Writing is an Itch. This is a place to scratch.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Wisdom from the Outer Limits

By Rattus Scribus© 31 January 2010

Movies and television programs have long provided a window into contemporary culture and issues. Today we are thoroughly shaped by the corporate interests behind most of the audio-visual media we consume (film, internet, advertising, music, etc.). The unabashed and openly stated goal (as one 1950s advertising executive put it) has been to create a culture where people find their very identity, their spiritual and ego satisfaction in consumption (see, for example, the documentaries: "The Persuaders" and "The Merchants of Cool").

But there have always been attempts to use film to critique contemporary culture, events and trends. The most obvious form of informative and analytical film is the documentary. But once in a while, creative stories and a desire for social commentary combine to create highly rated TV shows. One such ground-breaking show was the 1960s prime-time series, "The Outer Limits." It aired for only two seasons (1963-64 and 1964-65), but it was popular for its day and left a lasting impact. When released on DVD in 2002, popular novelist Stephen King called The Outer Limits, "The best program of its type ever to run on network TV." The program still has a loyal following of rerun and DVD watchers; and several decades later a new series of The Outer Limits ran for seven seasons (1995-2002).

When writing about what the past can teach us today, it is important to play fair. For example, it is easy to critique, even make fun of, old TV programs for the inferior production values of the past, with their very visible "invisible" wires suspending people and objects, serious characters made to wear cartoonish make-up and costumes, and painfully obvious set miniatures. Inadequate as they were, these were the cutting edge "effects" of the day. It therefore makes no sense to compare The Cold War era "Outer Limits" (OL) with, say, James Cameron's recent CGI movie blockbuster, "Avatar," any more than it makes sense to criticize the past for its horse-drawn carriages because it had nothing that could match the Ferrari of today.

It is, however, fair game to point out, for example, how many old TV shows where hopelessly mired in the contemporary values and worldview of the dominant social group of the era, which was overwhelmingly white Midwestern middle and upper class males. For example, in the context of the civil rights movement, the 1960s original Star Trek series did try to push the boundaries of race relations: to wit, when the corn-fed Iowa interstellar playboy Captain Kirk (William Shatner) kissed the Bantu African beauty Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols).

Star Trek, "Plato's Stepchildren" (Nov 1968). Considered by many to be the first interracial kiss on U.S. television, but African American entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. gave a friendly kiss to white female singer Nancy Sinatra on her variety show on Dec 1967. And in fact Shatner had kissed an Asian actress in a previous Star Trek episode. But the Shatner - Nichols (white - black) kiss that was overtly romantic had the whole studio buzzing prior to and during the filming. It was too much for some TV stations in the south which (according to some accounts) originally refused to air the episode.

Yet, despite the underlying presumption of human evolution, and predicted scientific and social advancements hundreds of years into the future, such as faster than light travel, teleportation, and interstellar civil rights, the U.S./earth-centered Federation of Planets will still be predominantly a male-run affair. Meanwhile, the women of the future will, apparently, still be bouncing about like forest nymphs in 1960s style mini-skirts.

Because…what woman wouldn’t want to wear a regulation uniform with the coverage equivalent of a scarf, while splayed out under an electronic panel trying to restore subspace communications after a deadly Klingon attack?

Or, when forced into mortal combat with a Barbie-bodied female alien from another galaxy who, miraculously enough, is wearing a regulation bikini from 1960s Earth. Apparently, females are the same in every corner of the universe: men wear clothes during space travel, or in battle, or you know, in public. Women? What need have they of anything more than a mini-skirt when they accompany men to other worlds, or get into a cat fight with Alien Malibu Barbie who knows better than to wear even a mini-skirt to battle, when far less will do?

"Mini-skirts? Hah! Who wears a mini-skirt to a bikini fight? Earthlings, fools all! Prepare to die embarrassed!"

Nevertheless, despite its historically captive shortcomings, certain Outer Limits episodes sought to inject cultural critique into the American social conscience, albeit sometimes naively and inadequately, but at least causing us to question the "official story," and the obvious gaps between what nations, people, even religions claimed to value and what they did. The Outer Limits was among my earliest introductions to a fairly intentional cultural questioning on network TV. In the next several installments, I will be writing partly serious, partly humorous pieces on the insights and, dare I say it, "wisdom" we can glean from some of the episodes of the 1960s television show, "The Outer Limits."

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

...the whole reason they existed at all...

By Rattus Scribus@ 20 January 2010

"Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of the least considered and ignored persons in society, you did it to me." Matthew 25:40

One of the most powerful movies I have ever seen is Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, a true, albeit made-for-Hollywood saga about illegally kidnapped Africans who revolted on the Spanish slave-ship la Amistad. Recaptured by Americans, justice for the Africans was circumvented time and again by greedy Spaniards and Americans, as well as Southern slave-holders who threatened to embroil the young nation in a war over the issue. The Amistad case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1841.

Lower court trial at which Pedro Montes identified
Cinque as leader of the Amistad mutiny.

At this point, Cinque, leader of the embattled Africans, utters one of the most profound statements I have ever heard. Although he knew that the upcoming court hearing would be extremely difficult to win (as all previous cases were won and then subsequently set aside), Cinque said he was nevertheless prepared because he had called upon the help of all of his ancestors. For it was his ancestors' lives and labors that made Cinque's tribe the people they had come to be, and "right now," he said, "I am the whole reason they have existed at all."

Cinque, Portrait by Nathaniel Jocelyn, c. 1840

This astounding statement was not lost on Cinque's aged lawyer, John Quincy Adams, who like his father John Adams was a former U.S. president and a "father" of the nation.

As some of you may know (and as I state on my sidebar profile), I see human history as a struggle in closing the gaps:

"The struggle to close the gaps between what is believed and what is done, what is and what could be, is the greatest human drama of every culture in every age. The heights of human imagination and achievement, as well as depravity, dwell in the gaps. The former escape to brighten the world. The latter remain forever imprisoned, and constantly seeks company."

The case of the Amistad Africans is one of many examples of North America's long struggle to close the gap between its much vaunted ideals of inalienable rights and liberties on the one hand and actions too often motivated by selfishness, greed, prejudice and fear on the other.

John Quincy Adams

Miraculously, Adams argued the case successfully before the Supreme Court. Surprised and elated, Cinque asked him what words he could have said to persuade the judges (some of whom were from Southern slave states) to free them when all previous words and court cases had failed. Adams replied: "Yours." He referred of course to Cinque’s words that at that moment, he was the whole reason his ancestors had existed at all.

Think how the greatness of American or even Christian ideals are to be measured. Not by the rights, wealth and deference enjoyed by the powerful, but by the rights, dignity and opportunity enjoyed by the powerless.

Scene in Louisville, Kentucky. Life Magazine, Feb
1937. What is wrong with this picture?

A believer in American ideals of liberty cannot escape the truth of the statement that "any nation is judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members" (Cardinal Roger Mahony).

A believer in the Christian ideal of love of God evidenced by love of neighbor cannot escape the truth of Jesus' statement that the way we treat those least in our society is a reflection of how we treat him. In other words, to claim to love a God we've never seen, but not love people we can see everyday, is not a religion that Jesus had any part of.

If our American and Christian ideals (and I am not necessarily equating the two) mean nothing for the Cinque's of the world (for women, the poor, people of color, the discarded laborer, the disabled, in a word, the "other"), then do we not dishonor those ideals and the people who sacrificed so much to make them a reality? That is to say, do we not dishonor those we claim so much to honor?

After all, the very least regarded individuals among us, are “the whole reason they existed at all.”

Monday, January 11, 2010

People Are Not Just Meat

By Rattus Scribus@ 11 January 2010

All the years that my wife was pursuing her college degree and teaching license, she worked part time at a food market for well-to-do Minnesotans. Now many of you have heard me say that Anita is one of the kindest, most humane and sensitive persons I have known.

It therefore angered me when a customer treated her like something on the bottom of their shoe. We've all heard the common store motto that "the customer is always right." But in my experience, the customer is not only frequently wrong, but quite nasty about it too.

"The Customer is Always Reich, I mean Right"

I could tell you countless stories of abusive customers, but I will tell you only one here, and hope to draw a common sense lesson from it.

Anita was working at the deli section of the market, when a man quite rotund in circumference came up and asked her for an order of Asian food that included rice and a mound of battered fried spicy chicken. Now, leaving aside for the moment the irony of my wife, healthy eater extraordinaire, working at a job that caters to "upscale" Americans who eat more meat than a velociraptor, the man took one look at the pyramid of fried flesh and fumed:

"You're not doing it right! The small section is for the rice and the large section is for the meat!"

Background. The oval plate has two small sections for rice and another side dish, and the large center section for the main -- always some kind of meat -- entrée.

My wife's unpardonable sin? She had put the rice in part of the large (meat) section, and put the meat on the rest of the plate, the difference to the portions of which was nothing.

But he insisted: "Do it right!"

My wife then plowed what she already considered dinner for two onto a fresh plate with the rice and the meat in their proper sections.

End of story? Of course not. For he was now forced to ask what he really wanted but was too prideful or malevolent to ask kindly.

"I want more meat!" came the hiss between pursed and bloodless lips. And she gave it to him, lest the matter go all the way to the Supreme Court.

That day, in a lovely fashionable Minnesota market, some nasty cuss had two entrées: one was Asian spicy chicken; the other was a human being. To him they were both just meat.

I was determined after this incident that I would try to the best of my ability never to be the customer from the infernal regions.

There is something horribly wrong when the most trivial of things is all that is needed for one person to treat another in so shabby a fashion.

We are none of us perfect. But surely we can agree that a human being is worth a little more than an extra helping of Kung Pao?

Photo credits:
Human meat: http://www.liberacionanimal.org