Disney taught us that, “when you wish upon a star, your dreams come true.” Unfortunately, if your dream is to have both of your parents live to see you succeed, you’re sheer out of luck. In fact, of Disney’s forty full-length animated features from 1937 until 2000, I know of only one where the protagonist’s parents remain alive for the entire film.* Then there’s the fact that just about every super-powered hero is an orphan. If this isn’t bad enough, one or both of the hero’s adoptive parents often dies too! Superman lost his adoptive dad, Spider-Man lost his uncle, and Luke Skywalker lost both his aunt and uncle. With the Amazing Spider-Man movie set for release this summer, and that movie actually exploring the mysterious back-story about Peter Parker’s real parents, I thought it would be a good time to delve into the topic of why so many of our heroes—both super and animated—are orphans, and what the message means for all of us.
In a New York Press article from August, 2011, film producer and director Tommy Pallotta, said, “I am a fan of audience participation, but I also think audiences like to be told a story. There’s this thing video game designers call a ‘golden path’—there’s a definite way that the majority of people are going to experience the game, and the designers plot that. A lot of the interactivity in a video game is really just the illusion of interactivity. It’s about engaging the audience and giving at least the feeling of volition. But as the artist you have the sense that you are, in some way, controlling it, blending the craft of storytelling with the illusion of agency.” In other words, in a game you think you are controlling the action, but really it’s already been pre-programmed. Kind of like what we think of as destiny. In fact, maybe that’s exactly what destiny is: the path we are meant to take in order to have the most fulfilling experience.
We are living through some pretty dark times. The economy continues to be horrendous with the middle class going through the toughest challenges it’s ever had to face. To make matters worse, natural disasters are becoming more powerful and frequent than ever before, the uprisings in the Middle East are bringing unprecedented instability to the region, and if these “end of days” scenarios weren’t enough, the Maya, Nostradamus, and others all actually predicted the end of the world in 2012. It’s not like this is anything you haven’t heard on the media or from others dozens of times before. The funny thing? None of it’s true. Lately, we’ve been hearing and accepting dozens of statistics like these without question. It’s a sinfully delicious dessert the entire world seems to be stuffing themselves with: the chocolate cake of negativity.
By now you have no doubt heard that according to astronomers and anthropologists, December 21, 2012 correlates to the “end” of the Mayan calendar. And, despite having repeatedly heard about this for many, many years now, it is also very probable that you still have no idea exactly what this means. The reason is because it’s very complicated. To even begin to understand it you need to look to the Mayan myths of the Sacred Tree and understand their incredibly complex Long Count calendar of tuns, k’atuns, and b’aktuns as well as their concepts of the Great Cycle, the Great Great Cycle, and cycles within cycles. You’d also need to understand astronomical occurrences involving the precession of the equinoxes and the conjunction of the sun at the intersection of the plane of the ecliptic and the Milky Way. You can do all that, or, you can simply read my interpretation of this summer’s Green Lantern movie, which shares the same message as the Mayan mythology.
As mentioned in last quarter’s column, there have been a lot of “life-as-illusion” themed movies coming out lately. While I suspect that the success of Avatar and Lost are partly responsible for this trend, I think people’s fascination with 2012, drastic world changes, and a surge in our search for meaning are also fueling the recent string of films about alternate realities and simulated worlds. When airplanes are crashing into buildings, cities are submerged underwater, the Middle East is revolting, and the world economy is collapsing, real life almost seems more fantastical than our dreams. Jon Stewart summed it up perfectly at the 2008 Academy Awards: “Normally, when you see a black man or a woman president, an asteroid is about to hit the Statue of Liberty.” Yes, we are now officially living in the future, and we all know what kind of stuff happens in the future—exactly the kind of stuff that’s happening right now. But at least, thanks to Hollywood, we’ve been warned. And Hollywood’s heads up may even go much deeper than prophesies of events to come. They may help explain the reality we all find ourselves in.
There have been a lot of “life-as-illusion” themed movies coming out lately. We’ve had Avatar, Inception, and TRON: Legacy, and this month alone there’s The Adjustment Bureau, Limitless, Sucker Punch and Source Code. All these films share themes of alternate realities, questions about what is reality, and insight into powers that might be manipulating the reality we live in. While I hope to discuss the most recent batch of these films in an upcoming column, for now I’d like to bring up one that slipped past the radar of many moviegoers. This film actually gave me goose bumps when it revealed an angle that I’ve only recently adopted, and have never before seen in any other movie. That film is Disney’s Tangled.
In anticipation of TRON: Legacy, I recently re-watched a bunch of simulation-world films including The Thirteenth Floor, eXistenZ, and the original TRON, which I hadn’t seen in over twenty-five years. While I remember being somewhat confused watching the futuristic Disney film as a kid, seeing it again with new eyes, I was amazed at how clearly it expressed the “life as illusion” theme I’ve been so fascinated by as an adult. In the original movie, Jeff Bridges is considered a “user.” While Bridges often plays users in his films, in this case, it refers to a computer user who manipulates the scenarios of a digital world that is very similar to our own. In the original film, users are considered mythical, messianic figures who can help free the programs from the game they find themselves in. This got me thinking.
Throughout my travels this summer, I kept hearing similar themes coming up again and again: the idea that the world seems to be broken and in need of repair, that the system no longer works, that the rules have drastically changed since we were kids, that there seems to be a gap between where we are and where we want to go, both as a society, and in our individual lives. Admittedly, these themes were most often being repeated by me, but others weren’t giving me the kind of baffled looks I used to get when I spoke my mind. No, most of the time they agreed with me and shared their frustrations about how hard things seem to be these days. Initially, I had no answers. But then, a solution came to me from a most unexpected source—the TV show, Lost. Actually, the source wasn’t the unexpected part since I’d been getting wisdom from Lost for years and had even written a book about it. What was unexpected was that the show had already concluded three months earlier.
On the evening of October 6th, 2009, I awoke from a deep sleep with the sensation that there was a bright light shining on me from behind my head. Not only could I see this light, I could feel it and I soon became very hot. It felt almost as though the light were cooking me, but I didn’t want to move—or maybe, I couldn’t move. Eventually, the light faded and I fell back to sleep. So, what was it? Was it all in my mind? Was I getting some kind of program download or vibration upgrade? Was it a celestial connection? An angel communication? An alien probe? I wasn’t sure, but my forehead was very red the next morning and soon began peeling as though I’d gotten a sunburn. But this was October, and I hadn’t been out in sun for any length of time. Completely baffled, I decided to seek the help of my trusty mentor and longest childhood friend…television.
Just like any story, your life story is filled with twists and turns, an array of interesting characters, moments of bliss and despair, of success and failure, of challenges that will help you grow, and questions that will cause you to wonder. Among the cast of characters there will be love-interests, villains, tricksters, mavericks and mentors. There will be many friends and enemies, and millions of extras. However, there will only be one hero. That hero, is you.