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Remembering the Alamo: the Power of Myth in Cinema

The other day I got a chance to revisit John Wayne’s epic war film The Alamo.  As one can assume from the title, the film depicts the events surrounding the 1836 Battle of the Alamo, whose legacy served to inspire popular support for the ongoing independence movement led by the white American colonists living in what was then Mexican territory.  It would be an understatement to say that the film does not strive for historical accuracy.  Rather it focuses more on the mythical nostalgia that has developed among the white Texan population since the battle (and persists to this day); fervently espousing a message of freedom and republicanism over tyrannical oppression as a likely allegory to the Cold War struggle taking place during the film’s release in 1960.

In Gunfighter Nation, historian Richard Slotkin defines myths as “stories drawn from a society’s history that have acquired through persistent usage the power of symbolizing that society’s ideology and of dramatizing its moral consciousness” (p. 5).  Within the history of Western expansionism, the Alamo stands as a hallmark of American fortitude, where the legacy of the event has all but displaced any concern for veracity by its admirers.  This is the sentiment on which John Wayne builds his tale of The Alamo, occurring chiefly within the framework of the Western genre that his own quasi-mythical persona helped create in American culture.  The message that Wayne is adamant to reverberate throughout the film is the idea of nostalgia.  As evident by how the plot begins and mounts its climax with Sam Houston prophetically commenting on the need for future generations to remember and uphold what is being done in 1836, to keep it in their hearts as the life of Texas.

Although the film’s setting is in Texas, depicting a Texan struggle for freedom from oppression, John Wayne’s constant reminiscing about republicanism—a clear attempt to mimic his perceived Jeffersonian ideal of democracy—transforms the entire narrative into a classic tale of American virtue relatable to all red-blooded patriots.  It doesn’t take much to realize that Wayne’s Davy Crockett is not meant to be an accurate representation of his historical namesake, but an emblematic stand-in for Wayne’s personal principles (as seen by the dialogues his Crockett gives, where the lines often closely match Wayne’s 1977 patriotic oration America: Why I Love Her).

This is best seen in the first exchange between Colonel William Travis and Davy Crockett, where Crockett proclaims, “Republic, I like the sound of that word.  It means that people can live free, talk free, go or come, buy or sell, be drunk or sober, however they choose.  Some words give you a feeling.  Republic is one of those words that make me tight in the throat.”  Of course, the irony that Texas is being freed by slaveholding Americans is absent from Wayne’s proclamation.  Instead, he focuses on the myth that Americans (in particular white Southerners) heralded the true spirit of the Texan cause: freedom.  This is vital in establishing the message that we are viewing a battle between right and wrong, and since an independent Texas is presented as the land of opportunity, hope, and future, all who stand against it can only be on the side of despair and tyranny.  The essential myth Wayne accomplishes here is the substitution of frontier Texas into contemporary America’s struggle against the evils of the world.

The film itself acknowledges its affirmation of myth over fact in a telling scene in which Crockett reads out a forged letter he had written under Santa Anna’s name, urging the American men to leave Texas at once.  The pompous tone of the letter causes Crockett’s men to see it as a clear attempt of intimidation, and as men they are obligated to respond harshly to such antics.  Crockett does immediately admit that he in fact wrote the letter, but justified it on the basis that its contents were in line with what Santa Anna might have written.  Nevertheless, the men are so agitated at the possibility of Santa Anna addressing them so self-righteously that they readily take up the Texan cause for freedom and independence as their own.  Never mind that the letter was a fake, created and existing solely in Crockett’s imagination.  Moreover, no man present bothers to question how Crockett, a native of Tennessee, whose knowledge of Santa Anna stems solely from hearsay, could possibly know what sort of message Santa Anna would give to these Americans.  And no one cares, because the reasoning behind established myth “is metaphorical and suggestive rather than logical and analytical” (Slotkin, p. 6).

The Alamo is a film that needs to be analyzed through the time it was made in order to fully grasp its underlying theme.  In 1960, the United States was engaged deep within the Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union, a conflict which to most Americans stood as the absolute battle between liberty and tyranny.  Of course, in 1960, America had little idea of how the conflict would eventually unfold in the next three decades, thus it became a dire priority to raise American consciousness against the forces of oppression on the other side of the world.  John Wayne, being a staunch anti-Communist, anti-Leftist patriot, creates a historical narrative that serves as a helpful analogy for the American people to grasp how the fight against tyrants is an American virtue that reaches deep into the country’s roots.

For Wayne, promoting such a message could also have been an attempt to atone for his failure to serve in World War II, an inconvenient truth for a man who built his career on portraying brave patriots who answered the call of duty for their country.  In reality, the fact still remains that John Wayne could only live up to his image in make-believe movies, never in real life, which perhaps fostered much of his simplistic dialogue promoting war against perceived tyranny.  The opening scene of The Alamo starts with a harsh condemnation of Santa Anna as a malicious dictator, determined to “crush all who oppose his tyrannical rule.”  Just as the Cold War narrative between the Unites States and Soviet Union was simple, so is the narrative between Santa Anna’s Mexico and the American-Texan forces in 1836–it is simply a fight between right and wrong.

Little background information is given about any of the major characters involved in the fight for Texan independence.  Nor is there much said about why a large population of white Americans are living in Mexico to begin with, or how they are specifically being oppressed by their adopted country.  Crockett and his men are the only white settlers shown actually immigrating to Texas, and the only background on Crockett is that he was in Congress before becoming a raccoon-hat wearing adventurer on the frontier.  Although his time in Congress is portrayed more as a mundane series in his life, rather than having been a worthwhile endeavor on his part (Crockett’s negativity towards policymakers is likely a reflection of Wayne’s own frustration with contemporary politicians who are not doing enough to combat the menace of the Soviet Union).

It also does not take much to see that Santa Anna is meant to be a representation of the archetypal Soviet dictator—though perhaps not so much on par with a Stalinist megalomaniac, as a boorish Khrushchev autocrat.  As a result, John Wayne is attempting to blend the urgent threat of the present with a treacherous (yet, ultimately defeated) enemy of the past; hence, Crockett’s nostalgic musing about the state of his mind right before a noble, though hopeless, battle as “Not thinking; just remembering.” Yes, a battle may be lost, but the final outcome has always been victorious for those who choose the right path; the war will still be won in the end.

John Wayne’s The Alamo heavily orientates around the notion of cultural nostalgia, and how this looking towards the past serves to foster a positive consciousness towards the future.  Wayne does not care to provide a reliable history lesson to his viewers, however.  Instead he provides a needed myth that retells a known story the way he believes it ought to have happened, and ought to be seen.  In that sense, he is foreshadowing the lines that will be uttered in one of his better cinematic works, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “This is the West, sir.  When the Legend becomes fact, print the legend.”  The Alamo is the legend, not just to Texas but all freedom loving Republics (i.e. America as a whole), and for John Wayne, if it is to be remembered at all, it better be done the right way–his way.

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Darwin’s Use of Natural Selection, and Metaphors in Science

From its initial publication on November 24th, 1859, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species revolutionized the scientific field through its presentation of evolutionary theory as the biological process capable of accounting for the diversity of life observed in the world.  And the key means by which Darwin proposed evolution to be possible was a mechanism he called natural selection.

From the start, controversy arose against Darwin’s strictly naturalistic explanation for the emergence of new species, and opposition formed swiftly to denounce evolution by natural selection as an insufficient theory that is unscientific in its analysis.  Most of the early opposition was religious in nature, but a more legitimate note of dissent came from Darwin’s own colleague Alfred Russel Wallace, who criticized Darwin’s choice of diction in referring to the evolutionary process by the term natural selection as misleading to the general public, because it needlessly implied a selector in the process.  Darwin countered Wallace’s objection by making the case that, for explanatory purposes, natural selection served as a sufficient term as it gives people a descriptive (albeit metaphorical) idea of how the wholly naturalistic phenomenon operates in comparison to the widely familiar practice of artificial selection.

Wallace himself was a proponent of evolution (often referred to as its co-discoverer along with Darwin), and was by no means opposed to the idea of natural selection.  He simply preferred the phrase “survival of the fittest” as a much better alternate to natural selection, arguing:

Natural Selection is, when understood, so necessary and self-evident a principle, that it is a pity it should be in any way obscured; and it therefore seems to me that the free use of “survival of the fittest,” which is a compact and accurate definition of it, would tend much to its being more widely accepted, and prevent it being so much misrepresented and misunderstood.[1]

Wallace thought that among the scientists in the field, who understood their work, the use of natural selection was not an issue, but among those who did not understand evolution and its process, the metaphor would fail to convey Darwin’s true meaning.  Undoubtedly aware of the attacks his and Darwin’s theory was already being subjected to, Wallace must have been worried that confusing people about the function of natural selection with metaphorical language would only serve to move skeptical minds further away from embracing evolutionary theory.

Darwin responded by agreeing that natural selection can be misleading to some, and even decided to incorporate “survival of the fittest” alongside natural selection as a compromise to Wallace in subsequent editions of On the Origin of Species.  But Darwin also commented how through the continued use of natural selection, his intended meaning will become more widespread, and weaken the sort of objections Wallace made.[2]  Despite these concessions on the issue, Darwin remained largely dismissive of Wallace’s concern, even bluntly responding that Wallace overstated the case for the opposition, and implied that certain individuals will misinterpret any term simply because they are too keen on scrutinizing over matters that are trivial to the average person.[2]

Darwin introduced the concept of descent through modification (i.e. evolution) in Chapter I of On the Origin of Species by drawing parallels to the artificial selection observed in animal domestication[3], something most of his readers would have been familiar with at the time.  He does this as a means of easing his audience into his argument in Chapter IV, where he finally makes his case for natural selection.  The confusion Wallace referred to can be argued here by Darwin’s parallel between artificial and natural selection, and his stating how, “this preservations of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variation, I call Natural Selection,”[4] because it indicates the presence of intelligent oversight (as is the case for artificial selection), when in reality no such implication need be made for the process to function.  Though in his exchange with Wallace, Darwin appeared to be shrugging the matter off as a nonissue, he nevertheless thought it important to both defend his use of natural selection, and clear up any confusion about his intent in later editions of the book:  “It is difficult to avoid personifying the word Nature; but I mean by Nature, only the aggregate action and product of many natural laws, and by laws the sequence of events as ascertained by us. With a little familiarity such superficial objections will be forgotten.”[5]  Thereby reiterating his confidence that by continually familiarizing the public with his true intended meaning for natural selection, the term can be salvaged and the misguided dissent will disappear.

Charles Darwin insisted that metaphorical terms are needed in science for the sake of expressing an idea, and that it is the general descriptive quality that ought to be focused on by readers, not so much the personification of abstract concepts.  For example, when one says that particles are physically attracted to one another, few actual think there is some sort of conscious intimacy taking place between the consciousness-devoid matter.  Same goes with the description that gravity pushes down on a table, in that nobody would claim that the result caused by the force is driven by a self-awareness to hold on to the object.  In the case of natural selection, while in a literal sense a misnomer, it is nevertheless an apt description of the mechanism taking place.

Despite what is often asserted within anti-Darwinian circles, evolution by natural selection is actually not a completely random phenomenon, in that there does occur a mode of selection.  To explain it simply:  Different variants exist among and within different species, exhibiting different traits; some of them will be better adapted to a given environment, thus they will better survive in said environment, leaving more descendants with the same beneficial traits than the less adapted species.  It is blind, unguided, and in the long-run goalless, but also not really random, in that nature itself non-randomly provides the setting in which the various random traits will either flourish or flounder.  Thus, although the selector is an unintelligent and unaware agent, it is a selector nonetheless; a natural selector.  Meaning that Darwin’s use of natural selection as a metaphorical expression to describe the mechanism of evolutionary theory is a fitting one, and an entirely justifiable one.

Natural selection, as a term, is metaphorical only in the broad sense, but very descriptive in light of the proper understanding of the science involved in its function.  Darwin was right to point out that, given enough promotion, a phrase will begin to take on the definition popularly assigned to it even among the most stubborn minds.  Originally, the Big Bang was coined as a dismissive mockery of the theory, and is neither accurate not descriptive, but it has such wide use that objections have been thoroughly forgotten, and nobody emphasizes its metaphorical implications.  This leads into the main point, and it is one that Darwin himself indirectly made to Wallace, how for those who are opposed to the implications of evolution no term or explanation will be justifiable, and misconstruing natural selection is a means by which to either conform the concept to their personal liking or discredit it as insufficient.  The same would happen with “survival of the fittest,” or any other alternative phrase that could be proposed.  And it is through the merit of its work that science is judged, not by its ability to accommodate to the ignorance of its detractors.

 

[1] Francis Darwin and A. C. Seward, eds., More Letters of Charles Darwin:  A record of his work in a series of hitherto unpublished letters (London: John Murray, 1903. Vol. 1.), 270.

[2] Francis Darwin and A. C. Seward, eds., More Letters of Charles Darwin:  A record of his work in a series of hitherto unpublished letters (London: John Murray, 1903. Vol. 1), 272.

[3] Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species ed. James Secord (Oxford: University Press, 2008), 111.

[4] Darwin, Origin of Species, 141.

[5] Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species, 6th edition (London: John Murray, 1872), 63.

James Frey: A Lesson of Honesty in Writing

In 2003, James Frey published a widely acclaimed memoir, titled A Million Little Pieces, about his experiences as a young addict struggling to rehabilitate his life back to sobriety.  It is a dark and engaging account of the depth to which a person can fall as his inner demons–in this case, manifesting externally in the form of crack and booze–brings him to a crossroads in which the next handful of decisions could literary be the determining factor between life or death.

Needless to say, the reading public responded very well to the book, and Frey was heralded not just as a great writer and storyteller, but as somewhat of a hero for those who have been affected by the horrors of addiction (either personally, or vicariously), for whom he served as an eloquent communicator to the general public on how to emphasize with their less-than-sober counterparts in society.

As time went by, praise and attention continued to grow, and Frey’s star shined bright enough to even warrant attention from Oprah Winfrey’s coveted Book Club (surely, the hallmark of any author serious about actually selling her or his book in the industry).  Around this same time, however, a different sort of attention was also creeping up and casting a more accusatory shadow over Frey’s spotlight.  Eventually, after much push and pull, and pontificating about integrity and trust, it was revealed that a large chunk of the details concerning Frey’s lived experiences in the book, were not lived experiences at all.  Although we don’t know exactly to what extend things have been fabricated in the faux-memoir, we do know that just about every event detailed that ought to be verifiable (i.e. police records, specific people and interactions, etc.) simply aren’t.  So much so, that the book nowadays sits in the fiction section of your local bookstore, and serves as a case in point of a literary forgery.

Despite all the controversy, it needs to be said that James Frey is actually a decent writer, and A Million Little Pieces is not a badly written book, and given his knack for storytelling he has gone on to write several subsequent works that are equally engaging and enjoyable (though, since the incident, he has wisely kept both feet squarely within the realm of fiction; showing that a person truly can learn something from a degree of public shame).  Thus, the question I’m more interested in concerning this entire mess isn’t really about Frey’s stand alone role in this matter, but rests more on the issue regarding the extend to which the writing world (writ large) has a professional obligation to maintain honesty with its readers?

The question should be an easy one on first sight, for who would say out loud that writers need to be free to unabashedly lie to their audience?  This is especially true for writers whose prose rests in the realm of non-fiction.  Yet, although certainly true, I think just repeating a platitude on this matter does little to really convey the seriousness of an incident like this.

Sticking with the example at hand, I read Frey’s book after the drama had already unfolded, and was never in doubt about the faulty veracity of its claims as one might have been if they came to the work under the ruse of it being an honest memoir of a person’s private struggles.  I can see how someone who had become emotionally invested in the story of the flawed-yet-persistent person fighting to gain back some semblance of meaning and sanity in his chaotic life, would have felt more than a little betrayed on hearing that this “real” person was a mere sensationalized character in one authors hopeful attempt at circumnavigating through the competitive hoops of the publishing world.  They felt duped, and rightfully so, because in a very clear way they were.  And this one experience could very well sour the public and harden a cynical attitude towards the apparently appalling lack of a rigorous vetting process on the hands of publishers more concerned with making a buck of off people’s empathy, then researching on whether the “real-life” story they’re selling is in fact bunk.

This is where the responsibility lies, in my opinion.  The literary world as a whole has an obligation to at the very least accurately promote the product they are selling.  And to do so prior to publication, not post-public outcry, which (let’s be honest) will still push sales by virtue of secondhand curiosity alone.  I accept that I’m naive in my thinking to expect a business to prioritize integrity and honesty over financial imperatives, but seeing as how–if I’m inclined to share an opinion on the matter–I feel obligated it be an honest one; be it idealist, if it must.

The Problem with The Walking Dead: A Case of Bad Storytelling

The Walking Dead TV show (henceforth to be referred to as TWD in this post for the sake of preserving valuable time and endangered cybertrees) has been going on for eight seasons now, with potentially many more seasons to follow in the years to come.  The original source material, The Walking Dead graphic novels, have also been in publication for close to fifteen years, so there’s little reason to think that the show’s writers will run out of material or story arcs anytime soon.  I’m aware that writing this criticism of the show will be seen as somewhat pointless by some readers as an ever greater portion of TWD’s fan base has steadily been voicing their displeasure with the direction, pacing, and overall content that the show has been putting out for the better part of (at least) the last four seasons or so.

Usual complaints range from too many boring filler episodes that are hardly necessary for the amount of time spent on them (i.e. we really don’t need to see flashbacks of secondary characters wandering through the woods before they met up with the main cast, especially if we already got the jist of it through previous dialogues exchanged between the characters; we have imaginations with which we can piece spoken/written narratives together, it’s one reason why books still exist, after all).  Contrived moral dilemmas that seem out of place in the reality of the world the characters inhabit (i.e. Morgan’s infuriatingly laughable pacifist stance when it comes to even killing literal undead monsters that feed on the flesh of the very people he considers his friends and loved ones; it is not a noble position to be respected, it is just stupid, even for a guy that went–still is[?]–crazy).  The introduction of characters that had no great impact in the overall plot despite heavy buildup (i.e. the Terminus crew of anally-retentive cannibals), or whose presence/nature defy belief (i.e. the Trash People of season seven, who in the mere 2-3 years since the zombie apocalypse have forgotten how to speak in complete sentences, despite being fully grown adults who presumably went through a school system and had some semblance of a regular life prior to the relatively recent fall of civilization).  And, of course, the fact that the show is hardly even about walkers/zombies anymore, who serve largely as a background piece to all the issues discussed above.

I see all these complaints, and largely agree with them.  Many more invested writers have done a great job giving full analyses on these issues (and many more), and I see no point in harping on them further than I already have.  What I want to discuss here is a criticism that I personally haven’t come across all that much, and that is that TWD suffers, and will continue to suffer, from a key flaw repeated in most bad storytelling: lack of optimistic direction for the characters/story itself.

The dystopian concept of a hopeless world isn’t new, and has been used for a longtime in fiction.  However, what separates a well-written dystopian story from a bad one is that even in a hopeless environment the reader/viewer is given some notion that the protagonists can have some kind of ultimate triumph over the hopelessness that plagues them.  That doesn’t mean that a happy ending has to be delivered at the story’s resolution (in many powerful cases, it’s not), but if there is no semblance of any kind of optimism that readers/viewers can get emotionally invested in during the progression of the plot, what exactly is the point to continue to care about where the character/story is heading?

Within the reality of TWD, everyone–and I do mean, every single person on the planet–is infected with the zombie virus that will be triggered once s/he dies, regardless of whether s/he came in contact with a zombie.  As of the moment of this writing, the plot has given no indication that there’s any chance of a cure to this ultimate fate for the characters (the first’s season hinted that there isn’t).  Nor is there any attempt by the characters to investigate the possibility of such a cure (notwithstanding Eugene’s scientist charade, which the main cast was never really dedicated in pursuing besides very briefly, and then mostly as a means of moving the plot setting out of Georgia).  So, the original dilemma of the show were the zombies, and since we do not, and seemingly cannot, resolve that dilemma, ever, the next dilemma for us (the viewers) to be invested in is the protagonists’ continued survival in this hopeless world.  The problem is that, if the dilemma is learning to survive in a world where “zombie-state” is the inevitable fate for everyone, we’ve already seen the fully extend of how the characters would cope with this reality, and one would argue repeatedly so in the course of the last seven seasons.  So what’s left to see?  What is the ultimate payoff that they deliver to the viewer from here?  Are they going to learn how to fortify themselves from the undead threat better than we have already seen them do in Alexandria?  Seems unlikely.

The repeated attempts to introduce new villainous characters to serve as antagonists to the main characters each and every season is also redundant in the grand scheme of things.  At the moment, the main villain is Negan.  I’m supposed to care if Negan’s group (the antagonists) defeats Rick’s group (the protagonists).  But let’s say the so-called unthinkable happens, and Negan does win the war against Rick’s group.  In the end, Negan is still human, and Negan will eventually die (even if just from old age), and then Negan will be just another mindless zombie in a world littered with equally mindless zombies.  Again I ask, what ultimately is the point?  What is the payoff for us to get emotionally invested in as viewers?  Because I really don’t see one.  Furthermore, I would argue the writers of the show (and, yes, I’d put the graphic novels in this same boat) have failed to give us much to really care about anymore at this point.

I know there are fan theories online about how maybe those born after the zombie outbreak (like Rick’s daughter Judith) might be immune to its effects, but short of the show/plot actually confirming this it remains mere fan speculation.  Maybe it will be the note that the show finally ends on to give us a bit of needed optimism for this world’s fate of humanity, but at this point, given how there has been no buildup to any such dramatic revelation, I wouldn’t be surprised if such a plot point was met with a resounding “meh” from the viewers that haven’t already moved on by then.

As much as I hate admitting it given how much I enjoyed this show at one point, I have to be honest that The Walking Dead has given me no real reason to care about what happens from here on out, no reason to be emotionally invested in its continued plot development, and therefore no reason to continue to invest my time in it.

“One among the stars…”

13.7 billion years traveled.

100 billion galaxies crossed.

4.5 billion years endured.

170 million generations survived.

 

Crossed a distance beyond innumerable stars…

Endured dangers of every imaginable kind…

Until it was passed down to a…

…7 billion…

…billion…

…billion…

…string of chemical bonds.

 

And each atom in this bond…

is unique in its own regard…

so there isn’t a part of you that makes up who you are…

that doesn’t speak to your birthright among the stars.

“Sitting as I’m reclined to sit…”

Sitting as I’m reclined to sit, to watch the sages of my age

Rivet us with tales of worry ’bout the happenings of the day.

 

The scorn rises from the cynics lips; lisping laments for the lame.

The jester gestures at the festive scene of stalwarts’ silly seriousness.

While the content point to the sky on high, to avoid the pits below;

The discontent comfort in the pits beneath, to not be burdened by too much sunny hope.

 

And I sit, still inclined to recline, afar from these treats, and tricks, and qualms, and psalms,

Hearing these sages happily sing sorrowful splendors, soaring through a splintered sky.

 

“This age is lost, and masses stupid!” shouts the cynic from his stool.

The jester shrieks, “Oh, what fun it is to mock so cruel, and play the fool that beats the fools!”

“But hope is near, no need to fear!” come the voices from a happy few.

“I’ll hear no more, your hope I scorn!” snub back the hopeless legion, shrill and lewd.

 

And I sit, inclined to try and define, whilst still seated reclined,

How to approach the voices bestowing wisdom onto me.

How to understand these people eager to define the world for me.

What views to hold; what views to scold.

Which to mock…flock to…and which to block.

 

Only wanting to understand whose banner I am most inclined to stand under.