Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Responding ... in the Twilight Zone

[This was actually a response to a friend who was talking about the Twilight Zone (from the review of Zenna Henderson's book in the blog prior to this one). It was long enough, I put it here, as well as the responses.]

The Twilight Zone broke down humanity into brief half-hour segments where a sociological or philosophy point was made. There was a point to the story, unlike most of the junk on now. The same can be said for sci-fi books then vs. now. The books back then were short, had a plot that was easily forgotten in pursuit of the theme of human progress through the stars, and through one's own mind, and, the ones I've read from my dad's collection at least, stayed with me longer than the fluff that is popular now. That's why Zenna Henderson's short stories were so good, or Clifford D. Simak's books, or The Twilight Zone episodes... they stay with you, challenge the way you think, make you look at the way people live in an entirely different way. It's these books that I enjoy reading, and shows I enjoyed watching.

I realized that, while watching the shows on Disney, that they weren't doing that at all. They were entertaining, but there were other things I could be doing with my life. I have an entire library of books here, waiting to be read, and a universe of books I haven't discovered yet. I have miles of trails to walk, blogs to write, and so if I'm going to watch television, I want to make it something that is going to be worth those minutes to do. Now, that's not to say that the things I do instead is any more useful. I gave up some Facebook games, like Bejeweled Blitz, for the same reason, but I still enjoy one or two of the sites up with mindless slot machines and other match-3 games.

The thing is, I would accept watching the Twilight Zone as a good use of 30 minutes of my life, as it is entertaining and thought-provoking, and is an example of what directors can do with simple scripts, plot lines, and themes. These masterpieces are still memorable, some half-century later. As creators ourselves, who want to leave a lasting mark on the world, those directors have done so. I hope that the directors at Disney and CBS, NBC...etc.... can feel the same way about the shows they make.

[J.'s response:]

I  agree with you. It kind of goes back to what you said about the learning curve being gone and I believe you blogged about uselessness before. That is why some people say that Disney Channel is not the same anymore, because Disney doesn't teach the kids anything anymore. The biggest worry is making the kids laugh, not giving them something to think about. Therefore, there is little to no learning curve. That's why I loved some of the old adult shows more than a lot of the new ones because attached to all the entertainment were morals. Home Improvement is one of the greatest examples of that. Tim 'The Tool Man' Taylor said it best, "Tool Time is not just about Home Improvement; it's about male improvement." Tim is just not the same since HI (I've seen his recent show, Last Man Standing, and it's nowhere near as good as HI). Plus, you have Wilson, who gave Tim, Jill or any of the characters advise in their time of need. What you've been blogging lately reminds me of what Wilson once said to Tim, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." [Quote is at 5:13 of the clip above] I believe it is a Chinese proverb, but I am not 100% sure. But, it is so true for kids today. They want to be given everything on a platinum platter, but doesn't want to learn to do things for themselves. They have so much potential and so much promise, yet they don't want to tap into it.

 Also, when you said that some of the books and shows make you look at the way people live in an entirely different way, it reminds me of the Twilight Zone episode "The Obsolete Man." The librarian was declared obsolete for his faith in God, yet he held true to his faith, and even witnessed to the man that was going to contribute to the librarian's liquidation. That episode teaches us to be bold in our faith.

Anyway, I am glad you are trying your best only to do things that are worth your time. Every time you mention about your hikes that you take, I am reminded of the saying, "Life is not about the number of breaths you take, but the number of moments that take your breath away." I am sure with all of the hikes, you had a lot of breath-taking views, moments and journeys.

Well, with all the hills around here, there have been quite a few times where my breath was taken away... by trudging up the trails.  There are physical moments as you talked about, ones where the beauty of being atop a slab of rock, or the mental satisfaction of climbing those hills magnifies the beauty of what's up there.  There are also times when, as Kyle Idleman talked about on the overhead at Lifeway, there are "AHA" moments, Eureka moments, as I called them before, where the light inside your head goes off, something clicks, a pattern is put together.  Idleman talks about this as it refers to Biblical principles, bridges that are crossed within our spiritual journey, but it can occur at other times as well. I remember a time in the 12th grade when I was reading a book, The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe, and everything that my English teachers had been trying to convey about Romanticism all clicked into place.  It was a point where my philosophy of life changed, I saw things in a different way.  I'll talk about this more in a future blog, reviewing some music I'm listening to.

And this is not to say that I don't waste my time (if you want to call it that), because I do, to a certain extent.  James Taylor penned "The Secret of Life is enjoying the passage of Time..." I agree with that somewhat. I think there's a time when hard work and sacrifice brings about the satisfaction of a job well done, that there are things worth "not enjoying" for a time, but in the end, it will bring that enjoyment. That's Epicurean thought in a nutshell.  And if I can complete a task, finish a blog, get the kitchen cleaned (half-way), get a chapter read in a book, take a walk, map a trail, then I'm doing good.  There are some people who will make you think that if you're not out there digging trenches, bleeding for mankind, sweating for a deadline, that you're not doing enough, that you're some strain to the economy and the world.  As long as I leave something to this world that I feel important, this blog, for instance, then I have accomplished a goal. If I have brought happiness to the people I work with, with the people online, then I have enhanced the world in some way.  I have saved a life, brought the joy of reading to customers minds, especially the kids that came to Borders, helped out friends online with bullies, and taking care of my mother when she needs it.  Sometimes the "wasted" time is simply resting from one thing to the next, and even God rested, on the Seventh day.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Brothers; The Anything Box; No Spoilers

I'm catching up on some review work before the world warms up and it's too unbearable to sit in a messy bedroom and be on the computer when I can be outside, and what better than a rainy, cold, icky weekend than to do that?

Video Game Review: Brothers...

A tale of two joysticks...erm... sons.  It's almost impossible to find reviews online that don't spoil everything, and I will try not to.  You know how I've been trying to find video games that provide the same emotional experience as books or movies do.  I think there's a considerable medium available for artists who want to tell a story that is interactive and stimulating on multiple levels.  And there are many prime examples of this, Psychonauts comes to mind, Final Fantasy III (VI), Papo Y Yo.  With the critical success of the latter, and Journey, many independent video game makers are using the media as a canvas to create moving works of art.  The balance comes in making a game both enjoyable in technical and interactive aspects (in other words, what makes it a "game"), as well as blending in art, emotion, storylines, and theme.

The problem is that I think some video game designers have started making video games that are Emotional for Emotions sake.  As I said in my last blog, we've become a society that expects a constant pull of action or emotion, or we become bored with all of it. Take movies from times past, until today.  The subdued horror that is Hitchcock's Psycho uses camera angles, music, to create a bathtub scene that is shocking without being grotesque.  Today's audiences need much more graphic displays of violence.  I doubt that the Saw series would have even been possible in the 1950s or 60s, mainly because it would never have been thought of as something people want to see.  Now, there's no problem with visually torturing people on screen.  Death has never been so graphic, nor so banal, as it is today.

The same goes for video games.  Death in most first person shooters is as boring as Pong set on "Easy." We simply have no emotional connection to the characters, and even if we do, we know that they will reappear at the last save point.  The first actual death that created an emotional loss would have to be Aerith's death in Final Fantasy VII, one that provided an emotional shock much like the death of Optimus Prime in Transformers: The Movie in 1986 (nowadays, it happens every movie... it's expected, routine, even)

The makers of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons have created a game where death is immutable, where no magical twist of plot line is supposed to make it all better.  In the beginning (and this is not a spoiler), you watch as the younger brother tries to pull his mother into a boat, but is unable to, and she drowns.  The scene, and the following one, at the grave site, is sad, setting an emotional roller coaster for the whole game.  The two brothers must set out on a journey from the confines of a comfortable human village out into a fairy tale world where danger, puzzles, and acts of brutality and compassion take place around every corner.  They go to find medicine for their now ailing father.

The unique part of this game is that it's only for one player.  One controller (or the keyboard), two brothers.  It would be akin to playing the piano, where the fingers must do two different things independent of each other.  There were times that I had to connect a joystick up (in which each brother is controlled by the analog sticks) and then also use the keyboard.  To make things worse, the joystick is calibrated wrong, so "up" was actually "left," and so forth.  The puzzles in the game are simple, but difficult (because of the controlling) at the same time.  All the while, you are becoming more intimately knowledgeable of each brother.  They can interact with most all characters and objects in the game, scoring achievements in Steam or the PS3 along the way.

The sore spot for me is, of course, the ending. I didn't like it.  What I thought should have happened was this: (and this isn't a spoiler, because you find yourself wondering how it will end way before it actually does.  This is just a way it doesn't end.) I thought the the brothers would come back with the medicine only to find it too late, that their father had died, but with all the adventures the two brothers had had, the older brother was mature enough to build a family with just those two.  It would provide an ending that would be a sound moral exclamation point at the end.  But it doesn't end that way.

The best trailer I've found is on Steam.  Download the Steam program (you should do that anyhow, if you have a fast enough computer), and download the trailer from Steam.  The ones on Youtube are too short, and most reviews are filled with Spoilers).

Book Review: The Anything Box by Zenna Henderson

I'm positive that Zenna Henderson and Ray Bradbury were the same person... that's how good their short stories are, and how lyrical each one writes.  Of course, I know they're not, that's just silly.  I love finding a book in your stacks and reading it for the first time, even after you've had it for years on end, and your father before that.  My dad never liked short stories (as I've said before,) and so reading this collection was something different from what I normally do.  Zenna Henderson writes about "The People," in most of her works. They are aliens that have become stranded here on Earth and are trying to find their way back home.  The theme continues in this set of short stories, most of which are told from a teacher's point of view (that being the occupation of the writer).  The children the narrator's meet are strange, often with unusual abilities that seem to be quite normal to the kids themselves.  They feel like episodes of The Twilight Zone, each in brevity and theme, and I enjoyed most of the stories in this book.  Orson Scott Card attributes Henderson as being an inspiration growing up, and indeed, those who enjoy OSC's work will find themselves at home in the pages of this book.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Iron Heart

The problem with sucking on the teats of Dionysus is that, at a certain point, you don't know how to feel anymore.  Your heart turns numb, an anesthetic that creeps slowly up your chest until it enters the brain and you turn off, because there's nothing else to do.  There's no reason for it, none at all.  Apollo cannot enter the mind if it's been turned off already, and then there's no reasoning, no logic.  It doesn't surprise me that the teen who went on a stabbing spree doesn't remember doing any of it, or the mother who killed both her kids (admittedly, she was on alcohol and meds) doesn't remember it either. They can't remember if their minds have been turned off.  They have become robots of the Unmaker (as I've talked about before).  All emotional impulse, instant gratification, without thought of the consequences, a cut, a bleed, release the adrenaline and make it all feel better. It will all go away soon.  Except it won't.

I've seen so much recently, from the smiling news reporters who, story after staccato story, tell of the most horrific acts mankind has ever known, and then move on to weather and sports as if nothing has happened.  I'm surprised more news reporters haven't ended up in mental institutions, suffering from PTSD just by reporting on reality.  And kids want constant emotional turmoil, because the deafening silence of "nothing happening" is unbearable in today's world.  If nothing is going on, if Justin Bieber isn't constantly in the news, having done something, usually negative, because that gets more attention, then something is wrong.  The mug shots and tattoos and scantily clad pictures rotate around instant-grams and tweets and pictures that are as permanent as they are forgotten.  Today's shirtless pic is followed up by tomorrow's nude, because that's what the world wants.  Constant hormonal flow, without recourse of thought or reason.  Nothing that stops and watches the permanence of the rings forming in the trees, for our eyes are taken to the leaves blowing away, a flicker of movement, resulting in nothing.

Even in music, numbness is a feeling as prevalent as love.  It caused an entire movement (one that's not gone away, just experienced a brief glow in the spotlight) of forced emotion, trying to squeeze out every drop of emotion, the highs and the lows, out of anything. The opposite of emotion is not reason, but the absence of emotion, as there's nothing to fill that void.  Nietzsche would have quoted in this day and age "Apollo is Dead," and he'd be quite right.  Because if there's no thought behind feeling, no reasoning behind love, there's no point, is there? We could whip ourselves into an emotional frenzy, hurl ourselves off a metaphoric cliff, and there would be no notion of what was on the ground below.

It goes for Christianity, as well.  There's nothing more amazing than the emotional effect of God's word through a song. Listen to I Then Shall Live by the Gathier Vocal Band and Ernie Haase and Signature Sound, and not get goosebumps, I dare you.  It's so easy to get emotionally worked up in a service, as you sing chorus after chorus of a song, but it's got to have some meaning behind it.  For if (and I've seen this) you spend all Sunday School listening and singing to Praise & Worship songs, and are filled with emotional responses, and then leave without any Reason behind it, the glory fades until the next time. God wrote the Bible not just to express His love for us, but also to impart his wisdom. But some want the emotional support without the wisdom.  I think it's almost like a drug.  Go back and listen to the song linked above 50 times in a row (no, actually, don't do that), and the emotional effect will wear off. The words will be recessed into the back of your mind until they've lost the impact that they would have had before.  That's the problem with emotional highs... they never last.  But if there's Reason behind it, something that takes the emotion, stretches it out, analyzes it, applies it to your life, finds patterns and examples, the emotion sticks like super glue onto your life, and it lasts forever.  Because you've made it your own.

Anyone can work someone into an emotional frenzy.  Hitler did it, mass hysteria at the Salem Witch Trials is another example.  Keep the emotion going, so that you don't step back and think about what's really going on, and it'll be fine.  Except the Unmaker always wins that way.  When the emotions have become numb, and you have to find more and more extreme measures to make you feel anything, then the things which weren't even thinkable at one point suddenly become real.  Go on a shooting rampage in a school?  Sure, why not?  It releases feelings and hormones and tension... until the police are ready to shoot you, and then reality hits for one moment, until it's blacked out by the illogical step of shooting yourself.  The Unmaker is very willing to show you what you've done before he pushes you over the edge.

All this is why there has to be a balance between Apollo and Dionysus, between Reason and Emotion.   It's why, again, I have to return to Friedrich's painting "Wanderer Over a Sea of Fog", with the Traveller standing upon the peak of the mountain, shoulders calmly but firmly taught, head erect, confident in his stance, able to Think and Feel, and keep the balance between the two.  Without this, he would surely tumble over the edge to his death.

It's so very easy to just give in to the emotions that swirl constantly like the wind atop that mountain. So easy just to succumb to the breathtaking highs and depressed lows that our lives will inevitably bring us.  And in wanting those highs, constantly, we eliminate the opposite by taking medication, and we forsake Reason entirely.  It's dangerous, for those without Reason can be manipulated, and they stand atop the peaks without sure footing.  Without Apollo's guidance.... it's a long way down.