The Dark Crystal: a movie review

Dark_Crystal_Film_Poster

“Another world, another time. In the age of wonder.”

So begins The Dark Crystal (1982), a movie that pushed the limits of what was possible in animation when it was released 32 years ago. That was the year the Commodore 64 hit the market, becoming the best selling personal computer. Ms Pac-man was the hot new item in digital animation. Pixar, as we know it, was more than a decade away. Jim Henson, who wrote, produced, and co-directed the movie with Frank Oz, used models, puppets, and costumes for human actors to make this extraordinary film, which has largely been forgotten now that we’ve come to take sophisticated animation for granted.

Dark Crystal is a hero’s quest. A thousand earlier, when the three suns of the planet, Thra, came into alignment, the Dark Crystal shattered. At that moment two new races appeared, the evil skeksis and gentle mystics. Jen is the last of the gelflings (or so he thinks), a race wiped out by the skeksis for fear of a prophesy that one of them would be their undoing. As the thousand year alignment nears, Jen’s master, a dying mystic gives him a quest – find the missing shard and heal the crystal before the suns line up, or the skeksis will rule forever.

Dark Crystal: Jen's master gives him a quest

Dark Crystal: Jen’s master gives him a quest

Jen reacts like any fledgling hero at the start of a quest – “But master, I am only a gelfling “ he says. “I am not ready to go alone.” But go alone he does, aided by the ancient seeress, Aughra, who helps him find the shard, and Kira, last of the female gelflings, who joins his quest. In a moment of despair, Jen flings the crystal shard away. Unable to sleep, he mutters, “Master, nothing is simple anymore.” Kira helps him find the shard at “The House of the Old Ones,” where they are confronted by a treacherous skeksis.

The Dark Crystal: Jen and Kira confront a Skeksis at The House of the Old Ones

The Dark Crystal: Jen and Kira confront a Skeksis at The House of the Old Ones

They flee, but the treacherous one surprises them at the Dark Castle where the crystal is housed. He captures Kira and the skeksis begin to drain her life essence, which will prolong their own lives and leave Kira in the state of their other slaves, a mindless automaton. Jen and Aughra help Kira to save herself, the mystics arrive at the castle, the three suns’ come into alignment, and the final confrontation begins.

Prior to Dark Crystal, animation involved full length cartoons, claymation shorts, and The Muppet Show, which ran on TV from 1976-1981. I’m not aware of another full length feature involving such detailed world-building animation before this movie. It feels a little dated now, but then so do movies like Casablanca which stand as classics in their genre. That’s how I think of Dark Crystal. I think it’s required viewing for lovers of animation and fantasy in the movies.

Posted in Fantasy, Movies, Stories | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

The Diamond Age: Or a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson

Diamond Age cover

I have written on several occasions of Snow Crash, the visionary science fiction novel that Neal Stephenson published in 1992. The book envisioned a future where nation-states had diminished importance. Most people lived as citizens of corporate enclaves and spent their free time jacked into virtual worlds. Snow Crash was written a year before the release of Mosaic, the first popular internet browser, and eleven years before the inception of Second Life, the best known virtual world.

Stephenson’s next book, The Diamond Age (1995), gives us a world transformed by nanotechnology, the manipulation of matter at the molecular level. In Stephenson’s 21st century, the integration of molecular biology and semiconductor physics has transformed everything. In the first scene, we meet Bud, a would-be enforcer for the lucrative “alternate pharmaceutical” industry, who has bulked up his muscles with intelligent, micro-robotic implants and wears what we now know as Google glasses to precision aim his “skull gun,” an implant as nasty as it sounds. In passing, Stephenson shows Bud in a waiting room, where people read articles on smart paper, essentially tablet computers, that have replaced magazines. Remember: The Diamond Age was published 15 years before the iPad and 17 years before the first Google Glass prototype.

In the diamond age, so named because synthetic diamond is cheaper than glass, objects made by hand are expensive and revered, since everything else is produced by matter compilers (a generation beyond 3d printers)? Just as in Snow Crash, nation states are obsolete. The upper classes live as members of cultural enclaves known as phyles or tribes, whose settlements are often above ground level, while the lower class “thetes” or people without a tribe, live below.

John Perceval Hackworth is a nano tech engineer for the Neo-Victorian, “New Atlantis” tribe. New Atlantis sits on an artificial mountain a mile above the polluted streets of Shanghai.  The clave is ruled as a corporate oligarchy by “Equity Lords” who style their culture after 19th century English royalty.

Hackworth is commissioned by Lord Finkle-McGraw to program an artificially intelligent book, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, a subversive text, which will help his daughter Elizabeth lead a life beyond the boundaries of the status quo. Hackworth makes an illegal copy for his own daughter, Fiona, but this is stolen when Hackworth is mugged. It falls into the hands of Nell, Bud’s daughter, a thete who lives in a ground level slum. Hackworth, Fiona, Nell,her brother Harv, an actress named Miranda, and a Chinese black market engineer named Dr. X are all involved with the Primer for reasons of their own; at its deepest level, the Primer holds the key to decoding and reprogramming humankind’s future.

The Diamond Age, which won Hugo and Locus awards in 1996, is classified by genre wonks as “post-cyberpunk,” whatever that means. As he was in technology and socio-economics, so was Stephenson decades ahead of his time in speculative fiction. We call this kind of book “dystopian” now.  I can think of at least two recent movies that play upon themes explicit in The Diamond Age. I won’t name them because I have no evidence that their creators read the book. Still, it is hard to imagine any serious writer of dystopian fiction who hasn’t marveled at Neal Stephenson’s vision.

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The wishing tree revisited

I spent a lot of time this week staring at a blank screen while trying to sum up two recent posts (No discouraging words 1 and 2). The ways in which thought/stories create reality is a massive topic. Not only has it been central to eastern thought for thousands of years, but I wrote several chapters along those lines in a master’s thesis in psych. So that particular screen is going to stay blank.

I did, however re-read one of my early posts where I discussed an Indian story that centers on the creative power of mind. The story itself provides a nice summary. “The Wish Fulfilling Tree” is recorded in Hindu scripture as a story Shiva told Parvati. I quoted a version written by Paramahansa Yogananda which I like for its clarity:

In their kindness toward spiritual seekers, the gods placed certain “wish fulfilling trees” in remote Himalayan regions so pilgrims could refresh themselves. Once a young man with mixed aspirations climbed to the heights in search of one of these trees. At last, out of food and seemingly out of luck, he spied a solitary tree at the center of a small valley, and hurried toward it.

Under it’s branches he wished for a meal, and instantly, servants appeared and set out a feast before him. After his hunger was satisfied, he wished for wine and music, and then dancing girls, and all of his thoughts materialized. Enjoying himself immensely, he wished for a castle, with fruit trees, fountains, and soldiers to defend it.

By then he was tired and sought out the lush master bedroom for a rest. As he closed his eyes, he noticed a jungle not far away and felt a prickling of danger. “There are no bars on the window to keep jungle beasts out. A tiger could easily leap into this room.” Sadly, that was the last thought he ever had.

In his commentary, Yogananda said everyone spends their life beneath a wish fulfilling tree. Fortunately, ours don’t work as fast as the one in the story, but in the end, inexorably, they manifest what we hold steady in our minds. The name of this tree is imagination, and it is important to realize its power and be mindful of how we use it. it.

Posted in Folklore, Myth, Spirituality | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

No discouraging words revisited

In an earlier post, Where seldom is heard a discouraging word, I announced an experiment. Following my wife’s efforts to suspend negative thinking and speech during Lent, I decided to refrain from critical posts through Easter. Here is the first of several observations I will share.

Avoiding negative and pessimistic topics leaves me a lot fewer subjects to blog about! Many of my posts begin with news stories, but often it seems, to paraphrase the old Hee-Haw song, “If it weren’t for bad news, I’d have no news at all.” More nights than not, when I’ve checked my usual source websites (CNN, NPR, USA Today, etc.), I haven’t found a single upbeat or funny or quirky post that I wanted to write about. Sure, there was the girl scout who sold 12,000 boxes of cookies, but even if it’s a good thing for a kid to become a marketing wizard, that isn’t my kind of story.

The real question for me, however, is not the content of this weeks’ or that weeks’ news, but the systemic nature of our news media, which makes trials and tribulations endemic. These are news stories, after all, and a good story demands tension, upping the stakes, and all that. The question is not whether these are gripping stories, but the degree to which they mirror “reality.”

I’m thinking of a book I have often cited here, Neal Gabler’s, Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality (2000), in which the author says we are not just a post-modern culture but a “post reality culture.” Gabler locates the beginning of news-as-entertainment in America as “the penny press.” Prior to 1830, newspapers were single page “broadsheets” which appealed to the upper classes. Most of them cost six cents and the average daily circulation in New York City was 1200. Beginning with the Sun, which cost a penny, newspaper sales exploded. Gabler cites various reasons for the success of the penny press, but says that above all, it meshed with other sensational forms of entertainment:

“…for a constituency being conditioned by trashy crime pamphlets, gory novels and overwrought melodramas, news was simply the most exciting, most entertaining content a paper could offer, especially when it was skewed, as it invariably was in the penny press, to the most sensational stories. In fact, one might even say that the masters of the penny press invented the concept of news because it was the best way to sell their papers…”

In it’s first two weeks of publication, in 1835, the New York Herald ran stories that centered on “three suicides, three murders, the death of five persons in a fire, a man accidentally blowing off his head, an execution in France by guillotine and a riot in Philadelphia.” Needless to say, the Herald became wildly successful.

If it’s true that what we think of as “news” is an “invented concept,” we have to ask to what degree it mirrors reality and to what degree it creates it? Think about that the next time you open the paper or check your Tweets.

What I have discovered is how deep the contagion goes, even though I normally limit my sources, never watching the local news on TV, for instance. I confess that while I have cut negative posts from theFirstGates since March 7, I’ve probably doubled the number of depressing subjects I’ve posted on Twitter. In a way, I feel like I did a month after I quit smoking, and found that a nasty cough was still there. This is more serious than I thought at first. I’ll have more to say about it, but meanwhile, let’s change the tone as we end with a classic that came to mind at the start of this post.

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Thor: The Dark World

Thor-The-Dark-World-Poster

Sometimes the movies surprise you. On Friday, I saw The Muppets Most Wanted and wished I had waited for the DVD. Sunday I watched Thor: The Dark World on DVD, and was sorry I hadn’t caught it on the big screen.

As “the Convergence” approaches, a once every 5000 year alignment of the nine realms of the universe, portals between the worlds start to open at random.  Exploring one near London, Dr. Jane Foster, Thor’s mortal honey, is infected with the Aether, an ancient, indestructible weapon of evil that the gods of Asgard had hidden away.  The Dark Elf, Malekith, hopes to use the Aether to plunge the universe into darkness when the worlds align.

At the critical moment, Thor and his half-brother, Loki, the usual suspect in all things nefarious, team up to save the world and avenge the death of Frigga, their mother. Loki’s trickery fools Malekith into withdrawing the Aether from Jane and saving her life.  The movie has lots of explosions, and moments that echo both Lord of the Rings and Star Wars (though admittedly without the depth).  The forbidden love of immortal Thor and mortal Jane also parallels Superman and Lois, but for me, the character of Loki made the movie.

As I wrote in an earlier post, Loki the Trickster, has fascinated me since I read a book of Norse mythology as a kid.  Sometimes an ally and sometimes a nemesis of the gods, in the old stories, Loki was finally imprisoned under the earth for killing Baldr, the golden boy of Asgard, where he will remain until the final battle when this world will be destroyed.

Loki, from 18th c. Icelandic manuscript. Public domain.

Loki, from 18th c. Icelandic manuscript. Public domain.

The movie Loki is far more nuanced; he and Thor compliment each other.  Thor is ready to charge ahead, swinging his hammer against an invincible foe, while Loki embodies consummate strategy.

Loki and Thor plot their next move

Loki and Thor plot their next move

Loki, rejected by the Father of the gods and always subordinate to Thor, though he is older and smarter, is more the existential Outsider than any other movie superhero. Peter Parker may pine for Mary Jane, in a malt shop kind of way, and Clark gets tongue-tied near Lois, but Loki portrays the adult experience of not fitting in.

If you know what that’s like (and if not, why are you writing and reading blogs), you’ll enjoy this portrayal of Loki. The next time you’re in the mood for heroes, aided by Natalie Portman, saving the world, with help from a professor who runs around naked at Stonehenge, grab some popcorn and consider renting Thor.  It’s a fun ride.

Posted in Movies, Myth | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The Dalai Lama on happiness

Dalai Lama

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Socially Responsible Purchasing Power

Morgan Mussell:

Here’s some nice info to pass on. I’m already a fan of Paul Newman salad dressings and popcorn, and it’s great to hear of garments made in America once again. I like the idea of socially responsible funds too, though once when I looked at them (sometime ago) I discovered they trailed index funds in their returns. Many things have changed since then, but you’ll want to investigate or check with a financial advisor. At any rate, it’s great to hear of opportunities to shop with conscience.

Originally posted on Guhyasamaja Center Blog:

It’s human nature to want to buy stuff…more and more stuff. That being said, why not try to buy from socially responsible companies? Many companies donate a percentage of their sales to charity (for example, Paul Newman’s company has donated over $400 million to charities since 1982 from the sale of grocery items.

A new company, Fed By Threads, specializes in Made-In-America organic ethical vegan clothing that feeds 12 emergency meals to hungry Americans via foodbanks per item sold. The company’s founders, Jade Beall and Alok Appurdurai, created the company when they learned about the tremendous suffering that sheep, silkworms, cows, goats and other animals experience in the production of clothing. They also are firm believers in paying fare wages to garment workers and in keeping these jobs in America.

Also, the number of socially responsible / sustainable investment mutual funds has grown over the years. Some lend money…

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How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams

How to Fail

“Don’t let reality control your imagination. Let your imagination be the user interface to steer your reality.” - Scott Adams.

How to Fail at Almost Everything is a quirky, funny, irreverent, and often inspiring “sort of autobiography” from the creator of Dilbert, that quirky, funny, irreverent, and often inspiring comic strip that lays out the truth of working in the trenches cubicles of corporate America.

This is not another collection of Dilbert cartoons or Dilbert philosophy.  It’s more of a Dilbert origin story.  We know we’re in for a different kind of kind of how-to-book when Adams begins by advising us to make sure our bullshit detectors are working before we take advice from a cartoonist.

He dismantles many self-help cliches in order to clear the way for fresh perspectives.  “Goals are for losers,” he says, and recommends strategy instead.  “I will finish my first novel,” is a goal. “I will write for an hour a day,” is a strategy.  Every day we don’t attain a goal is slightly depressing, he says, and soon after we reach it, the “what next?” question arises.  A strategy, on the other hand, brings a daily sense of satisfaction as we move in the right direction.

“I tried a lot of different ventures, stayed optimistic, put in the energy, prepared myself by learning as much as I could, and stayed in the game long enough for luck to find me…with Dilbert it did.” – Scott Adams

Adams gives a chronology of his many failed careers and entrepreneurial ventures. Shining through the story is a positive attitude that allowed him to find key lessons and life experience in every failure.  His optimism is gold, and he spends a lot of time writing of health, especially, diet and exercise, although he cautions that there is a “non-zero chance” that health advice from a cartoonist could be fatal.

“I’m here to tell you that the primary culprit in your bad moods is a deficit in one of the big five: flexible schedule, imagination, sleep, diet and exercise.”  The “big five” benefit mood, which builds personal energy, which is the driver of aspiration and effort.

Scott Adams shares his ideas at IBM Connect 2014.  Photo by Greyhawk68, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Scott Adams shares his ideas at IBM Connect 2014. Photo by Greyhawk68, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Adams packs an abundance of topics into his book. Not every one resonated, and several dragged for me, but much of my copy is highlighted and underlined, and I’ve reread several chapters already.  If you like Dilbert, you will value this story of the life twists and turns of his creator, and you will benefit from the lessons he learned along the way.

Posted in Authors, Book Reviews, Books, Health, humor, Imagination | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments