Saturday, December 25, 2010

Post Office Cancels Santa

[Merry Christmas, everyone! To celebrate the day, here's something I wrote in 1991, but is just as timely today...]

I have a vice to admit. I collect stamps. Blame my father for introducing me to philately at an early age. I don’t have the full-bore habit, though, if you know what I mean by bore. I’ll occasionally buy plate blocks when an interesting stamp appears. So when I heard that the Post Office (nobody really calls it the United States Postal Service) had issued a booklet of five different Santa Claus stamps, I eagerly rushed out to buy them.

These stamps are lovely, all right. They even tell a little story: Santa drops down the chimney, checks off items on his list, delivers the goods, waves at us by the fireplace, and flies away in his sleigh. What wonderful stamps with which to spread holiday cheer! I rushed them home to show to my 7-year-old. Her reaction was not the one I had anticipated.

“Why do they have Santa on a postage stamp?” she asked suspiciously.

“It’s Christmas,” I said in that bewildered parental tone.

“You said someone has to be dead to be on a stamp. Is Santa Claus dead?”

That hit me from left field. I almost exposed the entire centuries-old Santa conspiracy by saying, “Well, honey, the law doesn’t cover fictional characters.”

“You mean Santa’s not dead, he just isn’t real?”

Aieee! My mind raced. “No, muffin. I mean, uh. . .” She could tell I was concocting a whopper. “I mean the, um, pictorial representation of Santa Claus--who really is a real person living at the North Pole--is an imaginative interpretation by an artist. You see, it’s OK for the Post Office to print stamps reproducing artwork, and these are stamps made from paintings of Santa.” Did it work? Had I buffaloed my little impressionable one?

Her eyes narrowed. “Every stamp,” she said in a sternly patronizing tone, “is made from artwork. Paintings of living people aren’t allowed either. The Post Office is either saying that Santa Claus never existed or that he’s dead!”

I had to come clean with the kid. Here was an agency of the federal government undoing everything Jack Albertson had done in Miracle On 34th Street when he took the sacks of mail addressed to Santa Claus and delivered them to Jimmy Stewart filibustering in the Senate chambers. (Or did Stewart fly the mail to Paris with Donna Reed? I’ve got to stop watching those Stewart/Capra marathons.)

I had to come up with an explanation. Maybe if I told her Santa had the misfortune to carry some gifts wrapped by Libyan elves. . .

“Sweetheart,” I said, sitting her down. “I want you to brace yourself for a shock.” She looked up at me with her large, innocent blue eyes. “You’re a big girl now,” I said, “and big girls have to face the truth, no matter how painful it may be.”

Her voice caught in a tearful sob. “You mean. . .?”

“Yes, Vanessa, the Post Office lied. The mean old postal commissioner, whose name, I believe, is Ebenezer-something, decided that if he couldn’t force everyone to give him an extra cent for each letter they mail, he would tell all the girls and boys that Santa was dead. Yeah, that’s it! And he didn’t get that extra cent, so he tried to ruin Christmas for all the little boys and girls. The newspapers are calling it Santagate. Garry Trudeau is drawing a few strips about it.”

She looked crushed, as if all faith had been stolen from her. She ran to her room, crying, “I’ll never ever believe in any federal agency ever again! And I’ll seriously question any statements issued at the state and local level, too!” Her door slammed. I heard sobbing.

Feeling like the grandfather of all Grinches, I half-heartedly made some eggnog and sat in front of the fireplace, staring in gloom at the gaily decorated Christmas tree desiccating by the hearth. Nothing could break my mood.

My wife finally consoled me by saying, “She may have lost her faith in the government, darling, but at least she still believes in someone who offers her something for nothing.”

That’s true! And he delivers overnight and never loses a package.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Yoga Studio -- Episode Three

And the trilogy is complete! In this episode, Caitlyn (Vanessa Koman) receives The Bus Talk from her boss Rachel (Tiffany Chandon). We've all received these pep talks before, but Caitlyn gives Rachel the backtalk we'd all like to spout. Look for the return of Leandro Cano as Bobby! (And look for Leandro on CSI: Miami this Sunday in the episode Blood Sugar!)

The Yoga Studio -- Episode Two

Vanessa and I have finished Episode Two! In this one, a nerdy guy (Rob Downs) interrupts Caitlyn (Vanessa) and Miss Laura (Allison Horack) and turns the Yoga Studio upside down with his Tolkienesque antics. Hilarity ensues. Never has a squeak toy been put to better use. And, yes, she globed the video.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Yoga Studio -- Episode One

I've been working with my daughter Vanessa on her new web-series The Yoga Studio, and the first episode is now on her website. I served as the Director of Photography (i.e., it was my camera and I refused to let go of it) and the Editor. Vanessa, though, was the real powerhouse behind the project. She wrote the scripts, hired the actors, filed the SAG paperwork (including Taft-Hartley for the non-union members), and directed each episode as well as starring in them. We've taped three episodes and they will all be posted between now and Christmas. I had fun editing them with iMovie and using iDVD to create DVD versions. Check it out at

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Anti-Capitalist Film Makes Cameron a Billionaire

I finally -- reluctantly -- gave Jim Cameron, Regal Entertainment, and Imax my $16.50 to see Avatar in Imax 3D the last week before it got booted out by Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland so that I could knowledgeably explain why I knew I wouldn’t like the film before I saw it.

Let me state that I am a big fan of Cameron’s films. I love the Terminator series and think Aliens is the best of the four in that series. Whenever True Lies is on, I have to stop and watch it. And, yes, I cried at Titanic. But then again I cry at Muppet movies, so take it for what it’s worth. The man’s a brilliant master of visual storytelling. And that is the big reason why I am so upset with Avatar. I knew that I would dislike the film as soon as I learned bits of storyline as the hype began last year. Aliens are the beleaguered good guys enduring invasion. Check. Earth people (specifically, American Earth people) are the venal, rapacious invaders. Check. One man defies his people to save the aborigines. Check. Scientists always seek Truth and never twist their research for grant money or to please the government. Check. And businessmen will always opt to exterminate potential trading partners, have no respect for life or property, and are bereft of morality. Check.

Other reviewers have already made the more-than-obvious parallels with Dances With Wolves, Disney’s Pocahontas, Ferngully, and a bunch of others. And I’m probably writing this late enough that most of my coming points have already been made by others, but I think the problem with Avatar is endemic in American culture, and highly damaging.

George Lucas understood the importance of removal from reality in writing fantastic fiction. Star Wars originally took place “in the year 3000”, but moved to “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” not merely to make it sound more like the opening of a fairy tale, but to remove it from any connection with 20th Century Earth. In that way, the elements of the story become a template that can apply to any viewer’s outlook. What was the Empire? To one, it might be an analogy for the British Empire versus the Rebel Alliance of the 13 colonies. To another, it might be evil Corporate America vs. heroic union organizers. Roman Empire vs. Christianity. In other words, you can’t pin Lucas down to a particular current political viewpoint. He’s merely for liberty and against tyranny -- it’s up to the viewer to choose the analogues.

Cameron’s mistake (and I use the word advisedly, since Avatar is one of the highest-grossing films of all time) is an artistic one: making a fantasy film too specific. Star Wars and Lord of the Rings will be timeless because they are not bound to any specific historical matrix. James Cameron has chosen to plant Avatar squarely in a specifically 21st-Century American matrix. In other words, the ex-Marine mercenaries we see are obviously American ex-Marines; the corporate weasel is obviously an American corporate weasel; the native-loving scientist is portrayed by Sigourney Weaver, the same actress who played ape-loving Dian Fossey. This allows viewers only one template: the film is only an analogy to American corporate rapacity, American military brutality, and 21st-century environmental insensitivity.

In Lord of the Rings, one could look at the destruction of Isengard’s forest to build Sauron’s war machine as a critique of Nazi, Soviet, or American war economies (or insert your own government) having a deleterious effect on the environment. The choice was up to the viewer. It did not alienate anyone watching it (except maybe for foresters and arms dealers). Avatar alienates, making it less universal or lasting in its appeal (said, again, with a grain of salt, since it’s made a billion bucks plus my $16.50).

Cameron protests that his film is not anti-military. Why, he purposely made his hero a Marine to show how the finest attributes of honor and defense of the weak enabled him to defy orders and slaughter his own people. In this, though, Cameron engages in several liberal conceits.

Liberal conceit #1: The highest form of patriotism is treason. This is the theme, too, of Dances With Wolves. The liberal creed seems to be “My country, right or wrong. When right, to be kept right; when wrong, join the other side and kill as many of your countrymen as you can.” For all the horror we are supposed to feel at the callous way the Americans kill Na’vi without any awareness of their individual sovereignty (and certainly no discussion of their property rights), Cameron’s “Good Marine” Sully (and Costner’s “Good Cavalryman” Dunbar) had no compunctions about slaying his former comrades en masse. Are we supposed to cheer that massacre? I’m reminded of the brilliant deleted scene in Goldmember where the wife of the beheaded henchman receives The Call and has to tell her son that his father has died at the hands of super-spy Austin Powers. “No one ever thinks about the henchman’s family!” she wails. Similarly, we are not supposed to feel anything but satisfaction at the mass slaughter of all those other Marines. (OK, ex-Marine mercenaries, but Sully himself says there are no ex-Marines, so he’s killing fellow Marines, Q.E.D.) (Semper fi indeed.)

Liberal conceit #2: Native populations live in wise, eternal harmony with the land; White Americans relentlessly destroy nature for short-term profit. Right. Would someone like to explain why -- shortly after the arrival of humans in North America -- all the megafauna vanished? Chinese dudes cross land bridge, look at mastodons, mammoths, giant sloths, and saber-tooth cats, and say “Get in my belly!” (pace, Fat Bastard). You could argue that they learned from their errors, I guess, but why aren’t Americans given the same indulgence? It took 10,000 years for Indians to learn to live with the land. Europeans have only been here 500 years or so (900 years for Vikings). What Cameron portrays as a Na’vi prayer acknowledging the Circle of Life (when killing an animal for food or self-defense) could just as easily be interpreted as the Na’vi version of liberal hypocrisy: acting all apologetic and spiritual (and believing it, of course, with all your heart), but still getting what one wants by killing. Hey, I didn’t hear any prayers to Eyah (meant to sound similar to Gaea or YHVH?) when the Na’vi were dispatching fighter pilots by the score with armor-piercing arrows. If the Americans prayed to Eyah while bulldozing the Tree of Souls, would that have made it better?

Liberal conceit #3: Only a white male newly minted liberal convert can get these disorganized, unfocused, superstitious ethnics to recognize the threat they face and only a white male neo-liberal possesses the wisdom and savvy to guide them into victorious battle (isn’t that how we lost the Vietnam War--a bunch of liberals telling the military how to fight?). This is the same conceit displayed by Kevin Costner in Dances With Wolves and (forgive me, Sarah Jessica) Matthew Broderick in Glory (the story had to have a white guy as the lead character to make it more “accessible”) (Hollywood code for “we want more than 12% of the population to see it”). This is the same messianic complex that leads liberals to think that they are the only ones wise enough and smart enough and pure enough to prevent destruction of the entire planet by car exhaust, the only ones who can end the business cycle by dragging us into socialism/fascism, the only ones who can tell us what to eat/drink/drive/smoke/read/think, and the only ones who can mobilize the masses to push for social change (which is why they don’t think the Tea Party people are really a grass-roots people’s movement and must be an evil corporate plot).

At least in Return of the Jedi it was the Ewoks’ own idea to run off and attack the stormtroopers, and they did it with their own skills, tactics, and weapons. They didn’t need Luke telling them what to do.

Was the decision to bash American business, slander the American military, and ignore the American conservationist tradition intentional on Cameron’s part, or is such self-loathing so endemic that it didn’t even occur to him that he was attacking the very corporate structure that made him a mega-millionaire, the military that has kept him safe both from communists who delight in slaying the wealthy and the intelligentsia after they have served their purpose and from Islamic jihadists who delight in killing everyone, and the American inclusiveness that made Hawaii a state, preserving vast swaths of its natural beauty for location filming on Avatar?

I said sympathy for your enemies was dangerous. It’s everywhere, even in children’s films. When I saw the trailer for How to Train Your Dragon, in which the young hero discovers that dragons aren’t the monsters his elders made them out to be (because naïve youngsters full of Hope and Change always know better than their elders, who actually may have experienced a few dragon attacks), I thought Yes... that’s just what the dragons want you to believe... Islamic terrorists love Americans who think that their jihad on the West is merely a reaction to American imperialism -- they are the current version of the “useful idiots” Lenin used so well to drag Russia into a tyranny worse than that of any tsarist.

I didn’t dislike the film per se. Artistically, it was superb. Pandora looks like a fun world (if you can survive the Deathworld-like fauna). The plot is tried-and-true (some might say clichéd and worn-out). And Zoë Saldana’s left breast stole every scene it was in. But the anti-American, anti-business, anti-military, anti-reason sub-text turned me off completely. It was superfluous to the basic storyline; the villains could have been anyone. They did not have to be from Earth at all. (I recall the super-hit Independence Day made the rapacious invaders non-humans and the heroes the US military.) They did not have to be capitalists at all. Didn’t fascists and communists invade the lands of native people and rape and pillage them? And wasn’t it, oh, I dunno, American military men and women who fought and died to liberate those lands? Who’s leaving Haiti after weeks of sweltering work keeping quake victims from dying, only to sail down to Chile to conduct more rescue and relief work? Would that maybe be the Marines? Hmm. Odd thing for them to do. From watching Avatar, I’d swear they’re supposed to go in there and murder everyone.

And I don’t like seeing movies disingenuously engineered to give me that utterly false impression.

Science Quibbles With Avatar

Science quibbles: I’ll skip the bogus flying mountains except to say that if you grant the premise, you still have to explain how such small rocks can have huge waterfalls cascading off of them. Even if they were made of sponge, they’d drain in a few minutes at that rate.

As someone who still owns every piece of glow-in-the-dark plastic from when I was a kid, I loved the phosphorescent night life. However... I think that the only time you would have “night” on a moon orbiting a gas giant would be when the planet is between Pandora and its star. Think about how bright our own moon is at night: when it’s full, you can read by it. And it only fills half a degree of the sky. From the look of it, Pandora’s gas giant covers about 60 degrees. Imagine that much starlight being reflected from a high-albedo cloud world -- it would be as bright as day.

In the film, it’s stated that Pandora has lower gravity than Earth, and that would explain how the banshees can fly by flapping instead of soaring, but then one should be consistent: everything that falls would have to fall at a much slower rate of acceleration, yet it seems that everyone and everything falls at an earthly rate on Pandora (to be fair, it would be a much slower-paced film if they did that...). I did like the zero-G in the opening scene, though.

One thing I expected to see but didn’t: after all the talk about how all the life on Pandora was electrically connected in a gigantic neural net, I was expecting the white male neo-liberal to be the one to figure out how to harness that power into a directed-energy weapon, with plasma bolts shooting from the Tree of Souls.