Sunday, November 25, 2012

Pun Nintend(o)ed

(Some spoilers follow.)

Wreck-It Ralph should be viewed as less a movie than a cultural artifact of the early 21st century. It is not a bad movie, by any means. Its construction is sound, its technical ability accomplished, its celebrity voice casting surprisingly successful (I typically find Sarah Silverman grating, but here, no longer able to just be as obviously "offensive" as possible, she is refreshingly spunky). On entertainment grounds, it is largely successful. But far more interesting than how funny it is (quite, and quite often), is the way it trades on its audience's knowledge of video games, and depends on video game characters and iconography for its effect. So completely reliant is it that, regardless of its merits as popcorn cinema, it functions less as an independent cultural entity than as a milestone in postmodern cross-corporate artistry.

The contours of the story are deceptively familiar. In the games of Litwak's Arcade, all the characters live in a world unto themselves. The villain of Fix-It Felix Jr., Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) spends his days smashing windows that Felix (Jack McBrayer) repairs in order to eventually save the building's tenants, who throw Ralph off the building at the end. Tired of always being the villain and having to live in the dump, Ralph abandons his game one day to try to win a Hero's Medal in alien invasion first-person shooter Hero's Duty. In doing so, he crash lands in a candy-themed racing game called Sugar Rush, bringing with him one of the nasty, reproducing bugs from Hero's Duty. In the process he raises the ire of Sugar Rush's King Candy (Alan Tudyk) and Hero's Duty Sergeant Tamora Calhoun (Jane Lynch). He then enlists glitchy exiled racer Vanellope von Schweetz (Silverman), to win him a medal in a race so he can get back to his own game before the arcade owner decides it's irreparably out of order without him and has it unplugged and taken away.

The scenario is classic Pixar, even though this is a Disney film. Toy Story was about the secret world of toys, A Bug's Life the secret world of bugs, Monsters, Inc....You get the picture. Yet rather than these films, Wreck-It Ralph shares a far stronger kinship with Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, a film which also used the storytelling grammar and tropes of video games to an unprecedented degree, but even then just as a filter for an otherwise grounded love story. Ralph is about video games, period, and to its end enlists an array of cameos spanning the past thirty years of video games, from Q*bert to Pac Man to Street Fighter to Sonic the Hedgehog to Super Mario Brothers and beyond, with homages to other games not mentioned by name. To understand the difference between this and the Pixar pictures, imagine if, rather than just Mr. Potato Head and Etch-a-Sketch, Andy's room in Toy Story was populated with Stretch Armstrong, Transformers, G.I. Joe, He-Man, and other such brand names. That would have been distracting at best--but here it's vital, not just to the world of the movie, but also to its humor and themes.

Nor is it simply a crass toy commercial, not the way the actual Transformers cartoon was all those years ago, but neither is it a self-contained product. A look into the 'universe' of video games would simply not be convincing without being populated by authentic video game characters, every one of them worth millions of dollars and owned by media giants. A good case could be made that 20 years after Super Mario Brothers: The Movie, the reason there are no great films based directly on a video game is that the characters are too tied to the companies that own them, and they exist solely to sell products, the games themselves, that make those companies money.

And it's not just characters that are being licensed here. An assortment of brand names appear, in all manner of capacities. A close-up shot of a Subway cup is the most blatant and annoying; embedded far deeper in the movie's being are Oreos, which are the subject of a gigglingly obvious Wizard of Oz pun, and Mentos and "Diet Cola," on which a training montage and the movie's climactic action scene are inextricably tied. As with the game characters, the product-placement so completely sublimates the mise en scene that the two become bound, the art as vehicle for the ad, the ad as vehicle for the art.

It's all very entertaining, in the way that inside jokes are very entertaining to knowing insiders. (The movie is rotten with delicious candy-themed puns, which are the lowest of inside jokes, in that you only need to understand the language to understand the joke.) I'm not so much of a scrooge that I didn't enjoy myself. But still, should we not be a little depressed that every new character worth dressing up as for Halloween is now owned by some soulless mega-conglomerate?

The old criticism of Disney was that it debased classic stories and characters by reducing them to commodities. Yet in order to turn the little mermaid Ariel into a marketable Disney princess, the House of Mouse still had to create their own engaging version of a character that had existed in numerous, independently-created iterations for over 150 years. Copyright laws and media consolidation have so strangled our cultural development that our classics today are commodities, which exist and are licensed only in approved forms and tended with an eye for the bottom line. By modern laws and logic, everything that followed Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid was either intellectual property theft, or fan-fiction.

The fact of this creative corporatism--or is it corporate creativity?--affects not just the film's storytelling but also its message. By focusing and placing audience sympathies on Ralph, a "villain" who wants to be good, it presents itself as an underdog story of rebellion against a prevailing order. (Tellingly, Ralph resolves to do this in a funny scene set at an AA-styled meeting for video game villains that includes original rebel, Satan himself.) Yet games, the film's creators cannily understand, operate by rules that dictate what does and does not happen in a digital world. That's what video games are, essentially: programs made up of millions of lines of code that act as pure logic. It's a very conservative way of looking at the world that in this case happens to be true: the rules, the code, can't be changed. Thus Ralph's attempts to be a hero in the way Felix is, are doomed to fail (the code for Sugar Rush is changed as part of the machinations of the villain, a notably arbitrary plot device that is out of step with much of the rest of the film). When it comes to his world, the world of Fix-It Felix Jr., Felix will always be the hero, and Ralph will always be the villain.

One can read into this a certain reactionary strain of thinking that says things can never truly change, that the discontented ought to just be happy the prevailing order and get on with it, lest they destroy everything. It's certainly befitting a top-down hierarchical corporation with more money than God. Yet one can also hear in Ralph's final lines, in which he says that the best part of his day is just before he is thrown off the building, because it is then that he has the highest, greatest view of the arcade--one can hear in it echoes of The Myth of Sisyphus (indeed, is there anything more Sisyphean than living life according to a 'reset' button?):
I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.
One must imagine Wreck-It Ralph happy.

Like The Dark Knight Rises earlier this summer, Ralph tries to split the difference in its dealing with change and the status quo--for it is not just the villains but the heroes that must live by this code (there's that word again...). Towards the end of the movie, we learn that King Candy is in fact the hero of a previous racing game, Turbo Time, who grew jealous of a new racing game that took players away from him. He invaded the game and glitched it, causing both his game and the new one to be unplugged. He then secretly installed himself in Sugar Rush and overthrew Vanellope, its queen. The putative hero was subject to the same rigid system as Ralph, a "villain." Not coincidentally is Vanellope restored to her throne, whereafter she renounces her crown in favor of "constitutional democracy," a term I'm fairly certain has never been used in a Disney animated movie until now. Democracy, of course, is the quintessence of 'splitting the difference,' which seems to be the essence of the message the film is trying to impart. America's brand of democracy today goes hand-in-hand with the kind of pervasively entrenched corporatism I was talking about earlier, and so the circle is complete: corporate art encourages corporate democracy encourages corporate art.

Wreck-It Ralph is thus as much about its own nature as a vehicle of the postmodern zeitgeist, as it is about video games and how they drive the zeitgeist itself. I hasten to add that this postmodernism, this collapsing and subverting of the old definitions, cuts both ways. It's not just that rather than art becoming commercialized, our commercials are becoming art. Twenty years ago, my seven year-old self was allowed to watch Disney movies but not to rip someone's heart out of their chest in Mortal Kombat. Now a Disney movie marketed to seven year-olds includes a scene with Mortal Kombat baddie Kano ripping the heart out of a zombie. It's very funny in the context of the movie, but broadly speaking, not so much. Game Over, man.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Golden Fleecing

Art doesn't exist in a vacuum. It's a reaction--a commentary, an interpretation, a criticism--of the world we live in, and it can't help but be shaped by the material conditions of its creation. Most people know this, practically take it for granted. What gets less attention is how subsequent events shade our understanding and response. Argo was ostensibly intended as a taut and reasonably fun thriller that told the fascinating story of the Iranian hostage rescue mission that didn't fail; at most, its real-world resonance would be a modest rehabilitation of Jimmy Carter's reputation. Fate would have it the movie hit theaters barely a month after the September 11 attack on the American consulate in Libya that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens, the worst diplomatic disaster since, well, the Iranian Hostage Crisis. The timing can't help but color one's response.

Recent history gives Argo's opening scenes an especially visceral immediacy. Cutting archival footage of the 1979 storming of the American embassy with period perfect re-enactments, and depicting attempts within the embassy offices to deal with the rapidly escalating situation, the sequence has a terrific on-the-ground quality that starts the movie off with bang. By so vividly recreating the events of '79, it provides an uneasy vicarious experience of the Egyptian and Libyan missions of but a month ago. (I don't know if Warner Brothers ever considered delaying the movie's release out of "sensitivity" regarding the Libya attack, but since such moves are stupid and self-defeating, I'm quite glad they did not.)

After six American diplomats manage to escape and find asylum in the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), the movie settles into what is essentially a heist flick mold. Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), CIA rescue ops badass, is tapped by State Department mover and shaker Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston) to figure out how to rescue the six Americans. He eventually settles on a plan, "the best bad option," to enter the country posing as a Hollywood producer scouting locations for a fake Hollywood science fiction movie, and to disguise the diplomats as his production crew and take them back with him. To do this he needs to create a believable dummy production--including script, concept art, and authentic trade magazine publicity--with the help of Planet of the Apes makeup man John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). Which is hard enough before having to actually go to Tehran and get the Americans out before the sweatshop workers piecing together their shredded embassy photos can alert the Revolutionary Guards that there are Americans hiding in Tehran.

The plot pretty much takes care of itself, explaining the steps to be followed and then upping the ante with a raft of complications along the way. It's solid stuff, and the script and actors deftly balance the grave seriousness of the problem with the absurdity of the solution at hand. The good humor of Arkin and Goodman (who at one point tells Affleck, who directed this movie, that you "can train a rhesus monkey to direct in a day") dominates the Hollywood-heavy first half, somewhat to the detriment of the back end. As they can only sit around and wait to be rescued, the American hideaways are only given the barest of character development, and so it falls mostly on Affleck to carry the picture once it moves to Iran. He does good work as the smartest man in the room, steely and unflappable except for a concern about having to be away from his family that is exactly as perfunctory as it needs to be. Still, it would have been nice to get to know the trapped Americans better in order to contrast them with the roles they are forced to adopt for their survival.

Without getting into too much detail, the movie's third act goes perhaps too far in the use of creative license. The action got to be enough that it took me out of the film, and I started to wonder how much of this was true. It's not a fair complaint--there really was a lot that was fictionalized, to the movie's benefit--and William Goldenberg's editing does wonders tying together three plot threads that moment-by-moment push the tension ever higher. But the movie does start to feel (ironically?) a little too Hollywoody, whereas everything that came before was believable and restrained.

Maybe it's just recent events, the "too soon" factor, that make me fault the movie for its drift into fancy. If so, it works more than one-way. For not only does the September 11 consulate attack shape the way one approaches Argo, but Argo shapes the way one looks at the consulate attacks. It isn't much of a spoiler to say that the operation is successful but the U.S. government must publicly give all credit to the Canadians because the embassy hostages would otherwise face brutal reprisal. The movie ends here, but in the real world history marched on: those hostages and the failed attempt to free them, for whose sake the government buried the story of its most spectacular rescue mission, helped destroy Jimmy Carter's presidency, and it was not until he left office that they were freed.

Too often secrecy is invoked by our government today as a means of covering up information that would embarrass it. Argo presents an all-too-rare instance of secrecy that did precisely the opposite, that downplayed success for the greater good until 1997, when the mission was declassified. If there's a takeaway from the timing of the movie's release, it's that there is often more going on in international relations than we realize. Unknown unknowns, and all that. Moreover, the people who are involved in these hot spots, do realize what's going on. Or, at least, they know the risks. As an end-of-movie caption inform us, all of the rescued diplomats, in spite of their harrowing experience, returned to the foreign service. One imagines Ambassador Chris Stevens would have done the same.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Who Controls the Past, Controls the Future

"It's a precise way of describing a fuzzy process," says Looper's Bruce Willis about time-traveling and its implications for the future. He's actually being quite modest. Most time-travel stories must wrestle with the creation of a time paradox, the most elegantly simple of which may be that of the original Terminator (in which Kyle Reese is sent back in time by John Conner to protect his mother Sarah Conner, and in the process falls in love with her and fathers John Conner, who sends Kyle Reese back in time...). Looper rather cheerfully dispenses with such complications, even as it shares much with such films as The Terminator and Twelve Monkeys, yet it still manages to be one of the smartest and most exciting sci-fi films to come around in some time.

The year is 2044, and American society is in a state of long decline, with mass poverty and  violence pervading the streets. Everything in this (well-realized) world, including the minor advances in technology, seems to be in a state of disrepair or dysfunction. Even humanity's one significant forward step, the development in a minority of the population of low-level telekinesis, is only good enough for guys to use it to pick up chicks at the bar.

Enter Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), seemingly one of the few people around with money to burn. Joe is a Looper, whose job it is to kill and destroy the bodies of the undesirables of an organized crime syndicate from thirty years in the future, when time-travel has been invented and outlawed. Loopers are so named because they agree from the start that their final target will be their future self--the bosses don't want any evidence or witnesses--at which point they get a severance package and are free to waste their next thirty years. Closing the loop, they call it. Lately, though, Loopers have been getting closed with increasing frequency, and sure enough, Joe's future self (Willis) arrives for execution. Joe recognizes him and hesitates long enough for his quarry to get away.

Director and writer Rian Johnson demonstrated with his 2005(!) debut Brick that he knew how to conjure worlds, but his work here is impressive all the same. The concept could all too easily have become a dumb, violent chase, but in Johnson's hands it becomes so much more. Even when dispensing with heavy exposition, the movie is always grounded in its characters, with the two Joes developing side-by-side: as we learn more about Old Joe and his maturation we see the selfish, cold-hearted Young Joe himself begin to thaw. Many of the best moments, accordingly, are not guns-blazing setpieces, but smaller business, like an amazingly tense scene that just involves characters maneuvering around a small house trying not to be spotted. There is quite a bit of gear-shifting in the plot, particularly with the film's second half, but the developments are seeded early on and are a welcome change of setting and pace.

Besides being well-crafted, the script comes with a dry wit that at times positively slays. (The name "Shanghai," super-imposed, got one of the biggest laughs in the theater I was in; you'll understand when you see it). The visuals are uniformly excellent, contrasting the plainness and uniformity of a sugar cane field with the cramped, chaotic squalor of the city, and the imagery becomes, rather surprisingly, more distinct and striking as the movie gets further into its scenario. There's an image of a boy in a leveled cane field that, especially in the context of the movie, is straight-up eerie.

Good writing and production values can only take you so far, but fortunately Johnson has assembled a stellar ensemble to bring his world to life. Levitt does excellent work channeling Willis' coolly brutal  persona, while Willis becomes truly unhinged and menacing when the nature of his mission is finally revealed. The two are bolstered by a supporting cast that ranges from good to mind-bogglingly astounding. Paul Dano is well-used in his brief appearance as an excitable fellow Looper, and Jeff Daniels shows great range, initially coming off warm and funny and going stone cold at a moment's notice. Emily Blunt comes in relatively late, about halfway through the movie, yet as farm girl Sara she holds her own against Levitt, with whom she shares the most screen time. Yet far and away the most astonishing performance comes from five year-old Pierce Gagnon, who frighteningly inhabits his character. To say anything about said character other than that he becomes critically important to the story would spoil too much; suffice it to say that Gagnon's is a "child actor" performance the caliber of which audiences haven't seen since The Sixth Sense (incidentally, another film starring Bruce Willis).

As mentioned, the film is upfront about the murkiness of its time-travel mechanics. Contrary to the suggestions of its title, it avoids creating an endlessly recursive paradox, as well as anything like a splintered-off parallel dimension, in favor of an approach similar to Back to the Future, where the changes in the future--and the changes in the protagonist from the future--happen gradually, in keeping with the rhythms of the "present." In essence, Future Joe doesn't receive scars and memories until Present Joe does. It's kind of a cheat, honestly, as it was in Back to the Future, but it is both creative and consistent in the application of its rules. 

This counts for more than one would think. The Butterfly Effect, the most recent high-profile Hollywood time-travel flick that immediately comes to mind, suffered severely from a repetitively-applied plot device and a tawdry obviousness (it worked child pornography and prison sex into its story) in its approach.
That Looper manages in spite of its occasionally shaky logic to be fun and high-minded and never insulting is a rare treat, for which we should thank our lucky stars.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Fortune of Soldiers

Americans were not the only ones serving in Iraq.

It's a fairly obvious observation, but one that I don't recall being much considered during the darkest days of that endless war. True, we often spoke of our faithful allies, the British, but even that term 'British' itself is an elision. For, as writer Gregory Burke notes in the program for Black Watch, imported for the second time from the National Theatre of Scotland by the Shakespeare Theatre Company, "Scotland has always provided a percentage of the British Army that is disproportionate to its population size." The only time I recall Scotland entering the Iraq conversation was the public dispute between a belligerent Christopher Hitchens and Scottish MP and Saddam Hussein apologist George Galloway.

We did not think much about Scotland, much less its military class, in the context of Iraq, but they thought about Iraq, and us, at considerable length. So we find in Black Watch, an exploration of the play's namesake, a famed Scottish infantry battalion, and the outsized role it played in Iraq. The play, directed by John Tiffany, is a marvel of performance and technical skill and shows a critical moment in time from an unusual perspective. Yet a crucial component is missing: the play's original audience, without which something has been lost in translation.

The play's story moves on two tracks--an unnamed writer, ostensibly Burke, interviewing the men of the Black Watch, and the stories they tell him, of daily life and daily death in Iraq. Interspersed among the interviews and vignettes are found objects of the war: a debate between two Scottish MPs; letters from an officer to his significant other; Scottish traditionals and military tattoos. Over time the team's rude banter and idle foolery gives way to frayed nerves and boiling anger as they are worn down as much by relentless shelling and suicide bombers as by the government's decision to fold the Black Watch in with other independent regiments into a single unit.

With the exception of the lights and sound, which work in tandem to create the deafening and blinding explosions characteristic of post-Saddam Iraq, the show's technical approach is deceptively simple. The Sydney Harmon Hall's proscenium arch has been reconfigured into a stadium-styled seating that requires much of the audience to cross the stage, where they must remain until the end of the performance (the show runs a fleet two hours with no intermission). At one end of the stage is strung a curtain that triples as both projection screen and scrim, and on the other end is a hefty door. A rough frame on either side allows certain moments to be played from elevated heights. Set pieces were otherwise minimal, though a great deal of mileage is made with a mobile pool table. The costuming is authentic, both in the Watch's military garb and in their easygoing civilian pub-wear. The swift action is realized by a helping dose of misdirection so that new business is constantly materializing right under the audience's noses.

No single actor stands out among the ensemble cast, as it should be in a piece about a military unit. A few, though, are given greater prominence, particularly Robert Jack, pulling double duty as the timid writer and an abrasive Sergeant, and Ryan Fletcher, as the team's de facto leader Cammy. What most impresses about the cast is the lived-in quality of their characterizations, moving with both a young, hangdog masculine swagger and military precision. Their dialects can occasionally be difficult for the American ear to untangle, but their sheer physicality does a lot of the necessary communication for them.

And there is much to communicate. The play offers some unusual perspectives, particularly for an American audience. The Watch views us, for instance, with a mixture of appallation and admiration at our overwhelming military superiority. So goes an exchange during a four hour bombing campaign:
"This is nay fucking fighting. This is just plain old-fashioned bullying like. 
"It’s good fun, though." 
"Do you think?"

"Aye. It’s good to be the bully."
There is too the realization that ours was far from the only nation that relaxed the standards of admission to its volunteer army in order to fully staff its ranks. Late in the play we learn that one of the characters was diagnosed depressive after his first tour and should never have even been in Iraq a second time, but all that pesky medical paperwork just happened to get lost when the military needed warm bodies.

Still, or all it has to recommend it, particularly in universal moments like these, I couldn't help but feel at some remove from the play as a whole. Theatre is a live event, with each production, to say nothing of each performance, born of given circumstances. All shows are particular, but some are more particular than others. Black Watch, both the play and this iteration of it, are very much artifacts of mid-2000s Scotland, a nation the size of South Carolina with the population of Colorado. Nor is it just a play by Scotland, but of Scotland for Scotland. The show began life as a National Theatre of Scotland production at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in an old drill hall and is saturated in a cultural shorthand--not just the dialects, but the politicians, the songs, the Black Watch itself--that could be taken for granted to forge a bond between performers and the audience that is at the heart of a live experience. Transplanting the play to one of the fanciest venues of the most powerful city in the world robs it of both its physical and cultural intimacy.

There's nothing wrong with the show. But without that full connection to the audience, it can't but feel slightly rote. All theatre, all theatre that matters, is local, and so it goes with Black Watch. As was said of another disastrous American military venture, "You weren't there, man."

Monday, July 23, 2012

Why So Serial?

With Heath Ledger dead and the Joker thus removed, the deck was stacked perhaps impossibly against Christopher Nolan to ideally conclude his Batman trilogy. The last film literally left him hanging and the character was such a wild popular success that his absence was always going to be felt whether the role was re-cast or the story re-tooled. I'm shooting this elephant in the living room now because it's not fair to judge the movie we have in theaters, The Dark Knight Rises, by what it now could never have been (nor is it fair to bring in the monstrous acts at the film's premier Aurora, Colorado, however salient the issues of citizen violence it raises may be). The movie simply is what it is. And what it is, is incredibly, if not quite terminally, problematic.

There's a great many plot developments I shan't spoil, but in essence: eight years have passed since the events of The Dark Knight. Batman (Christian Bale), blamed for the death of Harvey Dent, has disappeared from Gotham. Bruce Wayne has also retired from public life, and has sunk his fortune into what seems to be a half-baked fusion energy project headed by one Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard). The police, thanks to new powers granted in Dent's name, have largely cleaned up the streets, such that cat burglar Selina Kyle (Ann Hathaway) is the worst of Gotham's worries. The going is so good that plans are afoot to get rid of Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), who is looked up to by idealistic officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt). All of this changes with the coming of Bane (Tom Hardy), a buff and gas-masked terrorist who plans to overthrow Gotham City's ruling order of compromised cops and parasitic rich.

This would be a lot for just a standalone movie to tackle, but in the story department Rises is actually pulling triple detail. Not only is it introducing new elements for it own story, it is also tying up loose ends from the last movie and re-establishing narrative and stylistic continuity with Batman Begins. As a result the pacing is noticeably slack, especially when compared to its predecessor, which--largely due to Heath Ledger's mesmerizing performance and Hans Zimmer's abrasive one-note Joker theme--was relentlessly paced and by the end left the viewer traumatized. 

Rises simply has much more to attend to, and so resorts to corner-cutting and rule-breaking that starts getting it into trouble. Although one never becomes unsure of what's happening, how it got there is decidedly less clear. Where did those motorcycles come from? How does Bruce Wayne return and where'd that Batsuit come from? The movie lacks the machine-like narrative precision of Nolan's most recent film, Inception, instead indulges hoary plot devices like a ghost, questionable character deceptions used justify a late plot twist, and a lot of happy, stylish coincidences. The Dark Knight fudged its logic too (the Joker's bombing schemes would have fizzled if the characters did not react exactly as they did), but this tended to be obscured because, again, that movie's structural chaos and sensory assault kept one from noticing.

The philosophical concerns of Rises are in a similar state of labored muddiness. Bane goes on with the logorrhea of an Ayn Rand character, about returning justice to Gotham City and punishing the corrupt rich, with explicit echoes of Occupy Wall Street. Yet his supporters are all thugs, no idealists except maybe for Selina, and it's all a sham anyway, a cover for his real plan--and I don't think I'm really spoiling anything here--to wipe Gotham City out entirely. This is a shame, because the movie is otherwise covering some interesting territory. The ending of The Dark Knight suggested that people needed a beautiful lie, e.g. Harvey Dent, to be inspired to goodness, but that idea is here completely exploded. Whereas Batman was previously the force that provoked an escalating criminal madness (the Joker), here the Dent myth creates a sham prosperity, a levee against Gotham's crime that will and does break. Instead of the order/chaos dichotomy that Batman's relationship with the Joker represented, Bane's overturning the status quo is the twin to Batman's vigilantism: they are both products of and solutions to a failure of public justice. This similarity seems to escape Nolan (perhaps because he spent the whole previous film arguing that Batman in fact made things worse), who instead settles for a much more optimistic and simplistic idea that erasing the past and starting anew will lead to a better tomorrow, as opposed to just beginning the same problems over again.

It's all grandiose, too much for its own good, but the film's superlative technical aspects keep it from bogging down too badly. Christopher Nolan has finally figured out how to direct visually coherent action sequences, so that the many battles going on, the Bane-Batman fisticuffs in the sewers in particular, can actually be appreciated. Pittsburgh, playing Gotham City, lacks Chicago's grittiness from the previous two entries, but in the movie's second half convincingly doubles as a Hobbesian failed state (I mean this as a compliment). Hans Zimmer's score uses much of what came before and is mostly effective, though without the straight madness of the Joker theme it does not have the same drive and at times feels less urgent than merely frantic.

The performances are typically great, but I'd like to single out Hathaway's Catwoman, who was certainly the biggest X factor of the piece. A lithe and playful anti-hero that serves as an effective foil to the largely dour and tortured Batman, she's a dependable ass-kicker and gives the movie some needed bounce in every scene she's in. She's also perhaps the most morally grounded of the characters, with a relatable sense of grievance and thwarted justice that is much more genuine than Bane's comic book-y posturing. She sells her character's ambivalence and development much more than one would think the script would allow.

So in the end, does all this sound and fury pay off? Again, the results are mixed. As a standalone film it's kind of a mess, but in the context of the series as a whole it gets the job done in bringing everything across the finish line (the possibility of which was in grave doubt following Heath Ledger's death). The central issue of the trilogy, how crime and crime fighting have deformed Bruce Wayne's character, is fully explored and pushed to its logical conclusion--before the movie beats a slight retreats at the last moment, in a way I can't decide whether or not it's cop out. Though I question the details of how it goes about tying back in to Batman Begins, I'm glad it did so if only so that film, with its pulpy secret society wants to destroy Gotham plot, wouldn't seem like such an anomaly among the three.

It's a question of ends and means, one which the series has fixated on for some time now. Batman's existence, once implied and here made explicit, is essentially that "the rules were once a weapon and now have become shackles," and Batman was necessary "dig into the filth" in order for the police to keep their hands clean. This problematic logic--to hell with principle, you're going to have to cheat at some point to win in the end--The Dark Knight Rises subscribes to not just morally, but narratively too. The story cheats when it has too, and sometimes even when it doesn't. The end result is a conclusion that like its hero is successful, but qualified and compromised.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Damon the Dude

The Williamstown Theatre Festival opened last week with The Importance of Being Earnest, done in a Damon Runyon-esque Guys and Dolls aesthetic. I was assigned to do a piece about Runyon that ended up not being needed (and would have needed to be drastically cut anyway). I present it with little alteration.

Damon Runyon was a journalist and sports writer, who became best known for his short stories, which detailed the colorful lives of petty thugs, bookies, chorus girls, and other endearingly disreputable persons that populated the Broadway of Depression-era New York. His influence is tremendous, being as he was one of the first people to write at length about the criminal underclass.

More significant than just his subject matter was his portrayal of it. His Broadway stories were written in a dry and comically non-judgmental first-person voice marked by the absence of contractions and a near-total reliance on the present tense, with sentences generously sprinkled with elaborate half-authentic, half-invented street slang. Here is a representative sample, an excerpt from “Breach of Promise:”

Of course Judge Goldfobber is not a judge, and never is a judge, and he is 100 to 1 in my line against ever being a judge, but he is called Judge because it pleases him, and everybody always wishes to please Judge Goldfobber, as he is one of the surest-footed lawyers in this town, and beats more tough beefs for different citizens than seems possible. He is a wonderful hand for keeping citizens from getting into the sneezer, and better than Houdini when it comes to getting them out of the sneezer after they are in.

Personally, I never have any use for the professional services of Judge Goldfobber, as I am a law-abiding citizen at all times, and am greatly opposed to guys who violate the law, but I know the Judge from around and about for many years.

This comic voice--so distinctive that he is today remembered for the ‘Runyonesque,’ stage musical Guys and Dolls, though not a word of it is his--he used to deal extensively with gangster culture in his fiction.

Runyon was one of the first authors to do so. Among his peers were Strange Fugitive by Morley Callaghan and WJ Burnett’s Little Caesar. Both novels shone a light—harsh, to be sure, but a light all the same—on the shadowy world of mobsters, to an unprecedented degree. But where theirs was a gritty, realistic style, Runyon’s was a deadpan wit.

Runyon’s innovation was to make criminal life not merely comprehensible to Americans, but also entertaining. The setup for a story like “A Very Honorable Guy”a man sells his body to an unscrupulous doctor in order to pay off his debts because he would rather lose his life than his good name—would normally be cast as weighty moral dilemma. In Runyon’s telling, it’s a farce. The pact with the doctor is not an act of desperation, but sensibility, until it isn’t: after paying off his debts and winning the affections of his doll, the man, Feet Samuels, decides he doesn’t want to die after all and has to fend off the knife-wielding Doc Bodeeker.

The humor, a product of both the mundane take on its exotic subject matter as well as Runyon’s unusually and overly precise language, makes the rakes and harlots of Broadway recognizably and relatably human in ways that would be elaborated in pop culture in subsequent decades. Short is the distance between “Dave the Dude is certainly not a man to have sored up at you” and “I made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.”

Just as significantly, by taking the criminal making it both comical and commonplace, Runyon implicitly elevated it while taking polite society down a peg. Much of the organized crime of the 1920s existed not in spite, but because of Prohibition’s preening, society-wide moralism. Runyon expressed this in his nonfiction as well, in his non-fiction. Runyon covered the investigations into both J.P. Morgan’s as well as Al Capone’s business dealings, and in the end found Capone the more sympathetic character. One may argue this goes too far, but the question remains: if mobsters were to be considered shadowy figures, it was only logical to ask, ‘whose shadow?’

Audiences responded tremendously to Runyon’s streetwise yarns. His newspaper readership resided north of ten million, making him one of the most popular writers in the nation, and his stories were adapted into more than twenty films. Such was his popularity that an appeal by friend Walter Winchell for money to research and treat the cancer that killed Runyon in 1946 resulted in the creation of a foundation that remains a leader in cancer research decades later. Though largely forgotten today, Runyon’s influence on the culture remains considerable, with a legacy that includes both crime dramas like Goodfellas and The Sopranos, and the afterlife of terms he invented and popularized, including ‘shiv,’ ‘noggin,’ and, naturally, ‘guys and dolls.’ He remains like the unnamed narrator of his short stories: rarely active, but ever present.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

On the Road

This is just a programming note. I'm en route to the Williamstown Theatre Festival, whose literary department I'll be interning with for the next couple months. It's going to be terrific fun and a great opportunity, but the workload--I'll be helping to work on seven productions and much more besides--means I'm not going to have time to read or watch much else, and certainly not to write about it. Thus the blog is going on a hiatus of sorts for the next few months. I may do some cross-posting of the material I write for the festival, but I otherwise won't be generating anything here.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Pretender of the Faith

Every culture has a creation myth, a story that explains the origins of the cosmos. Vividly detailed and fantastical, they work well enough as symbols and allegories, but as literal, beginning-to-end narratives they are convoluted, illogical, and absurd. (To take only the most familiar example, three days separate the creation of light and the sun in the book of Genesis.) The hype for Prometheus, bolstered by its world-building viral marketing, has approached religious fervor, not least for the striking imagery in its trailers that promised a return to form for the debased Alien franchise from Ridley Scott, who kicked the whole series off in the first place. Sadly, Scott seems to have fallen for his own hype, as far as religious significance goes. Prometheus, no longer what it could be but what it is, is a ponderous mess that spends too much time asking and refusing to answer questions about gods and monsters instead of giving us a goddamn monster movie.

The setup, as could be gleaned from the trailers, is promising enough. Scientists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) have found in artifacts from ancient cultures across the world what looks to be a star map indicating communication from an alien race. A team of 17--the most important of which are Weyland Corporation tool Elizabeth Vickers (Charlize Theron), droid David (Michael Fassbender), and captain Janek (Idris Elba)--is dispatched to the corresponding star system, which just happens to have a planet with a moon with a similar atmosphere to Earth, in order to make contact with our putative creators. The premise is comforting in its familiarity as a deliberate throwback to the original Alien, with enough room to develop into its own thing; the problem is it can't make up its mind what it wants to be. 

To be blunt, there is too much shit going wrong, with none of it going wrong enough and much of it happening for the wrong reasons. There are a number of intense scenes and action sequences that are in themselves often effective--I'm thinking of one character's death by flamethrower, a crazy surgery procedure, and the awakening of the Space Jockey--but they are arrived at by narrative contrivance and  character stupidity, with people who should know better getting lost or going off to have sex at the most (in)convenient moments. I'm not even joking about the sex. In true slasher fashion, two characters get killed off because the people that are supposed to be monitoring them are having a shag. That kind of plot gimmick is merely obnoxious in a Friday the 13th knock-off about horny teenagers; in an A-list movie with a median age of 30-something cast it's positively embarrassing.

Worse yet, instead of the good scenes escalating the tension and pushing the story forward, their consequences are often immediately forgotten as the film switches gears and focuses on some other subplot.This is bad enough for any movie, but especially deadly for an Alien film. There are something like five or six different kinds of creatures populating this movie, but after a signature scene each one is then not seen or even referenced again unless convenient. As a result none of them ever registers as a major threat, and so nothing like the claustrophobic dread of Alien--or hell, the balls-out adrenaline drive of Aliens--never materializes. There's too much to keep up with, and most of it doesn't matter anyway.

The primary issue is the movie's insistent harping on its bizarre creationism. The story is constantly derailed by further investigation into the nature of the giant human(oid) aliens, and several dialogues are given over to Shaw's "faith," both in a vague Christianity--her cross necklace becomes an unlikely object of interest--and in her alien creators thesis. It leads to some painfully unconvincing plot developments in the last act of the movie, and more besides, it is a conceptual non-starter. To constantly lecture the audience on a religio-scientific thesis about aliens that exist only in the movie's universe is the quintessence of missing the point. It turns what should have just been the film's Macguffin, the means to get the characters to their deadly ends, into the entire purpose of the movie. Imagine George Lucas devoted not just a scene but all of Star Wars: Episode 1 to explaining midichlorians, and you begin to grasp fundamental wrong-headedness of the enterprise.

Of the inflated cast, only Fassbender comes out relatively unscathed. His David is calm and detached, and the implications of his relationship with human beings is about the only thematic detail the movie gets right (at one point he sagely notes that man's creators are likely to regard them the way they regard their own creations, robots). Theron plays the 'company man' role cold as ice, but late plot developments force her into increasingly reactive and nonsensical behavior. Ditto Rapace, who does what she can to sell the movie's theology and try to keep the story from coming completely apart, but by the frantic ending it's simply too much for her to be able to salvage.

At one point David, ever the voice of reason, when asking Shaw why she is pressing on to discover the truth about the aliens and faith and all that, says something along the lines of, "sometimes the answers aren't important." That could certainly be applied to Prometheus itself. To the extent that it explains elements of the original Alien, it merely confuses (particularly in terms of the creature's biology, which dilutes the elegant simplicity of egg-->facehugger-->queen/chestburster-->egg into a mess of infection and cross-breeding impregnation). When it comes to explaining itself, the film is even more circumspect, with its ending serving as a jumping-off point for further revelations in an all-but-guaranteed sequel. As both atheist and moviegoer, I'm not much interested in making that particular leap of faith.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Stranger Than Fact

Richard Linklater is great again? And so is Jack Black? And Matthew McConaughey? It's unbelievable, but it's true. That could be said to apply to their newest film Bernie, which is derived from actual events but goes to great lengths to test the plasticity of the designation "based on a true story."

Based on a 1988 Texas Monthly article by Skip Hollandsworth, Bernie tells the story of Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) a mild and ambiguously gay mortician who is beloved by the town of Carthage, Texas for the kindness he shows his clients, both living and dead. This kindness he extends to Marge Nugent (Shirley Maclaine), reputed to be the nastiest old crone in town. They become increasingly close, shopping, traveling, seeing and shows, with Nugent eventually bequeathing the entirety of her estate to Bernie. She also becomes increasingly possessive, to the point that Bernie snaps and shoots her in the back four times, then keeps her body in a freezer while giving away enormous sums of her money to the people of Carthage. When he's caught none of the townspeople can believe he did it, or that he ought to go to jail, and so it falls on District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) to see that justice is properly administered.

The story is straightforward enough, but is given all kinds delightful wrinkles and twists. To start with, the tone is mordantly humorous, especially for a true crime story, but also rather sweet. The opening scene, in which Bernie demonstrates the finer points of corpse preparation (the angle of the head should be "neither star-gazing, nor navel-gazing") sets the deliberately and jarringly light-hearted tone for the rest of the movie.The story is told through a mixture of straight scripted narrative and interview footage with the townspeople of Carthage, who are endearingly provincial; an old codger type has some of the funniest lines, describing southern Texas as "where the Tex meets the Mex," and referring to "The People's Republic of Austin." Many of the interview subjects are actors (one of the actors is Matthew McConaughey's mother), though, which adds yet another layer of unreality to the film.

The comic ambiguity extends to its three stars. Jack Black is the film's greatest asset, giving a performance that is uncharacteristically restrained and made all the funnier for it. His Tiede is mannered and precise, right down to the delicate way he walks, and has a beguiling sweetness that makes his decision to kill his sugar momma both the most natural and most unbelievable thing in the world. (All too fittingly, one scene has him playing Harold Hill in a self-directed community production of The Music Man.) It's by far the best performance of his career.

This goes for Matthew McConaughey, too, generally useless as a rom-com leading man but here displaying great comic timing as the clueless DA who ends up being the only person in town able to view the murder with the proper perspective. Shirley MacLaine at first seems like the weak link, only on rare occasions becoming the Bitch Out of Hell that the townspeople make Marge Nugent out to be, but one wonders if this isn't intentional. The Carthaginians are gossip hounds through and through, and given how much the film is elsewhere forcing us to question what is or isn't true, it's entirely possible that the heavy emphasis on Nugent's happiness when she's with Tiede isn't deliberately chafing against her reputation.

Bernie came from nowhere and has ended up one of my favorite flicks that I've seen in awhile. It is, moreover, one of the most quotable. The last time I can remember reciting lines  to my friends afterwards was Burn After Reading, almost four years ago. Bernie has slipped under the radar thus far--it's made only $2.5 million and is likely only going to play in indie theaters--but I can easily see it finding its audience on DVD. But why wait? It's a great group movie, believe you me.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Summer Movie as Democrat Election Parable

The Avengers is a great summer movie. I don't need to elaborate on why, for if you are reading this you likely have already seen it and either do not need or do not want convincing. A.O. Scott, however, even when praising the film for its entertainment value, is queasy about the cold corporate calculation of it all.
“I’m always angry,” [Bruce Banner] says at one point, and while “The Avengers” is hardly worth raging about, its failures are significant and dispiriting. The light, amusing bits cannot overcome the grinding, hectic emptiness, the bloated cynicism that is less a shortcoming of this particular film than a feature of the genre. Mr. Whedon’s playful, democratic pop sensibility is no match for the glowering authoritarianism that now defines Hollywood’s comic-book universe. Some of the rebel spirit of Mr. Whedon’s early projects “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Firefly” and “Serenity” creeps in around the edges but as detail and decoration rather than as the animating ethos. 
“I aim to misbehave,” Malcolm Reynolds famously said in “Serenity.” But for all their maverick swagger, the Avengers are dutiful corporate citizens, serving a conveniently vague set of principles. Are they serving private interests, big government, their own vanity, or what? It hardly matters, because the true guiding spirit of their movie is Loki, who promises to set the human race free from freedom and who can be counted on for a big show wherever he goes. In Germany he compels a crowd to kneel before him in mute, terrified awe, and “The Avengers,” which recently opened there to huge box office returns, expects a similarly submissive audience here at home. The price of entertainment is obedience.
The corporatism goes deeper than cinematic aesthetics. Marvel Comics quite infamously screwed Jack Kirby from receiving proper compensation for co-creating the Avengers and dozens of other iconic characters that Marvel simply would not today exist without. They imposed limits on his rights to his own artwork and have made billions of dollars off his creations. In the months leading up to The Avengers' release there was talk of a boycott on these grounds. The number of people were enlisted to the cause is moot, however, in the face of a $200 million opening weekend that has unstoppably grown the movie Hulk-like into a billion dollar baby.

In a way this reminds me of liberals' moral dilemma when it comes to the question of re-electing Barack Obama. Politically speaking, Obama is The Avengers to liberals: hip, energetic, pushing all the right buttons. He stanched the bleeding of an economy in freefall, saved Detroit, passed Health Care Reform and financial regulation, repealed Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and is the first president to come out in support of gay marriage. He saved the day and looked cool and smart doing it.

Yet his presidency is littered too with illiberal policies that, were they done by a Republican, would have liberals howling: "extrajudicial killings, violating the War Powers Resolution, waging war without Congressional approval, violating the Geneva Conventions, whitewashing torture, warring on whistleblowers," to name a few. The liberal wish list is being dutifully checked, while fundamental issues of the rule of law have been left to atrophy or, worse, have been outright attacked. Like The Avengers, the slick surface sheen obscures a fundamental emptiness.

Tim Brayton, in a positive if weary review, referred to the Marvel mashup as "Transformers: Dark of the Moon for literate people who enjoy wit." Implicit in the complaint is a reluctant defense: "Have you seen the alternative?" With yesterday's release of Battleship, which grafts an alien invasion plot onto the mechanics of a Milton Bradley guessing game, we get a stark view of just how much worse it can be.

So Avengers, so Obama, whose opponent is a man described by his own underling as an Etch-a-Sketch in what was supposed to be a compliment, who once promised to "double Guantanamo," wants to start a war with Iran, and can barely even be bothered with pretending to care about the law. Unlike movies, elections are zero-sum competitions. One of these two will come out victorious, and anyone who votes for a third-party candidate or abstains out of protest would do well to keep that in mind.

The problem remains that the better of the viable options are still far from ideal. The Avengers is ultimately insubstantial, as is Obama's approach to the law. But these choices don't present themselves out of the blue. They are both, in fact, animated by the same thing that drives their vastly inferior competition: corporate cash and popular sentiment. Like the Jack Kirby case, Obama's legacy is handicapped by monied interests. The health care and financial regulation bills both conceded numerous demands in the interest of receiving industry cooperation. When industry sets the terms of regulation, the word has lost all meaning (that the Wall Street-backed Republicans tried to attack the legislation as a giveaway to the financial industry merely demonstrates, again, the debased nature of the choices we have).

A deeper problem still is in fact the feature of democracy, the wisdom of the crowd. Obama is one of our canniest politicians, such that even a humane gesture like supporting gay marriage is calibrated toward pacifying constituencies, garnering votes and donations. That's just the nature of running for office. Yet where is the civil liberties constituency? I'm not even speaking of liberals, but of the broader electorate that any candidate must court in order to win. Will they favor their franchise toward appeals for due process, executive transparency, and an unwinding of the security state--or promises of jobs and protection from whoever may or may not be trying to take away their influential minority's rights? Whether it's Jack Kirby or Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the American public has far less interest in upholding fairness and justice than in self-gratification, particularly when life is so dire already.

Obama was once promised to be transformative. That just as well describes Mitt Romney, both for his ideological shape-shifting, and his policies, which have their cinematic analogue in the  empty-headed mayhem of the Transformers movies. Obama and The Avengers are both compromised, but as a product of the broken systems in which they operate. For all the valid criticisms of them that do exist, one must ever ponder the alternative. Revenge of the Fallen was by all accounts a terrible movie; we don't need to watch it again.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Viewing the Past With Eyes Wide Shut

"Conservative, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the liberal, who wishes to replace them with others." - Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

Charles Murray has historically promulgated racism and profoundly stupid culture war claptrap, but  he has a recent piece for The New Criterion about today's supposed lack of powerful, enduring art that's actually worth grappling with. To be sure, it's essentially an elaborate "get off my lawn" demand. But it is an argument that a great many people likely find compelling, and it is at least responding to actual issues, so it's worth unpacking how wrong it really is.

Murray begins by saying there is a dearth of great art today, meaning the next generation that will create tomorrow's art has nothing to draw on.
The insight that great accomplishment begets more great accomplishment goes back two thousand years to a Roman, Velleius Paterculus, who first analyzed the clustering of genius in Athens and concluded that “genius is fostered by emulation.” In the modern era, that insight has been confirmed in rigorous quantitative studies, and it is one of those social science findings that shouldn’t surprise anyone. If children who have the potential for creating great art are watching a Leonardo da Vinci set the standard, they are more likely to create art like Michelangelo, Dürer, or Raphael did. This is relevant for thinking about the future of American accomplishment in the arts because, as far as I can see, we do not have any great models in the current generation who will produce greatness in the next generation.
Murray lists the exhaustion of forms ("What’s the point of writing a great symphony in the classical style (from the ambitious composer’s point of view), when we already have so many of them?"), and the persistent obscurity of abstract, nonrepresentational, and atonal work among the general public among reasons for concern. Hamlet can only be written once; with hundreds of years of low-hanging artistic and literary fruit having been plucked, artists have to push into ever more esoteric forms in order to break new ground.

The key to innovation, thinks Murray, is technology, which opens up new forms of expression. This is true, though it's largely premised on the idea that nothing of value is being created in the old fields, which the creators and audiences would vehemently dispute. Notably, Murray makes something of an exception for film:
The richest new organizing structure of the twentieth century was the motion picture. It is also the only organizing structure that does not show signs of being filled up. A plausible case can be made that the film industry is still making products that rank somewhere among the all-time best, and there is reason to hope that even better are yet to come.
I suspect this has less to do with film's superiority as an artistic medium or even its relative youth, than with its ease of transmission. Movies require a relatively short investment of time, are promoted across TV and the internet by multi-million dollar ad campaigns, and are easily reproduced and distributed so that they can leave an enormous cultural footprint. The most brilliant work of art will never be canonized if there isn't a mass awareness of it first. Theatre and the fine arts struggle with this, as well as books, a non-visual medium in an image-saturated media environment (book trailers are illustration of this dilemma).

More importantly, technology has lowered the barriers to entry in many creative fields, and paradoxically made it far more difficult for any single person or work to tap into the multiplicity of zeitgeists. This is to say nothing of the replacement of 'high culture''s previous trickle-down significance with popular culture--fifty years on, I think it's safe to say that posterity remembers the Beatles more than it does, say, Phillip Glass.

All of this, it ought be said, is enabled by the moral promiscuity of post-industrial capitalism. The entertainment industry cares for no virtue but profitability. Robert Bork glimpsed this truth when he sighed that "“You almost began to want to put the [Berlin] wall back up,” because of crude American rock music's unimpeded flow into post-Soviet Union Eastern Germany. Murray is not so observant as the already obtuse Bork, but as it turns out, he shares with him a similar reactionary strain.


All the discussion of form and medium is actually peripheral to Murray's bigger argument, which stands on much shakier ground. The deeper problems, he thinks, are a nihilistic mindset, characterized by a rejection of God and religion, that has gripped the intelligentsia and now the culture at large. This has led to an absence of the transcendent, of a sense of "the good," that animates great art:
Beauty is not the only transcendental good that the arts require. A coherent sense of the good is also important—perhaps not so much for great music (though I may be wrong about that), but often for great art and almost always for great literature. I do not mean that a great painting has to be beautiful in a saccharine sense or that great novels must be moral fables that could qualify for McGuffey’s Readers. Rather, a painter’s or a novelist’s conception of the meaning of a human life provides the frame within which the artist translates the varieties of human experience into art. The artistic treatment of violence offers an example. In the absence of a conception of the good, the depiction of violence is sensationalism at best—think Sam Peckinpah. When the depiction of violence is taken to extremes, it can have the same soul-corroding effect as pornography. But when it is informed by a conception of the good, the depiction of violence can have great artistic power—think Macbeth. So whereas some great works of art, music, and even literature are not informed by a conception of the good, the translation of this concept to the canvas or the written word is often what separates enduring art from entertainment. Extract its moral vision, and Goya’s The Third of May 1808 becomes a violent cartoon. Extract its moral vision, and Huckleberry Finn becomes Tom Sawyer
To generalize my argument regarding the importance of the transcendental goods, I believe that when artists do not have coherent ideals of beauty, their work tends to be sterile; when they do not have coherent ideals of the good, their work tends to be vulgar. Without either beauty or the good, their work tends to be shallow. Artistic accomplishment that is sterile, vulgar, and shallow does not endure.
Murray singles out Peckinpah as an example of sensationalist violence that "can have the same soul-corroding effect as pornography." The Wild Bunch's vision of humanity--summed up in its opening scene of children setting a fire ant colony after a couple scorpions during a preacher's sermon--isn't especially uplifting, but it still has considerable power forty years on. A much more accurate target would be something more tawdry and commercial and disreputable; the Saw franchise, perhaps, which certainly doesn't lack for sensationalism and aims for gross disgust rather than any deeper horror.

Moreover, the accusation of 'cultural nihilism' is just a broad-stroke evasion. The "rejection of traditional religion... among intellectual and artistic elites" didn't just happen in a vacuum. The intellectual groundwork was already laid in the 19th century by challenges from the usual suspects, Darwin, Freud, and Nietzsche. Since the 1990s, the period with which Murray is most concerned, the moral authority of the traditional American religion has collapsed, both with the Catholic Church's complicity and conspiracy in child rape and in conservative Christianity's archaic views on sex, birth control, and gays. To call this nihilism is to take the moral rectitude of Christianity and its institutions for granted, regardless of their real-world effects and the changes in attitudes surrounding them. Merely wishing a return to the older, more comforting zeitgeist is not going to bring it back, nor is it even necessarily desirable.

This is not to say that the current order is without its problems. In the arts, the absence of a guiding moral sense can lead to solipsism and a self-impressed cleverness (Damien Hirst and the Young British Artists are for me some of the worst offenders). Yet it isn't like no one else was aware of this. Most visibly, David Foster Wallace grappled with the perils of postmodern irony and its tendency toward hall-of-mirrors vacuity:
For me, the last few years of the postmodern era have seemed a bit like the way you feel when you’re in high school and your parents go on a trip, and you throw a party. You get all your friends over and throw this wild disgusting fabulous party. For a while it’s great, free and freeing, parental authority gone and overthrown, a cat’s-away-let’s-play Dionysian revel. But then time passes and the party gets louder and louder, and you run out of drugs, and nobody’s got any money for more drugs, and things get broken and spilled, and there’s a cigarette burn on the couch, and you’re the host and it’s your house too, and you gradually start wishing your parents would come back and restore some fucking order in your house. It’s not a perfect analogy, but the sense I get of my generation of writers and intellectuals or whatever is that it’s 3:00 A.M. and the couch has several burn-holes and somebody’s thrown up in the umbrella stand and we’re wishing the revel would end. The postmodern founders’ patricidal work was great, but patricide produces orphans, and no amount of revelry can make up for the fact that writers my age have been literary orphans throughout our formative years. We’re kind of wishing some parents would come back. And of course we’re uneasy about the fact that we wish they’d come back–I mean, what’s wrong with us? Are we total pussies? Is there something about authority and limits we actually need? And then the uneasiest feeling of all, as we start gradually to realize that parents in fact aren’t ever coming back–which means “we’re” going to have to be the parents.
Wallace, though, was a part of the group under examination and had a stake in seeing the art redeemed, unlike Murray, who uses the state of the arts as a Trojan Horse for attacking the current liberal social order.


Toward the end of the essay Murray gets to his real point, which is (what else?) to criticize the welfare state. Essentially, ours is an aging society, such that in 50 years the old will outnumber the young. Part of the reason for this is extended life expectancy, which Murray believes robs people of their sense of urgency in life and their motivation to make great art:
In a world where people of all ages die often and unexpectedly, there’s a palpable urgency to getting on with whatever you’re going to do with your life. If you don’t leave your mark now, you may never get the chance. If you live in a world where you’re sure you’re going to live until at least eighty, do you have the same compulsion to leave your mark now? Or do you figure that there’s still plenty of time left, and you’ll get to it pretty soon? To what extent does enjoying life—since you can be sure there’s going to be so much to enjoy—start to take precedence over maniacal efforts to leave a mark?
Naturally, this mindset finds its fullest expression in the conservative bogeyman of Europe:
I believe this self-absorption in whiling away life as pleasantly as possible explains why Europe has become a continent that no longer celebrates greatness. When I have spoken in Europe about the unparalleled explosion of European art and science from 1400 to 1900, the reaction of the audiences has invariably been embarrassment. Post-colonial guilt explains some of this reaction—Europeans seem obsessed with seeing the West as a force for evil in the world. But I suggest that another psychological dynamic is at work. When life has become a matter of passing away the time, being reminded of the greatness of your forebears is irritating and threatening.
Murray looks at European history and sees only its intellectual achievements. These are vast, no one would argue otherwise. But it is simply willful blindness to not see that as enlightened as these advances were, they stand amid a backdrop of serfdom, high infant mortality, and any number of scourges and follies that the modern liberal project has devoted itself to minimizing if not outright eradicating. Goya and his audience could afford to be great--the peasantry, not so much.

Which all to point out that Murray is complaining about standards of living being higher than they ever were.

It's of a poisonous reactionary nostalgia that has gripped the right of late--whether in the form of fundamentalist Christianity, neo-conservative war hawkishness, or the Tea Party, whose shrieks about big government (at least that which isn't benefiting the "deserving" them), Murray's gripe matches best. The urge to turn back the clock, whether with sexual mores, military glory, or anti-government individualism comes from a blinkered view of history and an inability to cope with the world as it is today. To the extent that there exist postmodernism's discontents, a retreat into the past is no solution at all but intellectual surrender.

It may well be that under the welfare state, and the consumer capitalist system that exists alongside it, life accomplishment is viewed with less urgency than it was in more trying times (though I seriously doubt it--ask any creative person if she doesn't feel a "'this-is-what-I-was-put-on-earth-to-do' motivation to create great work," and while you're at it, ask a poor person if, living "In a world where people of all ages die often and unexpectedly," he feels inspired to live out his full potential). But even if we were to grant all this, it would not make Charles Murray's complaints any more valid. Art is inextricably tied with the circumstances surrounding its creation. It's circular to say that 19th century art could have only been produced in the 19th century, but there you go. Really, I'm eager to revisit this argument forty years down the line, if only because at that point I may be filling Murray's role; after all, today's liberal is tomorrow's conservative.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Moral Minority

A 2009 San Francisco protest against gay marriage.
(David Paul Morris/Getty Images)
Ross Douthat congratulates the gay marriage movement on President Obama's announcement of support yesterday. He does so with a bare-knuckled back-hand:
[O]ver a longer time horizon, the most enduring victories are often won by movements and factions that succeed in branding opposing views as not only mistaken but unthinkable, not only foolish but immoral, and that use stigma as well as suasion to cement the gains that they’ve achieved. This is what’s been happening in the gay marriage debate these last 10 years and more: At the popular level, the country is still divided (and perhaps more divided than polling suggests), but at the elite level and within the Democratic Party’s upper reaches, especially, what was a consensus understanding of marriage just two decades ago has become so associated with bigotry and reaction that a sitting president facing a difficult re-election campaign has been forced to abandon the politically-safer “civil unions yes, but marriage not just yet” position for the uncertain consequences of being for marriage, period. Given the landscape of the 2012 election (and the results yesterday in North Carolina), Obama’s prior attempts to finesse the issue made a lot of sense. But the moral ground had shifted underneath him — to the point where even his own cabinet wouldn’t risk the taint of bigotry in order to give him cover on the issue — and such finesse was no longer an acceptable option.

As a gay marriage skeptic, I’m obviously on what’s likely to be the losing end of this shift. But as an observer of politics and culture —and someone who thinks that moral absolutisms have an important place in both — I can’t help but be impressed by the gay marriage movement’s ability to transform the terms of the marriage debate so completely and comprehensively. Politics is mostly the art of fighting over a muddled middle ground, but this is the way the world gets well and truly changed: Not through conciliation, but through conquest.
Let's get a few things straight, so to speak. The issue of same-sex marriage in itself is not and has not been framed as a moral absolute. Legalization is. It is a yes-or-no proposition. But even if legalized SSM became the law of the land tomorrow, the question of whether a couple should get married, and whether individuals and organizations should marry them or refuse, would be individually decided. The debate has always been about legalization, not mandates. The freedom to marry or not marry is by its very nature non-absolute.

The idea that gay people should not be married, however, is an absolute, which is why the whiff of sour grapeshot in Ross's post is so irritating. He says he admires the SSM movement for its use of stigmatization, to paint the opposition as backward, unenlightened bigots in order to corner Obama into giving his support. His 'admiration' conveniently avoids the arguments over SSM--and the absolutism of his own side in forcing others to abide by standards that affect his side not a bit--and turns the issue into a matter of tactics.

Even on those grounds his argument fails, for what has the opposition to gay rights been but a long exercise in stigmatization and demonization? The counter-gay kulturkampf has ever been waged with accusations and insinuations of perversion, child abuse, and civilizational collapse, none of them being remotely true. That gay marriage proponents 'stigmatized' their opposition is thus an academic point, true in itself but also completely irrelevant.

All moral issues, when it comes to granting or restricting freedoms, will be couched in moral terms. What matters is the particulars of the issue up for debate. Lest we forget, Strom Thurmond and George Wallace too were on the losing end of a cultural shift.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Heart of Daftness

Andrew Sullivan is getting anxious about black people's IQs again:
The authors note correctly that IQ is a function of a cultural construct, the ability to succeed in middle class Western capitalist society. So I'm not sure why they would deny that such big differences do exist across the world and can be explained by lack of economic and social development. The Flynn effect shows that IQ can move swiftly upward as development proceeds. The question, really, is: why is Africa still such a basket-case? Why do we simply assume that it will not be in any way an economic power, even though its natural resources are plentiful? Why do we not hold the same conceptions about, say, the Chinese or Indians or South Koreans?
Look, no one doubts that Africa has problems, many of them internal. But while African nations remain behind 'the West' in a number of measurable variables, the idea that they're just stewing in poverty, and it has something to do with low IQs, is straight bullshit. From The Economist:
Since The Economist regrettably labelled Africa “the hopeless continent” a decade ago, a profound change has taken hold. Labour productivity has been rising. It is now growing by, on average, 2.7% a year. Trade between Africa and the rest of the world has increased by 200% since 2000. Inflation dropped from 22% in the 1990s to 8% in the past decade. Foreign debts declined by a quarter, budget deficits by two-thirds. In eight of the past ten years, according to the World Bank, sub-Saharan growth has been faster than East Asia’s (though that does include Japan).
From The World Bank:
Following a 4.6 percent expansion in 2010, the region’s output is expected to grow by 4.8 percent this year (5.8 percent excluding South Africa) and by more than 5 percent in 2012 and 2013. Indeed, African countries are amongst the fastest growing countries in the world: Ghana is projected to grow by well over 10 percent this year; and nearly 40 percent of the countries in the region are likely to see 6 percent or higher growth rates. Growth in Africa remains closely linked to the evolution of international commodity prices—oil, metals, and non-food agricultural commodities—which have remained generally buoyant.
As it so happens, many African economies are quickly growing—just like the Chinese and Indians and South Koreans!

It only took a quick Googling of "growing African economies" to find these. The question "Why is Africa still a basket case," with its 'are you still beating your wife?' framing of Africans as a perpetually benighted people, is misleading at best and racist at worst. It leads into the same condescending 'why are blacks are dumber than whites' rut that, as a longtime reader, I really wish Sullivan would get himself out of. A better, though tangential, question is, "Why does Andrew Sullivan think Africa is still a basket case?" but this is well-trod territory. An even better question might be, "What are the problems still afflicting Africa?" Some people are doing work to answer that, right now. One of those answers, from an actual African, author Teju Cole:
How, for example, could a well-meaning American "help" a place like Uganda today? It begins, I believe, with some humility with regards to the people in those places. It begins with some respect for the agency of the people of Uganda in their own lives. A great deal of work had been done, and continues to be done, by Ugandans to improve their own country, and ignorant comments (I've seen many) about how "we have to save them because they can't save themselves" can't change that fact.
The first step to helping is to not assume helplessness.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Fool for Christ

Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a great Christian movie.

I feel a little guilty saying that, but hell, Easter was only a couple weeks ago; 'tis the season for forgiveness. But no, really, I watched it last week for the first time since it was in theaters, and aside from the painfully bad comic relief provided by the three gargoyle sidekicks, it is really quite good. It's one of the better Disney animated features, and certainly the most adult, beginning as it does with its villain dashing a woman's head against the steps of Notre Dame and attempting to throw her hideous baby down a well. Not your typical Disney princess fare.

Hunchback is also one of the most explicitly Christian films Disney has ever produced. This is inherent in the Victor Hugo source material--the struggling poor, the noble man of the cloth, the obsessive hound of justice; all of these character types make it an obvious kissing cousin of Les Miserables--but it's still a little shocking to see characters praying to the Christian God in a movie produced by a studio that, despite its cultural conservatism, only rarely broaches the subject of religion. Perhaps that rareness is why the religious theme goes down as well as it does; though this is almost certainly a bastardization of Hugo's novel (I haven't read it, so I wouldn't know), in certain respects it presents an excellent universal appeal for Christian morality.

I'm thinking mostly of the pivotal Festival of Fools scene early in the movie. Quasimodo, the hunch-backed bell-keeper, having lived his life in the Cathedral and having only been able to observe the people running riot at the Festival below, sneaks out to witness it first-hand. He ends up being drafted into a competition for the ugliest mask and is good-naturedly crowned King Fool when the audience finds out he really is the ugliest man in Paris. Then things take a bad, bad turn.

The cruelty lasts only a minute, but it feels like it goes on forever, so abject is Quasimodo's public humiliation. It's remarkably upsetting to watch, and it brings to mind nothing less than the Crucifixion, complete with mock crown. The Son-of-God-made-flesh nailed to a cross is first of all a brutal image, but the violence that captivates Mel Gibson, to the exclusion of almost everything else about Jesus' life and message, is only one part of the scene's broader degradation. Half the power of the crucifixion is not the punishment itself, but its public nature and attendant humiliation that comes with it. The image of the deformed Quasimodo, tied down, abandoned by his father figure, jeered and pelted with food, draws from the same well of abject shame as Calvary and can't help but be moving, especially when we're operating under the assumption that this is a kid's film.

The mockery ends when the Gypsy Esmeralda, alone among all others, steps up to offer Quasimodo comfort, which in the book (according to Wikipedia) is the only act of kindness he's ever known. As she very enthusiastically informs us, she is herself of a despised minority seeking merciful treatment. Her song, "God Help the Outcasts," is rather mawkish, yet it's as good a summation of the Christian message as could be hoped for:

Yes, I know I'm just an outcast
I shouldn't speak to you
Still I see Your face and wonder...
Were You once an outcast too?

God help the outcasts
Hungry from birth
Show them the mercy
They don't find on earth
God help my people
We look to You still
God help the outcasts
Or nobody will

I know I'm risking my credibility by insisting on a Disney cartoon as a paragon of Christianity, so let me turn the accusation around to point out that mainline Christianity has largely become a discredited cartoon version of itself. Andrew Sullivan, who actually believes in Jesus and has written on faith extensively, can detail it better than I can. But essentially, a religion that systematically shields child rapists, hounds gay youth to suicide, and comprises one of the most powerful special interests in Washington, has little credibility when it comes to its stated mission of comforting the weak. Incidentally, Hunchback deals with the religious hypocrisy issue head-on in its very best song, "Hellfire" in which villain Judge Frollo--originally an archdeacon in the book--wrestles with his bewitching lust for Esmeralda:

To jump back to the modern day, Jesus was at best indifferent to power and made a point of associating himself with the dregs of society, and his submission to crucifixion in the absence of any crime is by design the ultimate act of powerlessness. It's hard to square the oratory of "blessed are the meek" with this:

I don't want to belabor this point too much more, except to say that one need not be an atheist to believe a Christianity which keeps the bully out of its pulpit would be a positive development. And to be sure, the Disney cartoon trades in this kind of muscle hero imagery as well, at the beginning of its third-act lurch for a ridiculously unearned happy ending. As I said, I'm speaking of certain elements of the movie, not of the movie as a whole.

It's of the same tension as those obnoxious gargoyles, the impulse to produce a soothing kiddie flick at war with the original story's austere demands for nuance and moral ambiguity. Yet this too may be seen as yet another reflection of today's Christianity, which is torn (in part by Mel Gibson?) between the tremendous political power it wields and the atomized and personal nature of the faith itself. It even has its own hideous gargoyles, in the form of Pat Robertson, the deceased Jerry Falwell, and other telegenic vulgararians.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is compromised, and so too is the belief system that informs it. Yet one can always hope for change; some enterprising YouTube users have taken to re-editing the film to minimize the gargoyles' presence. The same is possible in the real world religion. For what was Christ about, if not redemption?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Racism Isn't Just Acting Like John Derbyshire

This Thursday past, longtime National Review contributor John "Derb" Derbyshire published a column about how black people are stupid and dangerous and should be avoided except for, maybe, the smart ones. This wasn't on the National Review's website, but elsewhere, Taki's Magazine, which bills itself as "Cocktails, Countesses, and Mental Caviar." Here are some of those intellectual fish eggs on which to feast. Note that this is a sub-list of item ten of how to interact with black people:

(10a) Avoid concentrations of blacks not all known to you personally.

(10b) Stay out of heavily black neighborhoods.

(10c) If planning a trip to a beach or amusement park at some date, find out whether it is likely to be swamped with blacks on that date (neglect of that one got me the closest I have ever gotten to death by gunshot).

(10d) Do not attend events likely to draw a lot of blacks.

(10e) If you are at some public event at which the number of blacks suddenly swells, leave as quickly as possible.

(10f) Do not settle in a district or municipality run by black politicians.

(10g) Before voting for a black politician, scrutinize his/her character much more carefully than you would a white.

(10h) Do not act the Good Samaritan to blacks in apparent distress, e.g., on the highway.

(10i) If accosted by a strange black in the street, smile and say something polite but keep moving.

After at first only tut-tutting the article, National Review editor Rich Lowry gave Derbyshire the boot. The reasons for doing so should by now be obvious, but it's worth reprinting the official explanation of their ways-parting:

Anyone who has read Derb in our pages knows he’s a deeply literate, funny, and incisive writer. I direct anyone who doubts his talents to his delightful first novel, “Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream,” or any one of his “Straggler” columns in the books section of NR. Derb is also maddening, outrageous, cranky, and provocative. His latest provocation, in a webzine, lurches from the politically incorrect to the nasty and indefensible. We never would have published it, but the main reason that people noticed it is that it is by a National Review writer. Derb is effectively using our name to get more oxygen for views with which we’d never associate ourselves otherwise. So there has to be a parting of the ways. Derb has long danced around the line on these issues, but this column is so outlandish it constitutes a kind of letter of resignation. It’s a free country, and Derb can write whatever he wants, wherever he wants. Just not in the pages of NR or NRO, or as someone associated with NR any longer.

The first thing that should be noted is that the nature of the column in question is not new. The Atlantic Wire has a good roundup of Derbyshire's long history of proud racism, but suffice it to say it's hard to imagine anyone else having a career as a opinion writer in a mainstream magazine after telling the University of Pennsylvania's Black Law Student Association, in person, that as African descendants they should collectively resign themselves to being dumber than whites. John Derbyshire often comes off as a terrible human being, but he is compellingly terrible, and both refreshingly and alarmingly upfront about his white supremacy.

So really, this whole fracas is just "Derb being Derb." And that's part of the problem, for "Derb" has some qualities, if not redeeming (there's no redeeming the unrepentant), then that at least help explain why he lasted as long as he did. His cranky pessimism (his most recent book was titled We Are Doomed) led him to butt heads with his erstwhile National Review colleagues ever so often, on issues like George W. Bush, creationism, and Terri Schiavo. This was amusing, if nothing else, but it also made him idiosyncratic and not at all a mere conservative apparatchik. He also has a way with words and on occasion put them to good use, such as his account of how he ended up playing an uncredited thug in a Bruce Lee movie.

Derbyshire's mixture of qualities both compelling and repelling, then, tends to trip up even (especially!) folks who we would like to think would know better about this sort of thing, but hate to see someone with otherwise admirable qualities as so morally deficient. I myself will admit to not saying anything when certain acquaintances have made ugly, racist remarks, for risk of jeopardizing the relationship. If we are to grant President Obama's understanding for his white grandmother, who feared black men passing her on the street, we can on some level feel that Lowry and company being slow to action regarding Derbyshire (whose bigotry is much, much worse) is understandable, if not acceptable.

The sad fact is most people don't grapple with these issues enough to have an informed opinion. To the casual observer, racism is a skinheaded, swastika-tattooed Edward Norton curb-stomping a black guy--not some crusty old Englishman who writes for a magazine the average American has never heard of. Thus the depressing number of people--if the comments on some of these pages are any indication--who echo Derbyshire's sentiments and claim they aren't being racist (though, notably, Derbyshire has before admitted his racism straight up). I don't wish to defend such ideas, but I do think it important see where the people who espouse them are coming from, that they may just possibly be corrected.

Regarding National Review, it's perhaps uncharitable to say Derbyshire got fired for being too obviously racist, but Lowry's statement that "Derb is effectively using our name to get more oxygen for views with which we’d never associate ourselves otherwise," even though Derbyshire said plenty of other nasty things under the National Review banner, suggests he was fired because of the shitstorm he brought to their doorstep rather than their understanding of why the shit was storming. It's not only Derbyshire's ridiculously offensive prescriptions that are the problem. They are the symptoms of the disease: a rotten dehumanization and objectification that is palpable in the very words he employs.

Consider the "intelligent and well-socialized blacks," which Derbyshire finds so remarkable as to require a category unto themselves. He encourages his hypothetical children to befriend these "IWSBs," because these ostensible friends are an "amulet" to guard against charges of racism, like a crucifix to ward away the devil. ISWBs are furthermore, "something of a luxury good, like antique furniture or corporate jets: boasted of by upper-class whites and wealthy organizations, coveted by the less prosperous." Black people were once literally white people's property, and today John Derbyshire argues they are at best a commodity good.

That black people aren't really even people to him, just "blacks," just objects and things that are without agency or feelings or lives outside of a general incompetence and hostility to whites, is inherent in the very premise of the article. The piece is a tongue-in-cheek response to "The Talk" that black parents give their (male) children about interacting with trigger-happy and negligent law enforcement and the culture at large. This is a horrific and persistent issue, with the Sanford Police Department's botched handling of the death of Trayvon Martin (and Geraldo Rivera's subsequent declaration that Martin brought it on himself for wearing a hoodie) being only its latest and most visible iteration. Derbyshire's response is to treat the death of innocent youth as a joke and write a "Nonblack Version" of The Talk that proves its point by getting the issue precisely backward; in response to a talk about how to maneuver in a world of prejudice, we have a "talk" on how to perpetuate prejudice.

This mindset, viewing vast swaths of people as cultural grindstones and other mere tools, goes beyond this single episode. Recently leaked documents from the National Organization for Marriage revealed a strategy to court conservative blacks and Latinos--the latter of which must have their assimilation into the culture interrupted for fear of losing their conservatism--purely as a means of attacking gays. Nor is this at all restricted to conservatives. Bill Maher's recent declaration that he can't be a racist because he gave a million dollars to Barack Obama (as a follow-up to an Alexandra Pelosi video that 'documented' dumb, poor, liberal New York City blacks in response to criticisms of her footage of dumb, poor, conservative Mississippi whites), displays a similar reductiveness.

The whole episode, and the Martin case more broadly, is a depressing reminder of our discourse's gross immaturity. Racism is not demonology. It is, at heart, like a great many problems, a failure of empathy. To miss this crucial point and focus on the obviously outrageous is, pardon the term, so much thinking in black-and-white.