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Cinema as (more than) spectacle

As I watch more and more varied movies over the years, I find myself engaging in film in a more active and critical manner, and thinking more deeply about cinema as an art form: film as a means of communication, of inspiration, of introspection. I’ve begun to ask more of film as a consumer, and doing so has brought me to a point where, although I still enjoy many films of a wide array of genres, I’m starting to form some fairly strong opinions about some of them. One such is the superhero film, a genre that’s exploded across the cinematic landscape in the last ten years or so and that’s the focus of some especially polarised thoughts, from myself as well as from those more closely associated with the motion picture industry. A few days ago, my Facebook feed delivered an article about a recent clash of directorial opinions between Jodie Foster and James Gunn on this very topic, which is what spurred me to consider my subjectivity about superhero films (and also large cinematic franchises in general) more deeply; I thought it might make an interesting topic for me to muse about here.

The core of the clash seems to revolve around that nebulous concept musicians often refer to as soul. Basically, Foster has made the fairly blunt claim that the lack of soul in comic book and superhero movies is leading such movies to ruin Hollywood, that “$200 million movies about superheroes” and CGI and “spectacle” are not the reason why she got into movie-making:

Going to the movies has become like a theme park. Studios making bad content in order to appeal to the masses and shareholders is like fracking; you get the best return right now but you wreck the earth… I feel like I make movies because there are things I have to say in order to figure out who I am or my place in the world, or for me to evolve as a person.

Gunn’s response was respectful, but defensive:

I think Foster looks at film in an old-fashioned way where spectacle film can’t be thought-provoking. It’s often true but not always. Her belief system is pretty common and isn’t totally without basis. I say not without basis because most studio franchise films are quite soulless, and that is a real danger to the future of movies. But there are also quite a few exceptions…

For my part, I tend to agree with Foster (as, indeed, Gunn does at least to a certain extent). Although Gunn has noble goals that he’s clearly trying to push for in his own filmmaking – his Guardians of the Galaxy films have sought to explore fairly fresh new ground as regards superhero films, and I have a lot of time for that, even while the advertisement of a future third incarnation starts to make me wonder just how much more new ground can be broken – it feels rather disturbingly like he’s pleading #notallmen in movie form. In a very gentle and respectful manner, true, but he’s engaging in special pleading nonetheless. Honestly, it’s quite alright to accept that there are films which manage to rise above the failings of a genre while still pointing out the failings and problems of the genre as a whole. I’m sure that Foster didn’t intend for every single comic book movie to fall under the broader banner of her statement, and as Gunn says, there are quite a few exceptions. But I do agree with Foster in thinking there’s a larger problem with an excessive dominance of superhero and comic book films (and in fairness, large tentpole franchises in general) in cinema right now, a more substantial negative effect that’s flowing on to impact upon the variety of film and the nature of cinema as a popular genre.

Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when a smaller proportion of the cinematic library was built within comic book universes, it felt like the average superhero film tended to have more to say, and asked more important questions. The very first X-Men film, for example. There was a good deal of SFX porn in it, of course, but it also broke ground in that it sought not to focus upon the superhumanity of the characters, but upon their humanity instead; it sought to remind us never to forget our own responsibilities to the different and the isolated, and illustrated the inestimable value of human connection. But now, the X-Men franchise has spiderwebbed out into at least ten films (three focusing on Wolverine alone – dear Christ, cats, isn’t there any other character in the Xniverse that has interesting stories to tell?), and the franchise seems to me to have in large parts forgotten (with occasional exceptions, such as last year’s Logan, an in parts truly beautiful and harrowing exploration of the end of Wolverine’s story) what deeper meaning it’s supposed to be exploring, and even when it does attempt to explore those deeper questions, it largely tends to chew over old food in doing so. And even if Captain America (2011) and Iron Man (2008) did have interesting issues to explore in innovative ways, one imagines that by Iron Man 3 (2013) those issues have faded into the background.

In all fairness, I shouldn’t pick so hard on Marvel here; DC were slower to the market, but they’ve been picking up steam lately too and are only stuffing more superheroes into the already groaning-at-the-seams arena. 29 live-action films in the last ten years from Marvel alone and another seven coming next year; add DC into the mix and you have Spiderman and Doctor Strange and Superman and Thor and Captain America and Green Lantern and Batman and Wonder Woman and Iron Man and Deadpool and Wolverine and the other X-Men, and soon Aquaman and Black Panther too, all swarming over each other like crabs in a bucket, grabbing their share of punters’ money while not stopping very often to think about, well, thinking. Cerebrality, perspective, introspection, originality. The cinematic superhero mania is running the risk of turning even itself into the cinematic equivalent of Mills & Boon. Bubblegum for the brain is fun, and pure escapism absolutely has its place, but the dedication of such huge amounts of studio money to the bubblegum industry leaves little room for the production of more psychologically nourishing fare that the cinemagoer can spend more time digesting.

It’s also a little unfair of Gunn, I think, to suggest that Foster’s taking a binary, either-or cinematic approach in which spectacle and introspection are purely incompatible. In the first place, Foster herself has had some involvement with introspective spectacle cinema. Contact (1997), for instance, and Elysium (2013), both saw her in major roles and were both differing degrees of spectacle coupled with a strong human element and some pretty deep introspection. And in the second place, there has been blockbuster and spectacle cinema even in the last ten years that’s also been deeply thought-provoking. Snowpiercer (2013) was a spectacular and shocking example. Interstellar (2014) was another, a space odyssey epic with mind-blowing imagery but also an entirely human story that I think might be one of the best science-fiction films of all time. Arrival (2016), which I’ve raved about here before. My partner and I were also lucky enough to catch Colossal (2016) in the cinema: a strange but glorious piece of left-field art, a touching, sweet, dark, and unbelievably original take on the classic kaijū movie. (And the fact that Colossal only had a very limited release and only pulled $4 million at the box office means that from a purely financial viewpoint, it’d be considered as a failure by the standards of most major studios.)

I suppose that’s where this brushes against a moral raw nerve for me: the consideration of films as successes or failures on the basis of box office success alone. That’s what’s made me start to ask the same question that Foster does: isn’t cinema, like all artistic endeavours, supposed to be a little less frigidly capitalistic than it seems to have become? What room is there in modern cinema for loftier goals when the major studios are rapidly increasing their focus on developing old franchises at the expense of taking greater financial risks with works that truly seek to expand the bounds of the art? Even in the franchise-building stakes, I recall reading not long ago that even the record US$2.79 billion taken at the box office by Avatar (2009), the technically groundbreaking and imaginatively vast (if in story a little derivative – I don’t remember where I first heard the description of it as basically FernGully meets Dances with Wolves IN SPAAAAAAAACE, though for my part I’m quite okay with that) film that James Cameron wants to follow up with four sequels, seems like it still won’t guarantee their future beyond the third instalment. Cameron seeks not only to entertain, but also to develop the technology and technique of filmmaking as an art and method. In filming Avatar 2 he’s had to invent an entire field of techniques for underwater motion-capture, for instance, and also sank millions of his own personal dollars into visiting the world’s deepest ocean trench – in part, to capture information and film he might be able to use in the more ocean-focused Avatar 2. But Fox Studios is hedging their bets hard even with the director of cinema history’s two highest-grossing films (the other being Titanic (1997)), despite the fact that even within a highly capitalistic mindset, one would think that Cameron should be a pretty safe bet.

Moreover, both Titanic and Avatar should be exemplars for the studios of the idea that successful melding of spectacle, introspection, and originality is not only what results in great films that we’ll remember for decades, but it’s what results in serious dough for the studios, too. Both Titanic and Avatar were stories strongly driven by character and humanity even while standing against a visually spectacular backdrop. If one goes back further, historical box-office successes tend to show the same pattern. The Sound of Music (1965), for example. E.T. (1982). Jurassic Park (1993). Gone with the Wind (1939). Lord of the Rings (2001-2003), whose enormous success still hasn’t kicked off any rush of cinematic high fantasy (Game of Thrones notwithstanding), and there’s plenty more that could be done in that genre to expand it beyond the sword-and-sorcery outings of earlier fantasy cinema. Even Star Wars (1977), the film that spawned the granddaddy of all franchises. Yet among those grand tentpole franchises, with lots of explosions and CG effects to ooh and aah at but often pretty forgettable stories, these others are proportionally – and becoming moreso – few and rarefied.

And that’s what leads me to worry, are studios – and not just Marvel and DC, but film studios across the board – largely starting to give up on making new stories with both spectacle and humanity because they’ve realised that mere spectacle is enough? (Christ knows Disney isn’t even making a secret of that any more, with much of their output at the moment comprising live-action retreads of films they’ve already had their greatest financial successes with, which seems to me altogether too much like a sculptor making a perfect replica of Michelangelo’s David and expecting to get as many visitors as the original.) I truly hope this isn’t the case, and even yesterday I was given another spark of optimism (which made me consider eating some of my words here) by Disney’s trailer for their upcoming adaptation of A Wrinkle In Time, a book I have fond memories of from my childhood. I suppose it’s just that – like Foster – I see some worrying trends at the moment that show no apparent signs of slowing, and they’re making me fear for the future diversity of an imaginative and thoughtful popular cinema. There are times I’m happy with bubblegum for the brain, but I still like a thick meaty peppered steak of a movie too.


A new year’s wish

It’s been more than a year since I last posted here¹ – meaning that once more, I’d returned to blogging only to fall away from it entirely after a short pulse of intense productivity, a rush of wordiness that I now see lasted less than four months in toto. I always feel a desperate need to apologise for this kind of abandonment. Even while I still realise on the purely intellectual level that this is my own blog, my own intellectual property, and I can develop it (or, in fact, not) as I myself choose, I suppose where the frustration and guilt lie is within that last word: choose. For the fact is that I didn’t choose, and indeed have never once chosen, to step back from blogging: never with even an infinitesimal grain of intent have I ceased writing my thoughts down in this form, and the protracted periods of complete silence have usually been because I have too little energy to give to the task of spilling my mind onto (digital) paper.

¹ Sounds like the beginning of a poem.
It’s been more than a year
since I last posted here
and I’m sorry to cause any boredom.
But I’ve been rather ill –
not in body, but will –
and so as for the gaps, just ignore them.
me, just now

But for the moment, I don’t particularly feel like talking about what caused me to fall away from this practice. That’s something for my next post, I think. Instead, I’d prefer to talk about what brought me back. It’s the beginning of a new year, for one; even though I’ve never particularly cared for the idea of the New Year’s resolution – although a nice idea in principle, it almost always seems that the resolution is a promise to oneself made less out of determination and more out of societal obligation (“it’s New Year’s, I should make a resolution”) and consequently disintegrates more often than not before the month is even out, never mind the year it seems a handy opportunity to do something I’d intended anyway, which is to say, returning to this blog I’d previously abandoned. The last twelve months or so have been extraordinary in so many ways that I’ve so desperately wished to share with those I love: some good, some bad, but all interesting, even if sometimes that falls into the preserve of the apocryphal curse so often wrongly attributed to the Chinese, may you live in interesting times. And several of my friends, as well as my partner, have been encouraging me for some time to begin writing again, too. Even if for no other reason than to keep opening myself up and expressing my thoughts in a tangible form, to help me steer clear of the retreat into my shell that depression and anxiety make altogether too tempting, I think they’re right: I need to keep writing. And more than that, I still want to keep writing. Without wishing to sound arrogant, I’d like to think I have things to say, and even if few others read these little posts of mine, even if one person gets some degree of enjoyment out of them, then that’s enough for me.

It seems appropriate, then, that my first new post concern the New Year that’s now upon us.

In Ubykh, the name of the month of January is Çr’en [ʈʂ’ɜn]. (Only half of the traditional month names in the Ubykh calendar are still known: in addition to January, there’s Xen ‘December’, Abhğhagie ‘February’, Psıbığu ‘March’, Ğeleç’iefımze ‘April’, and K’uırk’uımze ‘June’ – which last is also used for July. This means that I have no idea of how an August-born person like myself might go about discussing my birthday in Ubykh. But I digress.) January’s Ubykh name is the adverbial-case form of an old-fashioned noun çr’e [ʈʂ’ɜ] that means “front”: that is to say, the “front” of the year. The more modern Ubykh way of referring to the front of something is the compound çr’efe, which not only refers to the front of something in a purely spatial sense,  but also steps up into the fourth dimension and refers to what is in front in a temporal sense as well. Some cultures, perhaps most notably the Aymara of Andean South America, spatialise time in a manner that opposes ours – that is, they conceive of the past as lying in front of them, and the future behind. Cognitive scientist Rafael Núñez suggests this deeply fascinating model of Aymara time may be connected to the presence in the Aymara language of a grammatical device called evidentiality, which requires a speaker to accompany every sentence with a marker that tells their listener how they learned the information in that sentence: specifically, whether or not they themselves saw it happen. The logic is that what is known, seen, evidenced, is the past; on the other hand the unknown, the invisible, the merely inferred, is the future. The Aymara are in a small minority in this sense, though. For the Ubykhs, what lies in front of us – just as for English-speakers – is the future: it is what is yet to happen, what has not yet taken place, and towards which we’re inexorably travelling. But the root çr’e in Ubykh also has another meaning. It’s also an adjective that has an array of positive meanings, including but not limited to ‘good’, ‘pleasant’, ‘kind’, ‘honest’, ‘nice’, ‘high quality’, and ‘noble’, and in this function, it forms part of several idiomatic phrases that Ubykh-speakers would often use to express good wishes or pleasure or happiness: çr’ewq’egiı ‘welcome!’ (literally ‘you speak good[ness]’), wışuwe çr’eşıx ‘take it easy!’ (literally ‘may your matter[s] become good!’), wısxieçr’e ‘you are my friend’ (literally ‘you are good to me’). Indeed, in its adverbial form – i.e. çr’en(ı) ‘well, in a good manner’ – it’s also part of the most beautiful sentiment one can hear in any language: çr’en wızbyen ‘I love you’.

Now, Zarquon knows I’m not normally one to fall so hard for the etymological fallacy. But in this instance, in this January, this month at the front of a new year, the emotional and deeply irrational part of my brain can hardly help but feel a certain degree of optimism from the uniquely special polysemy of this single Ubykh syllable and its derivatives. So welcome back to my blog, and in the spirit of every meaning of Ubykh çr’e(n), I’d like to wish all of my friends and family, and also you reading, a happy New Year whose January is the beginning of a new future, a future of goodness and ease and love for us all.

Lasciate ogne speranza

In this post, as the Klingons’ Second Rite of Ascension calls for one to say, tIqwIj Sa’angnIS I must show you my heart. I both warn you all and apologise in advance; I’m unloading a lot of stuff here in order to help me push it out of the unhealthy residence it’s been taking up in my head. One of my best friends has suggested I write more #weirdthingsivedone posts, especially since she claims I somehow manage to scale new heights of Peak Nerd in her eyes every time we talk. (I’m not sure I’ve ever been complimented so wonderfully in my entire life.) And I will do that in future posts, I promise. But for now, here, I need to wax maudlin for a short while, so I ask for your indulgence while I do.

I read this small chunk of prose by a poetically-inclined denizen of Facebook a couple of nights ago – the ancient historians call these prose fragments gobbets when set as stimulus fragments for essay exams, and that term I’ve been utterly unable to get out of my head for every single one of the fourteen years since I last did an ancient history essay exam – on the news feed of a friend, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind for a couple of days (a wonderfully pleasant Friday evening notwithstanding, spent picking out new glasses and having dinner with the same dear friend who accused me of perpetual apex geekery – that was a perfect distraction that I desperately needed and am grateful for). I don’t know if it qualifies as prose-poetry as such, but certainly the style isn’t typical of standard prose; far more highly emotive, a cry of empathy with the deeply wounded. Because of the psychological place I was in, reading this piece was like a shout into a vast canyon with perfect acoustic balance, echoing countless times within the vaults of my mind and the power to silence it or call it back utterly out of my control.

I know what it feels like to live on the edge of loneliness
to have every hope crushed and everything you touch die
and to try so damn hard only to realize
nothing is going to change anytime soon
so you deal with the pain the best you can.
Reggie Nulan

I’ve been entrapped by this proselet largely because it feels almost like this Reggie Nulan has looked straight through – perhaps past – my eyes to see directly into the darkest, grimmest walls of my mind, and has unhesitatingly read the spidery scrawled inscriptions of my worst fears, shallow glyphs scratched weakly into prison walls of piled grey stone by the most anguished part of my psyche. My October was exactly like this verse says. It was a period during the start of which which I did feel occasional snatches of something like motivation, a feeling I hadn’t had in some time: motivation to work, to write, to move forward with my life in aspects that had previously been stagnant and beginning to grow heavy on my shoulders. It was a time during which I didn’t just make plans, but also took steps to – as the revolting business jargon would phrase it – action those plans. (As the great philosopher Calvin – no, not that one – puts it, verbing weirds language.)

Eek. I just wandered off searching for that link, got distracted, and fell into the Internet for about half an hour. I can’t even think about this for long enough to get through the writing of a full post on it. I’m sorry. Where was I? October. That’s right. Much as I’d have liked to forget. September came to an end on quite a high, with notifications via email that one of my academic articles had just been published and two further articles had been accepted for publication in the professional journals. This is probably, I’m pretty sure, what gave me the motivation to start building on the momentum I was experiencing: to keep it rolling forward while it was there, and try to avoid falling back into the lethargic inertia I’m prone to. (I’ve long since come to the conclusion that Newton’s first law of motion has relevance to more abstract forms of progress, too – that an object in motion tends to stay in motion, and conversely, an object at rest will tend to stay at rest.) I was getting my medication régime back under control with the assistance of a good psychiatrist, some academic success had come my way in the form of these three papers, there was promise of upcoming paid contract work at my alma mater, I’d had an offer from a friend to move out of the living situation I’m in that’s contributing to my worsening health, and I was feeling ready to step back out into the world of romance by asking out someone who in recent months I’d been both getting to know better, and growing to fancy, roughly in lockstep with each other.

None of these things have really worked out, though. It brings clouds to my eyes just to type that, but it remains true nonetheless. The romantic thing didn’t work out, which isn’t a problem in and of itself (particularly since the person I fancied had the immense integrity and wondrous grace to sit down with me and talk honestly and openly about why it would be best if we not date, at least for now) – it just feeds into a long, long history of romantic missed opportunities, missteps, and failures to act (more than forty in all; I counted once, in a particularly deep fit of despondency) that always, always make me criticise and harshly judge every aspect of myself to see in which ways I don’t measure up. In addition, my friend’s offer of moving out of my problematic living situation had to be cancelled entirely at the last minute because of the breakup of her relationship (that week was not a good one for relationships – another couple I know also had their civil partnership come to a screeching halt at that time). And I feel doubly awful for that because I know my friend and her partner were both themselves struggling with serious mental health issues, issues that ultimately contributed to their breakup but that must have caused them extraordinary hurt during that process and that make me feel really guilty for feeling upset about the situation for my own (and utterly selfish) reasons. The offer of work I’d had has also had to be postponed several times for a variety of reasons mostly revolving around people being in the field or caught up with other commitments that couldn’t be broken, taking me past the end of my third full year without full-time employment and making me feel even worse about my prospects for beginning to build a life that I can in any way take joy in. As a consequence of these three situations – romance, habitation, employment – I’ve taken a solid backslide even under the increased dosage of the medication my psychiatrist has been working with me on (no doubt situational rather than fundamentally biochemical, which at least does give me a tiny but mathematically non-zero degree of consolation), which has subsequently impacted upon my ability to focus on the writing of further academic papers, on the writing of job applications, and on the continuing effective conductance of my life on a day-to-day basis.

Ultimately, all this is why I feel so keenly the sting of the wound that propelled Reggie Nulan to write his lovely but heart-wrenching prose-poem. Living on the edge of loneliness feels like my reality at the moment; I feel lonely at virtually every moment, even as I try to push myself to address it, to connect with friends, to remain in contact with people I care about. And all that I hoped would come to fruition during October shrivelled on the vine. Life is as stagnant now – moreso, perhaps – as it was at the end of September. At moments like this, I almost fear that my depression and my anxiety are the correct and true way of experience, slyly and underhandedly suggesting that optimism is abhorrent and hope to be shunned. On one level, I’m used to feeling that in my own head. I suppose it just causes a rather deeper ache to feel that the universe around me should be nodding its head so vigorously in agreement.

Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.
(Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.)
– Dante Alighieri, Inferno III.9

22 Days of Musing: 21

21. It’s okay to not be okay.

Hoookay, folks; tonight’s reflection is going to be a relatively short one, I fear, as I’ve come down with a rather nasty case of cellulitis on and around my left elbow and resting it on the arm of the chair to type is causing it to ache rather unpleasantly. I’ve already been prescribed a good heavy dose of erythromycin, though, so don’t worry about me (at least, not until my arm turns black and falls off entirely – let’s try and avoid that, shall we?). Nonetheless, I’ve just found out that this week, from the 9th to the 15th of October, is National Mental Health Week, and focused upon the now-passed World Mental Health Day on the 10th. This is a week in which to reflect on mental health as a phenomenon, as an experience, as a burden, and try to ask ourselves what we can do or improve on to help both ourselves and others to move closer to a state of mental wellness, and I think it’s apposite, then, that I reflect on that. This kind of awareness campaign is incalculably valuable, I believe, because such a powerful stigma still exists even now against talking honestly about one’s less-than-ideal state of mental health in a public arena. People are in varying degrees content to ask a friend how their treatment for cancer is going, how their broken arm is mending, whether their cold has cleared off; but when it comes to mental illnesses like depression and schizophrenia and PTSD, we really lack the cultural ability and social framework within which to engage with those kinds of conversations. There’s a feeling pervading almost every niche of society, even now in 2016, that feeling mentally ill is still something that it’s proper manners to keep the fuck to yourself, as tightly wrapped as a pharaonic mummy – to the point where I even found myself apologising to my psychiatrist when I burst into tears during my last session with her. Prima facie, this should be completely ridiculous, the idea of apologising to the very person I should be opening my feelings to for the very act of opening my feelings to her in what felt to a part of my brain like it was an excessive, if not outright shameful, manner. I fight this feeling every day, battling hard to maintain a matter-of-fact attitude towards my own mental illness (while not being cavalier, of course) when I discuss my health issues with others. Awareness campaigns of the sort we’re seeing in the National Mental Health Week give me great heart for this reason. It’s one thing for me to model the kind of approaches I’d like to see when it comes to engaging with mental illness more generally (and even here I’ve been told at times that I share too much, that it’ll hurt my future career prospects, that it’ll scare people away from me, et cetera – ironically, mostly by an ex-partner who herself was at the time suffering from rather serious mental health issues that were at the time going undiagnosed and untreated), but having the backup of organisational-level efforts like National Mental Health Week, the It’s Okay To Say (If You Don’t Feel Okay), and the R U OK? campaigns to normalise the discussion of mental illness in public is truly cheering for me. It’s a big public display of support for the mentally ill in general, and for me in particular it helps to reinforce the small, serene voice in my head that tries so very hard to convince me that I’m allowed to speak up while being constantly drowned out by the other voice in my head, the shouty Don Rickles-impersonating motherfucker on the megaphone. So if I can make a request of you, dear reader, I’d ask that you please do something this National Mental Health Week to show your support for those with mental illness, even if all that is is to ask a suffering friend if they’re okay, and listen without prejudice. And if it’s you that’s suffering, please look to those around you to try and start building a support network. There’s a wonderful quote I like from, of all places, Tumblr; some time ago, a user going by the alias tahtahtahtia posted this to their Tumblr blog, which I reproduce here verbatim.

today my anthro professor said something kindof really beautiful:
“you all have a little bit of ‘I want to save the world’ in you,

that’s why you’re here, in college.
I want you to know that it’s okay if you only save one person,
and it’s okay if that person is you”
– tahtahtahtia

Hov leng qoS 50DIch

(English: The 50th Birthday of Star Trek)

Today (well, just yesterday by now) marks the 50th anniversary of the first broadcast in the United States of Gene Roddenberry’s original science fiction series Star Trek. The fact that it managed to make it to air at all is itself due to a serendipitous confluence of circumstances, involving the vision of Gene Roddenberry and the foresight of Lucille Ball, who I just recently discovered was responsible – as the chair of the board at Desilu Productions – for overriding, in 1966, the almost unanimous decision of her board to cancel the series after the purchase of the second pilot. The fact that it’s gone on to have such immense success is a testament to the power of being given an opportunity against the odds, and the ceaselessness of the various incarnations of Trek – TV series, feature films, novels, computer games, technical manuals, and a wide variety of other media – demonstrates the power that the ideology of Star Trek holds even now. But I’m not writing this post in order to gasbag about the details of Star Trek history and Treknology, rich though those topics are; I’m neither qualified nor interested to discuss those topics in particular depth.

My connection to Star Trek is of a far more personal nature than an objective, dispassionate historical overview can outline, and what I’m reminded of today, on the half-century anniversary of the Star Trek franchise, is the impact it’s had on the lives of actual people, myself included. Star Trek‘s ideology has always been founded on highly progressive ideals, seeking itself to do as William Shatner’s pompous voice-over declaimed, and “boldly go where no man [sic] has gone before”. But it also builds a universe both diverse and spectacular, of federations, empires, and dominions of hundreds of planets, stretching over dozens of species and thousands of light-years, facing challenges and difficulties on far greater scales than even a single world could possibly imagine. Partly this was aimed at creating a fictional context in which one might allow imagination to take over on an immense scale, but in part the aim was deeper and more subtle, to use that setting to argue for those selfsame progressive ideals: to demonstrate just how petty and small the perceived “differences” between different groups of humans are, and how within a galaxy-wide perspective, we truly are far more alike than we are different if only we seek to realise it.

One of the more unusual moves in the franchise’s history was no doubt the decision to commission an actual constructed language for the Klingons, one of the alien races used most often in the various Star Trek series as a background to stories involving cultural clashes of many kinds. After having been brought on to develop Vulcan dialogue for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Dr Marc Okrand, a linguist who did his doctoral dissertation on the grammar and syntax of the extinct Mutsun language of California (a very enjoyable and useful read for one whose interests lie, as mine do, in the area of recently-extinct languages… but I digress) and subsequently worked at the US National Captioning Institute, was commissioned to produce a Klingon language for the film Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. The resulting language was published in 1985 in a little blue book called, unassumingly, The Klingon Dictionary, and it went into a second, expanded edition in 1992 after Marc was called upon to provide additional material for the fifth and sixth Star Trek films. The story of the language’s creation has been endlessly retold by many who are far more qualified than I (and I was two when the first edition was released, at any rate), so I won’t rehash it here, but suffice it to say that this book, which by Marc’s own admission he never thought would be much more than a collector’s item for the shelves of die-hard Trekkies, has sold nearly a third of a million copies – indeed, The Klingon Dictionary may well be the best-selling descriptive grammar of all time – and has spawned an actual community of active speakers, speaking the Klingon language Marc devised (with the assistance of two further books as well as two audio courses, and continuing support that Marc graciously still gives to the Klingon-speaking community).

And that’s where my connection to Star Trek lies. Despite what’s alluded to on shows like The Big Bang Theory, the Klingon language isn’t fluently spoken by a particularly large number of people; the vast majority of the copies of The Klingon Dictionary that have been bought have, indeed, been bought as collector’s items, or by people vaguely interested in putting together a few sentences for a Klingon fanfic or cosplay. But about thirty of us worldwide (according to our best estimates) are capable of not just basic conversation, but sustained conversation of arbitrary length without reference to a dictionary, usually criterion enough to be considered “fluent” by any popular definition of that word. I’m one of those thirty or so conversational Klingon speakers. Not all of us came to the Klingon language through Star Trek, though; for me, it was quite the opposite. Languages with unusual and obscure properties have always fascinated me, as those of you who know about or are familiar with my work on the Caucasian language Ubykh (SHAMELESS PLUG, SHAMELESS PLUG) will already be aware, and certainly Klingon also fulfilled my criteria for an unusual language. I started studying it when I was just 17, still young and not really thinking about which language would come in most useful for me later in life. But what’s kept me going for the subsequent 16 years is not just the fascination with the language itself – although it is indeed fascinating, and especially given that the entire core of the grammar was put together relatively quickly in a short time in 1984 and has had minimal modifications since, it’s extraordinarily beautiful in its descriptive power. (Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, and the Daodejing have all been rendered into Klingon, and my own small contribution so far is a translation, in rhyming ballad verse, of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.)

No, it’s not the fascination alone. What keeps me engaged with this language is that even as small as the Klingon-speaking community is, they’re perhaps the most well-educated, diverse, accepting, direct, intelligent, curious, funny, and wonderful group of human beings I’ve ever met. For many years my engagement was primarily through online communities, but I’ve also had the infinite pleasure of participating so far at three qep’a’mey, the annual Conferences of the Klingon Language Institute, in person, and as a result enjoyed some of the happiest and most memorable moments of my entire life. We sing songs in Klingon, we joke and laugh and play games and tell stories and read poetry in Klingon. Hell, we even eat in Klingon. (And let me tell you, that fourth meal of the day is the best of the lot: ghem, a midnight meal for which there’s no real term in English, is a common event seemingly aimed at keeping us awake and socialising for as long as possible – qep’a’ usually passes all too quickly for us all – and often we’ll be at Denny’s for ghem until two or three in the morning.) And the Klingonists I’ve met, both in person and online, are all splendid specimens of the finest humankind has to offer, and perhaps more richly diverse than any other group that could be circumscribed with a single descriptor. Within the circle of perhaps fifty Klingon-speaking people I know, there are speakers of more than 18 non-constructed languages, from Chinese to Irish, from American Sign Language to Jinghpaw. There are mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, singles, couples, polyamorists. There are people who are male and female and cisgender and transgender and genderqueer and gender-nonconforming. We live in Canada and Australia and the US and Germany and Switzerland and Japan and Poland and Sweden and Greece. There are actors, and translators, and novelists; linguists, computer programmers, tour guides, singers; a guitarist and composer of Klingon three-part fugues with the most infectious laugh of anyone I know, a pilot who writes original Klingon and English novels in her spare time with the energy of the Duracell bunny, a hypnotist psycholinguist with Hugo and Nebula nominations under his belt, and a modest ex-closed-captioning director who taught Leonard Nimoy how to speak Vulcan. But even so, the nicest part of the community is that the diversity means everyone has a story to tell; everyone has a fascinating background that we can all share in and relish as a community. As Klingon speakers, we’re drawn together by our common bond of Klingon, but once together, it’s both the differences and the commonalities between us that we celebrate – in true Star Trek fashion, our diversity is what makes us so rich as a community.

So without Star Trek – without Gene Roddenberry, and without the single nod from Lucille Ball back in 1966 that ensured it would go to air – I would know none of these people, I would have had none of these experiences. This immensely wonderful little community would simply not exist. And though I would never have known it, I certainly would have been infinitely poorer for it; I can’t imagine not having these people in my life, whose love and friendship means so much to me. So happy 50th anniversary, Star Trek, and thank you for giving us this entertaining and thoughtful framework within which we can dream of reaching higher as human beings. I’ll finish, in the languages that Marc Okrand built for you, with this:

yIn nI’ yISIQ ‘ej yIchep (Klingon)
dif-tor heh smusma (Vulcan)
Live long and prosper

A constellation of worlds

I’m reposting this from Facebook, largely so that there’s at least something positive at the beginning phase of this blog! This was the post that brought a couple of my friends to suggest I should blog in the first place, and I hope you enjoy it too. I’ve added a couple of minor edits, but nothing more.

Every once in a while, you get to perceive your world in a different light. One of the rare moments of pleasure I’ve felt lately was about two weeks ago, when the moon was full and I was walking home from the nearby train station. Where I live is generally westwards from the station, and because it’s winter, the stars are out at this time of year when I’m walking home, usually just after 6pm. It’s a time when there are not many other people walking on the roads, and I can experience the world in a clean and uninterrupted way. As a short journey between one place and the next, it’s a liminal zone of sorts for me, where I tend not to be too focused on any one thing, and so my attention tends to wander as it will during those times, without turning inwards and sneaking into the undesirable thought patterns that characterise much of the rest of my conscious day.

What struck me on this particular night was that, as I was gazing into the evening sky, all five of the eye-visible planets, as well as the full moon, were above the horizon and stunning in their luminosity. Venus, Jupiter, and Mercury were low in the west, an elongated golden triad pointing downwards to the point where the sun had disappeared not long before; Mars and Saturn stood brightly alongside Antares, carnelian and topaz adorning the heart of Scorpius as it straddled the zenith. Suddenly it struck me out of the blue (well, out of the black, really) that if I were to describe this sky to someone else, nothing more than a slight shift of phrasing, and therefore perspective, could transform that night from a standard Earth night sky into the kind of fantastic and spectacular sky that one reads about in the introductory chapters of science fiction novels. As I realised that I was being bathed in the reflected light of a half-dozen different worlds, it gave me a feeling simultaneously of being unimaginably small – tiny, insignificant, and unimportant within the scope of the universe’s vastness – and of being an integral part, despite my infinitesimality, of that same incomprehensibly gigantic cosmos: a sensation of belonging to something, of comprising a part of that vastness, in a way that allowed me to partake of it and feel a fleeting but genuine importance as a component in the grand scheme of existence.

The thought is much easier to hold onto than is the feeling, of course. But it brought me pleasure, and a feeling of relevance, if only for a moment.

Dear Tim Wilson

Tim Wilson, Federal Coalition Member of Parliament for the seat of Goldstein, just recently wrote an op-ed for the Sydney Morning Herald on why QUILTBAG people should just accept the threatened plebiscite on the topic of marriage equality in Australia and that nothing worth fighting for was ever easy. I didn’t want for my first original-content post to be as angry as this, but Mr Wilson’s post spurred me to a new colour of incandescence, and so I wrote this in direct response to that. Please forgive me this anger, and I promise that the next post will be more interesting, or at least less politically oriented.

To the Allegedly “Honourable” Tim Wilson:
I want you to know that you are a horrifying hypocrite, a terrible representative for the queer community, and should hang your head deep in shame for this revolting piece of self-congratulatory, heavily patronising, deeply prescriptive, and subliminally anti-queer political exegesis for the marriage equality plebiscite.

Oh yes, it’s entirely possible for queer people to do anti-queer things, and this is one of the worst I’ve seen in some time. The debate over this plebiscite is not, as you represent it to be in your opinion piece yesterday, about “ensuring every Australian has full citizenship”. The opposition from the Greens, the Xenophon team, and Labor is not borne of opposition to marriage equality, and you damn well know it. It is borne of opposition to the Coalition’s dawdling and sandbagging over the provision of equal civil rights to Australian citizens. It is borne of disgust with the Coalition Government’s stark abrogation of that very responsibility to “ensure every Australian has full citizenship”. The responsibility of, and ability to change, legislation for marriage is properly the preserve of the Federal Parliament, as indeed the High Court of Australia decided when they overturned marriage-equality laws introduced into the ACT’s Parliament in 2013. You, and all other Members of Parliament along with you, are given the rights and responsibilities to create and amend legislation when you are elected, and under the pretty-shit-but-it’s-all-we’ve-got Westminster system, you are expected to exercise those capabilities, not throw the ball back into the court of the electorate when it all just gets too hard. It’s like going to the shops in the rain, this plebiscite. You’re telling us we should go out in the rain, trying to assure us we won’t get too wet and only one or two of us will probably catch a cold, but you’ve got a perfectly good car in the garage that’d get us all there safe and dry.

Now, let me recast that analogy into reality for you. The shops represent marriage equality. The rain is homophobia, transphobia, anti-queer sentiment of all stripes. The car is Parliament. You’re telling us to suck up the prejudice while it’s happening, basically because nothing good ever happened for people who didn’t put up with some shit while they fought for the good. But we’re reminding you in return that you are a Member of Parliament, that you have the power to get us to marriage equality by getting into Parliament and doing it for all of us in order to help keep us clear of the campaign of bigotry. Because the cold here stands for something, too. It stands for mental illness. For some of us it will be transient – a period of depression, anxiety, insecurity, Weltschmerz, that will pass soon enough – but just as a cold may develop into pneumonia and death for the vulnerable, so too will the mental health issues triggered and worsened by plebiscite campaigning develop into self-harm for some poor closeted trans girl who needed to feel something from her body other than shame and discomfort, into suicide for some self-doubting young gay man who was called faggot once too often and couldn’t take the pain any more.

People will be harmed because of this plebiscite, and you have the power to stop that harm, but refuse. You just don’t get – and I’m saying this as a queer person to whom marriage equality is of course a hugely important issue – that actually, this fight is now even bigger than marriage equality. The fight against this plebiscite is about making you, as members of the Government, recognise that even by offering this compromise you are implicitly stating your beliefs that we are lesser citizens, that we do not deserve equality, that you do not believe our rights sufficiently important to proactively move to address this deficiency in law of the country you swore to serve faithfully, that you will only be dragged to the issue of marriage equality kicking and screaming and crying rainbow murder all the way even despite the harm that your proposed compromise will likely cause.

For that reason, I will not take your veiled “BUT WE’RE GIVING YOU A PLEBISCITE, WHY AREN’T YOU HAPPY TO FIGHT FOR IT?”. I sneer with disgust at your restatement of “the seductive lie that it is better to wait for the fundamental right of equality before the law, than fight for it“, when the ones who are causing the battle to be so difficult are largely you yourselves, the ones in Government. I wave my designated-other-than-I-identify private parts in the general direction of your false equivalence between the Irish referendum (which was binding in Irish law, and you should know that I noticed your cunning omission of any mention of the word referendum when drawing the Irish parallel) and your proposed plebiscite (which is explicitly not binding in Australian law). Indeed, one of the lead campaigners from that very referendum you claim to have been such a rousing success, Grainne Healy, has come out – so to speak – to warn your Coalition Government that the prelude to the Irish referendum was “brutal”, “hurtful”, “upsetting”, “hateful” (her words, not mine) and urge a plebiscite to be avoided if at all possible. And what’s more, this fact was reported just days ago in the very same newspaper you composed your rotten little apologia for. The call to avoid a costly and likely injurious plebiscite is based entirely on this concept that you yourself regurgitate without seeming to have digested any of:

“One of the biggest problems facing LGBTI people, particularly those who are not “out” is the fear of marginalisation. As a result they internalise their fear and doubt their legitimacy in the world. I know that doubt is redoubled when others fail to stand up in defence of those who can’t speak up for themselves.”

By forcing the decision back onto the populace, our fears of marginalisation are being realised. YOU are marginalising us. You are exactly failing to stand up in defence of those of us who can’t speak up for ourselves. You are refusing to play your elected roles as our representatives in Parliament, one of this country’s highest instruments of legislation, on a matter in which our rights to be considered and treated equally under the law you were elected to control are at stake. And to be frank, as a gay man you should know better than to throw in your lot with this refusal, because you are throwing yourself, and your fiancé for that matter, out into the path of bigotry as well when both of you could just get in the fucking car and prevent yourself getting wet too.

Finally – you want us to fight for the type of country we want? Let me tell you the type of country I want. I want a country where the Government is not afraid to change an unpopular policy after listening to an overwhelming and still escalating cry from the populace. I want a country where the wafer-thin majority by which the Coalition holds government is not the most important thing to those in the leadership hierarchy. I want a country that learns from its past, that learns from experiences with the rights of women and Indigenous people and disabled people and refugees and wants to improve the way it works for people in minorities too small to be able to command political respect. And I want a country where the governing party is not so paralysed, cloven in two along ideological lines, that they can’t see that a denial of equality to queer people in this manner belongs to a time long past, a time we should be proud to have moved on from rather than ashamed that we have stagnated in.

And yes, I’ll fight for that kind of country. I’ll be damned if I don’t fight until the very last, and against you and everyone else in your smug, self-important party if needs be, in order to make sure that that’s what we get. Because this is far bigger now than just about getting marriage equality. This is not just about what you give us, but how you give it. This is about true equality of all citizens in the eyes, and more importantly, the heart, of the Government – and right now, you and your party are making it eminently clear that your collective heart is so shrivelled and petrified that you care not a whit for such petty things as civil and human rights, and are more focused on just getting to have your go at making childish brrm-brrm noises behind the steering wheel while the rest of us get sick in the rain.

Fuck you, and fuck your selfish and short-sighted betrayal of the queer community you claim to represent.