Wednesday, September 30, 2015

"I don't believe it...I don't believe it...."

I was in my early teens and I had the growing suspicion the world was not going to end soon. I felt great dismay at this. I had been a Jehovah's Witness all my life but after my mother's row with the organization over a family member we weren't Witnesses anymore. And in one swoop I was no longer allowed to see the kids I'd grown up with. I was left with the kids at school I had been warned repeatedly were Worldly and were bad associations who would spoil my chances of getting to hug a koala bear in paradise Earth (if the illustrations in The Watchtower were anything to go by).  I was lost, restless and looking for escape. My mother began her hunt for a new religious tradition that would eventually land her a perfectly nice new church. But I already knew organized religion and I were not going to be getting back together.

It's not that I didn't trust another denomination to produce a sense of the sacred and numinous in me. It's more that I had never, ever had that feeling in all my years of being a Witness. Jehovah's Witness' Kingdom Halls tend to be drab looking buildings. And it's an aesthetic that carries down to the faith itself. In an effort to purge itself of anything that remotely smacks of "Christendom" (read: Catholicism) Jehovah's Witnesses have carefully soaked and stripped religion of any sense of ritual, celebration, and marking of time. The pagan origins of most major Holidays, and birthday observances, meant those went right out the window. And Witnesses had no youth programs at all. Why would you bother with those things after all, when the world is ending next Tuesday? And that meant life was carefully marked by all the things you avoided doing, instead of the things you did.

I would always feel guilty about looking longingly at decorated Christmas trees. And I would feel even more guilty when we'd tour an old cathedral when traveling and I'd get a sense of reverence and of the centuries that had passed under its arches. In the immediate aftermath of leaving the Witness, or "The Truth" as insiders call it -big red flag right there-, I longed for a sense of purpose. And it came via a video store rental box.

I had picked it out because it had a spaceship on the cover, and I liked "Star Wars". And I watched, with an increasing sense of the hairs on the back of my neck standing up, as a a great mystery unfolded. Strange lights were flickering across the sky, a group of WWII planes lost decades ago are found in Mexico, an Indianapolis lineman can't stop creating images of a strange tower. And in the middle of the Gobi Desert a cargo ship is found, the people documenting it taking an understandable moment to stare in incredulity before recording it.

And I forgot it was "just" a movie. I entered into it, crouched behind the scrub grass, holding my breath as the ships came in for a landing at Devil's Tower. And John Williams' score, a perfect blend of the magisterial and the fragile sense of wonder wound around my cells and made them light up like the Mothership as it returned to the sky. I cried when Truffaut signed to the alien and it signed back and I felt so happy and alive as the credits rolled. I reveled in what I'd just seen. None of it was "real" and yet it's not that I didn't care, rather it's that I saw stories, good stories, great stories, have a deeper truth and reality of their own. And that it did not diminish movies' power to know they were the result of many different people pooling their skills to create worlds out of sound stages, costumes and matte paintings. Rather it spoke of the medium at its best, that when everything came together the viewer could be transported and changed. That secular art could be sacred too.

I had longed so much for a sense of the numinous and I'd found it at last. In the shivers that ran up my spine as the people looked into the cockpits of the empty planes and found their late forties calendars and photos in pristine condition. In the host of hands pointed up when asked where the music they were singing came from. I spent the next several weeks staring intently at the night sky, wondering if someone was looking back. I couldn't help but notice that instead of the Jehovah's Witness fixation on Armageddon here was a story with the message that great change was coming from the heavens, and it didn't want to destroy, it wanted to talk. It's worth remembering the original meaning of "apocalypse", which is the sense of a veil being lifted and a revelation of new knowledge. I had changed, I now knew things I didn't before.

And I knew I could never return to the gray twilight of going to meetings at the Kingdom Hall, going out in service, going to assemblies and patiently waiting for that apocalypse that was just, no really, we mean it this time, around the corner. It set me on the path of the addicting process of seeing a great film for the first time. That sensation of a hole being blown through my mind and my worldview.  The sunlight streaming through the rubble and peeking through it to find in wonder that the world had gotten bigger, more mysterious. That feeling was there in everything from the phantasmagoria of "The Red Shoes" to the endless green jungles of "Aguirre: The Wrath of God". It's why I have no patience for the most tiresome type of non believer who feels it's very, very important to sneer that it's just a "myth" or "fairy tale". Forgetting that myths and fairy tales are the bedrock of humanity, the stories we tell to make sense of the chaos. Just because it's a trick doesn't mean it's not magic. Some people find that sense of awe in religion, I found it in art. Movies are my church and I watch them in faith, hope, and charity that the next one will change my life.

Sunday, September 20, 2015


So this is how it goes. I'm twelve and watching TV in my Dad's apartment. It doesn't feel weird referring to my "Dad's apartment." And that is my great guilty secret, I'm incredibly relieved my parents got divorced. I change the channel, a group of people are looking worried on the bridge of a spaceship.

"Ooh, that's Wrath of Khan, leave it here, it's a really good one," my father says. Thankful it's not a Western I'll have sit through I obey. And that's how I first see one of my favorite films. My father tells me about Star Trek and Leonard Nimoy. We eat chopped steak sandwiches and watch The Enterprise play cat and mouse with The Reliant in the beautiful lilac, peach and cobalt clouds of a nebula. And when Spock's first question after sacrificing himself to save everyone is "Ship...out of danger?" I start rubbing my nose hard to keep from crying. I'm making a determined effort to stop being my thin skinned, starts bawling at the drop of the hat self. My father squeezes my shoulder, "It's okay, he comes back in the next one."

And that's what I associate the most with those years, watching movies. Renting them from video stories around town. Renting them from the library. My mother is woman who considers "shut up" a curse word, my father rents me "The Terminator". And as much as I want to scream when my father puts me in the middle by unloading on me everything that went wrong with his childhood and his marriage I just have to think of watching "The Long, Hot Summer" or "The Godfather" with him and I let it go. But it gets harder to let it go as the years go by. And I begin to put up walls, and not answer the phone when I know it's him.

I feel guilty about this, and then I'm able to put up walls around that too. But all that falls away when my sister  and I take him to see "Star Trek" in 2009. A film even its abominable sequel won't let me be objective about. Because all I'll remember is the look of sheer delight on my father's face during it. The grin that lit the theater when the end credits music started with a version of The Original Series' theme. It's only later do I realize how important that moment was. When it hits me that was the last movie I saw with my father before he got sick. Before the long, slow decline in various convalescent homes began.

When my father enters the convalescent home is when the terrible waiting begins. I feel guilty about leaving town even though my mother tells me it's the right thing to do. I call my father, not as often as I should. He starts to have trouble remembering that I'm no longer in North Carolina, I call him less unable to bear it. And then I get the call from my mother that it's time to come home. It's Time. And then an even more terrible month of waiting happens. It happens in February, an awful, awful month of gray empty trees and worn brown soil crusted over with dirty ice. There is no catharsis when he dies. Just a terrible emptiness and sensation of walking underwater that lasts for months.

I go back home. Numb, angry that not only did I lose my father, Leonard Nimoy died a week later. That the universe owed me at least Mister Spock still being around. Knowing that the universe could not care less what I think it owes me. Adjusting to the new normal begins. I do well some days, others I just want to sit on the couch with a blanket around my shoulders. I'm frightened by how I've lost any sense of time. Days bleed into each other, I'm not sure if a memory that skitters across my mind happened three days or three years ago. But the dirty ice melts into green grass, and the trees around the deck start to fill out with leaves again. And in July I notice the AFI Silver is playing "Wrath of Khan" in revival.

It's a warm balmy night as my boyfriend and I walk from the car to the theater. I've half joked to him that I'll probably start bawling when Spock dies. And I'm secretly hoping I'm not joking. I've cried in front of him perhaps twice. I have gotten so good at not crying at the drop of the hat that I don't cry at all. We buy our tickets and go in. The shiny chrome and black of the Art Deco interior comforts me along with the pinprick I'm starting to accept as a constant companion that this is yet another thing I won't ever be able to share with my father. We go into the theater and find our seats.

From the moment the deep blacks of the star field shimmer on the big screen I'm transfixed. Sometimes I'm watching the acting, sometimes I'm watching the directing. Other times I'm paying attention to the sound design, or noticing the choices the screenwriter made. I'm paying attention to everything my father taught me to pay attention to. He taught me movies were too wonderful to just passively digest and forget, that at their best they became like old friends you checked in with to see how they're doing.

And it hits me over and over. That without my father I wouldn't be sitting in this theater right now. And it's a double edged sword of realization. That the fraught nature of our relationship made me eager to flee. Yet he was the one person that I could truly be myself around. He shaped my cavernous appetite for movies, for art, for life. And just when it feels like my life is taking the shape and purpose I would be proud to tell him about, he's gone. He sacrificed so much for me and I'll never get to tell him thank you. And so when Spock asks "Ship...out of danger?" I finally put my head in my hands and cry. I cry for just how not at all alright it is. I cry for how it's never quite going to be alright again. I cry for Spock, for Leonard Nimoy, for James Horner and his beautiful music playing over the scene. I cry for how many things get lost, how lost is the natural terminus of all things. And my boyfriend is sitting next to me, not sure whether to leave me be or comfort me, he puts his arm around me and draws me close. And that makes me cry harder because one day he'll be lost too. And so will I.

I want stop but I can't, I shouldn't, it feels like poison slowly draining out of me. A pair of little boys sitting behind me worriedly ask their father "Is she okay?" And I smile a little underneath my tears. The funeral scene is ending and I'm down to just a few drops left. I feel like I'm floating. I begin to come back to myself as the wonderful end title music starts. I feel a bone deep ache at hearing Nimoy recite The Original Series' opening narration. But I'm happy the audience I saw it with was clearly loving it. I'm even happier about the two little boys who kept peppering their father with excited, whispered questions throughout. If things are to be lost, it follows that they have to be found first. And that is the question I wrestle with everyday, will I allow myself the hurt of letting myself be found?

The lights go up, the crowd files out, I stay in my seat until the music and credits are finished. My boyfriend squeezes my hand and we walk to the little cafe in the lobby to sit down. It feels like I've been excavated from my grief, the silt of confusion and sorrow brushed away. I'm part of the human movie again, trying to remember my lines and steeling myself for my invariable exit. It's awful. It's wonderful. I can feel my heart red in my chest as big as the room at the moment in my affection for my boyfriend, our audience, this theater, and everyone in it. Things get lost, so very lost. But things are always, always in the process of being found. I found myself again at the AFI Silver. I think that's just right. I kiss my boyfriend on the cheek and ask him to get me a Cherry Coke from the snack bar. I want to have a drink before our next movie starts.

Monday, September 14, 2015

When The Force Is Finally With You

I get it. I truly do. I fully understand if you cannot bear to hear, see, or speak the words "Star Wars" again. I fully understand how the unstoppable juggernaut that is the promotional push for "The Force Awakens" feels less like ballyhoo for a movie and more like a Biblical judgement out of Revelation. I get how exhausting it is. And how mordantly hilarious all this hype is going to turn out to be if the film is a swing and a miss like the calamitous prequels. And yet.

I thought I was out. I really did. I thought I didn't care anymore about "Star Wars" and I would go see "The Force Awakens" out of mild curiosity and not be bothered by it's quality or lack thereof. But my determined efforts to not to take any interest began to dangerously weaken when I saw a Star Destroyer lying in ruins in a strange desert landscape in the second trailer. My indifference was nearly fatally routed when they got Drew Struzan out of retirement to do the poser art. Death of pretending not to care was officially declared when I saw John Boyega holding a light saber. And all throughout, I couldn't deny how much it moved me to finally see girls and women included in the promotion.

It's one of those little things that means a whole hell of a lot to see yourself, or a younger version of yourself, in something you loved. To not have to crane your neck or squint or pretend, "well maybe there could be a lot of girl characters we just don't see." My earliest attempt at writing fanfic at the age of twelve, thankfully lost to the mists of time, was creating a plucky teen who rode shotgun with Han and helped out as much as she got into trouble. I remember that she always wore red, and I remember I ultimately couldn't decide what to do with her. I thought about making her a Jedi but I didn't because it didn't feel like Jedis were something girls could be. But at the least in my mind that made one more major female part besides Princess Leia. Leia was a great character, but watching the films growing up I couldn't help but wish for more. And at school Star Wars was strictly boy stuff. I had no interest in Barbies and wanted stories about girls who were brave, girls who flew space ships, girls who could summon and control powerful space magic.

My introduction to the original trilogy was on home video so I was greatly excited that "The Phantom Menace" would be my first "Star Wars" film in a theater. Well it was...disappointing to put it mildly. Natalie Portman's performance appearing embalmed by her makeup and dozens of costume changes, showing none of Carrie Fisher's wonderful spark in nearly rebelling against the script. And the pulpy energy of the originals was completely gone. But at least there were female Jedis this time. Who we never spent anytime with. And then were killed off wordlessly in "Revenge of the Sith". I suppose I could have consoled myself with the Expanded Universe novels. To their credit they were overflowing with female characters. But there was a feeling they didn't really "count" as canon. A feeling confirmed when Disney bought Lucasfilm and promptly banished them to the phantom zone of the used bookstore and licensed it's own line of tie-in novels. And so I thought the twin suns had set on my affection for a universe set a long time ago, in a a galaxy far, far, away.

And then things like this started happening:

And this:

And this too:
And I didn't know what it would do to me, to finally see girls who love "Star Wars" included in the run up to "The Force Awakens". It's smart business to be sure, but then again just because something is smart business doesn't mean Hollywood will give up its deeply held misconceptions on who watches certain types of movies. But it feels wonderful to feel counted, it feels wonderful to not be treated as an afterthought, a begrudging "well your money is as good as any I suppose." To see lots of women characters in the "The Force Awakens", as heroes, as villains, as leads and supporting parts. And especially to see young girls have a place in the fandom. To be told you can be brave, and you can fly on the wings of your imagination to a story that has a place waiting for you. Because that's the thing, female fans of "Star Wars" have always been here, it's our galaxy too. And now, there is a generation of girls being explicitly told how much it is their galaxy, and how very welcome they are to drop by whenever they like. It's heartening to say the least. And I can only hope they get a movie worthy of their dreams.