Archive for October, 2012

By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty.

It was just announced that Disney has acquired LucasFilm for $4 billion, which consequently means Disney now owns the rights to all things Star Wars and Indiana Jones. It was also announced that Disney is targeting 2015 for the seventh Star Wars film, which will be the first in a new trilogy.

 Based on the reaction I’ve read so far, Star Wars fans seem extremely excited. More films are on the way and the already massive Star Wars universe will continue to expand across all media.Image

I’m not a fan of Star Wars, though I love Science Fiction and Fantasy. So, I’ll let someone else fantasize and prognosticate about where the Star Wars franchise should go from here.

 As a non-fan, but someone who loves movies and storytelling, this announcement made me wonder about this question: when are sequels warranted?

 Is a sequel of a film or book warranted every time the first installment was good? Crime & Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky is my favorite novel, yet I’ve never craved Crimes & Punishments: The Return of Raskolnikov. Likewise, my three favorite movies (Chasing Amy, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Braveheart) are all essentially standalone films, and I crave no expansion to those stories.

 However, I also love some films that are a part of a larger continuity, such as the current Marvel Universe films (The Avengers, et al.) which are six films in with at least six more to come. And I’m excited for all of those films.

 So when should there be a sequel? The answer is simple, really. A story – be it movie or film or TV series – deserves continuation when there are more GOOD stories worth telling in that continuity.

 I’m sure Star Wars fans will argue that there are plenty of good stories left, and given that there are countless books, video games, and TV shows set in the Star Wars universe whose stories are not represented in the film canon, the fans are probably right.

 In a story universe like Star Wars or Marvel, there is always room for continuation: there are more aliens and superheroes and worlds and conflicts. The possibilities are limited only by the imagination of the writers and their ability to craft a good story set in that universe.

 Unfortunately, as we are all aware, money drives decision making. Successful franchises and stories are constantly pushed past their logical endpoint because the companies producing the material know the built-in audience is a built-in source of revenue.

 One of my favorite shows on TV for a while was WGN’s Supernatural. From the first episode, the show was building to a climax that took five seasons to reach. The final episode of Season 5 was intended by the writers and producers to be the final episode of the series, and it was one of the best and most satisfying endings of any show or movie I’ve watched. However, the show’s popularity nudged it into more seasons that felt completely unwarranted. As much as I loved the show, I wanted it to end on that perfect note. The show is now on its third season since that “ending” and I haven’t watched any of it. Endings are the hardest part of a story to write, and if you find a great one, you just can’t ruin it.

 But when money is influencing storytelling so heavily, the number of stories ruined like this will just continue to grow. And it’s not like money’s influence on storytelling is new. Going back to Dostoevsky, 146 years ago he wrote his novella The Gambler in a hurry because it was being penned in order to pay off his own gambling debts.  

 So, while I’m not in their numbers, I have my fingers crossed for the Star Wars fans. I hope this new era of films and properties will bring you stories you love. While I don’t blame any company for trying to make a buck, I hope it’s not at the expense of the story.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

The other day I was sitting in traffic on I-290 between Naperville and Oak Park.  Nothing new there.  Traffic is the norm on most Chicago expressways at almost any hour of the day.  As I sit in traffic, I usually take a look around, trying to get a feel for the surrounding environment of whatever suburb I am stuck within.  I am really not sure where I was (Oak Lawn?  Oakville?  Oakcrest?), but I do know it was part of the 15 mile stretch of strip malls that mark Chicago-land west of Wolf Road.  In that way, it was the same as it always is: Sandwiches R’ Us, Sports R’ Us, Carpets R’ Us, Electronics R’ Us, etc.  But, I noticed a different storefront at this particular outside shopping plaza, and it took me aback.  This storefront was a church. A house of worship was right in-between the Dunkin’ Donuts and a Chop Suey restaurant.

I guess I have noticed these before, but as I sat in traffic and looked intently at this church I started to really think about its existence.  I was flooded with despondency looking at that strip-mall church.  It took me the whole ride of stop-and- go traffic to figure out why this feeling was so overpowering.

First, a confession: I am not religious in any way.  Yet, a lack of religion does not mean a lack of spirituality. Spirituality should be understood as an attempt to commune with the sacred.  Organized religion is just one method of creating this communion.  The larger spiritual desire for the sacred is universal amongst all human cultures, and different methods are used by different peoples.  This spiritual quest for the sacred is what I understand.  I think it is a necessary aspect for ‘humanity.’  As the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt has pointed out recently, we often find this sacredness within a larger community or group.  Humans look for, and hope for, something beyond their individual well-being, and when they find that larger purpose, they discover the sacred. Churches and religious practices provide only one, though undoubtedly the most well-known, opportunity for individuals to lose their profane individuality to the sacredness of a larger group or purpose.

Hagia Sophia.

Place and design are central to sacredness.  The builders of churches have always understood this, as Chartres, Notre Dame, and Hagia Sophiaprove.  These cathedrals were intended to provide the parishioners a feeling of the divine simply by being ensconced in the building.  Stained glass, incredible art and high ceilings made the sacred physically tangible. However, even when churches were not ostentatiously designed, they still provided a sacred place by being at the center of a recognized community.  In Chicago’s old neighborhoods, each church was the core. Like the great cathedrals, these places were intended to last for generations, so that families would feel a connection with long lost ancestors, and share in a much larger timeless community of churchgoers.  This community could be big, or tiny. The first ‘churches’ of Christianity were often

An ‘Agape.’

simply in a family home.  Friends and fellow believers sat around a kitchen table saying prayers, singing songs, and feeling the sacredness of an ‘agape’, or love-feast. Here the sacredness of the family was simply extended to a small number of non-biological ‘brothers and sisters’.

My previously mentioned despondency was caused by the place and design of the strip mall church.  A strip-mall church cripples sacredness by wrapping the institution in our most profane ideals.  Strip-malls are banal and ugly.  The sacred is unique and awe inspiring.  Strip malls are cheap and ephemeral. The sacred is timeless.  Strip-malls are quick and convenient. The sacred is difficult and fulfilling.  Strip-malls are about hyper-individualism; walking, talking, discussing, sharing experiences within a strip-mall is difficult and discouraged.  If you stay longer than 2 hours, your car in the parking lot will be towed.  The sacred is about losing yourself into something larger.

In his recent book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, the political philosopher Michael Sandel points out that America has gone from being a market economy (a possibly positive thing) to a market society (an incredibly profane system).  Nothing is sacred in such a society, as everything is for sale.  Perhaps strip-mall churches are the newest incarnation of this market society.  Perhaps it is the wave of the future.  If that is the case, I think there is going to be more and more despondency developing along our expressways.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

My oldest daughter started Kindergarten about a month ago. Since then, she has been on a mission to inform her mother and me all about the world.  She has taught us what fiction and nonfiction means.  We now realize that people ACTUALLY LIVE in Africa!  Evidently, she also has been taking some gymnastic courses when we weren’t looking, because she looks like Gabby Douglas on the monkey bars.  What she is most proud of though is her developing ability to read, spell and write.

Watching her struggle through Dr. Seuss, ‘popcorn words’ and homework has made me realize a few things.  First, the English language is ridiculously confusing.  Second, vowels are a pain in the a–.  Third, and most importantly, reading is not the natural state of being.  What do I mean by that third statement, you may ask?  Well, let me explain.

During the past few decades, genetic research and psychological studies have discredited the idea that the human mind is a ‘blank slate’ at birth.  Babies are born with a brain ready to be structured and ‘programmed’ by its

Little Albert Einstein

environment.  The findings of the last thirty years have proven that babies have an incredible amount of ‘folk- knowledge’ that surprises even the most loving parent.  I think the most interesting of these is the ability babies seem to have to understand rudimentary physics.  Now, this doesn’t mean that babies are little Albert Einstein clones. This means that babies understand that things usually fall to the earth, and not levitate toward the heavens.  They intuitively grasp that if a big object bumps into a smaller object, that smaller object should usually react.  Isaac Newton, eat your heart out.

Though parents may not have realized their babies have a rudimentary knowledge of physics, they undoubtedly have noticed that babies are ready from the first moment to communicate.  Babies immediately cry for food; within the first couple months they make and hold eye contact; within a half a year, most babies coo for their parents, often copying adult sounds.  As babies turn into toddlers, they begin to read the emotions of those around them, they make more recognizable noises, and they will use hand gestures, such as pointing.  Of course, this leads to the most important communication development for humanity; speech.  Kids say ‘mamma’; then ‘mamma uppy’; then ‘momma I want uppy’; then ‘mom please pick me up’; then ‘mom, please do not touch me in front of my friends.’

What is amazing is that children don’t need to be purposely taught such syntax development. It just happens by them listening to the people around them.  Children growing up in France speak French.  Children in Japan, speak Japanese. Etc, etc.  Nature and nurture work together for language development.  Some kids get a leg up, and some start in a crater. It has been estimated that children who have parents that read books to them  will have heard 30 million more words in their lives by the time they start school than those that have non-reading parents. No amount of ‘nature’ can overcome this ‘nurture’.

Now back to my daughter in Kindergarten.  As a baby, she had precocious verbal skills. All I had to do was talk to her. Her brain did the rest, and did it quite simply it seemed.  Therefore it was a bit of a surprise that reading and writing does not come as simply.  I have had to remind myself that all kids find reading an incredible challenge, and my daughter is no different. She needs to concentrate like she never has before.  She needs to deliberately and gruelingly sound out each letter of every new word.  As she gains memory of how each word sounds by just glancing at it, she reads more smoothly, but it is no easy task.

Her slow development of skills helps me realize how recent reading became a human skill. It has only been around for about 5000 years.  There is no brain ‘program’ for reading.  It is not picked up by watching others.  It takes hours and hours of deep thought.  What strikes me about this is just how natural we as Americans often think reading is. Words are everywhere, and why not, since 99% of Americans are literate.  Unfortunately, this means that the 1% illiterate is often seen as unnatural outliers.  But, watching my little girl try to work her way through “Fox in Socks”, I get a sense for the freakishness of this ability.  Now we need to make sure all children can become literate freaks.