Archive for February, 2011

Madison
February 21, 2011

I’m late to the party here. Not sure what else can be said. But I’ll say this much: what initially galled me so much about Governor Walker’s actions isn’t that he tried to eviscerate one of the few remaining instruments Wisconsin’s public employees had for making their interests heard. It’s that he was so blatant about it. A smoother operator likely could have effectively marginalized the state’s public unions without overextending himself and causing a ruckus.

But overextend himself we did, and now we’re being treated to the curious spectacle of American middle-class workers rebelling against the further concentration of political and economic power around an oligarchical elite. They’re resisting in public. How weird is that? I think I read about it in a book once.

I’d gotten used to thinking of America’s stumbling descent into neo-feudalism as a sort of historical inevitability, and perhaps it is yet. But “historical inevitability” is too grand a term to be anything but an abstraction, something for future historians and political theorists to scratch their heads over. It doesn’t do justice to the effect this is having on real people who live in this country right now. Living the privileged yuppie existence I do, it’s been all too easy to think about the systematic brutalization of the less lucky in purely academic, theoretical terms. Recent events in Wisconsin have caused these matters to take on a certain tactile, visceral immediacy.

To put it in less flowery language: recent events have lit a fire under my ass. I hope you feel that same fire under yours. Because historical inevitability or no, I know future me would sleep a lot easier knowing I’d kept fighting until there wasn’t a single square foot of ground left to fight on.

Where to start? Well, you might consider ordering some hungry folks a pizza.

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Bad Movies and “Bad” Movies
February 20, 2011

Troll 2

Image via Wikipedia

The trailer for I Am Here….Now is totally hypnotic, absurd, and weirdly compelling. But just as compelling is the backstory as transmitted from Hadrian Belove to Andrew Sullivan to the readers of the Daily Dish:

One of our in-house guys cut a really hilarious trailer for Neil Breen’s latest crazy fucking masterpiece of accidental weirdness. The trailer itself is hilarious. If you don’t know him, writer/director/actor/caterer Neil Breen is a real estate agent in Las Vegas who self produces these indescribable movies, casting his friends from the biz…total outsider madness. This guy is so different he has four dots in his ellipses.

For someone like me, this is a genuine find. See, I’m a bad movie buff. A connoisseur of crap, if you will. And recent cinematic history hasn’t been all that kind to my unholy obsession.

Don’t get me wrong: there have been some really positive trends for the terrible movie. Film and editing equipment is getting cheaper every year, especially shitty film and editing equipment. Same goes for visual effects: an aspiring director can create whole worlds on his desktop computer, especially if he doesn’t mind if those worlds are lodged somewhere in the darkest recesses of uncanny valley. It’s easier than ever for a budding auteur with outsized ambition and microscopic talent to scrape together a few thousand, cast some reluctant family members (or non-union actors), and immortalize their hilariously fucked-up vision in celluloid.

That’s where we got The Room, to name arguably the most towering achievement in bad movie history. And it looks like this very same trend has now blessed us with I Am Here….Now. The casual observer might think that the awful film is going through a bit of a renaissance, and she wouldn’t be entirely wrong. But there’s a flipside: for every Troll 2, we now have to sort through five Transmorphers: slick, self-aware productions cobbled together by a professional cast and crew at the behest of a cynical producer. It’s getting harder and harder to find the real crap in this sea of fake crap.

I blame Snakes On a Plane. This was the first mainstream attempt to produce a so-bad-it’s-good B-movie that was wholly cognizant of its badness. Not a truly bad movie, but a “bad” movie. A smirking, ironic commercial pitch to our baser instincts. The difference between the intentionally bad Snakes On a Plane and, say, the great British satire of 70′s genre television Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace is that whereas Darkplace is a clever, affectionate riff on a specific period and field in pop culture, Snakes On a Plane is just deliberately half-assed and uses its own half-assedness as a selling point. It promises to invite us in on a joke that isn’t really much of a joke at all.

In other words, there’s no ambition. The only ambition is to flatter our sense of taste and savviness for long enough that we’ll fork over some money. Compare that to The Room, whose trailer promises a film “with the passion of Tennessee Williams.” What makes a movie like The Room so fascinating is the enormous gap between what it tries to be and what it is. Something like Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus can’t compete because it is exactly what it tries to be and can’t stop reminding the audience of that fact.

The recent wave of fake-bad movies is really just another example of how businesses have screwed us all by co-opting irony for commercial purposes. It’s a testament to the dark, hollow place we’ve found ourselves in that television commercials can become enormously popular in their own right simply by commenting on how stilted and hollow television commercials are. Or as David Foster Wallace put it in his essay E Unibus Pluram:

What explains the pointlessness of most published TV criticism is that television has become immune to charges that it lacks any meaningful connection to the world outside it. It’s not that charges of nonconnection have become untrue. It’s that any such connection has become otiose. Television used to point beyond itself. Those of us born in like the sixties were trained to look where it pointed, usually at versions of “real life” made prettier, sweeter, better by succumbing to a product or temptation. Today’s Audience is way better trained, and TV has discarded what’s not needed. A dog, if you point at something, will look only at your finger.

The great thing about a genuine, genuinely ambitious, bad movie is that it tells us something about a real human being’s desires and fears, albeit unintentionally. The Room is as much a movie about half-mad misogynist Tommy Wiseau as it is about poor, cuckolded Johnny. House of the Dead isn’t a story about zombies but a story about a deranged German ex-boxer who somehow cobbled together the financing to adapt some old third-rate arcade game. What is Snakes On a Plane about?

That’s why I’ll continue watching the true disasters, the movies that at least tried to fly before crashing to the runway. I want bad movies, not “bad” movies. You can keep your fucking quotation marks.

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PKD Goes To The Movies
February 17, 2011

This is how not to adapt a Philip K. Dick story into a feature film:

I haven’t seen the move advertised above — it doesn’t come out until March — but it sure feels like I have. Wait, wait, don’t tell me: Matt Damon resists his fate, big third act chase scene, true love conquers all, he and Emily Blunt make out on a rooftop, fade to credits.

If the premise behind this assembly line blockbuster hadn’t been ripped from a PKD short story, then its crushing banality would be merely crushingly banal. But the fact that it has so warped the spirit and philosophy of its source material — not just the source material, but its author’s whole body of work — makes the banality sort of offensive. After all, true love doesn’t conquer all. Grown ups accept this. Sometimes people, even people who love exceptionally deeply, are just ground down by an absurd and indifferent universe. Dick spent the better part of his career writing about those people. Not the heroes with perfect Matt Damon hair — just the average folks fumbling their way through a world they can’t ever fully comprehend.

On the face of it, the bulk of Dick’s work seems ripe for the silver screen. It has the right sort of pulp intensity, the hooky appeal, the striking visuals.* Too bad basic economics works against a good adaptation. Dick usually writes about the future, and bringing the future to life in a satisfactory way tends to require money. That sort of money comes from major studios, who then demand that Sam Worthington portray the protagonist and Megan Fox his romantic interest. By the time the movie hits theaters, it’s just another beige thriller everyone will have forgotten by the time they exit the theater.

Some PKD adaptations have escaped that fate. Minority Report was pretty good, A Scanner Darkly was very good, and Blade Runner was iconic. But of those three, only A Scanner Darkly captured Dick’s characteristic mixture of bleak humor, melancholy, and hallucinatory weirdness. Whereas Minority Report distinguished itself only by being slightly smarter than most big dumb Hollywood blockbusters, Blade Runner was too dour and self-serious to convey its source material’s impish side.

But past regrets and The Adjustment Bureau aside, I think there’s hope for PKD fans. Visual effects are getting cheaper, and weird, scrappy little films are more likely to find cult followings. Plus, some of recent mainstream pop culture has become sophisticated in a way that would have been unimaginable a decade ago: to cite one example, I think Lost has proven that balls-out mindfuckery can appeal to an unexpectedly large audience.

That’s why I’m cautiously optimistic about the other Dick adaptations in the works. A BBC miniseries sounds like the ideal format for doing The Man in the High Castle. The assurances I’ve received over Twitter by the good people behind the indie Radio Free Albemuth adaptation make me think they’ll adhere closely to the spirit of the original. And while I think there’s good reason to worry that Michel Gondry is a little too light and whimsical to convey the bad-acid-trip vibe of UBIK (perhaps my favorite PKD novel besides The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch), I’m excited to see what he does with it.

At the very least, I’m confident none of those will be as bad as Paycheck. And if they genuinely do justice to their inspiration, well. I think there’s tremendous value in introducing Dick’s warped vision to as wide an audience as possible. Especially now. We may not yet be controlling our own emotions with Penfield Mood Organs or (as in one of my favorite scenes in UBIK) getting into arguments with the doors to our apartments, but — details aside — we live in the world Philip K. Dick predicted.

*Hell, it’s not like all the beauty and subtlety of Dick’s writing would get lost in translation, either; as much as I love the man’s ideas, his prose had all the elegance of a drunken buffalo.

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Chris Lee and Virtue
February 11, 2011

Chris Lee, member of the United States House o...

Image via Wikipedia

For the Socrates of Plato’s Republic, there were three virtues: wisdom, courage, and temperance. People possessed each of them in different quantities and ratios, but those were the basic building blocks for all virtuous behavior. In other words, he believed that something like courage was a global trait: your capacity to behave courageously in one context (say, war) could tell an outside observer something about how courageously you might perform in an entirely different context (say, romance).

The logic of global traits also suggests that someone who is duplicitous and self-interested in his personal relations would, in any kind of leadership role, treat the public in the same way. That’s the rationale for prodding into the personal lives of our public figures: If John Edwards is willing to screw around behind his cancer-ridden wife’s back, who knows what he would do to the American people if he became president? If George W. Bush was a pretty good dad, doesn’t that tell us a thing or two about his decision-making abilities?

And so it goes. That’s why Rep. Chris Lee was pushed into a humiliating resignation earlier this week: he proved to the world that he’s a shitty husband. We can’t have that from a public figure.

Assuming, that is, that there’s anything to the whole global trait construction. Last week I read a piece by an academic philosopher making the opposite case:

Over the past decade, these two streams have met in debate over the relevance of empirical psychological findings to philosophical accounts of virtue and character, debate that would hearten Mill for its empiricist method as much as for its subject matter. This discussion centres on Lack of Character, in which John Doris draws on an impressive range of experiments to argue that people do not possess such “global” traits as courage, temperance, honesty, or kindness. We really possess “local” traits, he argues, such as office-party-temperance or sailing-in-rough-weather-with-friends-courage. If this is right, then the virtue ethics of preceding decades that assumes that we do have “global” traits must be either radically rethought or abandoned altogether.

I haven’t read the relevant literature, and I can’t say with any confidence whether we possess global or local traits. But my suspicion, based on both personal observation and phenomenal introspection, is that it’s the latter. And if that’s the case, then there’s really no relationship at all between an individual’s public and private virtues. You can be a terrible spouse and a magnificent legislator, or vice versa. What’s the logic behind cutting someone from one role because he does a poor job in a separate, completely unrelated role?

I don’t know much about Lee. What little I do know suggests that he wasn’t a terrible valuable member of Congress. But forcing him out because of a personal failing dragged up by the dirty laundry spelunkers at Gawker is just counterproductive.

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The Gospel Of O’Reilly
February 7, 2011

I was originally going to write a long post refuting Bill O’Reilly’s claim that it requires more faith to be an atheist than not, but I decided not to. I’ve made that argument so many time that the thought of doing it again gives me the same feeling as the thought of doing my taxes. And whereas I’m required to do my taxes by law, I’m allowed to pass on knocking down dumb repetitions of ancient fallacies.

I will say this, though: I don’t get the attitude that compels people like O’Reilly to insist over and over again that they have less faith than the average atheist. Isn’t faith supposed to be an awesome, transformative thing? I’m not one of the faithful myself, but I still appreciate the concept. Obedience to the tenets of the Bible without it — or with a cheapened, diluted version of it — sounds like kind of a hollow experience to me.

But of course, true faith is difficult. The people I know who have true faith and are honest with themselves about it haven’t defeated doubt: they’ve committed themselves to an endless struggle with it. I suppose that’s where grace comes from. If that were O’Reilly’s position — if he wrestled with his belief and approached the subject with thoughtfulness and humility — I would admire him. But evidently he’s decided that faith is too hard and uncertainty too scary to look straight in the eyes. Better to just be ignorant.

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Female (And Male) Intuition In Philosophy
February 2, 2011

Over at Rationally Speaking (far and away my favorite philosophy blog), Julia Galef has a thoughtful post on philosophical judgments from intuition. This passage caught my eye:

One central concern for the critics is that a single question can inspire totally different, and mutually contradictory, intuitions in different people. Personally, I’ve often been amazed at how completely I disagree with what a philosopher claims is “intuitively” the case. For example, I disagree with Moore’s intuition that it would be better for a beautiful planet to exist than an ugly one even if there were no one around to see it. I can’t understand what the words “better” and “worse,” let alone “beautiful” and “ugly,” could possibly mean outside the domain of the experiences of conscious beings. I know I’m not alone in my disagreement with Moore, yet I’ve also talked to other well-respected professional philosophers who claim to share his intuition.

Perhaps Galef shouldn’t be that amazed. After all, philosophy is a notoriously male-dominated field, and there is evidence to suggest that men and women presented with the same philosophical problem will tend to have very different intuitive responses.

That’s a major strike against arguments from intuition. For an argument for intuition to be universally applicable, it has to be the “right” one — likely the reason why Galef so often disagrees with that intuition is because it also happens to be the one held predominantly by men instead of women.

When there’s broad disagreement between male and female intuitions, it seems to me that any argument from intuition must be junked entirely. Of course we won’t hear about those broad disagreements as long as academic philosophy remains an atavistic sausagefest. And so arguments that are actually built on sand will continue to be treated with far more gravity than they deserve simply because they mesh well with male prejudice.

(Incidentally, if you want to see just how misogynistic university philosophy departments can get, the blog What is it like to be a woman in philosophy? is truly heartbreaking. Flip through it if you have the stomach, but then be sure to check out all the posts tagged “Do Try This At Home” for a chaser. I swear to god, some of those posts will bring tears to your eyes. In a good way.)

Why The US Should Prefer China’s Ruling Party Over The Alternative
February 1, 2011

People's Republic of China President, Hu Jinta...
Image via Wikipedia

An article in yesterday’s Washington Post leads with: “Could the popular revolt against authoritarian regimes of the Middle East ever spread to China, the world’s most populous nation?”

Well, no. Or at least, it’s highly doubtful. China is certainly a repressive an authoritarian nation by liberal democratic standards, but Hu Jintao (pictured) is no Hosni Mubarak. More importantly, the Chinese Communist Party is flexible in a way that most North African/Middle Eastern despots aren’t, and it’s certainly more committed to economic growth. Widespread poverty was one of the major catalysts for the riots in both Egypt and Tunisia, but poverty in China has been dropping at a remarkable rate.

That isn’t to say that Jintao and the Politburo have absolutely nothing to worry about. But if anything threatens internal stability, it’s not a popular democratic uprising; China’s expanding middle class is largely satisfied with the status quo. The greater threat to the Party comes from within its own security apparatus.

There’s a solid article in this month’s The New Republic (behind a paywall, sadly) that drives this point home. As author Joshua Kurlantzick points out, officers in the People’s Liberation Army tend to be far away more hawkish than their civilian overlords. They’ve also become increasingly willing to make their own policy preferences known, even when those preferences clash with the commands coming down from on high. If a direct challenge to the Chinese government lies in the future, it will come from powerful military tired of being held on a short leash by men who never served within its ranks.

This puts both the United States and human rights groups in a somewhat awkward position: both will find that an authoritarian Communist government run by career bureaucrats does more for their interests than a nationalistic military state. Which is why, contra Kulantzick, I don’t think the Obama administration is doing China’s hawks any favors by showing greater deference to Beijing. Instead, by getting cozy with China’s more moderate civilian leadership, the US is trying to consolidate that leadership’s legitimacy. And that’s smart! Even if it means turning down the heat on issues like Tibet, it’s better for human rights and regional stability in the long run. We certainly wouldn’t be doing the Tibetans any favors if we facilitated the rise of a more belligerent, hawkish Chinese government.

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