Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Drive He Said

Among my many personality flaws, as my wife reminds me, is my charter membership in the Everybody On The Road Except Me Drives Like An Idiot Club.

Fortunately for my waning sense of humility, it isn't a very exclusive club, and its members are mostly, if not entirely, self-sponsored.

Recently, though, I've had reason to consider dropping my membership.

Maybe it's because I'm getting older, maybe I'm developing some perspective as time passes, or maybe I'm finally growing up (just a bit) but it's begun to occur to me that the modern American traffic system is actually a model of driving excellence.

If it weren't, after all, most of us would be dead.

Think about this: at any given moment as you cruise a busy highway like, say, US 101 through the San Fernando Valley, you're cooperating with hundreds -- if not thousands -- of other drivers in an incredibly complicated series of instant-by-instant maneuvers happening almost literally too quickly for conscious judgement to become involved. Merge on and off an access road, change lanes, accelerate and pass, slow down and avoid a bit of congestion, make a last-minute course correction to switch freeways, all of this taking place at speeds in the range of a mile-a-minute or more -- the number of unconscious decisions you have to make, second to second, is almost incomprehensible. The only possible way you can survive even five minutes on a high speed freeway is if almost every other driver you encounter operates with a skill and efficiency and a predictability that would seem impossible if you tried to plan it in advance. If you don't find this even remotely astonishing, and a real compliment to the inherent adaptability of the human brain to remarkably challenging and stressful demands, then I pity your lack of imagination.

Humans are amazing.

Even if most of them can't drive worth a damn.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Why Jar-Jar Doesn't Suck (Much)

I recently tweeted that my sixteen-year old daughter Rachel’s favorite Star Wars character was (gasp) Jar-Jar Binks, and her favorite Star Wars movie was a tie between “The Phantom Menace” and “Return of the Jedi.”

From the amount of grief I got, you’d think I'd said her favorite President was George W. Bush.

Believe me, I understand the disconnect here. As an OSWF (Original Star Wars Fan) myself, I was deeply disappointed when I saw “The Phantom Menace” back in 1999, after standing for hours in a line outside the only theater playing it in Westwood. (OK, I admit a true fanatic would have been in line for weeks, but give me a break, I had a job and a family, there are limits.) As each prequel appeared, I disliked them as intensely as any True Fan, and I doubt I can ever fairly judge a performance by Hayden Christensen after the way he massacred Anakin Skywalker.

All of that remains true, but my feelings have tempered as I’ve gotten to watch the series again with Rachel, and have tried to see Star Wars through her eyes.

In fact, I’m beginning to think I’ve been wrong all along.

I don’t know if he said it first, but I believe the great science fiction writer and editor Damon Knight once proposed, “The Golden Age of Science Fiction is 13.”

What he meant by this, of course, is that our personal Golden Age for discovering the delights of fantasy/science fiction is that moment in our lives when we begin to transform from a child into an adolescent. As a child, we’re still open to a sense of wonder and awe; as an adolescent, we want our imaginations to be challenged by broader concepts of Universal Conflict, Love, and Tragedy.

Star Wars, like most of pulp science fiction, fantasy, and comic books, is the perfect vehicle for this transitory Golden Age.

With the child’s uncritical perception, and the adolescent’s longing for challenge, the Star Wars series (all six movies) delivers the perfect combination of awe, humor, childishness, adult longing, proto-sophistication, youthful solipsism, and good-old-fashioned fun.

Even, and especially, the first prequel, “The Phantom Menace.”

A few weeks ago, during the Christmas holidays, Rachel and I spent a weekend watching the six films back to back. She hadn’t seen them since she’d been a child -- I’m not sure if she saw Phantom Menace when it came out, but I know she saw it a few years later, when she was eight or nine. Even then, her favorite character was Jar-Jar, and even at that time, of course, I could see why -- Jar-Jar was designed to be kid-friendly. And I, of course, still despised him.

The odd thing is, though, as we re-watched the films in order over Christmas, I found myself not hating Jar-Jar as much as I had before. In fact, I began to see how similar he was, in story and thematic terms, to C-3PO and R2-D2 in the original trilogy. In fact, once I tried looking at the series through my daughter’s eyes, without the prejudices I brought to the movies from my own experience watching them for the first time twenty-odd years ago, I began to realize that Jar-Jar and C-3PO/R2-D2 were pretty much the same character, and that for an adult, all three of them were superfluous and annoying, while for a young kid, they were an absolute necessity and a vital part of a child’s way into the Star Wars story.

And I finally realized what I should have realized twenty-odd years ago, and what was made clear to anyone who paid attention at the beginning of every Star Wars film since “A New Hope”…

Star Wars isn’t science fiction. It isn’t a fantasy. It ISN’T for adults.

It’s a fairy tale.

For kids.

While this may be obvious to you (and truthfully, on an intellectual level, it’s always been obvious to me), the fact of this didn’t hit me emotionally until I saw the movies through my daughter’s eyes.

Maybe George Lucas really is the genius I used to think he was.

More on this next time...