Friday, May 22, 2009

Star Trek 2009:It's all about the hitting

I've been rewatching the original series of Star Trek in the week since I saw the latest Star Trek film and I'm amazed by how uncannily the new film captures the spirit of this 1960s television show. I've been keeping a tally sheet next to my recliner and I make a little tick every time someone gets socked in the face in the original series. It happens a lot. At least once per episode and sometimes five or six times.

True to its source, the new movie has lots of fist fights. Young Spock fights Vulcan bullies ala Ralphie in A Christmas Story (if Ralphie would have had green blood on his lips) and young Kirk fights everyone else. For all the splashy effects, sexy new actors and summer movie gloss, the real reason that Star Trek is connecting with audiences in 2009 is that it emotionally uncomplicated, good versus evil stuff and lots of people punching each other. Watchmen and the Dark Knight are examples of where scifi/fantasy films have gone lately and they've gotten very dark, very sticky, and very violent. People punch each other and they leave teeth in countertops and they remove arms with saws. It's like what happened to TV after the X-files: all the darkness, blood and angst and none of the subversive politics and inherent goodness of ordinary people just trying to do their jobs that made the darkness bearable. It's all extraordinary people killing people in extraordinary ways and then feeling really bad about it in place of emotional development or character growth.

When Kirk gives the order to destroy his enemy at the end of this new movie, he gives the bad guy a chance to surrender and he doesn't feel too bent out of shape that the guy didn't take him up on the offer. What would Wolverine do in that situation? The new Doctor Who? Captain Picard? You can bet they'd milk it for all the drama possible. Kirk just leans in his chair, in that special way of sitting that Kirk has that is a really very studied kind of lazy, and gives the order to fire. So much of this movie is waiting for Kirk to get into that chair, all the bumps and snags along the way. You are waiting for Kirk and Spock to be friends as well. If there is one element missing here it is that odd chumminess that those two had. We are dealing with alternate realities, a time line where Kirk had no father and Spock has big daddy issues as well. Hence Kirk is just that snot nosed hot shot who defeated Spock's Kobiashi Maru program in Spock's eyes and Spock is just a pointy-eared bureaucrat to Kirk. All that starts to change, weirdly enough, when it comes out that this new Spock is sleeping with this new Uhera. Any Kirk, from any time line has to respect that.

One thing I never really noticed the first half dozen times I watched the original series is how flirty Kirk and Spock are with each other. There are lots of scenes where they remind me of the love/hate relationships between couples in screwball comedies and it seems that part of the tension between Spock and McCoy comes from jealousy of Spock's relationship with Kirk. In The Enemy Within there is a scene where Kirk and Spock are in Kirk's quarters and he's shirtless. The whole conversation has this very awkward, stilted feeling, and they look like they might start to make out at any second. How I missed this before, especially given that there is a vast genre of fan fiction dedicated to this very point, is beyond me.

This new film has really first rate effects, a passable script, and for a Star Trek product, a breakneck pacing. In this respect too it is reminiscent of the original series. Though the effects look bad and campy, now, you have to remember that for their day they were considered very good and I'm really appreciating how spare and clean those old episodes were. You get in, set up the plot, complicate it a bit and get out. No two and three and four parters necessary. This new movie is tight in that same way. While J. J. Abrahams does draw a page or two from the George Lucas: If One Waterfall is Good than Seven is Better book of filmmaking, at least the story is relatively uncluttered. Mostly it's about these characters, solving a problem, having an adventure and saving the Universe. What's not to love?


supercublogger said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
supercublogger said...

Hi Jenny.

I didn't read this post thru, since I haven't seen the new trek. But I'm a big fan of the original series.

I have to totally disagree with your view about seeing any sexual connatations in the relations of kirk, spock, mccoy.

It's camaraderie you see, not sexual tension. With all due respect, women often fail to acknowledge this concept in movies, TV or literature.

Trust me, there was no latent homosexual chemistry written into the characters, or storyline in the original trek.

The common reply to my comment will probably warrant the ubiquitous, 'Homophobe!" from the masses. Well, be that as it may, that's the ludicrous world we live in now, where disagreement equals something entirely different and personal, rather than just a disagreement of views. Oh well. I can't waste my time worrying about that. I have crackers to clean out of my bed.

But before I do that, let me tell you a story: In Japan, the samurai was considered to be the baddest dudes on the block, supremo machismo, the most manly men ;)

Yet, they loved men. Women were for physical act of love: sex. Fellow men were for heartfelt love. Not physical love, but brotherly love, the love of mates, of literature, poetry, warring and fighting. Love of nature. The love of life. Men shared these joys with other men, not with women. Women were for making love TO. And marrying for love is a relatively new concept in human history. Glorious camaraderie is what you see in that scene, not sexual tension. Don't discolor it with the hues of modern sex obsessed America.

You're a very observant fan of classic movies with a great mind for the subtle, don't let modern revisionism cloud it to see underlying messages where they don't exist. I've met several of the original writers of the series, and they've never hinted at anything like a latent sexual chemistry between the men. Never. And we've had discussions on just about every topic imaginable concerning the characters and their backstories, motives, etc.

It's camaraderie, and it's in every well written male bonding film or story that understands what man is about. If it's not, then the writer doesn't understand men.

I wrote a piece at Big Hollywood on male so-called 'buddy films' and some thoughts on how women view them, focusing on the great George Stevens' film Gunga Din:

Navigating the Gender Pass with Gunga DinCheck it out.

Thanks for the time and hope you don't take my criticisms personally. After all, that would be a very male thing to do. ;)


supercublogger said...

I've tried to post this 5 times. Weird.

Jennythenipper said...


I'm not going to call you a homophobe, I just happen to disagree. I don't necessarily think that something has to be intentionally written into a scene for it to exist. I am aware that in the Trek Universe the writer's word is law, but that doesn't mean that actors don't project certain emotions, sometimes unwittingly or that a scene's blocking and staging can't effect the way its perceived.

It's interesting that in the scene that I mentioned from The Enemy Within, Kirk comes into his quarters and Yeoman Rand is there. She's doing something that appears technical (some bit of stage business swapping computer discs) and he speaks to her somewhat gruffly and she leaves. This is the the rational Kirk. The Kirk who finds feminine intrusion to his inner sanctum, annoying. Then Kirk takes his shirt off and Spock arrives to find out why his alter ego took brandy from Mccoy's bar.

The whole episode deals with the topic of the inner animal, repressed lusts and desires. Why make the choice to have Kirk take his shirt off in that scene? To give the ladies viewing at home a thrill I'm sure. But might there be another reason? Why bring in Spock at that moment? And what about the palpable awkardness of their conversation? Later in the episode is it his friendship with Spock that allows Kirk to piece together the mystery and to survive the ordeal of having split his personality. Just maybe that scene is saying that stripped of desire and lust, there is still attraction between two people--a mental attraction. The brain being the most powerful of sex organs.

I'm not sex obsessed (Ok well, I probably am, but then so are most people, even those walking around in the good old early 1960s), I'm just making a straight-forward reading of the plot, trying to understand the choices that were made in staging that scene.

Kirk and Spock are two of my favorite all-time characters. I think part of what makes them lovable is the complexity of their relationship. I think I really do understand the spirit of camaraderie. It's true that the slash genre is generated almost entirely by heterosexual women, but I don't think that's a mass failure to understand camaraderie. That's a natural impulse akin to the fact that most men can't seem to be able to resist the idea of two women kissing or fighting. As Spock would say, "fascinating."

Jennythenipper said...

I just read your article on Gunga Din. No surprise that's one of my favorites as well. Thanks for linking to it. I really enjoyed it. I completely agree that a lot of women love that movie and they almost universally hate Joan Fontaine's character. I think it's appeal to me is two-fold: the obvious eye candy parts that you mentioned and the joyful, childlike, uncomplicated, innocent tone to the movie that Joan Fontaine's character threatens to destroy. It is the same spirit as exists in Star Trek and similar to what is in the new Trek movie. I think audiences are responding to it because as you say it is so terribly absent from our culture nowadays.

I adore this genre of movies as well. My all-time favorite film is Lawrence of Arabia. Now that is a bit more complex because there actually was a homoerotic subtext deliberately written into the film. And that's part of what I love about it, but mostly it's the friendship. And again it's something women are capable of getting because women are certainly capable of having those kinds of friendships.

When I was in college, my housemates and I all lived a very chummy life of camaraderie. As much as the men in our lives liked to imagine it was all pillow fights in lingerie, it was really a lot of sitting around reading books to one another, listening to music and discussing big, important ideas. Oh and dishing on boys. One of my roommates had a birthday and we didn't really have the cash to buy her anything so my other roommate and I performed a scene from Lawrence of Arabia for her. It was the scene where Ali burns Lawrence's clothes and tells him he is free to choose his own name. It is a scene about your friends becoming your family, about choosing your own destiny and about the appeal of big open spaces where you can start over. It's really the opposite of Cheers. The place where nobody knows your name and you are free to give your name any meaning you like.

Perhaps the rejection of Joan Fontaine's character by women is the rejection of the idea that marriage has to mean settling down and selling tea. Hollywood movies were great purveyors of the radical idea that men and women could not only be equals in marriage but that they could have fun in the process. Look at the Thin Man movies. Look at the real life example of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard that so captured the public imagination at the time. Joan Fontaine's only choice really, if she wanted to be a modern woman in this sense was to do like Marlene Dietrich's character does at the end of Morocco and follow her man off into the distant horizon on one crazy adventure after another.

supercublogger said...

Whoa, these are long replies! Let me catch my breath.

It's true that the slash genre is generated almost entirely by heterosexual women, but I don't think that's a mass failure to understand camaraderie. That's a natural impulse akin to the fact that most men can't seem to be able to resist the idea of two women kissing or fighting. I don't understand what you mean here. Slash genre? Horror? Two women kissing or fighting? I can resist it, particularly the fighting. Believe me, I have 3 sisters, women fighting? I've seen enough to last a lifetime. ;)

Oh sure, Lawrence is a very obvious example of T.E.'s proclivities in that area. Not to mention the incident of the Turkish officer and what 'that general did to Allawrence" Plays a major part in the theme of isolation.

But I still think a shirt off is quite common in 60s TV, moreso today. Cary had his shirt off as did Dougie and Vic in Gunga Din. Is that a subtext of the sexual animal? I don't think so.

But, it's art. So, audiences are free to see what they want. I'm just saying, I think you're seeing things. ;)
And I hate to see my beloved characters reinterpreted in ways I don't particularly think they were intended to be. Such as homoerotic tension in Trek. We've got so many bloody metro males in our culture now, we don't need Kirk, Spock and McCoy, Passion, Intellect, and Humanity turned into Gays in Space, not that there's anything wrong with that. ;)

It's like Don Seagal's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which was for decades, ever since it came out, been interpreted as a direct reference to the Red Scare and communism. Bosh! Seagle himself said it's nonsense. He simply wanted to make a monster movie without a monster. And he did. But film scholars and critics of the film misinterpreted it and draped a cultural blanket over the story, reinterpreting the bumps in their own way. It's fine and fun sometimes, but it's not what the director/writers intended. So, it's really just a entertaining exercise. David Lynch loves audiences to do that with his films. But, Stevens, like Ford and Hawks hated that stuff and on more than one occasion were seen and heard to berate film scholars, very enjoyably, I might add, who questioned them on the subtexts of their stories.

But it's all in the eye of the beholder.

let me hit the publish button here before i forget..

supercublogger said...

yes, I'm sure women are fully capable of camaraderie, that's not what I'm saying. I'm saying they often don't understand men's version of it.

There are plenty of sexual games boys play which does not belie an underlying bisexual or homosexual nature. It's simply goofing around, being a boy. Laughing at farts. etc. I'm not saying Kirk and Spock were being boys, i have to watch the scene to be sure what you're talking about exactly, but i'm sure whatever awkwardness is in the scene can be explained in other ways. I'll take a look. Enemy Within? Wait, isn't that when Kirk is possessed by the female persona of a former lover? That would explain it all wouldn't it? I'm not sure if that's the episode, but he does get taken over, in the last episode of the series, by a former lover's soul. Switched, so to speak. But I don't think that was called Enemy Within.

The series was groundbreaking. If they were not afraid to show the first interracial kiss on prime time television, then showing a sexual tension between two male characters would be a breeze, easy peasy.

Again, let me take a look at the scene, so we're on the same page here.

Thanks for your insight.

Oh, btw, why did you pick that particular scene from Lawrence? Then again, I think I know why.

Jennythenipper said...

"Two women kissing or fighting? I can resist it, particularly the fighting. Believe me, I have 3 sisters, women fighting? I've seen enough to last a lifetime. ;)"

ha! Well that explains a lot. (I mean that in a good way).

I'm not saying anything particularly new when I imply that men often enjoy a good catfight now and again.

The Enemy Within is the episode in which the transporter goes haywire and splits Kirk into two people, one who has all the animal passions: lust and aggression and the other who is pure reason. The reasonable Kirk finds himself unable to make decisions without the "bad" Kirk. Fascinating.

Yeah, I'm aware of the shirtless-ness in Gunga Din. It is slightly less gratuitous than that particular example in Star Trek though. There is a practical reason Kirk needs to change his shirt on camera at that moment because the different shirts are the primary way in which the audience will be able to tell the difference between "good" Kirk and "bad" Kirk.

I'm definitely guilty of over-contextualizing or looking for subtext in stuff. I read a really wonderful interpretation of the subtext in Hawks' Bringing Up Baby that once read, I couldn't "unthink" every time I watch certain scenes in that movie. Hawks would be the first to shout "balderdash!" But you have to remember that movies are, more than most art forms, a group effort. It's not just the director. Bringing Up baby was based on a short story written a decade earlier. The screenplay was updated by some of Hollywood's most talented writers and there was a great deal of ad-libbing in the dialog on the part of the actors.

"It's like Don Seagal's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which was for decades, ever since it came out, been interpreted as a direct reference to the Red Scare and communism. Bosh! Seagle himself said it's nonsense."

The great thing about Body Snatchers is that it works in so many contexts. The film always seems to be particularly salient for whatever time period its in. Universal classics are like that. And those things which were intentionally written about the Red Scare (Arthur Miller's Crucible, for example and Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront) have resonance in our times as well. They are well-written stories that have universal appeal and fundamental truths.

supercublogger said...

Uh, no! Don't say that.

Were you a psych major or minor in college by any chance?

Never assume. My sisters were long gone before I even hit teens. Huge age difference, so I doubt it explains even a little bit, let alone a lot! (oh, no, now you might say that the fact that they were gone explains me! Haha.

oh, boy. I'd better quit while I'm behind.

Suffice to say, I disagree with your interpretation about Trek. I'll leave it at that.

Live long and prosper.