Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Wrong Stuff

The movie ‘Blades of Glory’ has now passed the $100 million mark in receipts, so congrats to them. I have no idea if there is yet any profit to the film, as they spent so much money promoting it. Aside from the endless amount of TV and print ads, they also engaged in viral marketing of the film, at least in New York, and I had the unfortunate experience of seeing that first hand.

Kathy and I were out with two friends, and after seeing the Rossini opera La Donna del lago and a meal of Afghani food, we headed over to The Thirsty Scholar, a favorite bar of mine in the East Village. We were minding our own business, as the patrons of that bar do, when the peace was interrupted by two guys wearing goofy ice skating clothes, wandering around and getting involved in conversations, promoting the movie. And that’s when I got into a fight with one of them.

Fueled by a good quantity of beer and sambuca, I confronted him by asking if he knew the name of the person who was the last one to walk on the moon, and when he did it. This may seem like a non-sequitur, but to me it made perfect sense, at least in my inebriated state. You see, this has happened more than once, generally when I am confronted by something in our culture that is exceedingly banal or insipid. (And, also, generally when I am drunk.)

The guy didn’t know and got angry. I informed him that it was Wally Schirra in 1973. Of course, I got that wrong as well. Lesson 1: don’t try to teach history when you’ve had too much to drink. Apollo 17 was actually in December, 1972 (though to be fair, I had thought January 1973 so I was only off by a month), and Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt were the last to walk on the moon. Fortunately before the yelling got too loud he and his friend quickly left the bar, after explaining that he really didn’t give a shit, and he was just trying to make a few bucks, so would I please leave him the hell alone.

So why did this strike such a nerve? Because a generation ago our nation was sending people to the moon, and today they are sending people to bars to embarrass themselves by promoting crappy movies for minimum wage. It’s a tremendous disappointment to be involved in a culture that is in such an obvious state of decline, but no one notices.

To offer evidence of this, over the past several weeks I have been assembling a comprehensive list of accomplishments of our supposed great age of space exploration in contrast to the last great age of grand voyage and exploration, 500 years ago. Taking as a starting point the years 1969, when we landed on the moon, and 1492, when Columbus voyaged to the New World, I have listed the events year by year in comparison:


Apollo 11/12
Columbus First Voyage

1970 /1493:
Apollo 13
Columbus Second Voyage

Apollo 14/15
Salyut 1

Apollo 16/17
Apollo program canceled

Soyuz 13

John Cabot to North America
Amerigo Vespuci to North America

Vasco da Gama to India

Columbus Third Voyage
John Cabot to North America

Portuguese to Tanzania and Kenya

Vasco da Gama to India

Alonso de Ojeda to Venezuela

1977/1500 :
Vicente Yáñez Pinzón to Brazil
Pedro Álvares Cabral to Brazil

Gaspar Cortereal, to Labrador

Joao da Nova to the Ascension Islands
Gaspar de Corte-Real, to North America

Amerigo Vespuci to Brazil

Rodrigo de Bastidas to South America

Columbus Fourth Voyage
Joao da Nova to St Helena

Columbus Fourth Voyage
Vasco da Gama to India

STS-1; STS-2
Ferdinand Columbus to Central America
Juan de la Cosa to South America

3 Shuttle Flights
Dom Lourenço d'Almeida to Sri Lanka

4 Shuttle Flights

5 Shuttle Flights
Portuguese to Mozambique

9 Shuttle Flights
Juan Diaz de Solis to the Yucatan
Sebastian de Ocampo to Cuba

2 Shuttle Flights
Challenger accident

I got Nothing

2 Shuttle Flights
Diego Velázquez and Hernán Cortés to Cuba

5 Shuttle Flights
Ponce de León to the Turks and Caicos Islands

6 Shuttle Flights
Juan Ponce de Leon to Florida
Vasco Núñez de Balboa to the Pacific

Magellan in the Pacific

6 Shuttle Flights

8 Shuttle Flights
Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar to Cuba

7 Shuttle Flights
Pedro de Solis to South America

7 Shuttle Flights
Fernao Pires de Andrade to China

7 Shuttle Flights
Cordova to the Yucatan
Grijalva to Mexico

7 Shuttle Flights
Hernan Cortes to Mexico
Beginning of Magellan’s Voyage

8 Shuttle Flights
Cortes in Mexico
Magellan to the Pacific

5 Shuttle Flights
Cortes in Mexico
Magellan to the Pacific

3 Shuttle Flights

5 Shuttle Flights
First Crew Arrives at ISS

Verrazano to North America

6 Shuttle Flights
Verrazano to North America
Jacques Cartier to North America

Pizarro to the Pacific

5 Shuttle Flights
Rodrigo de Bastidas to Columbia
Pedro de Alvarado to Guatemala

1 Shuttle Flights
Columbia accident

John Rut to Newfoundland

1 Shuttle Flight
Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca to Texas

3 Shuttle Flights
Ambrosius Ehinger to Venezuela

5 Shuttle Flights planned
Martin Afonso de Souza to Brazil

So by 1530, almost all of the great voyages that we learned about in school had already happened. Most of the lands of America had been discovered. Magellan had completed his around the world voyage (though dying along the way). Colonies had been established around the globe. And these trips took far, far longer and were more dangerous than anything the space age has had to offer. By comparison our culture has completely given up, in the equivalent of in 1496 the combined powers of Europe deciding that they will never venture more than 150 miles from shore. The orbit of the space shuttle is 1-200 miles above the Earth’s surface; the same for Mir and the ISS. A typical commuter covers that distance in far less than a week.

To be fair, the comparison ignores the immense complexities of exploration, the violence and destruction involved (intended and unintended), and the motivation (geo power politics in much of both cases, a quest for wealth in others). Still, the point remains: a lack of fundamental imagination of what our culture can do. It doesn’t have to be the moon, but it does have to be grand, and please, God, just a little bit more than Will Ferrell vehicles.