Archive for the ‘Narrative’ Category

I pause periodically to contemplate deep time, ancient history, and other subjects that lie beyond most human conceptual abilities. Sure, we sorta get the idea of a very long ago past out there in the recesses or on the margins, just like we get the idea of U.S. sovereign debt now approaching $20 trillion. Problem is, numbers lose coherence when they mount up too high. Scales differ widely with respect to time and currency. Thus, we can still think reasonably about human history back to roughly 6,000 years ago, but 20,000 years ago or more draws a blank. We can also think about how $1 million might have utility, but $1 billion and $1 trillion are phantoms that appear only on ledgers and contracts and in the news (typically mergers and acquisitions). If deep time or deep debt feel like they don’t exist except as conceptual categories, try wrapping your head around the deep state , which in the U.S. is understood to be a surprisingly large rogue’s gallery of plutocrats, kleptocrats, and oligarchs drawn from the military-industrial-corporate complex, the intelligence community, and Wall Street. It exists but does so far enough outside the frame of reference most of us share that it effectively functions in the shadow of daylight where it can’t be seen for all the glare. Players are plain enough to the eye as they board their private jets to attend annual meetings of the World Economic Forum in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, or two years ago the Jackson Hole [Economic] Summit in Jackson Hole, WY, in connection with the American Principles Project, whatever that is. They also enjoy plausible deniability precisely because most of us don’t really believe self-appointed masters of the universe can or should exist.

Another example of a really bad trip down the rabbit hole, what I might call deep cynicism (and a place I rarely allow myself to go), appeared earlier this month at Gin and Tacos (on my blogroll):

The way they [conservatives] see it, half the kids coming out of public schools today are basically illiterate. To them, this is fine. We have enough competition for the kinds of jobs a college degree is supposed to qualify one for as it is. Our options are to pump a ton of money into public schools and maybe see some incremental improvement in outcomes, or we can just create a system that selects out the half-decent students for a real education and future and then warehouse the rest until they’re no longer minors and they’re ready for the prison-poverty-violence cycle [add military] to Hoover them up. Vouchers and Charter Schools are not, to the conservative mind, a better way to educate kids well. They are a cheaper way to educate them poorly. What matters is that it costs less to people like six-figure income earners and home owners. Those people can afford to send their kids to a decent school anyway. Public education, to their way of thinking, used to be about educating people just enough that they could provide blue collar or service industry labor. Now that we have too much of that, a public high school is just a waiting room for prison. So why throw money into it? They don’t think education “works” anyway; people are born Good or Bad, Talented or Useless. So it only makes sense to find the cheapest possible way to process the students who were written off before they reached middle school. If charter schools manage to save 1% of them, great. If not, well, then they’re no worse than public schools. And they’re cheaper! Did I mention that they’re cheaper?

There’s more. I provided only the main paragraph. I wish I could reveal that the author is being arch or ironic, but there is no evidence of that. I also wish I could refute him, but there is similarly no useful evidence for that. Rather, the explanation he provides is a reality check that fits the experience of wide swaths of the American public, namely, that “public high school is just a waiting room for prison” (soon and again, debtor’s prison) and that it’s designed to be just that because it’s cheaper than actually educating people. Those truly interesting in being educated will take care of it themselves. Plus, there’s additional money to be made operating prisons.

Deep cynicism is a sort of radical awareness that stares balefully at the truth and refuses to blink or pretend. A psychologist might call it the reality principle; a scientist might aver that it relies unflinchingly on objective evidence; a philosopher might call it strict epistemology. To get through life, however, most of us deny abundant evidence presented to us daily in favor of dreams and fantasies that assemble into the dominant paradigm. That paradigm includes the notions that evil doesn’t really exist, that we’re basically good people who care about each other, and that our opportunities and fates are not, on the whole, established long before we begin the journey.

I see plenty of movies over the course of a year but had not been to a theater since The Force Awakens came out slightly over a year ago. The reason is simple: it costs too much. With ticket prices nearing $15 and what for me had been obligatory popcorn and soda (too much of both the way they’re bundled and sold — ask anyone desperately holding back their pee until the credits roll!), the endeavor climbed to nearly $30 just for one person. Never mind that movie budgets now top $100 million routinely; the movie-going experience simply isn’t worth $30 a pop. Opening weekend crowds (and costumes)? Fuggedaboudit! Instead, I view films at home on DVD (phooey on Blueray) or via a streaming service. Although I admit I’m missing out on being part of an audience, which offers the possibility of being carried away on a wave of crowd emotion, I’m perfectly happy watching at home, especially considering most films are forgettable fluff (or worse) and filmmakers seem to have forgotten how to shape and tell good stories. So a friend dragged me out to see Rogue One, somewhat late after its opening by most standards. Seeing Star Wars and other franchise installments now feels like an obligation just to stay culturally relevant. Seriously, soon enough it will be Fast & Furious Infinitum. We went to a newly built theater with individual recliners and waiters (no concession stands). Are film-goers no longer satisfied by popcorn and Milk Duds? No way would I order an $80 bottle of wine to go with Rogue One. It’s meant to be a premium experience, with everything served to you in the recliner, and accordingly, charges premium prices. Too bad most films don’t warrant such treatment. All this is preliminary to the actual review, of course.

I had learned quite a bit about Rogue One prior to seeing it, not really caring about spoilers, and was pleasantly surprised it wasn’t as bad as some complain. Rogue One brings in all the usual Star Wars hallmarks: storm troopers, the Force, X-Wings and TIE Fighters, ray guns and light sabers, the Death Star, and familiar characters such as Grand Moff Tarkin, Darth Vader, Princess Leia, etc. Setting a story within the Star Wars universe makes most of that unavoidable, though some specific instances did feel like gratuitous fan service, such as the 3-second (if that) appearance of C3PO and R2D2. The appearance of things and characters I already knew about didn’t feel to me like an extra thrill, but how much I needed to already know about Star Wars just to make sense of Rogue One was a notable weakness. Thus, one could call Rogue One a side story, but it was by no means a stand-alone story. Indeed, characters old and new were given such slipshod introductions (or none at all!) that they functioned basically as chess pieces moved around to drive the game forward. Good luck divining their characteristic movements and motivations. Was there another unseen character manipulating everyone? The Emperor? Who knows? Who cares! It was all a gigantic, faceless, pawn sacrifice. When at last the main rebels died, there was no grief or righteousness over having at least accomplished their putative mission. Turns out the story was all about effects, not emotional involvement. And that’s how I felt: uninvolved. It was a fireworks display ending with a pointless though clichéd grand finale. Except I guess that watching a bunch of fake stuff fake blow up was the fake point.

About what passed for a story: the Rebellion learns (somehow?!) that they face total annihilation from a new superweapon called the Death Star. (Can’t remember whether that term was actually used in the film.) While the decision of leadership is to scatter and flee, a plucky band of rebels within the rebellion insist on flinging themselves against the enemy without a plan except to improvise once on site, whereupon leadership decides irrationally to do the same. The lack of strategy is straight out of The Return of the King, distracting the enemy from the true mission objective, but the visual style is more like the opening of Saving Private Ryan, which is to say, full, straight-on bombardment and invasion. Visual callbacks to WWII infantry uniforms and formations couldn’t be more out of place. To call these elements charmless is to give them too much credit. Rather, they’re hackneyed. However, they probably fit well enough within the Saturday-morning cartoon, newsreel, swashbuckler sensibility that informed the original Star Wars films from the 1970s. Problem is, those 1970s kids are grown and want something with greater gravitas than live-action space opera. Newer Star Wars audiences are stuck in permanent adolescence because of what cinema has become, with its superhero franchises and cynical money grabs.

As a teenager when the first trilogy came out, I wanted more of the mystical element — the Force — than I wanted aerial battles, sword fights, or chase scenes. The goofy robots, reluctant heroes, and bizarre aliens were fun, but they were balanced by serious, steady leadership (the Jedi) and a couple really bad-ass villains. While it’s known George Lucas had the entire character arc of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader in mind from the start, it’s also fair to say that no one quite knew in Episode 4 just how iconic Vader the villain would become, which is why his story became the centerpiece of the first two trilogies (how many more to come?). However, Anakin/Vader struggled with the light/dark sides of the Force, which resonated with anyone familiar with the angel/demon nomenclature of Christianity. When the Force was misguidedly explained away as Midi-clorians (science, not mysticism), well, the bottom dropped out of the Star Wars universe. At that point, it became a grand WWII analogue populated by American GIs and Nazis — with some weird Medievalism and sci-fi elements thrown in — except that the wrong side develops the superweapon. Rogue One makes that criticism even more manifest, though it’s fairly plain to see throughout the Star Wars films.

Let me single out one actor for praise: Ben Mendelsohn as Orson Krennic. It’s hard for me to decide whether he chews the scenery, upstaging Darth Vader as a villain in the one scene they share, or he’s among a growing gallery of underactors whose flat line delivery and blandness invites viewers to project upon them characterization telegraphed through other mechanisms (costuming, music, plot). Either way, I find him oddly compelling and memorable, unlike the foolish, throwaway, sacrificial band of rebellious rebels against the rebellion and empire alike. Having seen Ben Mendelsohn in other roles, he possesses an unusual screen magnetism that reminds me of Sean Connery. He tends to play losers and villains and be a little one-note (not a bag of tricks but just one trick), but he is riveting on-screen for the right reasons compared to, say, the ookiness of the two gratuitous CGI characters in Rogue One.

So Rogue One is a modestly enjoyable and ephemeral romp through the Star Wars universe. It delivers and yet fails to deliver, which about as charitable as I can be.

Continuing from my previous post, Brian Phillips has an article, writing for MTV News, entitled “Shirtless Trump Saves Drowning Kitten: Facebook’s fake-news problem and the rise of the postmodern right.” (Funny title, that.) I navigated to the article via Alan Jacob’s post at Text Patterns (on my blogroll). Let me consider each in turn.

After chuckling that Phillips is directing his analysis to the wrong audience, an admittedly elitist response on my part, I must further admit that the article is awfully well-written and nails the blithe attitude accompanying epistemological destruction carried out, perhaps unwittingly but too well-established now to ignore, by developers of social media as distinguished from traditional news media. Which would be considered more mainstream today is up for debate. Maybe Phillips has the right audience after all. He certainly gets the importance of controlling the narrative:

Confusion is an authoritarian tool; life under a strongman means not simply being lied to but being beset by contradiction and uncertainty until the line between truth and falsehood blurs and a kind of exhaustion settles over questions of fact. Politically speaking, precision is freedom. It’s telling, in that regard, that Trump supporters, the voters most furiously suspicious of journalism, also proved to be the most receptive audience for fictions that looked journalism-like. Authoritarianism doesn’t really want to convince its supporters that their fantasies are true, because truth claims are subject to verification, and thus to the possible discrediting of authority. Authoritarianism wants to convince its supporters that nothing is true, that the whole machinery of truth is an intolerable imposition on their psyches, and thus that they might as well give free rein to their fantasies.

But Phillips is too clever by half, burying the issue in scholarly style that speaks successfully only to a narrow class of academics and intellectuals, much like the language and memes employed by the alt-right are said to be dog whistles perceptible only to rabid, mouth-breathing bigots. Both charges are probably unfair reductions, though with kernels of truth. Here’s some of Phillips overripe language:

Often the battleground for this idea [virtue and respect] was the integrity of language itself. The conservative idea, at that time [20 years ago], was that liberalism had gone insane for political correctness and continental theory, and that the way to resist the encroachment of Derrida was through fortifying summaries of Emerson … What had really happened was that the left had become sensitized to the ways in which conventional moral language tended to shore up existing privilege and power, and had embarked on a critique of this tendency that the right interpreted, with some justification, as an attack on the very concept of meaning.

More plainly, Phillips’ suggestion is that the radical right learned the lessons of Postmodernism (PoMo) even better than did the avant-garde left, the latter having outwitted themselves by giving the right subtle tools used later to outmaneuver everyone. Like other mildly irritating analyses I have read, it’s a statement of inversion: an idea bringing into existence its antithesis that unironically proves and undermines the original, though with a dose of Schadenfreude. This was (partially) the subject of a 4-part blog I wrote called “Dissolving Reality” back in Aug. and Sept. 2015. (Maybe half a dozen read the series; almost no one commented.)

So what does Alan Jacobs add to the discussion? He exhibits his own scholarly flourishes. Indeed, I admire the writing but find myself distracted by the writerly nature, which ejects readers from the flow of ideas to contemplate the writing itself. For instance, this:

It turns out that the children of the ruling classes learned their lessons well, so when they inherited positions in their fathers’ law firms they had some extra, and very useful, weapons in their rhetorical armory.

In precisely the same way, when, somewhat later, academic leftists preached that race and gender were the determinative categories of social analysis, members of the future alt-right were slouching in the back rows of their classrooms, baseball caps pulled down over their eyes, making no external motions but in their dark little hearts twitching with fervent agreement.

Terrific capture of the classroom culture in which teachers are steeped. Drawing identity politics more manifestly into the mix is a fairly obvious extrapolation over Phillips and may reflect the results of the presidential election, where pundits, wheeling around to reinterpret results that should not have so surprised them, now suggest Republican victories are a repudiation of leftist moral instruction. The depth of Phillips’ and Jacobs’ remarks is not so typical of most pundits, however, and their follow-up analysis at some point becomes just more PoMo flagellation. Here, Jacobs is even more clearly having some fun:

No longer did we have to fear being brought before the bar of Rational Evidence, that hanging judge of the Enlightenment who had sent so many believers to the gallows! You have your constructs and we have our constructs, and who’s to say which are better, right? O brave new world that hath such a sociology of knowledge in it!

This goes back to the heart of the issue, our epistemological crisis, but I dispute that race and gender are the determinative categories of social analysis, no matter how fashionable they may be in the academy. A simpler and more obvious big picture controls: it’s about life and death. My previous post was about geopolitics, where death is rained down upon foreign peoples and justifying rhetoric is spread domestically. Motivations may be complex and varied, but the destruction of people and truth affects everyone, albeit unevenly, without regard to race, gender, religion, nationality, etc. All are caught in the dragnet.

Moreover, with the advent of Western civilization, intellectuals have always been sensitive to the sociology of knowledge. It’s a foundation of philosophy. That it’s grown sclerotic long precedes PoMo theory. In fact, gradual breaking apart and dismantling of meaning is visible across all expressive genres, not just literature. In painting, it was Impressionism, Cubism, Dada and Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism. In architecture, it was Art Deco, the International Style, Modernism, Brutalism, and Deconstructivism. In music, it was the Post-Romantic, the Second Viennese School, Modernism, Serialism, and Minimalism. In scientific paradigms, it was electromagnetism, relativity, quantum mechanics, the Nuclear Era, and semiconductors. The most essential characteristics in each case are increasingly dogmatic abstraction and drilling down to minutia that betray meaningful essences. Factoring in economic and political perversions, we arrive at our current epistemological phase where truth and consequences matter little (though death and destruction still do) so long as deceits, projections, and distractions hold minds in thrall. In effect, gravity is turned off and historical narratives levitate until reality finally, inevitably comes crashing down in a monstrous Jenga pile, as it does periodically.

In the meantime, I suppose Phillips and Jacobs can issue more gaseous noise into the fog bank the information environment has become. They can’t get much traction (nor can I) considering how most of the affluent West thinks at the level of a TV sitcom. In addition, steps being considered to rein in the worst excesses of fake news would have corporations and traditional news media appointed as watchers and censors. Beyond any free speech objections, which are significant, expecting culprits to police themselves only awards them greater power to dominate, much like bailouts rewarded the banks. More fog, more lies, more levitation.

rant on/

Monastic pursuit of a singular objective, away from the maddening and distracting rush of modern life, is a character attribute that receives more than its rightful share of attention. In its salutary forms, monastic pursuit is understood as admirable, visionary, iconic (or iconoclastic), and heroic. In creative endeavors, seclusion and disengagement from feedback are preconditions for finding one’s true voice and achieving one’s vision. In sports, the image of the athlete devoted to training for the big event — race, match, tournament — to the exclusion of all else is by now a tired trope. Indeed, in this Olympics season, athlete profiles — puff pieces of extraordinary predictability — typically depict competitors in isolation, absolutely no one else at the gym, in the pool, on the track, etc., as though everyone goes it alone without the support or presence of coaches or teammates. Over-specialization and -achievement are such that spectators are conditioned to expect successful individuals, champions, to bleed (quite literally) as a mark of devotion to their respective fields.

At some point, however, monastic pursuit morphs into something more recognizably maniacal. The author retreating to his cabin in the woods to write the great American novel becomes the revolutionary hermit composing his political manifesto. Healthy competition among rivals turns into decidedly unsportsmanlike conduct. (Lance Armstrong is the poster boy not just for doping but also for the sociopathy he displayed mistreating teammates and perpetuating the lie as vehemently and as long as he did. Further examples compound quickly in sports). Business leaders, discontented with (sometime obscene) profitability, target others in their market sector with the intent of driving them out of business and establishing monopolies. (This contrasts markedly with the ideology of self-correcting markets many CEOs falsely espouse.) In politics, high-minded campaigns and elected politicians formed around sound policy and good governance lose out to such dirty tricks as character assassination, rigged and stolen elections, partisanship, and reflexive obstructionism of projects that enjoy popular support. In journalism, fair and balanced reporting inverts to constant harping on preferred talking points to control narratives through sheer force of repetition. You get the idea.

It’s difficult to say from where this intemperate impulse arises, but we’re undoubtedly in a phase of history where nearly every field of endeavor manifests its own version of the arms race. Some might argue that in a cost-benefit analysis, we’re all better off because we enjoy fruits not obtainable without (some folks at least) taking a scorched-earth approach, raising the bar, and driving everyone to greater heights. The willingness of some to distort and disgrace themselves hideously may be a high price to pay, especially when it’s for simple entertainment, but so long as we aren’t paying the price personally, we’re willing spectators to whatever glory and train wrecks occur. I would argue that, ultimately, we’re all paying the price. Routine competition and conflict resolution have grown so unhinged that, just to be in the game, competitors must be prepared to go all in (poker lingo) at even modest provocation. As a result, for just one example, the spirit of America’s erstwhile pastime (baseball) has been so corrupted that balanced players and fans (!) stay away and are replaced by goons. A true level playing field probably never existed. Now, however, whoever can muster the most force (financial, rhetorical, criminal) wins the trophy, and we’re each in turn encouraged to risk all in our own monastic pursuit.

rant off/

I already updated my original post from 2009 once based on Tom Engelhardt’s analysis, adding a few of my own thoughts. I want to revisit the original, provide an addendum to my review of Oliver Stone’s Untold History, and draw attention to Andrew Bacevich’s alternative narrative titled “American Imperium.” This is about geopolitics and military history, which fall outside my usual areas of interest and blogging focus (excepting the disgrace of torture), but they’re nonetheless pretty central to what’s going on the world.

Having now watched the remainder of Untold History, it’s clear that every administration since WWII was neck deep in military adventurism. I had thought at least one or two would be unlike the others, and maybe Gerald Ford only waded in up to his knees, but the rest deployed the U.S. military regularly and forcefully enough to beggar the imagination: what on earth were they doing? The answer is both simple and complex, no doubt. I prefer the simple one: they were pursuing global American hegemony — frequently with overweening force against essentially medieval cultures. It’s a remarkably sad history, really, often undertaken with bland justifications such as “American interests” or “national security,” neither of which rings true. I’ve likened the U.S. before to the playground bully who torments others but can never be psychologically satisfied and so suffers his own private torments on the way to becoming a sociopath. Why does every American president resemble that profile (war criminals all), so afraid to look weak that he (thus far in U.S. history, always a he) must flex those muscles at the expense of ordinary people everywhere? Women in positions of authority (e.g., Sec. of State, National Security Advisor), by the way, exhibit the same behavior: advising striking at weaklings to prove they can wear pants, too.

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Caveat: this review is based on viewing only half uhposterof the DVD version of Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States, which also exists as a book and audio book. It’s also available on the Showtime cable channel, as downloadable media, and in excerpts on YouTube (and probably elsewhere). Stone put his name above the title, but I will refer to the documentary as simply Untold History.

Disclaimer: Stone has a long personal history of retelling political history through a cinematic lens, which by necessity introduces distortions to condense and reshape events and characters for storytelling. Untold History purports to be documentary and (alert: intentional fallacy at work) shares with Howard Zinn’s somewhat earlier A People’s History of the United States an aim to correct the record from official accounts, accepted narratives, and propagandist mythologies misinterpretations. I’ve always been suspicious of Stone’s dramatic license in his movies, just as with Steven Spielberg. However, I wanted to see Untold History from first learning about it and am just now getting to it (via a borrowed library copy). Without indulging in conspiratorial fantasies about Stone’s arguments, I find myself pretty well convinced (or an easy mark).

Whereas Zinn begins People’s History with the discovery of North America in 1492, Stone commences Untold History with World War Two. Thus, there is little or no discussion of Americans’ pacifism and isolationism prior to entry into WWII. There is also little direct cultural and social history to which I typically grant the greater part of my attention. Rather, Untold History is presented from military and political perspectives. Economic history is mixed in with all these, and the recognition that a wartime economy rescued the U.S. from the grip of the Great Depression (leading to nearly permanent war) is acknowledged but not dwelt upon heavily.

Based on the first half that I have viewed (WWII through the Eisenhower administrations and the early decades of the Cold War), it was clear that the U.S. experienced rapid and thoroughgoing transformation from a lesser power and economy into the preeminent political, military, and industrial power on the globe. Thus, activities of the U.S. government from roughly 1940 forward became absorbed in geopolitics to a greater degree than ever before — just at a time when the U.S. acquired immense power of production and destruction. Untold History never quite says it, but it appears many became more than a little drunk with power and lacked the composure and long historical view of leaders whose countries had more extended experience as principal actors on the world’s stage.

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I don’t watch political debates. Being of sound mind and reason, I’m not part of the target audience. However, I do catch murmurs of the debates from time to time. Because torture is a sore subject with me, this excerpt (full transcript here) from the Feb. 6 debate moderated by World News Tonight anchor David Muir perked up my ears:

MUIR: … we’re going to stay on ISIS here and the war on terror, because as you know, there’s been a debate in this country about how to deal with the enemy and about enhanced interrogation techniques ever since 9/11.

So Senator Cruz, you have said, quote, “torture is wrong, unambiguously, period. Civilized nations do not engage in torture.” Some of the other candidates say they don’t think waterboarding is torture. Mr. Trump has said, I would bring it back. Senator Cruz, is waterboarding torture?

CRUZ: Well, under the definition of torture, no, it’s not. Under the law, torture is excruciating pain that is equivalent to losing organs and systems, so under the definition of torture, it is not. It is enhanced interrogation, it is vigorous interrogation, but it does not meet the generally recognized definition of torture.

MUIR: If elected president, would you bring it back?

CRUZ: I would not bring it back in any sort of widespread use. And indeed, I joined with Senator McCain in legislation that would prohibit line officers from employing it because I think bad things happen when enhanced interrogation is employed at lower levels.

But when it comes to keeping this country safe, the commander in chief has inherent constitutional authority to keep this country safe. And so, if it were necessary to, say, prevent a city from facing an imminent terrorist attack, you can rest assured that as commander in chief, I would use whatever enhanced interrogation methods we could to keep this country safe.

Cruz is obviously squirming to avoid answering the simple questions directly and unambiguously. Whose definition has Cruz cited? Certainly not one of these. Another page at the previous link says plainly that waterboarding is “torture plus” precisely because of its ability to inflict “unbearable suffering with minimal evidence” repeatedly. Relying on some unsubstantiated definition to keep waterboarding among available interrogation options and then invoking the ticking time bomb scenario is callous and inhumane. Cruz is unfit as a presidential candidate for lots of reasons, but his stance on torture is an automatic disqualification for me.

Muir then turns the same question(s) over to Trump:

MUIR: Senator Cruz, thank you. Mr. Trump, you said not only does it work, but that you’d bring it back.

TRUMP: Well, I’ll tell you what. In the Middle East, we have people chopping the heads off Christians, we have people chopping the heads off many other people. We have things that we have never seen before — as a group, we have never seen before, what’s happening right now.

The medieval times — I mean, we studied medieval times — not since medieval times have people seen what’s going on. I would bring back waterboarding and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.

Trump, in contrast to Cruz, doesn’t squirm at all (though he does struggle to complete a sentence, resorting instead to a stammering, repetitive word salad no one seems to mind). Instead, he goes full war criminal without hesitation (though at this point in time it’s only postulated). Trump’s polarizing, inflammatory style has earned him both severe disapprobation and earnest support. Like Cruz, Trump has a variety of automatic disqualifications as a presidential candidate. My thinking is that, even though I can’t peer into his mind and guess his true motivations (which may be as obvious as they appear) or anticipate his behavior should he attain office, his moral judgment vis-à-vis torture (and frankly, most other topics as well) is so impaired that I don’t trust him as a playground monitor.

In narrative, there are four essential types of conflict:

  1. man against man
  2. man against society
  3. man against nature
  4. man against self

One might argue that Cruz, Trump, and their supporters who applaud “get tough” rhetoric (add Hillary Clinton to this group) fall into the first category, ever battling enemies like besieged heroes. I would argue they fall into the fourth as well, battling their own inhumanity, though there is a notable lack of wrestling with anything approaching a conscience. But in truth, debate over torture might better be categorized as man against everything, considering who and what is destroyed even by entertaining the fantasy of torturing others. Some still argue that a strategic advantage can be retained using torture, whereas Trump (always the extremist) merely relishes the possibility of obliterating others. However, we become monsters by keeping the option alive.

I’m not a serious cineaste, but I have offered a few reviews on The Spiral Staircase. There are many, many cineastes out there, though, and although cinema is now an old medium (roughly 100 years old), cineastes tend to be on the younger side of 35 years. Sure, lots of established film critics are decidedly older, typically acting under the aegis of major media outlets, but I’m thinking specifically of the cohort who use new, democratized media (e.g., cheap-to-produce and -distribute YouTube channels) to indulge in their predilections. For example, New Media Rockstars has a list of their top 100 YouTube channels (NMR No. 1 contains links to the rest). I have heard of almost none of them, since I don’t live online like so many born after the advent of the Information/Communications Age. The one I pay particular attention to is Screen Junkies (which includes Honest Trailers, the Screen Junkies Show, and Movie Fights), and I find their tastes run toward childhood enthusiasms that mire their criticism in a state of permanent adolescence and self-mocking geekdom. The preoccupation with cartoons, comic books, action figures, superheros, and popcorn films couldn’t be more clear. Movies Fights presumes to award points on the passion, wit, and rhetoric of the fighters rather than quality of the films they choose to defend. However, adjudication is rarely neutral, since trump cards tend to get played when a superior film or actor is cited against an inferior one.

So I happened to catch three recent flicks that are central to Screen Junkies canon: Captain America: Winter Soldier, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Transformers: Age of Extinction (links unnecessary). They all qualify as CGI festivals — films centered on hyperkinetic action rather than story or character (opinions differ, naturally). The first two originate from the MCU (acronym alert: MCU = Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is lousy with comic book superheros) and the last is based on a Saturday-morning children’s cartoon. Watching grown men and a few women on Screen Junkies getting overexcited about content originally aimed at children gives me pause, yet I watch them to see what fighters say, knowing full well that thoughtful remarks are infrequent.

Were I among the fighters (no chance, since I don’t have my own media fiefdom), I would likely be stumped when a question needs immediate recall (by number, as in M:I:3 for the third Mission Impossible film) of a specific entry from any of numerous franchises pumping out films regularly like those named above. Similarly, my choices would not be so limited to films released after 1990 as theirs, that year being the childhood of most of the fighters who appear. Nor would my analysis be so embarrassingly visual in orientation, since I understand good cinema to be more about story and character than whiz-bang effects.

Despite the visual feast fanboys adore (what mindless fun!), lazy CGI festivals suffer worst from overkill, far outstripping the eye’s ability to absorb onscreen action fully or effectively. Why bother with repeat viewing of films with little payoff in the first place? CGI characters were interesting in and of themselves the first few times they appeared in movies without causing suspension of belief, but now they’re so commonplace that they feel like cheating. Worse, moviegoers are now faced with so many CGI crowds, clone and robot armies, zombie swarms, human-animal hybrids, et cetera ad nauseum, little holds the interest of jaded viewers. Thus, because so few scenes resonate emotionally, sheer novelty substitutes (ineffectively) for meaning, not that most chases or slugfests in the movies offer much truly original. The complaint is heard all the time: we’ve seen it before.

Here’s my basic problem with the three CGI-laden franchise installments I saw recently: their overt hypermilitarism. When better storytellers such as Kubrick or Coppola make films depicting the horrors of war (or other existential threats, such as the ever-popular alien invasion), their perspective is indeed that war is horrible, and obvious moral and ethical dilemmas flow from there. When hack filmmakers pile up frenzied depictions of death and destruction, typically with secondary or tertiary characters whose dispatch means and feels like nothing, and with cities destroyed eliciting no emotional response because it’s pure visual titillation, they have no useful, responsible, or respectable commentary. Even the Screen Junkies recognize that, unlike, say, Game of Thrones, none of their putative superheroes really face much more than momentary distress before saving the day in the third act and certainly no lasting injury (a little make-up blood doesn’t convince me). Dramatic tension simply drains away, since happy resolutions are never in doubt. Now, characters taking fake beatdowns are laughter inducing, sorta like professional wrestling after the sheepish admission that they’ve been acting all along. Frankly, pretend drama with nothing at stake is a waste of effort and the audience’s time and trust. That so many fanboys enjoy being goosed or that some films make lots of money is no justification. The latter is one reason why cinema so often fails to rise to the aspiration of art: it’s too bound up in grubbing for money.

This is a rant about review of Peter Jackson’s recently completed movie trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit. My review of Tolkien’s novel is here.

Cinema and literature differ, the former being predominantly visual and the latter being textually descriptive. Oddly, the textual approach often yields better results when more is left to the reader’s imagination, sort of like simple darkness, the bogeyman in the closet, or the monster lurking under the bed but never seen. Tolkien’s Middle Earth inspired a rich tradition of illustration from the outset. Readers wanted to see what they imagined, and conceptual artists complied. I remember Middle Earth calendars from the 1970s featuring various characters, architectures, and landscapes, which now form the basis for the design aesthetic of Jackson’s endeavors. (Middle Earth calendars from the last decade often feature pictures of the actors, New Zealand, and/or the film sets, which are quite dissatisfying to me.)

Attempts to bring Middle Earth to life in cinema were exercises in failure before Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (LoTR) trilogy appeared (2001–2003). Until then, appealing as Tolkien’s characters and stories are, they were considered unfilmable in a film era where casts of thousands no longer exist. Technological innovation (i.e., CGI, the acronym for Computer-Generated Imagery) enabled Jackson to overcome many limitations. Casts and costumes could be abbreviated and sets could be made out of foam or rendered digitally. Sadly, those same innovations have returned us to an era when Tolkien is unfilmable precisely because the unbelievable image now overwhelms the characters and story. I suspect that the combination of attributes (e.g., studio oversight of an untried director, fidelity to source material, superior conceptual design, and narrative solution-finding) that functioned so well to make LoTR successful is undercut in The Hobbit trilogy, which is another exercise in failure on a number of levels.

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I don’t normally concern myself overly much with B movies. I may watch one while munching my popcorn, but they hardly warrant consideration beyond the time lost spent plopped in front of the screen. My first thought about World War Z is that there hasn’t been another case of a special effect in search of a story since, well, any of the films from the Transformers franchise (new one due out in a couple weeks). WWZ is a zombie film — the kind with fast zombies (running, jumping, and busting their heads through glass instead of just lumbering around) who transform from the living into the undead in under 20 seconds. None of this works without the genre being well established for viewers. Yet World War Z doesn’t hew to the implicit understanding that it should essentially be a snuff film, concocting all manner of never-before-seen gore from dispatching them-no-longer-us. Instead, its main visual play is distant CGI crowd scenes (from helicopters — how exciting!) of self-building Jenga piles of zombies.

Two intertwined stories run behind the ostensible zombie dreck: (1) an investigation into the origin of the viral outbreak that made the zombies, leading to a pseudo-resolution (not quite a happy ending) Hollywood writers apparently find obligatory, and (2) reuniting the investigator with his family, who has been separated because he’s the kind of reluctant hero with such special, unique skills that he’s extorted into service by his former employer. Why an A-list actor such as Brad Pitt agrees to associate himself with such moronic fare is beyond me. The character could have been played by any number of action stars aging past their ass-kicking usefulness as we watch: Bruce Willis, John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Pierce Brosnan, Mel Gibson, Liam Neeson, Wesley Snipes, Keanu Reeves (who can at least project problem-solving acumen), and Sylvester Stallone, just to name a few. This list could actually go on quite a bit further.

This is the kind of film for which the term suspension of disbelief was coined. The implausibly fortunate survival of the hero through a variety of threats is assured, tying the story together from front to back, which is a cliché that drains dramatic tension out of the story despite everyone around him perishing. I was curious to read P.Z. Myers’ rant discussing the awful science of World War Z, which also observes plot holes and strategic WTFs. The bad science doesn’t stick in my craw quite like it does for Myers, but then, my science background is pretty modest. Like so many fight scenes in action movies where the hero is never really injured, I just sorta go with it.

What really interests me about WWZ, however, is that it presents yet another scenario (rather uninspired, actually) of what might happen when society breaks apart. Since the film features a fast crash where everything goes utterly haywire within hours — yet the electrical grid stays up — the first harrowing scene is the family fleeing, first in a car and then a commandeered mobile home, before seeking temporary refuge in a tenement. The main character states early on that people on the move survive and people who hunker down are lost. That may be true in a theater of war, but I can’t judge whether it’s also true with a virulent contagion scenario. In any case, the investigator alternates between movement and refuge as his situation changes.

Because the zombie horde is a functionally external threat, survivors (however temporary) automatically unite and cooperate. This behavior is borne out in various real-world responses to fast-developing events. However, slow-mo threats without the convenient external enemy, such as we’re now experiencing in the real world with protracted industrial collapse, provides a different picture: dog eating dog and fighting to survive another day. Such alternatives cause many who foresee extraordinary difficulties in the decades ahead to wish for events to break over civilization like a tsunami, taking many all at once and uniting those unlucky enough to survive. But until that happens, we’re faced with slow death by a thousand cuts.