Tuesday, August 09, 2016

It's All About Me

This post is starting as a political rant, but really is a personal reflection. Bear with me, I'll get there.

I think I've discovered what Donald Trump actually wants to be. He doesn't want to be President. He doesn't really want to be a real estate magnate, or business tycoon, or thought leader. 

He wants to be a stand-up comedian. He wants to be Jerry Seinfeld, or Rodney Dangerfield. He wants to have people adore him, laugh at his jokes, think he's the funniest guy in the world.

When I hear Trump make those little aside jokes at his rallies - like today's 2nd Amendment riff - he doesnt actually mean them in the sense he's advocating gun owners shoot Hillary Clinton or any Supreme Court Judges she may appoint. He's not even really saying them as some kind of political insult or dig at his opponent. He says it, and many other things like it, because he enjoys the laugh he gets from the audience. His loyal, rabid, vapid supporters at his rallies. It's happened many times before -  the bit with the baby the other day, the crowd ate up his snide comments about letting the baby stay, then getting rid of it. And when you're someone who craves attention, acceptance and affirmation like Trump does, you keep doing it no matter what. You can't help yourself.

In not the first bully comparison, Trump acts like the young punk in school who had all the girls and all the sycophantic friends, who made a crude joke at someone's expense that all his cronies just laughed themselves silly. You can almost see his elbows flail as he cracks wise, desperately searching for some flunky nearby to poke in the ribs, "Amiright? Amiright?" He gets off on the attention, it feeds his desperately needy ego, and I think all things being equal if he could just continue to lead rallies day after day for the rest of his life and forget about all the rest, he'd do so. Once he's in the Oval Office, who's going to stand around and give him the multitudes of snide guffaws - the Secret Service? The Whiite House Press Corps? The roses in the Rose Garden? Trump needs his followers like Gaston needs his LeFew, someone to sing his praises endlessly.

Ok, political rant is over. I said that, to say this...

I kinda identify with that. Well, not that precisely. I don't stand around making crude, politically incorrect jokes about my enemies to the delight of my mulltitudenous hangers-on.  But I certainly do recognize and appreciate the need to be appreciated, adored, to be shown the things you do and say are specifically pleasing to others.

For years, I've considered myself to be a student of comedy and its construction. I consider myself to have a good sense of humor, and I'm not afraid to crack a joke from time to time. Especially at strategic moments in time when they will bring the most positive reactions. It's extremely attractive and can be addicting to a degree, the feeling that gets when a room erupts in laughter at a carefullly-chosen and timed remark you have made. It's instant feedback to affirm your cleverness, your insight, your wit and wisdom. I think all of us need that from time to time, and I find myself needing it more often than not.

Oh, I enjoy making the jokes for their own sakes - to lighten a mood, to make a commentary on a situation that needs a less serious tone, to bring humor to a serious situation. These are all good reasons to bring out a good zinger every once in a while. But it has become somewhat part of my reputation, and a reflection of my character. Good or bad, it's there on the surface but with possibly a surprising source within.

For years, I've tried to assert my creative side, in many ways. I perform onstage as a singer and as an actor, with limited successes. I don't necessary fail, but my efforts rarely are met with singular acclaim. Nobody is waiting outside the dressing rooms to specifically give me high marks on my performance. I' there, I do the job, I leave. Again, enjoyable for its own sake but rarely elicits an emotional feedback other than basic appreciation.

I've achieved what might be my most notable creative success in musical directing, at least due to the feedback I get from my musicians and others that I am actually doing a good job and making a difference in a production. Music Directors don't get a lot of acclaim by nature of the job and that's fine. When your peers recognize your worth, that's pretty much the highest acclaim you can find.

Directors themselves can be high profile, especially in the big leagues of Broadway and film, rarely so down in the trenches of community theatre. Other than grateful parents and appreciative kids, there's not a lot of opportunities for the kind of positive feedback somebody might desire, or need. 

Especially when you're in a life situation now where there are no more opportunities for any of those things. None. My work life requires me to be in Nashville 4 days a week, and home in Knoxville for 3. Which as all theatrical veterans know most all productions at least at some point in the rehearsal and production process require someone to be there for weeks at a time. Therefore, I haven't done a show in almost three years. And as my creative outlets have dried up, so have any real opportunities for true feedback and appreciation of talent.

I have tried my hand at writing, something I find frustrating because of the process. I have great ideas for stories, but don't have the discipline to actually put hand to keyboard and write it out. This blog post will likely be one of the longest things I've been able to keep interest in and write for a long time. I've started two short plays and one longer play. Sometimes I will write here and there, sometimes I'll even show off examples off my writing to friends and colleagues. Very little feedback or constructive criticism, so not only is there no opportunity to grow and improve my skills, there's little to no impetus to continue at all. There's no reason to believe that what I'm doing is good at all. So why continue?

I remember early on in the blogging craze, a blogger friend of mine responded to a similar lament I had about nobody reading my blog. They said they write for themselves and not for others. To them, what others thought about their posts - and indeed, whether anyone really read them at all - was irrelevant. What was important was that they wrote for themselves, that blogging was not only a creative expression but a personal one. That in writing out their feelings and thoughts, they were addressing a particular need of their own. The response or feedback or engagement from others was distantly secondary. And they were perfectly content with the process.

I've often thought about that, and how easy and therapeutic it must be to not have the burden of acceptance hanging over your head. To be able to write what you want, sing what you want, say what you want and not worry about being judged for it. But I can't find it in myself to get to that point. I'm not secure enough in my abilities and my own thoughts to put them out there just for the sake of making a statement about myself. If I don't have feedback, if there is no interaction, then the effort is pointless. I need that actualization that comes from the acceptance, the approval -  the distinct, deliberate approval and appreciation of others stemming directly from something I've created, to make a difference in my personal sense of worth and meaning.

Not to get too meta here, but even this specific blog entry I'm writing. As I sit here typing these words, I haven't yet decided whether to actually post it. If I do, maybe I'll get feedback and supportive words from my friends. Maybe nobody will bother to read it. If I don't post it and nobody ever reads it, does it exist? Does it have merit or worth if nobody but me ever actually sees it? Just because I wrote it, does anything I have to say mean anything without an audience to read it? How can I be certain that anything I say or do has any worth to it at all without a reflection on someone else? I can't be trusted to judge my own work -  do we grade our own tests? A+++ for Barry on the Calculus final! All 5's on the vocal juries! 100 points to Griffyndor! No, I don't think it can.

Therefore, for one brief agonizing moment I can empathize and be jealous of Donald Trump. He has found his platform where he can say almost anything and be loved for it. As sick as his words are, and as lost as his followers are, he at least has found his self-actualization. 

As for me, I'll take these words and stuff them in a can someplace where the only one that can see them will be me. Maybe I'll let them out to play sometime. Maybe not. You be the judge.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Good, the Bad, and the Not-So-Sure of "Star Trek: Beyond"

It's' the thirteenth movie in the Star Trek franchise, and the third in the so-called "Abrams-verse." Of course, JJ Abrams has long since moved on to bigger, more lucrative franchises, but this time around Justin Lim has taken the helm. Known for various "Fast and Furious" films, many were nervous the latest Trek film would be nothing but an action-adventure explosion-fest from beginning to end. Explosions abound, but let's leave the judgement to the end.

Obviously, spoilers abound. You have been warned.


1) The character portrayals (well, most of them) - Karl Urban and Anton Yelchin (RIP) continue to own their characters of McCoy and Chekov. The plot contrivance of splitting the bridge crew into various subgroups on the planet was well-conceived, as was each group slowly finding each other. It gave most every co-star moments to shine.

Chris Pine is growing on me as James T. Kirk, but there's still something about his physical build and the way he holds himself that just doesn't project a Shatner-esque confidence. His character has grown quite a bit since "Star Trek" (2009), in that he does now truly inspire the confidence and loyalty of his crew - all of them, not just the ones on the bridge. This Kirk is entering a career crisis that we know affected the original Kirk at the end of the original 5-year mission, so continuity holds there. I thought the resolution of his crisis and its references to his father were perhaps resolved a little too neatly (while setting up the next movie) but at least the arc was there.

Simon Pegg continues to improve his take on Scotty - he's taken it farther from the original James Doohan version, but I like this one just about as well. Oh, and Keenser was used minimally in this one, which is always a big plus. And he got himself a mini-me!

2) The Call-Backs - Multiple references to past incarnations of Trek abounded in this one, but thankfully weren't as obvious as random tribbles or old girlfriends. I had no clue of the inclusion of "Star Trek: Enterprise"-era ships, uniforms and bridge sets, which were a delight to watch. I kept wondering why they didn't just go ahead and make the Franklin be Archer's original Enterprise until the reveal at the end as to what happened to its captain. There was a MACO reference as well, which was cool. I noticed a few line callbacks, including "to absent friends" and "scotch was inwented by a little old lady from Russia" to the reappearance of an Enterprise NCC-1701-A. The death of Ambassador Spock was necessary and worked into younger Spock's plot line, so that was good, and the family photo at the end tied things back to the original cast neatly. Did anybody else expect younger Spock to find Ambassador Spock's ICIC pin, or maybe the Vulcan lyre in amongst his effects?

3) An Episode of Trek - there's been controversy with each of the movies that have been released, that they just don't feel like an episode of Star Trek. This one, maybe more than any other movie since possibly The Final Frontier, felt like an expanded episode of one of the series. That's a good thing. I'm not sure the actual plot held up as big-screen worthy, but we'll get to that. I enjoyed that the action was basically contained to one planet and one star base, and didn't span the entire galaxy.

4) The Action - to go along with the criticism of their not being enough episode-type structure to a Star Trek movie, there was also a lot of fear that with Justin Lim directing the movie there would be way too much reliance on straight-up action and violence. The movie did have that, but it was Star Trek action. I wasn't a fan of the kickboxing type fight at the end, but there was a good balance between combat and the rest of the movie.


1) Spock - Let me be clear up front: I didn't think Spock's character was portrayed badly, nor do I think he was written poorly. I did notice a difference in watching Spock this time around, that now I'm much more familiar with Zachary Quinto from his other acting jobs (such as American Horror Story) so I found myself thinking more and more, "hey, there's Zachary Quinto" playing Spock, instead of "hey, there's that new guy playing Spock." While I certainly wouldn't begrudge an actor keeping him or herself busy between Trek movies professionally, the more they make themselves visible in other roles the easier it is for me to be drawn out of the story during their first couple of appearances in the film. 

I did find it an odd choice to give Spock an injury so early in the story and continue to make it a hindrance to him for most of the rest of the movie. Watching a well man carry an injured man in a hostile environment is not a new plot point, but unless there's a good reason for it - to level a playing field, to deliberately slow a character from reaching a goal, etc - it just seems to slow down the storyline while we wait for the grunting and grimacing to finish. I do understand Spock and McCoy did have to have some character moments between them that might've been more difficult if they'd been constantly mobile, but I thought it was too much.

Spock is also feeling a pull to leave the Enterprise, in this case to help his people and, in McCoy's words, "make Vulcan babies." As the movie progresses he comes to realize his place is on the ship and at Kirk's side. Since the loss of Vulcan is obviously a character trait unique to younger Spock's history, his Starfleet decisions are much different. But the solution - fighting beside his shipmates, working closely with Kirk, the death of Ambassador Spock and a family portrait - seem to not really require him to come to the turnaround naturally. Spock has a crisis, events happen, crisis is resolved. Seemed a little empty and unearned.

I think Spock's character was underserved in this movie, and the evolution of his relationship with Uhura will be discussed later.

2) The Music - I don't have a problem with the score itself, I just realize I'm quite over Michael Giacchino's new, droning main Trek theme. We heard the traditional fanfare a couple of times (although it's never enough) but I finally realize what the new-ish theme reminds me of: militaristic sci-if movies like "Starship Troopers." Yes, I know James Horner's "Star Trek II" score also had a militaristic bent, but it was Star Trek II. 'Nuff said.

3) The Villain - Idris Elba is a fine actor - I look forward to seeing him in Stephen King's Dark Tower movies. I enjoyed his desperation at the end of this movie, once he's back in a Starfleet Uniform and you can actually see his face. But for the other 4/5 of the film, he's so covered in alien make-up, his lines are just run-of-the-mill Trek villain, his motivations are completely unclear, I actually had him in the running for worst Trek villain of all time. Thankfully, somewhere out there Eric Bana breathes a sigh of relief at not having to give up the crown. We're 0-3 (0-5 if you go back through "Star Trek: Insurrection") since we've had a memorable, worthwhile Trek movie villain. For some reason, the producers of Trek keep trying to find another Khan (even, strangely enough, finding another Khan) to stand toe-to-toe with Kirk or Picard or Kirk but keep falling short. I think that reason is worth more in-depth study, but to have not even a hint at a villain's true motivations for doing evil until the very end of the movie makes for a very uninteresting, cardboard adversary.

Did Kraal's bio-tech weapon seem an awful lot like Shinzon's thelaron radiation from "Star Trek: Nemesis"? Combined with his similarity to Shinzon's and Nero made for a bland, recycled villain.


1) Sulu and Uhura - This time both characters seemed to be defined mostly by their relationships: Uhura with Spock, and Sulu with his Significant Other. Uhura did figure out the frequency broadcast trick at the end but mainly served as a catalyst for advancing Spock's particular character arc. Sulu has the least to do, but we saw him in domestic bliss. While I think the relationships between all the characters was this movie's biggest strength and Zoe Saldana and John Cho continue to do a good job, not finding enough for these two to do didn't help their characters much.

One small thing about Uhura - it must be an established fact of this new timeline that this Uhura is very much unlike Nichelle Nichols' Uhura. While Simon Pegg's Scotty has evolved in a slightly different yet familiar direction, Zaldana's Uhura seems to have significant personality differences that Nichols'. It's not a bad thing, necessarily, just notable.

2) The Plot - Um....what? 

Why did Kraal hate the Federation so much he was prepared to commit genocide - supposedly they took him away from being a soldier, made him a captain, then when he got lost they didn't come find him? Really? Someone goes from crashing their ship in a nebula planet to genocidal maniac because of a vendetta against the alliance that gave him a ship in the first place and then for what ever reason, couldn't find him? This rationale requires Kraal to really have a low threshold for vengeance motivation. I think I saw that once before following the destruction of Romulus in the future...

Where did Kirk get the alien artifact he was offering to the little aliens at the beginning of the movie? Where did those other aliens get it? How did it happen to be the one piece of technology needed by the villain in the area that happens to have just set up the trap for Kirk? Where did this technology come from? Who built it?

Why did the soul-sucker technology change Kraal's appearance to look like a Jem'Haddar? Why did he transform back to human-ish at the end? Who were his henchmen - other crewmen from the Franklin? How did his mind and body become twisted in the first place? (Please, don't tell me, "Read the supplemental comic book series." 

Where did Jaylah come from? For what reason did Kraal capture her and her family, as well as all the other aliens on the planet? Why did Kraal decide to put this extremely complicated plan into motion? If he could use the alien tech to tap into Yorktown Station's database, why didn't he use it earlier on to get rescued?

Lots of plot holes that, admittedly, may make more sense on subsequent viewings. But not addressing some of these points during the movie tended to make the inner motivations of the adversaries muddy and unrealistic.

3) Jaylah - Not sure what to say about Jaylah. The purist in me wants more info on her species, but I know that's not relevant to the story. Overall I liked her, and hope we see more of her - she had a Ro Laren/Kira Nerys quality to her.  I also liked her "conquering personal fear" character arc, although I think the resolution wasn't really acknowledged. There was a specific bit with her and Kirk in the middle of the movie regarding her being afraid to return to Kraal's base. She does conquer her fear, but that feat doesn't seem to be acknowledged specifically by the movie or the characters. 

4) Carol Marcus - I thought "Star Trek: Into Darkness" made a big deal about Dr. Marcus joining the crew. Where was she? Maybe she was at home on maternity leave... Odd there was no mention of her.

5) Another Lost Enterprise - When I saw in the previews that it appeared the Enterprise was getting the stuffing kicked out of it, I was dismayed. But I have so little visceral attachment to this version of the Big E (as opposed to TOS, movies, TNG or even "Enterprise"'s Enterprise I really didn't care if this one survived or not. We all knew they'd get a Version A, a la the end of Trek IV, so the stakes really weren't there. Still wish the Franklin was actually Archer's Enterprise after all. Ok, let it go, let it go...

Overall I enjoyed the movie about as much as I enjoyed "Star Trek: Into Darkness," which was better than the 2009 "Star Trek." They're moving in the right direction, just taking their own time to get there. Another viewing might clear up some of my problems, so take them all with a grain of triticale.

Look for a full discussion with Mike on the All Good Things Star Trek Podcast next week - http://allgoodthings.podbean.com, @agtpod on Twitter.