Monday, November 16, 2015

Movie Review: Spectre

Directed by Sam Mendes. 2015.

spoiler alert

Wit, dapper charm, and furious bravado do not endear everyone to the world's most famous spy. Where we see sophistication they see urbanity, where we roguish independence they see a cold, callous heart. While we thrill in Bond's brass and effrontery, another mind sees no more than reckless aggression. In short, to some Bond is a mere adolescent. Their reservations are not unwarranted, and this a Bond for them. In every way Spectre is the most mature Bond.

This is not a radical revision, though, but a careful cultivation of significance and omission of frivolous showiness. Mendes has not rebooted or reinvented Bond, but refined him from a freewheeling id whom we look at with excitement but not concern, into a full-blooded, and still hot-blooded, man. Bond is no longer an archetype, but a character, who persuades, deliberates, and even, shockingly, abstains. Not new, Bond has been pruned from the preposterous down to the plausible.

Take one staple of the franchise, the fact that Bond is indomitable. In other movies he blows up ships, mows down legions of enemies, and flies space shuttles. Entertaining, but outrageous. Mendes retains the theme, though, in one brilliant, small moment. In a daring escape–another franchise essential–Bond brutally disarms and incapacitates a guard, but instead of proceeding to a full-blown melee, he turns to the other guard and pointing like a master to a dog, Bond barks, "Stay!" Cowed by Bond's mastery of the situation, the guard backs down. One moment like this, and not a swath of destruction, is all we need to be reminded that Bond is bigger than normal men.

The contrast is amplified by the comparison between Bond and the Spectre assassin dogging him. The tradition of colorful mid-level Bond baddies is long and esteemed: Odd Job, Jaws, Xenia Onatopp are just the most famous and flamboyant. So what's the trademark of Spectre's Mr. Hinx? He is silent and brutal. That's all. A perfectly brilliant contrast. Whereas Bond is witty, Hinx is silent. Bond is agile, Hinx cumbersome. Hinx brutal and cruel, Bond precise and controlled. Two contrasting scenes masterfully reveal the difference. In one, at a Spectre meeting, Mr. Hinx violently gouges the eyes of an assassin whom he intends to replace as the world-dominating organization's go-to killer. He then kills the man as the rest of the Spectre pack passively watches the fitter man move up the hierarchy. On the other hand, after Bond has tracked down ex-Spectre Mr. White and learned of his imminent, poisoned demise, Bond offers to succeed him in protecting White's daughter. He then hands White his pistol, a gesture of trust and mercy. After White ends his suffering and takes up 007's offer, Bond gently closes his eyes. Hinx brutally murders his way to claim authority, but Bond undertakes responsibility with trust, risk, and mercy. There is a lot more significance in Hinx being different from Bond than Jaws trying to bite his face off or Xenia trying to hump him to death.

Speaking of which, 007's relationship with the opposite sex is perhaps the most matured of his traits. Gone is the witty persiflage and coy innuendo of days past which reached its ridiculous, Freudian apex when Halley Berry said to Pierce Brosnan, who was chuffing a cigar, "Now there's a mouthful." Specter brings a tad more decorum to the courting ritual as Bond meets Dr. Madeleine Swann, White's daughter whom Bond must protect and who holds the key to the deceased man's last intelligence on Spectre. At their first encounter, Bond is posing as a patient at Swann's spa-clinic in the mountains, and when Swann lowers the blinds to block the spectacular view of the mountains behind her because they "distract patients," Bond replies, "I hadn't noticed." Now that's smooth.

Swann isn't your typical Bond girl, either. She's not a fighter or a scientist or a programmer, because she's not in the movie to fulfill the stock element of completing the vital task at the crucial moment. Nor is she, despite the negligees and flowing dresses, there as eye candy or fodder for Bond's libido. In fact, she puts Bond out the first night, forcing him to watch over her as she drowses off under the gauzy bed canopy, undressed and tipsy with wine. Yet this is not impotence or emasculation for Bond, for he chose to protect her, which is more of a claim on him than his sexual urge. The contrast is smartly captured when, shutting her eyes, Madeleine says to James, "I see two of you." In vino veritas, we see the two Bonds: the protector and the lover. Still more meaning reveals itself when, before she passes out, Madeleine mutters about "liars and killers, liars and killers." She is reflecting on her father, the liar and killer Spectre assassin, but the comparison is unavoidable: Bond is the killer, but is he the liar? Must he be either?

All of this character contrast stands against a political thriller in which MI6 and the whole 00-program face extinction and incorporation into a global surveillance company. No longer will Bond and the 00 Agents of Her Majesty's Secret Service protect the realm and spearhead justice throughout the world, but the wold will find stability through omnipresent observation and data collection in the hands of experts–unelected, M reminds us. The world order is shifting, a fate and theme foreshadowed by a dusty, unplayed chessboard between 007 and Mr. White, who wistfully remembers when the game of world domination had its rules. Now Spectre stages bombings, even of women and children, to get nations to sign onto its security-surveillance front of a company.

With MI6 in tatters and Bond on his way to his last lead to Spectre, Moneypenny pleads with M to send Bond some help, to which he responds, "No. We'll only make him weaker." That one line, with all the weight of British sovereignty on his lone, broad, shoulders, makes his actions more of an ode to liberty and country than, say, a stunt like skiing off a cliff and landing with a giant Union Jack on his parachute.

The plot reaches its apex when Bond at last confronts the head of Spectre, whose fluffy white cat precedes his introduction as 007's perennial nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. As with the rest of Spectre, nothing could be more traditional and yet more unexpected. Unexpected because their exchange is no droll conversation over a pool of sharks, but a slow, tense, contest of wills and recognition. The two meet in a languorous reveal inside an observatory that houses a meteorite. The two tangle over a dilemma: whether the meteorite had a choice to fall, whether it had the choice to stop and think. Both men have invented themselves, but from what?

When we learn the final secret, everything falls into place: when Blofeld was still the happy youth Franz, his father adopted a young boy named James and told him to embrace the orphan as a brother. The father took to his foster son more, though, until young Franz righted that wrong. We see the two brothers fully opposed: Bond is orphaned and takes to his adopted father while becoming a patriotic 00-Agent, and Franz turns to patricide and treason. Bond chooses service to Her Majesty and Franz domination by means of Spectre. They are the brothers contending for the identity of the father as, in Skyfall, Bond and Silva contented for the affection of the mother, M.

The masses will overlook the meaning and balk at the length. They will see the refinements as mere repetitions. They will see pastiche and not unified plot. They will doze. Let them. For the rest of us, tempus fugit. Spectre doesn't glory in over the top explosions, but luxuriates in symmetries and subtlety, in shadows and slow reveals. It has the smarts, in the escape finale, not only to follow its fleeing heroes out a building by a cheekily slow turn of the camera, but the wit after that to reveal not the characters but an arrow pointing off screen to the path they took. Spectre has the respect for its audience to leave a story–Dr. Swann's about her hatred of guns–half-told so we can think it through ourselves. Finally, it has the confidence to twist 007's most famous trademark, his Martini, and in doing so manages one of the great creative feats: surprising us with the expected.

No, Daniel Craig's final performance of James Bond is not of the globe-trotting playboy, but of a driven, deliberate man. He doesn't have jetpacks and laser beams, but he can still take out a caravan of cars with a half-destroyed airplane. He's not invulnerable, but he is indefatigable. James' struggle means something, and having found someone who means something to him, when the two walk off in a shot mirroring the first, he leaves a different man, but still Bond.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Things I Don't Get #11: Taking Up Two Spots

No one gets to take up two parking spaces. No one gets special parking privileges just because he values his mechanical substitute for meaning more than social propriety. The most galling aspect of such Neanderthal behavior is of course not the resulting inefficiency, but the effrontery, the heinous temerity of the individual who, deluded and swimming in self-importance, thinks that his possession is so valuable that the general population should bow down in obeisance before his four-wheeled pride and joy.

This shameless act of self-regard betokens nothing less than pathological disregard for the gentleman's regard for others as social equals. Not intellectual or moral equals, of course, but as equal fellow citizens whom we do not provoke or encroach upon without grave cause. The taker of two spots, this self-knighted primus inter pares, is but an unmannered philistine, the least of citizens and free men, but not because of his odious, obnoxious, temerity, rather because of his presumption that he cares more for his possessions than we law-abiding chumps do. His willingness to violate social norms and respect for others is in fact, to this deranged, disordered, malcontent, a sign of his superiority.

An outcast be he and a thousand dings upon his vehicle! Fiat! Fiat! Fiat!

Things I Don't Get #10: Alex Trebek as Pagliaccio

For their 2015 Halloween episode, Jeopardy featured a category of opera-inspired clues with Alex Trebek donning authentic Metropolitan Opera attire and accoutrement. Hence the unexpected: Alex Trebek in costume as Pagliaccio, the clown persona of the cuckolded Canio from Leoncavallo's 1892 opera Pagliacci.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Salami Tactics and "Challenging the Notion..."

I was just reading a blurb about Spike Lee's upcoming, Chiraq, and a cliche jumped off the page and poked me in the eye, namely the advertisement that Mr. Lee's movie, "challenges the nature of race, sex and violence in America and around the world." That innocent Hollywood spin translates into, "These things aren't what you think they are. Here is what race, sex, and violence really are." It looks like a typical movie teaser, and it is certainly the most common way liberals signify and advertise their art. Their pieces are always "transgressing bounds" and "defying conventions" and "redefining concepts."It's usually just marketing hype, but their intent is serious because the act of definition, having boundaries, and using conventions and concepts are processes of defining the world. To change the former is to change the latter.

Such is why some conservatives have been so wrong to ignore culture and why others so stern deciding on what and in what culture they will raise their children. What we see informs our sense of life, i.e. the way the world seems to work. What isn't glorified, isn't glorious, but more so, what isn't depicted, isn't.

By the salami tactics of the left–one slice at a time–every tenet is challenged until it is meaningless. One by one the values are sliced away. Duchamp challenged beauty in sculpture, Buñuel narrative in film, Marcuse sexual morality, Zinn facts in history, and Derrida reason itself. The result has been the shredding of common culture both by the challenging of form–that is, traditional patterns of invention–and concept, especially burying or by teaching and criticizing into oblivion the old works which affirmed the culture from which they came.

Such doesn't mean that art is propaganda, but that it should with love, vitality, and enthusiasm affirm life. Sometimes the path is tortuous and violent, but it is, art tells us, a path worth the struggle. Perhaps the concern for conservatives then, is not the challenge, but the response.

Great art requires civilization: tradition, training, discipline, reflection, philosophy. Do we have those things in sufficient degree today to expect a renaissance?

Monday, November 2, 2015

Extra, Extra

Without fail, at the close of every quarter and semester comes to the teacher the question, "Is there extra credit?" To this inquiry I answer an affirmative, "no." The credit for the class is the coursework for the class. The time for that work was the last few months. The coursework is not fluffy extra credit assignments designed to make up for the fact that students have not done the work. The obvious problem with extra credit is that it removes incentive to do the work of learning the material for class. The more insidious issue is that too many students, and adults, learn to expect a way out of their errors.

In the ancient world, a man did not simply atone for his crime and move on with life. The shame and implications were borne out generation after generation until the stain of the crime had faded. Far from this today, it seems more and more people don't want to deal with the implications of their actions.

If you are promiscuous and contract a disease, there is a cure. If you bring a life into the world, but realize you don't want it, you end it. If you borrow but cannot pay back the loan, you are exonerated. If you fail your tests, you get additional opportunity for credit. If you fall into dishonor, just wait until people forget. Should you commit a crime, you can get off early for good behavior or cooperating with police. A few short years ago the height of Clintonian diplomacy was the "Russian Reset," as if the memories of foreign powers would be wiped clean.

Technology only amplifies our expectation of being able to erase our mistakes. If you misspeak, delete the post. If you take a poor picture, delete the picture. If you mistype... Since all of our mistakes can be erased, what cannot be must be the fault of some one else. The gap in logic only puzzles those who insist that man is always, or predominately, rational. Such systematic expectation that all undesirable results of our actions are the result of injustice bears with it the aforementioned result of incentivizing vice, but three worse.

First, it turns the stoic, who elects to endure his burdens, into a chump. The stoic student who put in his time holds the same diploma as the student who dozed through class. The free man who lives as a virtuous citizen holds his head high and just as free as shameless criminals.

Second and as we see, the virtues are themselves debased, for more are thought to possess them than actually do. The virtue of clemency is meaningless, for if there is no fault, there is nothing to forgive. So to with failure, for if one cannot fail, for what excellence is there to aspire?

Finally, when we don't reflect on our mistakes, when we don't bear their burden, we don't learn from them. No longer will men undertake the pains of pruning their wayward branches if there is an easy alternative. We buy into our appearance, which is that of a faultless, blameless paragon of excellence.

It is perhaps the case, then, that we should be skeptical of anyone whose ideology excuses or justifies everything he does. Alas, that includes most of us much of the time, and some of us all of the time. More trustworthy and honorable is the man who labors to live his ideas and in failure and success is worthy of clemency and excellence.

Smith: When Everything Is Anything

Gregory B. Smith. Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the Transition to Postmodernity. p. 9-10
It is asserted that all 'difference' is a phenomenon of the surface, which continually reconstitutes itself in an endless and arbitrary process, beyond the control of any individual or group. There is no natural ground for difference; all difference is relational. This understanding leads to an ironic attitude toward life that inevitably transforms itself into a form of cynicism–a tendency to give in to a mocking superiority, the sense that nothing is worthy of passion or commitment because everything solid dissolves upon one's approach. An attitude of indifference, weariness, and exhaustion is often the result. All of this leads one to suspect a form of evasion, an attitude of avoidance, a blasé, unshakeable refusal to face up to the terrors and general groundless of late-modern life (a groundlessness that is blithely admitted and celebrated.) Only through such avoidance does nihilism cease to be a problem that needs to be confronted.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

On Normalcy

Ah, the joy of Halloween. Spooky decorations, turning leaves, and everyone walking around a bit, or more, off their usual selves. Halloween is the one day of the year when we don't bat an eyelash at the sight of bizarre behavior, but it certainly isn't the only day when people are bizarre. In fact it seems pretty often that I have a day where no one seems normal, where no one is playing by the usual rules. My default inquiry, the rhetorical question I bellow in vain, is always: is everyone on something? I wonder.
  1. Eleven percent of Americans aged 12 years and over take antidepressant medication.
  2. 22 million Americans take illegal drugs.
  3. 16.6 million adults ages 18 and older had an Alcohol Use Disorder in 2013.
  4. Using 2004 Census numbers, 57.7 million people 18 and older suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.
Now add to those hard statistics some general considerations, such as the quantity of people who are:
  1. not diagnosed with the above, but exhibit the symptoms.
  2. pathologically modern (i.e. raised wholly or mostly on pop culture.)
  3. wee-weed up because of media and political hype.
  4. jerks and idiots.
  5. chronically unable to deal with their lives.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that as a whole, there are a lot of people who don't fall into what once was a meaningful category: normal people. You know, people without major vices, and perhaps without major virtues either, but fulfill their duties to man, country, and God with minimal fuss. Who deal with problems quietly and privately. Who don't draw attention to themselves. Who do their job well, but with the humility of a professional. Who are reasonably polite, even if cranky.

There is inevitably the push back against normal, with some in contrast crying that normalcy is stifling to the individual, who should be able to express himself. There is as in all things a balance between extremes, between being belittled by the majority and unabashed exhibitionism. There exists today both extremes: those who follow every trend and the trend of anti-normalcy, that all choices and varieties of lifestyle are equal. Against the onslaught of democratic, multiculturalist, egalitarian variety, with all pleasures on an equal footing, the normal man:
has watched the frenzy of the multitude and seen that there is no soundness in the conduct of public life, nowhere an ally at whose side a champion of justice could hope to escape destruction; but that, like a man fallen among wild beasts, if he should refuse to take part in their misdeeds and could not hold out alone against the fury of all, he would be destined, before he could be of any service to his country or his friends, to perish, having done no good to himself or to anyone else–one who has weighed all this keeps quiet and goes his own way, like the traveller who takes shelter under a wall from a driving storm of dust and hail; and seeing lawlessness spreading on all sides, is content if he can keep his hands clean from iniquity while this life lasts, and when the end comes take his departure, with good hopes, in serenity and peace. –Plato. Republic 6.496cde. Trans. F. M. Cornford
Normal people are fewer, but out there. If that is to be their end, maybe we should have a day to celebrate them since the rest of the year belongs to everyone else.

Friday, October 30, 2015

An Article Awry

aka a dialogue with myself ending in aporia

I admire people who can write the same thing over and over again without stress or dissatisfaction. I have thought more than a few times what popularity I might garner if, for example, I could like so many conservatives, simply rail against liberals and President Obama day after day, or libertarians, be satisfied to remark incessantly about the evils of the government. It is my weakness, though, and my refusal to flim-flam my kind readers, that I try somehow always to say something new. It happens many times, then, that as I write I find I've made the remark before. So went the first article I attempted today. Sometimes, however, what I attempt spirals into something much newer, or at least discursive and convoluted, than I expected. Take today's second attempt.

I started writing about how exasperating it is that liberals always co-opt terminology and re-appropriate definitions. They seem to delight in blurring lines and distinctions, an observation which set me thinking about the literal definitions of the words discriminate and judgment, and how the critical faculties of differentiation (discriminare, to separate) and discernment (discerno, to distinguish) are essential acts of defining the world, and that the act of judgment  (iudex, judge) is essential as an affirmation of that definition.

My mind then took a different direction, namely the Aristotelian direction, when I recalled how in the opening of the Metaphysics Aristotle describes how man delights in the use of his senses and that man's reaction to the sense of wonder which the world kindles in him is uniquely human because he can react by forming concepts and growing to know the whole, partaking in some small way of the divine mind which created it all.

Such consideration I applied to the liberal mind which constantly embraces variation in definition, which thinks that objective reality or truth is a moralizing or controlling fiction and that everyone should do what's right for him. What kind of mind is that of the deconstructionist which sets out to prove the world unknowable? What to him is knowing? It struck me what contradiction there is between liberal faith in reason when we apply to it the blanket label of "science," and how weak that faith when the wheels of reason drive to a point contrary to their beliefs.

Then I began to wonder whether that position can be justifiably called liberal. Is it not right-wing, traditionalist, or at least willful in the Nietzschean sense, simply to plant one's flag in the ground and defend it, irrespective of rational, empirical underpinnings? On the other hand I question their commitments to the totems of the day and wonder whether they would truly fight for them if they didn't have the machinery of bureaucracy already churning and lacking only well-placed clerks. Is that the blood and guts of building a culture? Likewise, maybe their convictions are just reactions against their upbringing? I suspect much political liberalism is in fact personal revenge on past and parents.

So then they don't really believe in anything. They're like Nietzsche's last man, enervated into nihilism, only occasionally animated to life by the promise of bourgeois comforts. Can they live with this skepticism at the end of philosophy, history, and culture? Can any society be fully skeptical? How many people can cope with the variety and uncertainty of the modern world? Can any be fully traditionalist?

To that question I do not know the answer, except to propose moderation between a progressive society which is at liberty wholly to reinvent itself and a traditional one which is wholly beholden to the past. If such a path is the ideal, and if being moderate is aiming for the small center between extremes, then it is no surprise the world so often waxes wantonly from one end to the other. One wonders whether once you let skepticism out of the box, the end is inevitable despite the high points on the way there. Can a society tolerate reserved inquiry in the service of reserved truths, or will one predominate? Will the tense contradiction yield a civil war and rebirth? Reconciliation?

Is this contradiction simply part of man's nature or a problem unleashed by intellectuals?

Finally, the issue is unresolved and I am tired. I don't know whether I have argued both sides well and therefore have arrived at an impasse–a sort of Protagorean irresolution–or in the Platonic sense have missed some essential truth. Therefore, sad Keanu.

Jaeger on Aristocracy and Civilization

From Werner Jaeger in Vol. I Ch. 1 of Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture.

It is a fundamental fact in the history of culture that all higher civilisation springs from the differentiation of social classes–a differentiation which is created by natural variations in physical and mental capacity between man and man. Even when such social differentiations lead to the creation of a rigid and privileged class, the hereditary principle which rules it is counterbalanced by the new supplies of strength which pour in from the lower classes. And even if the ruling caste is  deprived of all its rights, or destroyed, through some violent change, the new leaders rapidly and inevitably become an aristocracy in their turn. The nobility is the prime mover in forming a nation's culture. The history of Greek culture–that universally important aspect of the formation of the Greek national character–actually begins in the aristocratic world of early Greece, with the creation of a definite ideal of human perfection, an ideal towards which the élite of the race was constantly trained. . . Culture is simply the aristocratic ideal of a nation, increasingly intellectualized. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Cicero, Frightful Reactionary

You know an academic just finished a book and is ready to start hocking it when they start publishing a lot of fun, fluffy articles that people will actually read. Enter Mary Beard's "10 Best Ancient Romans." We'll of course ignore the ridiculous title, which we assume was written by an editor, and won't castigate the author for applying such a ridiculous criterion of "best" to the category of Romans. Whatever that means, she wrote 10 blurbs, one about Cicero.

The whole list vexes me, especially that of Cicero, whose description especially irks me for three reasons.

First, saying that you have many reasons but not articulating them makes that pronouncement of them a dishonest qualifier. Obviously there is no space there for lengthy explication and evidence, but the ambiguity is misleading and confusing: is she emphasizing that Cicero was predominately reactionary or that he wasn't wholly reactionary? I guess everyone can think what he wants. The fact that she subsequently refers to the events of Catiline's conspiracy as a low point invites someone to interpret that as evidence of Cicero's reactionary views, although I fail to see how it does.

Second, the word frightful is a cheap shot. It's the kind of word people casually toss in when they want to let you know that someone doesn't hold the approved opinions. I guess Cicero wasn't a LibDem. Who knew?

Third, she mentions that Cicero was exiled for the summary execution of Catiline's conspirators as if it was justice, when in fact Cicero's exile was simply what suited the advancement of Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar and provided Clodius an opportunity to take revenge on Cicero. In February of 58BC Clodius as tribune proposed a law which would exile anyone who did or had executed a citizen without due process. While a redundant law, it would exact revenge on Cicero and distract the optimates. It is telling that, when Clodius passed a law which further punished Cicero, forbidding him from living within 400 miles of Rome and forbidding anyone from giving him aid, Cicero didn't have trouble finding people to put him up.

As for the conspiracy itself, it is unclear whether the found arms sufficiently demonstrate intent to betray the fatherland and thus condemn Catiline's conspirators. If it was, then one could argue they had by taking up arms against Rome relinquished their citizenship.

I'm not exonerating Cicero here, and I'm not doing justice to the intricacies of the conspiracy either. I guess the situation deserves a little more than a glib remark.

Fourth, what of such forthright criticism and disdain for being a reactionary when others get a pass in the very same article? Ovid gets a pass for being subversive and opposed to Augustus' moral regime, the wife of that same emperor gets a pass for no other reason, it seems, than she was female, and Caligula of all people gets a pass after brushing off "most" allegations as "invented or embroidered." I'm not condemning Ovid, Augustus, or even Caligula, but why is Cicero held to a completely different standard. Usurers, corrupt emperors, provocative poets–everyone gets a pass and Cicero slammed in this list of favorite people? I guess it's still better than being compared to Obama.

I realize Beard wasn't out to pick out the most moral and upright Romans. (Who would do such a terrible thing like that nowadays?) Her selections are all colorful characters, but alas, bias has to enter. Perhaps less bias than insecurity, for her criticism reminds me of when someone qualifies their agreement with someone by adding, "Not that I agree with everything he says," as if anyone would assume such a thing. As if, though, I would assume anyone of notoriety today would approve of Cicero. As an aside, though, how typically liberal is this list??

A hypocritical conservative white man is in charge, women are oppressed, evil men are victims of bad press, and a cool hip author write about sex. Reaction and conservatism are out, opposition to traditional power is in. Worst: Caelius est in horto needs to be translated. O temp–oh never mind.