Monday, August 31, 2009

Movie Notes: Even Dwarfs Started Small (1969)

I am rather fond of movies that mess with the viewer's head. I don't mean movies that have a twist. Don't talk to me about how The Matrix blew your mind, or how you were amazed by the latest M. Night Shyamalan movie in which you discover at the end that his wife is dead and he's really making out with the plumber. No, I'm talking about the sort of movies in which you ask yourself, "Am I really seeing this?" and it's a serious question. Maybe you're not actually seeing this, and instead you're watching Fantasy Island, and the lamp isn't talking to you, and maybe it's time to seek medical attention.

Even Dwarfs Started Small is one of those movies. I'm not entirely sure how to describe it, actually. Maybe this works best: A black and white, German film from 1969, in which a reform institution is overthrown in a revolution; all of the actors are midgets. That pretty much captures it, although most of the events in the film happen in seemingly random order, much like a dream. The head of the institution is punishing a popular inmate, the other inmates are angry, and the scenes become increasingly chaotic. At the point in which the flowers are all on fire and the midgets are parading around a monkey tied to a crucifix, I thought, "Okay, Werner, what are you doing here?!"

A number of people were offended by the fact that the film is grotesquely nightmarish and the entire cast is little people. They felt that Herzog was mocking the actors. This reading misses the point by quite a bit. The characters are filmed as if they were average height; it's just the world around them that is oversized and out of proportion to the human beings who occupy it. There is something innately hostile about the institutional buildings, which most resemble a farm for people. The director character is a wonderful picture of angry authority. At the end, he has lost his mind and is screaming at a tree branch to stop pointing at him, at once.

The film actually works as both a nightmare and a fairly shrewd parody of both systems of authority and the revolutions that seek to upend them. Some radical leftists complained about the film's portrayal of the revolution, which ends in the destruction of a society and not much else, but I think there's something despairing about it. Herzog resents the way that experts with police support seek to control us, while having little faith in movements that attempt to fight the power. There's a certain cynicism about human nature, as expressed in his two recurring images (which pop up in his other films) of the mindless meanness of chickens and a driverless truck left to run in endless circles.

I do think Herzog leaves room for a sort of ecstatic revelation. Most of the soundtrack music is religious chanting from more "primitive" cultures. There is some hope that all of this chaos will lead to some sort of transcendence. But there is no happy ending and the film ends with the disturbing image of a little man laughing himself nearly to death.

*Note: For those who are curious, "dwarfs" is the appropriate spelling when describing actual people, while "dwarves" is the accepted spelling for the fantasy characters.


Saturday, August 29, 2009

Pneumonia still sucks

So, I'm still feeling like hell due to this pneumonia. It's interesting though- when it was really bad, I just sort of became really slow-moving, and very minor tasks were more important. I don't know if it's what the Buddhists call "mindfulness", but at one point I felt very satisfied with sitting and holding a glass of water successfully for half an hour.

My doctor has been excellent, incidentally. He gave me a new prescription yesterday after reviewing my X-ray. He had apparently picked up on the infection in my left lung after listening to me breathe (it's still amazing to me that he do that), but it was larger than he thought. It's a bit weird to get pneumonia for no apparent reason in the middle of the summer at my age. He did ask if I had been drunk recently, which was amusing. Like the old saying about the French, I am almost never drunk, but rarely fully sober. No, I have not been drunk recently.

Another interesting thing to me, as a newcomer to Canadian health care (and here's the really confusing thing- you can't actually talk about the "Canadian Health Care System" because each province is a different system), is that the pharmacy asked me if I have any insurance. I do not. You don't actually think of Canadians as having private insurance, but of course they do, for things like this. The drugs are cheap (as apparently many Americans have discovered); a batch of antibiotics was about thirty bucks, so I'm not complaining anyway. But, it's not all "public". The doctor's visits, the X-rays and blood work (that I missed my appointment for!), and the prescriptions were all covered by the health card, but the antibiotics were thirty bucks. I'll live.

Anyway, I am back home and have been doing nothing but coughing, sleeping, and watching Pee Wee's Big Adventure. It's an interesting experience being sick- sort of like taking a vacation to elderly-land. But, seriously folks, I am fucking tired of coughing.


Friday, August 28, 2009

Je suis malade

If I have seemed a bit more surly that usual lately, it's because I've been feeling like I was hit by a truck for about a week now. I've had chills, fever, pains, headache, and a terribly annoying cough.

So yesterday, I went to the clinic and met with my doctor, and had my chest x-rayed and was given antibiotics. Apparently, I have pneumonia. No idea how I got it. I'm usually in good health and we eat well and exercise. Probably some sort of bacteria.

Now, I'm staying home and sleeping all day and taking the medicine. All I feel like eating is mac & cheese and soft ice-cream.

But, one amusing thing about pneumonia (at least to me) is that one of the symptoms is mental confusion, which I have absolutely been experiencing lately.


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

On Bringing Guns to Political Events

Can you bring a gun to a political event?

Apparently, political events in the US now have a "bring your own gun" policy, which seems a bit silly. Megan McArdle says "the hysteria about them has been even more ludicrous." Probably so. It seems to me that, if you're allowed by law to bring a gun to a public event, people eventually will bring guns to political events. Similarly, if you were allowed, by law, to come to these events in the nude, you'd probably see some shriveled willies. It might make some other people uncomfortable to see somebody with a glock strapped to their leg, but I don't see where just having a gun constitutes a threat. Cops have guns, which tends to make me uncomfortable, but they're allowed to keep them. So, I'm not keen on restricting yet another civil liberty.

Now, coming with a gun and a sign referring to Jefferson's line about watering the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants? I'd imagine you'd spend the entire event in the secret service line of fire, but if that's your thing, hey, knock yourself out. That's the other thing- they have pretty good security at these events. So, if the asshat with the gun on his leg unholsters it, he's likely to do so in the last few seconds of his life. I'm not particularly worried about the open carry fan boys- it's the unlicensed-gun-under-the-coat guys you'd have to look out for. The statistics show that people who are licensed to carry guns are not generally the ones who kill people with them, although they will bore you to death if you ask them to talk about their shooting range experiences.

Should you bring a gun to a political event? Well, not if you're trying to convey some message, aside from "Hey, look at me! I'm an asshat". It's cruel and unfair, but many people are still uncomfortable with seeing guns at ostensibly peaceful public forums; the same is true of chainsaws, machetes, and flamethrowers. Let me put it this way- there are probably states where I'm allowed, by law, to attend a political rally with a bloodsoaked machete and a sign reading "It's not a bad time to kill our political leaders". But, were I to do so, with the intention of drawing attention to my larger point that taxation can be excessive, it would probably be drowned out by the louder message: I am a stupid asshat.

But, again, I'm not worried that the stupid asshat with the "blood of tyrants" poster is going to get a few shots off, or even try to. I'd be willing to bet money that none of the geeks showing off their guns at these rallies will try to use them. There have been a good number of assassinations in American history, but they were never done by people who came in telegraphing "Look at me! I've got a gun! Ask me about Ron Paul!"


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Research funded, no doubt, by the black light poster industry...

The FDA has decided to allow testing of LSD to find out if it really stops cluster headaches. Sufferers of such headaches have been saying for some time that acid, or psilocybin mushrooms, are a miracle cure, although nobody really knows why. The FDA has basically announced that they're ready to find out what the benefits of LSD are; there are also trials planned to treat cancer patients for anxiety with LSD. Ah acid, is there anything you can't do?


Monday, August 24, 2009

"Smash the State!", cried the state

I've observed the American health care "debate" with mingled bemusement and dismay. Since I have a Canadian health card, it's not terribly serious to me. It's a bit dismaying however that the fact that there are good arguments to be made for and against health insurance reform in the United States isn't compelling anybody to actually make them in public.

This week's really lame argument is: the government can't run a health insurance plan because the post office is failing. Barack Obama, stupidly, played into this by saying, "I mean, if you think about it, UPS and FedEx are doing just fine. It's the Post Office that's always having problems." Michael Steele followed suit by arguing that a government health care plan, "is inefficient, limits choices, and hemorrhages taxpayer money like the Post Office." This apparently stems from the fact that the Post Office is indeed losing money and might have to go to five days a week, which seems to upset people. But, of course, the Post Office is losing money- people send emails now. And, yes, they might have to go to five days- which is the norm in several other countries, including Canada. Times change. Why shouldn't they cut back and save money? What does that have to do with the failure of government? Say what you want about the Post Office, but I've always gotten good service from them, and usually for a lot less money than UPS charges. Maybe I've sold out to the establishment, man, but I'm actually happy sending letters through the mail.

Besides, the larger argument, which you hear quite often now: government = bad, is a cop out coming from government officials. Look, I have plenty of friends who are libertarians or anarchists or variations of the two who genuinely do believe that government an sich is the problem and who try to form alternative institutions to circumvent state institutions. I tend towards that argument myself from time to time. But, when you're a government official arguing that "government is the problem" what you're basically saying is, "When I do something right, give me credit; when I screw up, it was the government's fault."

It's also pretty cynical. It reminds me of this assistant professor we had in our department for a few years. Now, I complain about academia and all of its problems quite often; but I do so because I believe in the ideal of the university and want the reality to more closely approximate that ideal. A lot of academics feel that way. With this guy, he just believed that the university an sich is, like bullshit, man, and so the trick is to try to scam them for as much money as one can. He would tell the grad students that we should lie on grant applications to get more money, come up with provocative arguments, even if they weren't true, to sell more books, and suggest ways to avoid actual teaching. In the end, he basically alienated himself from everyone in the department and went elsewhere. He did "succeed" though: he was there for three years and taught only one course.

And, you know, the government does screw up a lot of things. I'm not particularly optimistic about their future endeavors either. But it's hard to overstate the intellectual bankruptcy of government officials whose central argument has become, "We don't really have any ideas or a program for the future, but that's a good thing because government sucks." If they really feel that way, they should go work for UPS.


Thursday, August 20, 2009

Today's Government Spelling Lesson

Another great moment in government communications...

Here in Canada, the Prime Minister's office recently issued a press release about his five-day Artic tour. The press release was supposed to repeatedly make mention of Iqaluit, the capital of the province of Nunavut, and a word which means "many fish" in the Inuktitut language.

Instead, the press release repeatedly spelled the city name Iqualuit, a somewhat different word. "It means people with unwiped bums," said Sandra Inutiq of the office of the Languages Commissioner of Nunavut.

Making the whole thing even more governmental, the Prime Minister's office has issued a completely humorless statement about the press release, stating:
"Hopefully this unfortunate typo, which we have corrected, will inform the greater public that there is no (extra) 'u' in Iqaluit... We obviously strive to have the highest possible standard in terms of spelling and grammar... When typos do occur, and we notice them, we either issue a revised advisory or immediately correct it."

Hopefully, it will also inform the greater public about the importance of wiping their bums.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

David Bowie - Five Years

Ta-Nehisi Coates got me thinking about this song today. He's been listening to it so much he's driving his family nuts. It is a pretty great song in my opinion, especially the lyrics. Actually, I think this was the Bowie song that got me interested in his music initially. Here's a somewhat off-kilter take on Five Years from Japan, 1978.



Movie Notes: Vampire Girl Vs. Frankenstein Girl (2009)

Yoshihiro Nishimura's newest film is considerably more toned down than his Tokoyo Gore Police, which is to say that nearly other movie you'll ever see is toned down in comparison to this one! I'm not even sure how one would go about reviewing something like this; Nishimura's movies are basically live-action cartoons with gallons of fake blood and no concern for political correctness or plot coherence. What's not to love?

Basically, Vampire Girl versus Frankenstein Girl is a romantic comedy about a teenage boy and the two girls who want him for their own; you can guess who they are. There is also a mad scientist who wears Kabuki face paint, an oversexed school nurse, and two afterschool clubs: one for wristcutting enthusiasts and the other for "ganguro girls" who want to remake themselves as Afro-Japanese. And, yes, gallons of fake blood shower the camera, which seems to be a recurring motif for Nishimura.

Interestingly, the movie is considerably more coherent than Tokoyo Gore Police and the jokes are a lot better. But I feel for the Roger Eberts of the world who have to review something like this. What do you give a movie like this: two spurting geysers of blood up?

Here is the trailer, which tells you all you need to know.


Supple prose, lazy thinking: B-

Writing in the American Conservative, Reid Buckley bemoans the inability of college-educated young people to express themselves in prose:

"The art of writing is the soul of reason, from which all civilization has spun. If one cannot give expression to one’s thoughts, one is reduced to grunts. These young men and women were to be graduated in two months’ time. Yet they were functionally illiterate, as the saying goes—a hideous euphemism for being thrust into the adult world intellectually crippled. Several other students who crowded around me now claimed that never had they had their written work reviewed. I was incredulous. “Never?” “Not once!” came their reply. Two or three then claimed that in nearly four years of college they had never been required to write an essay. Examinations were multiple choice.

I had no answer for them. The laziness of the faculty disgusted me."

He was disgusted, after teaching a public speaking course for two semesters, to find that so many professors had abdicated their duty to teach students how to write essays, essentially giving up on the students. He bristled at this sort of resignation and apathy. So he quit.

Okay, that's a bit of a cheap gag. He did found a public speaking school.

Anyway, I can relate to much of what he says there, having toiled in the trenches battling subliterate undergraduate prose. I have, in fact, reviewed their essays, written page after page of notes for students, composed a manual on how to write exemplary essays, and in one case, made the students rewrite their final essay over and over until they wrote something to be proud of. So, I suppose Buckley and I are allies in that sense.

And, yes, the painful moment comes when one realizes the depth of the problem:

"The dimensions of his doom and that of these other young people hit me with full force. Not once in their educational lives had they been taught to impose order on chaos, that being contrary to the central dogma of liberal-arts education in our country today. There is no such thing as choosing, as distinguishing between the false and the real, discriminating between good and bad. The cost of this heresy to our nation is beyond calculating: for two generations our businesses, professions, universities, and politics have been populated by moral illiterates who reject reason."
The funny thing about this central dogma is that it's never actually been expressed to me in the last decade I've spent in higher education. I mean, it's the friggin' central dogma! And nobody could tell me about it?! Basically, Buckley's diagnosis of the educational crisis boils down to "moral and intellectual relativism" on the part of educators, spreading outwards.

It's funny though because I bitch a lot to my colleagues about students getting out of high school and college still unable to read or write well, and I have never had a professor say to me, "Well, it doesn't bother me, because there's no such thing as 'good' or 'bad' in my book!" How plausible is it to assume that people who have dedicated their lives to reading, writing, and critiquing books are also opposed to maintaining standards of reading and writing? As for "choosing"- yep, I've also been made to distinguish between the false and the real since coming to college. And I still haven't met these "moral relativists" I hear so much about.

But, when Buckley made his students rewrite their papers, he says they were indignant and threatened to complain to the administration. This might suggest that students and administrators are also a significant force in lowering academic standards. Then we might ask if treating a traditional cultural institution, such as the university, as if it were a big busisness might have resulted in different needs and interests working at odds with one another. In fact, we might even ask if the needs of consumer capitalism aren't fundamentally opposed to those of cultural conservatism. But, then we'd be Daniel Bell.

Instead, Buckley talks about a vaguer "cultural decadence", what horrible people academics can be, and how academic prose is unreadable. All of which are true, but not nearly the whole story. His assumption here seems to be that, if academics were better people, the entire society around them would follow suit because they're just that influential. I'm not even convinced they're influential within the academy anymore. However, it seems to me that another problem here is that American education really is the pits, and that it hardly matters what factor we point to in order to explain that, since they're all valid to some extent. But, if we're going to think seriously about fixing things, we need to think about all the problems at once.


Monday, August 17, 2009

No Pain, No....well. We'll see.

Insightful blog post from a male professor of history and gender studies, on the topic of men fearfully defending against the rage of women.

There’s a conscious purpose to this sort of behavior. Joking about getting beaten up (or putting on the football helmet) sends a message to young women in the classroom: "Tone it down. Take care of the men and their feelings. Don’t scare them off, because too much impassioned feminism is scary for guys."

Read the whole thing here: Words Are Not Fists by Hugo Schwyzer

Two things struck me about this post. First, that disabling women's rage toward man-based injustices is an effective means of preventing those issues from being explored thoroughly, as well as a smooth means of preventing some very hasty words being spoken. Impassioned people are very common culprits of overstating things in their rush to get it all out before they explode. The passion is real; the words may not actually be directly relevant! Second... this post is so circumspect that I find myself wondering if the author is still fearful, even as he endorses courage under fire.

I wonder what exactly happened, the day he woke up and thought, my god, we're all so cowardly! Props for having actually written the whole thing out, though. Even if he does innocently pretend that men aren't ever victims of female hate crimes.


Sunday, August 16, 2009

Movie Notes: District 9 (2009)

Admittedly, I wasn't fully in my right mind when we saw District 9 last night. Also, we were sitting entirely too close to the screen because the theater was packed when we got there, making it hard to actually see what was going on in some scenes. So, caveat lector.

The film was fairly good and better than the usual summer blockbuster fare. It details what happens when a large craft full of insectoid aliens arrives in Johannesburg, South Africa, with no clear-cut plan for leaving again: before long, a Soweto-style slum is erected and social tensions between humans and aliens reach a fevered pitch.

Into this bad situation steps Multi-National United, a shady paramilitary security corporation working to relocate the aliens, while confiscating their advanced alien weaponry. During the course of relocations, a mid level schmuck at MNU gets sprayed with an alien fluid that inexplicably starts him mutating into an alien. The evil corporation then turns against him because only alien fingers can fire these weapons. Why they didn't just force an alien to use the weapons in the first place is never explained. Also, why do the aliens have these kick ass weapons that they never used when they needed to defend themselves? And why in the world does fuel for their ship turn humans into aliens in the first place?

Actually, there are a lot of plot holes in there, which one sort of expects from sci fi, but really only lazy sci fi. And there's the weird thing of the social commentary. The first twenty minutes or so sets up the film as a social parable about immigration and racial strife, and many critics have praised the fact that there is social commentary there, but that it's not "too preachy". In fact, it basically avoids getting too preachy by lazily abandoning the social commentary after the opening reel and turning to a somewhat stock CGI shoot-em-up. There is still the evil corporation, but how lazy do you have to be as a scriptwriter at this point to make your protagonist an evil corporation? Or to call them "Multi-National United"?

The director has said that he worried too much satire would hurt the film, "at a popcorn level". And it definitely works at a popcorn level. It's a highly entertaining film with good special effects and over-the-top gore that the audience seemed to enjoy. The initial conceit is interesting- I also liked that the hero was a pencil-pushing putz. But it's sort of like two different movies really, and the first one was a lot smarter than the second one.


Survive Style 5+

If you watch it, let's talk about it.


Survive Style 5+

This is a film about the intertwined problems of 5 different people. It is silly, philosophical, flashy, unreasonable, and slick. Oh, and the soundtrack is spot-on. The film is in Japanese with subtitles, and only split into two parts, so each bit is about an hour long. I am mostly posting this for the benefit of Rufus and Claire, who I imagine will both love it. Everyone else... I don't know you well enough. I hope it's enjoyable, anyway.


Friday, August 14, 2009

Movie Notes: The Man who Fell to Earth (1976)

Speaking of challenging sci fi movies... It's a bit strange to compare the 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth to Star Wars, which was released the following year: the Lucas film is a relatively straightforward and entertaining sci fi adventure aimed primarily at kids, while the second is a somewhat enigmatic bit of social commentary disguised as a sci fi movie aimed squarely at adults. How did filmed sci fi go so quickly from the one to the other predominating?

David Bowie stars in his first acting role as an alien come to earth to retrieve water for his drought-plagued planet. This is an example of perfect casting: Bowie looks a bit like an alien anyway, and his performance is strong. He lands on earth and secures a lawyer, patenting various technologies that make him rich. He falls in love with a local girl and keeps planning to return home, but is eventually brought low by fame, wealth, and something of a television addiction.

The plot doesn't exactly unfold so much as coil around on itself. There's a poetic logic to it that might be too 'experimental' for some. And, for me, it basically falls apart in the third act, along with its protagonist. But, it's worth seeing, if only for the performances and the beguiling visuals. Director Nicholas Roeg has a good sense of striking images; as Pauline Kael wrote, "this is a film of symbols and visions: a white horse running in twilight, a sequence of stars turning to fireworks turning to city lights, water exploding backwards into a lake." The hallucinogenic visuals occur throughout the film and Roeg is able to make even a sleepy Western American town seem... well, alienating.

The Man Who Fell to Earth quickly became a cult classic, and I think it's because it's so weird. It doesn't always work, but there's a lot going on there. As J.G.Ballard was fond of saying, "Earth is the alien planet."


Robe a la fluxion de poitrine, des ateliers de Mademoiselle Vanite (C Philipon - Nouveau Journal de Modes) (detail)

From the deliriously cool "bibliodyssey" flicker account, recently unearthed by Holly.


Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Beer Notes: Duvel

I've sometimes wondered what would happen if France ever absorbed Belgium. One thing's for sure: they'd have better beers. I'm not sure why exactly the French make beers that are just so-so, while the Belgians, who are so nearby, make such great beers. Is it just the Flemish that make good beer? In Belgium, the Trappists brew a lot of really great beer, but they have abbeys in about twenty other countries, where they don't. Anyway, it's a mystery.

Duvel is excellent Belgian beer. It's extremely dark tasting and sort of bitter; the word they use on the bottle is "strong". I want to say that it's like drinking coffee, but not quite; it's more like liquor. It's about 8.5% alcohol, which might explain that. It's also, frankly, delicious.

The recipe is from the 1920s and hasn't changed at all. Wikipedia: "Considered by many the definitive version of the Belgian Strong Golden Ale style, Duvel is brewed with Pilsner malt and white sugar, and hopped with Saaz hops and Styrian Goldings, the yeast still stems from the original culture of Scottish yeast bought by Albert Moortgat during a prospection-tour in the U.K. just after WWI." The beer is also aged for two months in the brewery cellar.

Anyway, it's highly recommended.


Movie Notes: Alphaville (1965)

"Their ideal, here in Alphaville, is a technocracy, like that of the ants and termites."
Science fiction writing is some of the most visionary literature of the nineteenth and twentieth century; so it seems strange that it is so poorly regarded. Certainly some of the trouble must stem from the early sci-fi movies, which tended to be kiddie serials about rocket men. After that, science fiction, in general, got the reputation for being made for kids. In the sixties and seventies, however, there were a number of truly visionary science fiction films- the obvious touchstone being 2001. Unfortunately, I think Star Wars knocked things back a notch. It's an extremely entertaining movie, but not a film about ideas, like the great sci- fi films that followed 2001.

Alphaville was Jean-Luc Godard's only attempt at sci fi and it's sort of a strange movie. It's set in the future on a planet called Alphaville ruled by a cruelly logical computer; it was shot in 1960s Paris and almost nothing was done to disguise that fact. For instance, the hero's 'space ship' is a Ford Galaxy! And the main character, Lemmy Caution played by Eddie Constantine, came from a series of French B noir films, also starring Constantine. The story details how he falls in love with Anna Karina (who wouldn't?), here playing the daughter of an important scientist of Alphaville that he has to kill, and how love, poetry, and the human conscience threaten the computer and the society built around it. This is a world in which the word "why" has been outlawed, people are killed for crying at the death of a loved one, and the "bible", which is really the dictionary, is updated regularly because so many words are either outlawed or coined. In other words, it's a fairly plausible technocrati/totalitarian nightmare. The original title was Tarzan Versus IBM.

If all of this sounds a bit surreal, I should also mention the philosophical discussions about time with the computer and the executions in an swimming pool with the dead being retrieved by synchonized swimmers. It's all a bit outlandish and over-the-top, and I'd say it's as much fun as most of Godard's early films, at least for me. Critics often make much of Godard's Marxism, but here the theme is the imagination against all systems that privilege mathematical rationality over human emotion. The last act becomes something of a poetic manifesto, whose last line, intoned by Karina's character in the Ford Galaxy heading through "space" (the highways around Paris), is "Je vous aime". Here, it sounds profound.


Holly Bait

''“Kitsch” has become a byword in the culture for anything over-the-top or tacky. In art, it’s meaning is more specific. It refers to works trafficking in facile, base or false emotions—most often sentimentality—and whose imagery is off-the-shelf and formulaic, a debased version of a once-original aesthetic idea. Need to conjure that warm-and-fuzzy feeling? Cue the fiery sunset. Looking to express fragile innocence? Bring on the shoeless urchin carrying the bird with the broken wing."

"Totalitarian kitsch puts those ideas in the service of the state. It is the official art of authoritarian governments, aimed at extending state control through propaganda. Totalitarian kitsch exists to glorify the state, foster a personality cult surrounding the dictator and celebrate ceaseless and irrevocable social and economic progress through images of churning factories and happy, exultant workers. It does so using the corrupted language of academic realism—heavily muscled supermen and women and colossal scale."

-From an article in the Wall Street Journal on ''Totalitarian kitsch".


Monday, August 10, 2009

The Park in the Summer

Image: Tompkins Square Park in an old print.

Claire and I spent the weekend and then some in NYC and New Jersey, where we attended a wedding for our friends David and Reshma. It was a Hindu ceremony, which meant that I danced a lot, badly. Beautiful service though and, as always, visiting New York City was a treat.


Lonely Teenagers

In a recent blog post, Roger Ebert discussed his fear that movie-goers are entering a Dark Age. The post apparently struck a nerve: there are 635 comments at present, most of them in agreement. The problem is simple- teen audiences go to see movies based on marketing hype and not word-of-mouth or good reviews. And so many great movies make no money, while Transformers Part Deux has grossed roughly the gross national income of Uruguay.


"Why is that? They don't care about reviews, perhaps. They also resist a choice that is not in step with their peer group. Having joined the crowd at "Transformers," they're making their plans to see "G. I. Joe." Some may have heard about "The Hurt Locker," but simply lack the nerve to suggest a movie choice that involves a departure from groupthink."
But certainly, teenage conformism is nothing new. I remember High School containing a good number of young people who, if they were on fire, wouldn't stop, drop, & roll if they thought it might look 'uncool'. I don't think I've noticed any uptick in "groupthink" among teens, and certainly many adults are guilty of groupthink too. I do notice that when I'm around people in their teens and twenties in bars, I generally can guess all of the stock phrases they're going to use (i.e.: sweet! nice! Dude, what the fuck?!) with startling accuracy. The result is just that people in that age group can be really boring. But weren't they always?

In terms of movies, it's simple economics: the film industry is losing money, and teenagers go to see more movies than anyone else, so they're mostly making movies for teenagers. Morevoer, the dumbest buy the mostest. In conclusion: Transformers 2. The same thing is happening in the music business- they're losing money, so they sink more money in increasingly grandiose concerts and overpriced CDs. Actually, quite a lot of industries now rely on the "flooding the market with overhyped crap" technique.

"Of course there are countless teenagers who seek and value good films. I hear from them all the time in the comment threads on this blog. They're frank about their contemporaries. If they express a nonconformist taste, they're looked at as outsiders, weirdoes, nerds. Their dates have no interest in making unconventional movie choices..."
"If I mention the cliché "the dumbing-down of America," it's only because there's no way around it. And this dumbing-down seems more pronounced among younger Americans. It has nothing to do with higher educational or income levels. It proceeds from a lack of curiosity and, in many cases, a criminally useless system of primary and secondary education. Until a few decades ago, almost all high school graduates could read a daily newspaper. The issue today is not whether they read a daily paper, but whether they can."
Dude! WTF? OMG! LOL! Okay, but seriously folks, we've discussed the "lack of curiosity" thing here before. And how ill-served young people have been by the transformation of the educational system into a fake-grades-and-flattery-based service industry. I don't know if I'd call it a "dumbing down", since it does to be something of a lifestyle choice people make. Apathy is a choice; not something other people do to you. Intellectual incuriousness is also a choice- Arthur Schnizler called it "the flight into stupidity". That beautiful term should suggest that it's nothing especially new. Of course, he was describing Austria, which soon afterwards made the flight into criminal stupidity, so it's worth worrying about a bit.

That said, I'm a bit tired of the hand wringing about "the dumbing down of America". Part of it is that I live in Canada, where there are plenty of intellectually incurious people. Also, the inference is generally that the intellectual level of the American populace is somehow uniquely important for the future of the world. But the rest of the educated world can manage on their own, right? Lastly, I wonder if it's not just a waste of time to worry about why certain people make so little intellectual effort. It isn't like they care anyway, and it's sort of depressing to dwell on. Maybe it's better to make the flight away from stupidity.

I do feel for the kids who get ostracized for not wanting to feed at the trough; some of the kids in the comments talk about getting insulted for things like preferring Werner Herzog's films to Michael Bay movies. Nobody should ever apologize for loving Werner Herzog's movies. Claire and I dream of someday having him narrate our home movies in his dry, rambling, somewhat bizarre style. "When I look into the eyes of Rufus, I see only the dull, animal hatred of existence in a merciless universe." Okay, you sort of need to hear the impression...

Anyway, young people, here are two insults that should, from this point forward, mean nothing to you:
  1. "Gay"- This is one you often get called for adoring poetry or art films or gardening, or whatever. The people who think this is a clever insult are always douchebags, as a rule.
  2. "Pretentious"- People who assume the pretense of being stupid will often use this word to discount anything and everything outside of their thimble-sized comfort zone. At this point, this preferred, overused insult of frat boys everywhere is relatively meaningless.
And don't worry so much about your peer group. Just find people who are open to new and different things and try to articulate to them why you love the things you love. I love being turned on to new things by other people, and maybe we just need more people tubthumping for art from outside of the Stultifying Industrial Complex. Personally, I think the things I write here are a lot better when I'm basically trying to do just that, and probably a lot worse when I'm just bitching about other people being stupid. So, I'll start trying to do the former more than the latter too.


Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Little Engine that Could Get You Arrested?

Okay, in keeping with my idea of being fair and respectful to the bottom-dwelling cretins who disagree with me, I'm going to try to be reasonable and level-headed about the sort of thing that usually makes me get all apocalyptic. In this case, legislation whose end result is books being banned and pulped.

So, let's first admit that there's a good case to be made that our scientific knowledge of the world is steadily increasing over the decades, and, as this happens, we will find out that some substances that we once assumed posed no health risk at all, do in fact pose serious risks. In response, it makes sense to get rid of things like asbestos insulation, PCBs, lead paint, etc.

Secondly, let's also admit that the government has some role to play in all of this. Many of us who remember incidents like Love Canal are reluctant to agree with those who argue that the government's public safety initiatives are uniformly wrong-minded and counterproductive. Certainly, we can be thankful for seat belts. And let's just acknowledge that the government warnings on cigarettes are probably good advice (and in Canada, they're works of art!).

But let's also acknowledge that it is extremely hard to translate scientific knowledge into legislation, and that the risk is in writing legislation that is overly broad and repressive. In fact, the central dilemma of liberalism has always been that "progress" can be necessary and beneficial and still be carried out in a way that is essentially coercive and repressive. Actually, part of the problem could just be in deciding that your idea of progress is necessary and therefore inevitable. How do you know when to back off? Especially if you see certain practices as "outmoded", "superstitious", or "unsustainable"? Isn't there also a danger, in tying knowledge to power, of destroying the folkways of those subcultures that you see as "Luddites"?

Heck if I know. But, I will say that when the Congress is at the point of outlawing the distribution of all children's books published before 1986 because they might contain lead paint, in spite of the fact that scientists are not convinced the inks contain enough lead to be dangerous, and at the expense not just of used book sellers (who aren't exactly sitting pretty as it is) but arguably of the larger cultural heritage as well, they've overreached. A reasonable answer might be some sort of warning signs for the used book stores, or even stickers. But, nope. The Consumer Protection Safety Improvement Act of 2008 seemingly requires used book stores to stop selling the books altogether. We'll see if libraries have to remove them.

As for me, I'm waiting for the inevitable black market- half the books in our basement would be contraband. I could start running them across the border in a secret book shelf built under the body of my car. Eventually, of course, the mob will get involved. Imagine shady men in black vans parked behind the city park selling copies of Little Bo Peep while watching out for the cops. And then people will get killed for ripping off the Don's stash of Bobsy Twin books.

A savvy conservative politician would make great political theatre out of this by getting himself "arrested" selling a vintage Little Golden Book at a yard sale. But, since that's not likely to happen, the rest of us need to say, "For crying out loud, set the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew free!" Hopefully, this part of the Consumer Protection Safety Act of 2008 will turn out to be one of those stupid laws that is basically unenforceable. Because, frankly, the image of all those beautiful vintage children's books at the bottom of a landfill is almost too much to bear.

So, say it with me: "They'll only get my Little Engine that Could when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers!"


Tuesday, August 04, 2009

For Gothic Cathedral enthusiasts

The stained glass windows at Montfort-l'Amaury. The windows are also mentioned in Proust's fourth book, and I found the picture on The Ecclesiastical Proust Archive. You don't need to have read any Proust to enjoy the site. I'd recommend it for anyone who likes old postcards or gothic cathedrals, which probably includes all of us here.


On the wisdom and goodness of people who agree with me

"In reality we always discover afterwards that our adversaries had a reason for being on the side they espoused, which has nothing to do with any element of right that there may be on that side, and that those who think as we do do so because their intelligence, if their moral nature is too base to be invoked, or their uprightness, if their perception is weak, has compelled themto."
-Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time IV: Sodom and Gomorrah.

I like this passage because here we see Proust doing what he does well: casually tossing off a shrewd observation about human nature as if it was a minor detail. He is busy describing how the elder Swann's opinion of the young Robert Saint-Loup changed in relation to Saint-Loup's
take on the Dreyfus Affair, probably the paramount political issue of the day. Proust playfully points up the good fortune most of us have in political matters- the people who think otherwise than we do happen to do so because they're perfidious; those who agree with us either do so
because they're wise orgood natured. Lucky that. Proust's tone is ironic, but gently instead of bitingly: he can hardly write without winking.

It's something of a relief to hear that people had the same problems with their adversaries over a century ago. It's easy to imagine that civility is a thing of the past and that it's only recently that we found ourselves arguing politely with horrid jerks. Not too long after Proust's time it became understandable- who expects Communists and fascists to see eye-to-eye? But, now? When we feel ourselves opposed with every fiber of our being to people who'd rather see ten million dollars go to building a toll road instead of a bridge? Do we really need the barricades?

The Internet is a great guide to understanding why people think the way they do in these debates. Put simply, people whose opinions could be described as "conservative" tend to be uneducated bigots who yearn for a dictatorship because they are afraid of women, atheists, foreigners, and the earth. Liberals, meanwhile, are motivated primarily by a pathological hatred of the homeland, family, love and decency, and yearn for a dictatorship because they are afraid of God, guns, and successful heterosexuals. It's not hard to see why increasing numbers of people describe themselves as "independents".

But, how does anyone ever change their mind when it's a matter of pledging allegiance to the horrid blackguards or the snivelling quislings? And how do you convince people that they'd rather agree with you and be a jerk than with someone else and be a creep? Or, is it better to just try to figure out the reasons that other people think the way they do, given that most of them are, hypothetically, human? Or even try to figure out why other people might disagree with you, in spite of your own wisdom and benevolent kindheartedness? Heck if I know. I'm just glad that whoever agrees with me is infinitely wise and goodhearted. Otherwise, I'd be in trouble.