Amoeblog

May the Fourth -- A Look at Star Bars and Deep Space Discos

Posted by Eric Brightwell, May 4, 2015 11:27am | Post a Comment



The original Star Wars had a huge impact on pop culture. As a child, nothing in the film had more impact on me than the cantina scene -- and judging from the changes in dance music and imitations that followed I wasn't alone. What better occasion to reflect on the film's impact than May the Fourth, also celebrated as Star Wars Day.




***

Star Wars was released on 25 May 1977. I was probably three years old when I saw it in the theater because my fourth birthday followed a couple of weeks later and there were Star Wars dolls* emerging from the middle of a birthday bundt cake. After The Empire Strikes Back, George Lucas would increasingly strain to appeal directly to children by introducing cuddly aliens and increasingly relying on cartoonish CGI but for me and many other children, Star Wars was already deeply appealing, dark and sometimes frightening as it was. 


For comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell, the cantina scene was the "threshold crossing" in the "hero's journey." For me it was a bit like viewing an ethnographic bestiary -- or a Halloween party (in the 1970s, Halloween hadn't yet been hijacked by adults and turned into streetwalker cosplay). One of the cheif appeals of Star Wars was its mystery and world building -- something which the expansion of the franchise would later explain away with banal backstories -- but on full display in the cantina. Of all the characters, 
only
Greedo was addressed by a name. The rest of the assembled wore no pageant sashes, name tags, or hash tags and aside from the viewers' understandings of evolution there were few clues as to the conditions of their home worlds. 
 

The Star Wars cantina was what I wish Encounter in LAX's Theme Building had been, and what it will be if they get it right when it's re-opened. What the cantina wasn't was every lame, uninspired hive of pretense and conformity which bills itself (despite having a liquor license) as a "speakeasy."  It wasn't illuminated by Edison bulbs, the wines weren't listed on a chalk board, there was no unfinished wooden sign on the building's exterior describing it as an apothecary, and it was probably cash only. The bartender wasn't a lumbersexual and he didn't spend twenty minutes rubbing herbs on a mason jar in the name of "mixology."

 

Retro futuristic LAX Theme Building restaurant, as imagined in the 1990s
 
Before Star Wars, 1970s science-fiction works like Ark II, Logan's Run, The Starlost, Jodorowsky's Dune, Solaris, EolomeaStalker, or Zardoz attempted (and often failed) to exploit the genre, entertain, and elevate consciousness. There was little pretense to Star Wars though, which had less in common with contemporaneous science-fiction literature than to escapist science-fantasy of pop music.



In 1952, Ella Fitzgerald released "Two Little Men in a Flying Saucer." After her, Sun RaJoe MeekThe VenturesThe ByrdsPink FloydJimi HendrixDavid Bowie, Flaming YouthUFOYesT. RexHawkwindRoxy MusicGenesisFunkadelicElton JohnStevie WonderJobriathBrett SmileyKlaatuRocketsParliament, and Rush all pointed their creative telescopes toward the skies in search of inspiration and crafted -- even in the proggiest instances -- pop songs essentially about weird aliens and shiny robots.
















Star Wars, like it's pop music forebears, didn't appear to be any more thought provoking than Deep Purple's "Space Truckin'" or The Steve Miller Band's "Space Cowboy." It had less in common with the literary works of Arthur C. Clarke and Stanis?aw Lem than it did pulp magazines and Republic serials of the 1920s, and '30s. 



I can't help but wonder whether or not that had anything to do with Star Wars film scorer John Williams's decision to make the only diagetic music, the music played by the cantina band, sound like Artie ShawBenny Goodman, or Woody Herman where the rest of the score plumbed the works of Gustav HolstSergei Prokofiev, and Igor Stravinsky for inspiration.


Thankfully, the cantina band did not inspire a host of imitators and the universe would be spared from the horror of a so-called swing revival for two more decades. The music of the cantina band had little direct musicological influence on pop music, although its hedonistic multiculturalism did affect the dance floors of the world's discos.


Although Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer actually recorded the pulsing, Moog-driven "I Feel Love" in 1976,  it wasn't released until July of 1977, a couple of months after Star Wars. So although it wasn't influenced by Star Wars, it certainly moved disco from its soul and funk roots on earth into the future.


 

A more explicit connection between disco and space opera (and Star Wars in particular) came courtesy of Meco (Domenico Monardo), who released his disco-fied "Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band" which topped the American pop charts in October of 1977. Donna Summer, Giorgio Moroder, Meco, and Star Wars combined to spawn the short-lived space disco subgenre, which would produce several hits, primarily in 1977 and '78.




1977 was also the year that the Paradise Garage, Studio 54, and The Warehouse opened, which would not only be natural homes for space disco but spawn what came to be known as garage and house music. 1977 saw Kraftwerk go from from singing about radios, roads, and trains to space labs and mensch-maschines. It was the year that Space released "Magic Fly," Cerrone released "Supernature," and Droids released "(Do You Have) the Force."


 


In 1978 time kept on slipping into the future with Dee D. Jackson's "Automatic Lover," Sarah Brightman and Hot Gossip's "I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper," and Ganymed's "Saturn." 


 

Television shows like Space Academy and Jason of Star Command would never have happened were it not for Star Wars, but aimed exclusively at children as they were, there were no space discos to be found within three parsecs of them. 
 
 

The first appearance of a Star Wars cantina-like bar that I'm aware of was onThe Richard Pryor Show's debut in September 1977. There, the great 20th Century satirist played a bartender at "Star Bar" and had the impossible task of explaining the appeal of baseball to the unindoctrinated. 
 

Ralph McQuarrie artwork depicting Carillon, which is much better than the film version

The cantina was next an obvious inspiration for the "chancery" on Carillon that appeared on the Star Wars-indebted series Battlestar Galactica in "Saga of a Star World." The costuming, if not budget for writers, was sometimes impressive on Battlestar Galactica but the four-eyed, two-mouthed macrocephs which lured visitors into the Ovion's trap were as laughably clunky as the three-armed Martian and three-eye Venusian at the Hi-Way Café in the 1961 episode of The Twilight Zone titled "Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?" On the other hand, the song, "It's Love Love Love" as performed by The Space Angels owed far more to space disco than it did anything by John Williams.



The original Star Wars cantina made another appearance of sorts on The Star Wars Holiday Special, which aired in November 1978. By then the bar was tended by Ackmena, played by the wonderful Bea Arthur who sings some Kurt Weill-esque number based on the original cantina theme. I've only seen the special once but although it's infamously unpopular with George Lucas (who has prevented its release or re-airing) I'm pretty sure that most audiences would find it any more challenging to enjoyment than The Ewok Adventure, Ewoks: Battle for Endor, The Phantom Menace, or Attack of the Clones.
 

Sadly, space disco proved to be short-lived and Sheila (and) B. Devotion's "Spacer," released in 1979, was one of the last exemplars of the scene. Electro-funk, Italo-disco, Hi-NRG, spacesynth, and techno in many ways all carried space disco's space torch but never had as much impact on pop culture as had disco.The space opera series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century appeared in 1979 and its theme song, although massive, was a Jobriath-esque ballad sung by Kipp Lennon rather than a pulsating futuristic ditty (click here to watch a video). The drugs had clearly changed, a fact perhaps underscored when Twiki approached Buck on the dancefloor and said, "We brought you some pills, Buck... it's a very strong relaxant. You mustn't take more than one at a time." 



Had Starstruck made it beyond the pilot, audiences would've been treated to another Star Wars cantina-inspired set. Starstruck was to be set on McCallister's Midway Inn, a tavern situated on a space station located "somewhere between Earth and Pluto," set in the 22nd Century, and broadcast by CBS. The fault, it seems, was not in the stars but in the writing... and perhaps in the fact that space disco was dead and Star Wars was, in pop culture terms, ancient history (although that didn't stop Mel Brooks from skewering it only eight years later, with Spaceballs). 
 

NCC-1701-D's Ten Forward

Filmmakers continued to attempt to mine cinematic gold, or at least the box office variety, with films like Battle Beyond the Stars and Flash Gordon (both 1980), Ice Pirates (1984), and Starchaser: The Legend of Orin (1985), but no star bars would make any sort of impact until 1988, when Ten Forward appeared on season 2 of Star Trek: The Next Generation. However, although it appeared to be perfectly suited to a calm, civil game of strategema over snytheholic drinks, it makes some public libraries that I've been to look like raves in comparison. Not long after, in 1990, a book called Cowboy Feng's Space Bar and Grille was published, which my brother assured me was amazing but which I never read. The next time anything with anything appeared with a scene at all resembling that of Star Wars' cantina was on another Star Trek series, 
Star Trek: Deep Space 9.

The Las Vegas version of Quark's

Deep Space 9 debuted in 1990. Where the concept of the original Star Trek was described "Wagon Train in space,"  Deep Space 9 was intended to be analogous to "The Rifleman in space." Instead of exploring all corners of space, Deep Space 9 would instead depict visitors arriving from them... and where better to congregate than in a public house and casino over a game of dabo, tongo, or darts. Whereas Ten Forward was run by a sage Guinan Goldberg, the proprietor of Quark's was a Ferengi and petty criminal. As much as star bars attempt might seem to imagine the future, they're also one of the space opera's most obvious echoes of the saloons, taverns, and inns that are such key settings in the westerns, samurai, and fantasy fictions from which they space opera's draw most of their inspiration. Unlike Ten Forward, Quark's actually inspired a real bar too at Star Trek: The Experience, one of the only things that I liked in Las Vegas but which closed in 2008.

I'm sure there have been more examples in the decades since, but the only obvious nod to the Star Wars cantina that know of in remotely recent years was in a 2010 episode of Doctor Who, "The End of Time (Part 2)." I actually haven't seen that episode but from the looks of it was a pretty overt homage. If there are any others, please let me know in the comments!


*action figures are dolls


*****

Follow me at ericbrigthwell.com

Your Pals Are Not What They Seem 2: Faith and Reason in Lost's Season 5 Finale

Posted by Charles Reece, May 30, 2009 02:07pm | Post a Comment
Page I


Being a congenital skeptic, I had expected Lost to go the way of other fantasy shows exploring the issue of faith. It began by establishing the central antagonism between its central characters, the rationalist doctor Jack Shephard (the de facto leader -- get it?) and the faith-filled, ironically named John Locke (the namesake of the famous British empiricist whose philosophical inbred progeny was one B. F. Skinner). In regaining the use of his legs after crashing on the island, Locke was granted something of his own revelation. By way of this objective correlative, Locke and the audience had a inkling that there was something more to the island than Jack's skepticism allowed. Throw in a smoke monster, people coming back from the dead and time travel and any reasonable person starts sympathizing with Nochimson's vaginal heroism. The lure is there to wrap the antagonism up in the same generic package as all the aforementioned failed fantasy programs. Affirm faith by killing it with literalism (compare the deracinated horror of Stephen King's CGI-infested movie-adpatation of his The Shining to the dread of Stanley Kubrick's).

Seems to me that faith is both an opening and a closing. The believer must remain open to mysterious possibilities that defy the normative limits given by our best explanatory models while digging his heels in the sand and claiming his irrationally derived belief is the truth. Therefore, faith requires mystery. If the implausible is made normative, as it is so often in fantasy, there is no faith involved. Of course, the recipient (viewer, reader) must maintain a level of faith by way of the classic suspension of disbelief. Similarly, lest the believer become a mere ideologue, he must live with uncertainity, a nagging suspicion that he might be wrong (i.e., not all that different from the fantasy genre's suspension requirement).


As developed over Lost's five seasons, there's some unitary (possibly collective, if you're so disposed) force pushing the buttons, be it deterministic fate (such as Lucretius' nature of things) or a telelogical will (such as God). Jack denies it to the point of despair, eventually becoming as much of a believer as Locke in a search for salvation. (Jack goes from militant skeptic to miserable addict to setting off a nuclear warhead as an act of redemption. Now, that's a character arc!) Locke is a true fanatical acolyte, following his gut from the getgo, and only finding more reasons through which to validate his faith. He doesn't seem like an ideologue/theocrat in comparison to Ben Linus. LIke a Jerry Falwell, Ben attempts to control others through his faith, whereas Locke is willing to martyr himself. Furthermore, the island is for Locke a personal guiding force and benevolent (or, at least, trustworthy) power. If he feels the island telling him to do something, he does it. This force has a name, Jacob. And with this season's finale, he finally has a recognizable face, the same one as the hired killer, Joe, in Lynch's Mulholland Dr.


Choosing an actor from Lynch's Weirdville doesn't seem accidental, since Lost has taken a decidely Twin Peak-ish turn: with the introduction of Jacob comes his age-old, unnamed nemesis, much like the dynamic between the reformed demiurge Mike and the unrepentant BOB; both BOB and the nemesis can take the form of mortals, the former through possession, the latter by using a doppelgänger (provided the source is dead, it seems); these beings aren't omnipotent gods (maybe demi-gods, if I'm remembering my D&D Handbook correctly), because they have to obey rules not of their devising (e.g., BOB has to be invited in, the nemesis has to trick mortals into doing his dirty work); the hero-seekers of both shows, Cooper and Locke, willingly sacrifice themselves for a higher purpose. It's that last similarity that I find most interesting.


Cooper lets BOB in as a quid pro quo for the release of his beloved Annie, which is ultimately more a romantically heroic feat than an act of faith. Locke, on the other hand, gives his life because a supposed apparitional representative of the island (Jack's dead father) asks him to. That's some Old Testament, Abrahamic faith right there. From Cecil B. DeMille to the present, Hollywood fantasies with this theme have copped out by demonstratively showing such sacrifices are not in vain. Much to its writers' credit and my surprise, Lost doesn't. Instead, the show brings in Cartesian doubt. René Descartes, the founder of modern skepticism, asked how we can know that all of reality isn't some malicious demon's skullduggery, rather than the truth from an omnibenevolent God. His answer was the undoubtable cogito (the 'I' necessary in order to doubt) and a bit of undoubtedly brilliant circular reasoning. Locke's answer is that he was fulfilling his role in the nemesis' malicious scheme to do away with Jacob.

Because the rules of the island's game state that the nemesis can't kill Jacob himself (just as Ben can't kill his rival, Charles Whitmore), the former had to devise an elaborate ruse to get someone else to perform the task. Locke's belief that he was acting in accordance to his destiny -- what the island had mapped out for him -- turned out correct, but his role was as a patsy. (His whole history is laid out here.) His sacrifice was needed so that the nemesis could take his form in order to manipulate Ben into killing Jacob. As any televangelist can tell you, the fear of God is a better tool than rational bargaining for getting people to do things against their own interests. "It is your destiny" sounds more virtuous than "I wonder if you wouldn't mind committing suicide to resolve this argument I'm having." Stopping here would make the show a parable for the merits of skepticism (not an unworthy endeavor in a country dominated by creationists). However, the writers amp up the mystery at this point by having Jacob goad a doubting Ben into fulfilling the nemesis' plan. If Jacob's apparent death is part of a higher purpose, then so is Locke's. The issue of faith's value is still on the table. But, pace the theocrats, it's the skeptical challenge that gives faith its substance.

The Lost team has already avoided the major pitfall of earlier similarly themed shows by getting ABC to agree to an end (the executives had wanted them to milk it as along as possible). Once the mystery is revealed, the jig is up, so it's good that there'll be a conclusion to the narrative. Now, it's a question of whether the show will follow the unfortunate path of Battlestar Galactica, answering all the questions with a mundane deus ex machina, or if it'll keep the mystery intact while giving some closure to the human drama rooted in the mystery.

Your Pals Are Not What They Seem 1: Faith and Reason in Lost's Season 5 Finale

Posted by Charles Reece, May 24, 2009 10:32am | Post a Comment
When Twin Peaks veers into the conventions of illusionism, which pay homage to the rationalist's faith in a phallic force and properly directed will, the series loses its sense of the benign subconscious and the affirming power of femininity. In the later episodes, the seeker regresses into a stereotypical hero. Proper reason directing Cooper's will becomes the heroic focus of the action against the typical perverse will and reason of the villain. The traditional conquest of Earle -- not the desire to see -- becomes the desire of the series. -- Martha P. Nochimson, David Lynch: Wild at Heart in Hollywood, p. 93

The only thing Columbus discovered was that he was lost! -- Wyndom Earle


Since Ron Moore and colleagues sank my Battlestar, the only show I've cared about is Lost. As the former demonstrated, TV is determined by its own law of entropy, where any show gets worse in direct proportion to the length of time it's on times the structural quality (plot, characters, diegesis, etc.) that the creators initially developed. Clearly, BSG went on for about 2 years longer than the initial fund of creativity allowed. Its keg was all but tapped by the beginning of the third season. Given its tenuous beginning, Moore probably thought his show wouldn't make it much past the mini-series, hoping that he'd at least have one of those cult-celebrated shows that could've been. On the other side of the coin, TV executives don't much care about quality, but about how long they can wring some advertising dollars out of the shows they're broadcasting. As such, they are creatures of chaos, encouraging the steady dissolution of the creative order; they are, in a word, demonic. It's the nature of the beast that creators have to get in bed with these incubi to give birth to a TV show. This Faustian dialectic requires as much blind faith from the creators as it does money being thrown about by investors. Little wonder, then, why so many SF-fantasy shows are predisposed to defending faith over reason. As articles of faith in the face of overwhelming odds, they came into being as the result of big, dumb chance.


A classic example is X-Files, which burned out after the third season and whose endings justified every ludicrous theory the conspiracist Agent Mulder came up with. After a few years of this, the skepticism of Agent Scully's ratiocinations came across as implausible, or just plain dumb. Faith in something that's demonstratively true isn't really faith; it's empirical knowledge. Contrary to some interpretations, X-Files didn't really analyze the role of faith, so much as side-step it by making the supernatural natural. You'd be one stupid hobbit to doubt magic in Middle-Earth. The hero in an absurdist universe can either fight it like Agent 6 did in The Prisoner, or just embrace it like Maxwell Smart in Get Smart. On the former journey -- Kafkaesque in its structure -- lies madness, cancellation and no end to the story, much like what waits for the rationalist in the real world; on the latter, you get a better chance at a few more seasons, but, like a business going public and expanding, the product begins to feel like a cheap imitation (just look at X-Files).

Contrariwise, David Lynch and Mark Frost built the possibility for endless expansion into Twin Peaks with the mystery of Laura Palmer's murder -- what Lynch has called "the golden goose." They intended to keep it ongoing indefinitely while exploring the epiphenomenal mysteries arising from the central investigation. ABC felt that endless mystery would tax the faith of viewers, and "asked" the creators to wrap up the Laura storyline in the second season. The end of that mystery wasn't all that killed the show's élan: both Frost and Lynch went away to work on other projects, turning the reins over to a bunch of cheap Lynch clones, resulting in a whole lot of James and Lucy. It was with the return of Frost that the show began to regain some sense of direction, but more along the lines of the classic good versus evil struggle to which Nochimson alludes in the above quote. Agent Cooper now had a Moriarty, Wyndom Earle, a damsel in distress, Annie, and there was a white lodge to go along with the black one -- tropes that a Jungian once called archetypes, but are now known as clichés. Nochimson is herself a Jungian feminist who sees Cooper as a hero-seeker, a protagonist who leaves himself open to questions, tapping into the universal unconscious, rather than one who is out to conquer the Other. Openness, you see, is the province of universal femininty -- think the woman's classic coital role ('classic' should here be read as another synonym for 'cliché', or 'stereotype'). Reason is phallic, controlling, penetrating, and thusly the province of masculinity.


Despite the reductionistic men-are-from-Mars-women-from-Venus rhetoric, Nochimson's book gets it right that Lynch isn't much of an us-versus-them sort of narrator. As becomes increasingly evident from Blue Velvet to Inland Empire, all of his protagonists possess a Hermann Hesse-duality that drives the narrative more than some external battle with another. However, Cooper is his purest hero, only shown to face his dark side when Lynch returned for season 2's finale. By listening to his dreams and going with his occult intuition, Cooper might be considered a man of faith, albeit one who doesn't put all his eggs in one basket. (These eggs aren't of the hysterical kind, though.) But he was until the final episode, and against Nochimson's reading, always in control. He asked the right questions and proffered the best hypotheses again and again. I'd say, given the preternatural realm of Twin Peaks, Cooper belongs philosophically with his cohort Agent Mulder to Noam Chomsky's brand of rationalism. ("Mulder" even pops up in Twin Peaks as an FBI investigator in drag, an agent of scientifico-rationalism mocking the identity politics inherent in Nochimson's account.)


Against the bottom-feeding positivism of behaviorism that was dominant back in the 50s, Chomsky countered that unobservable mental models (the a priori, or given) were necessary to understand linguistic behavior. Scientific discovery, like language learning, is guided by models, where one has an initial theory that undergoes modification as experience dictates (I speak loosely here, so see these entries on Universal Grammar and Modularity if you're curious). If the data is consistent with the theoretical model, no change is necessary; it is, for all intents and purposes, rational knowledge. Mulder and Cooper's seemingly outlandish theories might not work in our world, but they tended to be confirmed by (were consistent with their experiences in) their own diegeses. Their faith is more analogous to David Hume believing that one billiard ball will move when struck by another, i.e., it always had in the past (as far as he knew).

Cooper had good enough evidence for believing his dreams continually tried to tell him something real, such as tangible evidence (e.g., the ring placed in his hand while in the Red Room appears in his hand once awake). In the dimestore realms of L. Ron Hubbard where Xenu really exists, Scientology becomes an inference to the best explanation. What we normally think of as religious faith, or simply faith, is taking a stand against the epistemological abyss, like Tom Cruise on Oprah's table or his martyred resistance to Matt Lauer's Socratic attacks. There are those who argue for a rational basis to religion (e.g., Alvin Plantinga), but if correct, their faith becomes more like X-Files than, say, willing to kill your boy because some voice is telling you to. No, real faith is believing that I'll get around to some point about Lost, which is coming on Page 2.

'BS' Doesn't Stand for 'Battlestar': Battlestar Galactica Finale

Posted by Charles Reece, March 22, 2009 12:44am | Post a Comment
spoiler alert.

You know how after a catastrophic accident or tragedy some religiously inclined individual looks at it as a miracle that something even worse didn't happen? Say, some burglar botches a job, not realizing the family is still home, and winds up murdering all of them except the young daughter he didn't see hiding in the closet. Afterwards, some bozo will inevitably suggest God's light must be shining down on the little girl, since she was so lucky to have survived. Maybe I'm a glass-half-empty kind of guy, but I'd say what's being conveniently ignored there is that her entire family was slaughtered, indicating there ain't anything moral giving much of a shit about her wellbeing. Or, if you don't like hypotheticals, take the Hulkster's use of Divine Intervention to comfort his son, Nick, during the latter's stay in jail for a drunken crash that rendered his "best friend" and passenger, John Graziano, a tomato:

Well, I don't know what type of person John was or what he did to get himself in this situation. I know he was pretty aggressive and used yell at people and used to do stuff. And for some reason God laid some heavy shit on that kid.  I don't know what he was into .... John was a negative person.

Forsooth, God's Will is deep and mysterious! So say we all! Thus, how might the 30 or so thousand survivors of Caprica find a little bit of meaning in their civiliation's destruction at the hands of the Cylons? Well, by realizing it's all part of God's plan (that is, the one, true God, not "the gods" the humans always swear by). See, with old Yahweh not being much of a utilitarian, it was necessary to kill so many to get a few to Earth, as a way to help our ancestors along in their development.  This is the Divine Scenarist's way of getting humanity to realize its full potential as what Caprica 6 refers to as another iteration of the civilization that gets too big for its britches and will destroy itself with nukes.

Continue reading...