What I’m Reading

Not the cover of the edition I read, but a striking cover anyway.Last week, I was floundering. I had just finished rereading The Hobbit, which is such a magnificent, sweet, fun adventure tale that it needed something comparable to ease me back to down to the mortal world of books that are still entertaining, even if they don’t shatter your world and rebuild it anew. It didn’t help that the new trailer for the Hobbit movie hit the day before I finished reading the book. After that, how can you go back to reading anything less epic?

Eventually, I settled on Our Kind of Traitor, by John Le Carre. My first impulse is to say it’s like Tolkien for adults, but that’s not true, as the two authors have next to nothing in common, other than that they are both British and both amazing authors.

John Le Carre doesn’t write fantasy, he writes gritty, spy stories of the stale beer variety. No gadgets and snappy one liners. No fancy tuxedos or alluring but dangerous women who end up int he heroes bed anyway. Nothing is shaken instead of stirred. These are thrillers with a minimalist tone, a real politik eye, and a sense of beautifully tragic nobility. And they are amazing.

Le Carre’s prose is diamond sharp. He somehow manages to be evocative and imbue color and character with just a simple turn of phrase or prosaic description. I don’t know how he does it. There’s not a single extra word anywhere, and yet he evokes an entire world in the way a character enters the room, or plays a tennis match. It’s brilliant, and as a writer, gives me something to aspire to.

And his plots are fantastic little clockworks that effortlessly fall into place, making perfect sense, even as scenes move back and forth in time and place and montage together like a prose film playing in your mind.

The thing is, I’ve now read a selection of Le Carre from across his oeuvre, spanning 20 books and 45 years. And the prose is as clear and precise in Our Kind of Traitor, which came out in 2010, as it is in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1966). That sort of consistant craft is soemthing for any author to aspire to.

Tell It To The Chair

Over at Salon, Andrew O’Hehir  looks into the Right’s disastrous relationship with pop culture:

[…] It’s almost more a question of affect or tone or presentation than it is of substance. Conservative-oriented, family-friendly movies like “Won’t Back Down” or the hit antiabortion drama from last year, “October Baby” – only the most prominent example in a recent wave of Christian-themed, social media-promoted films – are made cheap and fast, without the slick, professional cinematography and editing of most Hollywood productions. Watching them, you feel a vague time-warp effect, as if you had stumbled on a 1997 made-for-Lifetime production while channel-surfing.

Along with the relative artlessness and the technical weakness comes an overwhelming sense of sentimentality and sincerity, the almost uncomfortable feeling that the movie is coming at you heart in hand, saying exactly what it wants to say, and shamelessly urging you to share in the exaggerated emotions of its characters […]

More than that, pop culture (also known simply as culture to you and me) refutes the Conservative Movement’s major claims: That America is a conservative, Christian nation that has fallen from grace and needs Big Daddy Republicanism to put it back on the straight and narrow. If this were the case, Kirk Cameron would be the biggest movie star on the planet, instead of a half-forgotten hack with some confused ideas about the utility of bananas.

The reason Conservative attempts at entertainment come off as artless, preachy and fatuous (not to mention dull, strained, hackneyed, trite, and clumsy) is because the entertainment value is placed second behind the message. Rather then craft and genuine expression of anger, frustration or bewilderment about living in in the 21st century and how that clashes with traditional concepts of a meaningful life (a movie I, a godless Lefty would go see) Conservative entertainers instead, with minor exception, preach. Because going to church is just so much fun.

By and large, conservative entertainers talk down to the audience (America) and make them feel belittled, disenfranchised and inconsequential. I blame 30 years of sucking up to rich psychopaths, but either way, they loose the audience, is my point. Exhibit A, for now and years to come, will be the time Clint Eastwood harangued an empty chair for 15 minutes. Yes, it was at a politcal convention. But the only reason Dirty Harry was there was so Mitt Romney, king of the artless nimrods, could hitch a ride to the White House on his coat tails. Shiny shiny coat tails earned by making artful, non propagandistic entertainment.

The reason all that Hollywood lefty* pop culture is so popular, with its sex and drugs and Darwinis, is because it encourages the audience to relate to likable characters who are flawed and have wants and desires. People who a e just like them: moved by human motives. Everybody wants to win, to beat the smug asshole, to get the girl. What they don’t want is to have some frustrated closet case stand there for an hour, trying to tie the parable of the sower to a year-old Internet meme as a way to explain why Jesus hates condoms and teachers unions.

If conservatives want to use entertainment to recruit to their cause, their cause needs to first and foremost be something people want. Until people want to be scolded for their shortcomings and die alone and unloved in the gutter, the Conservative message is going to flop. Hard.

Link via Roger Ebert on Twitter.

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* As John Rogers and others have explained, Hollywood isn’t Left at all, or even political for exactly the reasons I outline above in relation to Conservatives: propaganda doesn’t put buts in seats. You aren’t going to make money with a movie that tells people they suck. And making money is Hollywoods agenda. Everything else is craft to support that goal.

Back To The Moon!

I’ve recently discovered a fantastic magazine called Jacobin, which is unreservedly Left leaning and offers a nice, refreshing alternative voice to the wishy washy liberal middle-of-the-roadism you find in a lot of other “Lefty” sites.

Over on the Jacobin Blog, Leigh Philips proves the magazine’s worth (to me at least) with a piece about how capitalism killed the Space Program:

[…] Nobody is asking why it is that the high point of manned spaceflight was reached at the end of the sixties, wondering whether there might be a reason for this drop in ambition, this retreat from humanity’s destiny in space. It’s not as if the planet has abandoned its love of space. The international excitement over the landing of the Mars Science Laboratory hints at a yearing to be thrilled about the possibility of life on other planets.

At the same time, a kind of left-wing cynicism about  space exploration has bubbled up. Wasn’t this simply a distraction from the crisis? How can we be spending money on space while the Earth burns? How can we care about the improbable chance that we find possible evidence of the conditions for microbes having aeons ago existed on Mars when thousands of Americans are losing their homes to repossession, when half of all Spanish youth are without work?

[…]

Because these questioners might as well be asking: “Why bother exploring at all? What has curiosity ever done for us?” And this way of thinking is itself unwittingly framed by a neoliberal set of metrics, demanding immediate return on investment, and accepting the falsehood that we have an extremely limited reserve of public revenues, the greatest share of which must be directed to those areas with the highest priority.

The first point is obvious. We don’t know what benefits will be achieved when one sets off to investigate distant terrain. The adventure of exploration of the unknown is its own reward.

This comes along with Matt Novak’s appreciation of The Jetson’s on their 50th anniversary, and why they still matter:

It’s easy for some people to dismiss “The Jetsons” as just a TV show, and a lowly cartoon at that. But this little show—for better and for worse—has had a profound impact on the way that Americans think and talk about the future.

Somewhere along the way, we lost sight of exploration and innovation for its own sake. And by we, I mean our capitalist overlords. The 1% who demand that every human endeavor turn a profit, that they get the lion’s share of that profit, and that everything not profitable (to them) be scrapped. This attitude, what I’ve taken to calling Economic Calvanism, is what’s keeping us from recovering from the Great Recession, let alone settling Mars. We used to do great big things back when our leaders weren’t all greedy bastards and knew that to make money you have to spend money, often and especially on things that don’t return the investment, simply because they produce knowledge about  the Universe and provide and investment in human worth, something that cannot be balanced out on ledger or calculated for in your semi-annual report.

Or, as Leigh Philips put it:

Of course, if there were a limited pie of public resources, then a prioritization of other areas would be legitimate – Gill Scott Heron would be right. At the moment, there are other areas in more dire need. But money can be found.

The UK’s Tax Justice Network in July published research showing that revenues lost to public coffers by the super-rich hiding these sums in tax havens amounted to $21 trillion as of 2010 – as much as the US and Japanese economies combined, and the figure could be as high as $32 trillion.

There is more than enough money out there to have decent social services – and new ones, guaranteed incomes, well-funded pensions, a transformation to a low-carbon (or even carbon-negative) economy, and investment in space exploration. It’s a false choice to say: either space or everything else. The choice is actually between the current crop of political ideologies clustered around the neoliberal center, and something genuinely transformative on a global scale.

Future Tense

Over at io9, Charlie Jane asks,

The overwhelming emotion among our political classes and pundits appears to be bitterness, laced with weary fake-outrage. There’s been almost no attempt at even feigning optimism. No “Morning in America.” Hardly any sign of that happy can-do spirit. Are we just finally succumbing to fatal levels of angst? Do Americans just not believe in a bright future any more? And what would it take for the United States to feel cheery again?

The problem is that America is controlled by an entrenched and extremely conservative ruling class, who views its power — accrued through decades of exploiting racism, sexism, and fear of the other and the unknown — slipping away. And so they demonize the growing multiculturalism (an ironic byproduct of their exploitation of global capital) all the while, hamstringing even modest attempts to produce a prosperous environment, specifically because such an environment will allow undesirables (women, minorities, foreigners, queers, etc) to share in some of the prosperity.

Conservative activists in the US and other countries are actively preventing a full economic recovery, in the hopes that they will weaken the government enough to be able to effect a takeover, installing themselves permanently in power. That way, they can manage the reconstruction, putting themselves and their 1%er constituents in positions where they can take advantage, while stifling any meaningful competition form the aforementioned undesirable classes.

(And no, to preempt the  inevitable Liberals-Do-It-Tooism, there is no organized Lefty equivalent of the Koch brothers, the Tea Party or the Club for Growth in the US. So STFU with that noise).

Unfortunately, there is no quick and easy solution to this problem. The only way to procede is to use our one lever of power, to vote.

First, we vote in Democrats as often as possible, in every possible position. They aren’t much better than the GOP but they are better.

Once the GOP is gone the way of the Wiggs, then the Dems can become the voice of moderate conservative America and a new Lefty Movement, building steam over the next few election cycles, takes the second party slot. Personally, I’m in favor of Democratic Socialist party, something that could actually serve as a voice for Socialist reform within a democratic system.*

Let the Libertarians, Randroids, Dominionists, Corporatists, and White Supremacists scream voiceless in the wilderness, until they finally scream themselves silent.

 

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*Platform: universal health care, universal wage, drastically reduced military (for defense purposes only), space exploration, scientific and cultural investment program, and a massive infrastructure renewal work program, for starters.

Politics, But Not As Usual

I’ve mostly given up writing about politics, because it’s boring to keep saying, “Gee those dumb politicians are dumb!” over and over. But lately, I’ve witnessed an entirely new level of mendacious and dishonest idiocy perpetuated in the name of political discourse, and I cannot in good conscience let it pass unremarked upon.

So far this summer, we’ve learned that the GOP supports rape and spree shootings, is against Health Care and doing anything about Global Warming, yet still claims to be the party of moral responsibility. Delusional doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Anyone still thinking of voting for these assholes in November needs to really do some soul searching. And if you say, “the Dems do it too!” or claim you support them because they’ll lower your taxes, or because Obama is a blackity black Hitler, you and me are going to have an argument. And you’re going to loose. Because I have facts on my side.

Make up your mind: do you want to continue living in civilized society, working slowly to improve your life and the life of your family, friends and neighbors, or are you willing to chuck it out the window and side with a gang of veracious, greedy nihilists, all so rich people who wouldn’t stop to piss on you if you were on fire can avoid a marginal tax increase?

Pixar Movies, Ranked

John Scalzi did it first, so I’m of course going to copy him, because, why not?

1. The Incredibles
2. Toy Story 2
3. Wall-E
4. Finding Nemo
5. Toy Story 3
6. Up
7. Ratatouille
8. Brave
9. Monsters, Inc.
10. Toy Story
11. A Bug’s Life
12. Cars
13. Cars 2

1-5 are my top tier, and pretty much interchangeable. If I were to rank them again next week, they might be in a slightly different order, but those same 5 would be there. Same for 6-10.

The weird thing about A Bug’s Life is that it is a perfectly serviceable movie that is still better than most anything to come out of Dreamworks (except Kung Fu Panda 1&2, which manage to climb up tot he level of second tier Pixar, a feet some exec at Dreamworks is trying hard to prevent form ever happening again).

My personal theory is that Cars 1&2 are tributes to Disney. Tributes in the old sense, that they are offerings of merchandise-driven film Product to a hungry PR machine, made in order to secure the creative freedom to make things like Wall-E and the Toy Story trilogy, which no American movie company would green light or distribute in a million years.

And That’s Why Goonies is the Greatest Movie Of All Time

Over at Crooked Timber, John Holbo is discussing BFI’s Top 50 greatest films of All Time list. Like any such list, it’s subjective, peculiar, and bound to cause howls of outrage.

John does make an interesting observation though, that overwhelmingly, the top ten picks all come form the 1950s and 60s:

Is it sufficient to say that film critics – like all conservatives – have to pick a Golden Age that is sufficiently far back in time that they can imaginatively confiscate it for themselves, in effect constituting themselves as elite appreciators of what others do not; but recent enough that it has some damn plausibility. (As in investment, being seriously too early is the same as being wrong.) The spikes we see on the graph are akin to the average conservative American’s sense that the 50’s and early-to-mid 60’s were pretty great; then it all went to hell and now things are desolate and bad. But there is also the outlying, more severe conservative view that we have to go back further to find anything good. Before 1929.
I’m also reminded of something that old adman Gossage wrote, about ‘the shape of an idea’: “Imagine that a person sits in the center of a circle that represents his comprehension. He can comprehend anything within the perimeter, but the farther it is from the center the fainter his ability to criticize it will be. However, anything outside the perimeter is beyond his comprehension; he won’t criticize an idea placed out there because he simply won’t know what you’re talking about. So the trick is to place an idea close enough in so he gets it but far enough out that he’s not able to flyspeck it, only accept it.” Would it be too unkind to suggest that critics probably pick their Top 10’s by analogous operation? (Obviously I’m just saying that critics are incorrigible hipsters and coolhunters of the past. Duh.)
On the other hand, maybe film was just better before Star Wars; George Lucas (and Spielberg) ruined everything forever.

I have to agree. It’s boomer critics being boomers. For a film to make this list it needs to meet one of three requirements:

  1. Be fondly remembered from childhood (which as we all know, ended in 1963)
  2. Be fondly remembered from film school
  3. ?Be made later than 1966 but not after 1996 and evoke nostalgia for 1 or 2

So, yes. Subjective. But just for fun, here’s my top 10 list, (in no particular order):

  1. Some Like It Hot
  2. Charade
  3. Blade Runner
  4. Casablanca
  5. North By Northwest
  6. The Princess Bride
  7. Back to the Future
  8. The Royal Tenenbaums
  9. Close Encounters
  10. The Brothers Bloom

The qualifier being, that if you were to put any one of these movies in the DVD player, I would stop what I was doing to sit and watch them with undivided attention. You’ll note that I, being a product of Gen X,* have moved my Golden Age up to the 1970s and 80s with a few outliers from before my time, which I of course saw as a child on much-worn VHS tapes (I could watch Some Like it Hot just about any old time) and a few more recent choices as well (if you haven’t seen The Brothers Bloom you are missing out. It’s by the same director who did Brick and the upcoming Loopers).

And just to pick a fight on the internet:

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is Spielberg’s best film.

It encapsulates all of his major reoccurring themes (life in outer space, father issues, mistrust of authority figures, obnoxious children, every-man confronted by the weird) without letting anyone of them steal the show. Plus it treats a numinous experience that contains mythic undertones without promoting an agenda. It glories in ambiguity, which is something few of Spielberg’s later films bothered with. Sometime in the 1980s he decided that everything had to have a clean edge, which is when he lost his.

 

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*You’ll also note that I have committed the ultimate blasphemy as both a Gen Xer and a Science Fiction geek by not including any of the Star Wars movies on my list. Even though I still enjoy the original trilogy (and recently even acquired a copy of the theatrical versions I grew up with through means of dubious legality)  George Lucus, by meddling with his films to the point of breaking them, has been disqualified from inclusion. Perhaps in a few years, after Lucus has kicked off, and we can enjoy the films as intended, without his god awful special edits, they will make it onto the top 20.

Music For the Ages, Or Of An Age, Anyway

Over at Crooked Timber, Henry has asked for testimonials from us folk of a middling age about the music that survived — those bands and styles we grew up listening to in the 80s and 90s that continue (or failed) to be as lasting today. My comment turned into a dissertation on 90s music, so i thought I’d post it here as well, for posterity.

Siouxsie Sioux continues to be simply amazing, whether it’s her early stuff with the Banshees, The Creatures or her recent solo albums. For this aging Goth, she will always and forever be our Queen, whether she cops to the title or not.

My feelings about the Smiths/Morrisey are similar to Henry’s. I used to like them OK back in the day, mocking Morrisey for being a mope but still enjoying the music But lately I’ve come to recognize the wit, sarcasm, innuendo and genuine heart of their songs. The mopey pose is just surface detail covering for a depth and complexity that I’m only now, in my mid 30s, really starting to appreciate.

Nirvana on the other hand, not so much. And this is heresy for my particular cohort, as I was a high school senior when Kurt Cobain killed himself, and so for most people my age he is the Jim Morrison/John Lennon figure we were supposed to want. But really, Cobain was a self absorbed twat, and his music is interesting, but not quite as  important as a lot of people make it out to be. Grunge was, for all its bluster, a musical cul de sac. And there simply isn’t enough of Nirvana to be as influential as people claim it is. It would have been interesting to see what Cobain would have done, had he straightened his shit out and kept growing as a musician, but that’s one of these unknowable things. It’s just as likely that he would have turned into Eddie Vedder, doing the same old shtick for 20 years.

And how weird is it that Pearl Jam is on the way to being our generation’s Rolling Stones?

Now, Smashing Punpkins on the other hand are still awesome (and apparently have a new album!). I still bust out Melancholy and the infinite Sadness now and again. They managed to grow and change, escaped the grunge tag and became their own thing. And I have no idea if they’ve had any influence on contemporary music at all, but they should have.

The most unanticipated musical reassessment of my middle ages has to be Def Leopard. Never liked hair metal back in the day, but along side a lot of seventies rock that I dismissed as self indulgent twaddle, playing their songs on Rock Band has given me a begrudging appreciation for their music. It’s not the Beatles, mind you but for straight ahead rock and roll with no pretensions of being anything but a party band, it’s not horrible.

One More Shade of Grey, Just For Good Measure

For anyone who thought I was being harsh about Fifty Shades of Grey, here’s a review by Katrina Lumsden, who completely destroys any notion that it is in any way feminist:

Now I’ll be totally honest, the biggest issue I have with Fifty Shades of Shit is neither the sex nor the horrible writing. It’s the plot. Thin as it is, it’s still there. And its basic message is that, given enough time, you can change someone. While I don’t have any problem with this if all you’re trying to do is help them to lose weight or quit smoking, when you’re talking about an emotionally and (dangerously close to) physically abusive relationship, sending that kind of message is both ridiculous and irresponsible. Christian is controlling, possessive, condescending, and cruel. He doesn’t allow Ana to behave as she normally would, and Ana just puts up with it, insistent that if she can just give him what he wants, when he wants, as often as he wants, she can eventually begin to pull his strings. Will it work? In the books, probably. In real life? No. Almost never. How many idiotic, spineless, weak women are going to waste their lives on some emotionally retarded prick because they’ve read shit like this and think this kind of fucked-up fairytale will come true for them? I know I’m not over-reacting because I’ve known women with this mentality. “Oh, he’s so dark and dangerous and threatening, but he’s got a sad, lonely side, and if I could just figure out what’s wrong, I could change him!”

Well said.

Shadow Over Gotham

It seems every time a new Batman movie comes out, we have to have the same tired, one-dimensional arguments about Batman/Bruce Wayne’s political leanings. And no, I’m not even talking about Rush Limbaugh’s claim that Bane=Bain. That one is a nonstarter, even for the drug addled lunacy that normally comes out of that asshole. That a super villain invented in 1993 (by a conservative cartoonist, no less) is somehow a Leftist political metaphor about Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital problems… No. I’m just not even starting down that road.

Instead, we have the usual claims that Batman is a fascist, except when he’s a populist antihero. Or something. It’s all rather muddled, which of course is a clue that there’s something else at work here, and that maybe a complex psychological fable isn’t the proper place to be looking for political metaphors.

Way back when The Dark Knight came out, there were a few bloggers who saw an authoritarian/Conservative bent to the character. Similar things were said about Iron Man being a shill for the Military Industrial Complex and Superman as a tool of Jingoism. Pretty much any super hero movie gets parsed for liberal/conservative bias. And while there are any number of valid ways to interpret a story, looking at super heroes through the lens of politics always irked me, but I couldn’t quite explain why.* Luckily, John August has given it some thought as well and explains the issue far better than I could:

Efforts to place TDK’s Batman on a real-world political spectrum are doomed. Sure, he’s tough on crime, but he’s also anti-gun. He holds himself outside the law, but destroys his own phone-tapping technology. Is he a Conservative? A Liberal?2 A Libertarian?

Nope, he’s just Batman. And as a comic book character, he’s allowed to hold simultaneous incompatible philosophies.

Exactly. Batman can be all these things because he is hyper-real. He’s not a citizen or a politician running for office, he’s a psychologically complex avatar, a stand-in we can use to explore larger, slightly abstract concepts about Freedom, Responsibility and Justice. That’s what is so great about Nolan’s Batman trilogy, it’s a complex movie with psychological, mythic undertones.

If you go to a viewing of The Dark Knight Rises and all you see is a mentally-ill billionaire exercising his authoritarian impulses without restraint, then you were sitting way too close to the screen.

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* Also, Bruce Wayne, Billionaire Playboy would never vote. It’s out of character for the disinterested playboy persona. He can buy whatever freedom he needs, which is a decidedly Republican attitude, but one that would go completely u acted upon, outside of large donations to the popular DA who doesn’t really need the gesture. And Batman, while concerned about the plight of the poor and the disenfranchised, wouldn’t bother pulling the Democrat lever, as he knows all politicians are crooked and fallible. So there.