- AN OPEN LETTER TO JJ ABRAMS -
AN APPEAL TO MAINTAIN THE INTEGRITY OF STAR TREK
GREETINGS MR. ABRAMS
My name is Vincent De Benedetto; I'm 52 years old, a writer, musician, New Jersey resident, and lifelong fan of Star Trek (and Star Wars). I'm writing to exhort you to refrain from commission of the errors you made in Star Trek, as you make its sequel, Star Trek: Into Darkness.
YOU DON'T PUT HIP-HOP IN A STAR TREK FILM. OR ANY VARIANT OF HIP-HOP (like The Beastie Boys). Please ensure that Star Trek: Into Darkness contains no hip-hop of any kind or flavor, including hip-hop hybrids such as pop-hop or metal hop.
Nor do I necessarily endorse inclusion of one of my own preferred musical forms--metal--in Star Trek. Both forms are inappropriate: hip-hop for its often vulgar and declasse' character, ignoble cultural context and associations, and general mindlessness, and metal for similar reasons. The Classical musical form (i.e. Classical music) has been used before in Star Trek; it's an excellent choice for its timeless character, more on this below, yet there are myriad musical forms and genres, and perhaps some not even invented yet, available for inclusion in Star Trek, as well. Why select those most closely associated in the popular mind with the vulgar and lowbrow, such as hip-hop?
I've been watching Star Trek in its many series and movies since the late 1960s; never before have I experienced this sort, or indeed any sort, of psycho-cultural intrusion into the series as I now am. The problem is that hip-hop is a musical form with an existing and established culture attached, singular and dominant, and it is thus likely impossible to hear hip-hop without reminder of that culture. Whilst watching Star Trek, it is highly inappropriate and indeed counterproductive for its soundtrack to conjure in the minds eye and ear of the viewer the elements of that culture: images of unshaven "gangstas," smiling with gold teeth and sunglasses; or basketball-toting youth with their pants hanging down far enough to reveal their posterior; or arrogant and materialistic young men calling their women a name that rhymes with "itch"; or hip-hop videos featuring large-bottomed women deliberately grinding and jutting said anatomy into the camera; or the apparent pattern of murder and criminality in the hip-hop world. These realities, images, and many others equally if not more unsavory, are all fully characteristic of modern-day American hip-hop, which for better or worse represents some of the lowest and most base elements in our culture. Thus, these images are in complete and total contradistinction to what Star Trek is; they simply do not meld with the cerebral, civilized, serious, sleek, and forward-looking world that is Star Trek, old or new, and accordingly should NOT reside in a Star Trek film.
Furthermore, inclusion of dubious elements such as hip-hop continue the unfortunate slide away from wholesome entertainment that Star Trek has taken in recent years. Over my lifetime I'd always understood this program, in particular, to essentially comprise "family entertainment," the occasional adult theme notwithstanding. And let us not underestimate or a priori devalue this traditional kind of role played, and status held by Star Trek, for our world desperately needs such programming. Programming that genuinely inspires, cheers, offers a definite and definitive positive counterbalance to the chaos, ego, and profit-driven structure that our world has unthinkingly foisted upon itself, and offer people a vision and message of hope to and toward which to move, when so much of our modern world seems hopeless.
In TOS Balance of Terror, Witness Kirk intoning: "...here's one thing you can be sure of, Mister. Leave any bigotry in your quarters. There's no room for it on the Bridge. Do I make myself clear?" In your film, Mr. Abrams, does inclusion of hip-hop, given what it implies, enhance the positive Trek legacy and tradition, exemplified in this Kirk quote, for example--or erode it, if subtly? There are really so few positive television vehicles, or vehicles today of any kind, to genuinely and substantively cheer, inspire, and provide good role models for children, or even adults; if we're ever to construct a world that is radically and permanently loving it is imperative that we preserve the few we've got. Star Trek has historically been one of these few--under your control, will it remain in this rarified group?
Unhappily, however, in recent years ST writers and producers have permitted, if not encouraged, a trickle of risque or vulgar elements in Star Trek, such as when Data in Star Trek: Generations, fearing for his life as the Enterprise hurtles to a fiery crash, exclaims "Oh, Shit!" Or flagrantly, when Star Trek: Voyager takes on Jeri Ryan, a hypersexy large-busted Amazon whose character is named 7-of-9 and outfits her in a skintight catsuit. Or when T'Pol appears in a tight top in a shower (with nipples showing, do I recall?) with Trip. And now...hip-hop? As the Enterprise careened toward its final destruction in Generations, does Trek, itself, apparently.
Do you really want to associate your cinematic work, or the fictional world that it portrays, with some of the most ignoble and criticized elements of American culture? Because that's what you've done through inclusion of hip-hop in the 2009 film.
Imagine if some other element with an overt, definitive, putative, and singular cultural association and context were inserted into Star Trek. For example, imagine if the ST soundtrack included old-style country music, ala' Hank Williams: we'd all involuntarily begin imagining cowboys, horses, gunslingers, saloons, honky tonk joints, and indeed one or more of any number of elements characteristic of the American Old West. How about bluegrass music? Heavy metal? JJ: MUSIC HAS CONNOTATION AND CONTEXT, SOME FORMS OF MUSIC IN PARTICULAR. This is why Classical music has always been a wise choice for Trek--it elicits no real cultural association in the mind of the audience. The audience is thus free to experience the pure emotional or other elements evoked by the music, itself. There is nothing else; no "baggage," as it were.
You thus committed a huge cultural and indeed cinematic gaffe in your inclusion of hip-hop in the 2009 release--PLEASE DON'T REPEAT THE ERROR. I would even go so far as to recommend that you correct this error, by replacing the hip-hop track of the last ST film with something equally energetic but more appropriate, so that the Star Trek experience is not compromised for viewers going forward.
As a young filmmaker, you might imagine that inclusion of such music is "hip," "cool," or perhaps necessary to expand the audience for Star Trek; or you might point to the popularity of hip-hop in the general culture. As an artist, however, you are most certainly not bound by any of these factors, but only by the requirements of the art, itself.
I state my related fear, only half in jest, that you will bring this same sensibility to your other vehicle: are you going to include hip-hop in the next Star Wars film, as well? Will Yoda be calling Obi-Wan Kenobi "home boy"? As regards Trek and Wars, both: just how far do you intend to force open the door of an inappropriate, artificial, alienating, and cross-purposed cinematic and cultural clash?
We presume that the author, musician, painter, sculptor--and filmmaker--aspire to create "art."
A principal characteristic of art, as I understand it, is timelessness. A genuine work of art is timeless--it is of such a design and construction that it is likely to be as revered far in the future as it may be today. Thus are artists, of which you are one, advised to avoid undue or gratuitous topical reference, because such reference can tie the film to present-day culture, sometimes inhibiting or eroding their timelessness.
For example, in the film Terminator 3 there is a convenience store scene where the store clerk, remarking on the computer failure he's been experiencing, states:
"Man, this is wack. It's been like this for hours. Every goddamn station."
By inclusion of the nonstandard, likely fleeting topical term "wack" the film arguably removes itself that much further from the timeless themes and modes of expression required of "art." In fact, the term "wack" is so nonstandard, and so largely removed from the lingua franca of the culture, that in composing this paragraph I actually had to reference its proper spelling. If one element in a given film is "wack," can another element thereto also be "phat"? One can use idiomatic or idiosyncratic language if desired, at their own risk; or, more accurately, at the risk of the reception and accorded status, now and later, of their work.
To wit: a Star Trek film, as any, can indeed be art. Then, why shouldn't it? In fact, Star Trek films, in particular, are excellent candidates for art, because they tend to trade in the basic human issues and conflicts that usually form the basic stuff of art. However, Mr. Abrams, if you desire such elevation for your work in Star Trek, it is imperative that you do not clothe your film in cultural garb such as hip-hop music that is at once likely ephemeral seen from the long-view of history, and often offensive and alienating to anyone of any age that is of intellect and mature mind, now.
Star Trek Canon
Spock & Uhura
Please pay closer attention to the Star Trek canon and narrative. For example, your first ST film had Spock in romance with Uhura, while, as I understand it, he was already married to T'Pring. Thus, he was committing adultery, which the integrity, honesty, and ethically-minded Vulcans would be highly unlikely to do.
Moreover, to my knowledge there was absolutely no mention of this romance in any previous Star Trek series or film. It was a canon-violating decision that was as mystifying as it was unwise. It added nothing to the film; in fact it comprised a sharp subtraction from the film because it was so absurd, for the two aforementioned reasons. This is not necessarily to say that you can't expand the canon. You can, provided that your expansion does not violate the existing canon.
Nor do I readily accept the "alternative universe" rationale for inconsistent, unwise, or dubious cinematic plotting or characterization elements. Such reaching explanations appear as the recourse of lazy, unimaginative or misplaced writers. It's said in politics that "Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels." Might it not be similarly said of film that "Recourse to Alternative Universe explanations is the last refuge of unimaginative writers"?
There is abundant discussion of the injudicious nature of the Spock-Uhura pairing in the comments section of this web page.
As regards both errors described at this website: how does tempered, sober, and intelligent filmmaking turn into generation of incongruous, confounding, and sometimes demeaning plot or other filmic elements?
Please do not eviscerate established Star Trek timelines, principals, and standards, or its established narrative. Don't re-invent the wheel if the existing wheel remains sound and turns just fine. In my opinion, you've compromised the Star Trek franchise, in general, and the last Star Trek film, in particular. Please do much better this time.
Though technical ownership of Star Trek resides ultimately with a CBS/Paramount corporate entity, at this point the franchise means so much to so many that it's reasonable to assert that Star Trek has become something of a Public Good. Past Star Trek cinema, that is to say past expressions of this Good, were given to other directors. At present, you have been selected as the steward of this Good. Yet how will you fill this role and exercise this stewardship? Responsibly, or gratuitously? As a reasonable, if not energetic, guarantor of art, or a whore to the market and its proxies? I additionally argue that in some cases responsible stewardship also proscribes full-on indulgence of your own preferences for, and decisions about, a film, if said preferences and decisions are actually poor objective choices for that film and its franchise. The fact of one's selection as Director of a film does not imply their wisdom regarding that film.
Indeed, the Star Trek cinema that you create will live on forever. FOREVER. From the long view of cinematic, cultural, and even your own personal and professional history, how do you want this cinema, and its creator, understood and remembered? Indeed, as any good Buddhist, or Master Yoda, himself, would likely exhort: "Be mindful of the consequences of your power and influence."
Vincent Frank De Benedetto
Contact me via email at onehumanfamily [at] fastmail [dot] net.
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~ Maintain the Integrity of Star Trek ~
- OPEN LETTER TO JJ ABRAMS -