Devotional without Shame

My spiritual practice leans naturally towards the devotional and always has. Long ago, a part of me used to feel some shame in that, thinking somehow being devotional was an inferior, un-evolved, childish way to practice connecting with the Divine. After all, I learned from some influential quarters, total detachment is the way to go; embrace the void, sunyata, nothingness, whatever you want to call it. This to me, is its own form or way of devotion, albeit one that I don’t directly gravitate to as a starting point. I think I arrive differently to this deep understanding of detachment yet living from a place of universal love. Whatever works for each of us, it doesn’t matter. Live and let live, spiritually and otherwise. Blessed Be. Namaste. L’chaim.

While Hanging Out for Jury Duty

Last Monday morning, I drove down to Boston to report for federal jury duty (which I eventually managed to get out of in an honest way).  Arriving early, I walked around outside and took photos with my phone, including a few pictures of the imposing yet interesting brick edifice of the federal courthouse.

Anyway, after waiting for over an hour with at least a hundred other people to go into a courtroom and be selected or weeded out for a jury, I joined my small assigned group of fifteen or so. We walked together across the pristine, high-ceilinged hall, enormous windows to our left that looked out into grass-covered grounds and a sun-dappled ocean. With a combination of enthusiasm and gentle sarcasm, I said to my fellow prospective jurors, who ranged in age from early 20s to about mid 60s, “Wow! It’s a field trip!” A few people, including a young woman next to me, smiled and tittered. Everyone else remained stone-faced.

We proceeded to the elevator, like cooperative children on a school outing (or sheep in a pasture), and went up to the next floor where the courtroom was. While we waited some more, immediately outside of the courtroom, I said some other flip remark, again eliciting a few smiles and a brief laugh. Everyone stood silently, in their own world, so it seemed.

Like each person there for jury duty, I too had been uprooted from my daily life, in my case, a job I’m devoted to and a nice rhythm of living within a community long-searched for. Hence, like everyone else, I was not exactly happy to be there. Sadly, humor and a willingness to make the best of the situation via exercising just a bit of camaraderie felt lacking in the group. Everyone was dour-faced, and all of this outside the actual courtroom. I felt both glad to pierce the hard silence with some levity yet mildly disappointed and alone. Alone among many, so familiar, both for me and everyone there. Perhaps folks felt lost and awkward without their cell phones in hand. By the front entrance, we’d had to turn them over to security for safe-keeping.

Jury duty is a most serious matter and the Boston federal courthouse underscores this point everywhere you look. Quotes about justice, engraved along the walls, glared at me from room to hallway. I get it, and I have served on two juries over the past several years. But, I was damned if humor and the striving for human connection, no matter how brief among total strangers– my fellow human beings– were going to be shut down in me, especially when the moment called for these very attributes to come forth and lend some balance and perspective to it all.

TV Show Review (“Balance of Terror,” from Season One of STAR TREK TOS)

By far, one of the best episodes of STAR TREK TOS is the suspenseful, tightly-paced “Balance of Terror.”  It’s my personal favorite.

This is where viewers are first introduced to the fascinating warmongering Romulans, distant descendants of the Vulcans, of which Science Officer Spock is half of through his father’s line.

The narrative plays out like a short war movie of cat and mouse, with one spaceship, the U.S.S. Enterprise, facing off against a Romulan warship.  The former unintentionally enters the Neutral Zone, a sort of demilitarized war zone in outer space that the peaceful Federation has agreed to keep its vessels clear of in order to maintain a tense truce with the Romulans.  These warlike, pointy-eared humanoids have long refused to join the Federation.  A patrolling Romulan vessel attacks the Enterprise, requiring Captain Kirk to apply his shrewd military strategy skills.  His brave leadership yet compassion come through very believably here.  The commander (movingly played by Mark Lenard) of the Romulan ship proves to be Kirk’s perfect match as an enemy, albeit a reluctant one.  Tragic, gripping drama ensues.

It is too bad that more high quality episodes like “Balance of Terror” were not produced for STAR TREK TOS, particularly in regards to pacing, plot/logic of storyline, character portrayals, and even special effects.  All of these suffered to varying degrees in several of the shows, especially after the series’ first season.  Still, it is gems like this particular episode from the first season that remind me why I so enjoy this classic 1960s sci-fi television drama.  At its best, the original STAR TREK was able to draw from older movie genres, specifically Westerns and war films, to create something truly ground-breaking, compelling, thought-provoking, and entertaining.

Movie Review (GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS)

My expectations were pretty low when I went to see GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS, so I was pleasantly surprised to find how much I enjoyed it.  Most importantly, there was much more direct footage of Godzilla and other radioactive monsters, all referred to as “Titans,” than what was shown in the disappointingly sluggish 2014 prequel (titled simply GODZILLA).  The pace was comparatively faster yet easy to follow.  I’ve loved Godzilla since watching on television some of his very first movie (GODZILLA, a Toho Studios production from 1954) when I was five and-a-half years old.

Some of the main cast from GODZILLA returns in this sequel, with a few tragic losses happening throughout the movie.  The multi-government-led scientific organization Monarch is back to work with researching signs of Titans becoming active from out of their respective places of dormancy around the world.  This chain reaction arises from eco-terrorist Alan Jonah (played by veteran British actor Charles Dance) proceeding to release a series of them to wreak havoc on the world.  His motivation is to bring the planet’s life back into balance via having much of humanity, particularly in urban centers, killed off by these ancient guardians of nature, since humans are responsible for climate change and other grave environmental issues.  He and Monarch scientist Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) join forces to accomplish this paradoxically well-meaning yet ultimately sinister goal, much to the chagrin of the rest of Monarch’s main team and the U.S. military.  Jonah also selfishly wants to harness the Titans’ power and untapped resources.  However, this is only briefly referred to and then hinted at further in a preview scene of the upcoming sequel.

A combination of scientific research, including studying and manipulating sound waves the Titans emit, and reviewing of ancient folklore about these huge creatures results in Monarch identifying Godzilla as an age-old “benevolent” force who can lead the other Titans back into a calm, subdued order.  His rival super Titan “Monster Zero,” the storm-causing, three-headed dragon (though not referred to as such in the movie) Ghidorah, will bring chaos and death over everything if he is not defeated.  His intentional awakening out of deep ice in Antarctica by Jonah and a mis-led Dr. Russell starts a powerful action scene of giant monster destruction, probably the best on the big (and small) screen I’ve ever witnessed.  The immediacy of the danger is well-filmed and timed as main characters and soldiers try to escape via military helicopter to avoid being crushed by Ghidorah or vaporized in his irradiated, fire-lightning breath.  We see the dragon’s sinister, regenerative heads nipping at each other and roaring at the puny humans, then reactions of horror as men shoot their ineffective rifles and one shouts, “Holy shit!”  Quite an entry for the arch villain creature, and the only one identified as being of extraterrestrial origin.

Closeups of different gargantuan monsters’ faces near humans, such as by a helicopter in one scene, an underwater facility in another, and a fighter jet in yet another, serve to make them feel more present and real to the audience, with one such moment effectively startling me even on my second viewing.  This was a monster thriller of quality I’ve been longing to see since childhood, thanks to CGI and other cinematography technology finally achieving such state-of-the-art advancement.

Being the long-time fan of Godzilla that I am, I was again somewhat disappointed to see how his physical design was changed.  His snout has been shortened since the 2014 prequel, whereas when it was longer and larger in earlier movies, he had more teeth and, hence, seemingly more substantiveness.  However, I can only imagine what the designers were thinking about this latest incarnation of such a star monster of the cinema.  Perhaps a shorter snout made him seem more tough like a pit bull, I don’t know.  Anyway, I was able to let go of this bother to some extent as I watched the enormous two legged lizard of the sea do his grand stuff, including breath out white radioactive fire, his mighty spines gloriously lighting up.

The other benevolent Titan is Mothra (“Mosura” in Japanese), who is the first monster we see in the movie.  Initially in giant larva form, she spits out a sticky webbing out of self defense shortly after hatching before a circle of armed men placed there to contain her.  She then cocoons herself in a nearby waterfall and later rises forth as a grand, brightly shimmering moth to assist Godzilla, her relationship with him being symbiotic, though not fully explained how.  This ultimately did not matter to me, as I was able to accept the Monarch team’s exposition that some of the Titans are peaceful and working in harmony with each other.  They all follow an alpha leader, like a pack of wolves does.  Godzilla has historically been in this role, similar to the god Zeus over the other deities of Greek mythology, the term Titan being aptly derived from that particular pantheon.

Mothra is referred to as being the queen to Godzilla’s king, flying and fighting beside him to help restore order with her radioactive beauty and insectoid strength.  She is followed and studied over several generations by attractive identical twin women, the latest being Dr. Ilene Chen and her sister Dr. Ling (both played by Zhang Ziyi), each of Monarch.  This movie does not explore the spiritual-religious, deity worshipping element/implications so much as it subtly alludes to all of these through closely associating Mothra with the lineage of twins.  This gives the royal-seeming moth a pleasant mystique, equating her with beautiful femininity, angelic light/heavenly grace, and the cycle of death and rebirth.  The too-briefly shown theme of women twins drawn to Mothra also seems to act as a dutiful acknowledgement to the queen Titan’s miniature women fairy companions, played by Japanese twin pop singers The Peanuts, in the 1961 movie MOTHRA, and other actresses in the same recurring roles throughout several sequels starring this colossal insect.  (I readily admit to never having seen any of these earlier movies.)  I only wished that the celestial, exquisite Mothra/Mosura had more screen time in this latest Godzilla production.  But, alas, she was unavoidably underused in an already crowded narrative where the king monster himself was at least not short shrifted this time around.  The movie was just over two hours in length as it was.  For all of the interesting elements of the story to be fully explored, almost an hour or so of footage/digital imagery would have to have been added, so sacrifices were clearly made and, on balance, fairly.

One giant monster is colossally ridiculous, an earless bipedal mastodon of sorts we the viewers briefly see on a few television newsfeeds.  I believe it shows up again at the very end.  What were the designers and director thinking here??  Perhaps it was meant to be comic relief?  Mr. Snuffleupagus of Sesame Street turned radioactive giant mutant, I guess.  Give me a break.  Fortunately, it at least had no starring role the way Ghidora, Rodan (an enormous bird-pterodactyl-like creature originating from a volcano), Mothra, and our hero Godzilla did.  The crab-like critters, of which there was one in the prequel, return, which is fine.  They look believably scary and interesting in a primal way.

While the monsters were indeed the true stars of the movie, I did especially appreciate some of the people cast.  Ken Watanabe returns as Monarch paleobiologist Dr. Ishiro Serizawa, the thoughtful wise man and conscience of the movie.  Through him, we viewers are encouraged to be curious about and sympathizing of Godzilla.  Ishiro’s younger colleague, Dr. Ilene Chen (Zhang Ziyi), is a folklorist who shows pertinent antiquarian bits of texts and images of sea and land monsters to the rest of the Monarch crew and military personnel.  She bridges the Titans from their primeval past to the present, providing personal information such as their actual names.  She and her twin sister reflect the beautiful, graceful, harmonious side of nature, embodied in one of the two’s (Dr. Ling’s) personal deity, already discussed above.  This relationship of veneration is simply relayed through Dr. Ling’s facial expression upon witnessing the initial rising of Mothra.  At that point, hope for the planet more clearly enters the picture.  All is not evil or lost after all.

Charles Dance as the ruthless Alan Jonah uncannily seemed so much in both appearance and presentation like the late screen thespian Peter Cushing, star of many Hammer Horror Studios productions and in the first STAR WARS movie (as the evil Grand Moff Tarkin).  I was impressed with Dance’s similarity to such a man of grave elegance and sincerity.  His presence packed a punch and surely will continue to in the sequel.

Aisha Hinds is believable as an Army Colonel, conveying a balanced mix of concerned and commanding.  I was glad that she was both bald and African American, normalizing more unique, nonwhite, gender nonconforming women being in strong leadership positions in a mainstream movie.

To appeal to youth in the audience, teenaged actress Millie Bobby Brown (of the Netflix series STRANGER THINGS) stars as Madison Russell, who takes it upon herself to try and change her mother’s mind about allying with eco terrorist Jonah.  She manages to get into the thick of the action as the movie progresses, changing from guardedly defiant to scared and vulnerable, becoming a predictable but sweet vehicle for a very temporary union between her estranged parents.  Such sappiness for the sake of adding a more relatable, family element felt formulaic and bland.  This movie’s power and originality lay with the monsters and their impressive development in form,  immediacy, and even a kind of earthly or– for Mothra– celestial divinity.  Certain human characters already discussed particularly supported and reflected that power, making them stand out against an uneven script of sometimes lame dialogue.

In this movie’s universe, these Titans have existed for millennia and longer, helping to keep a tense balance between humanity and the rest of nature, whereby whole cultures had worshipped them.  The undersea origins of Godzilla are gracefully explored here, implying that he is a cyclically sleeping dragon of sorts.  The radiation of each Titan is deadly yet life-giving, a mysterious mix that is both amusingly and fascinatingly referenced during the film’s clever end credit sequence.  These beings’ existence is aptly tied in with climate change, some embodying a means of worsening it, others a way to ameliorate it.  In sum, the movie is an allegory, with the humans ultimately more villainous through causing centuries of damage to the earth.  The Titan monsters represent both destructive and ordered forces of nature reacting and roughly trying to set things right, even at the expense of humans, whose only salvation is to align with some of these mighty Titan forces or perish.  Enter good guy Godzilla, whose boundless, radioactive rage is well-directed.  Long live the king.

 

Music Video/Song: “Mothra’s Song” by Bear McCreary (Official Video on YouTube)

Here is the latest version of “Mothra’s Song,” from the fun new film GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS. This is a beautiful, haunting little orchestral piece, in veneration to an exquisite deific creature Mothra (“Mosura” in Japanese). The flute and drums create a perfect harmony here, as if sky and earth are uniting through dance and song, evoked by the graceful flight of a giant, shimmering moth.

Road Rage as a Learning Moment

Road rage in Massachusetts is out of control, as I imagine it is in a lot of other states throughout the U.S.  Earlier, I was driving down a main thoroughfare when a burly white guy from off a side street pushed his car into oncoming traffic, in front of me, to my left.  I shook my head at him as I drove on by.  Shortly, he sped up from behind, turned into a store parking lot (to my right) and barreled along there while making it a point to flip me the bird– instead of watch where he was going.

Toxic masculinity is a real thing, be it on the road or anywhere else.  This problematic phenomenon admittedly irritates me when I’m faced with it head on.  It’s all such an obnoxious exhibition of childish entitlement, lack of empathy, and poor sense of boundaries.  Very un-evolved.  Breathe and enter a peaceful place, I try to remind myself, time and again.  This behavior from some men is troublesome and, ultimately, rather sad.  Toxic masculine men deeply challenge my human compassion capacity.  Therein lays the reason why they continue to be teachers of sorts for me.  Live and learn, then wake up another day to keep living and learning, while also taking no shit.

Movie Review (SHAFT)

The new movie SHAFT, which is the third produced screenplay with that same title, and the second to star veteran actor Samuel L. Jackson, was fun and interesting. The generational tension between Millennial actor Jessie T. Usher as J.J. Shaft and Baby Boomer actor Jackson as his father John Shaft was intriguingly expressed via cleverly written repartee between them throughout the narrative.

The implications of changes in inner city African American culture through generational and economic shifts are adeptly packed into this entertaining comedy-action movie. Kudos to writers Kenya Barris (creator of the TV show BLACK-ISH) and Alex Barnow.

Jessie T. Usher is able to hold a lot of nuances or layers in his character as an MIT educated, rookie FBI data analyst– nuance of having a natural sensitivity to women as equals to men, the value of healthy eating, the embracing of multiculturalism, and a reluctance to glorify guns as a means to power and domination– to name a few that come to mind. And all this while coming across as emotionally expressive and caring, strong in convictions, and downright adorable. He is someone I could imagine talking with over coffee or a drink, very approachable and relatable.

Jackson portrays the less evolved old guard, “kill or be killed” inner city Black, tough guy private detective, unapologetically coarse and sexist, making both a comic yet thought-provoking foil to the younger, warmer Shaft (Usher). He holds the primal force, including (but not only) rage, for the film, balancing out his son J.J. Shaft’s comparative softness and tendency to think more deeply. Their dialogue had me laughing often– that and the interweaving of old, Motown R&B songs into the musical score, including within some action sequences, particularly a few done in slow motion as if to imply dancing. This was bizarre, clever, disturbing, and funny all at once, leaving me to think of Kabuki theater somehow merging with old action films from the 1960s and 70s. This movie makes fun of itself often, including humorously yet gracefully glorifying people’s nostalgia for earlier, seemingly “simpler” times, namely the 1970s and 1980s. The result is a form of high camp within both a visual and musical theatricality that I eat up like rare, fine truffles. Granted, such treats are not to everyone’s liking.

The one matter I took some issue with is the blatant homophobia expressed via John Shaft’s hyper concern about his son J.J.’s sexuality. To the older, traditionally hyper-masculine Shaft, the younger man’s sensitivity, non-macho presentation, and non-aggressive, respectful approach to women is confusing and anxiety-inducing, with the father asking his son if he likes “pussy.” John later circles back to this matter, listing off possible sexual orientations, including “metrosexual” and “fluid,” for J.J. to choose from before the younger man clarifies that he is indeed straight. However, the fact that John knows these latest terms and states them matter-of-factly while caringly putting his very drunk son to bed for the night suggests to me that a part of the older man is wrestling with his discomfort and more likely than not to ultimately accept J.J. regardless of his sexual proclivities. And it is realistic to portray a middle-aged inner city African American man and other men around him as rigid believers in compulsory heterosexuality being bound up with achieving true manhood. The movie does not push the envelope nearly enough here to my satisfaction, which it would, say, if J.J. Shaft’s orientation were left vague, not so defined, hinted at as possibly bisexual or fluid. Well, homophobia and heterosexism in mainstream media are very slow to fade, this production only confirming that point, sadly. More open-mindedness and acceptance to happen all in good time, I suppose– so long as the good fight for queer visibility and equality continues.

The actual storyline concerning taking down a powerful drug smuggling and dealing ring is secondary to the strong, sympathetic, ever-evolving characters of SHAFT, namely the father-son duo. However, these two are well-supported by Maya Babanikos (Regina Hall), John Shaft’s long-lost girlfriend and mother of his son J.J., and Sasha Arias (Alexandra Shipp), the close friend and love interest of said son. I would have liked each of these smart, independent, likable women to be given more to do in the action sequences other than act freaked out and helpless. But, perhaps that switch up of roles will be forthcoming in a sequel. After all, it is the young woman Sasha, herself a physician, who carries a gun and lends it to J.J. in a time of need. Clearly, her full abilities are not put to use here. Hopefully, they will be in any future Shaft productions. As for Maya, she is the one who raised J.J. Shaft to be the well-rounded person that he is, leaving his long absent father to return and mix a healthy bit of grit into him for good measure. Fortunately, Maya and Sasha survive to flesh out a true family, anchored by three generations of Shaft men, with the elder actor Richard Roundtree (the original John Shaft in three early 1970s movies starring that character) showing up to improve the odds in a final face-off against the arch villain and his henchmen. And those three Shafts aim for laughs with us viewers while packing heat and going for broke.

I had no qualms with seeing white people portrayed unflatteringly at every turn in SHAFT, be they as secondary villains, suspicious cops, or establishment assholes (i.e., J.J. Shaft’s uptight boss in the FBI). We all need to laugh at ourselves, regardless of what ethnicity and socio-economic class/status we happen to belong. We white folks especially need to be brought down some pegs and onto the ground with everyone else, there to roll about in the dirt and laugh at the theatricality, often absurdity, and ever-changing wonder of life. The movie SHAFT clearly, amusingly reminds us viewers to do just that.