What Have They Done?

Let’s talk about the terrible.

Upon meeting someone, one of my go-to questions is, “What’s your favorite movie?” If my potential new friend doesn’t freeze, overwhelmed with the more than 500,000 choices in existence, based on their answer, I can get a pretty good feel for who they are.

The person who picks Gone with the Wind differs greatly from the one selecting Zombie Strippers. Does this mean one becomes my bestie while I kick the other to the curb? Certainly not! Might I have to work a bit harder to connect with one compared to the other? Most definitely, but I won’t hold their choice of Gone with the Wind against them. Sure, Scarlett is a terribly selfish person, and the movie drags on forever with a rare reprieve of her throwing up after eating radishes, and you’re like, “Yeah, doofus, you deserve that!” But I won’t split hairs.

Gone with the Wind is considered a cinematic classic, but I want the time back I spent watching it. My wife loves Castaway, but beyond the use of the line, “I have made fire,” it mostly gets a meh from me. I’ve never seen the Godfather series or Heat, but I love This is Spinal Tap and Stranger than Fiction. Casablanca and Singin’ in the Rain are incredible, and I adore It Happened One Night and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Art speaks to people, and discovering which specific piece speaks to someone reveals much about that person. Paintings aren’t widely distributed, and music is so accessible, when someone shares a favorite musician, my typical response is, “Who?”

That’s why movies are so great. Yeah, the market’s saturated with them, but because of their length and distribution, it limits our choices, which means we as a culture have a common vocabulary. Most everyone has Amazon Prime or Netflix, and even after traveling across the country, I found people looking forward to the latest release in the Fast and Furious series just like others back home.

For the most part, critics and audiences agree on which movies are worth seeing, and over time, certain movies will ascend the ladder of opinion to become considered classics. Therefore, if culture decides which movies are good, what about terrible movies? I’m not talking about cinematic masterpieces I just don’t understand. I’m talking about the ones critics rake over the coals or that bomb at the box office but are still loved years later — cult classics.

All over the country, fans dress up and fill theaters to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Room year after year, reveling in all the aspects one would normally cite for making them bad movies, whether it be poor acting, terrible dialogue, low production value, etc.

Watching them, one’s brain struggles to comprehend how something so awful in so many ways actually exists. They’re so bad, these trash movies take on a mythic quality, because surviving suffering appeals to us. Eating spicy food or sucking sour candy is an unpleasant experience, yet we breed spicier peppers and up the levels of sourness because people can’t help themselves. These car accidents of cinema fascinate us with their mangled scripts, and we wonder if the careers of those involved made it out alive, but we drive away with a sense of relief knowing we weren’t involved.

You know how in the Producers, Bialystock and Bloom set out to put on the worst play ever, a guaranteed flop, so they can raise too much money for it and when it fails, profit? To that end, they do everything they can to ensure the awfulness of their endeavor, but it all backfires when instead of them creating a tragedy, audiences perceive it as a comedy, loving it. That audience’s reaction is the phenomena I’m talking about with these films. Not many set out to make terrible movies, Johnny Depp notwithstanding; however, terrible movies keep showing up in theaters. Did you see the Emoji Movie? Neither did I.

Terrible movies abound so much so that Mystery Science Theater 3000 and RiffTrax, experiences where the audience watches a terrible movie but laughs all the way through because of the comedic commentary dubbed over the film’s soundtrack, are popular enough to provide their creators a good living. Sharknado (You know the movie where sharks get carried by a tornado up onto land so no one is safe?) has produced four sequels. Four! People can’t get enough, and neither can I.

Just in the past couple weeks, I’ve seen Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and The Dark Tower in theaters with friends knowing reviews weren’t good. In both cases, the critics were correct, but I enjoyed these movies flaws and all. John Carter ranks up there as one of my favorite bad movies, and I don’t even know why I love it.

My all time favorite terrible movie, though, is Flash Gordon. Yeah, the one with a ridiculous plot, terrible acting, weird choices in costuming and set decoration, bird men, Timothy Dalton, and an ending still left unresolved nearly 40 years later all set to a soundtrack provided by Queen.

Network execs showed that movie on broadcast television throughout my childhood often enough I fell in love with it. Some random Saturday afternoon, my father or I would be flipping through our five channels, there it would be, and there our flipping would stop. I love it even though I never saw the beginning until getting the movie on Blu-Ray a few years back.

Dare I say it? Along with reruns of the original Star Trek and multiple viewings of the Star Wars movies, Flash Gordon helped form my entertainment palate, God help me; I’m a sucker for sci-fi.

There you have it. All this to confess I love a terrible film. Yes, I lost count of how many times I’ve seen Flash Gordon. Yes, I’ll probably watch it again soon. How could I not?

I’ll even bet there’s a terrible movie out there you love. You know, the one you’ve been thinking about as you’ve read this.

Do me a favor and watch it again.

Revel in it like you do when a stench assails your nostrils, almost causing you to retch, but then you take a second whiff to give yourself a bit of a thrill.

Better yet, watch that terrible movie with someone you love who has yet to see it. Show them who you are, scars and all.

“Hi, I’m Jake. I love Flash Gordon. What’s you favorite terrible movie?”

Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Hope

Looks like Vader left his mask on the floor again…

If I’ve told that Sith once, I’ve told him a thousand times to not leave his mask lying around. I get that he feels claustrophobic behind that thing, anybody would, but his asthma gets to be a real problem without that mask.

That’s it, I’m sending him to his pod!

My son knows who Darth Vader is. Asher is three years old, and he knows who Darth Vader is. Well, not really. Whenever he pushes the button on the side of the mask and James Earl Jones announces, “I find your lack of faith disturbing,” Asher laughs, repeating what he hears, “I find your face is dirty.”

My son isn’t the only one who has a thin grasp on Vader mythology. My cousin shared how his boys got into a debate at school over whether or not Darth Vader died, and Mark educated them by pulling up the climactic scene from Return of the Jedi where Vader laid down his life to save Luke. Mark and I joked about how he now has to further spoil the original trilogy for his sons by showing them the scene when Vader tells Luke, “I am your Father,” or when Luke realizes he’s Leia’s brother.

Having grown up sleeping on Star Wars bedsheets and playing with pretty much all the original action figures and playsets, Mark had to do something. He tried years ago to sit with his sons and watch Star Wars, but the boys were too young and had too much energy to make it through even the first film. As a teenager, Mark collected the toys that came out in connection to the prequels, and his entire family has pre-purchased around 20 tickets to see the Force Awakens together.

Tickets in hand, Mark’s inviting his three sons to experience a cultural milestone, and he doesn’t want them missing out on the full experience, so he plans on watching at least the original trilogy as a family in the next few weeks.

According to Deadline Hollywood, analysts project the Force Awakens will earn $185 – $210 million opening weekend alone, and scuttlebutt says Episode VII will break Avatar‘s $2.7 billion box office record.

What is it about Star Wars that has people clamoring to see the new movie?

It’s about hope.

Upon its release in 1977, Star Wars: A New Hope revitalized the sci-fi genre. Audiences were used to seeing dystopian futures on film such as prior years’ Logan’s Run, Soylent Green, The Omega Man, Westworld, Rollerball, and the Planet of the Apes series.

Watergate disenchanted the American public, breaking our faith in an infallible President. If we couldn’t believe our elected officials held our best interests, what future could we expect? So we wallowed in stories confirming our worst fears until Star Wars showed us something different: even the poorest orphan has the power to face down the unknown. Light will overcome darkness. We are not alone; the Force is with us.

There is hope.

We wanted to hear that story of hope again with Episodes I, II, and III of the Star Wars franchise, especially after the events of September 11, 2001, but were sadly disappointed to see computer-generated, digitally-shot stories about how the future was set in stone and things will go wrong despite the best efforts of the most powerful Jedi.

Especially after the Paris attacks and shootings in schools and ISIS and violence and murder and rape, we want to hear that it’s going to be okay. We want to have hope for the future. We want to place our faith in the fact that we are not alone in this world, that even the poorest orphan has the power to overcome the unknown. I want to know that I’m going to make it, that my uncle facing radiation and chemotherapy will be cured of his cancer. I want to know that my seven-year-old daughter will never be sexually assaulted. I want my marriage to last a lifetime and that friends will not leave me.

That’s too much pressure to put on one movie. Sure, the Force Awakens will utilize practical effects and be shot on film and J. J. Abrams proved with Star Trek that he can revitalize a space-faring series, showing us through lens flares that anything is possible, but one movie cannot guarantee anyone’s future. Only a self-sacrificing god can do that.

Look at Jesus, a poor man of questionable parentage, who shook the political and religious leaders of his day with selfless answers and self-sacrifice. He exercised power to heal the sick and raise the dead. He spent time with children and touched lepers. His greatest teachings were about humility and self-denial. He showed us how to love the disenfranchised, the marginalized, and betrayers. He laid down his life for his friends and took it back up again. He died so that we may live.

I put my hope in Jesus, knowing he has a plan for my life, and if my uncle dies of cancer or my daughter is assaulted, if my marriage falls apart or my friends abandon me, even if my worst fears come true, Jesus will not leave me desolate. He is ever-present; his Spirit lives in me, which means he can work through me in power. I prayed for the sick, and they were healed. I was laid off with no prospects and got a better job. I was so overwhelmed with fear, I couldn’t make it through a day at school, and now I teach school. I messed up my leg so badly, I couldn’t walk without crutches, and now I run faster and farther than I ever could before.

Do I plan on taking my family to see the Force Awakens? We wouldn’t miss it, especially since we’ve sat down and watched the original trilogy together. I hope it affirms the story that light overcomes darkness, that we are not alone. Darth Vader may have died, but he laid down his life so his son would live, and he continues to live on.

I have hope for the future.

Writing Fiction

After earning an MFA in creative nonfiction, I’ve started writing a sci-fi story, which is a whole different experience. Instead of rooting through my past, unearthing painful moments I buried long ago, I activate my imagination, watch the movie playing in my mind, and try to get it down on paper.

Sometimes the movie goes off-script. It feels like the scene playing doesn’t jive with what’s come before, so when this happens, I skip back to the last scene and let it play from there.

I don’t know if all fiction writing works this way, but it’s super-fun because even though I’m the author of this story, I don’t even know the name of my main character or even quite what he is, because my mind-movie hasn’t gotten to that scene yet. Whereas with nonfiction, I return to the writing because I have a driving question I want to answer, with fiction writing, I sit my ass In the chair because I want to discover what happens next.

I feared my writing would languish without the accountability of the MFA program, and to some extent, it has, yet trying a new genre rejuvenated the practice as did getting published and returning to a biweekly writer’s group. As adding a social component encouraged my enjoyment of running, meeting with fellow writers unlocked a heretofore hidden chamber in the well of creative expression that is word smithing. In other words, hanging out with other writers helps me like writing more.

If you have ideas of what encourages your creative expression, or if you have something to share about writing fiction, please post it in the comments.

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Guarding my Galaxy

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These are the Guardians of the Galaxy in Lego form. To assemble this group of minifigs, I bought all three building sets, spending close to $150 on toys for a movie I have yet to see.

Let me remind you I’m a grown man, complete with stubborn nose hair and a retirement portfolio.

Why on Earth am I buying toys?

They could be for my five-year-old daughter who loves Avengers Assemble and Ultimate Spider-Man as much as she loves Littlest Pet Shop and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, or I could have bought them as an investment, anticipating high demand for product tie-ins to Marvel’s latest blockbuster. If either scenario rang true, why do they sit on a high shelf, unboxed, and put together where my daughter can’t reach?

I want to play with them.

As a teenager, I recorded episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, dreamt of attending conventions in full costume, and amassed over 80 action figures along with play-sets and toy ships that lit up while making photon torpedo sounds, so I recognize the signs of geek mania.

Before writing me off, please note the following indicators of hope:
1) Even though the movie spawning this hysteria opened Thursday at midnight, I won’t see it until the following Wednesday. During opening weekend, I chose to visit my in-laws and attend my wife’s 20th high school reunion. We’ll also celebrate my sister’s birthday before I see the film.
2) My daughter and I assembled the Lego sets together, and she and my two-year-old son spent more time playing with them than I did as the Guardians of the Galaxy rubbed shoulders with other members of Maggie’s collection of interlocking bricks.
3) You’re reading this post wherein I discuss my penchant for collecting toys designed for children. I could’ve kept this quiet, but decided to share it with you instead: “Hi, my name’s Jake, and I’m a sci-fi toy collector. It’s been two weeks since my last purchase.”

Yeah, I bought toys so I could play with them. Might this indicate an arrestment of my emotional development? Maybe. Could my fascination with science fiction reveal a dissatisfaction with reality? Probably. Do my interests prevent healthy relationships, isolating me from friends and family? Not at all. Have I created this post in response to a vague internal sense society might question my behavior? Bingo.

I write to settle uneasiness in me. If I can answer perceived arguments striking at the core of my identity, then I don’t have to change who I am or even fake change. I get to go on pretending it causes me no concern I know more about fictional worlds than I do about football, but it still bothers me.

This is about self-acceptance, releasing the modus operandi that disliking sports equals rejection. After all this time, the voices of my middle school bullies echo within. How do I release their lies? By speaking the truth.

I appreciate nerdy things, and that’s great because it defines me. Being drawn to Guardians of the Galaxy draws me closer to my wife and kids because they love the things I love. My genetic code combined with my life experience and spiritual formation made me unique all according to plan. I’m exactly the person God meant me to be right now, and He transforms me every day.

Do I still have a ways to go? Certainly, but I’m still breathing, which means I, along with my ragtag group of friends, can keep darkness at bay until the day our galaxy is saved.

Titanfall’s Beta

 

As a reformed robot, I feel a certain obligation — a call of duty, if you will — to tell you about my recent subroutine reboot. Via an extended weekend of video gaming, I lubricated the mechanized side of me, the intellectual who found more in common with Lt. Commander Data of Star Trek: The Next Generation than with my peers.

Friends think I play Xbox every day, but having two children younger than six means I spend my free time convincing my daughter to eat or tearing the house apart to find my son’s shoes, and when both kids are abed, I hang with the wife, finish up housework, or limp off to bed myself. Reality equals my booting up a video game every couple of weeks, so the rare gift of a weekend at my in-laws means while Grandma’s soaking up her grandkids, I’m soaking up digitized delight.

Some say a woman marries her father, and in my wife’s case, it’s true. Jerry’s a retired chemist; I’m a science teacher. We each own a slew of humorous t-shirts, but the only reason he’s seen more zombie movies and read more sci-fi novels than I is because he’s lived longer. Video games? They’re his full-time job.

When Jerry bought a bigger, better LCD-TV, instead of selling the old rear-projection television or moving it to a different room, he slid it four feet to the right. Now, as he’s earning his daily achievement in Halo: Reach, my mother-in-law reaches over to pat his leg while watching the Weather Channel. When we visit, I pack my Xbox One along with an overnight bag, enabling guaranteed gaming in the midst of the love maelstrom as Maggie travels from one new discovery to another with her grandmother, Asher redistributes the tiny container collection and the toy tribble, Jerry takes care of breakfast then consumes the daily paper, and my wife catches up with her parents. I visit as well, play with the kids, and walk with Jerry, but for the majority of the time, a controller nestles in my palms.

That’s how I took advantage of the Titanfall Beta. For the uninitiated, Titanfall is a military shooter in the vein of Battlefield, Call of Duty, or Halo where you fill the combat boots of a tough-as-nails soldier facing overwhelming odds. Instead of running around the map, ducking into buildings, and climbing stairs to gain the high ground, with Titanfall you can run along the sides of buildings and jump-jet your way onto second story roofs to rain fire from above; also there’s Titans. Instead of jumping into a tank or a jet when you tire of trading potshots along narrow corridors, you can call down a large, mechanized robotic suit from low orbit to reach objectives faster and squish any foot soldiers foolish enough to get in your way. In short, it’s a zombie movie-watching, sci-fi novel-reading, humorous t-shirt-wearing, science teacher’s dream game. I played and played and played and played.

Keep in mind, this was the beta version. Don’t rush out to your local Wal-Mart to find the game unstocked. Respawn Entertainment made a stripped-down version available to the public to test servers and flex muscles. They’ll release the full version on March 11th for Xbox One and PC with another iteration for the Xbox 360 sometime in June. Keep in mind, I only gain intangible rewards from this blog post: a happy man telling others why I’ve got such a big smile on my face.

Thanks to my wife who wants to see Guardians of the Galaxy together — she gets me; thanks to her parents for their hospitality and for enjoying our company almost as much as they enjoy their grandkids; and thanks to Vince Zampella who  built Respawn Entertainment from the ground up to create the next summit of video game ascension. My circuits hum in anticipation.