Sunday, April 28, 2013

Movie Review: His Girl Friday

Directed by Howard Hawks. 1940.

Few action heroes have dominated their movies the way Cary grant does His Girl Friday. In fact, if you consider that Grant disappears for about a quarter of the movie, he probably has greater per scene magnetism. The only dull part of the film is the yawning center where the nitty gritty of the urban political machinery spools out. Yes, these scenes are more than competent and the zippy newsroom dialogue adds spice and verismo, but the political shenanigans stand but a framework for the romance between newsman Walter Burns (Grant) and his protege-cum-ex-wife-cum-girl-Friday, Hildy Johnson (Russell.) These electric scenes bookend the film and come so fast and furious their details are hard to spot. Their charm, however, is sure and irresistible.

Take the opening, where Hildy enters the copy room of her former boss and husband, power paper owner Walter Burns. She hurries in with her new beau, leading the guy through the office. The sheepish man moves to open a door for her but she pushes ahead and barely registers his gesture. What a contrast to her relationship with Walter. When these two are finally alone in his office, Walter takes a seat. When Hildy asks for the same he crosses his leg and gives it a gentle tap. "There's been a lamp burning in the window for you," he says, and to which she replies, taking a seat on the table, "That's a window I jumped out of a long time ago." Thrust, parry.

The scene escalates as he lights up and she asks for a cigarette. Without turning to face her Walter tosses over the pack. After he's lit, Hildy asks for a match and, instead of lighting hers, Walter shakes his out and hands over the box. He finally swivels his chair to face Hildy, entirely comfortable with her towering over him as she sits atop the table. Feigning forgetfulness about when they last saw each other, she adds, "It feels like yesterday." "Maybe it was," he trumps, "seeing me in your dreams?" Slowly Hildy gets caught up in the wheels of his flim-flam machine and they're re-hashing old spats about missed honeymoons and empty promises with Walter constantly re-framing the arguments, going so far as to say she spoiled their cozy arrangement by marrying him. Not content with her level of outrage, he mocks her feminine wiles with a cheeky impersonation and finally gets her to blow her top by claiming he was drunk when he proposed. She moves to chuck her purse at him and, ducking both to dodge it and answer the phone, he chirps, "You're losing your arm. You used to pitch better than that." Whew. Good thing the cigarettes are already lit.

When Walter finally discovers Hildy's engagement, he finagles a lunch with the happy couple, proceeding in every way possible to humiliate the dull simpleton. He bursts out of his office, hat on and heading out. Holding doors? Forget about it. Walter immediately mistakes an old man for Bruce, and when he finally finds the guy, shakes his umbrella handle in place of his hand. At lunch, this time Hildy lights up first and when Walter decides to follow, instead of striking a match himself, he pulls her arm over to light his cigarette for him. Walter orders first and everyone follows with the same. He takes rum in his coffee and Hildy follows suit. Bruce demurs because he has a busy afternoon buying tickets and checking baggage and what a bore, this guy. An insurance salesman, he's "wooed" Hildy with promises of a quiet country life in upstate New York. In contrast Walter begins to tell some spicy stories about some of his old cases with Hildy, who proceeds to kick him each time. By the end of lunch, Walter's convinced the Bruce to sell him a policy, but that's just a ruse to get Hildy to stay and get on top of a hot story with him. At the close of the scene, she takes Bruce's money and cautions her fiance about her charming ex, "A lot of people never did anything until they met Walter Burns."

The ensuing political big-city political chicanery is coherent enough, but it's just a frame to get Walter and Hildy back together and Walter uses it just that way. Whether he's setting Hildy up to be in the action or getting Bruce arrested, three times!, Walter's moving everything to his advantage for getting the story and the girl. We spot Walter's win when the jig with the city bigwigs blows up and Hildy stands there,  handcuffed to him, playing hardball politics with mayor and chief commissioner. She's thrilled. No way she'll give up the excitement of life with Walter for a country-time picnic with Bruce and his mother. No way she'll forego the flitting zips and zingers, the relentless witty persiflage with Walter for Bruce's ho-hum agreeability.

Once the story's all wrapped up, Hildy looks up adoringly at Walter over the typewriter, quite forgetful of Bruce. Yet Walter sends her on her way. She walks off sullen, but darts back when the phone rings. It's the police. They have an ever-bewildered Bruce in custody, set up in another of Walter's schemes. Hilda finally bursts into tears. Walter really does love her. He's swindled her into a plot of murder and corruption, used her to get a story, broken up her incipient marriage, nearly killed her would-be mother-in-law, and dashed her hopes of a peaceful life. But this time they're going on their honeymoon. Yep, sounds like love.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Review: Sleep No More


I step into a room built of cardboard boxes. At its center stand two tables, for cards and pool, and making my way between I investigate the far corner. A bar. No sooner do I peek behind than its tender vaults from the shadows. The figure backs me around the bar and once more behind, pours drinks for the two men now beside me. They step over to the card table and with drink, deck, and hammer in hand, begin to play. A king. One man stands, picks up the card, and nails it to a board covered with dozens of others. They continue. A king. The hammer. Now the bartender's bumped the hanging light and it swings like a pendulum, searing my eyes with each pass as it slices the darkness. Before I regain my senses I'm against the wall and two of the men are pushing at one another. They rant and rave and begin to brawl, thrashing one another against the walls and atop the pool table until behind the bar, with a raging rictus of revenge, the tall man cudgels his quarry with the hammer.

I'll forgive you if the scene doesn't conjure an image of Macbeth, but Punchdrunk's production of Shakespeare is less the form of the play than the primal essence. Gone are the tripping words of the Bard, alas! alack!, but so too the trappings of the theater: the acts, scenes, stage, seats. In place of a linear performance we have parallel staging not of scenes but of various moments from the play. One murder is realized as a saloon fight, another a street brawl. A scene of dialogue becomes a sojourn through a silvery midnight wood or a ballroom dance. Instead of seat and stage, masked audience members are free to wander amongst the performances. The twisting, twirling, and hurling dance of the actors supplant Shakespeare's words.

Stitching these elements together is the ruse that we're not patrons at a theater but guests at the mysterious McKittrick Hotel, whose twisted entry corridors shake up the everyday order and lead you to a smoky lounge of peak 1920s elegance. Sip. Mingle. When your number's up you're masked, hushed, and sent on your way through the McKittrick's five floors. The novelty and detail of the sets catch you first. The detail is exceptional and immersive. A room of headless dolls suspended over a crib. (Whose room could this be?) Another of rolled maps with Creasey's history open on the desk. A nurse's room with a lockbox of keys.

You stumble upon a tailor primping himself in his shop. An angry man walks in and a chase ensues. They grapple and now the tailor's walking up the... shouts in the distance?

You see, while the stagings are parallel they're not discrete. You follow the performers around the hotel, intersecting with other performers followed by other guests. On the one hand this adds the frisson of the live and unpredictable, on the other it results in wandering amongst rooms with little knowledge of their purpose. Pretty and jarring as they are, their significance is often more apparent than actual, contributing less to theater than to tone.

Losing the linear structure also jettisons the structured climaxes of recognition and denouement in the Shakespeare. The result is a scramble whose effect comes not from the controlled ebb and flow of thought in verse but from the visceral. There is, however, an exceptional unity of effect owing foremost to the ferocious aplomb and expressive dexterity of the performers and second to the set design. Much is simple curiosity, but the effect is a disjuncture from the ordinary which in in amplifying, immerses you in the boiling emotions.

As a technique, though, the sensually immersive does not engage the spirit as much as the dramatic perfected by Shakespeare. Absent the traditional form and the words of the Bard, Sleep No More doesn't stand so much on its own as, with different tools, amplify certain dimensions of Shakespeare's masterpiece. As that, it's an engaging thrill.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

My Guy

Second presidential terms are fraught with speculation about potential lame-duck status. Does he have enough pull to push his agenda still further forward? It's not a useless question, but it's really just speculation about what the politicians will do, for the people have more or less checked out of the debates. The popular opposition by this time is always fully enraged. Nothing the president does, good or bad, is good. They're exhausted from opposing, angered by policy and indignant about losing not once but twice. Again, this is unsurprising. The reaction of the president's coalition, however, baffles.

You see, if a candidate I supported ever won, I would hold him to the high standard of the ideals he supposedly represents because should he fail, he would discredit my principles. I find it tough to understand the "my guy" philosophy of politics in which one must eternally support anyone and everyone he voted for. Now few would admit to unconditional support of "their guy," but somehow the equation always balances in his favor. Does supporting "x-rights" trump foreign policy and the economy? Does the economy trump education policy? It's like a game or rock-paper-scissors where everybody wins.

So I wonder now, for example, as we sit mired in a miasma of myriad misguided, misapplied, and misanthropic policies, what might finally snap one of the president's supporters from his piper's tune. Every single matter, they invariably say, would have been worse under the alternatives. If so, then there's a rather monumental political problem, wouldn't you say? I have, in fact, received such concessions from the president's men, so to call them, that we are in dire straits with poor candidates, yet they subsequently say that, even so, better to have "their guy" in charge.

Still, though, some attribute no vice whatsoever to the president. His failures all owe to external factors. The GOP, the supreme court, the lobbyists, congress, big business, Fox News, and the American people. In fact the president's only flaw seems to be an excess of virtue which renders him incapable of doing the nasty work necessary to nudge his policies through. He's too respectful, too quiet. He follows the rules. He just won't break those eggs. The great Progress-Bringer lays chained, Prometheus-like, to his virtue as the all mighty GOP pecks away at him, a painted president at the cusp of greatness.

Of course the "conservatives" played their parts as toadies before, doing their dance for President Bush.  The "my guy" mentality is unshakeable and bipartisan. "I'm a pragmatist" they told me. Funny how their pragmatism perfectly coincided with everything Bush did to the exact degree.

This is not to say these two parties won't admit the failure of policy. You only need witness their game of hot potato with the TSA and No Child Left Behind to realize that. But "my guy" had nothing to do with that. And never criticize your guy, because then you'll help the other side.  "We have to win elections." If you have principles, keep them under your hat. The implication there is of course that the machinery of government is powerful and irreversible, so just put the guy who seems best at the helm and hope for the best. We'll try and hold him accountable after we give him the power. How liberal.

It's not always unreasonable to vote for an imperfect candidate, but it should be after an honest reckoning one's principles, of what he's done and what one expects him to do, and without the conceit that because somebody was going to win, that it was moral to turn the gun over to him, for having "a guy" is nothing short of worshipping either man or power, two ends which tend to overwhelm all.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Sui Amantes

It is a poor centre of a man's actions, himself. – Francis Bacon

One of the most unexpected side effects of internet use is exposure to high levels of self-centered statements. The most common of these expressions are the need to "do something for myself," or to "center myself" or that "I'm wonderful the way I am." Aside from the Rousseauean dimensions of such statements, I've noticed that once someone starts to make such statements, they come more and more often. I'm tempted to speculate that a superficial or learned self-centeredness can yield the genuine article. If so, it seems to be happening.

Some of the cause is economic: as we specialize more, we contract out more of our life to others. While the end of trade should be gratitude, though, it seems just as if not more often to be a sense of entitlement. Receiving certain services, prices, or convenience from sellers eager to please, we grow to expect such irrespective of the delicate balance which makes it possible. Slowly we learn to trust our desires as the world seems to orientate around us.

So perhaps most of all, the modern news turns around us, functioning not to inform but to make us feel the center of events. With what skill producers draw millions of viewers thousands of miles away into the heart of every incident, from minor scuffles to calamities. The result is not genuine sympathy or empathy, for no man has so much to spare from his daily life that can spare a meaningful amount for each unfortunate he learns of in the news, but sold sentimentality. What are you supposed to think about someone when you read his Facebook or Twitter feed and see comments about how various news items "affected him" interspersed with comments about shopping, traffic, and the weather? Certainly not that he is full of empathy, but merely that he's been frenzied into a flurry of activity.

One almost feels bad for such a misguided individual who has been presented something he genuinely cannot process. How does it affect him? What can he do in response? Yet we've been informed so we must do something, so we chatter about it, accomplishing nothing save convincing ourselves that we're involved and virtuous. The result is navel-gazing prattle like this, sputtering indignation from people who've been trained to have opinions and feel important.

Yet look at the phrase I used before: news items. The very act of reporting seems to reduce people, activities, in short, life, to news items. For what purpose is the viewer informed? If he cannot or not without great difficulty empathize with the many unfortunates of the day's news cycle, why should he know of them? If he believes in the power of prayer and he prays for them, perhaps that might be a reason, but I see more and more people circumvent both the meaning and means of prayer in response to calamities. They "send love" or better, "send light." They've not only nixed God from the loop there, but they've put themselves in place. Their own will and sentiment, naturally not activity of which there is typically is none, will ameliorate the world.

Let's say though, one can neither empathize nor pray. Perhaps one ought simply, "be informed," as good citizens. Yet daily life and daily news do not necessarily or even often accumulate into significant larger trends. What is presented in the news broadcast then tends to accumulate into a slowly, subtly formed sense of life than a body of facts which is later systematically sorted.

Of course, it seldom occurs to man that he could do more harm than good by learning about something. If the purpose of education is wisdom and wisdom right action, then one must ask how much "being informed" by watching the news leads to virtue in good deds how much an exercise in making oneself feel educated, compassionate, and generally superior.

The proper course of action is naturally not to insulate oneself, but on the one hand to refrain from gossip, speculation, and crisis mongering, and on the other actively and systematically to inform oneself slowly over time. Finally, we ought to do good with what we learn, loving not just ourselves or even the truth, but the good.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Movie Review: Oblivion

Directed by Joseph Kosinski. 2013.


There might not be a single original element in Oblivion. Plot elements hail from the illustrious I Am Legend to the lowbrow Independence Day. The gadgetry looks peached from Minority Report and run through the Apple workshop of Jonathan Ive. The cinematography hovers in documentary-style wide shots of the landscapes and landmarks. I hope they cut Hans Zimmer a check for the score. Without a doubt the movie plays like a scifi pastiche, but Oblivion has one ace up its sleeve, and a substantial one at that.

You see, original movies invent the ideas. Lesser movies mimic them until they become staples. Oblivion walks a fine line borrowing the elements but not the tropes, the gestures which go along with them. This liberates the familiar from the confines of the crusty cliche and gives them a new lease on life.

So we get the gadgets, but not the explanatory technobabble. We hear the backstory but not the historical minutiae. There are flashbacks, but the hero doesn't blabber about them incessantly. We get a love story, but not umpteen moments in which we're they're almost separated for good. There is the heroic moment of recognition, but no histrionics as the music flares up and the camera circles. Especially, the joy!, there's no moment after the recognition where the hero decides to explain the situation to someone who, for the convenience of dim filmgoers, doesn't know what's happening. The result is a mix of familiar sci-fi, crisped and served on a thoughtful, if not bulletproof, plot.

After a Pyrrhic war with alien invaders, the human survivors have fled to an orbiting space station, the Tet, where they await transport to their new home, Titan. Tom Cruise is Jack, one of the last Earth-dwelling humans and a technician tasked with protecting the massive machines which extract Earth's remaining resources for the journey. Actually, Jack is a sort of Maytag man for the floating, spherical drones which do most of the protecting, protecting from the scavs, alien survivors intent on throwing off the evacuation. He lives with his partner Victoria in their Jetsons-like apartment in the clouds, from which he daily and dutifully descends to repair the drones. The two are not married per se, but we sense that the closed quarters and length of their assignment have funneled them into the traditional roles, and while it might be a sweet thought that the last people on Earth are a sort of Adam and Eve, it's dark twist that they remain not to people and endure, but take and flee.

At least Victoria, Vix to Jack, wants to flee. Jack is a good deal more sentimental about them and about Earth. While there's intimacy and the frisson of romance between the two, we sense that Jack likes the experience and business of his routine. Victoria wants to go home. Jack is home. He likes Bob the bobble-head on his dashboard. He likes to put on his Yankee cap when he sets off to work. He likes to tell stories about the surface when he touches down. These are all nice subtle touches, nothing beating us over the head. The situation and contrast between Jack and Vix is nicely summed up when Jack gives her a small tin of growing grass, painstakingly grown and a nice nod to man's most traditional and respected role as farmer. Without a word she steps away and drops it off the balcony. It might be contaminated, she notes. Sensing his disappointment, she pacifies him with some poolside nookie.

Vix aside, Jack is most at home on the surface where he has illicitly prepared a Thoreau-esque cottage and furnished it with Earth artifacts. Yet they're not so much for preservation as they are to make him feel at home, for home is not the touch displays and chic of his stratospheric apartment, but the record player, sunglasses, and books of his grassy preserve. Ah, yes, books. A Tale of Two Cities. A biography of Van Gogh. Books are the key to Jack's downfall and redemption.

On his next repair job Jack repels down into the NY Public Library. After a scav ambush, which seemed more intent on capturing than killing him, Jack prepares to ascend to the surface. Grabbing the cable he spots a burning book and then having stomped the flames picks it up. Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome:

Then out spake brave Horatius,
the Captain of the Gate:
"To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods."
Jack pockets Horatius for his collection and climbs up. Ultimately the scavs capture Jack and the secret to his dreams and the truth about Earth's fate come into focus. This is handled subtly, if a little too slowly. What's most striking, perhaps, is what's missing. No kitschy aliens. No lengthy speech from the  bad guy had honcho. No action escape. Anyway, we don't need to discuss the revelation here. It's familiar but functional. More importantly, though, it's meaningful, and it's meaningful because it is Jack's character and arc that stitch everything together.

You see Jack's not really so alone on Earth. There are many like him, but he was given the keys to the truth because someone saw in him the spark of his ancestors, and they saw it when he picked up that book. Ultimately, Jack's recognition of his repurposing sets in motion the final confrontation at the Tet which is marred by one misguided line. Here, Jack proudly recites the moral from Horatius to which the computer responds, "I am your God." The situation demands a line fraught with portent and bravado about Jack reclaiming his individuality and history but what we get is, "Fuck you." I thought of the end to Speed where the hero's partner is taunted by the madman played by Dennis Hopper. When the partner offers the same profane reply as Jack, Hopper snaps back with vicious scorn,

In years, we've come from, "I regret but I have one life to give for my country" to "fuck you"? 
The line really hit a sour note, especially coming off of the gravitas and severitas of Macaulay's Horatius. Too, by the end we feel Oblivion's pacing problem. It luxuriates in the leisurely stride of 2001 and Solaris, but lacks the visual energy and mystery to keep you enthralled. A number of its points and gestures could have been made more briskly which would have cut down the time and punched up the impact. Still, Oblivion is a success. Action junkies will be sorely disappointed, but aficionados of slow, thoughtful sci-fi will find a kindred spirit in director Joseph Kosinski who assembles from familiar and occasionally inglorious parts a meaningful story, subtly told, sometimes even beautiful.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Top & Bottom: James Bond Title Songs

James Bond needs no introduction, nor do the songs to the 24 films. In fact they've become a cornerstone of the franchise, giving each film the flavor of its age. While they all retain a certain charm, especially in the context of their title sequence and decade, some really are excellent, some are fun but flawed, and some are leagues away from the world of Bond in both tone and quality. Let's have a listen.

5. The Man With the Golden Gun

The swelling brass, scintillating percussion, and zippy, motivic figure give The Man With the Golden Gun an exotic vibe. The second Bond song not about the spy but his adversary-du-jour, The Man With the Golden Gun sketches a deadly assassin with his sights on Bond. And how does the song build up Bond's opponent into a fearsome rival? As far as I can tell, by a nonstop series of phallic references. Not including repetitions and variations, I count fifteen, sixteen if you include that brass figure. [YouTube]


Goldeneye was a gutsy return for Bond after a long hiatus. With those four opening notes peering out from the dark quiet, Tina Turner's sultry voice, and the dark imagery of the text, Goldeneye brings the indomitable and irresistible spy back out from the shadows. The text is also a novel woman's take on the 007 allure: raw attraction, defiantly resistant. [YouTube]

3. Goldfinger

Oh that wailing brass, classic yes, but the star here is of course Shirley Bassey, plucking those notes from nowhere and then weaving them out into seductive, sinuous lines up to a bravura finish. The text is simple but effective, mythologizing and building up a ruthless enemy who just may
spell doom for the unstoppable Bond. [YouTube]

2. Skyfall 

Here the brassy opening harkens straight back to Bond's origins, appropriate not only for Skyfall's subtle origins theme but as counterpoint to M's end painted in the text. All the vocal and instrumental leaps here paint a falling, an end shared by both M and Bond. [YouTube]

Thursday, April 18, 2013

We Lost the Thing?

One of the graces of aging is the ability, in seeing the same thing over and over again, to reevaluate things. Now you can go ahead and rethink philosophy and works of art, but what I find increasingly fascinating is reevaluating various forms of unreason. More specifically, it's fascinating when a smart person chooses not to apply reason. Now sure, you can revisit and freshly examine things like art and philosophy, but as I get older it is not such idealized species of inquiry which reveal man, but his insanity, his in-sanitas.

Please note I'm not talking about when people step outside their area of expertise, but rather when they forego simple formal logic and even trivial common sense.

The latest of these inquiries into concerted logical vacuity came yesterday when I saw the superfluity of leftwing responses to the recent legislation which had something to do with guns. I say "something to do with" because, not pretending to know the motives of legislators and with the actual effects of legislation seldom matching their titles, I don't want to give any bill any benefit of my considerable doubt.

Anyway, I don't want to talk about the purely ridiculous responses. I don't want to castigate people for defending a bill they didn't read addressing a topic they didn't understand. Nor do I wish to address points of inconsistency, such the slumbrous quotidian indifference from which a select species of democratic citizen wakens on occasion, his maladroit limbs righteously akimbo. What fascinates me is why some intelligent people would refuse to think about the bill and its effects and choose blindly to storm the barricades for it.

My conclusion is that the bill became part of a "thing," a cause, the cause of "gun control," and anything which purports to support the cause must be supported. Never mind the long, circuitous, vale-ridden path from bill to cause to policy to premise. Support

You see if someone wants to stop violent crime, he makes observations, records data, analyzes it, makes conclusions, and acts. Look at this video from Stefan Molyneux's as an example. It undoubtedly took a lot of research and reasoning. Regardless of whether you agree, his approach is reasoned. If you oppose aggression then you'll use reason to find an end to it, because only reason will get you that end.

Yet if you oppose aggression and use a series of unquestioned and unproven assumptions, unless you believe unquestioned and unproven assumptions produce predictable and good results, i.e. you are unreasonable, you're not serious about getting the job done. You've either foregone reason in this instance or are generally unreasonable. Since I think many people possess and use some reason, I believe the former more probable. So why would one forego reason?

Identity, and identity seldom mingles with reason. Some people don't care so much about a cause as being the kind of person who supports the cause. They may or may not believe in the cause, but their primary affinity for it is the way it completes their character.

Now I don't mean this entirely as a criticism and to illustrate that point I'll use a different example. Take someone who values liberty. He loves liberty, but he doesn't do anything to promote it. It's not a bad thing that he values it "internally," so to speak, but he might not care so much about it existing as he does about believing it is good. He's more concerned with his own internal state than the instantiation of the principle. Again, this is not wholly a bad thing but it must be distinguished from actually wanting to make something.

The problem with "causes" then, is that they prey on this ultimately self-centered interest in ideas by trying to implement the ideas, and in doing so they unite people with the same affinity. This validates the virtue of the affinity, which is all the individual cares about. Such is why many people don't care that a proposal does what it says it will. After all, if they were really in it for the idea itself, they'd be doing it already.

Should we, then, single out the progressive for scorn? Typically. For whereas the collectivist pull of political organization is fulfilled in the conservative with religion and/or tempered by his skepticism for all activity, and the same is tempered in the libertarian by a lust for liberty, the progressive has no strong counterbalance to grand-scheming. Hence the current president. It's not so much that progressives are persuaded by his speeches, the oratorical equivalents of Morning Train, so much that they speak the same level of earnest cliché. It matters not whether the ideas are specific, reasoned, moral, or possible to follow, but that they are held.

In such a light, this week's knee-jerk reactions seem, well, insane.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Word Power

There's a charming scene in J. R. R Tolkien's The Two Towers where hobbits Merry and Pippin encounter the ancient shepherd Treebeard in Fangorn Forest, surprising the prehistoric herder in more ways than one. First off, poor Treebeard has never heard of a hobbit before. "You do not seem to come in any of the old lists," he says. It's a subtle, gentle, and traditional line. Why traditional? Because in the old world and ways of Treebeard, one doesn't learn by poking one's nose around. You learn when you're young from the old lists, lists handed down and seldom added to. That's the way of things.

Second, the prehistoric herder is taken aback when the young hobbits introduce themselves by their real names. Why aren't they careful? Old Bilbo certainly didn't tell fire-breathing Smaug his real name, although he did introduce himself as Mr. Bilbo Baggins to Gollum of all people, almost to the detriment of Middle Earth when his name made its way to Sauron. So what's the big deal with a name, or any word for that matter?

It is no small feat to use a word, for to use one is to name a thing and to name a thing is to decide what it is. To name something is to de-fine it, to put ontological limits around it. Naturally just because you name something doesn't mean you are correct in defining it, but for your part you have used what concepts you have to de-termine what it is. Indeed the nominative power is nothing short of the creative   and possessive powers. Regarding names, how sensitive are we about our names.

First names, middle names, last names, nicknames, patronymics, epithets, initials, diminutives, titles, ranks. . . don't ever call someone by the wrong one. All of those nominative associations between people and places, deeds, jobs, countries, and other people are definitive and quite intimate. Consider the awkwardness when someone mispronounces your name, or when a child calls an adult by his given name. Even if we're not sure what something or who someone is, we insist on discussing and speculating until we settle on a name. We just can't abide by an unknown. Accurately or not, we have to name it. Unless we want to avoid it. How deftly we avoid names when we speak ill of people, shifting to pronouns and the passive voice: I hate her and the gun went off.

Finally, consider the fine ways we insult each other, the colorful and crude turns of phrase. Why is invective so satisfying? For much the same reason that all acts of naming are significant: they give you some power, or the impression of power, over a thing. We glory in exercising it and flee from it turned against us. Whether it's disguising the name of a god in a religious text or Catullus obfuscating the details of a romance, we have often sought in anonymity a protection from the invidious.

No, we're not as superstitious today, and how much we value our names may owe more to vanity than fear. Yet without fear, reverence is hard to come by. Recall Latin's revereor for both fearing and revering. We should then, perhaps, cultivate a certain reverence for words, that is, the act of naming, for  as in Treebeard's Old Entish language, "real names tell you the story of the things they belong to." We should try to find those stories in both the words and things. Naming, then, is a thought-ful and active task of studying the essences of things and concepts behind words. Yes, the work exacting, but it might do us some good to be less hasty and more thoughtful. Let us say of our own then, what Treebeard says of his, "It's a lovely language, but it takes a long time to say."

Monday, April 15, 2013

Hughes & Krier: The Architecture of Power

This WSJ review of a new book architect and urban planner Leon Krier brings a considerable question into relief: can an idea inhere in a work of architecture. This would be a heady, esoteric, and generally uncontroversial question. . . if Krier weren't discussing the Nazi architecture of Albert Speer.

The author of the review summarizes Krier's thought as follows:
Mr. Krier correctly objects that there is no clear congruence between architectural form and ideological meaning. Washington, D.C., he points out, has modern façades that would have been welcomed in Hitler's Berlin. Classicism, he thinks, has been unjustly tainted by association with fascism. At the other end of the spectrum, sleek modernist design was deployed under Mussolini and a forward-looking capital like Brasília, built to signify democratic openness, perfectly served Brazil's military regime.
Yet what does he mean precisely by "congruence" and "ideological meaning?" Yes, you might not be able to express certain ideas in architecture, but that does not mean one cannot express any. Similarly, although classicism and modernism have been put to varying purposes we can't assume there is no commonality.

And what is the commonality in question? Renowned art critic Robert Hughes put it well in his 1982 exploration, "The Shock of the New," that it is the architecture of power, devoid of particular ideology.

Is there no difference, then, between the Flavians' amphitheater and Mussolini's Palazzo della Civiltà?

Surely one could argue for the refinements of the former, but is the force of impact any different? Did a Roman citizen look up at the amphitheater humbled by imperium? Was he proud of the conquests which funded it? Did he simply feel he was getting his "money's worth" from the government? Was it fundamentally for him, even his, as a citizen, or was is foremost, or only, a symbol of power from above?

Yet if we lump modern democratic facades from DC to Brasilia to Lincoln Center into the "architecture of power," is there, as Hughes asks, one of free will?

What comes to my mind is not quite a perfect answer. Take the Greek amphitheater-style, which, in putting the dramatic action at the center of all attention, elevates the activity and agency of the players and thus the drama and thus individuals of the plot.

Likewise and putting aside the competing theories about the significance of its ratios, the Parthenon is a point of mediation for man as individual, man as citizen, and man as created.

These are not styles of force or power, however refined and channeled, but styles which embrace if not the free man, the whole man. 

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Movie Review: Phil Spector

Written and Directed by David Mamet. 2013.

Critics and fans like to talk about how much confidence and bravado a director needs to make an epic film. True enough, and your Leans, Kubricks, and Jacksons fairly loom large in the cinema world. On the other hand, it's not so hard to lure an audience when you give yourself three hours, a great man, and a vast stage. Now how much confidence, and skill of course, do you need to make a ninety minute movie about Phil Spector?

However much, David Mamet had both and succeeded in his HBO drama about the famed record producer Phil Spector and his 2009 murder trial. Actually, Phil Spector could have played almost without loss as a chamber play because it's essence is in the words. I don't think anyone would approach this movie too sym-pathetic to the title character, but Mamet generates it in two ways. The first is through Spector's new lawyer, Linda Kenney Baden, and her slow realization that, guilty or not, it'll be virtually impossible for Spector to get a fair trial.

Foremost, she observes, everyone is tired of the rich and famous getting away with murder, so Spector is going to be tried not just for his crime but those of O. J. Simpson and every other celebrity who's walked free since. This prejudice plays out not just in the difficulty of persuading a jury by reason, but in what kinds of methods they can use in the courtroom. , Bruce Cutler, Spector's first lawyer, tells Baden she may have a persuasive reenactment, if but you put that skull out there, all the jury sees is: skull=guilty. Baden also refuses to tear down the deceased, Clarkson, and the judge strikes down her request to use certain demonstrations in court. She also can't very well put the kooky Spector on the stand, so her hands are quite tightly tied for proving reasonable doubt.

That's all neatly handled in classic legal-procedural scenes, but the more interesting element, and path to understanding this curious character and movie, are the scenes where Baden gets to know Spector. When she enters Spector's vast mansion we've already been loaded up on media frenzy fodder, both reasonable and unreasonable. Of course we're not sympathetic. It doesn't help that Spector's shuffling around in his pajamas, hair bouffant, and that his mansion is adorned with the eclectic mix of fine art and his own pop culture contributions. Finally hear from Philip. We see a man who, according to himself, just wanted to disappear after his successes, just "like T. E. Lawrence," he adds, without a hint of awareness at the delusion of grandeur. He begins to rant about how other criminals walked off and no one seemed to care. Look at John Gotti, he says, a through-and-through criminal, and Teddy Kennedy, a talentless hack rewarded with decades-long tenure in Congress who not only murdered a woman, but fled the scene. Hit outrage at the fickle public and justice system is palpable and, if unreasoned, not unreasonable. We do come around to him a little, just in time to see his argument go off the rails when he alleges Jesus was put to death not for being the Son of God but for being "too big for his breeches," just like Phil Spector. Ooph.

One line very neatly sums up Phil Spector. Baden is flipping through a book of clippings Spector has kept about the trial. Turning a page she says how it's a bit much, with the wigs and all, and he replies, "They're not wigs, that's a prejudice." Indeed, we just assumed he was playing a crazy part to the hilt. It turns out he was authentically oddball, and authentically talented, and authentically troubled, but guilty of murder beyond a reasonable doubt?

On the one hand we're rationally appalled at the violence and Spector's apparent and grandiose self-concern. On the other, justice requires of us reason, precision, and impartiality. The film asks us to look at ourselves vis-à-vis this most unusual, and perhaps criminal, man. Are we "Back to Mono" fanboys, overlooking his potential guilt because he's "the great Phil Spector." Do we just want to put the rich sicko away? Do we demand justice, or "Justice for Lana?" Are we one of the many actors on the legal stage "just doing our job?" Ultimately, Phil Spector leaves the audience the way Phil Spector left the public, but hopefully more self aware. 

N.B. I've referred to Mr. Spector variously as allegedly criminal not because I believe he was not guilty but because the movie is asking us to consider that he was not.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Jonathan Winters: Hilarious Madness

In remembering Jonathan Winters I'd like to take a look at one of the funniest minutes in one of the funniest films. Here in It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Phil Silvers gasses up the car he stole from a furiously pursuant Jonathan Winters. Some movies build up a joke over the course of a whole scene but here they come at a mad cap pace in which nearly every moment offers a novel laugh.

Right of the bat we have Silvers laying his polished flim-flam routine on the station attendants, convincing them Winters, due to arrive at any moment, is a deranged mental patient. Right on cue Winters' buterball frame cycles in on atop a dainty bicycle and proceeds to chase Silvers around the car as he continues to lay his phony-psychiatrist shtick on the attendants. The increasingly enraged Winters responds by unhinging the car door and bounding over the vehicle, landing atop the fleeing Silvers who continues his incontinent effusion of desperate outrage.

The minute climaxes as Winters grabs the chiseler by the collar and proceeds to thrash him against the gas pump, the sale bell tinkling each time. Finally Winters slings his arms through two massive tires and with what look like two massive bosoms gleefully beats his former tormentor.

The scene is classic rip of nonstop-gags which plays off the simple contrast between the two characters: Winters' growling vs. Silvers' relentless jabbering, husky vs. skinny, mad vs. terrified. It's a blast, but it's also only about one minute of a long hilarious movie, and career.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Wise and Good

The death of a polarizing and popular figure brings out all types. Cheerleaders and apologists charge out first, followed by the reactionaries and nonconformists. Then come the folks who didn't really have an opinion on the deceased, or at least one more nuanced than like or dislike, but now because they can quote their trusted pundits' opinions on the recently exanimated, brim with commentary. Then come the attacks from the Mencken-wannabes, followed of course by the finger-waggers, nihil nisi bonum and all. Next come the chief-justifiers who explain why in this instance it is acceptable to say such and such. Last of course arrive the measured reactions which few read.

Surely it's natural for everyone to have an opinion and not unreasonable that debate, heated and otherwise, ensue. What strikes me is that no one can wait. Even if one persists in expressing himself, must it be at the exact moment you find out the person died? In many cases the deceased had faded from public life many years ago. Whence comes his sudden relevance and what explains the renewed ferocity of the attacks and praise?

I recall myself, a number of years ago when a prominent politician died, growing indignant at what I perceived were his misdeeds. I was preparing to say something clever and excoriating when by good fortune I read the thoughts of none other than Mr. Northcutt. I was struck by the gentlemanly charity of his response: neither fuming nor fawning, but quietly hopeful for the deceased. This seems to me the most genteel and dignified reply to death. It's certainly what one might want for oneself, and more humane than using the dead in a mad clawing after self-satisfaction.

At such times one need not choose between tacit silence and bombast. One merely must be wise and good.

App Review: The Room

Fireproof Games. 2012. iOS & Android.

Video games aren't known for deep ideas. Yes, there are some with passable and a few even with compelling stories, yet the better the plot the more I wish it liberated from the confines of walking around whacking baddies. The exception is the game which uses its interactive space not just to pad or decorate the plot with novel ways to complete tasks, but which justifies the activity by creating a revealing in the doing which could not be achieved by watching.

This is a lofty goal to be sure and few games even attempt this, let alone achieve it. I'm not sure the makers of  The Room had such a purpose in mind, and while they didn't achieve it, they seem to have wandered onto the path.

The premise is simple: you're trapped in a room and they key to your escape lies inside a box sealed by all manner of locks. The gameplay is equally easy to explain: unlock the box. The devil lies of course in the details and you'll find yourself desperately tapping to find pieces, assemble mechanisms, match symbols, spell codes, and align images in the hopes of teasing the secret to your release from the mysterious casket.

Lovers of point-and-click or click-through games will delight in these puzzles. The tasks vary significantly and the clues are just far enough out of sight. In fact, it's not until the last level that you get a sense of there bing variations on the puzzle themes. Most entertaining of all, though, are not the brain-teasing puzzles but how they are stitched together into the space of this box which quickly becomes not only a world unto its own, but an unfolding one.

Which brings us back to our premise: the ideas of the game. No, The Room is not a philosophical mind-bender, but there is enough said and left out to get the impression of what one might look like. First, the lack of context to one's predicament gives it an existentialist twinge. Why am I trapped in this room? Who put his box here? Why bother giving me a way out? We aren't left to wonder, however, whether there is a way out, mostly because designing an impossible game is not only dastardly but unprofitable. Second, the dramatic tone is that of exploration, set by the puzzles of course but also by following in the footsteps of a scientist whose journal we read as we progress. The entries become increasingly rapt as the mystery unfolds, yet also fraught with concern about the increasingly untamable and overwhelming nature of the unfolding power. Are we on the path to nirvana or falling down the rabbit hole? Lastly, the visual tone is set by the symbological, astronomical, astrological, scientific, religious, and numerological, references. Throw in a little Greek and Latin, shake, and it certainly feels like you're on a momentous quest.

We're not quite, though, or not very much. Such elements don't conspire dramatically or philosophically toward a purpose, be it a question, answer, or process, but are spice for the puzzle experience. That's certainly to the developer's credit, for this is polished and absorbing puzzle game. It's also a tantalizing taste of what a philosophically-oriented interactive experience could be.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

On Irritating People and the Concentricity of Relationships

It is often remarked by well-meaning folk of frustrating charity that we ought to get to know people before we judge them, especially if our initial reaction is unfavorable. I agree, but not only out of charity and generosity of spirit, but rather out of gratitude and social responsibility.

You see, we're all rather annoying. Yes, some of us have mastered the arts of charm and pruned our prickly selves down to gentlemen. Most of us, however, are rather rascally. Some more than others to be sure, oh so sure, but we all have our quirks, habits, and idiosyncrasies. Some of us are untidy, others untimely. Some talk to much, some to little. Then you have the special types of irritators like the linguistic malcontents, your grammar nerds, slangtastic hipsters, and verbicidal madmen, the conspiracy theorists, it's the government!, it's the corporations!, it's the Illuminati!, and the conversationally inept close-talkers, mumblers, and loudmouths.

As you can see there's a whole taxonomy of irritating people, but the point is they, we, are legion. Unfortunately, it seems that peeves are easily peeved.

It is therefore vital that we learn each others' hidden virtues so that we irritating people might, either overlooking vices or considering them counterbalanced, befriend or at least accompany one another. And it's important to befriend irritating people because while their relentless stories might bore or vex you, they probably really ticked off someone else. Likewise, there's a very good chance that your fascinating hobby or nail-biting bothers your other friends and they need a little break from you. Relationships are therefore concentric not just with respect to affection as is commonly observed but also temperament. Too we always shift and are shifted around, nearer, and farther from the center, for we can only stand so much of each other.

Now before you cry foul, that this is some terrible cynicism, recall that we can only stand so much of ourselves. Any good and honest man rebukes himself dozens of times a day and that's tiring work.  Hence the great boon to man that is sleep.

So indeed let us indeed in good humor over look each other's vices and gather together in sympathetic disharmony.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Student Debt Stigma

No form of debt is so fiercely loathed as student loans. I'm not perplexed as to why, there are many and good reasons, but I do wonder why the resentment is so vague and often misdirected. What I observe is not principled opposition but rather a pastiche of regrets and sundry indignations. Let me give a few examples and hypotheticals.

One common source of resentment is that education ought be free, or at least free to those who cannot afford it. Though I disagree, this is to me an intelligible position. What I don't follow is why the rage is not directed at professors. If education ought to be free then wouldn't the people with the knowledge, teachers, be chiefly at fault for charging? Now a philosopher a la Socrates might agree and allege that our modern professorial class is nothing more than sophists. I've not, though, ever heard this argument advanced, though it's not an incredible claim. Benefits might follow from a culture wherein many experts take on a few pupils gratis rather than having a select few essentially retire from the profession and teach for a fee.

More commonly, though, I hear the argument that education ought to be subsidized by those with allegedly excess monies, an argument I find unpersuasive because it doesn't shift the burden from educators. Even if you have a right to an education, it doesn't follow that someone third party with no ability to remedy your dearth of education other than that he has some goods which might be seized, bears the responsibility.

Another familiar recipient of debtor rage is the lender. This again is not wholly unreasonable, for the lender should  if only for himself do some investigation as to whether the recipient of the loan will be likely to pay it back. It is in no one's interest that the borrower default, although the lender won't care or bother to do diligence if he's assured he'll be paid even in cases of default. Again, though, this is the less common argument than, well it's more of an accusation really, that lenders are hucksters. That may be true, especially if the government has insulated him from risk, but such doesn't mean the borrower should hate the lender. After all, the borrower doesn't have the money to get what he wants. The lender does, and he's willing to risk it. That should engender some gratitude, if only at the fortuitous availability of resources for your venture

The last object of the indebted student's scorn is the school itself. Classes are too expensive. I didn't get a job after I graduated. Surely many schools are poorly run, but unless you favor the decentralized,  setup I outlined above, an institution is needed, and institutions have overhead. Likewise, you might not have a job, but you bought a curriculum. Probably should have checked the demand first. The school, however, may be at fault. Not necessarily for charging too much or poorly preparing you, but for letting you in.

You see I think there ought to be a student debt stigma. As it is, student debt is a sign of an individual's investment in the humanistic over the economic. Never mind the utterly nugatory "liberal arts" education $90,000 buys you, spending money on education is the shiniest badge of honor. Never mind the predominantly supine collegiate experience of most "students," once they get the paperwork they're graduates. Instead of these honorifics, exceptional student debt should signal one of two things: either you weren't smart enough to get a scholarship, or you went to a school whose standards you didn't really meet, but who admitted you anyway just to take your money.

Of course, that reality is hard to take: that one's a deeply indebted, mediocre talent, with skills nobody needs. So instead the student debtor dwells on the fact he was swindled by a banker, defrauded by a school, and exploited by the government. Actually, that's pretty understandable.

Friday, April 5, 2013

On Barbers

Gas is too expensive. Food is too expensive. So are cars and taxicab rides and cell phones. Never mind how many things exist for the first time or how many products are the cheapest ever, adjusted for inflation. At some point I think I've heard everything alleged as overpriced. Except for one: haircuts.

Consider it. People pay $90 per month for cell phones and mope about the service. People send food back at restaurants. They resent having to maintain their cars. The mail is too slow. The internet is too slow. Food servers are too slow. Everybody's doctor is rich, and too rich. Yet everyone seems to have found the right barber.

I've never heard a cross word said about a barber, nor have I heard someone complain that his is too pricy. This owes not to mere serendipity, however, but two factors. First is the degree of trust required. After all, we let a stranger speed around our head with razor blades and heated irons, not only a danger to our health but our faces, our presentations to the world and self-expressions. The second factor is that people realize this. Sure we might trust the mechanic who replaces our brakes, but most of us have never stepped on a brake and had it fail, so we don't really entertain the thought of mortal peril. Likewise for doctors, for just once are most of us in mortal peril, and so our doctor's visits consist in them telling us to lose weight and that they cannot prescribe antibiotics for our colds.

Yet we don't begrudge our barbers, and in contrast to our outrage at medical and automotive bills, everyone seems pretty happy paying what they do to their barber, whether it be 20 or 100 dollars. People seem to have found not only the right person, but the right price for the service. Maybe barber's just have to be more eager to please, after all the stakes are pretty high. Who would go back to someone who mangled your hair? In other words, this apparent satisfaction with our barbers might owe to some vanity, but we're not the first or most. In an epitaph, the Roman poet Martial reflects on a trusted tonsor:

Within this tomb lies Pantagathus, snatched away in boyhood's years, his master's grief and sorrow, skilled to cut with steel that scarcely touched the straggling hairs, and to trim the bearded cheeks. Gentle and light upon him thou mayst be, O earth, as it behoves thee; lighter than the artist's hand thou canst not be. [1]
Everyone's found just the right person and the right price. And everyone seems to enjoy the experience too, the snipping and sudsing and swirling, be it in the chatty din of a salon or the polished finery of an old time barbershop.

Maybe we're a little vain, maybe we take other specialists for granted, or maybe we're just acutely aware of the alternatives.

[1] Martial. VI. 52 Tr. J. Carcopino. in Daily Life in Ancient Rome. 1940. Latin Text at The Latin Library.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

On The Critic

I didn't always take such delight in movies. Sure I saw them and enjoyed them, but I didn't realize how much there was to see until about the year 2001. At some point around that time I stumbled across Roger Ebert's reviews at the Chicago Sun Times website. Now I'd been familiar with Ebert and his partner in criticism Gene Siskel, who had died a few years before. Who didn't know them, though? A thumb up from one of them always meant there was something to see in a movie. Not something profound or hilarious, but something worth seeing. Two thumbs up meant one thing: see it.

Anyway, it turns out that Ebert's site wasn't so much a website as a vast cupboard of reviews. One by one I gobbled them up. I wonder what he thought about The Shining. Did he review Ordinary People? And then the reviews for Woody Allen's movies, from Bananas all the way up to the present. And Kubrick. And Bergman. And. . . Inevitably I began to watch the movies again, pulling out old VHS tapes and buying these then-nascent and now-forgotten things called DVDs. After, of course, I went back to the reviews, agreeing here and disagreeing there. The disagreement went through several phrases: denial, outrage, despair, détente. It was like arguing with your professor.

Throughout the following serious movie going years Ebert was a silent companion, first, because he wrote so many reviews and second, because he spoke with personal and yet not folksy literary voice. It's easy for a reader to take voice and tone for granted, but every good style is hard-won and voice long-sought. Too in print he balanced being informative without slipping into academese. This appealed to casual readers wanting a quick review and passers-by a quick read, but of course it left scholars and fans wanting more. Never a bad thing.

Some time around 2007 or so I drifted away. In part this was due to my own departure from reading criticism and desire to develop my own thoughts, and in part I was turned off by his increasingly overblown political columns. I regret turning away. Not just because, as I learned, his reviews continued to be superb, but because I learned to appreciate ardor, candor, and old age, even when the combination rankles me. I can't consider him fanatical, though, well not with respect to anything but love for movies. Once he wrote that on a good day his favorite movie was Citizen Kane, and on a bad day, King Kong. I always smile when I think about that remark. It's. . it's just right, about him and about movies.

Ecce! The Bourgeois Boomer

The life of the mind is fraught with labor, not chiefly cogitation but rather searching, seeking after veritable examples of ideas. It's consuming work and the models are rarely perfect, but we proceed, poring over random political correspondence, obscure Renaissance treatises, and ancient marginalia. Then one day a walking archetype stumbles into our lives and. . . voila. Enter the Bourgeois Boomer via The Huffington Post.

Now to be sure I don't know whether the author himself qualifies as a true Bourgeois Boomer or he's just pandering to a stereotype. I suspect the latter, that's he's just playing to a host of sentiments which few people hold but which do form a somewhat consistent constellation of attitudes which is termed Middle Class Baby Boomer. Real or manufactured, though, the persona of the author and the audience at which he aims typifies the stereotype. Read the article when you're at home so you can wash the pandering off your trousers.

The opening is classic: our dear author is baffled by modern technology. Can't you picture the man, a good soul to be sure, pressing the buttons on his phone in escalating frustration. He's lost in an "endless maze" of technology. This never happened when Suzie Q-Tip, who lived just down the road, was the operator and well she just put you right on through. 

But there aren't any operators left. Or receptionists. Or secretaries. Or typists. Or any number of dozens of jobs that used to be available for millions of people to earn a living.
 O Tempora! O Mores! Suzie's been outsourced! And forget those overseas folks working for pennies so our dear author, a hard worker, can afford this service in the first place.

Then the long awaited reference comes, that to ordinary people. Pardon me, "ordinary people." The quotations in this context need some translation because they indicate we're talking about a particular, special, group of people. They should read,

You know these folks right? Of course you do, you're one of us aren't you? Sure you are, come on in. 
This is nothing but an appalling appeal to people like you. Then we get a twofer, a real doozie in learning about these,

average Americans who needed to make a living wage to live the decent middle-class life that defines what makes our country great.
Not smart people, or kind people, or people with any concrete virtue whatsoever, but average people. Average folks like G. Harrold Carswell, who was not in fact the Mayor of Mayberry but a judge, an average man and an average judge for an average American. And Americans should be represented by their peers. Not by their betters, surely, for that would reek of meritocracy or worse, aristocracy. Yuck. Excellence. How un-American, right?

Ooh look now, a "living wage." Well-played, author. One must adopt the new lingo. And apparently the "middle class life" is what makes America great. The Middle Classe Life, i.e. your life. Not life as in freedom from being murdered, but life as in way-of-life. America is great not because its citizens are free or virtuous but because the middle class lives a certain way. And don't let anyone tamper with that!

The author's following reference to the opening of the Declaration of Independence is pretty slick. It's been prepared by the previous reference to life we discussed. You see he's defined the term above, therefore the reference here carries the weight of his definition. Had he simply appealed to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," he would have run the risk of even readers considering the traditional, Jeffersonian, libertarian, meaning of the phrase and not his dutiful Rooseveltian one. He's also chosen not to re-define the term too nearby the quotation of the Declaration, lest it actually look like he is commandeering or re-writing it. Clever author!

But in today's brave new world, too often driven by Wall Street values, there is no more room for most of these people. As Thomas Friedman, the prestigious bestselling New York Times columnist recently wrote: "every boss ... has cheaper, easier, faster access to more above-average software, automation, robotics, cheap labor and cheap genius than ever before. That means the old average is over. Everyone who wants a job now must demonstrate how they can add value better than the new alternatives. ... the skill required for every decent job is rising as is the necessity of lifelong learning."
On no, we're in a "Brave new world!" Of emails and smart phones, presumably. And that world is driven by "Wall Street values," i.e. not "Main Street values." Now our author quotes the Sage of the Times, Thomas Friedman, who ushers in a new age of thought with the observation that people need to add more value to their jobs than people or machines which add less value. My world is rocked.

Aren't we charmed, though, by the outrage of his response:

Well this mediocre ("old average") citizen is relieved to be retired from a job market that demands that every worker has to continually show they can "add value better" than others. And as for the "necessity of lifelong learning," I'd like to know who just is doing all that lifelong teaching?
Translation: I'm not going to prove that I'm better than someone else at my job and I'm not going to learn unless someone teaches me!

I just can't wait to hire this guy.

Now we get the obligatory reference to a New York Times fact that corporate profits are up. Oh no! He continues:

corporate profits are thriving despite -- or more likely because of -- high unemployment. Even if you consider corporations as people -- as the Supreme Court recently declared -- this isn't good news for most of the rest of us people.
This is bizarre in two ways.

First, even if corporations have legal standing tantamount to that of an individual, which one can sensibly argue they should not, it's not as if the corporation is an actual person taking the money. There's no Matrix-like mainframe somewhere hoarding the money. Real, flesh-and-bones people have the money. This observation then, ignorant as it may be, is just a thinly veiled attack at people with more money than that hard-working good-souled Main Street American citizen.

Second, the notion that high unemployment, which we ought read as high American unemployment, is profiting American companies is misleading. It could profit a company outsourcing labor which is more expensive in the US, but the author has conflated total unemployment with employment due to outsourcing, and implied that it is the unemployment itself which benefits the corporations and not the hiring of cheaper labor which results in unemployment. Yes, the unemployment is transitively beneficial, but the sentence could have easily been reworded had the author not wished to make corporations seem nefarious and opposed to average Americans.

Also, consider a few points. First, anyone who fears being displaced could settle for a lesser salary. . . although that would diminish his sacred, "decent middle-class life that defines what makes our country great." We can't have that. We can't have employers deciding how much money their business should make them. Raise the protectionist tariffs! Second, middle class Americans with their savings invested in the stock market often benefit when corporations profit because they're invested in said corporations.

Finally, never mind pesky statistics about older people not retiring and keeping the youth out of the work force, youth unemployment in general, and monetary policy which punishes savings. Pay no attention to such things. Also, ignore the actual effects of automation. Certainly don't ask why the people who make higher wages are more important than the shareholders who benefit from increased profits of businesses and the consumers who enjoy less expensive goods. These aren't the ideas you're looking for. Bourgeois-Boomer solidarity is the name of this game.

The author now concludes:

Technology -- probably even that produced by the slimmer, more efficient United Technologies -- is wonderful. Since at heart I'm an optimist, I believe that eventually many, many new jobs will be created, as they were after the early days of the Industrial Revolution, to make up for the ones that are being destroyed.
And now the caveats. The author wishes to make it known that he is neither a Luddite nor a cynic, traits he has already demonstrated. Now "Technology is wonderful" and "I'm an optimist." He says he has "faith" that new "jobs will be created,"but he links to an article which suggests the government is what made the 19th century profitable. "Jobs will be created" he says, in the passive voice, but he hides the "by whom" in the link. So the author seems to be confessing to some beautiful faith in wonderful people freely working together, economics, but is really confessing to a faith in government force and planning.

The author ends with a recapitulation of his opening shtick, the average older American is amazed by the whiz-bang technology these kids make today.

Between the author's skill at offering the progressive paradigm in broadly pleasing and pandering pabulum and the chorus of squawking praise in the comments section, Mr. Bloch should write political speeches. Perhaps that'll leave him enough money to afford a new iPhone as well as the time to read its manual.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Gandalf the. . . Libertarian

Sooner or later every beloved literary character falls victim to some ideologue who tries to shoehorn him into a pet philosophy. My goal here is far more modest: to observe the character of Gandalf as consistent with Tolkien's philosophy of nature. I have chosen the appellation libertarian mostly out of desperation, libertarianism being the only recognizable philosophy with any principled and pervasive antipathy toward the use of force. Tolkien's own opposition to force included the political as well as natural.

"The modern world meant for [Tolkien] essentially the machine. . . He used ["machine"] very compendiously to mean. . . almost any alternative solution to the development of the innate and inherent powers and talents of human beings. The machine means, for him. . . the wrong solution: the attempt to actualize our desires, like our desire to fly. It meant coercion, domination, for him the great enemy. Coercion of other minds and other wills. This is tyranny. But he also saw the characteristic activity of the modern world is the coercion, the tyrannous reformation of the earth, our place." – Christopher Tolkien
We see in Middle Earth, then, tyranny in the obvious form of Sauron's political control of the free peoples, but also from Saruman, and it is in fact this tyranny which is more instructive insofar as it is multifaceted.
  1. He controlled the land via his industrious machines.
  2. He sought political domination, by way of the One Ring, to order all things according to his special wisdom. 
  3. He through his extraordinary powers of persuasion sought to coerce people for his own ends. Tolkien calls him subtle in speech but we might appropriately call him in Greek δεινός/deinos, or great and terrible with respect to speech.
  4. He assumed political authority in heading the White Council. 
In each instance Gandalf is opposed to Saruman.
  1. Where Saruman controlled the land, Gandalf was itinerant.
  2. Where Saruman sought the One Ring, Gandalf rejected it. Moreover, while he possessed the ring Narya, its power and purpose were not domination but of preservation and rekindling hearts, Gandalf's mission.
  3. Where Saruman seeks to persuade Gandalf finds common cause and mutual self-interest (if that's not too libertarian for you) as in the case of the quest for Erebor.
  4. Gandalf refused to head the White Council, rejecting political means and preferring to have "no ties and no allegiance" except to those who sent him.
Most different of all, though, Saruman studied the "devices of Sauron of old" and the Rings of Power, their making and history. Even though he earlier sought to learn with the purpose of destroying evil, Tolkien describes Saruman's "desire of mastery" as having grown great. We cannot say for certain whether only the knowledge itself corrupted him, but surely knowing the arts of evil contributed to his downfall. Elrond's statements that, "The very desire of it corrupts the heart. Consider Saruman." and, "Nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so." suggest the corrupting influence of power. As soon as one ponders the ways of domination, they work their way into once noble plans.

We should pause on that for a moment, the perversion of noble plans. It is facile to say that "power corrupts" and "plans go awry," but think of how truly sad it is to fall from grace, to see the flame of the good die. How pitiful for a skilled and brilliant spirit tasked with the highest good, a sacred good, to have fallen to the uttermost depths of lust and tyranny and to have perverted himself and his trust. Howard Shore brought out the gravity of Saruman's fall in his score to Gandalf's confrontation with the fallen wizard in Peter Jackson's 2001 film adaptation. Jackson, not without reason, played the scene for a laugh with the dueling geezers, but Shore picked up on the profane thread of Saruman's transformation, the unholy perversion of the good.

In contrast, Gandalf tried to fulfill his limited role of "messenger" to the peoples of Middle Earth and to move, "all living things of good will to valiant deeds." Indeed Gandalf seems to be reminding Saruman of his mission when, after Saruman confesses his plans to rule with the ring, Gandalf responds that he has only heard such folly from the emissaries of Mordor, suggesting that Saruman's proposal is the very antithesis of their mission. It was not the wizards' job to to coerce, either Sauron directly or the free peoples to oppose Sauron, but to kindle, that is to cultivate, the good which would by nature oppose evil. In contrast to Saruman's obsession with means, Gandalf brought purity of purpose and, instead of a desire to oppose force with might, a faith in the agency of the good and meek.

Consider Gandalf's proposal to Elrond that Merry and Pippin be permitted to go with the ring-bearer instead of some great elf lord:

this quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere. . . it would be well to trust to their friendship rather than to great wisdom.
How striking, to put all hope not in force, not in conscripting men to fight Sauron nor in matching the Dark Lord in might, but in a bond of love and fealty. To venture slightly off-canon, in his film of The Hobbit, writer-director Peter Jackson gives Gandalf a few lines which seem to sum up the wizard, and libertarian, philosophy:

Saruman believes that it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I find. I've found it is the small things, everyday deeds of ordinary folk, that keeps the darkness at bay, simple acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps it is because I am afraid, and he gives me courage. 
No grand plans, no machines and spies and lies and craft. No system of force, just people doing good. And how beautiful that Gandalf should take courage, what he was meant to kindle, from Bilbo, in whom the wizard awoke something Tookish and adventurous, some spirit willing to take a personal risk for the good.

Monday, April 1, 2013

A Friend of Mine: Beyond Polyphony

As any APLV readers know, the classical music greats feature prominently on the blog. Please don't think, though, that we neglect that modern music which speaks straight to the heart. Right here we have a great 20th century hit which cuts past those nasty fugal complexities behind us for some toe-tapping elation. In a way this is purer song, finer expression through its liberation from complex harmonies and expressive means. Listen.

First, hear how the symmetry of those opening notes, three pairs of two, is broken by the seventh, lone note. One does not simply write such a groovy theme. One is inspired. Likewise, notice the triplet figure in the bass rolling on and on, as if eternally, reminiscent of a great passacaglia from Bach, Purcell, or Buxtehude. See lastly how yet another figure theme lays atop the bass, there.

Naturally we cannot ignore the text, which is deliberately emphasized by the lack of musical development. The text features rhyming couplets, emphasizing contrasting pairs such as different and same by their end-stopped placement and important concepts such as name, and same by the end-rhyme. Lastly, the imagery references everything from the ancient myth of Actaeon. "Once I tried to run," to the modern morality tales of Dudley-Do-Right, "He is like a Mountie, he always gets his man."

Complemented by the timeless look of leather vests and pelvic swaying, this video is simply electrifying. Zap!