Archive for November, 2008

Review: Quantum of Solace

Posted: November 30, 2008 in Idle Nonsense, Narrative, Taste

Fans of James Bond films are constantly chattering about which Bond, and with each new actor, how to recreate Bond or update him for the new millennium or make him more relevant or some such nonsense. They all labor under the delusion that a Bond flick is meaningful cinema rather than noisy, escapist fun. Probably no other film franchise has a bigger built-in box office, so the danger of a bad Bond film losing money or sending fans fleeing into the waiting arms of Batman, Spiderman, Jason Bourne, the Transporter, or some other is pretty limited. Bond has carved out its own niche very effectively and only a series of really bad misfires could doom the franchise at this point.

Starting from that premise, Quantum of Solace is a fairly successful Bond film. Based on reviews, I expected significant disappointment, but then, my threshold may be lower than those of most critics and cineastes. Quantum employed many of the familiar elements while dispensing with others. I rather enjoy the repeat characters even when the actors change, and fulfilled expectation of some of the formulaic bits, like the gadget scenes with Q, is pure fun.

So why, for example, does Quantum dispense with Q, Moneypenny, the gadget scene, punning character names, and most of Bond’s dialogue while retaining the stylized title sequence, M, a Bond girl or two (neither a love interest nor sheer lust object in Quantum), the tuxedo, scenery-chewing villains, and outrageous architecture and set design? Hard to say. Somebody decides, seeing how such omissions can’t be mere oversights. Take the GPS-enabled cell phone. Bond uses it several times in the course of Quantum, but without the gadget scene, the phone is so … ordinary. I don’t see how depriving fans of the obvious fun to be had imagining how some clever tech device will save Bond at the propitious moment makes for a better, more enjoyable film.

Similarly, one of the strengths of the genre is the self-contained plot and set pieces that paradoxically rely on familiarity with past outings of the players. Quantum‘s plot borrows heavily from the preceding film, but gains in depth are paid for by unintelligibility, except of course in the case of repeat viewing. Yet one element happily brought back is the evil syndicate, like S.P.E.C.T.R.E. of previous films, that will likely occupy Bond for several more films. Thus far there is no Blofeld-like mustache twirler, but one might emerge.

Two further developments intruded on my enjoyment. First is the rather obvious, even labored reaction to the Jason Bourne trilogy in the way the action was filmed: all fast cutting, kinetic, and rather thuggish. M’s dialogue has by now established Bond as a blunt instrument, but there are loads of thugs in movies. The real fun is watching someone with some panache, ridiculous repartee, and a bit of suspense. Bond as rogue agent disobeying direct orders was a wasted effort this time out and added nothing to the tension. Although everyone knows the good guy in action movies always prevails, Bond no less than the rest, it’s the mechanisms of success that prove interesting. The second intrusion was the rather offhand acknowledgment of ecological problems in the real world, namely, disappearing fresh water. While that minor plot point makes the villainy slightly more relevant, nothing about the inherent escapism of a Bond film need be too concerned with real-world matters. As long as Bond isn’t too glib (Roger Moore erred that direction), the profligate waste of life and resources doesn’t reconcile too easily with dilemmas we actually face as history shuffles on.

All said and done, though, I enjoyed the film. Lots of things were expertly done, and I was propelled forward as I expect to be. Except for the title theme, the music was a return to form and Daniel Craig has established himself in the role handily despite the lack of any real acting he was asked to do. Like all the rest, including the noncanonical Never Say Never Again, I’ll buy Quantum of Solace on DVD and recover some of the dialogue and plot nuance missed in a theatrical viewing. Perhaps the bonus features and repeat viewing will enable the film to grow on me in time.

Feeding the Frenzy

Posted: November 29, 2008 in Consumerism, Culture, Media, Tacky

News reports from all over North American tell of Black Friday crowds stampeding through the doors at the start of business. Abusive behavior, crime, injuries, and even one death are the results. G’head: Google it. People who get through the throngs unscathed probably find it exhilarating and wouldn’t miss it for the world. Retailers are feeding the frenzy by encouraging shoppers to race for sale items, often located at the back of the store. This image from Target embodies the value:

What’s missing are the obstacles and other shoppers this gleeful guy bowled over to get to his purchases.

Maybe it’s a sort of chicken-and-egg question. Which came first: stores engineering predictable disasters at peak times in crowded entryways or commodity-hungry shoppers willing to risk personal injury by running the opening gate gauntlet. Another way to put the question is who’s more to blame? It’s probably a fool’s errand to answer that, but from a practical point of view, it’s a lot easier to control the sale environment than the behavior of mobs.

Videos on the web show shoppers streaming through the doors hooting and cheering and having fun. No one plans to fall or trample someone else who’s fallen, but it’s an entirely predictable result of the way doors are thrown open at 4 AM or some ungodly hour to get a head start on seasonal gift buying. Sometimes the spark that ignites the crowd is an announcement in the parking lot that only so many of item X are on hand, at which point the crowd surges. These are not desperate people trying to get fed in a bread line. Rather, they’re seeking to save something like $30 on a sale item, and for that, they’ll race, fight, and sometimes hold up fellow shoppers at gunpoint to get item X.

This problem has been building for some years. The starting time of Black Friday events has been creeping earlier and earlier, creating a false sense of lost opportunity. Similarly, the scarcity of must-have gifts, whether Tickle Me Elmo or Xbox, has caused shoppers to scramble. Retailers are also dangling carrots before the crowds and then are pretending to be inexplicably aghast at the mob savagery that results. Are store managers not paying attention? If a mob gathers for a sale event and there are no contingency plans for crowd control, a reasonable response might be to cancel the sale and send everyone home. Or maybe the sale shouldn’t be set to occur on a notoriously high-traffic shopping day where a maximum of 35 units are guaranteed to disappoint 300 shoppers, who then proceed to struggle with each other for access to booty. Or maybe the media (including retailers with their advertisements) shouldn’t whip people into a frenzy with promises of ecstatic fulfillment at obtaining their heart’s desire but with the foreknowledge that they’ll have to contend with the crowds to do so.

The whole business is obscene. Crowds behave like piranha gutting their prey, and retailers are basically throwing chum into the water. I didn’t venture out on Black Friday at all. Is any consumer item so important that it can’t wait a few days until the crowds disperse a bit?

Doing the Twist

Posted: November 23, 2008 in Blogosphere, Culture, Debate, Education

Of all my as-yet unwritten blogs posts, the two related ones about the Wiki Phenomenon and the so-called Wisdom of Crowds are probably the oldest. I’m no closer to giving either subject the full disapproval treatment they deserve. Sorry. However, I’d at least like to illustrate by example just how weak both can be if you consider authority and truth important. Websites that specialize in user-created content are examples of the merger of the two concepts cited above, from Wikipedia to YouTube to eBay to Flicker. You get the idea: user-introduced distortions get worked out over time, resulting in a balanced information environment. It’s not true, of course, but it’s an attractive idea.

So what happens when Wiki tech is used without even the pretense that information contained therein is objective (truth claims notwithstanding)? You get the Conservapedia, an online encyclopedia with content filtered through a conservative perspective, which may often as not be a Christian fundamentalist perspective. The blurb under the title and the About Conservapedia page both say it’s being trustworthy, but don’t believe it for a second.

The most popular and contentious entries are the stuff of old-timey religion, notably creationism and young Earth theory (the notion that Earth was created roughly 6,000 years ago). From a scientific perspective, which makes its own more authoritative claims to truth, there is no absolutely no doubt about Darwinian evolution or the age of the Earth being around 4.5 billion years. Observing the twisting performed by conservatives to reinterpret might be mildly entertaining if it weren’t so tragic. Consider the twisting to explain the starlight problem, which is that if the universe is only 6,000 years old, how does light from stars more than 6,000 light years from Earth reach us in the time available? I especially liked the twisty solution that the light was created (by god) in transit, which makes the deity a deceiver (just like with the problematic dinosaur bones). It’s all utter nonsense and frankly boggles the mind.

A similar distortion is happening with home schooling. This movement originated with the 1960s counterculture but really took off in the 1990s when fundamentalists decided they wanted the flexibility to instruct their children in religious and moral lessons, which the public schools obviously can’t. Resource sharing is especially important, and networks and cottage industries have sprung up to provide parents, who may not be well suited to teaching academic subjects, with materials that embed religious messages. So, for example, one can now get history books with a Christian point of view, such as Christ the King — Lord of History: A Catholic World History from Ancient to Modern Times. Of course, any perspective on history embeds its own propaganda, either subtly or overtly, but again, this just boggles the mind.

Promises to Pay

Posted: November 9, 2008 in Consumerism, Economics

I read Anna Karenina a few years ago, slightly before Oprah added Tolstoy’s novel to her book club reading list and sent every scrambling. I remember a bit early in the book when Konstantin Levin (usually regarded as Tolstoy’s alter ego) asks Count Vronsky how he manages to live so well and keep his bills current. Vronsky rather sneeringly responds that he’s in debt up to his eyeballs and that everyone (meaning everyone in his rarefied strata of society) lives that way. By managing once in a while to actually pay some debts, this group of socialites are able to hoodwink merchants into extending lines of credit, which are typically covered somewhat later when the scandalous debt becomes too unbearable to some aunt or in-law of actual means.

The promise to pay, or living on credit, was fairly normal in the 20th century when it came to big ticket items such as cars and homes, but it caught on big time among the general population in America as a way to support excessive lifestyle in the early to mid-90s, and then it ballooned, as the graph below shows. Like the federal government and every state, county, and city government below, we’re severely overextended.

In financial markets, the practice of trading on margin, or using funds one doesn’t actually deposit into an investment account, often results in a margin call, requiring investors to make good on losses by injecting cash. It’s debatable whether governments and households are living on margin like investors, but there is clearly a problem. The idea that one might wait to purchase something until having earned the money to pay for it (or forgo a purchase entirely) has become a chump’s value. The biggest winners in the Ponzi scheme are presumably those who end up with the greatest debt liabilities, meaning that they duped others into issuing credit enough to live well and fobbed responsibility for payment onto someone else. It’s fraud, pure and simple.

The promise to pay has become fundamentally invalid and untenable. And yet, if one believes news reports, our crisis of liquidity can only be solved by freeing up frozen credit markets and issuing yet more credit. The hair of the dog, so to speak. That’s what the $700 billion bailout is all about. To continue living in the fashion to which many of us have become accustomed, rather than admit we’re suddenly a lot poorer than previously thought, we’re effectively burdening future generations with crushing debt loads before gasping our last breaths.

My hope has been that we will soon recognize that our most pressing need — in organizational units from households to countries — is to accept a smaller existence and to live within our means, at least for a while. That means relinquishing quite a lot of our hearts’ desires, so I have little expectation that such a reorientation will ever occur voluntarily. All indicators are that we will continue to project illusory power and wealth across the world, running full steam into the wall in front of us, as which point those who remain will have no choice but to accept the severe limitations we’ve imposed.