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A Sojourn in the Pacific: Thoughts on Hawaii

February 2, 2015 3 comments

Roughly in the middle of the Pacific Ocean lies an archipelago whose warm weather, languid coastline sunsets, and edenic profusion of tropical flora is generally accepted in popular aesthetics as the nearest natural approximation of the Judeo-Christian vision of paradise. This is certainly the ironclad image of Hawaii peddled by tourism boards, hotel operators, tour guides, and real estate developers, that of a mild, comfortable, frequently pretty vacation destination. A holiday-perfect place in the sun, conveniently available to the world but especially to Americans as one of the 50 states, with a history both patriotic and romantic.

This manicured picture of Hawaii is not exactly untrue, as far as it goes. Its excellent climate, idyllic natural beauty, and cultural patrimony are unquestionable. A visitor gets this impression especially strongly on Kauai, the oldest of the Hawaiian islands. Having risen from the ocean floor on mounds of hardened, nutrient-rich lava bursting through a moving hot spot in the earth’s crust, Kauai is about 6 million years old, and thus has had more time to grow into a richly-adorned living botanical garden than many of its fellow islands in the chain (though it has some human-arranged versions of those gardens IMG_3770as well, most notably the Allerton Garden in the National Tropical Botanical Gardens near the old plantation town of Koloa).

With no more active volcanoes to increase its size, Kauai is eroding gradually into the ocean; the effects of this epic erosive process are most visible on the dramatic Na Pali Coast on the island’s north shore, its near-vertical verdant cliffs and ridges snaking towards the reductive ocean like inverted fingernail scratches. It’s gorgeous but also imposing, aesthetically potent but also pregnant with the awesome danger inherent in the natural world. Little wonder that Steven Spielberg shot most of the locations for Jurassic Park there.

If this spectre of the mortal peril underlying geologically-scaled natural forces pokes through the green curtain of beauty on Kauai intermittently, it is wholly inescapable on the island of Hawaii, commonly referred to as the Big Island to avoid confusion with the state or archipelago that shares its name. The youngest and largest of the islands, the Big Island is also the only volcanically active land mass above sea level in the archipelago, having been formed relatively quickly in geological terms (over a mere half-million years). Its sense of grand, catastrophic geological drama is unmatched in the Pacific and perhaps the world. From its coast, alternately sun-baked and rain-soaked, encompassing gentle beaches (of white, black, and even green sand) and treacherous rocky outcrops, it is possible to progress above 13,000 feet to the peak of its twin sleeping mountains, Mauna Kea IMG_3975and Mauna Loa, in the space of a couple of hours (although, with altitude sickness in mind, it wouldn’t be advisable to cover that vertical space too quickly).

The intense threat of this place often overwhelms its scenic wonders. From the thunderous waves with deadly undertow potential to the frigid mountain summits to the rivers of fire spilling from the three-decade eruption of Kilauea, the Big Island can lull with its stark magic but promises the potential of death behind every winking sunset as well. The islands’ first and most celebrated pasty-white foreign tourist encountered this fatal potential firsthand: British navigator Captain James Cook met a bloody end in the island’s picturesque Kealakekua Bay, his skull stove in by Native Hawaiians in the shallows of what is now one of the world’s finest and most tranquil snorkeling reefs.

True believers in Hawaii’s paradisical serenity may balk at such gauche reminders of a less idyllic past, but bare history rarely sugarcoats. My views of the last two centuries of Hawaiian history were largely formed by Sarah Vowell’s informative and wonderfully readable Unfamiliar Fishes, which I devoured on the long travel day to the islands from the Eastern Seaboard. Mixing travel literature with history, Vowell interweaves her own idiosyncratic treks through the islands to historical sites and museums with an account of the period from Cook’s stopover in 1779 to the archipelago’s annexation to the United States a little over a century later.

What Unfamiliar Fishes makes clear is that Cook’s arrival set in motion both local indigenous changes and larger imperial forces that moved astonishingly quickly to enfold Hawaii into the rapidly-developing modern world and, consequently, into the American Republic. New England Evangelical missionaries followed Cook’s lead in 1820, with Jesus Christ quickly filling the void left by a traditional set of religious practices and social customs that distintegrated swiftly under the stress of the examples of off-island society and destructive irruptions of off-island disease. Kamehameha vowell_unfamiliar_fishes_bookthe Great, a ruthless but astute warrior chief who united the islands under his dynastic authority (a unity achieved through mass slaughter of resistant forces, which sets the streets, parks, and malls named after him across the archipelago in quite a different light), also left a kingdom and a culture susceptible to foreign influence and eventually takeover. A coup masterminded by the missionaries’ sons (also wealthy landowners in the rapidly-developed plantation system that dominated the Hawaiian economy for 3/4s of a century until tourism displaced it) in 1893 removed Kamehameha’s descendant Queen Lili’uokalani, paving the way for a cynically imperial annexation by the U.S. upon the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Vowell, an outspoken liberal and NPR regular, sees plentiful parallels between the then-contemporary Iraq War’s imperial grasping under Republican President George W. Bush and the Spanish-American War’s imperial grasping under Republican President William McKinley. But she also pulls out illustrative incidents from Hawaiian history that further reflect American social, political and cultural traits and tendencies. American control over Hawaii was and still is justified in terms of the inevitability of westward expansion, manifest destiny stretching into the Pacific. But in this most beautiful of states, Vowell is able to find much that was ugly about how Hawaii became a state in the first place.

Early in Unfamiliar Fishes, Vowell recounts visiting one of Hawaii’s iconic banyan trees in a town square. These impressive trees, with their insatiable, rhizomatic root structures, do not resemble single-trunk growths so much as multitudinous wooden vines. They are more like contiguous forests than single trees, and make a strong impression on so many visitors to Hawaii (I first visited the islands when I was 2 years old, and “banyan tree” was one of my first spoken words) that one might believe that they had been growing there for centuries.

But banyans are not native to Hawaii; like so many of the islands’s flora and fauna species, they are invasive, brought from India. Furthermore, their exponential expansion is nearly unstoppable; Vowell’s local guide tells her that gardeners are kept quite busy trimming the snaking roots and branches to keep the town’s tree from toppling most of its buildings. Vowell intelligently presents this image as a metaphor for her own view of Hawaiian history (and, I must admit, now mine as well), but without specific definition. We are left to read it as reflecting the pervasive and ineradicable foreign influence that has made Hawaiian into the diverse culture it is today, as well as the damaging cultural reality of that influence. But as presented, it is also an image of natural forces threatening the structural integrity of civilization. This last impression is inescapable in this mid-ocean land forged by water and fire.

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PopMatters Television Review: American Experience – Edison

January 27, 2015 1 comment

Note: I write regular album, television, and film reviews and occasional features for PopMatters, an online magazine of cultural criticism. I’ll post links to these here at Random Dangling Mystery whenever they are published. Click on the title to go to the review.

American Experience: Edison

 

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Film Review: Interstellar

November 23, 2014 3 comments

Interstellar (2014; Directed by Christopher Nolan)

The films of Christopher Nolan are intelligently-constructed hybrids of the work of other cinematic auteurs first and foremost. Interstellar is no exception, and zeroes in particularly on the hallmarks of two such directors. With his grand, constructed visions and rational precision, Nolan tends to resemble Stanley Kubrick rather more than perhaps any other major filmmaker; the other major filmmaker he resembles in his genre enthusiasm and populist outreach is, perhaps surprisingly, Steven Spielberg. Nolan has found himself shifting progressively closer to Spielberg’s profile while tiptoeing carefully around Kubrick’s considerable artistic legacy, while also engaging in the sort of ambitious philosophical puzzle-building that never much interested either of those men.

Interstellar began production development life as a Spielberg project: Nolan’s screenwriter brother Jonathan was hired to pen it and suggested his sibling as director when studio production alignments took the rights out of Spielberg’s reach. This explains the preponderence of grand emotional sop to some extent; it’s easy to imagine to Nolan’s mansplaining devotees balking at the sheer number of tear-soaked cheeks on display here. The film is also an old-fashioned, grandiose, stargazing sci-fi epic of the kind that Spielberg once excelled at (Close Encounters of the Third Kind is one of many reference points, along with Star WarsStar Trek, Andrei Tarkovsky, Superman and even Apollo 13) but that was forever defined by Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. If Nolan has spent years of his notable big-budget directing career giving the self-evident Kubrick associations a wide berth, he dispenses with the hedging with Interstellar. This is a film that not only evokes and often directly references 2001 (there’s a clear Star-Child callback just after the climax), it’s likewise the product of the concept of manned space travel as the starting point for a deeper existential discussion.

The Brothers Nolans begin with some heavy-handed politically-charged dystopian material that does not bode well for the rest of the picture. Sometime not terribly far in the future, a phage of agricultural blight has reduced human civilization in both population and ambitions. Only corn can be grown, and probably not even that will provide plentiful harvests for long. In America’s Great Plains grain-basket, massive dust storms descend on the regular. Nolan makes the 1930s Dust Bowl association explicit by intercutting testimonials from aged witnesses filmed for Ken Burns’ PBS documentary on the period into his opening section in the Heartland. The dire need for food production has made itself felt on American education: university spots are hard to come by and most capable young people are steered back to the fields. Frustrated farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) even learns that textbooks have been conquered by conspiracy theories and are teaching that the Apollo moon landings were propaganda exercises by NASA to drive the Soviet Union to bankrupt itself on space exploration spending (the scene revealing this is awkwardly overdone, barely fits in the movie, and probably would have been cut had it not reflected a pet issue of the screenwriter, who is also the director’s brother).

Cooper is frustrated as a farmer because he isn’t really one. He was a NASA pilot and engineer before the agency was forced out of space flight by a shift in funding priorities (sound familiar?). He now reluctantly tends his farm along with his father-in-law (John Lithgow) and two kids, his field-tilling heir Tom (played by Timothee Chalamet as a teen and Casey Affleck as a young man) and his science-loving maverick daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy as a girl, Jessica Chastain as a young adult, Ellen Burstyn as an old woman). Murphy suspects that a ghost is leaving her morse messages with books on shelves and in gravitational waves acting on falling dust. Coop thinks it nonsense until he realizes it’s binary, and that the message is a set of coordinates.

The coordinates lead Cooper to a secret NASA base on NORAD’s subterranean premises in Colorado. There, the brilliant (but subtly dissembling) Professor Brand (Michael Caine) has masterminded a last-ditch effort to save the dwindling human race from the planet they’ve irrevocably poisoned: find another world out in the stars that is amenable to conditions of human life and transfer either humanity’s survivors or their fertilized embryos there to start over. A dozen solo astronauts have passed through a wormhole near Saturn and landed on potential planets; some are still broadcasting data about conditions that may or may not be promising for colonization. Brand wants Coop to pilot a crew through the wormhole to investigate these potential new homes and begin the process of either relocation or genetic repopulation. Coop doesn’t want to leave his family, but knows he belongs in space and not in the dirt. He decides to accept the offer, and to the stars he goes.

I hesitate to go into much more detail about what follows, partly to avoid spoiling the fascinating revelations and partly because I’m not entirely certain I understood them, particularly the ones grounded in complex theoretical physics. Suffice it to say that the space-bound later acts of Interstellar feature visually wondrous travel through the spherical wormhole, to forbidding planet surfaces, and over the horizon of a supermassive black hole; maximum emotional wringing of the concept of relativity; Anne Hathaway with short hair, Wes Bentley awaiting an inevitable snuffing (what does that man do but die in movies? He’s like a more metrosexual Sean Bean), and a surprise cameo on a world of frozen clouds (no, it’s not Billy Dee Williams); not one but two sassy talking robots (I’m not kidding); and, finally, a more hopeful and unambiguous conclusion than any of us would have had any reason to expect from Christopher Nolan.

Like most of Nolan’s films, Interstellar is a transporting, entertaining, impressive cinematic experience. The operatically monumental long-building climax is tremendously tense, a marvel of interwoven performance, effects, technical excellence, and emotion-manipulating editing acumen elevated to the level of the visually symphonic by Hans Zimmer’s rising, resonantly dramatic score. I’m hardly qualified to speak on the film’s scientific accuracy, although both consulting theoretical physicist Kip Thorne and prominent astronomer and public science intellectual Neil DeGrasse Tyson are so qualified and they were both pretty much on board, with Thorne authoring scientific papers on the basis of the computer effects and Tyson even defending the most tenuous leaps of the film’s ending.

Does all of this mean, however, that it’s a good film? Long experience with Christopher Nolan’s oeuvre should give us pause about praising the whole on the basis of the sum of its parts. While the editing of specific sequences is superlative, the movie as a whole is far too long, with unwieldy portions concentrated in its earthbound opening act and even occasionally in its more involving space sections. And it’s undeniable that the ask of belief on the part of the Nolans in the ending is huge and maybe beyond most casual moviegoers.

As always, the visual and intellectual scope of Christopher Nolan’s visions deserve our admiration even while his populist compromises, rule-bound rigidity and recurring aesthetic hiccups tend to temper that admiration. The results of his Spielberg/Kubrick hybrid are often astonishing and always compelling. But the philosophy and existentialism can be submerged by sentimentality like in Spielberg and can equally alienate its audience with its museum-display composure like in Kubrick. Interstellar is unquestionably spectacular, but like its characters, it passes through a cinematic black hole and doesn’t entirely retain its structural integrity while it does so.

Categories: Film, Reviews, Science

Simon Winchester and the Gap in the Middle of “A Crack in the Edge of the World”

April 17, 2013 1 comment

English author, journalist, and geologist Simon Winchester is a tremendously knowledgeable and voluble writer with an evident passion to share that knowledge and volubility with as many readers as possible. Perhaps relatedly, he is also an inherently distracted, unbearably long-winded, and mostly insufferable non-fiction scribe. A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906 should be so much more fascinating a read than it actually ends up being, especially given its author’s experience as a travel writer, scholarly historian, and geologist. Winchester should be unique adapted to impart a multifarious perspective on one of the largest and most influential disasters in American history, explicating the earth science behind the 1906 San Francisco quake, delving into the rich historical record of players and circumstances in the galvanizing events, and providing a first-hand traveller’s view of how California is made by its geological profile into a place that is both irresistible and dangerous.

Winchester should be able to give us this, but he doesn’t. A Crack in the Edge of the World is a meandering bore of a book, only occasionally coalescing into the kind of absorbing account that the memorable event deserves. His book opens with eyewitness accounts of the earth-shaking moment from various figures, including geological grandee Grove Karl Gilbert, as if he intends to revisit their experiences as recurring characters in an in-depth portrayal of the quake. We never, however, hear from them again. Winchester then embarks on a detailed but unfocused history of geology, which includes his trek across the North American plate, from Iceland through various quake sites in the Eastern and Midwestern United States to California and eventually up to Alaska.

Matters crystallize into more involving prose when, after 200 often-painful pages of geology and traveloguery, he at last arrives in the city by the bay and lets the indulgent eccentricity drop away in favour of riveting history of destruction, reaction, and recovery in the great city of the wild turn-of-the-century American West. When he allows his runaway attention to become fixed on a historical event of such evident drama and interest, Winchester’s book is at its best. Even in these most enjoyable chapters, A Crack in the Edge of the World can’t hold its focus quite long enough, hopping from one major figure in the quake story to another, never quite providing more than a sketch of people like Arnold Genthe, whose iconic photographs of the disaster brought its effects to the wider world, or Brigadier General Frederick Funston and Mayor Eugene Schmitz, highly-flawed figures in public life who rose unquestionably to the occasion when presented with a major crisis.

More of a handicap than the book’s uneven nature, however, are the very frequent moments when a dubious assertion, a head-scratching metaphor or analogy, a shameless instance of self-promotion, or a simple, fixable error crops up in the text. One can collect and display examples like a Victorian amateur scientist collects and displays natural specimens. Winchester refers to Ungava as being in “Western Canada” when it is rather clearly a region of northern Quebec. In discussing the reaction of insurance companies to the great quake, he credits them as catalysts for great progressive social reforms when their role seems more commensurate with the financial firming-up of such changes already in place. He calls the businesses destroyed in a series of quakes around New Madrid, Missouri in 1811-1812 “priceless” (would a business not, by its very definitional nature, necessarily have a price?) and later compares Midwestern strip malls to Conestoga wagons with apparent serious intent.

Winchester’s greatest single unsubstantiated claim may be attributing the explosive growth of the American Pentecostal movement to the earthquake almost exclusively, as it was the first great disaster that the charismatic fundamentalists were able to ascribe solely to God’s wrath at the sinfulness of mankind. The church’s founding and exponential growth before (and well after) the 1906 event is of no concern; the quake is what really animated it, he tells us, though it’s not clear how. In an indelibly smarmy and disingenuous moment, he even pretends to cast doubt on this assertion by comparing it to a similarly controversial theory that the volcanic eruption of Krakatoa in Indonesia in 1883 strengthened and inspired fundamentalist Islamic groups. What he doesn’t think it worth stating is that this particular theory is presented by him in his own book on the subject, Krakatoa: The Day The World Exploded.

Some of the quake-centric moments aside, then, A Crack in the Edge of the World becomes caught up in many of Winchester’s most irritating habits as a non-fiction scribe. It’s a bit lucky, really, that it wasn’t caught up in more of that than it is; brief mentions are made of his 1980s travel quest to visit every American town named Paradise (what a skull-softening read that would have been), and he also nerdily lists the locations of various worldwide seismographs that recorded the disturbance caused by the quake in alphabetical order. And he never does get around that telling us much at all about the “America” promised in the subtitle except from a geological perspective (which is maybe what he meant by it all along). It’s all too bad, really. Simon Winchester has a truly earth-shaking subject on his hands, but he can’t seem to get himself and his problematic tendencies out of its way.

PopMatters Television Review – Wild Things with Dominic Monaghan

January 22, 2013 Leave a comment

Note: I write regular album, television, and film reviews and occasional features for PopMatters, an online magazine of cultural criticism. I’ll post links to these here at Random Dangling Mystery whenever they are published. Click on the title to go to the review.

Wild Things with Dominic Monaghan

 

Categories: Reviews, Science, Television, Travel

“One of the Great Mysteries”: Science and Fath in American Conservative Politics

November 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio recently gave a casual interview with GQ clearly meant to test the waters for a potential Presidential run in 2016. Rubio took time out from talking about gangsta rap and not comparing Barack Obama to Fidel Castro (while actually doing so) to declare that, although he’s “not a scientist, man”, he feels that “we’ll never be able to answer” whether or not the earth was created in 7 days, as the Bible claims. Well, 6 days, technically, but I’m not a biblical scholar or a mathematician, man.

This is only news to the extent that it’s not really news. American conservatism has become so wedded to the hypocritical theocratic imperatives of Evangelical Christianity that its increasingly non-secular political organ (the GOP) must necessarily pay its outlandish faith-based claims credence or risk a fatal backlash from the hand that feeds it. Rubio is, from most appearances, no fool; he’s even been touted as the individual vanguard of the party’s much-needed outreach to the growing Hispanic-American voting demographic that they have recently lost decisively to the Democrats. There’s reasons to doubt this possibility: Republican policies and the conservative rhetoric behind them have been xenophobically hostile to Latinos for too long and too loudly to be wiped away by a single fresh-faced candidate, who, as a scion of Miami’s staunchly anti-Castro Cuban community, would not necessarily appeal to many Hispanic voters anyway. But whatever his future career prospects, Rubio’s line-toeing on the whole, messy, ambiguous “age of the earth” question reflects the choices made by a continental right wing that is increasingly contemptuous of scientific orthodoxy, seemingly as a matter of tribal allegiance.

Back off, man. I’m not a scientist.

Rubio’s deft framing of his answer, however, is instructive. He never says what he believes, ultimately, although anyone even flirting with the 6000-year-old planet theory is stepping beyond the scientific pale. But he puts a firm onus on education, and on a false epistemological equivalency between faith-based creationism on one hand and evolutionary biology and geological history on the other. This is the slim crack in the door that theocratic conservatives have long sought: the right to instruct American schoolchildren in both science and faith-based theories of creation and development and to “let them decide”. It’s a Choose Your Adventure approach to the none-too-uncertain basis of earth science education that has understandably (and rightly) provoked the resistance of fact-based educational practitioners, especially when the proposed alternative theories are so thinly reasoned and widely debunked.

Perhaps any such cracks are negligible anyway, especially with a high-profile recent court decision like Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District granting the faith lobby little daylight to work with. But the arguments are still out there being made, if mostly fruitlessly. Rubio demonstrates the well-worn trick of setting the terms of conversation in a manner that already gives his nonsensical perspective a fighting chance from the outset. But only because interviewer Michael Hainey cedes him more ground than he ought to with the wording of his question. “How old do you think the earth is?” is an absurd question on its face, and even beneath that level, too. At the risk of coming across as uncompromising or rude, it is not a matter of personal opinion, it is an established and incontrovertible truth. Hainey might as well ask Rubio how hot he thinks the sun is, or how many inches he believes to be in a foot. Opinion cannot trump empirical measurement, no matter how much a group of people might wish it to.

Conservative political operators so often exploit their opponents’ essential liberal tendencies towards equity and fairness to advance their reactionary agenda, and the life support which keeps creationism and its quasi-scientific offshoots breathing is provided by progressive notions of tolerance and justice. The key, as is so often the case, is not to allow that initial foothold.

A related prefacing question of the science vs. religion debate provides a perfect closing example. When, as a science-backer, one is next faced with the ever-thorny query, “Do you believe in evolution?”, try answering, “No.” When the initial surprise wears off, qualify the answer thusly: “I do not ‘believe’ in evolution, any more than I believe in Santa Claus or the Devil or Xenu. But I am convinced by it.” Belief and reasoning are not, in this calculus, inherently opposed. They are different muscles, subject to separate but not necessarily contradictory exertions. But there are some tasks that one muscle or the other cannot be of much use in tackling, and answering fundamental questions about the nature of our physical world is one of them. The sooner that conservatives face up to that, even in the Jesus-mad United States, the healthier their political movement will be from an intellectual point of view.