25 February 2008

The Invisible Hand

Next time you see somebody arguing that the unfettered market will solve all of society's ills, show them this:

Cephalon was entitled to defend its patent in court. Instead, it fought back unfairly. The company paid the competing manufacturers more than $200 million in exchange for their agreements to keep their products off the market for nearly seven years. This payoff benefited the generic manufacturers enormously: They made more by sitting on their hands than they ever could have the old-fashioned way, by entering the market and competing. For Cephalon, too, the payoff was a bargain: Chief executive Frank Baldino Jr. acknowledged that it made about $4 billion "that no one expected."

In other news, it's reported that wealthy baseball franchises are going to begin staffing their roster with nobodies who can't throw a pitch to save their lives, and use the leftover money to simply pay off players on other teams to not bother showing up. That'll lead to much better baseball games, I'm sure.

23 February 2008

Movielog, Idiocracy

Idiocracy, 2006
Written and Directed by Mike Judge
84 minutes

Mike Judge doesn't have one career as a writer/director -- he has two. In one, he's a skilled writer-director-producer crafting precise (if broad) characters and navigating them through strange universes and situations to illuminate cultural absurdity. In the other, he creates broad stereotypes and makes them do silly things for dumb laughs. And while the premise of Idiocracy seems to imply that it will belong to the former category of Judge's films, it instead fails miserably as it embraces the latter.

Luke Wilson plays Joe Bauers, a nobody army grunt sitting on his ass as a librarian (a character detail that I thought would become relevant later, but is dropped by the movie as soon as it's mentioned) when he is drafted into an experiment in human hibernation. He and a prostitute named Rita (Maya Rudolph) are to be frozen for a year as a demonstration of the technique -- unfortunatley circumstances intervene and our two protagonists are left frozen for five hundred years, awaking in the year 2505.

The future, however, is not a gleaming paradise of brilliant people in jumpsuits, but is instead the opposite -- a decaying society filled with incredibly stupid people. You see, as the movie explains in a sort of prologue, while intelligent people of our present delay having kids, holding off for a more prepared future, maintaining their resources, et cetera, the dumb rednecks and hillbilly white trash of society don't care about such niceties, and their populations explode, eventually taking over the Earth. I know it's churlish to complain of a silly comedy that, no, Virginia, evolution simply doesn't work that way.... But you know what, it's that very inattention to detail and to reality that makes this such a blisteringly bad movie.



Consider the cartoon here. The cartoonist is making fun of stupid multiplex fare, sure -- that's satire against large media companies, who assuredly have the power to fight back. But the cartoonist's main point is to poke at the stupid toothless hicks who watch and appreciate that garbage, in the kind of broad and stupid way that is transparently insulting. Idiocracy is this cartoon blown up onto the big screen and projected for ninety minutes; one of the TV programs that is popular in Judge's imagined future is Ow, My Balls!, in which a hapless victim is shown having his nutsack kicked, bitten, etc. for the length of the show. Judge's emphasis is not on the show itself, but on the idiotic simpleton Frito (Dax Shepard) watching it enraptured whilst sitting on his Lazy-Boy with a toilet in it. Judge's point seems to be, Yeah, you like to see stupid pratfall humor? Well Fuck You!

There's an anger to Idiocracy that seems almost pathological. Aside from the TV shows, the most popular movie in the country is called simply Ass, the entire length of which is a close-up on a male ass, occasionally farting. This kind of material can certainly be made funny given the right kind of comic perspective, the same way that stale jokes about fax machines that eat paper and mindless layers of management were brought to such sharp comic focus in Judge's Office Space. Perhaps the world of 2505 could be made up not so much of really dumb people, but of people lulled into complacency and mediocrity by the contempt shown them by media conglomerates. To re-reflect Judge's mirror to modern-day society, in essence arguing that people don't watch Flavor of Love because they're stupid, but because of the race-to-the-bottom among TV executives convinced that all we want to watch is programming on the level of Flavor of Love.

Or maybe play against audience expectations in another way. Show a society composed of dumb people hostile towards people of even marginal intelligence, but maybe when Luke Wilson shows up, he's discovered by a group of underground nerds of 2505 (who might be simply people of normal intelligence today) who adopt him as one of their own. Maybe they have a secret society where they enjoy their marginally-better entertainment, and then themselves shun the real nerds who would qualify as intelligent and "faggy" (as the film uses the term) today. This kind of focus, done properly, might reflect on our own attitude towards people seen as more intelligent/cultured than ourselves, and would actually give some direction to the satire. But it becomes clear as Judge gives us a society of people so dumb they more resemble zombies than people, moaning and staring off into space, occasionally digging in the dirt with sticks, that nothing of that kind of subtlety will be present.

Is there anything salvageable here? Well, yeah -- there are hints of satire here and there, as with corporate sponsorships of everything in sight, and in the way that the hospital intake processing resembles the process by which one runs a register at McDonald's. And the way the scientist who originally sends the two average nobodies into hibernation (Michael McCafferty) becomes enamored with the lifestyle of Rita's pimp. And of the amazing production design and art, much of it seeminly done with matte paintings, which give this world a kind of realism that the script fails to.

Overall, this is an amazingly bad film, a film that wears thin after even an hour and a half. Idiocracy was placed on the shelf for a year or two after completion, and having seen the finished project, it's not hard to see why. It's a failure on nearly every level, a failure of imagination, of writing, direction.... I could sit down with this movie and criticize harshly elements of nearly every scene, and it's that kind of thing that makes me wish that Judge had included a commentary on the DVD, to explain and/or justify the choices he made in choosing to make this movie. I'm still interested in seeing the future films of Mike Judge (and King of the Hill is still genius after all these years), but this one is just an abjectly bad movie, and I'll be happy to never see it again.

22 February 2008

Sorry

I haven't posted anything in two days. Partly that's because I've just been busy with things, and partly because I'm just not feeling well. I've been thinking about today's fundie Friday post all day, but I just can't find the time or the energy to type it up and post it.

Maybe I can post it belatedly tomorrow morning or something. Along with a crapload of movie reviews over the next few days.

20 February 2008

A Snake in the Grass?

PZ linked to the Minnesota Twin Cities Science Fair. This is where little small children of creationist nutjobs get to put together science projects for competition, just like they're doing real science. I don't blame the kids for this, as they're too young to know better -- it's the authority figures who think that creationism is in any way science who are to blame here.

So I was scanning through the photos and saw this one:



And thought: this has to be a joke. There's got to be some parent or bright kid who knows what a load of horseshit this creationism stuff really is trying to play a joke on the oranizer. 'Cause you know who did the original foundational research on soil aeration by worms?

Charles Fuckin' Darwin, that's who. (Few people know Darwin's true middle name was "Fuckin'", but it's true, ask anybody who isn't a member of the evil conspiracy.)

Either some nonexistent entity has played a cosmic joke on that kid, or else someone down here's playing a joke on the organizers. The joke would be just barely more obvious if the project had been on the finches of the Galapagos....

NOTE: I originally posted this yesterday, but ran into problems with the image.

Hurricane Reporting Before Modern Weather Prediction

Anyone who has been interested in global climate change science in the last few years (or, for that matter, anyone who reads the Intersection knows that one of the most hotly-debated topics is whether global climate change is affecting hurricane intensity and frequency.

Realclimate has a new post about some peer-reviewed research up regarding some of the research into how accurately we can estimate number of storms before the introduction of modern meteorological data, which is understandably a big question in the debate. Their summary:

In summary, according to current knowledge, the best estimate for the underreporting bias in the hurricane record seems to be about one tropical cyclone per year on average over the period 1920-1965 and between one and three tropical cyclones per year before 1920. With only a few years of data available, the influence of Quikscat analyses after 2002 as discussed by Landsea, is difficult to as yet meaningfully estimate.

Go read the whole thing. This is an exciting area of science, one which has clear political applications, and which is very much in dispute. Personally, I don't think that the science is quite there in terms of definitively determining whether or not global warming is causing an increase in hurricanes, but I'm open to being convinced.

(And of course, none of this means that the overall scientific conclusion that global climate change is anthropogenic is in any way in doubt. The science on that has been in for a while now -- it's only denialists and those not in possession of the evidence who doubt that essential conclusion.

19 February 2008

It's Filthy and Disgusting...

...in a bad way.

(Warning, this is very NSFW.)


Use Of 'N-Word' May End Porn Star's Career

Movielog, Land of the Dead

Land of the Dead, 2005
Written and Directed by George Romero
97 minutes (director's cut)

My favorite scene in Land of the Dead comes early on. It takes place in a sort of gaming and pleasure palace in Fiddler's Green, where all the richest people in a barricaded postapocalyptic city live. The poor, you see, live in the slums that make up the rest of the city, and make their living by getting the stuff that the rich people want.

The wealthy inhabitants of Fiddler's Green are inured to the nightmarish world in which they live to such a degree that they have made to such a degree that they have made zombies into objects of fun and games, such as target practice. Or in a sort of cockfight between two of the monsters, in which they are painted respectively red and black and are made to fight each other. "Zombies don't fight," one man obects. "They do when there's food."

And what food, as a woman named Slack (Asia Argento, daughter of Dario Argento, who produced Romero's masterpiece Dawn of the Dead) is thrown into the Thunderdome-like cage in place of the dog or cat that would normally be used. We later learn that she's a political dissident, a thorn in the side of Kaufman (Dennis Hopper, channeling Don Rumsfield) who owns this Dionysian pleasure palace. In the stands around her, people cheer on the ghouls, placing bets, and it's only when the hero of the movie Riley (Simon Baker) shoots the zombies that they scatter.

But why do they cheer? Do they know that she's a political dissident -- are they cheering for the destruction of someone who is attacking "their way of life?" Is Romero making some statement about the disconnect of these rich people from the other humans around them, that they are so isolated that they have lost their humanity? Or is he suggesting that it is the violence of this world, a world in which every person has most likely not only killed members of the undead, but also friends and family members who have turned into the undead, is so pervasive as to make human life seem not precious, but worthless? It is the genius of this film (like Romero's other zombie films) that it suggests these questions in the audience. It is the weakness of this film that it is so focused on the standard action plot it finds itself using that it doesn't attempt to answer them.

Let me back up a bit. Land of the Dead is the first of the Romero zombie movies that attempts to show how societies, rather than just random bands of survivors, will weather the shock of the rising of the dead. This is also the first of his zombie films that has an appreciable budget ($15 million, a shoestring for most filmmakers but a veritable feast for Ramero), which is not a coincidence. Romero uses his budget to pay for a larger cast, more impressive gore effects (this time not by Tom Savini but by the special-effects group KNB, headed by Greg Nicotero), and more expensive sets.

All of this gives the film a much more epic scope visually, but at 97 minutes (this is the unrated edition, which is about six minutes longer than the theatrical version -- most of the excess is taken up by a brief scene inside Fiddler's Green and with longer takes of some of the gorier effects that had to be cut to gain the R rating), Land is only a few minutes longer than the shortest of the Dead flicks, the first, which took place almost entirely in a single house. He also includes an action-oriented plot involving Cholo (John Leguizamo, perfect in the role) ,a poor mercenary, blackmailing Kaufman with bombing in an attempt to buy his way into Fiddler's Green. Romero uses this plot as a way of social commentary, but he's so focused on the needs of the action movie that he rushes past some of the more interesting points.

I realize this review is wandering all over, but I can't continue without mentioning one of the central points of the movie, which is the further development of the zombies. In Day of the Dead, Romero gave us a single zombie Bub who was able to perform simple tasks through imitation and through distant memories. Here, we have a whole group of zombies gaining some level of awareness of their surroundings, led by Big Daddy (Eugene Clark), who spends most of the movie trying to protect his fellow undead and to get his tribe to safety. One of the final images of the film suggests a future in which zombies and humans are able to coexist relatively peacefully.

There's so much I haven't mentioned about this movie, which just goes to show how much there is to like here. I'm a big fan of Romero's movies, and Land of the Dead is no exception, but I do think that Romero has either lost his nerve or given into corporate pressure in railroading his story along the action-movie plot the way he does. Night and Dawn are masterpieces of organic story, of rich connective tissue causing events to flow into one another like dominoes falling. These movies are not easily divisile into straightforward "acts," and resist analysis because of it. The later two films, Day and now Land have much more restrictive structures and are thus more predictable, which makes them not only less scary but less interesting to boot.

Diary of the Dead hasn't opened in my area yet, but I'm hoping that George has returned to his earlier roots in terms of structure as well as theme. It's gotten very mixed reviews, but then again so did Day and Land, and you can expect to see my review as soon as I can get ahold of it.

18 February 2008

I Have to See This.... Maybe

Rich Christiano, fundie director of the unintentionally-hilarious Time Changer has a new movie out, Me & You, Us, Forever.

And it's playing in Chattanooga.

I'm so tempted to go add that to my Fundie Friday and movielog entries.... Think Shana will want to go with me? Fat chance...

Update: It's also playing in Huntsville, so she doesn't have to. But am I really going to add ten bucks to the gross of what will be an inexorable piece of garbage?

Subtle Xenophobia, in Comic Form

I hate to post another xkcd, but this one is just too good.



Of course, this works with any group of "others," and does not apply purely to math. "Mexicans are lazy," or "Jews are money-grubbing," or "Muslims are terrorists" or even, let's say, "Christians are dumb," fits into this same error of categorization. I know that some will read this and pull out bullshit Bell Curve-like studies that purport to use bogus statistics and, you know, those number-thingies to prove their points, to which I only have to say two words: confirmation bias.

(Placed under "politics" because it's such a common political trope that it deserves inclusion there.)

A False Dichotomy

Sandefur is reviewing Shermer's The Mind of the Market, a book that I'm interested in reading because of my respect for Shermer, but which I am skeptical of because of my general distaste for arguments that try to apply specific evolutionary/biological principles to social phenomena. (As Jon should well know. )

Anyway, Sandefur's not really a fan of the book, but you can go there to read his thoughts. What stuck out for me is this bit from the beginning:

Shermer’s overall point is to argue that free markets address the social and ethical needs that evolution bred into human nature. On that level of generality, the thesis is unobjectionable—indeed, it simply must be right, since free markets are objectively preferable to centrally planned economies on every conceivable level, because people find them useful and resort to them when they have the opportunity, because centrally planned economies are such disastrous and inevitable failures, and because human beings are in fact products of evolution. [Bold emphasis added -- DEH]

Let's set aside for a moment the idea that something (anything) can be "objectively preferable" -- a preference is, by definition, a subjective valuation. Instead let's look at the rhetoric used there: Sandefur contrasts a "free market" with its opposite, a centrally planned economy, without ever noting what should be immediately obvious. A totalitarian central economy with everything owned by the state and an anarcho-capitalist state with absolutely no government or public sector whatsoever are simply opposite ends on a spectrum and a reasonable alternative to either is some sort of regulated economy with rule systems in place to prevent horrible outcomes.

In short, the kind of economy that virtually anyone who's not an absolute wingnut (on either side) would think is the most reasonable option. (To be fair, I'm not calling Sandefur a wingnut here, as I don't know his specific type of libertarianism.) That private enterprise is good at providing microchips and lattes is unquestioned, but whether or not a completely unregulated economy with no protections against monopolistic control of microchip-making or against abuse of peoples who grow coffee is another question entirely. Libertarians like Sandefur like to contrast their ultimate free-market ideals with the absolute worst examples of government excess, and seem to hope that the rest of us will forget that vast middle ground in which, well, things actually get done.

I'm all for allowing for profit motives, but before the rhetoric gets out of hand keep in mind that it was the free market that created the incentive and perpetuated slavery in the Americas, and that is was government regulation that ended the practice. The free market is a great thing, but to idolize it to the point of placing it above all other factors is to make a grave error.

Movielog, Brokeback Mountain

Brokeback Mountain, 2005
Written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana
based on the short story by Annie Proulx
Directed by Ang Lee
134 minutes

I hadn't seen this movie until now. Not that I had been specifically avoiding it, but, well, it slipped through my fingers, and I just never went out seeking it. I remember the controversy when it was first released, though, and when Heath Ledger died I decided that I probably owed it to his memory to have seen what was widely considered to be his greatest performance.

And now having seen it, I am struck with two reactions.

Firstly, the sadness of loss: Ledger really was that good; his work here is nothing short of amazing. It's a performance that cries out for recognition, that declares that the actor making it will have a long, distinguished career filled with brilliant work. Ledger is like a young Brando or De Niro here, utterly transforming his matinee idol status into a character, and hiding his own charisma and good looks into the subtle nuances of his performance.

The second response I feel upon seeing it is to shake my head ruefully. That any person could be inflamed by this film, that any person could see this as at all controversial, is a more searing indictment of our current American culture than anything else about the film. Brokeback Mountain is not a movie about politics, it does not contain impassioned speeches in favor of gay rights or against religion or anything else. It is a love story, a great love story, and like all great love stories, it is a tragedy.

Brokeback Mountain opens with the meeting of two men, Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhall) and Ennis del Mar (Ledger). They're drifters taking whatever ranch and/or farm work they can get in Wyoming, 1963. They're hired by Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid) to spend the summer rustling sheep around Brokeback mountain, one of them sleeping with the flock in defiance of game rules, the other sleeping at the camp and taking care of supplies. They are both masculine men used to the rigors of hard work, men of few words, but the dissimilarities are apparent pretty quickly. Ennis is choked off, secretive, pursing his lips even when speaking, while Jack is more ingratiating, easier to get along with, talkative.

The film takes its time showing the rhythms of their summer on Brokeback. They camp together, eat together, rustle sheep together, and only gradually do they begin to share their lives. When they finally admit their feelings to one another, it is with actions, not words, in a love scene that verges on a sort of consensual rape. Afterwards, they separate for a day, and when Ennis returns to the camp, his first words are, "I'm not queer." "Neither am I," Jack responds.

From here it's difficult to summarize the plot, for the film is more about mood and emotion than story. Ennis and Jack finish out their summer together, are berated by Aguirre as to how badly they've done their job, and separate. Ennis gets married to Alma (Michelle Williams, Ledger's girlfriend at the time who became his real-life wife and later, his widow) and has two kids with her. Jack goes back to the rodeo circuit and eventually meets a rodeo queen named Lureen Newsome (Anne Hathaway) -- she will eventually marry him and give him a son. It is one of the marks of brilliance in this film that both women are portrayed as fully human, and the relationship between Ennis and Jack hurts them both in different ways.

Four years after that first summer at Brokeback, the two men will meet again and begin to go on secretive "fishing trips" in which they consummate their love affair. In between these encounters, Jack will spend time with other men, including prostitutes. The more repressed Ennis seems to be able to live on only the love he gets from Jack, and is never seen approaching another man. In their day-to-day lives, they are even more different -- while Ennis spends his days alone in a remote shack, taking whatever work he can get, Jack ends up gaining a life of middle-class tranquility through marriage and a good job at his wife's father's farm equipment business.

We follow these two men for about twenty years, and as the movie reaches its end, the story of Jack and Ennis reaches tragic proportions. Jack wants to find a way to move in with Ennis and have a life together, while Ennis --who has had a tougher life -- knows that if they do they will become a target for the ignorance and intolerance of their neighbors. No one does repression better than director Ang Lee, and it is in Ledger's performance during these sequences that the movie achieves its greatness, and all leading to a final shot that is both magnificent and heartbreaking.

Absent the controversy, this is simply an old-fashioned love story between two people who broke the rules of society and could not be together. We might say that things are different now, that America in 2008 is better than American in 1963 or 1983, but it wasn't even a decade ago that Matthew Shepard was killed for being gay, and conservatives vote down measures giving equal rights to gays every time they're put to a vote. Brokeback Mountain is not about homophobes, but homophobia informs every frame, and if we take any lesson from this film it should be that when people love each other it should be in society's interest to allow that love to prosper, rather than to try to suppress it.

What an incredible story. What an incredible romance. What an incredible... love.

17 February 2008

Presidential Apparel

What. The Fuck. Is this?



Okay, forget the utterly silly attempt to connect to youth voters with... jazz? A political rendition of an old hit by Michael Jackson, of all people? Choreography that looks like something out of an anti-drug youth group from the mid nineties? I mean, Jesus.

No, I want you to look at this:



I mean, is Hillary starting up her own line of T-shirts at Hollister or something? But wait, she's not the only one:



At least it's got an endorsement for Obama there, instead of looking like something I'd pick up for my girlfriend off a bargain rack at Target or something.

But maybe it's just the Democrats. Let's check John McCain. No fancy schmancy stylish T-shirts for the ultra-manly warrior there, but he does have this sweet stocking cap:



His site isn't laid out as well, so that's the biggest image I can find of it. I'd love to see Jay and Silent Bob wearing those McCain stocking hats, though....

But the winner here has got the be the Huck:



For such a "pro-family" candidate, that's a pretty gay-ass T-shirt, Huck.



Maybe he should go snuggle in the warm masculine embrace of Chuck Norris for comfort in his impending loss to McCain. I figured there was a hint of sexual tension in this ad, but I thought I was just imagining it. C'mon, Mike, is there something you want to say to us? Just let it all out, honey, it's okay....

Movielog, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, 2007
Written and directed by Andrew Dominick
based on the novel by Ron Hansen
160 minutes

Critics discussing this film have focused on the celebrity angle, on the way that the relationship between Jesse James (Brad Pitt) and Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) seems to mirror the relationship between modern-day celebrities (like, say, Brad Pitt) and their adoring fans. And that's not necessarily wrong, that angle is most certainly here, and it is one of the keys to understanding this film. But that version of this story is perhaps ninety minutes long -- this version runs over two and a half hours, and there's a lot more going on than that.

The key to this film comes early on. James has recruited a gang of hillbillies from the local lands of Missouri where the film opens, among them Ford, a longer skirting the outskirts of the camp. At the center, though, is a group of local roughnecks questioning Dick Liddil about a hypothetical sexual encounter he once had with a "squaw." Liddil has a hint of poetry to him, but the questions and answers are not only graphic and misogynistic by today's standards, but reveal a startling disconnect from a rudimentary understanding of the relationships between men and women, of the basic biology and contexts of human anatomy. I was reminded of the old myth that the sexual organs of "Oriental" women was oriented sideways rather than up-and-down -- would any adult male today, no matter how backwards, have this kind of misunderstanding?

Perhaps. And maybe I'm seeing something that isn't there, but I suspect that writer/director Andrew Dominick isn't just using this sequence as a way of introducing and humanizing his characters, but to give us a hint of a deeper theme in the film: that of a lack of self-reflexivity to these character's way of viewing themselves. The hillbillies that make up the gang are ignorant not only of the world around them, but of necessity of themselves -- they have no worldly context on which to hang their own self-image. They have needs and desires -- some of them quite noble, as for honor or for love -- but they do not see themselves objectively, as others see them.

Jesse James, then, is the opposite. He is a celebrity, one of the most famous men in America. He is portrayed as charming, likeable, but also psychotic and sociopathic. He is simultaneous a doting father and husband and a man willing to torture a child for information. He has not only newspaper stories but dime novels and tall tales written and told about him, and he is aware of how much invention has gone into these tellings. He knows the lies, he knows the truth, and in that knowledge he among all the characters we see at the beginning of the movie has a glimmering of self-knowledge.

Robert Ford, on the other hand, has only his fantasies of himself. As he is introduced to the viewer he is bragging to Jesse's brother Frank (Sam Shepard) about his toughness and prowess, but Frank (and we) see him instead as a child whose head is filled with false bravado and stories of the great Jesse James. James is his hero (he has dozens of the dime novels starring Jesse hidden in a box under his bed) and he has a great desire to be just like his idol. He begins the movie with a lack of understanding about himself, but will eventually gain the kind of self-knowledge that Jesse has, and it is because of the shock of self-knowledge of his own pathetic nature that he is led to the betrayal and murder of his hero.

Dominick stages this tale against the epic backdrop and wide-open plains of the Midwest, and in long shots and scenes that give the viewer plenty of time to contemplate what's happening on-screen. It's ironic that this film was released the same year as the superlative No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, because all three movies have similar settings and shooting styles. Unlike the Coen Brothers' and Paul Thomas Anderson's masterpieces, though, whose greatness is apparent from their earliest frames, The Assassination of Jesse James seems slow-moving at times, even dull, and it is only upon later contemplation that it's genius becomes apparent.

Before I get lost in the writing and the direction, let me mention the performances. I've read that Milos Foreman likes to choose his actors based on their own lives, i.e. choosing people who have the same kinds of relationships in real life as they will have in the film, and Dominick seems to have done the same here with his two leads -- Pitt plays the iconic celebrity Jesse James, and Casey Affleck plays the overlooked younger brother aching for recognition in his own right.

Affleck in particular is wonderful here -- I've known people living in the backwoods of Alabama who remind me a lot of Robert Ford here, in his pathetic need to be near his hero and his complete lack of understanding as to, well, how pathetic he seems. He is 32 at the time of this writing, perhaps a year or two younger at the time of shooting, but he plays a man barely past adolescence amazingly well -- his voice cracks, his confidence wavers, and he rarely seems to have the gumption to stand straight in his own shoes.

The supporting cast gets less screen time, but there are some standouts here as well. Sam Rockwell plays Robert's brother Charley, and he uses his gift for ingratiating humor to wonderful effect here, getting in good with James and his gang at a time when he's most desperate. Mary-Louise Parker plays James' wife, and while she gets few lines, she makes the best of what she has, doing what she can to protect her family from the implicit threat she sees in Ford. Also walking on for small roles are Michael Parks, Ted Levin (from the TV show Monk), and even political pundit James Carville as a law-and-order governor who sets the pieces in motion for the final standoff.

The film also has a narrator who tells this story as if it were history. Some details of how the James gang did what it did are unknown to posterity, and the film's strength is that is sometimes lets us see how these pieces don't quite add up. The narration helps to put the pieces together on the story, but even then at times we're forced to just shrug and say, "Well, that's how it happened." And the final ten or fifteen minutes serve as a sort of coda to the main action, showing how Ford himself met his end, and giving us the kind of strange resolution that sometimes happens in American life.

The Assassination of Jesse James flopped at the box office, but I suspect it will have a somewhat longer life on DVD. The slow rhythms and long running time are not the kinds of things that draw in audiences, but in the more contemplative and personal environment of the home, perhaps this story has more of the dogeared hominess of an old beloved paperback being read again as if for the first time. What an amazing story, what great performances, what a film; it deserves a bigger audience, and I recommend it to anyone willing to take a chance on this kind of epic storytelling.

16 February 2008

Booklog, V.

V., 1963
by Thomas Pynchon
Hardcover, 492 pages

When writer/director Peter Bogdanovich saw his friend Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, he is purported to have said of it: "I'd seen the film for or five times before I noticed the story." Welles' response was, "That speaks well for the story," and Bogdanovich's response to that was, "No, no -- I mean I was looking at the direction."

I recount this anecdote because I've read all of Thomas Pynchon's works at least once, and some of them more than once, and I have only the vaguest notion of what the plots are really about. I was looking at the writing. And I think this is at least one reasonable way at approaching Pynchon's writing, at attempting to wrap your head around the way he views the world.

V. is his first novel, published in 1963, and I've now read it twice. The book follows two "main" characters, Benny Profane and Herbert Stencil, in plots that begin as radically divergent but eventually come together towards the end. (In this sense, the plot itself seems to form a sort of "V" itself.)

Profane is a discharged US Navy sailor who runs with The Whole Sick Crew, a group of bohemians living in hovels and having lots of sex and making lots of art/music, etc. Profane takes a series of low-paying jobs, including travelling under the streets of New York and killing alligators. He gets into torrid love affairs with no less than four women, and spends most of his time dealing with the consequences of such.

Stencil, on the other hand, is an aged world traveller. His father was a British spy and diplomat, and much of the novel is filled with long excerpts from his father's journals from years past. These journal entries are all regarding this mysterious figure "V." who may or may not be a woman, or a place, or.... Working out exactly who or what V. is becomes an obsession of Stencil's, and researching this topic through his travels and reading his father's notebooks provides the overall spine of the plot.

These two thread may sound fairly straightforward, if perhaps a bit convoluted, but if you know Pynchon you know that's not the whole story. Pynchon fills his novels with endless amounts of detail, dozens of supporting characters, scientific metaphors, literary allusions, etc. etc. etc. Characters pop up, are given a lengthy introduction of a page or two, have a few lines, then disappear for dozens of pages. The effect is bewildering, absorbing, and this is Pynchon's point in writing this way -- he is intentionally drawing the reader into the maze of the novel, forcing us to make decisions about what we feel is important and what isn't, only to prove us wrong by making nearly every element important, working on some grand scheme of literary allusions. To make it even worse, Pynchon has a devil-may-care style of detail, mentioning dates, places, events, and objects that send a modern reader scurrying to Wikipedia on a regular basis.

So, again, look at the writing, not the plot. The best way to approach this, at least for me, is to not allow myself to get drawn in so far that I lose the flow of the book. Reading Pynchon is to float on his language, to examine the allusions and strange imagery without necessarily feeling the need to grasp every aspect of it immediately. Those looking for pat solutions should look elsewhere than a Pynchon novel, and V. is no exception.

This very quality makes a review of a Pynchon novel almost superfluous. I could give examples of things I liked, of the basic thrust of the imagery, but in a very real sense each of us approaches these novels in our own way, and the experience is meant to be different for all. My understandings may differ from yours, and my approach may not be useful to you.

Still, it's possible to put together very vague generalities. More important than characters or plot in a Pynchon novel is the overall narrative theme, the central metaphor that influences the overall story that he wants to tell. Here it is the question of the animate and the inanimate, and especially the way that human beings have historically treated their fellow men as the latter rather than the former. This is most aptly illustrated in chapter nine, subtitled "Mondaugen's story," which takes place during the Herrero Wars in 1904, and is a sort of dress rehearsal for the Holocaust. The white colonists use their African conquests as slaves, sexual and otherwise, and even supposedly sympathetic characters are shown as dehumanizing their fellow man in fundamentally awful ways.

The sequence takes place in the approximate middle of the book, and if what has happened before was full of pratfalls and silliness (and in a sense it was), what comes after is never quite as much fun -- this sequence represents a sort of Original Sin for the novel, and the characters (and readers!) are never quite as innocent afterwards. The novel builds to a tour de force ending in which the identity of V. is (maybe) revealed, and in which that central metaphor of animate and inanimate comes to a sort of stark relief.

I have read V. twice and fully admit to not quite understanding it. I'm not even fully cognizant of the details of the plot. But I think that's Pynchon's goal, that we keep reading and re-reading in our attempt to understand, and that we eventually will fully appreciate the world that he has created for us. I don't think V. stands as one of the best of Pynchon's works, but it's a remarkable novel nonetheless, and is worthy of the detailed study is has received.

First dance

Something tells me this marriage is going to last. (Give it a few seconds.)



Hat tip to Ed.

15 February 2008

Fundie Friday -- A Wee Bit Circular?

I'm tired so I'm keeping it quick today. One of the most fascinating aspects of the modern fundamentalist movements is illustrated in this cartoon over at Answers in Genesis. (I promise I'll start doing creationism pieces soon -- it's a big topic and I could do a year or two just detailing the idiocy there, so be patient.)



Hm. So God exists and Christianity is true because... the Bible says so? You often see this argumentation among fundamentalists, but rarely this blatantly. It's tempting (and sometimes accurate) to think that this comes about from simple weakmindedness, that the fundies simply don't see how circular this belief structure is. But there are other factors at play -- let me briefly discuss a couple of them.

1. Social pressures Fundies often live in a self-contained intellectual world (this is, again, another topic we can go into in detail) and are raised in an environment in which everyone around them is another fundie. Since every person they speak to believes in the self-evident truth of the Bible, it's easy for them to simply accept those cultural values unthinkingly. Unless one is very circumspect about understanding cultural assumptions, this happens to the best of us -- could most of the people reading this argue for the value of, say, artistic integrity from first principles? While these arguments exist, most of us just absorb our matrix of values from the culture at large. (This is one reason why multicultural understanding and integration is so important, but that's a whole other slew of topics not even really related to this.)

2. Conversion experience One of the interesting aspects of the Christian faith is that it emphasizes not so much an ideology as a personal religious experience -- Christians often insist that they personally have spoken with or in some cases even touched God Himself. Indeed, when I myself was converted to Christianity I believed that God was speaking to me, although I believed that he was speaking through the circumstances in my life and through my own understanding of the world rather than through some hallucinatory experience. This emphasis on the personal faith in a Living Christ leads to a certain will to believe in the words that are said to be the words of this "person" whom they now believe to be the Son of God.

To put this another way, when one becomes a Christian it is generally put in terms of a personal experience. Rightly or wrongly, most people who convert to Christianity believe that they have had some sort of personal relationship to Christ. From there, it's easy to see that for a Christian, belief in the Bible is not just a question of vague ideology or abstract theology, but a living, breathing, daily experience. In this context, believing in the Bible is not so much trusting that "well, the Bible says it's true" so much as it is believing that their own experiences in this regard are faulty. Or, to put it another way, they really do believe that they're simply trusting their eyes and their experiences, and that believing that God spoke to them makes more sense than believing in those hard-to-understand equations, measurements, and observations that go into understanding modern science.

This makes fundamentalist thought difficult to combat, as it's based on an explicit belief in a delusional reality. To argue that their beliefs are delusional is insulting and misguided, I think -- better is to point out that the plural of "anecdote" is not "data," and that scientific inquiry is much more intersubjective than their own religious experiences.

Booklog, Warp Speed

Warp Speed, 2006
by Travis Taylor
Mass-Market Paperback, 384 pages.

In 1905, Albert Einstein published four papers in a leading German physics journal. The first established the photoeletric effect, and would in 1921 lead to a Nobel for Einstein. The second mathematically treated the motion of small molecules in a colloid, making rigorous the mathematics of Brownian motion, and solidifying the idea that all matter is made of atoms. The third was a supposition on the research of two other British scientists that ended up leading to relativity. And the fourth was about the equivalence of matter and energy -- this one led to the atomic bomb.

To have these four papers published in a single year is utterly astonishing. Physicists would spend the next half a century getting through the implications of some of these papers, and as much as any man can individually be said to have done so, Einstein set the stage for modern physics. 1905 is generally referred to as Einstein's "miracle year," and it's possible that no other scientist has ever had so many earthshattering results within so short a time frame.

Now. Let's say that in addition to those four papers, Einstein had decided to start a small little invention shop with three or four of his buddies from the patent office and his wife. Imagine that within the next half a dozen years, Einstein and his compatriots had managed to build an atomic rocket capable of flying to the moon and back, personally piloted said rocket into Earth's orbit, constructed the beginnings of an atomic bomb in his basement, had those beginnings stolen from him by British spies, personally fought those spies in hand-to-hand combat to prevent the British from getting the parts, been involved in a small nuclear explosion in the middle of Bavaria, developed organic chemistry based on his knowledge of atomic theory, discovered DNA, cured some forms of cancer with his study of radiation, and oh, what the hell, became a well-respected boxer and semi-professional cyclist, to boot.

Imagine all that, and you're starting to understand the level of achievement that Dr. Neal Anson Clemons accomplishes in the first half of Warp Speed. In the beginning of the novel, Clemons is a physicist/engineer working at a state university (actually, UAH, my local university, as author Travis Taylor is local to Huntsville) who is also a semi-professional martial artist who competes at the tournament level. He's forty-two years old, maintains levels of fitness that would qualify him for astronaut training, meets and eventually woos a beautiful astronaut who also happens to be a fighter pilot, and has a pair of graduate students who work under his direct scientific supervision to develop a power source that is capable of producing an amount of power equivalent to that produced by the entire planet Earth every year in a single second, and in their spare time work on solutions to Einsteinian field equations that would allow for the warping of space and the creation of FTL travel.

That's where the novel starts. I hate to keep harping on this, but the absolutely astonishing level of achievement of the protagonist is the central theme of the book, and I think it's worth noting just how extreme and totally implausible it is. Clemson is more on par with the kinds of fictional scientists so aptly satirized on The Venture Bros. than any realistic person, and accepted on that level, this is a pretty fun book. At least in the first half, before things get really implausible and insane.

The thing is, Clemson is also a clear Mary Sue for the author. They both live in the same city, have the same hobbies, work on the same kinds of research, share the same political opinions, etc. etc. etc. Taylor denies that Clemson is a Mary Sue, having been quoted on his Wikipedia page:

"Have people become so average that they can't believe that some of our nation's current heroes and successes couldn't exist? What about Chuck Yeager? What about Jim Lovell? What about Story Musgrave? What about Arnold Schwarzenegger? What about Pat Tilman? What about Judy Resnik? You can name hundreds of American Superpeople. What about Madonna? Think how old she is and how she keeps plugging away better than many 20 year olds and smarter at it to boot. A good friend of mine is 52, a national class cyclist, and Chief Scientist of a major DoD contractor firm... what about him? Would you call them all Mary Sues? Look at any fighter pilot or astronaut and you'll see someone that I guess could not really exist because they aren't average. I based Anson on real people I have known in my life. The female characters as well. Calling them Mary Sues is an insult to those people and to the American Dream."

Yes, of course, there are plenty of people who are so-called superachievers, but by these standards, Clemson would be a superachiever even by the standards of those superachievers. He's so clearly omnicapable and superhuman that it eventually begins to dissipate all dramatic tension -- I half expected Clemson to start shooting laser beams from his eyes and fly around like Superman before the final pages of the novel.

Maybe I'm being too hard. This is a fun book for most of its length, and Taylor is clearly writing for a demographic that enjoys his tale. The writing is very flat for my taste (and his forty-two year old protagonist reminds me more of a fifteen year old boy emotionally) but he's clearly written the book he wanted to, and insofar as one can accept the severe breaches of reality, it's enjoyable. Towards the end of the book Taylor begins to find the opportunity to talk about his own (to my mind) repugnant politics irresistible, and the book starts to go downhill. There's a particular scene in which Clemson talks to the President of the US that is so astonishingly unrealistic that I could just about smell the cardboard sets, but Taylor has the right to his politics, and I won't begrudge his readers the right to read that which they agree with.

It's light and breezy, and an enjoyable way to turn the brain off, but this isn't the kind of book I can really recommend. It's too extreme, too far off base of reality, and Taylor either doesn't consider or doesn't care about the real-world effects of the technology he has his protagonist create. How much more interesting would a novel simply discussing the social effects of the nearly-infinite-energy dumbbells have been, without all the other silliness? It's a huge lost opportunity, but read alongside such other yarns as Tom Swift stories it's decent.

14 February 2008

Movielog, Romance and Cigarettes

Romance and Cigarettes, 2005
Written and Direted by John Turturro
105 minutes

Nick Murder (James Gandolfini) is cheating on his wife Kitty (Susan Sarandon) with a younger woman Tula (Kate Winslet). Nick and Kitty have three daughters, played by Mandy Moore, Aida Turturro, and Mary-Louise Parker. Given that Aida Turturro's character acts like a perpetual child, and Parker (who was 41 when this film was shot) gives her character the demeanor of a rebellious teenager in a band, it's pretty clear that gritty realism is not the order of the day here. It should give you some idea of the overall tone of the film to note that Christopher Walken shows up as Kitty's cousin about thirty minutes in, turns in one of his broadest, most comic performances, and fits in perfectly with the overall aesthetic. It's that kind of film.

Written and directed by John Turturro and produced by longtime friends the Coen brothers, Romance and Cigarettes is a musical that uses pop music from the last few decades to illustrate the emotional reality of a marriage that may (or may not) be failing. The triumph of the film is that we've seen these kinds of stories about marital infidelity before -- a standard film would simply be about the infidelity and the marriage, while a better film might decide to twist things a bit and go the musical route. Turturro takes the concept even further, pushing the limits of the narrative to connect scenes that are emotionally resonant, rather than directly connected. Hence the sidelines into Moore's relationship with a wannabe-rock-star neighbor, Walken's set piece involving a past lover who scorned him, and a monologue by Murder's mom (Elaine Stritch) telling tales about her father-in-law that must be heard to be believed.

This is a profoundly dirty film that ironically contains little to no nudity. Nick and Kitty use vulgarity to insult one another, Nick's friend Angelo (Steve Buscemi) uses it to puff up his manhood in describing women, and Tula uses it as a way of getting past the emotional defenses of those around her, specifically Nick. And yet these characters are all also capable of great love -- when Nick comments that there's more to life than a hard-on, Tula replies, "Well, that's where it starts, isn't it? We all got started with a hard-on."

I've been dropping names of the cast like they were candy, and that's much how Turturro uses them. He seems to have called in a lot of favors in this one, and also appearing in small roles are Eddie Izzard as a priest who looks a lot like a grown-up Malcolm MacDowell from A Clockwork Orange and Amy Sedaris as a neighbor who ends up in a confrontation with Kitty. Each performer seems to bring a huge amount of energy to the role they've been asked to play, and during a long period in the middle of the film the chaos seems to build and build, aching for the kind of climax that perhaps Nick is looking for in his personal life.

Alas, it doesn't quite get there, for the musical reaches a certain crescendo and the plot takes something of a left turn that robs the film of much of its energy. The ending is poignant, to be sure, but it seems to belong in another movie -- I don't feel it's quite earned here. Perhaps that's the point, to bring the story of Nick and Kitty to a logical conclusion, or to show how the blind workings of nature can get in the way of the life we thought we were living. Perhaps that's the meaning of the title. Perhaps. Turturro has made the film he chose to make, and while I respect his decision to end his film the way he does (and it's very well-executed, to be sure), he dials down just when I felt he should have been ramping up for the big finish, and the tone feels slightly off. It's this ending that keeps the film from true greatness.

Never mind, though, because up until the last fifteen minutes or so this movie is a delight. The cast is amazing, and the pop songs are perfectly matched to the material. Turturro has a strong and steady hand in the direction, and the surreal nature of the set pieces and the plot devices that sometimes bring these characters to their knees (figuratively and literally) are never allowed to trump the emotional reality of the scenes. If he flubs the ending, it's only because what has come before is so very good. I'm not always a fan of musicals, but this one is the kind of musical for people who don't like musicals, and at times gave me the dirtiest, happiest smile I've had in a while.

13 February 2008

Movielog, Waitress

Waitress, 2007
Written and Directed by Adrienne Shelley
108 minutes

The meta-story on Waitress has at times overshadowed the actual film. Writer-director Adrienne Shelley labored for years as an actress in TV and in independent films, and upon completion of her first feature, was killed before it could be released. It played at film festivals and became a major audience hit, and was highly praised by critics who, at times I think, were honoring the slain filmmaker more than the film.

Waitress is that rarest of beasts, a genuinely independent production that nonetheless has a genuine commercial feel. The titular character is Jenna (Keri Russell), stuck in a loveless and at times emotionally and physically abusive marriage, but with a true genius for pie-making. As the film opens, her two friends Becky (Cheryl Hines) and Dawn (Shelley herself) are counseling her through a home pregnancy test. Yep, she's pregnant, and the film will follow her throughout her pregnancy as she meets the handsome Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion) and struggles to get away from her husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto).

Shelley is attempting something really remarkable here, in that she pitches the tone of this film at something like a sitcom, often with cliched characters and with overly-broad performances. (The southern accents, in particular, tend to be way overdone, almost cartoony -- only Sisto sounds like a realistic Southerner to me.) The film aims to be light, airy, disconnected from reality, but whenever Earl shows up honking his horn and demanding that Jenna come back to him, relinquishing all of her hard-won independence, the fluff seems all the more insubstantial. The baby, as it happens, was conceived in a form of rape -- Jenna's husband got her really drunk and forced himself on her. Later, he'll spend several scenes demanding, nearly forcing, her to give her body to him for his pleasure.

If the relationship with the husband is a bit off tonally, Jenna's budding romance with Dr. Pomatter is much better. He comes into her life unexpectedly, temporarily replacing her old doctor, now semiretired, but their obvious feelings for one another grow stronger. The film doesn't delay our gratification too long -- after two or three scenes together, Pomatter and Jenna are having an affair (both are married), and while it seems that the two will end up together at the end, Shelley has some other things in mind....

The film is filled with several romantic subplots involving minor characters, most of which are choreographed from a fair distance, but have a certain charm nonetheless. While this film seems to cry out for a ninety-minute runtime and seems a big sluggish at an hour forty-five, the extra running time gives Shelley time to establish several characters as clear supporting players, and charting the relationships is one of the pleasures of the film. My favorite of the supporting players is Old Joe, played by Andy Griffith himself, a irascible old man who owns several local businesses including the pie shop where Jenna works and most of the action takes place, but who is more than he seems at first.

Overall, this film is trying to be like one of Jenna's pies -- delectable, airy, wonderfully constructed out of disparate elements. But the ending left a sort of saccharine taste in my mouth; I don't think the characters earn the ending they get, and the happiness seems tacked on. Granted that in any realistic telling of this story Jenna would end up shackled in a hopeless situation, but the way in which Shelley gets Jenna out is unfair to the story she's telling. The film is more like cotton candy than a delectable pie -- all sweetness and insubstantiality, with nothing holding it together.

Waitress is a nice date movie, and the Jenna deserves her happy ending even if the film doesn't, but in the end it's a movie that seems to be always pulled in fifteen directions. Is it light, or dark, happy, or bittersweet, feminist, or traditional, a comedy, or a tragedy? This feels more like a trial run for the much-superior Juno to me than anything else. See it for the performances and the comedy, but don't expect the kind of genius that the film festival reviews might have led you to expect.

12 February 2008

Booklog, 1632

1632
David Weber
Paperback, 608 pages

A modern-day West Virginia town is transported back in time and across the globe, to central Germany in 1631. How? The author gives a nothing answer, basically saying that it as a cosmic accident by an advanced species that had no idea about what they were doing. Flint's story, instead, is about what the citizens of the fictional Grantville do once they find themselves in the middle of the Thirty Years' War.

This is the kind of premise that is chintzy, laughable, even. It might serve as the premise for an old Twilight Zone episode or a short story from sixty years ago. But the mark of a great story is not in what it is about but how it is about it, and Flint provides a wonderful story within the confines of a well-trod premise.

The central protagonist is Mike Stearns, local union boss who has lived in Grantville all his life. When the town is transported to the past, he finds himself basically in charge -- the local police force is really just a few people, and the union membership is the only government that still exists at the town level. Stearns is a pretty standard Heinleinian "competent man," a genre affectation that I generally dislike, but which is used here sparingly -- Mike is shown usually deferring to the superior experience of others, acting more as a realistic administrator than as a hypercompetent man of the world solving every problem with brute force and incredible intellect. He uses politicking and deal-making to get what he wants, and through his leadership the town sets up a coal mining operation and begins to harvest food for the long winter approaching.

It's a possible criticism of the book that the residents of Grantville get used to the idea of being stuck in the past relatively quickly. It's a fair one, but Flint gives reasonable justifications for quick adaptation -- the town's residents mostly stick to themselves and each other, and few of the original three thousand people have lost relatives in what is now their distant future. Furthermore, at least to begin with, there is still power and many of the amenities of home to rely on to get used to the situation. It's still a bit quick, but Flint's characters are shown as basically practical hillbilly folk, and it's acceptable dramatic license to get to the story that Flint is really wanting to tell.

And that story is really why this book is as good as it is.

Let me step back. Flint is a die-hard Socialist with a capital S -- he worked for twenty-five years as a factory worker and as a union organizer, and is a self-described socialist. And this book is absolute and total proof that it is possible to be a socialist and an absolutely patriotic American. For the story that Flint really wants to tell is the story of how this group of three thousand modern-day hillbillies start the American Revolution a hundred and fifty years early, spreading human rights and personal freedom throughout as much of war-savaged Europe as they can.

In other hands, this would seem like an overly polemical story, a story treasuring empty words over the realistic actions of its characters. But Flint lets the power of freedom ring through the actions and attitudes of his characters. Such as the former librarian of the local school, assumed to be a duchess by the peasants who come into contact with her, holding herself with head held high like their nobility, and yet assuming that even the lowest peasant has an equal right to the dignity that she does. Or a powerful Scottish warrior who falls in love with the town's head cheerleader because of her beauty and energy, but who falls even further in love when he learns that in addition to being beautiful, she is incredibly capable with a high-powered rifle, and becomes one of the greatest warriors in the world.

In one memorable scene, the King of Sweden Gustavus Adolphus (who becomes a major character as the book moves on) watches as this powerful soldier acts as a "spotter" for the beautiful young girl.
As he watched the ensuing slaughter, the king of Sweden was not sure which disturbed him the most. Seeing the casual ease with which a young American girl from the future struck down men at a third of a mile—or the casual ease with which her Scots fiancĂ© of the time assisted her in the task. The first introduced a very bizarre and rather frightening new world. The latter opened the entire book.


And this is just one example of many. Flint's seventeenth century characters begin with their seventeenth century attitudes, and only gradually, with difficulty, are brought around to modern ideals. And not all of them -- even those considered heroes -- are fully converted. In 1632, respect for freedom and equality are earned by the characters, and while Flint is clearly writing these characters as genre figures, with all that that implies with regard to quality of writing, he's done his research, and doesn't allow things to ever become too easy for the transplanted Americans.

The greatest sequence of the book, though, involves a young man who was separated from his family by the Ring of Fire (the official name given to the event transplanting the town). His name is Jeff, and he was staying with three of his D&D-playing friends in town with his parents gone when the Ring took them. Bereft, he and his friends go into war armed with shotguns and riding dirtbikes, where Jeff runs across a young woman Gretchen who has given herself to one of the mercenary warlords as a sexual object in order to safeguard the other children around her. Jeff (followed quickly by his three friends) steps forward against impossible odds to defend the young woman, and this is only the first step on a long sequence of horrors and heroism that these characters will go through. Each page of this section contains deeply human moments, and the twists that Flint drives through this section of the narrative end in a single night between two people that might have been among the most cliched ideas ever, but here rises to a crescendo of honest, earned emotional content.

Sorry to be so vague, there, but I'd hate to ruin even a moment of that section.

In most novels of this type the female characters are pretty much just cardboard cutouts, but even in the sketch given above it should be clear that Flint has other plans. While the relationship between Mike and a travelling Jewish princess is a bit overdone, seeming at times to belong in a romance novel rather than SF, most of the strong characters are both recognizably female and incredibly powerful. In fact, on balance, the female characters are richer and more interesting than the male characters, and more easily differentiated. Just one more way in which Flint shows he means what he says about freedom and equality.

Flint has clearly done his homework on the era and on the possibilities inherent in this premise, and while this book is not quite on the level of classic SF, it's about as good as you can expect a novel with this premise to be. Flint's prose is a bit flat, but serviceable, and I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a solid SF novel with plenty of patriotism and heroism. Despite the novel's length, Flint keeps the story moving well, and there's scant a wasted page here. It doesn't elevate its genre, but it's a wonderful read nonetheless.

Happy Darwin Day!

One hundred and ninety-nine years ago today, Charles Darwin was born. He was no hero, no cult figure, no one who deserved worship, but he was a great scientist who revolutionized that way that we think about the world around us, and for that we honor his birthday.

I'm in Chattanooga today and tomorrow, so blogging will be light, but hopefully I'll be able to put up a few things here and there.

11 February 2008

Hmm...

Maybe I should re-read The Plague soon. I haven't read it since my early twenties, and I'm pretty sure I'd get a lot more out of it today.

Movielog, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, 1948
Written and Directed by John Huston
Based on the novel by B. Traven
126 minutes

One of the problems with writing these reviews is that the films or books in question just don't compress well. Try summarizing Treasure of the Sierra Madre, for instance. "So there's this drifter in Mexico, right, who comes into enough money so that he and a friend of his and this grizzled old prospector who may be more than he seems go off into the middle of nowhere in Mexico to search for gold. So they get there, and then the guy gets greedy, and they run into a bunch of people who might or might not want to take their gold, and then..." That's about the first half of the movie, and I've left out a lot of stuff, like the lottery ticket, and the guy and his buddy getting cheated out of their hard-earned money, and and and....

So let me just say that this is a movie that's about a character, Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart). He's down on his luck, homeless, struggling just to have enough money to eat, begging for change, when his fortunes change just enough to give him the money to go gold prospecting with a good friend Curtin (Tim Holt) and Howard, a grizzled old prospector who knows all the ropes (Walter Huston, director John Huston's father). They go out into the desert to prospect for gold, and over the course of the film you see the depths to which Dobb's greed and obsession will take him, in a truly stunning performance by Bogart, widely considered to be his best.

Yeah, okay, that's the story, but there's so much more. The old prospector at first seems to be a stereotypical character seen in countless films, but there's an intelligence and a knowing quality behind his eyes that suggest he adopts that persona primarily as a way of protecting himself from men like Dobbs. He goes along with Dobbs's paranoia -- he's been down this road before and knows where it will lead. Holt is also particuarly good as Curtin, who lends the kind of common humanity to the movie, acting as one of the best men seen on-screen. Well, maybe.

This film is over two hours long, which would be somewhat long today, but was considered epic back in the forties, when movies tended to be shorter than they are now. Huston gives his characters time to breathe -- he lets us watch them, to see what makes them tick, and none of them are perfectly angelic or perfectly evil. But as the end approaches and the hands of fate work their magic on these three men, we see what they're really made of. Bogart is shorn of his romantic image here, playing a character who quickly begins to look more and more disshelved and dirty as the desert heat gets to him. He spends most of the movie with a dirty mangy beard and a haunted look in his eyes -- when the craziness begins to set in, we are not surprised.

Treasure of the Sierra Madre has aged particularly well, and while it uses some film techniques that are not in wide use today, it's thoroughly entertaining and is well worth a revisit. Paul Thomas Anderson said that he studied this film when constructing There Will Be Blood, and it shows, as both movies contain similar sequences of greed and corruption against harsh desert landscapes. The photography is black and white, but it still manages to capture the dried-out feeling of heat and desolateness that permeates the film.

This is a quality film, nearly sixty years old but still very relevant to modern pictures, and deserves its reputation as a masterpiece. See it for the direction, for the writing, but most of all for that central performance of Bogart as Dobbs, as he demonstrates the lengths that men will go to possess a bit of that glittery substance that bequeaths wealth.

10 February 2008

Dinner with Darwin

The Dispersal of Darwin has a list of questions positing what one would do if it were possible to have a dinner with charles Darwin. I figured I'd dash off a quick answer to these, given my interest in evolutionary biology and all.

What would you ask him? I'd ask what he thought of the abuses of his theory using his name -- in particular, those of Social Darwinism and eugenics.

What would you bring him? A modern microscope and an introductory text on genetics, so he could get quickly moving on the modern-day evolutionary work in population genetics and microbiology.

How would you describe the evening? Spirited. I'm sure we'd both have a lot of questions to ask, and a lot of opinions to share.

What book would you bring him? Aside from the introductory genetics book? Probably Kurt Vonnegut's Galapagos, because I think he'd get a kick out of it.

What film would you show him? Spike Jonze and Charlie Kauffman's Adaptation, to be sure. (Gee, I hope he'd have a sense of humor!)

What would he think of the fact that his ideas and personality are under attack from Intelligent Design and creationism? Somehow I doubt he'd be all that surprised. He knew his ideas would cause controversy -- that's why he spent two decades gathering evidence before publishing. Still, I think he'd be disheartened that a century and a half later, with all the myriad evidence we've uncovered, people still keep their heads in the sand.

Booklog, Eon

Eon, 1985
by Greg Bear
502 pages (mass-market paperback)

It is the year 2005. Five years ago, a giant oblate asteroid quickly dubbed "The Stone" appeared in Earth's orbit. An American-led team happened to land on it first, and claimed first exploration rights, but they allow Chinese and (begrudgingly) Russian scientists on board, albeit in a limited capacity.

At first it appears that the Stone was built by an alien civilization, but soon it is learned that it instead is built by human beings in the future -- although whether it is our future is another question. The library in the Stone makes no reference to the Stone, for instance, but it makes very clear references to the Death, a nuclear conflagration that will annhiliate four of the world's six billion people mere months into the future.

Complicating matters further is the fact that one of the seven chambers inside the Stone is a space-time tunnel that literally goes on forever. There are abandoned cities in two of the other chambers, and it is speculated by the characters (and known to the reader, as Bear gives us views of this early on) that the inhabitants of the Stone have left to go live on The Way, which is the appellation this wonder of physics is given by the scientists.

This kind of epic hard SF story tends to skimp on its characters, but Eon spends at least as much time on the political situation of the characters as it does on the science. Most important is Patricia Vasquez, a sheltered but brilliant young mathematician who is brought along to help understand the construction of the Way. (Yes, this book commits the error of having a mathematician perform work that should really be in the domain of a physicist, but the book does sort of justify it in the end, and I suppose you could argue that the science is arcane enough that it's really more math than physics. Still irks me, though.) Vasquez gradually grows more engaged in the world around her, especially when she realizes that nuclear war is going to destroy her home planet and everyone she cares about, and much of the first half of the book is spent on the sociopolitical situation that creates the Death in the first place.

Then the Death happens. Nuclear fire engulfs most of Earth, and a Russian team begins to take the Stone by force. Among this team is Pavel Mirsky, a cosmonaut awed by the wonders of space and with a thirst for knowledge his totalitarian government suppresses. He is shown as fully human, kind, and generous with himself. Alone among the Russian soliders, he does research into the Stone and begins to grasp its implications. He is something of a parallel with Vasquez, for just as the Russians were starting to attack, Vasquez is abducted by one of the high-tech humans living along the Way and shown the wonders of their future society.

The inhabitants of the Way live in a sort of utopian post-human era, in which genetic engineering, robotics, and symbiotic relationships with alien species have gotten rid of many of the foibles of "normal" humans. And yet even in this society freed from want, there are still political factions fighting for supremacy, fighting over who controls the direction of society. About two-thirds of the way through the book, I was thinking that the point was that even in the post-biology utopian future, we will seem to bring our need for dominance and for war, but Eon takes it one step further, and the end of the novel is a sort of contemplation on what the responsibilities of humanity are.

Some of the inhabitants of the Way want to travel back down into the Stone and help those humans who have survived the Death, whereas others are perfectly happy with their current existence and want to press forward along the Way, exploring as far as they can. Both of these options is presented as a possible future for this society, and the decision is given great weight through the personalities of our characters. We are left with great admiration for the characters that seem beyond the day-to-day life of humans on Earth like Vasquez and Mirsky, but is their abstract need for pure exploration really the most moral option, given the billions of people suffering on Earth? The novel provides no easy answers, as the final fates of the characters leaves the reader still in contemplation.

In the end, this novel ably combines the rigor of hard SF with the humanity and willingness to experiment with prose that characterized the New Wave SF of the sixties and seventies. It's as if Rendezvous With Rama was written by Samuel R. Delaney, and while the action sequences go on a bit too long for my taste, there's very little fat on this 500-page novel. This is rightly regarded as one of the classics of the genre.

Note: There are a lot of Eon-inspired art here, including some movie trailers which make me think this might actually make a really good movie, if they got some real talent behind it.

09 February 2008

Booklog, Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee

Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee, 1949, original English publication date
Translated by Robert Van Gulik
Mass-market paperback, 237 pages (including appendices)

Di Renjie was a real person, born in 630 and died in 700 in China. I know nothing of Chinese history, but cribbing mercilessly from Wikipedia and from the introduction to this book, Di (or "Dee") acted as a judge during his lifetime, a position in which he acted simultaneously as police officer, detective, judge, jury, and (when necessary) executioner. Held accountable by his actions towards the people by his superiors, he investigated crimes (mostly homicides), found out the perpretators, and delivered just punishments. A wildly popular celebrity, he often went in disguise in investigating these crimes, and in the eighteenth century a novel Di Gong An was published in Chinese, treating the real-life Di largely as a fictional character.

During the second world war, Robert van Gulik discovered this novel in his researches into Chinese detective novels, translated it into English for consumption by the Western world, and went on to write and publish a whole series of Dee detective novels in his later years.

All of which is preamble to say, essentially, that I think this novel has all the historical accuracy of Robin Hood or the Knights of the Round table -- in all cases, there are substantial historical inaccuracies and anachronisms involved, and the stories are mostly made up out of whole cloth. So in this case I will not be reviewing Dee as history, as I have absolutely no knowledge of that history, but simply as a novel giving insight into the perspectives of the culture in which that novel was born.

So how's the book? Pretty good, actually. Dee covers three cases in total, interconnected in time but not connected in their solutions (i.e. the crimes were committed by completely separate people for completely separate reasons -- no Chandler-esque "it was all connected" thing at the end). The first is the murder of two men who are discovered in front of a hotel. The second is a crime of passion that is abnormally unusual, given that the crime is over a year old. And the third is a bride poisoned on her wedding day.

The cases move with remarkable speed -- the author or authors of the book does a good job keeping the action tight, and ensuring that the reader is never dulled by detail. The book was originally published a century before Holmes, but to a modern reading Dee's attention to detail seems reminiscient of that famous detective, probably one of the reasons Gulik selected it for translation. However, while Holmes used scientific reasoning and attention to physical detail, Dee is more inclined to use his knowledge of psychology to intuit the truth of a crime, and then through torturing suspects until they confess, a move which is widely supported by...

Huh? Tortured? Well, yeah -- one of the things that stands out about the culture in which this novel was written is that torturing suspects in a crime on flismy pretext is an established tradition. In fact, Dee is shown as being more liberal than most -- in one of the cases, a rich noble wishes to torture information out of a young man whom Dee is pretty certain is innocent of the crime, and Dee declines to put the man to the screws (literally). As we learn in the text (and through the footnotes), Dee is responsible to his superiors in this, and if he tortures a person to extract a false confession, he himself is liable to be tortured in the exact same way he tortured the innocent. So at least there is some limiting factor on Dee's ability to run over people, although in real life I wonder how easy it would be for those falsely accused to establish their own innocence in order to make this effective.

No matter. The blase use of torture is one element in this society, and seeing how it is integrated into the otherwise ordinary detective fiction is one of the fascinating things about it to modern western readers. And, to be fair, a novel taking place around the same time period in Europe or among the Native Americans might very well contain similar uses of torture to extract confessions -- this is by no means limited to China.

Another device that differs from modern-day western detective tales is a strong reliance on dreams and ghosts and other aspects of the supernatural. Dee, seeking a break in one of the cases, sips tea and goes into a trance. In this trance, he sees a poem, which he then uses as a guideline to the case. In another of his cases, he actually sees a ghostly apparition that points him to the grave of the deceased. For the most part, these supernatural influences are used more as pointers for Dee, sort of intuitive guides, than as literal events, but the overall effect is something like if Sherlock Holmes ran across Jacob Marley's ghost while investigating a murder.

So what's the final verdict? Overall, this is a really decent mystery even outside of the context of the times, but within that context it allows us to see elements of the society in question that are fascinating. It's interesting also as an SF fan how the cultural biases and assumptions here are so easily relevant to the solutions to the mysteries -- reading books and stories from cultures not one's own is a good way of understanding one's own cultural assumptions and biases. Fans of mysteries or enthusiasts of China will probably like this one.

Theremin Gnarls Barkley

Okay, this is just awesome.



Hat tip to Chad.

(NOTE: There was a typo in the original title -- I left out an "e." That's why the URL is messed up. Sorry.)

Another one bites the dust

Scalzi has joined the Borg Collective, er, I mean, installed Linux on his home machine. Just one more step to the complete world takeover....

Thom Yorke is reading Pynchon

From that Rolling Stone cover story, comes this feature about Radiohead's current inspirations.
"I just started Gravity's Rainbow. I tried reading it once before, but this time around it's much more fun. It's a really early one, isn't it? This one seems easier to get into than V." — Thom Yorke

Yeah, it's true that in some ways Gravity's Rainbow is easier to get into than V., but Rainbow was published in 1973, a dozen years after his first. Granted, that's now over forty years ago, but Pynchon's only published three novels and one short story collection since then...

More stuff later, I'm being lazy today.

08 February 2008

Fundie Friday -- Fundamentalist Vs. Evangelical

I realize that last week I used the term "evangelical" a lot, and have named this feature "Fundie Friday," but I think there's a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding regarding those two terms, and I'd like to take a bit of time today to briefly (briefly) define the two terms, and discuss the differences. Many people use the terms interchangeably (even those who describe themselves by them), but each term has a specific historical genesis, and it's worthwhile to examine that.

First, since it's the easy one, let's do evangelical. The word comes from two Greek words that put together mean "good message" or "good news" -- this, then, is a sort of Greek translation for "Gospel." Put more broadly, the term refers to the Christian concept of the Great Commission, i.e. to spread the faith to all people, giving God's word to all.

It's important to note in today's religious environment that this is actually a pretty strange trait for a religion to have. Not all religions evangelize; Judaism, for instance, specifically teaches that its members are not to spread the faith unless they are specifically sought out by individuals who actually want to join, and has certain discouraging tactics. And there are plenty of religions from the era in which Christianity got its start that were "mystery religions," i.e. religions in which knowledge of the inner sancta was only granted upon successive feats of loyalty and devotion to the faith. Arguably, Scientology is such a belief today.

"Evangelical," then, is a term that applies to all Christians today, absent a few minor splinter groups that follow a more restrictive path to knowledge. There is a certain stigma to the term nowadays, given that conservative elements of the faith muddy it with their own agenda, but even very liberal denominations like the United Church of Christ or the Episcopals would consider themselves evangelical about their faith.

What, then, is Fundamentalism? While "evangelical" has a historical basis in the very earliest days of Christianity, "fudamentalism" is much more recent. In fact, it's not quite a hundred years old. The term refers originally to a series of articles published in volumes called The Fundamentals in which the authors, Lyman Stewart of Biola University and his brother Milton, attempted to summarize the root beliefs of Christian doctrine. (The link above links to an online copy of the original texts.)

You see, around this time a new academic field of textual criticism was coming into vogue. Textual criticism is a method allowing historians and students of literature to analyze literary works (such as, say, The Odyssey as historical works, that is, by attempting to analyze which parts of these stories were true and which were not-true through analyzing earlier works, historical evidence, etc. Applying this method to the Bible (in particular, the Pentateuch, i.e. the first five books of the Old Testament) yielded the Documentary Hypothesis, in which it became clear that the Pentateuch was not written by Moses himself as was taken as sacrosanct, but had four authors who contradicted each other and whose works were then redacted by a fifth. (When applied to biblical studies this technique is known as "higher criticism.")

Another target of The Fundamentals was the theory of evolution, which was around that time coming back into vogue as the Modern Synthesis reconciling Darwin and Mendel was being established. William Jennings Bryan himself preached from these books, and the idea of "biblical literalism" as we speak of it today is derived largely from them.

Over time, followers of these books became known as "Fundamentalists," as opposed to the "mainline" churches like the Episcopals that (for the most part) did not reject the teachings of modern science about the history of their faith. Fundamentalism grew out of fertile soil in the United States for a variety of reasons, but the most prominent was a long history of rejection of religious authority from afar (most religions in America preferred their religious authorities close by, not in, say, Rome) and of rejection of education and modern teaching. (This is a whole other topic which I'll deal with another time.)

So we can see that while "evangelical" is a term that refers to a simple spreading of faith, whatever the method or ideals, "fundamentalist" refers to a specific rejection of modern science and philosophy, and has a specifically anti-intellectual bent. This is why the term is used to denigrate other highly authoritarian/hidebound movements with terms like "fundamentalist Islam." Personally, I find myself gritting my teeth whenever I hear such terms, as making the explicit connection between a specific historical movement between conservative elements of the two faiths assumes a kind of one-to-one analogy that is simply not the case. Conservative Islamic groups don't behave culturally or ideologically like conservative Christian groups, and tarring both with the same brush is just asking for misunderstandings.

(For that matter, many of those who are most vituperative of "fundamentalist Islam" come from the most reactionary of Christians. Again, there are lots of historical reasons for this, and again, it's not something I'm going to get into right now.)

Now, in practice I'm basically using the two terms interchangeably, as many modern-day fundamentalists avoid the term and call themselves evangelicals. But it's important to keep the difference in mind when understanding what it is that this feature is about -- I don't have the goal of necessarily criticizing all religion, or even all of Christianity (although I am an atheist), but rather in criticizing specifcally those reactionary movements that exist only to reject modern scientific and social advance. That a person believes in God and wants to share that belief with others is perfectly fine, assuming that they are reasonable in how they act on that, but a rejection of reality that forms the basis of fundamentalism is a much different and more dangerous thing. And much more entertaining, as we'll see as I keep putting up these posts.

Movielog, Downfall

Downfall, 2005
Written by Bernd Eichinger
Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel
156 minutes

I saw this video on a few blogs I read.



And then, a while later I saw another really funny version that had some big football rivalry at its center... there was a funny bit involving a T-shirt, but I can't find it again.

Here's the original version:



I'd had the movie in my Netflix queue for awhile, just way down the list, but after seeing that scene, seeing the sheer wonder of the performance of Bruno Ganz as Hitler, it shot right up to the top of my to-watch list. And this is pretty much indicative of what you get from Ganz in the role -- his Hitler is maniacal, blaming everyone around him for his own mistakes, accusing his generals and his people of betraying him, and moving invisible armies around a map in mad denial of his own loss. And still Ganz shows us the humanity of this figure -- he is kind to his secretaries, loves his dog, and compliments his cook for the quality of his final meal. He is kind, generous, and also insane, raging, and one of the most evil men in history.

The film itself is mostly plotless. It is bookended by documentary footage of Traudl Junge (played in the movie proper by Alexandra Maria Lara, whom you saw in the scene above), a secretary hired in 1942 to work directly for Hitler, to take his dictation and send out his memos. She is delighted to find she has gotten the job, and is starstruck by the powerful man who has entered her life.

The movie then cuts to the very last days of the war, essentially the last week and a half or so of Hitler's life. The Russian army is but ten or twelve kilometers from the heart of Berlin, and they are shelling the city day and night. Hitler and the other high-ranking Nazi Party members retreat into their underground bunker, while the city above them devolves into chaos. A small boy, no more than twelve or thirteen, is commended for having destroyed two tanks with a bazooka. Parties rage on even as the shelling gets worse (a surreal detail that makes the three-month party-slash-siege in the heart of Pynchon's V. seem much less slapstick than I originally believed it to be), and thousands are dying every day.

In the bunker, Hitler calmly prepares for his end, going so far as to give a dose of poison to his beloved dog to ensure that the chemical maintains its lethality. Magda Goebbels brings her children into the bunker, and they act like it's just one big vacation, sitting in "Uncle Hitler's" lap and singing children's songs. German officers and soldiers wander through the hallways drunk, and several executions and demotions take place.

The movie spends some time with a doctor, Ernst-Gunther Schenck (Christian Berkel), who is one of the many day-to-day functionaries who performed their duties because of loyalty to their countrymen as opposed to that to Hitler himself, or to the Nazi Party in general. He spends most of his time in the film working as a surgeon's assistant, in a medical unit that better resembles a butcher's shop than anywhere I'd like to go for medical attention. Some have criticized this portrait of Schenck, due to his involvement in certain experiments of the Reich, but I think he is intended to be representative of those Germans who were, in the words of the real-life Junge, "reluctant Nazis," willing to surrender and live another day instead of using the very last rounds of ammunition on the Russians and then on themselves.

Ultimately, this is an amazing journey, and while historians quibble with some of the details of the portrayal of Hitler or others, it is a portrait of a city and a leadership that is being destroyed. This is war at its most real, and there are sequences here at least as good as any ever filmed in displaying the very real cost of battle. It's disturbing, forcing us as viewers to come to grips with our feelings on the Nazis, and the film hits the right note by not overly editorializing. We all know how evil the Nazi regime was -- here is a film that does not wallow in that evil, but simply shows us how that regime ended. In its minimalism, it finds brilliance.