoaning himself. So what’s going on in the hereafter that makes so many so pathetic and tolerable of tedium?

What’s fun is when you realize the rhythm of a horror film like this. Camera tightens on protagonist. Protagonist looks around in uncertainty. Feelings of vulnerability increase. The strings are all over the place. Somebody’s playing a hair-raising waterphone. Three … two … one … AGH! Is it the ghost? Of course not, because the ghost can’t actually reveal herself until we approach the climax of the movie, which will happen at about 110 minutes, and we’re only at 35, so you can rest with 90% certainty that it’s a false alarm. And the cycle goes on. And on.

I’m not talking down this movie. It was well made with beautiful cinematography. I’ll bet the crew had a blast with nearly every shot. “Let’s see, what would be scary here? Oh! How about an eyeball!” It’s just that this movie has helped me realize how stilted, silly, ridiculous (and fun) cinematic horror can be. Now I would be lying if I said the movie never made me jump (a little bit) or afraid of the dark (slightly) afterward. One can’t expose himself to two hours of intentionally traumatizing material without feeling a little PTSD.

On the other hand, I’ve come to realize that there’s something valuable in horror. It can be good for the soul to experience fear in a safe environment so that we can learn from ourselves how to deal with it. And if I ever have to deal with a psychotic woman in black from the other side, I know just what I’ll do. I’ll sit down with her and talk cinema.

Ghosts.

Not scary.

OK, maybe just a little.

Thoughts on Disney’s Maleficent

Disney's MaleficentThis is another post I started months ago (at least in my mind) and am finally getting around to finishing.

I probably wouldn’t have seen this movie had not family members insisted that Teresa and I needed to see it, offering free babysitting services so we could do so. As anyone with kids knows, one does not turn down such opportunities lightly.

If you read my review on Disney’s Frozen, you’ll understand my reticence to see this film. My patience for stories about misunderstood witches who are really good when an ignorant society as branded them as evil, has grown ever thinner. It seems that such stories have become an emerging genre in themselves. I mean, first we learn that the Wicked Witch of the West isn’t actually wicked. Then we learn that the Snow Queen isn’t actually wicked. And now we learn that Maleficent, the very queen of the night, isn’t wicked either? Are there no more wicked witches in this world?

The opening sequence was delightful. What’s not to like about a beautiful fairy girl in a beauty fairy world? I will tell you, though, that such high fantasy always gives me cognitive dissonance. That is, I like what I’m seeing, but my rational mind immediately exploits the impossibilities, which kills my suspension of disbelief. For example, I have no problem with fairy girls with ram horns. But when there’s only one fairy girl in the entire fairy world, I wonder, “Where are her parents? How does she brush her teeth? What does she use for toilet paper? Where did she learn English? Who does her immaculate makeup each morning? And why would the giants and dwarves submit themselves to her whims?”

I could look past all this, because the story had the tone of a fairy tale, and as far as I’m concerned, fairy tale logic, in its simplistic beauty, transcends actual logic. But the thing about fairy tales is that they’re just that: tales. Without the tools of cinema or theatre, fairy tales allow a storyteller to easily connect with an audience by compressing the complexities of life into digestible themes of good and evil, kings and peasants, love and hate. On the other hand, when you have the luxury of showing your stories, unless done very stylistically, the fairy tale convention can be at odds with the realness brought by the actors. Thus I thought the film was developing nicely until suddenly the narrator said something like, “Stefan told her it was true love … but it was not.”

I mean, I could see the characters with my own eyes. I could hear their voices. I could make my own judgements. It really bothered me when the narrator told me that what I was seeing was not what I thought I was seeing. From this point on, IMHO, the film shifted gear toward the didactic agenda I was dreading.

There’s nothing uncool about the theme of “judge not that ye be not judged.” In fact I’m quite fond of that theme, which, perhaps, is why I fell in love with Wicked when it first came out. The thought of discovering the untold back story of a misunderstood person is exciting. Paradigm shifts are fun. But after the film, Teresa made a keen observation. She said something like, “It’s ironic that the filmmakers press this theme about not judging the person you formerly thought was the villain. But in order to advance this theme, they think they have to create a new villain.”

She said it well. What was up with the villainous King Stefan? I mean, if the filmmakers were creating this story from scratch, it would be a different matter, but because this was a retelling of a classic fairy tale, one can’t just take a completely benign character and make him pure evil while taking a completely evil character and making her benign, without implying a certain point. At first you would think the point is that “no one’s purely evil, so don’t judge until you know the full story.” But that wasn’t the case with this film. As far as I could tell, the point was only that “Maleficent wasn’t pure evil, whereas King Stefan was.” So what are we supposed to learn?

In short, the filmmakers simply reinvented melodrama. But unlike Disney’s original Sleeping Beauty, where you can root for the good guys and boo for the bad guys, this new-age melodrama insists on being just stilted enough to be nearly void of philosophical content while still ambiguous enough to confuse one’s emotions.

As if the unwarranted villainization of King Stefan wasn’t enough to preach the theme that “your traditional concept of ethics and values are backwards,” we discover that the “good” fairies that take Sleeping Beauty under their wings are ignorant, dopey, and pathetic. We discover that every “evil” action Maleficent takes is only half-hearted and traceable to justified feelings of betrayal, and that, when she comes to her sensibilities, she has every intention of undoing her mischief. In short, we learn that good is actually evil, and evil is actually good … or that no one’s actually good, while some people are definitely evil.

What bothered me were the list of contemptible things Maleficent did that the audience was expected to dismiss. For example, there was a scene where some of King Stefan’s knights discovered the location of Maleficent. With the raising of her eyebrows, she proceeds to fling these guys into the air, play with them in sadistic ways, conk their heads together, then hurl them huge distances that, in real life, would almost certainly be lethal. These guys were just doing their jobs. They probably had wives and kids. How many daddies won’t be coming home tonight, because Maleficent thought it would be funny to conk their heads together and throw them a few hundred yards?

When Maleficent herself enlists on the adventure to sneak into the castle, knock out more guards, and rescue the princess, for me at least, the film reached the point of absurdity. The prince, of course, has no useful function in the rescuing of the princess. That would be sexist. Next, Disney’s new anti-cliches about love at first sight and kisses of true love no longer working like they used to … are becoming cliche. Though in fairness, I did think the kissing scene was clever enough and almost beautiful … in a deranged kind of way.

Lest I’m coming across as cynical, I really did enjoy the movie for the most part. Overall, it was fun, and I guess that’s good enough. I say overall, because, as with just about every melodrama, I hated the action scenes in the third act. So stilted. So devoid of meaningful ideas. So unreal. So boring. Yes, action puts me to sleep. I’m weird like that.

At the end of it all, while I don’t really have a problem with switching things up for the sake of a good story, in the case of this film and its associated fairy tale, there are unavoidable implications in doing so. When the closing credits began to roll, I found myself feeling utterly confused, almost amazed. The song for the closing credits (a downright creepy remix of “Once Upon A Dream”) was a perfect closure to it all. Love, we learn, is no longer innocent. People can no longer just fall in love and get married. It’s all infinitely complicated and mysterious. If you walk out of this theater feeling wholesome and inspired, then we have failed to burn our message into your cranium. Life … is … bizarre!

Disney’s original Sleeping Beauty, in all of its clear-cut melodrama, brings tears to my eyes. A good knight stands up against an evil dragon. It’s simple. And yet it speaks to my soul. It makes me want to be a better person. This modern retelling, on the other hand, which seems so indicative of modern culture — I’ve said it before, but I don’t know how else to say it — confused me.