Tuesday, January 26, 2010

My First Library

The first library I remember is the Lakeland Public Library in Lakeland, Florida. This is what it looked like in the early 70s, a rather interesting and cool 1960s modernist building that was only a few years old at the time:

This is the equally modernist interior:

Unfortunately, the Lakeland Public Library no longer looks like this. It was renovated in the 80s in the style that shall be known as Post-Modernist Bland (if you're curious, you can view pictures at the Lakeland Public Library website, where I found these photos).

I revisited the library in 2007 and thought it looked different from how I had remembered (other than simply looking smaller, which was to be expected), but I wasn't sure exactly how it had looked in the 70s, my childhood memories being vague. So I was quite happy when I discovered these photos, not only to find that a photographic record of the old library exists, but also because I was glad to know that it looked so cool back then. Of course, it is also sad that they had to do away with something stylish in favor of something not so much, but you can't really blame the city of Lakeland entirely. They were just following the 80s trend (which has continued up to the present) of making buildings boring.

Friday, January 22, 2010

2010 vs. 2001

Last night I watched the movie 2010, in honor of the fact that the futuristic setting of the film has become contemporary. Throughout my life I have made it a habit to read or view science fiction works at the actual times they are supposed to take place, whenever this has been possible. For instance, I read a Reader's Digest condensed version of 1984 on the two days in April 1984 when the action was supposed to have occurred. On New Year's Day 2001, I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey, and during the year I read the novel. I had seen 2010 in the theater when it came out back in 1984, but, despite my regular habit since the mid-90's of watching old science fiction movies, I had never seen it since. In general, science fiction movies since Star Wars haven't excited me as much as older ones (with a few notable exceptions like Blade Runner), and 2010 became in my mind one of those mediocre 80's sci-fi movies that I just didn't care enough to revisit. However, since it is now the namesake year of that film, I decided to watch it again just out of curiosity, to compare its vision of the year 2010 with the reality.

Many people who have seen 2010 have pointed out that it has become much more dated than the older (1968) film to which it is a sequel, 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is true. The computers, for instance, look pretty much like PCs from... well, 1984. However, there is one brief shot of the main character, Dr. Heywood Floyd (Roy Scheider), sitting on a beach using a laptop, which is interesting. The two home interiors that are glimpsed look like very mild versions of 1980's futurism (think Omni magazine or EPCOT, toned down). The movie is also dated politically, since it assumes the continued existence of the Soviet Union (with whom we are on the brink of a nuclear war... how 80's can you get?).

In other ways, though, the movie's predictions are way too advanced (artificial intelligence on the level of HAL 9000, manned spaceflight to Jupiter), but these are elements it borrowed from 2001, which, after all, posited the existence of such things nine years ago.

So why does 2010 date so much more than the older 2001? This is an interesting question, and I think it has an interesting answer. 2010 dates more, I think, because it is more realistic. That is, its vision of the future was based on the reality of 1984, with some reasonable guesses as to how things might change over the course of the next 26 years. The fact that these educated guesses about the world of 2010 were so cautiously "realistic" is precisely what has made the movie seem like a product of its time rather than a timeless masterpiece like its predecessor. 2001, while one could argue that its vision of the world 33 years hence was also reasonable given the rapid advances in space exploration in the 1960's, was not so constrained in its imagination. Stanley Kubrick's classic film dreamed big... it was a movie of vision. It was notably realistic in its details of space travel (no sound in the vacuum of space, for instance), but it was not "realist" in its imaginative scope. By "realism" in this sense I mean the sort of pragmatic, sober-minded outlook that rejects the grand visions of romanticism. 2001 is romantic in its bold imagination, its epic grandeur, and its mystical, transcendent yearning. 2010 possesses none of these qualities, but is instead a much more pedestrian affair. Where 2001 is magical and mysterious, 2010 attempts to demystify it, to explain the unexplainable and to convert the poetic myth of 2001 into bland literalism.

The very aesthetics of the two pictures attest to these vast differences in vision. The world of 2010 is actually much more realistic than the futuristic fantasy of 2001, but that is precisely the problem. 2010 presents us with a mundane vision, barely different from the reality we know. 2001 showed us something magnificent, inspiring, and wondrous. The interior of the Russian spaceship in 2010 looks like every other depressing, workmanlike spacecraft interior in 1980's science fiction films (something like the inside of a submarine), a far cry from the pristine white minimalism of the interior of Discovery in the earlier film. The interiors of the space shuttle and space station share this stylish futuristic aesthetic, which has the effect of making the imagined world of 2001 seem like a wonderful place. It is of course an idealized vision, but this is exactly what makes it inspiring. We are not inspired by imperfect realities, but by ideals.

All of this is not to say that 2010 is a bad movie. It's actually a decent, if not particularly memorable, science fiction film. The problem is that it suffers in comparison to its predecessor. Granted, 2001 is one of the high achievements of 20th century art and it would be unfair to expect any sequel, even if it had been done by Kubrick himself, to match up to it. But if you're going to touch a classic, the stakes are high. Disappointment is inevitable unless you really, really know what you're doing, which doesn't mean having a big budget or the most sophisticated special effects, but in having vision. And in any artform, that is one of the hardest resources to come by.

One last difference to point out: in 2010, there is just too much talking.

Friday, January 1, 2010

New Year

I have often wondered why people seem to get so excited about the new year. What are all those people standing in the freezing cold in Times Square really celebrating? Is it merely an excuse to party and drink too much? Or are they sincerely happy that a new year is dawning? And if so... why, exactly? Do they think that the new year will be better than the last one? Don't they remember that they thought the same thing a year ago? Don't they know that a year from now, they'll be celebrating the passing of this year and the start of the next? And so on and so on, ad infinitum? Are we really so glad to keep moving forward in time, even though each new year brings us inevitably one year closer to our demise? What is this celebrating all about, anyway?

I can't answer for other people, but even as I ask such questions I admit that I myself have always had a certain fascination with the arrival of a new year. However, I feel that my appreciation of this calendrical change is in some way different from that of most other people, so I still wonder what it is exactly that they are so excited about. For me, it is related to a somewhat nerdish interest I have always had in time and history. Before I explain that, let me preface it by saying that I don't see the new year, or a new decade, or even a new century or millenium, as bringing with it a magical change, for better or for worse. As U2 once put it, "Nothing changes on New Year's Day." History is a continuum, more often than not marked by evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, changes. Even when revolutionary change does occur, it doesn't happen on our schedule, but at odd times on the calendar. For example, it has been said that the 19th century actually ended in 1914, with the outbreak of the First World War, and that the 21st century really began in 1989, the year that the Berlin Wall fell and the World Wide Web was invented. These ideas, too, are just ideas, no more or less real than the 20th century that began on January 1, 1900 and ended on December 31, 1999 (the dates according to popular custom, not mathematics, which no one really cares about anyway). Each of these conceptions of when a certain time period began or ended is of course just something that we impose on time, a way of drawing up boundaries and setting down mile markers. Our timekeeping is a way of naming certain periods of time, whether they be years, months, weeks, days (each linked in some way with astronomical cycles), or more artificial constructions like hours, minutes, and seconds. There is a comfort, and a great practical benefit, to having regular divisions to our experience. But underneath it all, time flows in one long continuous river.

That said, I still always find myself fascinated by the arrival of a new year. Sure, I know it's just a number, the inevitable moving from one labeled division of time to the next, but to me that change in labeling is somehow exciting. We have always been moving forward in time at the same rate, but when we reach that mile marker, that state line, when we reach a territory that requires a new name, we feel a more tangible sense of change and progress through time. For me, this is linked with a lifelong fascination with the future, which in my adult life I have realized is related to a larger fascination with time as a whole, with the way in which past, present, and future are all part of the same continuum, and the way in which history is a long, unpredictable, and always interesting journey from the beginning of the world to the end. Perhaps, ultimately, what intrigues me is the sense that I am a character finding myself in the midst of a vast story, so big that I can't see its boundaries, the beginning and the ending completely out of sight. The new year is like the turning of the page. We may be in mid-sentence, but there is a tangible sense of progress in reaching the end of the page and flipping over to the next one. I am always interested in seeing what happens next, and in seeing where this is all going. The fact that we have just moved on to page 2010 of the Christian Era part of the book is exciting. We are moving further along, always meeting up with new things, seeing the strange and impossible future become reality before our eyes. In previous chapters of the book, we often wondered what these future pages would bring, but were unable to leap ahead to find out. We often imagined things about them, hopeful or fearful. Now we get to see at last what they're really like. Often this may be disappointing, or it may be reassuring. It is never uninteresting.

As a child in the 1970s and early 1980s, I grew up anticipating the wondrous future that lay ahead in the year 2000. During my young adult life in the 1990s, I didn't give much thought to it, but as the actual year 2000 drew near, and after it arrived, I became interested in looking around at the world and seeing how closely it resembled all the ideas that people had imagined about it. Inevitably, there was disappointment. The world looked pretty much the same on January 1, 2000 as it had on December 31, 1999. For that matter, it was not all that radically different in appearance from how it had looked in the 1970s. But as the first decade of the new century wore on, I began to realize just how much had changed. No, we did not have giant wheel-shaped space stations, moon bases, jetpacks, or cities that looked like Tomorrowland. Nor was everyone wearing form-fitting, shiny bodysuits (considering the obesity epidemic, this is undoubtedly a blessing). But I came to realize that many changes, both technological and cultural, had occurred while I wasn't looking. In fact, when I began to think about all the changes that had occurred--remote control TVs, VCRs, CDs, DVDs, personal computers, the Internet, microwave ovens, cell phones, etc. etc.--the 1970s of my childhood started to seem downright quaint. This was an unusual sensation for me, for in my thirties I began to feel tangibly the movement of history in my own life. For the first time, I saw the era of my childhood as being a distinctly different historical period than the one in which I currently lived. I had grown up thinking of the '50s and '60s as far distant eras; how strange it was to realize that my own childhood was much closer to those times, not only chronologically but in many ways culturally and technologically, than it was to the present. And, once I saw them in that light, the early years of my life suddenly became fascinating in a way that they never really had been before.

Even so, it was still comforting to see that many things remained the same. For example, nature was still around (neither done in by gray, smothering pollution nor made obsolete by gleaming futuristic cities). Buildings, cars, and clothing still looked basically the same... perhaps initially a disappointment, but in the end, perhaps more reassuring than anything else. Because sometimes historical change, when you stop and take a look at it (or even when you don't stop to take a look at it because you don't have time to keep up with it), can be disorienting and disturbing. The past will always feel like home because it is literally where (or rather, when) we are from. It will always feel comforting, even the parts that once troubled us, because it is now safely behind us and is something we know. The future will always feel like a strange land, unknown, frightening, and uncertain. But ultimately, it will be our home just as much as the past was. It is all part of the same reality, the same unfolding story.

So, when the new year arrives, with a strange new name, it is a wondrous thing to behold and to find oneself in a new and unknown place, full of possibility. So yes, let us celebrate that arrival.

But let us also take comfort in the equally true fact that it is just another year.