Lego Instructions Are Useful

My research frequently takes me down a rabbit hole in pursuit of “the American identity.” I frequently find laudatory analyses of American individualism, the symbolism of the rugged cowboy, and many, many questions about the faults of American iconography and imagery since World War II. American myth and media is filled with savior-type heroes who are either saving the worlds by themselves or are rallying the people to save themselves, or are rallying with other superheroes to save the world together.

Enter into this discussion, The Lego Movie (2014).

*Spoilers may follow.*

We can poke fun at the fact that the Wise Old Man figure is a Master Builder/architect named Vitruvius:

Or that the secret hide-out of the Master Builders is a sky-city named Cloudcukooland (reference: Aristophanes, The Birds):

Or even that there is a Kragle gun:

This movie is filled with all of the expected cliches: Lots of jokes, an unexpected hero, father atonement, so on. For our purposes, I want to consider a very, specific turning point in the film.

Emmett, the construction worker who is marked as “The Special,” finds himself stranded in the ocean with a bunch of Master Builders. The Master Builders have tried to vanquish Mr. Business through rebellion, lawlessness, and their original constructions. Emmett, in an inspired moment, encourages these self-righteous Masters to follow the instructions, because that’s exactly what the bad guys aren’t expected.

All Lego sets come with an instruction book. Piece by piece, page by page, one can successfully build the model on the outside of the box as long as one follows the directions. These instructions become the tools of mass control in this film. Everyone is expected to follow the rules and deviating from the rules is severely punished. As such, Emmett has never actually had any of his own building ideas (except for a double-decker couch with coolers in the seats), and has a “prodigiously empty” imagination. The Master Builders, on the other hand, can see useful pieces anywhere, and can turn seemingly random blocks into vehicles or other useful tools. Haven’t we all found ourselves in similar dualities? Having that one friend who wants to follow the instructions versus that other friend who would rather dump all the pieces on the floor and see where the imagination takes them?

As someone who always follows the instructions, I personally find it frustrating that I can’t build an awesome spaceship out of random pieces, but I find it even more frustrating when people buy Lego sets then mix all the pieces in with their other pieces and have a giant bucket of random Lego pieces. My Lego sets, when not put together on display, are in Ziploc bags, sorted by set for easy reconstruction (no, I don’t sort my pieces beyond the overall set. I like the fun of the dig for that 1-pip, clear blue piece needed in step 150).

The instructions are the means of mass control in this Lego land. The God-like Father (Will Farrell) treats his Legos as models and collector items, not as the toys his son sees them to be (overtly, this is the point of the movie–to bring Father around to enjoying his Legos are the toys they are). But they also provide the secret to infiltrating the Infinity Tower and were almost successful in stopping Tako Tuesday.

In the American identity, we favor the rebellious Master Builder mentality–that the only way to overcome something that makes us unhappy is to break the rules. But what if the secret to change comes from rebuilding the system from within instead of without? This is a constant conflict in our society. Americans want community, but they don’t want to be herded into sameness. They want change, but not necessarily at the hand of revolution. (As always, I’m speaking to a generalized middle.) So what The Lego Movie seems to be telling us is that the first point of rebellion is to follow the instructions. And then, everything can be awesome.

The Hobby Lobby Decision

Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled in the case, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. The overt argument in the case is whether a company with a certain set of religious values can be required by the government to provide contraceptives to female employees under the Affordable Healthcare Act. The Supreme Court ruled 5-3 that companies do NOT have to meet this requirement. My Facebook feed since the ruling has been aflutter with criticism about how this is a major step backwards for women’s rights, because this decision allows a corporation to decide–for religious reasons–how to control a woman’s body. As far as woman’s rights, yes, this sets a nasty precedent. There’s also a lot of nuance to the discussion about how birth control can be accessed by women, and, as one might imagine, the Internet is divided on this ruling.

If you want, here’s the Supreme Court document. I haven’t read it, and don’t really intend to.

My concern is less about the implications for women’s rights, which is a major concern, don’t get me wrong. My concern is that this ruling effectively ensures that a corporation–a business–has personhood with the rights and liberties of the Bill of Rights, and that this corporation can make decisions that impact all of its employees that supersede government regulation.

Take a moment and think about this.

I mean, really think about this.

Whatever your opinion of government may be, a corporation is not a person. It’s not even a governing entity. But this ruling, and other rulings over the last few years, grants that power to the corporation.

Let’s stop and consider what a corporation is. It’s a hierarchical, micro-civilization that functions in service to some service. At the top of the hierarchy sits a CEO, like a king or queen, surrounded by his or her Board of Directors. This limited elite, with a few other Chief Officers, are the lawmakers in this hierarchy. The Presidents and Vice Officers that sit below them are the enforcers of this law, and so on down the food chain to the largest population in this micro-civilization: the basic employee, the frontline trooper the public has immediate interaction with who must put on the happy face that represents the corporate values.

The corporation is not a person, nor does it function as a collective entity. That limited elite who sit at the top of the food chain spread their values down to the bottom, and the decisions of this elite may or may not be in the best interest of the workforce.

I know what you’re thinking, why doesn’t the employee just find a new job or why don’t we as a consumer just not shop there? Well, yes, but corporate control is growing–and we’re letting it. Increasingly, we as employees are encountering difficulty not having to compromise our own morals and values in service to a corporation. Increasingly, we as consumers are facing a limited pool of consumption options. 

I write this blog not because I want to try to persuade you to see things my way. If you support Hobby Lobby, by all means continue to do so. By the same token, respect my decision to no longer shop there.

No, I write this blog for another reason. As a student of the Humanities, I have spent my share of time delving into a wide range of history, myth and religion, and culture. As a teacher of the Humanities, I have lectured about the relationship between lack of government oversight, propaganda, and the fall of the Roman Empire. I’ve lectured about the power of the Church in Medieval politics. I’ve lectured about how Humanism and Nationalism helped bring about the Renaissance. I’ve also devoted a lot of research to American mythology and how Disney used it to feed mid-century Nationalism, while also nurturing the American hunger to consume. The American people need to wake up and pay attention about corporate control.

But I don’t think we will. And that’s where I I find myself feeling very, very sad.

Side Note: If we think of consumption as an addiction, then corporations are our drug dealers. Or, if we think of consumption as a religion, then corporations are our cult leaders. Either perspective is problematic to the needs of the people, because the people are denied their own personhood in the service to the dealer or cult leader. But corporations, the embodiment of mid-century white privilege, have leverage and can get away with much more than drug dealers or cult leaders. If we as a culture can stop consuming, perhaps we can reduce their power. But the Stop Shopping movement is small, radical, and not taken seriously. Perhaps we can educate a generational shift and teach the children of today how not to consume.

Side Note Number 2: Another problem is that American consumption, or at least the right to consume, is seen around the world as equal to freedom and “democracy.” We need a world-wide shift, and it *could* happen if everyone got on board. We are globalized enough to enact such change. My skepticism of humanity leads me to think it won’t happen, even for all my Disney-colored optimism.

Side Note Number 3: Yes, I’m a consumer, and I admit it. My recent year in poverty has restructured much of my consumptive behaviors, but I’m still consuming nonetheless. One way to change consumptive behaviors is to unplug, and for some reason, I can’t bring myself to do that. And in that way, telecomm corporations have won this round.

This Problem of Poverty

I’ve seen a few things across my Facebook recently, ranging from “Welfare is a handout!” to property owners putting spikes outside their front doors (presumably to prevent people from sleeping there–seems like a dangerous liability issue to me). Such comments concern me because they don’t reflect what poverty is. Now, I’m not going to pretend to be a holier-than-thou expert on poverty. Rather, I’d just like to throw my perspective into this very complicated subject. Because I can. So there.

“Poverty” is defined by the OED as “the state of being extremely poor.” “Poor” is then defined as “lacking sufficient money to live at a standard considered comfortable or normal in a society.” Already, I have a problem with this understanding of poverty. There is an episode of the Twilight Zone that can illustrate this. The episode is 1961’s “Rip Van Winkle Caper” (season 2). A group of men steal a ton of gold and hide in a secret cave, cryogenically freezing themselves until their crime blows over. The plan was to wake up, and be free and wealthy. Not all of the men wake up–their machines were damaged–and the remaining men end up fighting amongst themselves for how they were going to divide the gold. In the end, one man is left, and goes in search of civilization. Since this show is filmed in California, the search for civilization inevitably involves a trek through the American desert. Along the way, he trades a bar of his gold for a sip of water. Eventually, he spends his last brick of gold, but dies from dehydration all the same. The man who watched him die, gets back into his car with his wife, and tells her: “Can you imagine that? He offered this to me as if it was really worth something.” (Rod Serling was a genius.) In another example, Sir Thomas Moore (1516) envisions a Utopia where gold isn’t a currency, but instead marks the slaves apart from the rest of the citizens.

My point is that what defines “money” is subjective to a society. What we use to define money this year will eventually change (perhaps not during my lifetime, but that depends on whether one is listening to the ecologists or not). More importantly, as long as one lives in a system of Civilization, understood from an anthropological viewpoint as a means of managing a large number of people in a fashion that necessarily requires a hierarchy, there will be poverty. In any society where there is a class system (manifest or latent), there will be poverty. Someone has to be excluded from the privileged class, and, historically, it’s the largest percentage of the population within the society. This is not the result of “lower classes breeding too much” or any such nonsense. Nor is this the result of “poorer people have sex more because they’re less educated.” Also baloney. People in privileged states like to tell themselves such stories to justify themselves. So now, I turn to Jung.

In Aion (or CW 9.2 for us hip Jung folks), Jung defines the shadow as:

The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge. (par 14).

Jung speaks specifically to the individual, but his theories reflect well into the larger society as well. People in poverty, the Poor, or anyone who does not meet the status quo of the privileged, become the social shadow. Think about this: in a Capitalist Democracy (or Republic–whatever the USA is these days), in a society that defines privilege and success on how much money one has, then those that fail to meet those measures are pushed aside.

Let me back up a minute. The “shadow” as Jung uses it is that part of the psyche that is buried in the unconscious. If one imagines the actual shadow (and get a good, long sunset shadow for this image), our bodies represent our conscious selves, while that shadow on the ground represents our unconscious life, formed by our dreams, our experiences, but also by our identity formation that “keeps” certain characteristics in our personality and buries others. The shadow has a tendency to not be ignored. In the individual, the shadow appears that moment when you say or do something uncharacteristic. Or it may weigh you down, leaving you unfulfilled and unsatisfied in life. We all have a shadow. We can deny it, but it will play its part on us if we don’t do something about it:

Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected. (CW 11, “Psychology and Religion,” par. 131)

I struggle with Jung’s definition of the “collective shadow.” Much of his writing comes at a time in history when the “collective mind” was something to be avoided in the West, thanks to a fear of Communism and the European events of World War II. So he writes about how the “collective shadow” manifests as war (but I can’t find that quote). In my reading of Jung, it seems that the collective shadow manifests among the people, especially when the enemy cannot be easily identified (just what does a “Terrorist” or a “Communist” look like?). When we start projecting our shadows onto our own people, then we can hear many of the debates that are all over the news these days, and we start hearing buzz words like “entitlement.”

Again the OED: Entitlement is “the fact of having a right to something.” An entitlement isn’t a guarantee. It isn’t even a privilege. It’s simply the “right to something.” So I have a “right” to education, a “right” to welfare, a “right” to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And the reason I have these “rights” is because “rights” are “morally good, justifiable, or acceptable.” (again, “morally good” is also definable by the civilization. This kind of subjectivity is why poverty is such a murky issue!)

Confronting the collective shadow of poverty means facing and accepting that a particular dark underbelly of the culture is entitled–has the right to–the same privileges and opportunities of the higher players in the hierarchy. American individualism permits this–by our bootstraps and cunning, we can rise from rags to riches, and we should be rewarded for our hard work. Once power is achieved, no one wants to let it go easily, and the idea that someone could rise from rags to riches threatens that security.

Whenever contents of the collective unconscious become activated, they have a disturbing effect on the conscious mind, and contusion ensued. If the activation is due to the collapse of the individual’s hopes and expectations, there is a danger that the collective unconscious may take the place of reality. This state would be pathological. If, on the other hand, the activation is the result of psychological processes in the unconscious of the people, the individual may feel threatened or at any rate disoriented, but the resultant state is not pathological, at least so far as the individual is concerned. Nevertheless, the mental state of the people as a whole might well be compared to psychosis. (CW 8, “The Psychological Foundation for the Belief in Spirits,” par. 595)

Right now, the USA is in the first state–that pathological state. Our collective shadow is staring us in the face because of a failure of the American Dream to withstand the power of Economics. With the housing crisis seven years ago and the ridiculous amount of student loan debt that is crushing a large piece of the population, those who had to turn to welfare to help them through a phase of poverty changed face from the usual expectations. It was easier as a society to believe that poverty = “minority,” to write off the state of poverty as a problem of the “black people” and the “brown people.” But in the last several years we’ve seen increased numbers of highly educated “[black, white, brown, red, yellow] people” living in a state of poverty, or hard-working “[black, white, brown, red, yellow] people” in a state of homelessness because of a bad loan or a hurricane. Or older people who find themselves unemployed for longer than the requisite 8-month window because they’re too old, or their skills are outdated, or they are asking for too much. The face of poverty is no longer as clearcut as it used to be.

Is there a solution? Not an easy one, because the first and foremost thing we have to do is rewrite our Myth of Poverty. Anytime such an overturn of ideas needs to happen, it takes at least a generation. A few well-meaning adults (read: “Elders”) have to teach the new generation to see the world in this way, who then come to accept it as the norm. And while this can work, the inter-generational conversations are still speaking different stories, making the tension between New Ways of Thinking and Tradition that much more difficult. I’d like to say we could eradicate poverty, but that would also involve taking away the tax cuts of the wealthy. I’d love to say we can all live in harmony, but that would involve restructuring civilization as a whole. One last Jung quote:

Filling the conscious mind with ideal conceptions is a characteristic of Western theosophy, but not the confrontation with the shadow and the world of darkness. One does not become enlightened by imaging figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. (CW 13, “The Philosophical Tree,” par. 335)

Poverty isn’t a partisan issue. It exists. How we handle it speaks volumes to how we handle the shadow. When one speaks of “compassion,” it’s meant to motivate us toward Jung’s idea of enlightenment. We can’t all give money to the guy sitting on the corner with his dog. But we can acknowledge how we address poverty in our communities. Pretending it isn’t there isn’t an option. Fighting government bills that increase access to resources shouldn’t be an option either (the hit to the economy of not providing public assistance is far worse than what we do provide). Yes, there are trolls out there who abuse the system, preferring to live in a state of poverty than try to get out of it, but the larger majority of people in poverty would really like to get out of it. Because poverty is a state of mind. It weighs on us like an anvil around the neck, the world on our back, while trying to push a bolder up a mountain all at the same time. Oh, while walking on hot coals.

And yes, I’m speaking to American poverty. Much attention is given to African poverty by major celebrities, who want to address poverty but don’t want to face the problems in their own backyards. The USA is still a country of privilege, but that doesn’t mean we’re distributing our resources wisely. If we want to maintain the illusion that the USA is the world’s anchor, we need to sort out these social issues, among others that run the very real risk of breaking down the Matrix.

[Since all of my books are in boxes, I’d like to thank for Jung’s quotes.]

NOTE: One thing I’m not addressing in this post is the perspective of poverty by those who live in it. If poverty is the cultural shadow, as I’m claiming here, then those who live in the state of poverty are the shadow elements. Because I have spent the last year living–struggling–in poverty, I won’t be able to delve into this perspective until I’m in a safe place to heal from the psychic wounds this past year has given me. I invite anyone who is willing and able to share their perspective–of being the shadow, vilified simply for being poor. And with permission, I’d love to share it here.

Themed Spaces and AstroWorld

I’m in the early phase of an awesome post-doc research opportunity that I’m calling my Epic German Adventure. The project is researching theme parks (I’m leaning strongly toward a Disney focus–imagine that), postmodernism, temporality, and aesthetics. And it’s funded for three years. So basically, I have a three year subsidy to continue my dissertation research and write “The Second Book.” A totally groovy opportunity.

My colleagues–my new Deutsche Besties–have turned me onto a scholar named Scott Lukas. They speak of him with awe; I wish I’d known of him when I was writing my dissertation. He seems like Kind of a Big Deal. I’ll meet him this September, and maybe join the Scott Lukas fan club.  What makes his work stand out is that he, a cultural anthropologist, writes about theme parks and themed spaces with an ethnographer’s eye (a refreshing validation to my own perspective). When he was studying at Rice University, he had a gig working at Six Flags AstroWorld as a trainer.

So I figured I should find out what this guy is all about. I took a nice little field trip up to the University of Massachusetts library (a building that reminds me of Louis Sachar’s book, Sideways Stories of Wayside School) and picked up a copy of The Themed Space: Locating Culture, Nation, and Self. This is an edited volume that looks at themed spaces of varying sorts around the world. I’m going to confess that I haven’t read the whole volume yet. This is one of those aggravating books in which I find myself underlining every other paragraph and wanting to make lots of commentary in the margins, except that this is a library book, so I have to conduct these thought exercises in my notebook. I shouldn’t complain, though. Too many books don’t invite conversation, and I am very glad to be able to interact with this book at all.

Anyway, as one might imagine, I’m very Disney-centric when it comes to the kind of theming I’m looking for in a theme park. Six Flags parks, as a rule, tend to fall short of my very high expectations. So when Lukas writes fondly about AstroWorld, I question what AstroWorld he’s writing about. See, his tenure as a trainer overlapped with part of my angsty teenage years, growing up in Suburban Houston, and spending a very limited amount of my summer vacation at AstroWorld. Back then, ticket prices weren’t heinous, and I drank enough Dr. Pepper or Coca-Cola to guarantee cheaper ticket prices. My limited time at AstroWorld comes from a limited amount of interest and a vehement loathing of Houston summers.

For one thing, I don’t remember the themed boundaries that he describes. Sure, I remember that there were areas where there was more of one thing or another, but not a clear container to the theming. Perhaps one reason for this is that there were too many “lands” for the space available. It’s totally possible to pull off seven themed lands in a single park, but it takes skill to not make them so small as to be inconsequential or so overwhelming that the guest has a bad time. Disneyland in Anaheim has eight lands in a little more space. The big difference is that Disney doesn’t pack it’s theme park with a bunch of roller coasters, so many that it’s difficult to escape the screams and coaster rattles.

AstroWorld mid 1990s
AstroWorld mid 1990s

You can observe from the AstroWorld map that the coasters defined the berm of the park. They were the lure. They were what you could see as you rounded the bend on 610, competing for skyline with the Astrodome in what was called the AstroDomain.

Really Old Photo of the AstroDomain
Really Old Photo of the AstroDomain

The problem with defining the berm with roller coasters is that a) they don’t close the theme park off from the rest of the world, but more importantly b) already from the outset they establish a tone for the park as one of fast-paced movement. Disney’s berm is built up almost like a fortress wall that is designed to keep the outside world out of the park, because the outside world is full of enough of its own issues–let the park be a place of fun.

Plus, most of the roller coasters, though they looked cool, completely freaked me out. The Texas Cyclone was my favorite:

And though the Ultra Twister looked cool, I could never convince myself to go on it:

Excalibur was my first coaster ever:

But I never could convince anyone to go on XLR8 with me:

With these coasters, you’ll notice that you can see more than just the park. Because of their position on the berm, you can see Houston. It breaks the theme. No, I’m going to rephrase that–it breaks the sacredness of the space. It’s the ability to completely encapsulate me that I expect from a theme park, and it’s the fact that Six Flags fails in this detail that keeps me from regularly visiting those parks. That and this year Six Flags has developed some record-breaking doozies of death-defying rides that my inner roller-coward just wants to stay home.

As a kid, I was afraid of roller coasters, and never really had the opportunity to get over it. I think it has more to do with people telling me I’d lose my glasses if I didn’t secure them before going on the coaster, and the very real problem of not being able to see any of the sights without my glasses. One of the reasons I like Disney coasters like Space Mountain or Big Thunder Railroad is that I know my glasses will stay on without granny librarian strings to hold them in place. I can see the coaster’s narrative this way, enhancing my experience. Perhaps this is why I trust Disney so much, and not so much the other guys.

To me, the track of the coaster is a narrative, and our ride vehicle is our opportunity to read it. So I’m actually excited about the new Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at Walt Disney World, and I’ll close with that video. I’m not sure why other theme parks struggle with coaster narrative so much. This one fuses a coaster narrative with my favorite attraction format, the “dark ride.”

Dionysos and Theme Parks

The only reason I’m not a rabid supporter of Archetypal Psychology is that the research I was exposed to as a student at Pacifica concentrated on Greek Myth as its basis for imagery, and I find that too limiting. But I will admit that the archetypal method can be very fun, which is why I delve into it from time to time on my blog, but I likely won’t use this in the methodology of my larger research projects.

The more I contemplate Greek myth, the more I like Dionysos. He had a rough childhood. I mean, come on, his family almost ate him. No wonder he was/is a complete drunk.

So Dionysos came to symbolize drunken excess, with the idea being that one needs the release that being drunk characterizes. It does get exhausting being uptight and proper for society. Dionysos provided a container for this excess. Boundaries, if you will, to allow each of us what we need without impacting greater society.

One mode of celebrating Dionysos was in the theater, and as such he’s also the god associated with theater and stage craft. In his Poetics, Aristotle writes about the experience of going to theater and the elements of a well-written play that would lead to catharsis, a powerful emotional, collective release.

My new delicious thought is this: the theme park—the well-crafted, well-staged theme park—is the realm of Dionysos. Disney designed Disneyland as a movie set, applying Hollywood’s version of set design that evolved from theater. So, then, the kinetic experience of the park is akin to a Dionysian catharsis (perhaps it’s my Walt Disney-colored glasses, but I prefer to find Dionysian experiences that don’t involve drunken or drug-induced releases, but much could be said about such catharsis in other areas of culture).

I’ve wondered about the attraction to thrill. Compared to attractions at parks such as Six Flags or Universal, Disney’s thrilling rides are relatively tame, but that speaks to the overall goal of Disney’s storytelling and the intended audience. Theme park and amusement park attractions bring us catharsis, with the added level of kinetic experience. We don’t simply take in the story and process it through our emotional framework. Attractions allow us to become a part of the story. The Fantasyland Dark Rides were constructed as though the guests in the ride vehicles were the main characters of the story. But what about roller coasters? It’s difficult to execute an entire narrative for a roller coaster. But perhaps the narrative ceases to be the point when we’re going that fast.

Roller coasters force us back into our bodies. The mind shuts down and instincts take over as we react with fear or pleasure. Although there are many attempts to rectify the mind-body (or Cartesian) split, it still governs many of our experiences, especially in the computer age. Riding a roller coaster allows us to spend some time in that body of ours. It invites us to let go and allow our sensation to soak in the experience.

It’s like this:

Reflections on: Fandoms

When I was a little girl, I went on an archaeological dig through my family’s “basement.” I say “basement” because we were then renting a house whose basement had been converted (or perhaps built from the get-go) as a full functional living space that mirrored the floor above ground. Below the stairs was a convenient storage area for family artifacts that didn’t belong in other places. I was prompted by my mother to go on this dig–perhaps to give me something to do while she quietly sewed her latest project–because I had recently discovered Star Wars. She revealed to me that my brothers were avid fans and thought that some of their toys might be found in that storage area. Yes, I did find their old Millennium Falcon and some action figures (a few of which were missing limbs). And I found an almost complete set of trading cards. And there was an envelope of ship blueprints that I wish I still had. But there was one other gem (that I also wish I still had): a quiz that my brother had written to pass around his friends. In my love of Star Wars, my Trivia Geek persona was born thanks to my brother’s little quiz.

Back then, being part of a “fandom” was very different than it is now. Well, not really. There are those fans who dress up, attend cons, have salons in their mom’s basement. But being “out” as a fan outside the acceptable realms of fandom marked one negatively with a scarlet letter “x.” I remember one of my junior high crushes was very “out” as a Star Trek fan, which was perfect since I was fairly “out” at the time as well, but I also remember the difficulties of being a tween and young teen were that much more annoying because I was a Star Trek geek and fairly uncool.

At some point between my awful junior high experiences and right now, being part of a fandom has shifted from being something negative, but rather has become a crucial part of one’s identity. Remember that Star Trek fan in [was it Arkansas?] who wore her uniform to work? She stood out at the time. People either praised her for being true to her self and her values, or they judged her negatively. Now, it’s okay for me to wear my Doctor Who scarf. It marks me as a “friendly,” it helps build communitas. I occasionally wear my Harry Potter sweater (complete with tie) without shame. I could even dye my hair Twilight Sparkle purple.

So what is it about fandoms? I just finished wanting a documentary about Bronies (a My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic fandom). The Bronies are the latest incarnation of the “inclusive” fandom–“it’s the place where I find acceptance;” “it’s where I can feel like myself;” etc etc etc. A Brony made a comment in this documentary about how other fandoms are exclusive. I have yet to have this experience. If I feel excluded, it’s likely because I’m not pouring enough energy into the fandom.

Which I don’t much any more. I followed the Potter fandom with fever until it lost steam after the release of the seventh book. I also lost a lot of respect for it after Pottercast made a comment that Twilight was the next Potter. I do wish I could have the hours of my life back from reading that series. I walk on the fringe of several fandoms.

Fandoms seem to exist because a particular pop culture channel speaks to several people on a mythic level. They provide the fulfillment that Joseph Campbell would once have attributed to traditional myths (I often wonder what he would have to say about fandoms if he were alive today). They also allow us to respond to the pop culture channel in our own unique way. Some people consume the fandom–they collect, they decorate their homes and offices around the fandom, and they are walking encyclopedias about the original work (and maybe all of the collectibles and fandom artifacts as well). Some people are the creatives–they are so inspired by the original work that they create something new within the parameters of the canon–fanfiction, filks, and for the obsessive knitter like me, wearables and toys. And there are those who just need the community–are they looking for validation or are they so hungry for community? These people want the conversation. And there are those who are along for the experience.

“Experience” is a complicated word. In the way I’m using it here, it could mean a few different things. I could be referring to the experience of the myth. I could be referring to the experience of the fandom. I could be referring to the experience of the experience of communitas. I could be referring to the ritualistic experience fandoms allow. I refer to all of the above. “Mythic experience” happens for each of us differently. That moment when “Star Wars” engulfed the screen for my first viewing is just as potent to me as the moment when the Enterprise first hits the screen, or when the TARDIS appears, or when I exit the tunnel under the railroad and am embraced (welcomed) by the sights and sounds of Main Street, U.S.A., or when I am standing underneath the Rose Window at Notre Dame de Paris during mass, or when I first stood in the Sistine Chapel and looked up into the face of God. My mythic experience is different than your mythic experience because we are different people. Fandoms are born when we find people who have the same degree of experience that we had. The Internet has made it easier for us to find each other and, hopefully, be friends. And that’s totally groovy.

Why Mr. Banks Needed Saving

*This post contains minor spoilers about the film, Saving Mr. Banks, but I question if they count as spoilers since the historical events in the film are well-documented in many Walt Disney biographies or Disney histories.*
*and there are some spoilers about Mary Poppins, but I would like to pretend that everyone has seen that film in this day and age.*

My friend in her review of Oz Great and Powerful observed that Disney has been rewriting its origin myths lately. Indeed, they invested gobs into a redo of Disneyland California Adventure to theme the park to the Los Angeles of Walt’s arrival. When I initially saw the trailers for Saving Mr. Banks, I saw her observation in action to a new level. Here is the first bio-pic of Walt Disney, highlighting a very specific time and turning point in Disney History–the production meetings with P.L. Travers to secure the rights to Mary Poppins.


Mary Poppins is one of my favorite Disney films. Heck, it may possibly be one of my favorite films of All Time. I found solace in Mary’s guidance when my mother was first hospitalized for her COPD. I still to this day think of the Denver capitol building when I hear “Feed the Birds.” Whenever I feel a little blue, Mary Poppins is one of my cheer-up films. I have such intimacy with the film that I refuse to see it on stage…So I can understand why Mrs. Travers would hesitate to allow Disney to make the film.

Here’s the trailer:

I have always been aware that Mary Poppins arrives at the Banks’ to help put a family back together, which also involves helping Mr. Banks appreciate his family, not just his well-ordered life. Mrs. Banks is a secret suffragette, dividing her time between her husband, children, and her cause. Sometimes she can get overwhelmed, as when she comes home from the meeting and doesn’t initially hear Katie Nanna’s resignation, but she quickly comes around. The children just want to be loved.

There are two distinct storylines, beautifully interwoven in Saving Mr. Banks: Travers’ memories of her childhood at a particularly difficult time and her visit to Disney to negotiate how the film will be made. The underlying theme of the film appears to address the classic Freudian Daddy Issue. The film portrays Travers Goff, Mrs. Travers’ father, as kind and loving, but drunk and falling apart. The young Travers loves her father completely, even defying her mother to get him booze. We see Mrs. Travers (played by Emma Thompson) in the middle of the film meltdown during a production meeting because she feels they are making Mr. Banks into this cruel father who doesn’t even mend the kite (inspiring the “Let’s Go Fly A Kite” sequence, borrowed also from the Sherman Brothers’ relationship with their father). Walt (Tom Hanks) convinces her to give him the rights when he flies to London and explains his own father relationship and that Mary Poppins is actually about saving Mr. Banks.

Who is Mr. Banks but that hyperrational piece of all of us who just needs some play in his life? Regardless of the claim that Walt wanted the rights because of a promise to his daughters, the movie of Mary Poppins reminds us to just stop and play, or fly a kite or just love to laugh. Much of Disney reflects the need for play, ever more so following the opening of Disneyland. Play is the spoonful of medicine, and with the total themed experience of the park, we’re allowed to shut out the outside world and be in the land of Dream. That we can do it consciously and physically is what makes it so potent, provided we are willing to release ourselves to it, captured beautifully in Travers’ (Emma Thompson) hesitation to go to the park, much less ride the carousel.

The business about the origin story? Mary Poppins ushered in a new era for the Disney studio, allowing it to grow and expand in a way it hadn’t done since the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It gave the studio the money to continue developing films and to be able to devote itself to the World’s Fair attractions, expanding Disneyland, and dreaming about the Florida Project. In other words, Mary Poppins made possible the only Disney I and many others know–the Legacy that was able to survive Walt’s death.

Sure, there were some liberties taken in this film (Saving Mr. Banks), some of which may even include the storyline of Travers’ childhood (I know nothing about her). But the film does stay true to the spirit of Poppins and to the spirit of Disney. Travers (Emma Thompson) remarks to Walt, “You mean, Disney didn’t make man in his own image?” Well, no, but those of us who willingly go for the Disney dream share the same attributes: we love to laugh, we happily will fly a kite, and we know how to invest our tuppance.

Downton Abbey Took a Violent Turn and I’m Not Happy About It

***This post is inspired by a recent broadcast of Downton Abbey in the US, and contains spoilers.***

When it comes to violence in the media, I have a few criteria I like to follow:
(As a note: I’m not a big fan of violence. I don’t condone it. I would love a world without violence, and maybe someday such a world will exist.)
1. Is it gratuitous? My gratuity line is significantly lower than most of Hollywood–thanks to my Walt Disney-colored glasses and parenthood–but I can appreciate that some violence is supposed to be there. For instance, you can’t have Romeo and Juliet without the death of Tybalt, and The Shining or Titanic wouldn’t have made such an impact without characters freezing to death. But did Johnny Depp really need his eyes ripped out in Once Upon a Time in Mexico or did Doc really need to chop off his fingers in Escape from Alcatraz?
2. The obvious intent behind the film. I allow Quentin Tarantino, Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock to get away with their violence because they are either presenting dark satire or handle the violence artfully. A movie like Caligula haunts me with its gratuitous sexual violence (it is an art porn, as it were), as do many horror movies. It may be sacrilegious, but I even find the two major acts of violence done to Luke Skywalker in Empire Strikes Back unnecessary. There isn’t significant character transformation by his experiences.
3. Who is the violence against? Who doesn’t cheer when the Evil Queen falls to her death?
(I don’t buy into the argument that violence in media causes violence in real life. Violent people are violent in their nature. Violence in media is a response to something in the culture. Think there is too much violence? Then, please, rethink what media you consume. Through embargo can we get the moguls to give us new themes. But if 100 years of Hollywood is any indicator, we like the catharsis of violence. Victorian repression doesn’t work either. Oh well.)

This is all getting me to Downton Abbey‘s recent episode, Season Four Episode 2. I binge-watched the entire show, since it airs the hour before Sherlock, which returns this weekend with Season 3. It is well-written, such that I imagine that fans cried at the same points, laughed at the same scenes, held their breath at the same time. The characters are fairly black and white. By the end of the first episode in which they appear, we know who to love, who to hate, and who to pity.

Come to think of it, Aristotle would be pleased with this show, if he were writing The Poetics today.

So Anna’s brutal rape is a matter of controversy. Not only is she one of the most loved and selfless characters, but how it was presented recalls the old cinematic trick of careful montage editing. While an opera singer performs for the entire house (upstairs and downstairs), her screams echo through an empty hallway. The performance is full of light, while the hallway is dark. I’m not remembering which silent film dealt with a rape in much the same fashion. This type of distancing effect tugs at our heartstrings: we are connected to the show (if you’re a faithful watcher), but this scene confuses us. Anger for Anna or joy at operatic beauty?

A commentary I read pointed out that the scandal of her situation could ruin her career as a Lady’s Maid and mark her publicly forever. Such is British society. Julian Fellows did her a favor of writing her attacker from her class, even if she can never have justice. Another commentary, or maybe the same one, suggests that how this is handled in coming episodes will make or break the season. And Fellows himself suggests that it had to be Anna.

Even knowing writer’s intent and show purpose, I’m not in favor of this one. If Fellows needed to rape Anna, did we really have to see it? After all, we were spared Matthew’s war and car accidents, Thomas’s coward shot (how on earth did he get away with that?!), Cora’s fall, and do on. So why this?

Yet another commentary suggests that this event is designed to speak to the fate of Downton Abbey in a time when the family itself is losing its grip. Downton Abbey is meant to represent a microcosm. Through the disguise of a period piece, I suspect the primary commentary is about the tension between nostalgia and the ever-changing face of the planet. Through a piece at the time when Britain stopped being an empire and the class divide became less rigid, we can read a commentary about the connectivity of the world and how easy we can go from place to place through the Internet. How much easier it is to be a self-made person with the right resources, or not.

Perhaps Anna represents Britain, or the West, or the Earth. Perhaps the rape of her is the rape of our planet of her resources. I suppose I’ll know more on Sunday.

*Please no spoilers about what happens next if you already know.*

Random Thought: Does Disneyland have a bomb shelter?

Disneyland opened in 1955, on the early end of the Cold War, but still during the period of Nuclear Fear. So I got to thinking, does Disneyland have a fallout shelter and where would it be? 20131216-105823.jpg

A quick Google didn’t yield any definitive answers. Disneyland wasn’t built with the super tunnel system that Walt Disney World has (which apparently will protect you during a nuclear attack). Also WDW may have a bona fide shelter under the Main Street Train Station.

This speaks, I think, to the illusion that Disneyland is not only the happiest place on earth, but also the safest. As we walk through the entry tunnels, we are greeted with a sign that reads, “Here you leave the world of today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy.” This hyperrealistic constructed world claims to take us out of time, away from real world worries. There are reported cases (see any of David Koenig’s books) of people getting so caught up in the illusion that they do something reckless, and thanks to Disney’s PR and law teams, any injury is quickly covered up. Koenig also writes about violent acts at Disneyland, easily occurring because people lower their guard at Disneyland. It’s a safe place.

So why not extend this illusion to nuclear attack? No one wants to go to Disneyland and think about nuclear bombs. In Tomorrowland, there used to be attractions celebrating nuclear energy used to make life easier, not destructive.

I’ve decided that the safest place at Disneyland, in the event of nuclear attack, is the Haunted Mansion. The stretching room is actually an elevator that takes you underground and the hallway to the Doom Buggies takes you outside the berm. Perfect place. And the Grim Grinning Ghosts are good company. Why not Pirates of the Caribbean? It’s also underground. Simple answer. The water, that recognizably smelly water, will become radiated. If there’s a secret room down there (the room where Walt’s body isn’t), maybe that’s the safest, but it doesn’t have the capacity.