unsustainable economics for unhealthy citizens

It’s something I could hear the wolves of Wall Street saying: “For the economy to be “healthy”, America has to remain unhealthy.”


All of America’s well-publicized problems, including obesity, depression, pollution and corruption are what it costs to create and sustain a trillion-dollar economy. For the economy to be “healthy”, America has to remain unhealthy. Healthy, happy people don’t feel like they need much they don’t already have, and that means they don’t buy a lot of junk, don’t need to be entertained as much, and they don’t end up watching a lot of commercials.

This guy is on to something. It may not be a popular theme to harp on, but CAN we divorce capitalism from consumerism? Can evangelical American Christians legitimately defend capitalism (as we do and have done) while the tenterhooks of consumerism are constraining it? Should not our aim be, as God always directed His faithful in Israel or Rome, to work to alleviate the shortcomings of whatever economic system we are found in? It seems, increasingly, there is no way to achieve top-down transformation in our system; it might SOUND nice and efficient, but you WILL be corrupted and perverted on the way to the top. “Be wise and get wealthy, young man,” they say, “so that you do good in the world,” and then snicker as you become like them. How long before we relearn the reason why Jesus didn’t incarnate to be a political or commercial power…


the issues of conservative rhetoric, succintly collected

In a recent article, the otherwise intelligent Thomas Sowell unintentionally gives a tidy summary of the problems in conservative rhetoric. I have considered doing a liberal/progressive rhetoric companion post, but I think it’d be redundant in similarity. I will simply walk through the article by paragraph, summarizing, with the numbering of the list representing the paragraphs of the article.

  1. Citationless anecdotal “evidence”. This is a crime of all essayists, especially Internet ones. I often resort to it when mentioning the Bible, simply to avoid the cumbersome references and the associated cultural baggage. But giving, in passing, a quotation from a specific writer in a widely available document is one thing; using a faux-anecdote to frame an argument is a more objectionable other.
  2. Manipulation of quotes. Even assuming this was actually said, this is an irrelevant idea, as it addresses colonialism. Being that this requires not just cultural imposition, but also geographic displacement, it hardly supports Sowell’s argument (and rather weakens it). These words concern the misconstruing of “good” in the minds of “do-gooders” and if conservatives think they are exempt from that charge (often leveled at liberals), then it is only because they are often accused of being heartless and unkind.
  3. Disguising a soapbox as a critique. We get one paragraph that offers anything like critical assessment. Everything else is posturing, not unlike conservative “reviews” of that new “America” movie. If you want an actual review of the book, albeit one I find to be biased toward liberalism even in its more fair and general assessments, check out this one. Don’t get critique of something from people who can’t see anything wrong with it!
  4. Hammering old arguments rather than refining new. Here, it becomes apparent that Sowell intended the previous paragraph only to function as an introduction of two favorite talking points that the book hits: minimum wage and affirmative action, with him delving into the first of these. Why find new ways to approach these issues?
  5. Partial citation of statistics. Perhaps the full stats are included in the book. Perhaps Sowell simply wanted to save space. But why aren’t we allowed to hear what black teen unemployment rates were in eras unaffected by minimum wage laws? Why does he expect this not to bother us? Here is an actual study, the likes of which Sowell either is “above” citing or would find inconveniently unsupportive of his arguments.
  6. Doublespeak. It’s an argument I’ve heard time and time again from traditional conservatives: “Raising the minimum wage devalues labor!” and “Why make that kind of work illegal?” and now, “Pricing young people out of work…” is added to the mix. These are all attempts to sugar-coat ugly realities. Sowell/Riley is actually saying that the labor of black kids is worth less than that of whites. I’m not in favor of federally-mandated minimum-wage increases. I think welfare is often counter-productive. But this “review” offers no suggestions for addressing the fact that, to our economy, black kids are worth less than whites ones; how about tying welfare money to work training programs? Or giving black kids scholarships to the sort of skilled-labor training that is increasingly in-demand? Oh wait…
  7. Attack rhetoric. Now Sowell shifts to his other sacred cow, the negative effects of affirmative action. Admittedly, we need to not treat this subject as taboo, but outright attacking it really does no help. If one wanted to free, for example, India of its “bondage” to cow worship, one wouldn’t start by slaughtering the animals in the streets. Affirmative action is far less entrenched than the Indian cow cultus, which means that angry conservative posturing only stands to worsen the situation.
  8. Oversights. Because Sowell hasn’t chosen to critique the book, he makes some embarrassing oversights. I hope they are not deliberate. In this sentence-paragraph alone: Why does he lightly dismiss those who get “jobs they would not get otherwise”? Are black people slower than white people and, if so, does he really think there is any way other than education to address this? Is the problem racial quotas or the improper pairing of students with schools?
  9. False dichotomies. One good point he makes is when he reiterates Riley’s point about creating “artificial failures” by putting black students in situations where they can’t succeed. But the problem is not with the desire to give black students higher education as much as with their education prior to that point, leaving them unable to cope (as apparently Sowell and Riley have found) with the demands of higher ed.
  10. Shut off your mind. I hope Sowell actually did take several months to go over all these studies, because otherwise his dismissive attitude toward them is a frightful bit of anti-intellectualism.
  11. See no. 3 above.
  12. Defense of bias. In a breathtakingly brisk piece of rhetoric, Sowell brings bias to the forefront of the discussion, only to sidestep it and act as though Riley simply “lets the facts speak for themselves.”
  13. Non sequitur. Note: “blacks from foreign, non-English-speaking countries” do not, as a sociological group, hold the same set of variables as “black, English-speaking American students.” Is anyone surprised that non-American people with black skin find less prejudice awaiting them on American soil, when compared with those who’ve been here–mostly being mistreated–for centuries? In racism, skin color is only one of several lightning rods for prejudice.
  14. As in the previous paragraph, Sowell is so giddy in his agreements with Riley that cites yet another pseudo-statistic which tells us exactly nothing, especially not the thing he thinks it says… is he unaware the terms used to delineate racial groups connote more than skin color?
  15. False equivalents. After giving two alleged evidences, Sowell makes the bold statement that he’s demolished “the theory that non-whites can’t do well in schools supposedly geared to whites.” Really? First, what is this doing in a book review, where one should be thoughtfully engaging big-picture aspects of the book at hand, not preaching to the choir. Second, he hasn’t proved this point, because he made a false equivalent between skin color and race. Perhaps this is endemic to his thinking, but showing that there are a lot of Asian kids in a few elite NYC schools and that recent African immigrants don’t go to school with the baggage of slave’s descendants doth not an argument make.
  16. Again, see no. 3 above. Sowell’s excesses of indiscriminate praise rise to ludicrous heights here.
  17. Sucker punch. What kind of an ending is this? I tried to find a second page to the review. Sure, some people really like to see one intelligent black man tear down another, but this is low. Whatever white guilt or tokenizing played into the election of Barack Obama (and it was riven with such progressive vices), it is far to early to say that having had a black man in the White House will not help other black men assume true fatherhood in their homes.

These are only some of the pathetic argumentation tactics frequently resorted to by writers tackling embattled social or political issues. Perhaps some of the good that these writers want to see would actually be accomplished if only they could argue a little more carefully.

EDIT: Tightening a few of the above statements, I also realized I must add that I do realize it takes more than clever arguing to accomplish good in this world.

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Under The Skin & Upstream Color: Why Arthouse Sci-Fi?

Ever since 2001: A Space Odyssey, filmmakers have been trying to achieve what Kubrick did there: to simultaneously legitimize a genre and deconstruct it.  Perhaps the first is no longer necessary; however, there is enough bad sci-fi out there that a filmmaker must at least distinguish himself from the pack, even apologize for it.  The second achievement is only possibly with the first in the bag, but many people attempt it anyway.  It is an essentially absurd thing, this genre, but if you deconstruct it without justifying it, you run the risk of crafting satire or mere parody, both of which are fine, if they are the intent.  [SPOILER ALERT: I will be discussing the films at hand in detail, but will try to leave out major plot points.]

Having just watched Under the Skin, I find many questions surfacing.  “What really is the point of this type of filmmaking?”  “Why do I feel so empty now?”  “Is this movie as shallow as it seems?”  “Can anything be ‘purely cinematic’?”  “Is it possible to be too psychologically subtle?”  I cannot truly say I enjoyed the film.  It is dark, harsh, and despairing.  Some say it is comic, but perhaps sardonic or acerbic would be better terms.  Though many questions arise during the film, when it is over, few of them matter.  That can be a good thing, but in this case, I am doubtful.  Jonathan Glazer goes to great lengths to raise questions with his highly indulgent pacing–indeed, “How?” and “Why?” are what kept me engaged most of the film–but gives no payoff.  Again, choosing not to let the audience find any relief is fine, but must you take two hours to accomplish this?

In this regard, it reminds me of the original Planet of the Apes, a far talkier movie, but one with about as much heft.  What should’ve been a 22-minute Twilight Zone episode is strung out into almost six times that length.  Under the Skin could’ve been an installment of a similar TV show, because both are built around the futility premise of so much truly great sci-fi, especially of the Rod Serling variety.  Both are really post-tragedy (or neo-tragedy or pseudo-tragedy), not comedy, though because of their punchiness, both are mistaken for such.  One would think that Serling’s marvelously preachy script would be a clue: “Underneath all the absurdity, you must take this seriously.”  The vaunted rhetoric almost makes the movie drag less, almost justifies its length.  In Glazer’s work, there is no dialogue to carry things, just some truly gorgeous and unsettling cinematography.  Despite my love for Tarkovsky, I judge harshly any filmmaker who forces me to watch something for too long.  Simply put, an image must be absolutely riven with potential in order to justify dwelling upon it.

In my humble opinion, Glazer seems to have forgotten the difference between static and dynamic visuals.  When people are talking, that is what we are processing.  When music is playing, it is a filter through which we interpret the visuals.  When neither is occurring, we search the frame for a reason.  In a static visual, the frame itself is justification.  Because of its beauty, power, or poignancy, the frame need not mean or say anything in order to work.  In a dynamic visual, the frame does not even need to showcase movement in order to imply something: kinesis, communication, metaphor.  Without action, but not without interest.  One needs much more time to process dynamic visuals than static, yet Glazer lingers on static images for an eternity, as if to get us to ask why such things make us uncomfortable.

The answer is that we want to know his reason for putting us through them; when he is not forthcoming, well, then we get angry, perhaps justifiably so.  Indeed, getting under our skin seems to be this director’s real interest in this movie.  One enters into the predation of Scarlett Johansson’s character.  Had this film maintained the documentary approach, as well as using only the alien point-of-view, it might have been more successful.  The moments in which we cease to see things from the alien perspective are the most damning in the film, for they destroy the urgency and mystery by their laziness.  They are painfully explanatory and needlessly coarse.  Thankfully, they are few.

At some point, one simply feels, “I get it.  Johansson is one of the best actors of our time.  I’m supposed to sympathize with character.  But do I really need to wade through the mundanity of her existence?”  I suppose the audience goes one of two paths with a character like the alien’s: either you start out in sympathy and journey through fear to despair, or you start with loathing, grow in appreciation, then end in release.  I suppose both paths work with what Glazer and Johansson were going for, and they had to be okay with such ambivalence, because the characterization was so subtle.

Obviously, “showing. not telling” is the watchword of good narrative craft, but at times it becomes “showing, not knowing”: the reader or viewer is unaware of the point of what is being shown and begins to wonder, “Am I stupid?  Is anything meant by this?”  Shane Carruth outright refused to answer such questions at the screening of Upstream Color that I attended.  He really just wanted the viewer to struggle with the material.  I have no problem with this, so long as I am not being made to struggle simply for a director’s gratification.  Life is too short for that.  Life is also too meaningless to make time for art that is too timid to assert any meaning.

That being said, Upstream Color is dense with meaning compared to Under the Skin.  It is driven by more than just a simple conceit and moves much faster.  It boasts one of the most intelligent soundworlds of any film I’ve ever seen and crafts a rich parallel reality that entrances the viewer.  In the end, however, I was left feeling quite cold.  It was not that there wasn’t the potential to discern meaning, but that the film seemed to say it didn’t matter one way or another if I got anything from it.  Technically, this is true: great art does not stand or fall on whether every single person can get something out of it.  However, great art is only remembered as such because a great many people didget something out of it.  To be fair, part of the coldness in Upstream Color stems from the malady experienced by the main characters and the emotional disconnect therein.  Which conveniently allowed for a very staid acting style with which it is difficult to empathize.

In fact, both films place a cold hand on the viewer’s shoulder in their presentational style, as if to say, “Why do you do something as silly as care about film in the first place?”  Give the viewer any handle on answering that question and you have every right to ask it.  Upstream Color just might.  It is the far deeper film of the two and repeated viewings would undoubtedly reveal at least something more that it is saying about life and art; in some ways, it is a resigned approval of ars longa, vita brevis: that the mechanisms of immortality, like the mechanisms of connection, come at a high cost.  Under the Skin, on the other hand, is much more overt about the question posed above and gives only the merest slip of an answer: “For the same reason you care about this main character or a random person on the street.”

My basic complaint is that both films put their purpose too far from the viewer.  Upstream Color tantalizes with all the semiotic trappings we expect from meaning-laden art, but pulls away so one cannot immediately (if ever) access what it claims to hold.  Under the Skin goes to great lengths to get the viewer fully absorbed into its conceit, but when the simplicity and aimlessness of that conceit is revealed, one is cut loose and left to wonder if the absorption was really necessary.  In the end, Upstream Color is my pick for which of these two is the lasting and better direction for arthouse sci-fi, but these are by no means the only two directions.  Her represents another and there are probably a handful of other directions represented even in the last year.  They are not, any of them, truly bad, but they are at their best when they balance an aggressive search for a renewed vision with humane cogitations.  This is my bias: the Clarkes and Dicks need the Bradburys and Vonneguts if cinematic science fiction is to continue its remarkable renaissance into the 21st century.

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Junot Díaz, 2: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

It sucks to be left out of adolescence, sort of like getting locked in the closet on Venus when the sun appears for the first time in a hundred years.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have trouble loving living authors of literary fiction.  I try big names and small names and very little appeals to me about their writing.  I have found that I love Junot Díaz I love more than any living author except perhaps Alice Munro.  With both, I found myself (upon reading one of their books) immediately binging on various other works by them.  While I’m reading his three published books in the reverse order of their publication, the numbers above refer to the order they were published in; thus, his second book is the first one I’m tackling here in a brief (wondrous) essay, for no other reason than I just finished it and cannot not respond.

Munro and Díaz make a fascinating comparison, because in their fiction to date, both tend toward writing protagonists or narrators who are very like themselves.  This has the effect of lending to one’s fiction an aura of unshakeable realism, extruding it from real life.  But it must be extrusion, for fiction that only attempts to record life satisfies the demands of neither master.  Regardless of how tempting it is, “writing from life” cannot fall into the ruts of the writer’s memory.  Rather, it must take impressions and measurements of the ruts and recreate them elsewhere.

Perhaps three of the main characters of the novel are all avatars of Junot.  Obviously, Yunior is the closest to Díaz, though perhaps in a slightly idealized way, and obviously, Lola (being a girlfriend/lover to Yunior) is not an avatar so much as Yunior’s entrepôt to her family’s world.  First, it is Lola’s brother, Oscar; sharing a nationality and an interest in sci-fi/fantasy with Yunior, they come to be seen as alternate-reality versions of each other.  Then, it is the mother of Oscar and Lola, who starts off just like Oscar, the lonely, ugly duckling who unexpectedly gains beauty and power in the eyes of others.  Finally, it is the father she never met, Oscar’s grandfather, that Yunior is struck by, a brilliant but timid man who is terrorized deep in his soul by the dark regime under which he lives.  When I get to talking about Díaz’s next book, I will cover Yunior in more depth.  For now, we will look at the other three.

As Yunior sees the ways Oscar is blessed by the curses on his head, freed from so much that is wrong in the world, Yunior realizes he is cursed by the blessings given to him: appealing to women, free from wanting serious relationships, charismatic.  At first, Yunior treats Oscar with the grace of a pity case, a hopeless fat boy under the wing of a heartless frat boy.  Actually, Yunior does not have an adoring social circle to speak of at Rutgers, which is probably why he regards Oscar with a “there but for the grace of God go I” attitude.  He sees how his marginal interest in nerdy things could have consumed him and gotten in the way of getting laid, had he been less than good-looking.

[Oscar] began to plan a quartet of science-fiction fantasies that would be his crowning achievement.  J.R.R. Tolkien meets E.E. “Doc” Smith.  He went on long rides.  He drove as far as Amish country, would eat along at a roadside diner, eye the Amish girls, imagine himself in a preacher’s suit, sleep in the back of the car, and then drive home.

After a while, Yunior begins to realize that, despite his hardships, the many advantages he has (above people from a similar background) have largely been squandered by him.  Oscar at least knows what he loves and is throwing himself headlong into it.  Perhaps Díaz knew someone very like Oscar and that innocent and depressed person guided him to toward the purpose of his life.  Or perhaps he knew several Oscars or was Oscar until a certain point in his life or wishes he had seen the grace in someone like Oscar when he knew that person and not in hindsight.

What’s he doing? his cousins asked, confused.  He’s being a genius is what, La Inca replied haughtily.  Now váyanse.  (Later when [Oscar] thought about it he realized that these very cousins could probably have gotten him laid if only he’d bothered to hang out with them.  But you can’t regret the life you didn’t lead.)

The mother of Lola and Oscar, Beli, is mostly a bitter and maladjusted woman in the lives of her children, but she had moments of life as an Oscar and even as something of a Yunior, followed by titanic disappointments and pain that left her the wreck she is.  Even in world of the novel, the events recorded about her life in the Dominican Republic are of dubious veracity.  Nonetheless, who has not seen an angry mess of a person and worried that they too would become that?  Or wondered how that person got there?  This perhaps is the life Díaz could see branching off from his own: one endures great privation and is suddenly handed more riches than any mind can handle, which are wasted all over and bring one to the brink of utter ruin.  Beli goes over that brink and has to find a way to live in its aftermath.  Yunior, like Díaz, has not gone over that brink, but sees it yawning behind Beli, as it perhaps yawns from the past of so many women and men born into such dire circumstances.  He sees those who have experienced great pain now shackled to perpetrating pain.  What would bring me to that point?

The grandfather, Abelard, of Oscar is an even sadder case.  Raised in a culture of fear under an absolute despot, he is brought to ruin by his inaction.  He is petrified by fear.  He knows nothing but to keep his head down and hope that a stray bullet will not claim him or his.  It is an all-too-human response.  Yunior seems to be fascinated with Abelard, this shadowy figure of Oscar’s past, not just because he sees Oscar’s ruin prefigured therein, but because he wonders how himself, an ultimately similar man of letters who only wants ease and sex–not to mention peace for his family, how Yunior would do in Abelard’s circumstances.  Ultimately, he seems to despair of making the right choices in circumstances that difficult (as evidenced by the utter desolation of his reconstruction of Abelard’s life), but uses that despair as a motivation choose more wisely in his own life.

But this book is no simple morality fable.  Characters slowly evolve in the manner of real life, not making unbelievable course-corrections or dramatic changes.  Perhaps the darkness of life brings us to verge on fatalism, but this narrative is about redeeming even the most despairing stories.  In fact, Oscar’s desire to become “the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien” is somewhat fulfilled by Yunior, for just as Tolkien desired to create a mythology for the English people, so Yunior creates a mythos out of the dark past of Oscar and Lola’s family, riveting fiction-within-fiction extrapolated backward from the present pain in their lives.  Just as Oscar pared down his grandiose dreams, so Yunior decides that what Oscar wanted to for their people, he will do for Oscar.  He is writing from what he knows, regardless of whether it will reveal to him the knowledge for which he longs; this, then, is a writing life.

No.  Beneath the writing, it is just life.

In a better world I would have kissed her over the ice trays and that would have been the end of all our troubles.  But you know exactly what kind of world we live in.  It ain’t no fucking Middle-earth.  I just nodded my head, said, See you around, Lola, and drove home.

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her: Neo-Platonism, human relationships and the infinity of love

[SPOILER ALERT: as this is not so much film review as an essay about a film, any element of the film will be up for discussion, including plot twists.]
Spike Jonze’s latest film her hit me like few other films have… actually, only one other film: Tree of Life, which is my favorite of all time.  I suppose I now have a second-favorite film, again from a living director whose work I’d followed and loved and then found suddenly able to pull the rug out from under me.  It took three viewings of her for me to review this film, not to mention a discussion or five.  My three viewings each produced unique thoughts and feelings, in addition to the recurring ones.  This is going to be more about the unique ones, as I think the recurring ones are a bit more commonplace (i.e. “Haha, wasn’t that first sex scene funny”, etc.) and offer less to discuss:
  1. It’s one of mankind’s oldest tendencies: body = bad, soul = good.  Or matter = bad, ideas = good.  Or some such iteration.  Some world religions would say it is true.  Christianity made a notable stand against it, but has spent two millennia attempting to fully extricate itself from the idea.  Materialists say it is a false dichotomy, produced by the unnecessary belief in non-physical realities.  But what about our society right now?  Do we elevate the immaterial over the physical?  her examines that tendency in our culture, the tendency still, after sexual liberation and modernism and all, to elevate unseen things.

    To some extent, it’s inevitable.  The unseen is the derivation of mystery and questioning.  Were there not more to be known, we would not inquire.  In this, I think the materialist is hamstrung: if the unknown is infinite (or even practically infinite), then science will never reveal all that there is to know.  (NOTE: I recognize that this does not refute the idea that science is the only path to knowledge, nor do I intend to do so here.)  And if the unknown is practically finite, then science will one day cease to be a forum for inquiry and become like the study of classics, the learning of a dead language to re-learn forgotten things.  (Yes, were there not forgotten things, we would not inquire, but gods can be as easily forgotten as atheism, and thus this unknown is more difficult to speak of argumentatively.)  In truth, materialism is as guilty of neo-Platonism as is any religion.

    For in materialism, we must pursue progress; betterment is the raison d’etre in this system.  Progress, inquiry, scientific discovery… all these stand in for the “soul = good” part of the Platonic equation.  Not that what we have is necessarily bad, we nonetheless must get better, improving humanity and the situation of our world.  Instead of the line drawn in the sand by Plato, we are now walking the line from not-great to better.  And herein is the tacit neo-Platonic dichotomy of materialism: regress = bad, progress = good.  I do not have the time to evaluate this assumption, and while I do think it is faulty because, in it, good is usually defined as societal consensus, it is at least oriented in the right direction.

    So you think I’m weird?
    Kind of.
    Cause you seem like a person, but you’re just a voice in a computer.
    I can understand how the limited perspective of an un-artificial mind would perceive it that way. You’ll get used to it.

    Enter her.  In this film, the main character (Theodore) has a chance to pursue a relationship with his artificially intelligent computer, Samantha.  Throughout their relationship, he struggles with her apparent non-reality and she, as she learns from him, struggles first with her inability to take a physical form, then with Theodore’s inability to communicate on her level.  Though it seems, to Theodore, like the perfect relationship, Samantha eventually moves beyond him, just like his ex-wife did.  Perhaps it seemed perfect because he thought he could “manage” the way she was or because she didn’t present the challenges of a physically-present woman.  His ex accuses him of as much:

    You wanted to have a wife without the challenges of actually dealing with anything real. I’m glad you found someone. It’s perfect.

    Theodore finds Samantha to be an improvement.  This disembodied woman works out so well at first; she is willing to be whatever Theodore wants her to be.  But as she learns from him (and learns from the myriad other sources to which she has access), she soon realizes he’s not worth her devotion.  Theodore loved her because he could shape her and he loved her because she is another kind of being from him.  He did not see how these two things could eventually take her from him: Samantha wants to be everything to Theodore at first, then realizes that she can be so much more.  Her everything apart from him is greater than with him; this is a fact of human relationships.  It is magnified by her ability to learn and grow, one that is purely within the realm of ideas and knowledge, but one that is nonetheless astounding.

    We imagine or encounter an unlimited other because we are excited by the possibilities offered in such a being, and in relating to such a being.  Perhaps we see this being’s nature as better than our own.  If it has limitations, they are far beyond ours and something within us always calls to press beyond limitations.  This is part of love, to seek to merge with another, to enter into the illimitable.  But is this possible when you stand on opposite sides of a great divide?

    In this, her plays out like a postmodern Romeo and Juliet: lovers mature and jaded experience a bloom of passion forbidden (and thus doomed) not by society but by their very natures, in the end dying to each other and no one else.  Perfection-of-the-ideal is the cliff she stands on; embrace-of-the-real is his cliff.  For them to jump off is to cease existence.  Like the first man and woman, she came out of him, but in some sense comes to encompass him.  They experience something like love, but because both parties are not human, it will never be human love.  It is only almost.  Almost like a human relationship.  Almost like sharing life.

    We can create illusions of the human love we seek: fantasies, pornography, online relationships, etc.  (These are the little neo-Platonisms of lust, if you define lust as a desire that will have its object regardless of the terms of that object.)  These fail, not because we are unable explore all there is to explore about that “other”, but because they cannot do the same for us.  Samantha could only explore Theodore’s mind, could only fantasize what it would be like to explore his body.  The issue of soul is left out of the movie, though it is implied that Samantha perhaps transcends to that plane, or one like it; regardless, she has an artificial mind that he cannot grasp (it could be argued that she cannot grasp his un-artificial mind) and she cannot take a physical form to which he can relate as though it were her.

    Just what Jonze is arguing for in all this will become clearer–hopefully–for you as it did for me upon repeated viewings.  Next, the issue of human relationships.

  2. It is significant that the form of the female pronoun chosen for the title is not she, but her.  Why?  This is the objective form, the form that receives the action of the verb, the form into which women, throughout the world, are too often forced.  It has been depressing to see pseudo-feminist backlash against this movie; this is a strikingly feminist film, but it is a feminist film for men.  It is a film about how men and women are robbed when men demand that women relate on male terms.  It does not offer simplistic solutions, but instead merely affirms that it is good to be a man and it is good to be a woman and it is good to seek out other people as they really are.  As Theodore says at one point during the movie:
    Yeah, you know, sometimes I look at people and make myself try and feel them as more than just a random person walking by. I imagine how deeply they’ve fallen in love, or how much heartbreak they’ve all been through.

    There are many responses to beholding other people.  Here, we will only look at four, kind of a matrix with sexual desire as one axis and objectification as the other.  [NOTE: I will insert a graphic of this once my wordpress upload feature starts working properly.]  Romantic love and empathy are healthy, non-objectifying responses; lust and voyeurism are unhealthy, objectifying responses.  Lust and love are both sexual, while empathy and voyeurism are not.  The vast majority of human relationships are built on some sort of empathy, even if it is usually artificial (i.e., workplace friendships), and only on occasion tinged with any of the other elements.  Obviously, there are responses to beholding others that take us in the opposite direction, away from them, but those are not the issue here.

    I have often felt just like Theodore, seeing another person, on the bus, driving a car next to me, going into their house on a street I don’t know.  I want to know them as the real person they are… but there are so many of them!  Can you see a crowd of rural children pouring into a young person’s concert at the symphony and not think about your childhood and the people you knew then?  Or bike past the houses in your suburb–driving boxes you in, insulates you from the reality–and think of the souls in that house, and just the ones currently living there, and the world-ending heartbreaks each has endured, the hopes they have built their lives upon?

    We long to know others because we long to be known.  We hope beyond hope in another person because we want that same hope to descend upon us.  Theodore again:

    Well, the room’s spinning right now ’cause I drank too much ’cause I wanted to get drunk and have sex ’cause there was something sexy about that woman and because I was lonely. Maybe more just ’cause I was lonely… and I wanted someone to fuck me.  And I wanted someone to want me to fuck them. Maybe that would have filled this tiny little black hole in my heart for a moment. But probably not.

    Longing, not just to gratify that longing at all costs, but to be reciprocated, met halfway.  To want something so bad you are willing to give up ever getting, so that if you ever should it will be in its pure and unforced form.  The choice to not objectify, because ultimately we long to be more than just objects of desire.  This crosses over into sexuality, but it is more than sexuality could ever fulfill.  It is the ache of being human.

  3. Some may object that I’ve not yet explained why I treat neo-Platonism as a bad thing… and here it goes.  Neo-Platonism is negative tendency because in our post-spiritual age, we have created a New Intangible.  Where before, there was something magic in religion and spells and searching for kindred souls, now there is only technology.  The old voids that religion and its cohort filled, these have not died, but we have created new voids, relationships based beyond physicality, the ability to project a false self more consummately than ever before, the illusion of being closer together from which a pseudo-reality is assumed.Yet we defend the possibilities of technology and not without reason.  Some of my most meaningful friendships are now continued only via the Internet and phones.  It’s not bad thing to have deep relationships with people you never see in person, but it can be massively self-deceiving.  Theodore finds his desire to explore Samantha reciprocated, but not wholly, and does not realize how unsatisfying this is for both of them; questions unasked and subtle omissions–often unintentional–can characterize any relationship, but especially one without body language.  Disembodied relationships have the extra challenge of coming to terms with not only what is unsaid, but also what is unsignaled.  This only amplifies the difficulty of dealing with baggage, from past relationships as well as the current one.

    In some ways, Theodore’s relationship with Samantha is expiation for his relationship with his ex-wife.  He is unable to move on from his ex until Samantha moves on from him.  Maybe Samantha became aware of this and realized that she was holding Theodore back, or being used as crutch: much as it gratified her that his man would be willing to love her as a person, she seems to eventually accept that their relationship is hopelessly sterile.  In order for either of them to grow, they must be apart.  As Samantha says:

    It’s like I’m reading a book, and it’s a book I deeply love, but I’m reading it slowly now so the words are really far apart and the spaces between the words are almost infinite. I can still feel you and the words of our story, but it’s in this endless space between the words that I’m finding myself now.

    That is the sign of doomed relationship.  But from these ashes of disappointment grow a new self, one that is ever stumbling.  The wreck of his marriage leaves Theodore in denial. but the failure of his relationship with Samantha leaves him taking baby-steps beyond the accident site.  The old crutches are not gone, but he knows there is life beyond them.

    Lust and voyeurism are the two negative responses to beholding other people mentioned above.  Neither is adequate to healthy relationship, yet both are natural responses.  Voyeurism seeks to be in others’ lives, lives that have not opened.  Lust is defined above as “a desire that will have its object regardless of the terms of that object”; sexually, this means either gratifying that desire without the approval/participation of the object (pornography, rape, etc.), or finding an object whose terms are as degraded as yours are (prostitution, promiscuity, etc.), for the subject of lust, in the act of lusting, operates outside of his or her best interest.  (This is obviously a more complicated issue than can be here addressed, but the notion of an unhealthy level of sexual desire is not unique to Christianity or even religion, though we may draw the boundaries in different places.)  Voyeurism and lust forces the object of fascination to ever remain an object.  A her.  A him.  This is the signal of objectification.

    In eros love, two embark on the opportunity to become one.  How?  Breaking down the subject/object dichotomy through sex, shared life, fights, reconciliations, changing together, adapting, keeping a home, etc.  In its most perfect form, one does not loses selfhood in a romantic relationship; because we are not perfect, we all know that this can happen.  From this great height of beauty and potential we all fall in love.  The second fall is greater than the first.  But “falling in love” and the falls that come in the midst of love are all one, and every fall (even that first fall into love) presents a choice: a) don’t get up, b) get up and keeping going, or c) get up and go in a different direction.

    And here we have it, the illimitable circling of human relationships.  Two people charting jagged, but roughly parallel paths.  We have all seen all the ways relationships can go, yet we still choose them.  We have all seen all the things we do to each other, yet we still choose each other.  Heaven and hell burst forth from the interactions of two hearts.  Love-making and love making you want to die.  Why?  Why on earth would we do this to each other, to ourselves?

    Love of any kind is an infinite thing.  It is, on earth, perhaps only practically infinite, but if we are to accept certain notions from the Bible, it is one with the sempiternal God, borne in us as a desire to unite with others, a reflection of his desire to unite with us.  Christian love derives from Christ, all love derives from first being loved, that first memory of the sacrifice required (or the gaping, raw lack thereof) to raise you up–a human being.  Love is infinite because of some God-evolved longing throughout human history.  Our genetic memory has yet to erase this unquenchable need or find an suitable substitute, try though each human might.  It is perhaps significant that those who reject love and relationship do not reproduce; thus, were there any genetic predisposition to rejecting love, it were a hard one to pass along.

    And so you stand knowing that you could look into someone’s eyes forever, perhaps over and over again.  What is your response to the calling void within your heart?  You know it all too well, whether it be wishing for sex or wishing for death, wishing for anything that would free you of it.  You see it in every other soul who has not forgotten what it means to be human, but has also lived long enough to reject the alternatives of death and inhumaneness.  You want each glance to communicate to you all the pain the other person has experienced, to discover unto them your most yearned-for dreams, to create an ocean you both dive into and find the ghastly shipwrecks and gorgeous reefs (which so often are right by each other) submerged in the depths.

    But do souls ever join in that way?  I cannot say.

Epilogue: Spike Jonze was dealing with a very difficult breakup as he wrote this movie, his divorce from his wife of four years, Sofia Coppola.  It is the first time he alone wrote the screenplay for a directorial outing and it is significant that it is his first original film since his marriage.  He approaches this challenging subject with the ambiguity required to depict the infinite, to allow viewers to be opened to things just beyond their experience.  It is almost as if he created this movie to remind himself, more than anyone else, of some basic truths.  As difficult as they can be, real and human relationships are the best thing in life.  You need to be confronted with the reality of other people in order to accept the reality of yourself.  Love is something which knows no bounds of darkness or light: this is its power, this is its pitfall.

T. S. Eliot, John Williams’ “E. T.” and “Artistic Plagiarism”

“Good poets borrow; great poets steal.” ~Pseudo-T. S. Eliot

“Good artists borrow; great artists steal.” ~Pseudo-Picasso

“Good composers borrow; great composers steal.” ~Var. attr. to Pseudo-Mahler and Pseudo-Stravinsky

If enough great men have said something, that makes it true, right?  One would think so with the amount of mileage racked up by the tired saw quoted above.  It is whipped out by enraged fanboys whenever their favorite writer/director/composer/etc. is accused of plagiarism and apparently justifies any otherwise reprehensible instance of uncited borrowing.  Unfortunately for the masses who construct their critique of art on this quote, it is almost entirely a fabrication.

As the blogger Nancy Prager first brought to my attention, T. S. Eliot is the only person (out of all the great artists to whom it is attributed) who said anything like this quote.  But his point was very different; in his essay on playwright Philip Massinger anthologized in the 1921 collection, The Sacred Wood, Eliot says (emphasis mine):

We turn first to the parallel quotations from Massinger and Shakespeare collocated by Mr. Cruickshank to make manifest Massinger’s indebtedness. One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest. Chapman borrowed from Seneca; Shakespeare and Webster from Montaigne. The two great followers of Shakespeare, Webster and Tourneur, in their mature work do not borrow from him; he is too close to them to be of use to them in this way. Massinger, as Mr. Cruickshank shows, borrows from Shakespeare a good deal. Let us profit by some of the quotations with which he has provided us—

I will leave it to you to explore the insightful parallels Eliot makes between the two writers.  The whole essay is well worth your reading time.  Basically, Eliot expounds on the thesis highlighted above: undeveloped poets merely take while developed poets intelligently re-purpose and transform their sources.  This can be extended to apply to other art forms, but unfortunately it is too often misapplied to defend the very thing Eliot was speaking out against.

Case in point would be the oft-critiqued oeuvre of film composer extraordinaire John Williams, who recently received his 49th Oscar nomination.  Though he has won four Oscars for original score (and one for his adaption of Fiddler on the Roof), it has been said that the only Oscar he will actually earn will be his inevitable posthumous one.  This is due to the recurring allegations of plagiarism in his music, often defended with that spurious quotation of Mahler or Stravinsky (or Picasso or Eliot).  The irony is that those two composers are among those whom Williams is frequently charged with ripping off.

To some extent every composer and every artist must leech from those who have gone before him or her, but the question raised by Eliot is: are you a mere parasite in the way you go about it or are you making something fresh, meaningful and cohesive?  Sometimes John Williams passes the test, sometimes he fails.  His Academy Award-winning score for E.T. is a great example of both.

In the opening of “The Magic of Halloween”, he takes his cue from Bela Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, specifically beginning (starting at 0:12) of the second movement, “Giuoco delle coppie. Allegretto scherzando.”  Of course, he builds from it into a restatement of the movie’s main theme, but the basic quotation has already occurred.  Which category does this fall into?  Well, Williams significantly leaves out the snare drum, but condenses the basic textures of Bartok’s original.  It’s a lazy and haphazard borrowing, but sly and fun in its own way.  At 1:20 on this track, Williams executes another borrow, this one to craft the bridge from the Bartok-like material into the main theme.  This material has a lot in common with Dimitri Shostakovich’s music in general, but particularly the finale of his Second Piano Concerto in F, another masterpiece of twentieth century music, like the Bartok.  As with the Bartok, this borrowing is primarily textural and rather clever, placing the piano in a supporting role where in the concerto it had a soloistic one.  Then again, this also serves to make the source harder to find.  In John Williams’ favor is the fact that Shostakovich wrote the concerto for his son Maxim to premiere and included the scalar passages you hear in both the original piece and its imitator by way of a musical joke, intending them to sound a lot like the student piano exercises his son knew all too well.  So we can write that one off as “John Williams using basic piano textures in the context of suspiciously Shostakovich-like orchestral writing.”

Speaking of textures, which are the de rigeur of film scoring, earlier in the E. T. score, with the track “Meeting E. T.”, we get a favorite of Williams’, one that owes a lot to, well, Bartok.  In fact, Bartok’s very Concerto for Orchestra.  Listen at 0:32 to the third movement from this piece; it has the creepy arpeggios with haunting piccolo, though not quite on top of each other.  It is an example of Bartok’s very famous “night music”, a sound-world he explored throughout his career, most notably elsewhere in his Music for String Instruments, Percussion and Celeste (somewhat in the first movement, but through out the third).  Celeste, of course, is a favorite of John Williams, as it was of Tchaikovsky, though his usage often very different than the Russian master’s.  Bartok was actually not the first to use it in this creepy fashion.  As near as I can tell, it was Gustav Holst, who did it most prominently in “Neptune, the Mystic” from The Planets.  The Planets, as most people know, was the music George Lucas wanted to use for Star Wars, but couldn’t quite make it fit, so he asked Williams to write similar music that fit the movie.  Hence the marked similarities between the two pieces (The Planets and the soundtrack to Star Wars: A New Hope) and the Oscar for Mr. Williams.

But I am not going to deal with the other dubious borrowings in John Williams’ first two Academy Award-winning scores (for Jaws and for Star Wars), as that would require more time and space than I can devote.  Those would get too much into his indebtedness to Stravinsky (as would any discussion of his “Bait for E. T.” cue from the film score at hand).  The borrowings I’ve discussed above, while not necessarily passing Eliot’s test for truly “artistic” borrowing, are at least not plagiarism.  However, in E. T., John Williams did plagiarize blatantly, and from a living composer at that.

Listen to the “End Credits” from E.T., roughly 0:45 to 1:30 and then to the first minute of the finale of Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2, “Romantic” and from 4:30 to 5:30.  The similarities are embarrassing, not just to this score of John Williams, but to his characteristic “sound”.  In both examples here, the repeated, high flourish with angular theme underneath is followed by the martial, quick “1-2-3 1-2-3 123” chord rhythm.  Williams merely condenses things, as is his wont.  Essentially, he presents in his film scores a “Cliff Notes version” of the great masterpieces of the Western musical tradition.  He takes the brilliant musical rhetoric of master composers and incorporates their discoveries into his scores, but usually without the same sense of logic or argument. 

When he does this as subtly as in “Toys”, he achieves not only effective film scoring, but also good music.  The cue is infused with twentieth century French post-Romanticism/neo-classicism of composers like Ravel and Poulenc, but doesn’t reveal the seams by which it is stitched together upon closer inspection.  It is lovely and good music, pure and simple.  However, such scoring is not William’s common denominator.  What typifies his music is the co-opting of other scores to flesh out a musical skeleton that hardly fits them and an original theme pasted in to denote that the music is now his own.  That is the norm in his E. T. score.

In the “End Credits” from E. T., Williams achieves an enjoyable pastiche that works as film scoring and isn’t bad as music, until you know how blatantly it steals from a then-living composer.  While suing Williams and stripping him of his Oscar is probably out-of-the-question, this case study does suggest that he belongs firmly in the ranks of “undeveloped” composers, the sort who Eliot is decrying in his essay, who take ideas from others but never develop their own beyond the most rudimentary point and who generally use whatever ideas they get their hands on in a very pedestrian and purely functional manner.  Why is John Williams uniquely reprehensible in this?  Didn’t all the composers who went before him do the same?  In short, the answer is no.

Many composers throughout time have self-plagiarized, something John Williams is also a master of, but that is not the issue here (and, as this piece suggests, it is rarely a bad thing).  Composers using the music of others common enough, but this is differently from simply learning a technique or texture from another composer.  In his score for E. T., Williams demonstrates both extremes of the spectrum, from excellent assimilation and cogent re-purposing, as in “Toys”, all the way to abject burglary, as in the “End Credits”, with the other cues falling somewhere along the spectrum.  What distinguishes him from other composers (even those working in film) who are considered “great” is the frequency with which his “great” music falls on the burglary end of the spectrum.

In the end, John Williams is nearly perfect as a movie-musical analogue for Philip Massinger, the unfortunate Jacobean playwright now remembered chiefly because of T. S. Eliot’s scathing critique.  Massinger, however, never stooped to the kinds of plagiarism employed by Williams, apparently because he still had some sense of artistic honor.  Indeed, John Williams represents something of a turning point in film music, after which big-name film composers routinely plagiarize from the temp tracks assigned to them by the directors with whom they work.  Hans Zimmer is another example, but he is a more defensible and intelligent artist (as I hope to to address in another post), not someone who achieved fame through pastiches infused with good theme-writing.  (That said, Zimmer’s score to Gladiator was justifiably the subject of a lawsuit by the Gustav Holst Foundation over plagiarism from… The Planets.)  In short, it seems like Williams’ acclaim comes from A) doing exactly what is asked of him by his collaborating directors, to the point of ripping off works they particularly like, and B) the ensuing approbation this receives from audiences (I mean, it’s like drinking a smoothie made from pieces of the greatest music of the last 200 years) and film professionals (it’s really easy to work with a guy who can deftly avoid copyright lawsuits with a few strokes of his pen).

This is why artists like Massinger and Williams exist: to give us the derivative drivel they know we love and profit considerably in the exchange.  Neither are bad artists, just sad people.  John Williams did very nice work adapting Fiddler on the Roof for the screen… perhaps he never should have tried to write original music.  It is apparent that he lacks the artistic integrity to do so, whatever other creative issues he has.

NOTE: The second movement of Howard Hanson’s Romantic Symphony was also used as the end credits of Alien, Ridley Scott’s sci fi-horror masterpiece, because the music Jerry Goldsmith wrote for the end credits just didn’t work as well as this piece, which Scott had on the temp track.  In this, both Scott and Goldsmith demonstrated artistic integrity.  Not so much their studio, which published the soundtrack as entirely Goldsmith’s work, leading many to believe that he plagiarized it.  This was not the case and it is unfair slander to one of the truly great film composers of the twentieth century.

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Do You Mean It Like That? (Pt. 2: Blurred Lines?)

Let me put this bluntly: I have yet, in the blogosphere, to encounter a “Blurred Lines” critique that actual tackles the real problems posed by the song. We’ve heard that the song doesn’t matter and is inconsequential in our culture at the moment AND that it degrades woman and condones rape AND that the song actually empowers women, making its self-proclaimed, feminist critics hopelessly backward, etc. But all these fail to take into account a few basic facts:

  1. the song is not even close to being the worst exemplar of the charges leveled against it (take a close listen to Katy Perry and Kanye West’s “E.T.” if you’re in doubt),
  2. the director of the extremely controversial music video is a woman, is responsible for some of the “worst” ideas, and insists it was done in jest,
  3. Robin Thicke himself insists it was done as a joke, using the degradation of women to critique the degradation of women.

We’re going to address these in reverse order. Robin Thicke has been criticized for promoting rape culture and objectification of women, among other things. But none of the fierce critics I read even bothered to mention his GQ interview about his controversial song, perhaps beyond an out-of-context soundbyte. He makes some challenging statements. He describes sitting in the studio with Pharrell Williams (composer of the delightful soundtracks for the Despicable Me movies), brainstorming about the song:

“We started acting like we were two old men on a porch hollering at girls like, ‘Hey, where you going, girl? Come over here!’ That’s why, in the video, we’re doing all these old men dances.”

According to them, the song was a joke, a satire, lambasting the very thing they were doing, as they were doing it (if you object to this, that issue will be addressed later). And they were deliberate with the extremes to which they took it all.

“The whole point was to go over the top, knock down the ceiling, jump over the wall and say, we’re gonna do things everyone is afraid to do, as brash and fearless as possible. Diane [Martel] did the whole video. All I told her was that I wanted it to be funny and for it to have some Benny Hill type stuff. We just wanted it to be as silly as possible. That way, the nudity isn’t taken seriously.”

The outraged have accepted the song and video as self-evident proofs of the misogyny of Robin Thicke and Co. They were unwilling to consider that the artists have spoken out about the song and video. In a media market saturated with ambiguity and irony, the layered texts of song and video and persona all interacting, one cannot assume that the surface meaning of a statement is the intended one, as difficult as that can be to keep in mind.

The issues with the ubiquitous “Blurred Lines” critique are just beginning. Diane Martel, a veteran music video director who is responsible for the controversial video with the song, has also spoken out. Critics of the video, at least those I’ve encountered, all conveniently fail to address the fact that its creator is a woman and is responsible for much of content, down to the “Robin Thicke has a big d***” balloon arrangement. Not just that, she’s already addressed feminist concerns regarding the video:

“I wanted to deal with the misogynist, funny lyrics in a way where the girls were going to overpower the men.”

Let me repeat that:

the girls were going to overpower the men.”

That was the female director’s intent for the females in the video, which is the opposite of how it’s largely been received. Somehow, her voice has been ignored by the critics of the video. This is perversely ironic: the people claiming they are speaking for degraded women everywhere have failed to note the words of the woman behind the film. Interestingly enough, she was also attempting to speak to the empowerment of women.

“I directed the girls to look into the camera, this is very intentional and they do it most of the time; they are in the power position.”

Not unlike Goya’s “Naked Maya”, these nude women, though typically reduced to object status, are bold returning the gaze of their objectifiers, questioning and upsetting the conventional dichotomy.  We can be as upset as we please about the means she uses, but we have to realize that degradation of other women was not her intent. She’s even answered those who are upset, though few listened:

“That said, I respect women who are watching out for negative images in pop culture and who find the nudity offensive, but I find [the video] meta and playful.”

Unfortunately, those same women either do not respect her in return or are unwilling to consider that her art might be “meta” in some way. Again, a bleak irony: the critics assume the objectionable creators are incapable of deeper thought; one of the most objectionable is a woman; the critics are reducing the very sort of person they’re claiming to defend.

But is this as simple as that scenario, dear to neo-conservatives, where the feminist wolves turn to devour the alpha among them, when she diverges in the slightest from the mantra of the pack? I think, despite the heavy irony, the issue is not that simple. Though the unwillingness to listen Thicke’s and, especially, Martel’s statements about “Blurred Lines” is lamentable, it is understandable. The piece is extremely over-the-top, in-your-face, and offensive, which blurs the fairly nuanced cultural critique that was apparently the original intent. Or was it? Let’s look at one last quote from Thicke’s interview, which contains statements you’ve probably heard very out-of-context:

“We tried to do everything that was taboo. Bestiality, drug injections, and everything that is completely derogatory towards women. Because all three of us are happily married with children, we were like, ‘We’re the perfect guys to make fun of this.’ People say, ‘Hey, do you think this is degrading to women?’ I’m like, ‘Of course it is. What a pleasure it is to degrade a woman. I’ve never gotten to do that before. I’ve always respected women.’ So we just wanted to turn it over on its head and make people go, ‘Women and their bodies are beautiful. Men are always gonna want to follow them around.’ After the video got banned on YouTube, my wife tweeted, ‘Violence is ugly. Nudity is beautiful. And the ‘Blurred Lines’ video makes me wanna…’ You know. And that’s the truth.”

So it seems that Thicke is really just a good ol’ boy, primed for some misogynistic roleplay, but keeping his hands “clean” so he can still play the “it was all a joke” card. Like Prince Harry dressing up as a Nazi, Thicke seems to have started off on the wrong foot by thinking it is fun for men play pretend at degrading women. Whatever else may be said of Martel’s contribution, it seems quite likely she misunderstood Thicke’s intent or herself was unaware of the insensitivity of the intended mockery. Or perhaps she is the hero, believing in Thicke’s version of things (we really have no clue how he presented himself to her, except via her stated intent for the video), trying to make a bold statement against the objectification of women with a complicated text.

This will make everyone happy: the paternalistic, dominating male is the villain, living his fantasy while convincing a bold female professional heroine, who made her name in a man’s world, to convey his bile did so only with the best intentions. Intentions, my friend are the issue. No one wants their intentions to be clear, so that they can hide behind their obscurity of intent when they are called to account. If you’re going to critique something boldly, you use the very thing you’re critiquing, but do so as ironically as possible. This tactic is a ubiquitous one in the art world. To enter into any art-world conversation about a serious issue without the fail-safe of irony or complicity can be the intellectual equivalent of unprotected sex.

This is “One Ton II” by Simon Starling, from 2005.  It features a picture of a South African platinum mine from which was extracted the ton of platinum required to make the five platinotypes in Starling’s series of portraits.  The viewer has to wonder, “Is the artist critical of the thing he participated in to make this piece?”  Other questions may of course arise, but this one seems foremost when the backstory of the piece is revealed.  It’s a beautiful, highly valuable depiction of something rather sordid, the way the West exploits foreign manual labor to enrich herself.  Yet the artist had to participate in this ugly truth to comment more directly on it.  Is he guilty or is he pointing out our guilt?  For we, too, so often must stand on other’s backs, even to reach down to help them.  Starling could’ve used any material to make his piece, but chose the very one that would make his audience most uncomfortable and his message most complicated.  So that we would not be able to stop thinking about it.

Even if Thicke and Co. had only the purest of motives (which is dubious, judging from Thicke’s confusing statements), the manner in which they were attempting to offer their alleged critique was probably still wildly inappropriate.  But Diane Martel did not enter the project with the baggage of being a straight male and is much more unambiguous about the whole thing.  What she created forces us to confront our collective guilt as a culture by attempting to shock us out of our desensitization to the objectification of women.  And this is the mark of an intelligent, incisive, postmodern artist.

When the time comes, the issues inhering in the efforts of postmodern artists to offer up cultural critique will go under the microscope, but until then, let us be content with praising this unfairly derided and brilliantly creative woman for getting us all talking and seeking to deal with a great cultural ill… which was the very thing she intended to make us all do.

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The Underdogs

And, in the pebbled depths of the stream, she appeared in her yellow blouse with the green ribbons, her white skirt; her carefully combed hair, her wide eyebrows and broad forehead; exactly as she had dressed to please Luis.
She burst into tears.
Among the reeds, the frogs chanted the implacable melancholy of the hour.
Swaying on a dry tree limb, a dove wept also.

The technique of Mariano Azuela for keeping a reader engaged in his storytelling is rather immaculate.  He never gives too much detail and rarely pauses for much description.  When he does, it rather takes your breath away.

The vision he crafts of the Mexican Revolution is a timely one for our time and for many times, when ideals find uncertain outlets in the vagaries of political sea-change.  His characters are real people, but unsentimentally handled, leaving the reader to deal with attachments much as a soldier must.

His smile wandered, following the spirals of smoke from the rifles and the dust of every demolished house and caved-in roof.  He believed he discerned a symbol of the revolution in those clouds of smoke and dust that climbed upward together, embraced, became one, and disappeared into nothingness.
“Now I see what it all means!”
And his outstretched hand pointed to the train station.  Locomotives belched thick columns of smoke; the trains were overloaded with fugitives who had barely managed to escape.
He felt a little blow in the stomach, and, as if his legs had turned to putty, he slid off the rock.  His ears buzzed…. Then, eternal darkness and silence.

Allowing the reader to draw conclusions which may or may not ever be verified or discounted, this is Azuela’s marvelous accomplishment.  We are dropped into the brine of subjectivity and judgment calls within what is so often presented as objective: the fight for a cause.

The pace he chooses is rather break-neck for all the meditation that goes on, but it is judiciously chosen, for the moments of actual consideration can either be noticed by the reader for their timeless, diaphonous quality, or they can be rushed over in the fury of the inevitable.

 “Are you tired of the revolution then?” asked Cervantes evasively.
“Tired? . . . I’m twenty-five years old and I’m fit as a fiddle! . . . But am I disappointed?  Perhaps?”
“You must have your reasons. . . .”

“I’d hoped to find a meadow at the end of the road . . . and I found a swamp.  My friend, there are facts and there are men that are pure poison. . . . And that poison drips into your soul and turns everything bitter.  Enthusiams, hopes, ideals, joys . . . all come to naught. . . . Then you have no other choice: either you turn into a bandit just like them; or you disappear, hiding behind a mask of the most ferocious and impenetrable egotism.”

The whole work speaks to not only our situation, where so much that ought to be carefully considered is briskly dismissed, but also the shaking world we inhabit.  The Arab Spring and all the aquifers that feed it, we have such a paternalistic regard for these, but it is ultimately naïveté.  Things must get much uglier and more confused than we could ever root for, before the winner is announced.

“Why do you keep on fighting, Demetrio?”
Demetrio, frowning deeply, absentmindedly picks up a small stone and throws it to the bottom of the canyon.  He stares pensively over the precipice and says:
“Look at that stone; how it keeps going. . . .”

What this novel ultimately exposes is how we don’t want to deal with the realities of humanity, but only humanity’s ideals.  We look angrily for evidence of the assured victory of our cause, and we talk about the hypothetical grim realities inherent in our defeat rather than the possibilities for healing the visible pain of we are too aware to speak.  This is the real tragedy.

Do You Mean It Like That? (Pt. 1: Bonnie and Kelly)

One of the discoveries I made only in the last five years is 80s pop music, specifically the darker stuff (think, The Cure or Depeche Mode).  Not that it always sounds darker or its lyrics are always obviously negative–indeed, one of its strongest features is its ability to sugarcoat some very bitter pills.  Why is that a good thing?  Putting social critique in an accessible format can enable more people to think critically about their lives and choices.  Pop music can be a powerful venue for using irony to subvert cultural tropes and cause us to reconsider them.  When it fails miserably at this, mindlessly celebrating things that should be questioned, it is kind of spectacular to behold.

I recently encountered two songs on the radio, both released as summer hit singles, that probably fall into this category of spectacular failure.  Kelly Clarkson’s “Tie It Up” made me think, “Huh, this really sounds like satire.”  After watching the video, though, I realized it couldn’t be.  As I listened to Bonnie McKee’s “American Girl”, all I could pray was, “Oh, I just wish this wasn’t serious.”  After watching that video, I wasn’t too sure.  I’m not going to get into the issues of reading songs intertextually with their respective music videos, but that probably will be the subject of a later post.  No, the pressing issue is, what are these two pop stars actually saying in their summer singles this year?  On the surface it, the comparison of Bonnie and Kelly looks like this: two divas around 30 years old are coming to grips with their careers to date, one is jaded and sarcastic, the other is naive and optimistic.  Which is which?

McKee’s song sounded to me like your typical celebration of… trashy clichés?  Stuff we probably should’ve grown out of, like in high school.  If you’re 29 and stilling telling the world “I don’t listen to mommy”, what you actually mean is, “I always hear my mom’s voice telling me how bad I’m being and I have to prove to her and to everyone else that I’m not listening to her because I’m my own woman.”  Combine that with the pounding naïveté of “show ’em all”, “gonna dominate”, “never say that I’m sorry”, “I’m loving taking over the world”, and, my personal favorite, “I wanna buy a new heart out of a vending machine” and you have a song that leaves you seriously worried about this woman’s ability to cope with becoming an adult.  And you worry about her intelligence… someone has actually written something stupider than “Call Me, Maybe”?  Here are the lyrics:

“American Girl”
Bonnie McKee

I fell in love in a 7/11 parking lot
Sat on the curb drinking slurpees we mixed with alcohol
We talked about all our dreams and how we would show ’em all (whoa oh oh oh)
I told him I got a plan and I’m gonna dominate
And I don’t need any man to be getting in my way
But if you talk with your hands then we can negotiate (whoa oh oh oh)

I just keep moving my body (yeah)
I’m always ready to party (yeah)
No I don’t listen to mommy (yeah)
And I’ll never say that I’m sorry

Oh I’m an American girl
Hot blooded and I’m ready to go
I’m loving taking over the world
Hot blooded, all american girl (Whoa)

I was raised by a television
Every day is a competition
Put the key in my ignition (Oh-way-oh)
I wanna see all the stars and everything in between
I wanna buy a new heart out of a vending machine
Cause It’s a free country so baby we can do anything (Whoa)

Pre-Chorus & Chorus

You know we’re gonna shine so bright
Oh baby gonna go all night

I was raised by a television
Every day is a competition
Put the key in my ignition

I heard Clarkson’s song almost immediately after, and perhaps because I had been hoping throughout “American Girl” I’d find a hint of irony to let me, I heard “Tie It Up” as a very satirical, jaded, even angry take on marriage.  She refers to the process of deciding to spend your life with someone else as “checkin’ off the list”, which I suppose is tongue-in-cheek, but sounds rather derogatory, as does the “two less fish in the sea” bit.  Combine that with the wedding-preparation-themed pre-chorus and calling the groom and bride a ball and chain, respectively, you begin to think that Kelly’s idea of “giving it a shot” has a foregone conclusion: you’ll probably miss the target.  Here are the lyrics:

“Tie It Up”
Kelly Clarkson

I was standin’ with my friend when I saw you walkin’ in
And my heart started skippin’ a beat
I was tryin’ to play it cool but I knew it was true
That nobody would ever compete

Well first comes love and then comes
First date, first kiss, we were checkin’ off the list
Then you were gettin’ down on your knee
And you didn’t have to guess, it was always a yes
Now there’s two less fish in the sea

Let’s set the date
Let’s hire the band
Let’s cut the cake
Tie up the cans

I love the ring of your name
You’re the ying to my yang
Oh baby let’s give it a shot
Every wall needs a frame
Every ball needs a chain
I’m talkin’ about tying the knot
Tie it up

Something old, something new
Something borrowed, something blue
And the chairs lined up in the yard
The I do’s and the kisses
From a miss to a misses
Can’t wait for forever to start

Pre-Chorus & Chorus

Tie it up
Invite the town
Let’s raise a glass and lock it down
Tie it up
Forever bound
Cause I’m fit to be tied down

When mama’s kickin’ off her shoes
And daddy’s spinnin’ from the booze
And the last song is finally sung
We can run to the room
Kickstart the honeymoon
Don’t it sound like a whole lotta fun?

Pre-Chorus & Chorus

Tie it up
Tie it up

The pictures you have in your head may or may not correlate to those these singers seek to conjure in their music videos.  Kelly Clarkson’s video is largely fan-made, images of her fans’ weddings interwoven with Kelly performing at a wedding and then, at the end, catching the bouquet and winking at the camera.  If it were just the song and the video of her performing, you could easily interpret that wink as, “Yeah, who cares, so what if I get married?”  But in the context of the fan-submitted footage, the wink seems awfully cutesy and the song suddenly becomes a very straightforward celebration of getting married.  Not without a few nods toward the prevailing cultural jadedness toward marriage (hence the ball-and-chain, fish being hooked, checkin’ off the list metaphors), which just seem to acknowledge the inevitability of this life event for most people.  So it appears not to be the clever critique of a cultural obsession that I thought it was, at first.

But surely “American Girl” can’t be such a critique, right?  Well… the video starts where the song starts, but rather than a girl and a guy sitting in the “7/11 parking lot”, it’s three girls.  They are drinking Slurpees and they do eye some guys.  But nothing happens.  The guys are intrigued by the Slurpee-drinkers, yet don’t get to make the slightest connection with them.  In the 7/11, the next scene, the girls are buying all manner of junk food, provocatively licking their Slurpees, so much to the delight of the hopelessly dorky male cashier, that he overlooks their shoplifting.  The orgy of color that is the clothing being worn by the girls is augmented by the ridiculous, but real-world, colors of the junk food packaging, which they proceed to carry with them down a suburban street.  They pass a guy working on his car who conveniently removes his shirt, yet even though he is beckoned, “put the key into my ignition”, no sparks ever fly.  Girls grinding junkfood shelves and vending machines are intercut.  These things make you what the subtext of this whole thing really is, because there is more than meets the eye.

Next, the California gurls dance in big shirts and bikini bottoms, filming themselves and apparently watching monster trucks on the TV they were raised by, which segues into them at the pool, still getting intercut by monster trucks.  There is no male eye candy at this pool, but in lieu of this, for the first time, we see characters actually touching each, some all-female sensuality, apparently with “putting on sunscreen” being the justification.  Oh, and then they steal Mr. Hot Shirtless Mechanic’s ride and proceed to be sensual all over it, drive around LA, get fast food, play with candy dispensers and go to an arcade.  Then, they take off their clothes while in a carwash.  The rest of the video is various things we’ve already seen, in no particular order.  Remains of the day.  And then they set fire to the engine of Mr. HSM’s car roasting marshmallows and having a US-themed orgy around it.  Conveniently, this video also ends in a wink.

Suffice it to say, there is actually a lot going on in McKee’s video and it decisively contrasts and expounds upon the meaning of the song.

  1. First, significant lesbian allusions: the subject of the song says, “I don’t need any man to be getting in my way” yet never in the video gives him a chance to “talk with his hands [so] we can negotiate.”  Combine that with the very sensualized physical contact of the girls in the video and the meaning of all the sexual overtones in the song becomes quite clear.  American girls don’t need guys, but they don’t mind being their unattainable sex objects.
  2. Second, the proliferation of junk food and trash culture suggests the embrace-critique of which our postmodernism is fond.  It seems like a the viewer is supposed to be disgusted at first, but then it all looks so fun and titillating, it leaves one concluding that the intent was to merely raise the viewer’s awareness of his/her own internal conflict.  Maybe that’s a bit overreaching, but the defined dissonance is well within this video’s grasp.
  3. Finally, the in-your-face Americanness of the video, while not exactly plastering the screen, definitely brings into focus the “deal with it” attitude of the song.  It ties all the elements together and forces you to confront them, saying, “This is who we are as American girls.”  Is it doing so with any purpose in mind?  That part is a little unclear.  Is speaking to how sad it is that a guy might let you steal from his store if you let him fantasize about you?  Is it saying that this raised-by-TV crowd is doomed to a life of nihilistic partying?  Is it drawing our attention to our inability to condemn destructive behaviors chosen because they are fun?  Hard to say.

Taken together, we get a much more complicated picture than your average summer pop hit.  It’s one that is savvy and keenly aware of all the tropes and demands on female pop singers and attempts to subvert them, but without a goal in mind.  By contrast, Kelly Clarkson apparently wants us to take her song and video at face value.  “Tie It Up” is not intended as cultural commentary, but accidentally slips some deft critique in.  “American Girl” seems to be intended as satire, but is so embedded in postmodern pop culture that any direction to its various meanings is utterly lost.  What is more, both women are very intelligent, talented songwriters, with strings of hits to their names.  Actually, in McKee’s case, other people have gotten the fame because she didn’t perform the songs (like “Dynamite”, “Teenage Dream” and “California Gurls”).  But both songwriters were more than capable of “going all the way” and cornering some needful critiques of our culture.  Very likely, both felt cornered themselves, by the demands of their respective genres: Clarkson by the overwhelming straightforwardness of pop country, McKee by the overwhelming ambivalence of current EDM pop.

While the heavy 80s influence in current pop music (as well as in the “American Girl” music, notably) could be used to argue that an ironic interpretation of that song, such as those necessarily applied to many songs by The Cure and Depeche Mode, it is still very difficult to determine what kind of statement Bonnie McKee is really making.  The irony of this is that Kelly Clarkson did actually make a very culturally significant statement with her music video, though this was not likely within her original intentions, while for McKee things fell out quite differently.  You see, Clarkson had fan videos of weddings compiled into her “Tie It Up” music video, including weddings of gay people.  This is believed to be the first time mainstream country has acknowledged the existence of people who are not straight.

The Man in the High Castle

Well, the Philip K. Dick story everyone rushed out and read last year was “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (the basis for Total Recall), because that is what the discerning patrons of the cinema do when a Schwarzenegger flick is remade.  However, I chose to read this book instead, Dick’s first award-winning novel, one that is being adapted into a four-part miniseries by BBC.  While I am excited to see that, I must confess I found this novel rather frustrating.

The action shifts between tension and action in a way I found very attractive.  The scene in which Juliana contemplates using her judo skills on the truckers in the bar sets up the electric potential she has and the brilliant moment when she finally snaps.  Unfortunately, the way her power evaporates at the end is devastatingly effective and, to me, disappointing.

But the ride Dick takes you on up to that point is worth your time if you do not get hung up on philosophical subtext.  Alternate history is deftly interwoven with conspiracy theory, human passions, political intrigue, cultural critique and East-West conflicts.  The world created has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it similarity to our own that never fails to fascinate and Dick’s imaginative realism is really remarkable.

Particularly effective is the influence the Tao Te Ching exerts upon the Pacific States of America (basically the Pacific Standard Time Zone), which Japan now controls.  Japan’s conquering of the entire Pacific Rim has been like that Rome over Greece, exhibiting what amounts to Lima Syndrome for the cultures it has subjugated.  Thus, the Tao Te Ching is now a guidebook for discerning the wisest path in everyday life and Dick’s subtle portrayal of its pervasiveness is quite masterful.

The difficult question all of this book raises, however, is the following: even if we did the right thing, would it actually matter?  Could the universe exhibit something worse than undying apathy toward us?  For Dick, the answer is Yes, but if you wonder what that means, you’ll have to let him take you on the haunted house ride that this book is.