My Feelings on “Remasterings”

About a month ago, there was a video clip making its way around that generated a lot of chatter among, shall we say, my people. The clip was a demo reel created by a visual-effects master named Adam “Mojo” Leibowitz to show how the 1978 Battlestar Galactica could be freshened up by integrating modern computer-generated imagery into the old episodes, much like what was done with the original Star Trek series a few years ago.  The emergence of the clip just ahead of the announcement that Battlestar is coming to BluRay in 2015 fueled speculation that the series had, in fact, been “remastered” — or more accurately, revised — with new effects as Star Trek was. That turned out to be untrue. But the demo offers a tantalizing glimpse of what such a revision might have looked like:

Now, I’ll stipulate right up front that this is very well done, and a lot of fun to watch for people like myself who remember how that scene originally looked. Mojo is publicly known to be a fan of the original Battlestar, and he took great care to make his new footage seem organic to a 35-year-old production, unlike, say, many of changes made to the Star Wars Special Editions, which stand out like sore thumbs, in my opinion. I’ll even concede that this revised version actually makes more sense than the original, in which Commander Cain’s actions were far less clearly illustrated through spliced-together bits of stock footage (that was a real problem for Battlestar ’78, especially as the series ground on and the effects department ran out of money). So, from that standpoint, I must grudgingly admit that this kind of revision does, in fact, improve on the original. It helps to tell the story, which is what good special effects are supposed to do; more importantly, Mojo’s new effects do not alter the story, or even the tone of the story as we’ve always known it. (The biggest lightning rod in the Star Wars Special Eds is, of course, Han vs. Greedo, with some people arguing that the revision changes Han’s character arc substantially, and others saying that it does not. Personally, I’m equally as troubled by the more cosmopolitan Mos Eisley, as it alters our understanding of what that place was. In the Special Editions, it suddenly doesn’t seem all that “hind end of the universe” after all… of course, given that five of the six Star Wars movies have included scenes there, maybe that’s the point…)

Anyhow, this demo is well done and a revised Battlestar could actually be a better series… but I’m still glad it didn’t happen. Because deep down, on some fundamental level, this sort of tinkering simply rubs me the wrong way. I feel that things ought to be allowed to remain what they are. Or were. Whatever the proper tense is. And I have exactly zero patience for the (mostly younger) viewers who refuse to watch something simply because it’s old.

My fellow traveler in these matters, Christopher Mills, recently wrote something similar on his Space: 1970 blog:

One of the charms of these shows and movies for me are the handcrafted practical effects, and Galactica‘s were groundbreaking at the time, and worthy of preservation. I genuinely pity people who can’t abide by classic (or “cheesy,” as they call them) special effects and want everything to be slick and shiny and soulless. In my opinion, it’s an insult to the talented and hardworking craftsmen who created them.

My feelings exactly.

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Incidentally, the old Galactica series may have escaped having its special effects swapped out on these new BluRays, but if you read the press release closely, you’ll see this: “Newly remastered in 16:9 widescreen presentation for the very first time…” Widescreen? For a series made decades before widescreen TVs were even thought of? That’s as wrong as adding digital dinosaurs to Mos Eisley, in my opinion. Look, to make a 4:3 (square) television image widescreen, you’ve got to do one of two things: you either “matte” the square image, i.e., putting black bars over it to fake a rectangular image, which will of course cover up part of the scene, or you digitally “stretch” the image horizontally to fill the modern 16×9 television display, which makes everybody in the scene look really weird. Neither option is appealing. Again I ask, why can’t things just be left as they were originally made?! And didn’t we already fight the “original aspect ratio” battle 20 years ago, near the end of the VHS era? I guess enough time has passed that people need to be re-educated on something I foolishly assumed was settled.

There’s a similar controversy going on over Fox’s “remastering” of the series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is much more recent than Battlestar ’78, but still came along just before widescreen TVs became commonplace. Fox is tinkering with a lot of things besides just the aspect ratio — the square vs. rectangular shape of the image — but the “widescreenization” is creating some truly ridiculous errors, like suddenly introducing random crew members into shots that originally were matted in a way that concealed them. It’s utterly asinine…

At least in the case of the Battlestar BluRays, there will be a “definitive” edition that includes both versions. But really it shouldn’t be necessary. Just leave movies and TV shows the way they were made. Clean up the dirt and scratches, obviously, repair damaged elements and such, but stop second-guessing artistic choices or issues that were done a certain way because of the technology of the time. Why is that so hard?

 

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Colossal Star Wars Questionnaire

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As of today, the countdown is on… only 365 days until the next Star Wars feature film hits cinema screens in our galaxy.

Such a momentous event demands I do something here on Simple Tricks, but of course there’s not much more to say at this point than what I’ve already written in regards to the teaser trailer. So how about something a little more… general?

I ran across this questionnaire on Tumblr a while back (thanks to my friend Staci for posting it!), and, well… I just can’t resist these silly things. Some of the questions are a bit outdated now that Episode VII is no longer a hypothetical, and the whole thing seems to have been written by and for younger fans who experience being a Star Wars fan quite differently than I have (I have noticed there’s a definite generation gap developing in fandom, maybe even two of them at this point… god, I’m getting old), but no matter. The only real prerequisite here is that the person answering be a fan of the Star Wars saga, and I think I probably qualify…

1. Which film is your favorite of the Original Trilogy?

The toughest question of all, right off the bat. Although popular wisdom long ago decreed that The Empire Strikes Back is the best of the entire saga (and I do concede that it presents the most polished, most satisfying vision out of any of the six films to date), I’ve got to award this prize to the first entry in the series, Star Wars. (Sorry, kids, I can’t think of it as “A New Hope” or “Episode IV”; the name of the picture was Star Wars when I first saw it.) None of the other films, in either the Original or Prequel Trilogies, had the same swashbuckling sense of fun, or a self-contained story that didn’t rely on having seen any of the others to make an impact. (I maintain that the prequels, in particular, are absolutely dependent on one knowing how the story ends when you go into them. But then, that’s the way I experienced them, so maybe the younger fans see it differently.)

2. If you enjoy the prequels, which one is your favorite?

For the record, I do enjoy the prequels, although not to the same degree as the Original Trilogy. My favorite of them is Revenge of the Sith, because that’s the one that fulfilled a vision I’ve had in my head since I was eight years old: Obi-Wan and Vader battling on the edge of a lava pit.

3. How old were you when Episode 1 came out?

I was 29.

4. Which of the movies have you seen in the theater?

All of them. As I said earlier, I’m old.

5. Did you go to any of them on opening night?

I saw an opening-day matinee of The Phantom Menace, and saw Sith on opening night. I honestly can’t recall when I saw Attack of the Clones, but I’m sure it was probably some time on opening day. I did not see any of the originals on opening day.

6. Who is your favorite character from the Original Trilogy?

Tough choice. At this point, they all feel like family, and I love them all, for one reason or another. But I guess I’d have to say Han Solo. He was the cool guy all us boys (and probably more than a few girls) on the playground wanted to be when we played Star Wars.

7. Who is your favorite character from the prequels, if you have one?

Obi-Wan. I love the dry humor and sense of derring-do Ewan MacGregor brings to the part, as well as his maturation over the three films. I would’ve liked to see more of Liam Neeson’s Qui-Gon Jinn.

8. Have you read any of the books or comics?

Of course! My history with the tie-in literature goes all the way back to the Marvel Comics adaptation of the original film, and Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (the very first spin-off novel). I’ve also read quite a few of the more recent novels and the various comic series published by Dark Horse, the stuff that’s referred to as the “Expanded Universe,” although I confess I haven’t been able to keep up with all of that. (And I guess it doesn’t matter now anyhow, as Disney has “decanonized” all the EU.)

9. Favorite book or series? Favorite SW author?

Again, I’m old, so my favorites are Brian Daley’s Han Solo trilogy from the late ’70s/early ’80s (Han Solo at Star’s End, Han Solo’s Revenge, and Han Solo and the Lost Legacy), closely followed by Tim Zahn’s “Thrawn trilogy” (Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command), the books that restarted the whole Star Wars juggernaut in the early ’90s.

10. Favorite comic?

Obviously, I favor the Marvel comics I grew up with (I guess I need to qualify that as “the original Marvel comics” now, since the company has reacquired the license and will be starting a new SW line in January). I’ve also enjoyed a number of Dark Horse Publishing’s various SW titles, most notably the limited-run miniseries Tales of the Jedi (set 5,000 years before the movies), the comical adventures of Tag and Bink (kind of the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the SW Saga), and the short-story collections published as Star Wars Tales.

11. Favorite character from the Expanded Universe (EU)?

I’ll confess, a lot of the EU stories have not stayed in my mind, and I haven’t read very many of the later ones (New Jedi Order and following) at all. There’s also some question in my mind as what, precisely, constitutes the EU. Does it include the early tie-in novels by Brian Daley, Alan Dean Foster, and L. Neil Smith? Or the old Marvel comics? Or does “EU” connote only the more regulated, continuity-conscious materials created since 1991, when Timothy Zahn’s novel Heir to the Empire reignited everything?

If we’re counting the early stuff, I loved Jessa and her father Doc, the outlaw mechanics who helped Han Solo modify the Falcon according to Brian Daley’s Han Solo at Star’s End. If we’re starting with Zahn, I’m partial to Talon Kardde, the smuggler lord introduced in Heir to the Empire. What can I say, I like the scoundrels.

12. Favorite villain from the EU?

Grand Admiral Thrawn, again from Zahn’s Heir to the Empire and its two sequels (which comprise the “Thrawn trilogy”).

13. If you had your own ship from the Star Wars Universe (SWU), what would it be? It could be a mash-up/ugly.

I’m not sure what a “mash-up/ugly” might be, but then I tend to prefer the classics anyhow… the Millennium Falcon, of course!

14. Would you rather be Sith or Jedi?

Jedi. I’d look terrible with yellow eyes.

15. Would you rather be a Rebel or a member of the Imperial Navy? What would your role be?

A Rebel. I have a problem with authority, especially the kind that Force-chokes you for every little thing.

16. If you could be any species from the SWU which would you be?

I’m pretty happy being human, actually.

17. If you could date any species from the SWU which would you pick?

Those Twi’lek chicks are pretty hot…

18. If you could date/marry any character from the SWU who would you pick?

If I’m allowed to pick someone from the old Marvel comics, Amaiza, the Mae West-ish “den mother of the Black Hole Gang,” was a cutie, and she’d probably keep me on my toes.

19. If you were going to bone just one Star Wars character and you never had to see them again, who would you pick?

Luke’s friend Camie from Tosche Station.

20. If you could BE one SW character, EU or not, who would you be?

Lando Calrissian. Because I’d love to be as smooth as that guy with the galactic ladies.

21. What would your SWU name be?

Well, I like my given name, but “Bennion” isn’t very Star Wars-y… following the general pattern of human family names on Tatooine being somehow related to the cosmos, let’s say… Jason Doublestar.

22. What color would your lightsaber be, what kind would it be (double-bladed, single blade), would you dual-wield, and what kind of grip would it have?

Um… my favorite color is red, but as far as we can see, only the Sith use those and I already said I don’t want to be one of them, so… a blue single-blade in a straight hilt (classic style, none of this fancy stuff!), and I’d only use one. Enough risk of losing digits with one, let alone multiples.

23. Do you own SW merchandise?

Silly question. Of course.

24. How much, to date, do you think you’ve spent on SW merchandise?

I’ve been collecting Star Wars stuff since I was seven years old. I think it’s fair to say the amount I’ve spent over almost four decades is incalculable.

25. What is your favorite SW possession?

Again, difficult… in terms of plain sentiment, the first thing that comes to mind will probably seem a little weird: three pages torn out of an ancient children’s magazine and gifted to me by my third-grade teacher, who got tired of me asking to look a that particular issue. Those pages include a couple of quotes from George Lucas speculating that, in a future “Star Wars 2,” we might see the origins of Darth Vader, when he and Obi-Wan dueled at the edge of a lava pit, and Darth fell in and was horribly burned, which is why he has to wear that suit and respirator machine. This image remained in my head for 30 years, and when I saw the lava fields of Mustafar in Revenge of the Sith… well, it was like a circle was now complete.

26. Do you have a favorite SW artist? If so, who?

So many excellent artists have contributed to Star Wars in so many media over the decade, it’s very difficult to pick just one. But I will say Drew Struzan is probably my favorite one-sheet artist in general, and he’s done a lot of incredible work for Lucasfilm.

27. Are there items you do not own but covet? What are they?

Sure, of course… there’s so much SW stuff out there, there’s no way anyone could have everything they covet. I’d love to have an original “birthday” one-sheet (produced to celebrate the first SW playing in some movie theaters for an entire year back in the day). I’d like to have an original “Han Solo in Bespin outfit” action figure still on the card. A life-size, functioning R2 unit would be fun (there are hobbyists who build them!), too.

28. Are there items that are not made but that you wish were made? What are they?

A fully functional landspeeder, perhaps? Even better, a speeder bike?

29. Did Han shoot first?

There was no “first.” Greedo never shot.

30. Did Boba Fett, in your opinion, ever leave the Sarlacc or did he die there?

I think the odds are good he escaped. He was wearing an armored suit that would have protected him (for a time) from the Sarlaac’s digestive process, and the suit had weapons built in even if he didn’t manage to hold on to his blaster. And if there was even a grain of truth behind his fearsome reputation, he must’ve been a survivor.

31. Are there things about the movies you wish you could change? If so, name three.

Since we’re on the subject of Boba Fett, I’d give him a larger part and more characterization — as it is, he’s basically little more than a cool-looking costume, even with the backstory provided by the prequels — as well as a more interesting and meaningful demise. (I’ve always imagined him and Han Solo settling things Old West style, with a quick-draw shoot-out — the original Star Wars was very much like a Western, after all.)

I’d drop the notion of Luke and Leia being siblings and come up with a more honest resolution to the Luke-Leia-Han love triangle established in Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. (You’ll never convince me that George Lucas planned that from the beginning; it has always struck me as a cop-out to avoid dealing with a plot point that had evolved in the first two films, but which he didn’t want — or didn’t know how — to address.)

And I’d fix Jar-Jar Binks by giving him a heroic character arc in The Phantom Menace that sees him rise to the occasion during the droid battle at the end and save the day through his actions and choices rather than by accident. I’d also establish that his weird speech pattern is due to English being a second language for him. We’re accustomed to seeing subtitles for non-humans in the SW universe; if Gungans were shown as speaking intelligently and grammatically among themselves, I think viewers would’ve been far less annoyed with Jar-Jar’s pidgin-speak.

32. Which era would you want to live in?

Assuming this refers to the “classic” (i.e., rebellion against the Empire) and “prequel” (i.e., Old Republic/Clone Wars) eras, I’d go for the Imperial/rebellion era. It’s the one I grew up imagining myself in, the one that feels most like “home.”

33. What SW games have you played?

Um… the old Escape from the Death Star board game is the only one that comes to mind. I don’t really play games.

34. Do you play/own Star Wars Miniatures?

No, but I’ve thought about picking up some of the miniature ships that go along with this game, just because they’re wonderful little models.

35. Favorite SW costume for men?

I love seeing them all, from Jedi to stormtroopers to Han Solos. It’d be nice to see somebody cosplay Luke Skywalker’s farm-boy outfit or his “medals ceremony” uniform, though… for some reason, nobody ever does those.

36. Favorite SW costume for women?

Weirdly enough, I really like seeing women dressed as Han Solo. I’m not sure why, but the outfit seems to work really nicely on the ladies.

37. Have you ever dressed up as a SW character? Who/When/Why?

No, unless you count when I was little and would pretend I was Han by wearing a denim vest over a white t-shirt. Maybe I ought to try one of those Luke outfits for Salt Lake Comic Con sometime.

38. Do you ever have SW sex fantasies? If so, have you ever acted them out?

Um…

39. Do you Ship any SW characters who aren’t together? Who/why?

I confess, I had to look up the slang term “shipping” in order to answer this. This would be one of the generation-gap questions I mentioned above, I think. (Briefly, for my fellow uninitiated, “shipping” means wanting to see two fictional characters have a relationship, or being intensely interested in a fictional relationship.)

It’s not anything that’s ever occurred to me, so I’d have to say “no.”

40. Have you ever written SW fan fiction? Can we read it?

Nope. I wrote an Indiana Jones/Rocketeer crossover once, but never anything Star Wars-related.

41. Have you been to a Celebration or plan on going to one?

No, I’ve never been to one of these and have no plans to attend one, but I wouldn’t be opposed to the idea.

(For the unhip, “Celebration” refers to the officially sanctioned Star Wars Celebration conventions.)

42. Have you ever been to Star Wars Weekends at Walt Disney World?

Again, no, but I wouldn’t be opposed.

43. Do you wish they had Star Wars Weekends at Disneyland?

As I live much nearer to California than Florida, it would certainly be more convenient for me.

44. Best section you’ve experienced on Star Tours?

I’m not sure what this one is asking… I’ve enjoyed the Star Tours ride in the past but honestly don’t remember that much about it.

45. What initially brought you to the SW fandom?

Seeing the original Star Wars when I was seven years old. Growing up reading and re-reading the Marvel comics and the novelization and early tie-ins, playing with the Kenner toys, wearing t-shirts with rubber Star Wars iron-ons, listening to the NPR Radio Dramas in my barn one hot summer day, and generally obsessing about the most mind-blowing experience I’d ever had at the movies. You know, the same as everybody else my age.

46. Do you consider yourself a SW Fanboy or Fangirl?

Hm. Another difficult question. Although I have referred to myself as a fanboy as a way of shorthanding my interests, the term has picked up certain baggage that I don’t really identify with, much like “nerd” or “geek” used to connote a type of person much different than those words now describe. The truth is, I no longer have the time or interest in the levels of devotion that I associate with the true fanboy. I’m tired of arguing about the prequels, I’m inclined to see George Lucas as a flawed human being rather than either a god or a hack, and I really don’t know the name of every single creature that you see in every frame of film.

47 Have you seen Fanboys? Favorite character and/or quote?

I have seen it, once. I didn’t care for it, as much of its humor was derived from lazy old stereotypes of SW fans, and lovers of science fiction generally, and the laughs came at the expense of these characters rather than from their situations. In other words, the movie laughed at fans instead of with them. In my opinion, a much better movie about the Gen-X sci-fi-fan experience was Free Enterprise, although that film was constructed more around Star Trek than Star Wars.

48. Do you wish they would make 7, 8, and 9 or do you think they should be done with it?

Kind of a moot point, considering Episode VII is now in post-production. But to go along with the spirit of the question, I was always quite content with just the original three films, and the occasional tie-in novel or comic. I never clamored for more movies, whether prequels or sequels.

49. If they ever made 7, 8, and 9, do you think it should continue the Skywalker Legacy or use entirely new characters? Or something different?

I don’t know how many people remember this, but the novelization of the first Star Wars — Episode IV to you kids — was subtitled “From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker.” Although I’m perfectly happy with exploring and even creating other characters in other media, to me, the feature films have always been about the Skywalker family… and always should be. I’m anticipating that Episode VII will probably be a “pass the torch to the next generation” scenario, and I’m perfectly down with that… but somebody in that next generation needs to have Skywalker blood…

50. Do you watch The Clone Wars?

Not regularly, but I’ve seen a number of episodes and generally enjoyed them. Same with the new animated series that’s now replaced The Clone Wars, Star Wars: Rebels.

And on that note, I think maybe I’ll go throw on the bootleg “Despecialized” edition of the my favorite Star Wars film…

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Collect ‘Em! Trade ‘Em!

Getting back to the usual inanity, have you heard about the clever way JJ Abrams revealed the names of some of the new characters we’ll be seeing in Star Wars: The Force Awakens? He had his marketing people take screen grabs from the trailer and mock up eight virtual “trading cards” in the same style as the classic card sets manufactured by the Topps company in the late ’70s, right down to the fuzzy image reproduction, the dust speckles, and the texture of the card stock… all the flaws that lent those old cards so much of their retro charm:

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There is a cynical part of me that’s concerned JJ is pressing the nostalgia button a little too hard, and that trying to pastiche the original trilogy too thoroughly is going to backfire on him. I get the motivation — one of the complaints many people had with the prequels was that the look and tone of them was too different from the originals — but it’s not 1977 or even 1999 anymore, and basing too much of his sales pitch on the notion that he’s recaptured the experience we had back then is only going to set us all up for a massive letdown. At the very least, he might be doing his film a disservice by not letting it become a Star Wars for the 20-teens… by not allowing it to find its own identity. (“He’s got to follow his own path, no one can choose it for him.”)

And then on the other hand, my inner ten-year-old is hopping up and down and squealing, “Cool! Topps cards! They look like old Topps cards!” I’ve always loved those vintage trading cards — I still have all the random ones I collected as a kid, as well as complete sets I bought years later, and of all the vast quantities of Star Wars-themed junk I’ve amassed over the last 37 years, they remain among my very favorite items. I’m actually hoping these Force Awakens mock-ups get produced as a genuine, physical card set I can add to the collection. (I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that’s already in the works.)

To see the other four mock-ups (there are eight total), go here… and may the Force be with you!

 

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One More

Noah Millman of The American Conservative has a slightly different take from Jim Wright’s on the motivations behind the American torture program:

I believe that our reasons [for torturing detainees] were far less rational [than the reasons of the Nazi or Soviet regimes].

 

I’ve written before about the overwhelming fear that afflicted the country in the wake of 9-11, and how, perversely, exaggerating the severity of the threat from al Qaeda helped address that fear, because it made it acceptable to contemplate more extreme actions in response. If al Qaeda was really just a band of lunatics who got lucky, then 3,000 died because, well, because that’s the kind of thing that can happen. If al Qaeda was the leading edge of a worldwide Islamo-fascist movement with the real potential to destroy the West, then we would be justified in nuking Mecca in response. Next to that kind of response, torture seems moderate.

 

Willingness to torture became, first within elite government and opinion-making circles, then in the culture generally, and finally as a partisan GOP talking point, a litmus test of seriousness with respect to the fight against terrorism. That – proving one’s seriousness in the fight – was its primary purpose from the beginning, in my view. It was only secondarily about extracting intelligence. It certainly wasn’t about instilling fear or extracting false confessions – these would not have served American purposes. It was never about “them” at all. It was about us. It was our psychological security blanket, our best evidence that we were “all-in” in this war, the thing that proved to us that we were fierce enough to win.

 

In other words, being down with a little of the old ultra-violence was the same difference as the stupid shit teenage boys to convince each other — and themselves — that they’re real men. You know, a little grab-ass when you’re getting pumped up for the big game. Two for flinchin’. Holding your hand over a lighter to demonstrate how tough you are. To put it more crassly, measuring each other’s dicks.

Honestly, I wish this line of thought didn’t sound so plausible, because I think I prefer good old-fashioned bloodlust as an explanation than this… puerile macho bullshit. “Proving one’s seriousness.” God. That’s a really good reason for shredding the agreed-upon standards of civilization and honor.

Look, I know four blog posts in a row on the same thing is tiresome. And I know this isn’t a pleasant subject, especially for people who only come here to read about pop culture or a warm-and-fuzzy nostalgia piece, so I apologize for belaboring the point. But this issue is hugely important to me. And hugely traumatic. Because it cuts the heart out of my identity as an American. Despite having been told for years that I “hate America” because I dare to criticize its flaws, I’ve nevertheless clung to one central ideal: that America is basically a decent country, and Americans are basically decent people. That we are the good guys. Or at least we try to be. In spite of our tendency to meddle in the affairs of others, in spite of our regrettable history of genocide and slavery, the overall arc of our history, as I’ve always understood it, has been one of gradual progress toward justice, equality, and greater dignity — greater humanity — for everyone. It hasn’t been a smooth arc, to be sure. It’s stuttered at times, slowed to a crawl, sometimes even appeared to drift backwards. I know there have been abominable things in our past — blankets infested with smallpox and Jim Crow and the My Lai massacre – but I have always believed these were aberrations. That, at its core, in our institutions and our ideals, this country was good, and striving to be better. And that there are some things the good guys just do not do. Some lines that they simply do not cross.

So to learn that Americans did things to human beings in U.S. custody that the Gestapo would’ve been all too familiar with, things that we would completely lose our shit over if they were done to Americans… to learn that this activity was not perpetrated by some rogue agents but was part of a defined, sanctioned government program… to learn that fully a quarter of the people subjected to this treatment were innocent, and that some of them were in fact CIA assets… well, let’s just say it’s pretty disillusioning. Of all the bullshit things America has done since 9/11 in the name of “security,” this is the one that simply cannot be excused. Or forgiven.

I am sickened by what the CIA did in our name. I am depressed that there will likely be no consequences for those who planned, approved, and carried out this program of horror. But the thing that really has me reeling, that fills me with impotent anger and disgust and sorrow, is that a hell of a lot of my fellow Americans… are perfectly fine with it. They either don’t care what the CIA interrogators did or they outright approve of it. Judging from the comments I’ve been reading (I know, I know! Never read the comments!), a lot of my countrymen wish the program was still going on. These are dark times, they say… unsavory things have to be done to keep us safe, they say… you pussy bleeding-heart liberals have no idea what goes on in the real world, they say… those guys behead people, they say, so what’s wrong with giving them a little “discomfort?” (Um… because it’s wrong?) I just don’t understand this perspective. I just don’t. Once again, it’s like I’m wandering around Bizarro World, or the Mirror Universe, or wherever the hell I ended up when I passed through that wormhole. Because the America those people are so eager to defend by any means necessary certainly isn’t an America I recognize.

But enough. I’m not going to change anybody’s mind with my screeds, assuming anyone is even reading this. You either think the torture program was immoral or you don’t, and we all know nothing is going to come of the report anyhow. A week from now, there will be some other outrage eating up all the bandwidth, and none of the stony-faced men — and I use that word very lightly — who planned and carried out this barbarism are going to face any punishment for it. But America will never again have the moral high ground in our dealings with other nations. We have forfeited our claim to being any more civilized — or rather, any less barbaric — than any place else. And I for one will never stop mourning the loss of the America I thought I knew.

 

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Jim Wright on Torture

If you’re not reading Jim Wright’s Stonekettle Station blog, you ought to be. Jim is a retired naval officer who lives in Alaska and has an uncommonly clear-eyed perspective on a great many things… as well as a brutally frank way of expressing it. His essay on the torture report is typical of his writing, a very lengthy but insightful piece in which he pulls no punches and says things a lot of people don’t want to say. You should definitely read and consider the whole thing, but here are a couple of excerpts:

On our reasons for doing it:

Of course, we knew that our government tortured people. We knew that. That’s no secret. They told us. And we Americans? We let them do it and a lot of us cheered them on – certainly not all of us, maybe not even a majority, but enough.

And why not torture? No really, why the hell not?

 

After what our enemies did to us, after the crime they committed, after the carnage they wrought, were we not justified in any measure?

 

We wanted blood.

 

We wanted revenge and we had a right to that payback did we not?

 

 

More than anything, we wanted them to be afraid.

 

Just like they had made us afraid.

 

They aren’t human, these enemies. That’s what we tell ourselves, isn’t it? They’re not human, they’re not men. That’s how we justified it. They’re pigs. Dogs. Towel heads. Camel jockeys. Ragheads. Hajis. Sand niggers. Vermin. They are terrorists and nothing more. So what does it matter if we torture them?

 

They deserve no mercy.

 

They are entitled to no rights.

 

But even then – even then – we couldn’t quite bring ourselves to admit what we were doing, could we?  We couldn’t quite admit what we Americans allowed to be done in our names. So we called it “enhanced interrogation” and “coercive methods” and “rendition” instead of “torture.” And we said those words in the same fashion that we Americans used to say “separate but equal” to describe our apartheid.

And on whether the infamous “ticking bomb” scenario is any justification:

“What if the terrorists had your family? What if they had an atom bomb hidden in a city with your family strapped to it and you caught one of those bastards and there was only an hour left and there was no time to evacuate and millions were going die? Including your family! Huh? What about that? Are you saying you wouldn’t do whatever was necessary to get that information? I bet you would!”

 

You’re right, I would.

 

I, me personally? I would do whatever it took, including torture, if that was the only way to save the city, if that was the only way to save my family, if that was the only way to save you. As a military officer, yes, I would. Absolutely. I wouldn’t order my men to do it, I’d do it myself. I shove a hose up the bastard’s nose and turn on the water. I’d shoot out his knees. I’d cut off his balls. You bet. If that’s what it took. I’d do it without hesitation.

 

And I’d do it knowing I was breaking the law, and I would expect to be tried for the crime and sent to prison.

 

I would.

 

Because even if I saved the day, I’d be wrong.

 

Good intentions do not justify evil.

Read that again: “Good intentions do not justify evil.”

Finally, this:

Now certainly it may be extremely difficult to treat a terrorist who tried to destroy your nation and your loved ones humanely.

 

Certainly. No sane person disputes that. I’ve taken prisoners in defense of my country, trust me on this, it’s goddamned hard.

 

However that, that right there, is the very definition of moral courage.

 

You cannot lay claim to the moral high ground if you engage in the same brutality as your enemies.

If the United States of America insists on calling itself exceptional, then it must be the exception. 

(Emphasis is Wright’s, but I wholeheartedly agree.)

Believe it or not, he’s got much, much more to say on the subject, and it’s all worth your time. Go. Read it.

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It’s About Us

Here’s something I never thought I’d say: I agree with John McCain. Further evidence that I’ve somehow ended up in Bizarro World, I guess. Anyhow, here’s a particularly eloquent passage from Senator McCain’s statement on the torture report:

But in the end, torture’s failure to serve its intended purpose isn’t the main reason to oppose its use. I have often said, and will always maintain, that this question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be. It’s about how we represent ourselves to the world.

 

We have made our way in this often dangerous and cruel world, not by just strictly pursuing our geopolitical interests, but by exemplifying our political values, and influencing other nations to embrace them. When we fight to defend our security we fight also for an idea, not for a tribe or a twisted interpretation of an ancient religion or for a king, but for an idea that all men are endowed by the Creator with inalienable rights. How much safer the world would be if all nations believed the same. How much more dangerous it can become when we forget it ourselves even momentarily.

 

Our enemies act without conscience. We must not.

Emphasis mine. The whole statement is worth reading — it’s not that long — but this is the important bit. And it’s essentially what I’ve been saying ever since the first nauseating photos from Abu Ghraib began circulating. It doesn’t matter if torture is effective, which seems to be the defense supporters of this loathsome program keep falling back to. And it doesn’t matter if the other side does barbaric things to its prisoners. We shouldn’t act like barbarians ourselves. Because Americans are supposed to be better than that.

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Friend of the Devil

I spent about an hour this afternoon following a Facebook discussion about the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s Study of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program (more concisely described as “the torture report”), which was finally released yesterday after years of delays and outright stonewalling by various political forces who didn’t want the facts coming to light. (Sadly, I have to include President Obama in that group; he’s been hugely disappointing to me on this matter.) To call the back-and-forth I witnessed “disheartening” would be an understatement.

I know, I know… you should never read the comments. One of the cardinal rules of the Internet, right up there with “don’t feed the trolls.” But in this case, I just couldn’t look away. At least, not at first. After a while, though, I finally had to. I was so repelled by some of what I was reading that I felt I had to literally, physically get away from my computer. My conservative friends often say things like “I just don’t recognize my country anymore.” Well, guys, you’re not the only ones who feel that way sometimes. Today, after an hour of reading opposing opinions on something that seems so self-evident in my mind, opinions ranging from baffling to infuriating to frightening to outright appalling, I felt like I’d fallen through a wormhole into some alternate universe where everything is exactly mirror-opposite to the way you expect it to be. I have rarely felt such a profound sense of alienation, or so bleak. There was an oily black cloud of despair welling up inside me. So I decided it was a good time to leave the office and go for my afternoon walk.

I didn’t have a destination or a route in mind — I never do, really — but today it seemed more appropriate than usual to just let my feet carry me where they would. I found myself drifting up into one of Salt Lake’s oldest residential neighborhoods, an area called the Avenues, away from the traffic and noise and bustle of South Temple Street. The air was unseasonably warm; if it wasn’t for the garland wound through porch railings and the oversized ornaments glittering in people’s trees, you might have thought it was the middle of October or even the first of April, rather than two weeks from Christmas. The sky was clear and cloudless, a bright indigo color that likewise seemed to belong to a different month than December. My iPod, as it so often does, seemed to sense my mood and started serving up a stream of music seemingly designed to counteract it: classic ’60s pop tunes, some Motown, the “John Dunbar Theme” from Dances with Wolves… and then came the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil.”

I’ve never been a full-on Deadhead, but I do like a handful of their songs. They have an innocent quality — kind of an odd thing to say about a hippie jam band notorious for their drug usage, but hey, that’s what I hear in them — that brings back my college years for me. Not specific memories, really, but more just a phantom echo of who I was then, how I generally felt on any given day. I remember believing myself to be so cynical and angsty back then, but that was just a silly story I told myself for reasons I can no longer explain. The truth is, that was a time — the last time in my life — when I felt truly positive about the world and my place in it. I would’ve denied that if you’d said anything, of course, but it was true. I went through my days vibrating with a low-grade excitement that could have been optimism, a certainty that things would inevitably turn out all right. I imagine everybody probably feels that way at that time of their lives, right there on the threshold of adulthood.

So anyhow, there I was walking through the Avenues and jamming out with the old hippies, when I saw a girl jogging toward me. She was nineteen or 20, college age herself, long and willowy and wearing a red-and-black sweatshirt with a University of Utah logo splashed across the front. Her hair was blond and silky, tied back in a ponytail that swayed and bounced in time with her steps. It shone in the sun like something too pure to have come from this polluted world. She smiled as she passed me, and I smiled back.

But this story isn’t going to the place you probably think it is. Usually a smile from a pretty girl on a day like today rejuvenates my soul, and makes me feel young, if only for a fleeting moment. Today, though… today it had the opposite effect. I didn’t think “if I was 20 years younger and unattached…” and I wasn’t remotely tempted to leer or waggle my eyebrows.

Instead, I felt something to which I am entirely unaccustomed: I felt parental. I felt protective. I wanted to put my arms around this girl and keep her safe from all the things out there that would bruise her and muddy her and beat her down by the time she reaches my age. I wanted to shield her from all the fucked-up nastiness of this tired, filthy existence and find a way to let her remain as shiny as she is right now.

But that’s impossible, of course, even if I really was her father. And anyhow, I know that the thing I really want to find is some way to bring back my own shine…

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Coming Back to Your Galaxy…

Remember what I wrote in the previous entry about seeing a TV commercial when I was a kid for a theatrical re-release of Star Wars (this was before home video, kids, so the only way we could see it again was if it returned to theaters… or turned up on “The Movie of the Week” on television!), and how it sent me running out to the Back-40 like some kind of maniac? Well, it might very well have been this commercial right here:

It amazes me what you can find out there in dark corners of the Internet… things we never imagined would ever be seen again…

(Oh, and for the record, that shot of the Falcon backing out of the landing bay and spinning around has always been one of my favorite moments in the entire saga. The rising shriek and then the boom of her engines still makes the hair on my arms stand up. I understand it was one of the most difficult visual-effects shots in the entire movie!)

 

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The Fastest Hunk of Junk in the Galaxy Flies Again!

Sixteen years ago (good lord!), I was working my very first editorial/proofreading type job, at a company that produced certification tests for skilled trades that require a state license… plumbers, electricians, cosmetologists, that sort of thing. The company had just provided Internet access to all employees — quite a novelty at the time, at least for me — and I took full advantage of this powerful new tool to seek out every scrap of information I could find on the most important issue of the day: the new Star Wars movie coming out in 1999, the first one since Return of the Jedi had closed the original trilogy way back when I was in middle school.

Blogs were in their infancy then — I think Lileks and Scalzi had already set up shop in their respective fiefdoms, but that was about all — and there was no social media as we now know it. But there were message boards on every conceivable topic, and there was the official starwars.com site as well as an incredible fan page called theforce.net (which I’m very pleased to learn is still going strong, both on its original site as well as on Twitter and Facebook!), and I skimmed through them every morning before getting busy with my day’s work. I had downloaded fan-made wallpapers and a countdown-clock widget that silently ticked away the months until opening day.

But all of this was small potatoes next to the unprecedented opportunity provided by this new-fangled ‘net thingie one day in November 1998: to see the first trailer for the new movie without having to go to a theater. Remember, there was no YouTube at the time. This was big. As in, that’s-no-moon-that’s-a-space-station big. It took several hours to download the trailer across a painfully slow connection to an unoccupied terminal (my boss’ machine, if I recall correctly — I think she had the day off), and I sweated away the time working in my cubicle, getting up every ten minutes or so to check the progress, then going back to the proofreading and document formatting that suddenly seemed so utterly unimportant to me. I can’t imagine how many errors I made that day — Master Yoda would surely have chided me for not having my mind on where I was or what I was doing. But finally — finally! — the trailer was complete. I put on headphones so as not to reveal myself to my coworkers, who didn’t know I’d been sneaking into Cristina’s cubicle all day, and with a dry mouth and a pounding heart, I clicked “play.”

The quality was… not great. The image was tiny, just a postage-stamp really, and it kept breaking down into blocky pixels or outright freezing. But I was still catching glimpses of haunting imagery: mounted warriors materializing out of a mist, a chrome starship landed on a desert plain that could only have been Tatooine, ships flying over an alien city… exotic creatures, vehicles, and costumes, all of it new and yet weirdly familiar. And most importantly, I could hear. The audio was uninterrupted, and I could hear that familiar score by John Williams that still produces a Pavlovian response in my adrenal glands, and the buzz of lightsabers, the crack and pow of blasterfire, the roar of starship engines, and a line of dialog that seemed like I’d been waiting my whole life to hear: “Anakin Skywalker, meet… Obi Wan Kenobi.” And then Samuel L. Jackson, baddest of the bad, talking about some prophecy, followed by Yoda, my beloved Yoda, the irascible little Muppet whose zen-lite aphorisms I’d been parroting for years, making a speech that sent shivers down my spine: “Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate… leads to suffering.” And then a rising crescendo ending in the title card: Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

I remember sitting back in my chair after that first viewing and feeling twitchy with adrenaline. I felt like I had when I was nine and saw a TV commercial for the 1979 re-release of the original Star Wars, the one that had lodged in my brain like a triple-barbed fishhook a couple years before and still hasn’t let go of me even now in 2014; I saw that commercial and without even thinking about it, rose to my feet and ran as fast as I possibly could, so fast I nearly lost control and toppled face-forward from my momentum, clear out to the back pasture where my parents were working on a fence. They’d thought something was wrong when I raced up at that speed, thought I’d hurt myself or set the house on fire or something. I remember their blank expressions when I told them that everything was fine, Star Wars was coming back! For some reason, they just didn’t share my enthusiasm.

I watched the Phantom Menace trailer four more times before I finally went back to my own desk and tried, half-heartedly, to get back to work. It was Star Wars, all right. After all those years, it was a goddamned new Star Wars movie. The endless arguing about that movie and the ones to follow, the curdling of the Star Wars fan experience, was still far off in the future and, at the time, completely unimaginable to me. For that day, that afternoon, life was good. I was giddy. And I felt young.

I never thought I’d feel quite that same way about Star Wars again. Until this morning.

I’m sure everyone has already seen it by now, but let’s go ahead and watch it again. Just because. Ladies and gentlemen, the first teaser trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens:

I’ll confess, my first thought as the trailer begins was, “Ah hell, Tatooine again? Can’t we see some place new this time?” And then when the first two human faces we see are an African-American man and a woman, my inner cynic said, “Oh, there’s the response to the criticism about a lack of diversity in the Star Wars universe” (which isn’t to say I don’t approve of increasing the diversity of Star Wars, but the prominent placement of these two in this trailer struck me as a little too on-the-nose, as if JJ Abrams is screaming out “Look! Look what I’ve done!”). But then that clunky-looking speeder bike takes off with another one of those great throbbing Star Wars engine sounds… and there are X-Wings skimming across a mountain lake at incredible speeds… and a wicked-looking medieval-longsword-style lightsaber… and John Williams’ brassy fanfare pressing hard on my pleasure button, and then… oh my lord, it’s the Falcon, climbing and diving and spiraling like never before, and who cares if the radar dish is square now, it’s my beautiful hunk-of-the-junk Falcon, and the adrenaline is surging and holy shit, I’m nine again running out to the back pasture of the Internet to tell everybody I know that Star Wars is coming back, after all these years, it’s a goddamned new Star Wars movie!

Yes, I’m easily excited. You’re just noticing?

It remains to be seen if the actual story is any good, of course, if our original-trilogy heroes will be integral or just appear in glorified cameos, if The Force Awakens will move the Star Wars mythos forward in any meaningful way or just be a superficial compilation of action set-pieces designed to satisfy a generation of rabid fanboys whose main priority is whether things look cool… but for the first time since hearing that JJ Abrams was attached to this project, I am cautiously optimistic. Judging an entire movie from a minute and a half of out-of-context footage is dangerous, I know, but it looks like the directorial quirks that so annoyed me on other Abrams films are absent here (I caught only a couple of lens flares during the Falcon sequence, when it would be natural to see such effects as the camera passes the sun… or suns, I suppose, since we’re flying over Tatooine). And of course the writing team that made such a hash of my other beloved space-opera franchise on Abrams’ Star Trek didn’t have anything to do with The Force Awakens (I’m still not impressed with that title, by the way). So maybe, just maybe…

In the meantime, whatever comes a year from now, I’m savoring today, this feeling, this excitement, this reminder of youth.

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Postscript: Incidentally, the Phantom Menace trailer I talk about above was a huge milestone in the way movies are now marketed as well as how the Internet now functions. It’s a pretty fascinating story, actually… read more about it here.)

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A New Way to Save Your Family Food Traditions

For most people, I imagine, Thanksgiving is all about the convergence of family and food. It’s one of the few times of the year when certain dishes make their appearance, and more often than not, those dishes have come down the generations, following familial lines as surely as the gene for eye color or hair texture, and with much the same result: your family’s food traditions are unique to your family. Sure, everyone has eyes… but your eyes might be your Great Uncle Frank’s eyes… and a particular dish might be something that lots of families enjoy, but your family has a way of making it that’s unique to you and yours.

For example, Anne has spent much of the day making from-scratch rolls to go with our holiday meal this afternoon… but they’re not just “from-scratch rolls” in her mind. They’re her Grandma Memmott’s rolls. And while Anne has her grandmother’s recipe (lovingly preserved in a battered old cookbook filled with recipes from all the ladies of the small-town LDS ward where her grandmother lived), it’s taken her some experimentation to figure out exactly how to make the recipe work, because her grandma is no longer here to walk her through it. The inevitable passage of time has made the connection with her family tradition a bit more tenuous, a bit more imperfect.

But we’re living in a time when technology can help resolidify those connections. At least, that’s one of the exciting possibilities of a new venture under development by my friend Jill and her husband Torgny. It’s a digital cookbook called Foodles.

Now, before you say “meh, another recipe site, like there aren’t a million of those,” hear me out.

Foodles is a recipe site, but it’s got a lot of built-in functionality that is unlike any such site I’ve run across before. One feature I find especially exciting is the ability to embed personal notes, photographs and even video into the recipe. Imagine if Anne had video of her grandma actually making these rolls, walking the viewer through all the steps that she used to follow (but maybe didn’t think to write down when that ward cookbook was compiled, for whatever reason). Best of all, imagine being to relive time spent in the kitchen with your loved ones who are longer here. This has to the potential to preserve more than a list of ingredients; it can preserve the personal nuances that truly make a dish “Grandma’s,” or “Uncle Frank’s,” or even “Anne’s.” And it can ensure that your loved ones live on in some form, right there in the kitchen with you.

Jill and Torgny have a lot of other good ideas, too — tools that add convenience and help modernize some recipes, like nutritional facts that adjust automatically to show you what happens if you replace ingredients. There are privacy settings so you can limit your recipes and other content only to your family, or share them with the world. And you can create an actual printed cookbook for your family, too. I sincerely think there’s a lot of potential here.

But of course they need help to make it a reality. I know the Christmas shopping frenzy is about to begin in only a few short hours and money is always tight this time of the year, so I hope you’ll forgive the sales pitch… but at the same time, when better to bring this up than on Thanksgiving Day, when we are the most conscious of family and food? I urge everyone reading this to check out their Kickstarter page… watch the video of Jill explaining all this in her own words, read the details for yourself, and consider backing them, if you can.

And now, I’m going to go sop up some gravy with those Grandma Memmott rolls…  Happy Thanksgiving, y’all, and happy shopping if Black Friday is your thing (personally, I plan to watch a lot of DVDs tomorrow!)

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