THE LITERATURE OF THE ‘ROBOTIC MOMENT’: READING SHERRY TURKLE’S ALONE TOGETHER

Sherry Turkle, trained as a psychologist and an anthropologist, is developing her career at MIT as an observer of how technology impacts our daily lives. In her 2011 volume Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less form Each Other, she condenses the work of fifteen years, based on thousands of interviews particularly with young and old persons. Turkle considers two main aspects: how we relate to robots and how the social networks shape socializing. These two aspects might seem unrelated but she makes the point that in our time–the ‘robotic moment’–we seek warmth and companionship from machines that cannot provide either because, despite being connected with more people than ever, we are alone and craving for real contact with people. What we call a paradox.

As I have written here often, my friend Carme Torras, a top robotic engineer at UPC, works not only building the robots of our near future but also warning us about the excessive emotional attachment we develop for machines that cannot correspond–particularly, as Turkle shows, the pet robots and the nursing robots already massively present in the environment of the most vulnerable: children and the elderly. I’ll leave robots aside, though this is a topic I am passionate about, to focus on a few passages from the second part of the book, dealing with teen life and technology. As a teacher working with young people I feel progressively alienated from the world my students inhabit, particularly as regards the social networks. This is why I tend to read whatever can help me to get a picture of the daily lives of my students. In this sense Turkle’s book is very useful, though I wonder how her conservative stance goes with the teens she studies (she ends up defending letter writing as an alternative to Skype). If they read her at all, for, well, can you really target the persons massively involved in the social networks by publishing a book, I wonder?

One thing that surprises me very much because I do not know how this fits my immediate national reality is that Turkle describes a situation affecting already two generations: American teenagers have been brought up by parents “who talked on their cell phones and scrolled through messages as they walked to the playground”, picked their children from school, shared meals with them or watched films in their company. They are, then, in no position to curb down their children’s use of the social networks. Actually, Turkle notes that teenagers resents their parent’s inattention and that some have started demanding that the adults disconnect their cell phones at least during meals. If you get my drift, she is arguing that a turning point is already looming in the horizon by which the younger generation, the millennials, will soon start considering if so much connectivity is worth it. Either that, or she has biased her book to suggest that this is the case.

I recently shared a meal with some of my post-grad students and they gave me a similar picture. One explained that she and her mates, tired of meeting for drinks only to see that everyone round the table was texting someone else, decided to pile their cell phone together: the first one to pick up his or hers, would pay for all the drinks. It seems to work. Another complained that her whatsapp family circle was nice and fulfilling but also time-consuming; all noted that whatsapp has very much complicated their lives, for it demands instant availability and response. If you refuse to join a whatsapp group or do not participate much, then you risk becoming a social pariah. The picture I got was of a certain reluctance to complying with all these demands and a wish that these trends soon peak out. This agrees with the panorama that Turkle offers. As a teacher, I was particularly concerned by her claim that many of the teens she has interviewed “send and receive six to eight thousand texts a month, spend hours a day on Facebook, and interleave instant messaging and Google searches”. This passage is part of a segment on how impossible it is to keep your teen life private and, what’s more important, without leaving potentially embarrassing traces for the future in a life “that generates its own electronic shadow”.

Yet, this colossal investment of time in just staying connected is not the sole province of the very young. Turkle presents the case of a fellow scholar who decides to leave his cell phone in the trunk of his car so that he can concentrate on writing a book, only to find himself going to his car many times a day to check if he’s got any messages. “Connectivity becomes a craving,” Turkle explains; “when we receive a text or an e-mail, our nervous system responds by giving us a shot of dopamine. We are stimulated by connectivity itself. We learn to require it, even as it depletes us. A new generation already suspects this is the case.”

Thinking as a Literature teacher, I am particularly astonished by Turkle’s announcement of the end of conversation. Remember those American 1980s movies in which teen girls spend hours glued to phones with very long cord extensions? Well, this is over: it seems that texting and IM has made conversation an embarrassment, for teens have got used to the idea of having time, if only a few seconds, before texting their thoughts. That might explain why you see in public places so many people texting rather than talking at each other. Perhaps Turkle exaggerates, but just think what a daunting task it’ll be for novelists, playwrights and screen writers, to represent human interaction in the near future… I grant that Shakespearean dialogue was never a reflection of daily practice, but fancy writing a story in which most communication happens through cell phones and computers. At the same time, how can you exclude this intensive craving for techno-mediated contact from the representation of our times?

I’m also struck by this passage: “One young man in his twenties says that the Internet is our new literature. It is an account of our times, not necessarily calling for each individual’s truth to be told.” She confuses here (or he, I’m not sure) all literature with fiction, which need not be literary. Yet the point is valid all the same: who would want to read/see made-up stories if you are busy writing your own life story through the social networks? Turkle gives the impression that many, if not most, teens are adapting their lives to a script that is, besides, closely monitored by everyone else. If you can do the mental experiment, please, think what Darcy and Elizabeth would do today and how impossible it would be not to include their Facebook accounts in their story. They would probably tweet about each other. And thousands would follow their quarrels online.

If you remember, a crucial moment in Pride and Prejudice happens when Elizabeth receives a long letter from Darcy. The English novel, let’s recall this, depends very much on the letter (Pamela is, of course, an epistolary novel) and, in general, on the characters’ ability to sustain a continuous stream of introspection (which later becomes, yes, stream of consciousness). Now introspection is suspect–there is an add on TV for one of those comprehensive internet services, in which you see a young woman embarking on a long bus journey. The voiceover explains that she has now time to be alone with her thoughts but just after a few minutes, she decides to stop thinking and watch a TV series. And that’s the main message: that time spent in thinking is boring, and so you need to fill it in with another stream, provided by the internet service. How, in view of this, can fiction be written in the future? Not to mention essays…

Let me go back to the letter. Turkle mentions a young man who has never sent or received a letter, even though he loves the idea. For him letters are part of a quaint past: “I miss those days even though I wasn’t alive”. He, however, cannot bring letter-writing back for fear of feeling “like a throwback to something you really didn’t grow up with”. Turkle, as I have noted, ends her book trying to establish a correspondence based on letters with her daughter, studying abroad in Ireland, which mirrors her own correspondence with her mother back in her student days. This shows that the past that the young man admires is just two decades away–it ended with the internet, and it is hard to imagine how letters can make a comeback in the reign of the text and the tweet.

Apart from all the difficulties that the current trends in interpersonal communication will soon bring to the representation of our times, I’d like to stress a point which is only implicit in Turkle’s fascinating insight into the ‘robotic moment’. This refers to numbers. Back in pre-internet times, a person would stay in touch with a much more limited number of persons, connecting through a) direct verbal interaction, b) phone calls, c) letters. The new media demand not only that we interact constantly but also that we interact with many more people than we can cope with. Of course I am happy that people read my blog but I could not spend a couple of hours every few days thinking here if I had to interact with all of you. We are expected to keep in touch in our professional and private lives with literally hundreds if not thousands of people, and this is just exhausting and even a mathematical impossibility. If you have, say, three very close friends, and a smallish family, you can find time for conversation. With three hundred friends, conversation is impossible and ends up being replaced with impersonal general tweets, Facebook posts and so on. A young man complains in Turkle’s book that he learnt of his sister’s wedding through Facebook, which she chose to announce the event rather than call him…

To conclude, how our lives change conditions how their representation evolves. We already have plenty of fiction about the interaction between humans and robots–indeed, since the 1950s when Isaac Asimov first imagined what is now our near future. In contrast, it is very hard to imagine what kind of fiction the social networks will generate. There is, of course, already fiction about the men who are building them (Zuckerberg, Jobs), but still very little fiction that narrates life taking them fully into account. If, as Turkle argues, people are writing their lives rather than just live them (she mentions a scientist who is documenting every single moment of his life), then other forms of writing might be pushed out of the way.

Food for thought…

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

WHEN (SPANISH) WRITERS RETIRE: PENSIONS AND CREATIVITY

These days the Spanish press is abuzz with news of the harsh treatment which Spanish writers are receiving from Hacienda, our local tax revenue agency. I have already signed the corresponding Change.org campaign asking the Government to reconsider the regulations implemented back in 2013. I agree 100% that this yet another attack against the persons who work for the benefit of Spanish culture–in a wide-ranging sense. It is important to note that the situation affects not only writers but any artist in any field.

Let me summarise the changes. The legislation affecting retirement was modified by the right-wing PP Government back in 2013. Most of us paid attention, above all, to the fact that the retirement age has been raised from 65 to 67, following the directives of the European Union–they think we are too poor and our life expectancy too prolonged to balance numbers in our welfare system. What we missed was the article stating that retired workers risk losing their state pension if they engage in professional activities generating an amount above the yearly minimum wage, that is to say, 9172,80 euros for 2016.

Recently, we were all surprised by news that the retired persons who worked as extras in the film Ocho apellidos catalanes, earning 240 euros in four days, had been ordered by the Ministerio de Empleo y Seguridad Social to refund 126,39 euros from their pensions–which seems to contradict the legislation I am describing (see http://www.lavanguardia.com/cine/20151207/30653878749/jubilados-pension-ocho-apellidos-vascos.html). They had not been warned in advance. A retired woman teacher, who did check her situation with Hacienda, has been fined nonetheless 23000 euros for teaching a few weekly classes at 90 euros an hour (see: http://www.laverdad.es/gente-estilo/201601/21/hacienda-multa-jubilada-clases-20160121110128.html). That’s all her savings.

Writers, then, are not quite an exception for Hacienda although their case, of course, has attracted more attention given their public exposure. One has been fined 100000 euros, another has lost his 30000 yearly pension after earning 15000 in royalties (http://cultura.elpais.com/cultura/2016/01/21/actualidad/1453404951_724842.html). And here is the main problem: Spanish legislation considers royalties for books published before retirement income from work, hence incompatible with the pensions. Royalties, Hacienda claims, are not the real question: they’re after the contracts signed after retirement for publishing but also for other activities like lectures. Writers, let’s clarify this, are usually divided into two categories: those who pay for their own pensions by declaring themselves ‘autonomous’ or self-employed workers and those who write while employed in other professions. Their enormously varied cases are hard to reduce to just one situation.

The writers themselves, organized in the Asociación Colegial de Escritores de España launched a manifesto on November 6 to protect their rights to remain creative after retirement. One of the strongest points of their protest is that in European countries such as Germany, Switzerland, Austria, France, the United Kingdom, Sweden or Poland, state retirement pensions are compatible with any other activity with no income limits: you just need to pay the corresponding taxes (see http://acescritores.com/pension-creacion-artistica-derechos-compatibles-la-union-europea/). Other countries, such as Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Slovenia, Greece, Island, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Romania, however, have legislation similar to ours.

If you read the readers’ comments to all the newspaper articles I am quoting from here, another picture emerges. Most readers defend the right of the producers of culture to go on making the most of their talent, invoking the argument that since eventually their work–at least in the case of writers–reverts to public ownership they contribute to society always in excess of the money they earn from a pension. Indeed. Just note, please, that the work of, say, painters is not subjected to similar legislation which is why certain pictures by dead authors are sold for obscene amounts of money. In contrast, the writers’ heirs lose their rights 70 years after the death of the author.

Others readers, however, stress that writers want to be treated unfairly as a special, privileged category. After all, these readers claim, legislation should apply to all. They also point out that you may go on working after retirement by arranging to earn 50% of the pension and continuing to pay your ‘autonomous’ worker fees. Above all, and here is the main criticism, a handful of frankly annoyed readers clarify that writers are not being asked to stop writing, just to stop charging money for their work. If we all pay a writer a pension collectively, then s/he is freed from market demands and can actually publish whatever they want. Any other position, an angry reader declares, is just mercenary, proving that what is at stake is not culture per se but the writers’ participation in the cultural marketplace.

To be honest, I’m terribly confused by all this. To begin with, a retirement pension is no obstacle to earn rent from property, investments or savings. If we apply the law’s rule of thumb taking into account these factors then many upper-middle-class persons retired from liberal professions would (should?) lose their pensions. In Spain pensions are not personal, in the sense that you do not receive at the end of your working life money coming from your personal account (as happens in private funds). You receive a quantity dependent on the years you have worked and the taxes generated by the younger workers. In the future it might well be that if these younger workers are too few to sustain the system nobody will get a pension. This is why it is very important to consider how the scant resources are being distributed, hence Hacienda’s tough stance. Yet, I insist, the law punishes specifically work, allowing retired persons to enjoy other sources of income.

As a civil servant who earns a state-funded public salary any extra income I may generate is also tightly limited by legislation. In my case, as an A-class civil servant I am allowed to generate income up to 30% of my salary (from ‘compatible’ activities). I do not know whether a writer/university teacher faces then a problem is his/her books generate royalties surpassing that quantity but it seems to me that the situation is comparable to that of retired writers. The top retirement pension in Spain is 2567 euros and guess what?, 30% amounts to 9241 euros, just a bit above the 9172,80 euros limit.

As you can see, I cannot make up my mind. I certainly don’t want anyone to stop producing culture when they retire–as I intend to go on writing when I retire. I very much disagree with the discrimination of income from work in relation to other types of income. And I am appalled by Hacienda’s sneaky tactics. Yet, my socialist heart tells me that there is very little money to go by for pensions and that if you are active and generating income, then you are not retired, hence you have no right to a pension. If your pension is so low that you need the income from your books to make ends meet, then the problem is the pension, not the books. My rational head tells me that the obvious solution is taxing all extra income, just as property, investment and savings are taxed, and as the civilized countries are doing.

One thing I am sure of is that producing culture has nothing to do with receiving money for doing so. It is simply not the case that individuals only produce culture for gain now or in the past. This is, plainly, a capitalist idea.

It all boils down to this huge question: what kind of worker is a writer? You tell me…

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

PRESENTISM: WHY THE PAST DOES NOT EXIST FOR YOUNG READERS

Marking the essays on Victorian Literature by my second-year students I’m puzzled by three which read the corresponding literary texts they analyze in terms of whether they are adequate for the present. One, in particular, focuses the paper almost entirely on why a recent film adaptation of Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is more apt for our times than the ‘faulty’ original text. I explain in a lengthy note why this approach is biased, noting that adaptations are particular readings of texts and not intended to be their replacements. Somehow or other, I recall the word ‘presentism’ which, I’m sure, I have read in some newspaper article I now forget about the current generation of students.

To my further puzzlement, Wikipedia informs me that ‘presentism’ is not just a feature of our undergrads’ worldview but, attention, a philosophical current. According to its proponents, “events and entities that are wholly past or wholly future do not exist at all”; presentism “contrasts with eternalism and the growing block theory of time”, currents which do defend the existence of past events and entities. I’m flabbergasted. Or possibly very poorly informed, for the consequence of this aberration is the denial of History and, hence, of tragedies like the Holocaust and any dictatorship you can thinks of.

When Hayden White argued back in 1973 that History is an agreed upon fiction (or a consensual hallucination, borrowing Willian Gibson’s definition of hyperspace), he didn’t mean that certain horrific events could be denied or were not ‘true’. He meant that the way we narrate History is subjective and interested. Hence, in a second, more rational sense, in literary and historical analysis, “presentism is the anachronistic introduction of present-day ideas and perspectives into depictions or interpretations of the past”. It seems that this word, first cited “in its historiographic sense” in 1916 according to the OED, may be dated back to the 1870s. This concept or label is behind the kind of trick by which historians with certain political interests read the past according to a supposed teleological drive that culminates in the present. You may think of Hitler’s dream of building a Third Reich as one of the most disastrous applications of this type of presentism.

In the papers that so puzzled me, however, presentism was not “the anachronistic introduction of present-day ideas and perspectives into depictions or interpretations of the past”, not even in the historiographic version. It was, rather, a belief that the past can be discarded because it does not measure up to the present in any sense. Of course, I am exaggerating the presence of this trend among my students’ papers because I want to insist here on a point I have been struggling to make throughout the course: We all belong in a certain historical time and this is like any other time–everyone, therefore, needs to understand not only the nature of other historical periods but also that our own period will sooner or later be the past. A quaint one.

We may gaze at our navels thinking that all that came before us, Victorian Literature included, was a) important only because it led to us or b) irrelevant because we are all that matters on Earth. In this way, however, we limit very much our vision. And our empathy. I think you can only read well the Literature of the past if you do the mental exercise of imagining what life would be like for you if you lived at that time. This always reminds me of actors’ saying that they only understand characters alive in other periods when they wear the right costumes. I am always joking, hence, that I need to teach Victorian Literature wearing the appropriate corset and crinoline–actually changing fashions as I move from the 1830s to the 1890s. I have proposed to my colleagues that once a year we celebrate the periods we teach in this way. So far the proposal has met with great theoretical acceptance which has not translated into practice… Since my colleague Joan Curbet seems certainly very keen on donning Medieval cloak, tunic, trousers, and leggings I have not lost hope…

I don’t know what this is like for other people, as it not a subject I have ever discussed with anyone, but although I had excellent History teachers in secondary school, it was only when I became an undergrad that I became fully aware of my historical placement. To be honest, my young self was a bit disappointed to understand that the 1980s were not the culmination of world History, perhaps an impression enhanced by Spanish Transition and the death throes of the then still raging Cold War. Even Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the end of History had arrived in 1989 when the Berlin Wall collapsed.

So, imagine my disorientation when I finally did see that my generation is just one among many in the History of the world, perhaps only particularly gifted at complicating matters for everyone else, from the way we cannot stop the destruction of Earth to the way we have generalized the use of the digital technologies. The realisation of one’s very modest place in the universe is, however, extremely liberating because it enables you to finally open up to other times and places, as I say. I’m not thinking here of the idiotic fantasy of imagining yourself alive in other times: people always imagine being in Pharaoh’s court as a courtier but not being an abused Egyptian slave. Also, being a woman, only the future is preferable for me. I mean the kind of liberation that allows you to read the Literature of the past without being judgemental and finding fault with it all the time because it is old-fashioned.

The author of the paper worrying me is a very sweet young man now on the verge of losing the presentism which, as I’m arguing, affects anyone young of any generation. He is in this sense like anyone else, as I could see when I tried to rationalize in class what I am explaining here. The students looked at me very much at a loss about what I was talking about, or perhaps it was beginning to dawn on them that growing up entails precisely this, the process of abandoning the presentist cocoon to see yourself as just an individual among many others in the History of the world.

This humility, however, is increasingly harder to grasp in view of the narcissistic attitude encouraged by those who run the social media and to which the digital natives have taken with such gusto. The Sillicon Valley white male patriarchs growing rich at the expense of the general loss of privacy of the post 1990 generations have pounced on the natural narcissism of teenagers. They want to convince everyone young that they need to be different and special and, thus, that they must invest much effort in keeping their personal accounts lively and interesting. Encouraged to think that they are the centre of the world, at least to themselves, young people face a harder time accepting that they’re not and thus shedding their presentism. Said like the Facebook-less, Twitter-incompetent, middle-aged woman I am…

Back to Victorian Literature, I wonder whether presentism of the kind I have described here is the root of the problem in relation to how little students read. Logically, if you believe that the past is totally irrelevant or just a prelude to your own time, it’s much harder to engage with its Literature. If I think about it, perhaps I am guilty myself of an extended form of presentism by which I’m interested in anything from 1800 onwards because unconsciously I have decided that my own historical time are the last 200 odd years. I certainly find it much harder to feel attracted by pre-1800 texts, Shakespeare excluded. Yet, I felt great pleasure when reading 16th, 17th and 18th century texts at my teachers’ request (or invitation). The same pleasure that, I hope, my own students feel when reading the Victorian texts–at least, those students who do read them.

I’ll think again of the dress-in-the-costume-of-your-period teaching day… students included!

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

100 YEARS, 100 FILMS: AN EDUCATION IN CINEMA HISTORY

A while ago a colleague told me it would be nice to have a list of films for our students and for any interested colleague to educate themselves in cinema History. More than 100 years after the brothers Lumière set the foundations for the birth of a new art, cinema is not yet an integral part of everyone’s education, as Literature is supposed to be. This means that in practice any cinema lover–every ‘cinéfilo’–is self-taught.

Even so, as I have confirmed to myself by checking the fabulous Filmsite web, edited by Tim Dirks, there is an enormous difference between the generations born before and after the 1980s in Spain. Those of us whose childhood and youth were spent in the Spain of the then monopolistic Televisión Española were given a wonderful education in cinema History which those of you growing up in the 1990s and later have totally missed.

The emergence of private television, beginning with the infamous TeleCinco of its early stages, totally destroyed a way of enjoying cinema on tv. Gone were the films more than ten years old, anything filmed in black and white and whatever came from places other than Hollywood. Gone were the film cycles devoted to a period, genre or director. The film critics we were used to seeing on TV, gentlemen as intelligent but as little telegenic as Alfonso Sánchez, were replaced by idiotic announcers who clearly had no idea what they were presenting at all; one can still see them now and then. La2 continues the good practice of offering a more serious approach with a weekly hour devoted to good cinema, the programme Días de Cine. The rest just offer advertising for the new releases.

One of my projects for this Christmas break has been going through the list of films I remember seeing (I keep it at www.imdb.com) to find the most glaring gaps in my own cinema education. I must clarify that I’m not a film buff in the sense that I will not go out of my way to praise an obscure Iranian film instead of a reasonably good American production. I will see any new Iranian film that fits my interests and the same applies to any other nationality but I just don’t feel the urge to give myself an education in their film History. Having exposed my philistinism and having warned my reader that I was looking for gaps in my Anglo-American filmography (I don’t really like Spanish cinema much…), I’ll praise again Dirks’ Filmsite.

I found there a list of ‘greatest films’ for each year since 1902 (http://www.filmsite.org/greatestfilms-byyear.html) and went through it with much enjoyment. This was increased as I recalled having seen most films on Spanish television. I mean the films released up to the early 1980s, when I started going to the cinema with my friends and often on my own (as an undergrad student). Since then, and for the reasons concerning the private channels, television is by no means an important film source for me, with the only occasional exception of La2.

I want, however, to thank here publicly the film programmers of Televisión Española for having been such wonderful teachers to all kinds of audiences–both the audiences that preferred the more popular genres and the audiences that enjoyed the art-house orientation of the film cycles on what is now on La2. I happened to be a mixture of both and I’m sure I have these anonymous benefactors for this, something that private television will never be able to match.

Back to the list I never managed to made: you can make your own on the basis of Tim Dirks’ selection (which goes beyond Anglo-American, I must say) or use my own selection of his selection. I have chosen the magic figure of 100 years, 100 films (check IMDB for any further information on them) and here’s the list. There may be films in it I personally don’t like but it is my intention to highlight a certain oblique canon, not even of the best but of the most often remembered or discussed by film aficionados. All films are American, except where the contrary is noted:

1915 The Birth of a Nation, D. W. Griffith
1916 Intolerance, D. W. Griffith
1917 The Unfortunate Marriage, Ernest C. Warde [Dirk includes no film for 1917, I have chosen this one based on IMDB ratings]
1918 Shifting Sands, Albert Parker [ditto…]
1919 Broken Blossoms, D.W. Griffith
1920 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (original German title: Das Kabinett Des Doktor Caligari), Robert Wiene
1921 The Kid, Charles Chaplin
1922 Nosferatu, A Symphony of Terror/Horror (original German title: Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie Des Grauens), F.W. Murnau
1923 Safety Last, Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor
1924 Greed, Erich von Stroheim
1925 Battleship Potemkin (original Russian title: Bronenosets Potyomkin), Sergei Eisenstein
1926 The Son of the Sheik, George Fitzmaurice
1927 Metropolis, Fritz Lang [the sound period starts here in 1927 with The Jazz Singer]
1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc (original title: La Passion De Jeanne D’Arc), Carl Theodor Dreyer; silent film
1929 Pandora’s Box (original German title: Die Büchse der Pandora), Georg W. Pabst
1930 All Quiet on the Western Front, Lewis Milestone
1931 Frankenstein, James Whale
1932 Freaks, Tod Browning
1933 King Kong, Merian C. Cooper
1934 It Happened One Night, Frank Capra
1935 A Night at the Opera, Sam Wood
1936 Modern Times, Charles Chaplin
1937 Grand Illusion (original French title: La Grande Illusion), Jean Renoir
1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood, Michael Curtiz, William Keighley
1939 Gone With the Wind, Victor Fleming, George Cukor, and Sam Wood
1940 The Grapes of Wrath, John Ford
1941 Citizen Kane, Orson Welles
1942 Casablanca, Michael Curtiz
1943 The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (UK), Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
1944 Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder
1945 The Children of Paradise (original French title: Les Enfants Du Paradis), Marcel Carne
1946 The Best Years of Our Lives, William Wyler
1947 Miracle on 34th Street, George Seaton
1948 The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, John Huston
1949 The Third Man (UK), Carol Reed
1950 All About Eve, Joseph L. Mankiewicz
1951 A Streetcar Named Desire, Elia Kazan
1952 Singin’ in the Rain, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen
1953 From Here to Eternity, Fred Zinnemann
1954 On the Waterfront, Elia Kazan
1955 Rebel Without a Cause, Nicholas Ray
1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Don Siegel
1957 The Bridge on the River Kwai, David Lean
1958 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Richard Brooks
1959 Ben-Hur, William Wyler
1960 Psycho, Alfred Hithcock
1961 West Side Story, Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins
1962 Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean
1963 The Leopard (original Italian title: Il Gattopardo), Luchino Visconti
1964 My Fair Lady, George Cukor
1965 The Sound of Music, Robert Wise
1966 Blow-Up (UK), Michelangelo Antonioni
1967 The Graduate, Mike Nichols
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey (UK), Stanley Kubrick
1969 Easy Rider, Dennis Hopper
1970 M*A*S*H, Robert Altman
1971 A Clockwork Orange (UK), Stanley Kubrick
1972 The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola
1973 The Exorcist, William Friedkin
1974 Chinatown, Roman Polanski
1975 The Rocky Horror Picture Show (UK), Jim Sharman
1976 Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese
1977 Star Wars: Episode IV, A New Hope, George Lucas
1978 The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino
1979 Alien, Ridley Scott
1980 The Elephant Man, David Lynch
1981 Raiders of the Lost Ark, Steven Spielberg
1982 Blade Runner, Ridley Scott
1983 Local Hero (UK), Bill Forsyth
1984 Amadeus, Milos Forman
1985 Brazil (UK), Terry Gilliam
1986 Hannah and Her Sisters, Woody Allen
1987 The Last Emperor (UK/It./China/HK), Bernardo Bertolucci
1988 Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Original Spanish title: Mujeres al Borde de un Ataque de Nervios), Pedro Almodóvar
1989 Born on the Fourth of July, Oliver Stone
1990 Edward Scissorhands, Tim Burton
1991 Beauty and the Beast, Kirk Wise
1992 Basic Instinct, Paul Verhoeven
1993 Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg
1994 Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino
1995 The Usual Suspects, Bryan Singer
1996 Trainspotting (UK), Danny Boyle
1997 Titanic, James Cameron
1998 Shakespeare in Love (US/UK), John Madden
1999 The Matrix, Andy and Larry Wachowski
2000 Billy Elliot (UK), Stephen Daldry
2001 Amelie (original French title: Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain), Jean-Pierre Jeunet
2002 Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore
2003 Lost in Translation (US/Japan), Sofia Coppola
2004 Downfall (original German title: Der Untergang), Oliver Hirschbiegel
2005 Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee
2006 The Lives of Others (original German title: Das Leben der Anderen), Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
2007 Into the Wilde, Sean Penn
2008 The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan
2009 Up, Pete Docter
2010 The Social Network, David Fincher
2011 Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn
2012 Amour (France), Michael Haneke
2013 Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón
2014 Boyhood, Richard Linklater
2015 Carol (UK/US), Todd Haynes

This list, I insist, is not meant to be anything but a starting point: it’s not a list of the best, not even within the same year–how can one choose between Lawrence of Arabia and To Kill a Mockingbirg, both 1962 films, or between Schindler’s List and Groundhog Day, both released in 1993? Navigate it as you wish, but do give yourself an education in film History…

Enjoy!!

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

MAY THE FORCE (NOT) BE WITH YOU: WHY WE CARE ABOUT STAR WARS

Yes, I finally saw yesterday Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It has been very hard to avoid the spoilers for a couple of weeks (yet I must also marvel at the conspiracy of silence to conceal some major plot turns!). Harder to miss were the tepid reactions of most professional reviewers. Given their warnings, I cannot say I am disappointed in the film. I am disappointed, rather, by a Hollywood system that has simply abandoned innovative storytelling for mindless plot-driven action and that is currently in love with the ugly notion of the ‘reboot’ (for this is what this ‘new’ film amounts to, with the addition of a competent girl hero and her male sidekick).

Despite this, I’m not offering here a review, for there are already thousands which readers can check and also because fans will see the film no matter what others think of it and non-fans (?) will not see it no matter how persuasive positive opinions may be. I am not myself quite a Star Wars fan but I belong to the generation that was mesmerized in their childhood (age 11 for me) by the absolutely mind-blowing image of the colossal Imperial cruiser crossing the screen at the very beginning of Episode IV: A New Hope back in 1977. Nothing will ever surpass the cinematic wonder of that moment. Ever.

I have contributed my bit to the surprisingly scant academic work on George Lucas’ brainchild with an article on Anakin Skywalker, no doubt the most complete–and hateful–character even despite Hayden Christensen’s appalling performance (See: “Shades of Evil: The Construction of White Patriarchal Villainy in the Star Wars Saga” in Josep M. Armengol (ed.), Men in Color, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011, 143-167). This new film arguably confirms my hunch that the main topic of the whole saga are the difficulties of raising teenage boys. As I age, I appreciate the good job that the overlooked Owen and Beru Lars did in raising their foster child Luke Skywalker, the quintessential good boy. No doubt Star Wars is a story about men’s problems to control their own potential violence. I don’t quite see a woman facing the same issue in the saga… hopefully.

Why do we care about Star Wars? I assume that the many millions in the world who do not care find the story silly and the space opera trappings just escapist fiction junk. Even those of us who care bemoan the many gaps and errors in the script–beginning with the erratic ways in which the Force operates. As for space opera, there’s plenty of much higher quality in print. Please, don’t say that the success of the Star Wars franchise is just due to Hollywood business acumen and its greedy marketing ploys, for these emerged only after the unexpected planetary success of the first film. Obviously, the money-grabbing, in-your-face strategies are easy to spot in the brief appearances of characters who are only in the movies to sell the corresponding figurine. There is, however, something that surpasses all the gadgetry, whether this is the elementary pleasure in the soap opera of the Skywalkers’ depressing family saga, the need to explore the roots of male violence as I say, or the urge to renew the basic myth of the struggle between good and evil.

I am not familiar with the Expanded Universe, which extends to all the licensed products connected with the saga in a variety of media and which is itself complemented with the countless derivative products generated by the fans. You may be horrified to learn that back in 2014, after George Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Walt Disney (in 2012), this EU was re-named ‘Star Wars Legends’ and declared non-canon, which is Disney’s dubious attempt to keep a tighter grip on the links between the forthcoming films and the new secondary products. As the Harry Potter case proves, however, the struggle to keep under wraps the collective impulse to add new strands to key stories in the style of traditional folk tales and mythmaking cannot simply be won by capitalist corporations. So, here is for me a reason why we care: Star Wars has provided its audience with a vast canvas on which to add detail to a growing web of stories. We miss the old collective art of folk story-telling and the saga satisfies our nostalgia for it (as other cultural manifestations do).

Then, there’s the Force. The possession of mystical powers by certain select individuals is a very old fantasy and Lucas borrowed from, among his most immediate predecessors, the Bene Gesserit sisterhood of Frank Herbert’s Dune novels. Actually, he took it away from the women to place it in the hands of the Jedi, a circle of so-called ‘knights’ that only recalled there were females among them in the 1990s (‘lady’ Jedis?). The saga’s most glaring sexist turn is Yoda’s decision not to train Princess Leia even though he acknowledges that the Force is strong in her (as it should be given her family connections). Before I ramble onto a feminist bypath, let me recap: a great deal of the appeal of the saga is based on the possibility that any humble individual can be in possession of the Force–this is what Luke embodies. It is not so different, as you can see, from magic in Harry Potter. Both sagas have this in common: they do have an individual hero but he belongs to a community of good-doers facing a community of evil-doers. Many others can join in, hence the appeal for the fans. Get the wand or the light-sabre and you’re in.

The saga deals also with a major problem: the patriarchal lust for power. Ask yourself: if you were in possession of the Force how would you use it? The saga argues that you should have to overcome the temptation of falling into the Dark Side (capitalized, yes), for having ‘powers’ leads to craving ‘power’, and having excessive ‘powers’ and ‘power’ only leads to villainy. This is a patriarchal attitude best exemplified by Anakin Skywalker’s supposition that he is entitled to a great deal of power just because he has powers. Luke, in contrast, and the Jedis in general, embody the difficulties of being good in a universe in which this position does not pay.

And this is our own struggle: since the 1970s, when the saga started, the villain is our hero but because we are secretly ashamed of wanting to be Darth Vader we pretend we are on the side of the Jedi. Yet, we enjoy following a story in which they fail again and again, for, being good guys, they are easily hoodwinked by the patriarchal monsters, call them Sith, Empire, or First Order. Luke Skywalker has never been a strong hero and we tend to prefer Han Solo, that rascal who cannot really commit. Let me recap the argument: Lucas’ saga, in which there are neither gods nor God, places the burden of moral decision with the individual by focusing on the problem of avoiding the temptation of abusing our power/s. The Dark Side is just this: the individual’s awakening to the advantages of doing evil (a concept that Lucas borrowed from Heart of Darkness–he was supposed to direct the film adaptation that later became Apocalypse Now!).

The key issue of why some individuals want to accrue power in order to do evil, and thus accrue even more power to do even more evil, can be discussed by an abstract philosophical treatise or by space opera with a silly melodramatic plotline. Like all the other stories about heroes and villains, Star Wars is, however, unable to imagine what the Jedi can do with their own power to do good. What I most missed in Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a political discussion of the kind of Republic the rebels had managed to build once the Empire had been destroyed in Episode VI. Instead, we are given the story of how a new bunch of evil guys have already built a fascist regime, thus actually becoming the resistance to the Jedi’s Republican new order. Surely, the new trilogy will tell the story of how the Jedis rebuild their lost strength and once again defeat their opponents–yet the debate, as you can easily see on the internet, is already focused on whether the new villain Kylo Ren is charismatic enough. Not on Luke’s efforts. As for the new hero the debates are focused, rather, on her being too perfect, a Mary Sue none can identify with…

To sum up, the Star Wars saga deals with our increasing collective inability to root for the good heroes and our secret wish to be evil–if only we had Force enough. May the Force not be with you, then, unless you can imagine ways to do good with it.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/