Friday, February 21, 2014

On Tipping

Not cows, of course. That's a cruel thing to do! I speak of tipping for services, especially at restaurants. It seems an ingenious system: part of the price of your experience is reserved for your judgment. You can decide just how good everything was and vote with your wallet. What could be wrong with such a system?

First, the gratuity is ostensibly for service, yet every aspect of the meal falls under the umbrella of service. In some cases tips are split among various staff, but it's inevitably the waiter who bears the burden for any mishaps in the meal, whether or not anything is his fault.

Second, the quantity of the tip seems to me invariably arbitrary. What is service worth? Why is 15-20% customary? First, the percentages are contingent on the prices of the foods, yet that has nothing to do with the quality of the service. Second, those percentages might not be the same in all markets at all times. Besides that, all gratuity is arbitrary, subject to the vicissitudes of the mood, temperament, expectation, and resources of the patron.

Most importantly, though, we have a problem of definitions. A gratuity is either: 1) a gift of money, over and above payment due for service or 2) a gift or reward. . . for services rendered. So is it for the service or is it a special thanks beyond the objective cost of the service? If it's over and above the cost, then the tips arbitrary quantity is not so relevant. If the tip is part of the service, then the variation is relevant. In such cases, our above two points work to the detriment of the server and the patron: the server may get less money than his service warrants, since his tip is going to supplement his wage, and the patron either gets worse service because with servers receiving less, the quality of the service goes down, or overpays. For example, if $15 of my $20 tip goes to what the waiter expects as his wage, then it's a more expensive meal which might not be worth so much to me were I to tip on top of that amount.

Obviously there's no non-arbitrary way of delineating what the server expects as his wage and what he makes in total. Surely he feels he deserves as much, if not more, than he receives. The server no doubt, though, is content with his average intake or he'd not keep the job. It is that average which I refer to as his "expected wage."

Now I'm not suggesting any chicanery is afoot, though that's possible. The employer considers as the server's wage what the employer can afford and when the server takes and keeps the job, the employer knows that's the right price. Now I'm not arguing the server salary is too low. Maybe it is and maybe it's not. The server is not entitled to have one job which gives him all the resources he needs. I'm arguing the two points above: that the gratuity system 1) makes the server's tip contingent on factors outside his control, and when used as part of the server's wage, the tip 2) obscures the cost of the service, affecting the quantity and efficacy of my payment as tip (which ought to be used to gauge customer satisfaction) and as wage. Together, servers often get less of the money they earn and the value of the service goes down for the patron.

It would seem easier for the patron and more consistent for the server, though, for the employer simply to raise the cost of the meal, making the tip a pure gratuity over the cost of the service. The employer would have do more to adjust all of his prices according to the demand for their establishment at the new rate and for the supply of servers, but that's business.

As a customer figuring a tip I feel like the task of calculating the cost of the service has been offloaded onto me. That cost should be part of the cost of the meal, if only because I can't know what the cost of service is. How can I? I don't run a restaurant. I know what I'm willing to pay, but that's a spectrum. They should offer a product at a definite price. If I don't like the product then I don't return and when that happens enough, the owner has to figure out what's right and wrong in his business.

Seems preferable to inviting this conversation after every meal.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Presidential Rhetoric, Part VII: Andrew Jackson

Welcome to Part Seven of our series on the rhetoric of American presidential inaugural addresses. Please feel free to look at the previous entries in the series:
  1. Worthy of Marble?
  2. John Adams
  3. Thomas Jefferson
  4. James Madison
  5. James Monroe
  6. John Quincy Adams
We continue with our present look at the rhetoric of Andrew Jackson's inaugural address. Let us see if any of the blood and guts of Old Hickory are to be found in his first speech as president.

The text of the speech, via

Given it's brevity, it's best to make neither introductory nor concluding but rather summary remarks about Jackson's speech. We'll also dispense with the customary line-by-lie analysis. First, Jackson's is by far the shortest inaugural so far, weighing in at only 1,100 words or so. Second, it's plain and free of tropes, figures, and flourishes which adorned previous speeches. Jackson is his most poetical when waxing about the military, but generally he's quite sober. Third, the speech is not structured rhetorically, with formal sections devoted to refutation, summary, and so forth. Instead, it is structured as a list with little regard for the delicate task of transitioning from topic to topic. Fourth, Jackson does not offer examples or stop to paint pictures. He's not trying to persuade. In fact, and most important of all...

Fifth, Jackson's not really trying to persuade at all, and instead he's simply listing his policies. He's not trying to win over his enemies by making his plans seem ideal or reasonable and he's not trying to paint a picture of a grand, unified America to compensate for the inevitable sour feelings which follow an election. Jackson is laying down his agenda, not making any attempt at any of the classic modes of persuasion: 

A. of the personal character of the speaker
B. putting the audience in a particular frame of mind
C. proof or apparent proof of the words themselves.
Jackson at times qualifies statements, stating that the debt is a threat to liberty or the economy should favor goods essential to national independence, but does not actually argue the points. 

We can state then that while the speech is political, it is so in a restricted sense because it doesn't advise, deliberate on, or urge so much as declare. Likewise it doesn't fit into Aristotle's epideictic mold at all since it doesn't bother to praise. Overall, we can conclude of it what we did of President Obama's Inaugural:

Aristotle at the opening of the Rhetoric identified the craft as that which utilizes the best of the available means of persuasion. The author of this speech would not seem to have availed himself of the potential means.
Still, there's a workmanlike clarity to the agenda as well as a noteworthy, if not praiseworthy, candor in its frank indifference to persuasion. Jackson is always crystal clear, if not memorable or persuasive. It's a plain, speech, if indistinct.

Lying by Omission?

Ellen Page is a lesbian. Far more interesting than the actress' sexuality is her characterization of her previous nondisclosure as, "lying by omission." That particular kind of untruth is perhaps best known through the juridical phrase, "The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth," a principle by which one is expected to give accurate, complete, and unobscured answers to questions. Answers to questions. It does not require one to go around giving people unsolicited information.

It is, for example, a lie of omission if I ask you which drugs you have done and you, having done many, reply deliberately that you've only smoked marijuana. Such a statement is true, but consciously incomplete. In contrast, it is no lie of omission if you and I sit down to lunch and having decided I much despise you, I treat you kindly and after eating, depart without voicing my loathing for you.

Perhaps Ms. Page feels guilty for giving false impressions, which is only a lie if she was deliberately acting to conceal something. Otherwise people were simply drawing incorrect impressions, which happens all the time. Do we correct all, or any, of these untruths? Everyone makes assumptions about others, most notably that everyone else is like he is, but also more sensibly what is statistically probable. These conclusions are often wrong, but is it necessary to correct everyone's impressions of you? Qui tacet consentire videtur, admittedly another legal not moral principal, but there isn't always a moral imperative to voice your opinion, and therefore silence isn't always a lie, in this case not unless you want everyone to know something about you.

Perhaps Ms. Page thinks that since her conduct does not betoken that she's a lesbian, she's lying. This is an unnecessary conclusion for two reasons. First, not all truths manifest themselves in obvious ways. For example, it's improbable that you know where I keep my slippers or the brand of my cell phone. It's unreasonable to suspect normal social intercourse to reveal certain things and it's not mandatory to overcome this lack of familiarity. Second, it's possible she's confused a falsehood with the act of prevarication. Any act might invite interpretation which is inaccurate without its agent acting in deceit. For example, if you see me eat sauerkraut you might think I like it since you don't know I was doing it to win a bet.

Besides these logical points, it doesn't take much thought to realize the solution of mandatory preemptive disclosure makes a poor maxim. First, we consider people who talk about themselves to be presumptuous, especially when the information is unsolicited. Second, the principle is unnecessarily self-serving: why does it by nature exclude what you don't want known? Should we elevate yet another legal principle, the 5th Amendment, to a moral prescription? This reasoning is hardly systematic, to say the least.

Nitty gritty reasoning aside, it's not unreasonable or unexpected that someone wants to feel liked and normal, to feel accepted. One can more sympathize with that than self-righteous self-expression. I'm not denying it may be virtuous to make an unpopular statement, but it's muddled ad hoc moralizing to call such a silence as Ms. Page's a lie of omission.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Fear, Pity, and the "Used-to-Haves"

Aristotle famously argued (§ 1378 and 1452) that the impact of tragedy and oratory is very much contingent on the speaker's ability to arouse fear and pity in the audience. Who would think that a little bauble from the Huffington Post fulfills Aristotle's requirement. The poets and playwrights ought to be jealous. Alas for its humble author, the piece doesn't provoke the emotions how she intends. You see what was supposed to happen was simple: she writes about how terrible her life is and we feel pity. Then, of course, we wag our fingers at the usual suspects. Of course Aristotle could have told her (1386) that displays of the terrible often produce the opposite of pity, but nonetheless I'm feeling full of pity. Why?

Because no one deserves to be this foolish and it's a downright pitiable sight to see someone suffering who has absolutely no clue as to the causes of it. The world with all of its complexities seems to swarm around this woman who sees only her own unjust deprivation. What indignation she harbors that all is not the way things ought to be, as if all she had were secured by some omnipotent guarantor who has now been usurped by a cabal of corporate raiders. Of course it's a normal human reaction, as a certain philosopher observed, to assume that which has always been will continue to be, but letting a few years of luxury forecast the future demonstrates only that she' seen so little.

Conservatives and libertarians have overused the word entitlement, but no other word exemplifies her expectations. Because she works hard, because she has made a certain wage, because she has lived a certain way, she's entitled to further compensation, presumably in perpetuity. Never mind who actually needs her services, how often, and at what expense. Never mind that we only receive if we serve. We're supposed to empathize with her excruciating separation from bourgeois comforts to the point where we simply assent to the fact that what she possessed was not lost, but stolen. Yes, let us wag our fingers at those protean demons of deprivation, today the "Republican Congress" and "Corporate America!"

As an intellectual expression this is drivel ripe for ridicule. As intellectuals ourselves we want to reprehend the fool who has guzzled so desperately the PC Kool-Aide that she's stained with its cheap crimson glow. Nevertheless her utter lack of apprehension and comprehension of any facts or reason deprives us of any desire or reason to offer correction. We just sit and pity that evil, ignorance, which we fear for ourselves.

The author suffers genuinely I have no doubt, yet not from "The Great Theft," but from cupidity gorged on excess, incensed by privation, and rooted in ignorance. 'Tis true 'tis pity; And pity 'tis 'tis true.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Movie Review: Robocop (2014)

Directed by José Padilha. 2014.

My honest review of the Robocop reboot should begin with a picture of me eating my hat, but a mea culpa will have to suffice. I'd never been more sure sitting down in a theater that garbage would follow than when I sat down to see the new Robocop. Of course it's a cynical cash-grab, right? The producers are cashing in with minimal effort on another well-known franchise.

Maybe, probably, but director José Padilha and the writers took the challenge as an opportunity sensibly to remake Paul Verhoven's gritty 1987 classic. The remake conundrum is ongoing: why remake a movie at all? Change too little and it's not worth the effort, but change too much and it's better to make a new movie from scratch. So what did they do, and is it worthwhile?

Well, they did what they ought to: they updated Robocop. It's not a better movie than the original, but it's more timely and precise. It's not satirical, but it still asks questions. Let's talk plot.

Foremost, Robocop 2014 retains the essence of the original's story of disabled police officer Alex Murphy getting transformed into a cybernetic cop whose mind is ultimately controlled by his computerized half. There are interesting layers to this process, though. First, is the process worth performing in the first place? Alex's wife thinks so, because she's trying to preserve her husband's life. At Omnicorp, the CEO wants Alex to survive to pioneer their program, Dr. Norton (Gary Oldman) wants Alex to thrive because he wants a successful legacy. Finally, the people want a hero to believe in and who can clean up the city. Alex's own thinking evolves. At first sight of his body's feeble remains without his new mechanical frame, he asks to be shut off. Soon, though, he wants to bring his killers to justice and realizes he can't disappoint his wife and son by dying again.

Into this mix the writers work in a political and commercial intrigue more timely and clever than the trendy '80s paranoia about corporate expansion and privatization of government monopolies. On the commercial side we have Raymond Sellers (Michael Keaton), the CEO of OmniCorp whose main goal is to sell his police robots. On the political side we have Senator Hubert Dreyfuss, whose namesake act and popularity have persuaded the public that a machine without the experience of human feeling can't be let loose on society. Another invigorating twist is the social dimension: Sellers hopes to use Officer Murphy, Robocop, as a rallying hero to drum up support for the company among the public. It's ultimately the public, with their crime and expectation of a painless solution, who creates Robocop.

Representing the pro-robot contingent of the public is TV host Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson), who constantly whoops for any and all means of security. Jackson's Novak is a frank and funny caricature of Bill O' Reilly, from his histrionics to his cutting off guests. This cable news host and hype is a timely update of the 1987 version's cuts to nightly news broadcasts which set the original's chaotic tone. Novak's not the lone civic voice, though, and as in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, the public makes an unflattering appearance with its uncritical public hoorays for Robocop even as he acts on protocols they can't know the slightest about.

Speaking of those protocols, there's a hitch which complicates the whole mess further. Namely, Murphy's emotions make him less stable and efficient than the fully mechanical alternatives, so Dr. Norton is pressured by Sellars to dumb down Murphy's emotions to make Robocop compliant, furthering three interesting reactions.

First, we question Murphy's free will. On the one hand he appears to act with reason, on the other Dr. Norton informs is that the control is an illusion and that the computers decide everything for him. It's an epistemological box from which Murphy can't escape on his own.

Second, Murphy needs his emotions to do anything. In a surprisingly subtle scene early in the picture, Dr. Norton struggles with a rehabilitating officer trying to play guitar again. As the main begins to play for the first time since his injury, he and his wife begin to cry, inducing the doctor to request he not be so emotional that he throws off the test. The man responds that he can't play without them. Wisely the script leaves unspoken the fact that this fact, the need for emotion, is the same as Senator Dreyuss' argument that an officer needs emotions properly to judge. Instead, the director draws parallels to the contemporary issue of drone surveillance and bombing with scenes which bookend the film. The first of these, in which suicide bombers attack U.S. automated forces, is so well shot, and with one camera motion in particular, that it instantly told me I was in for a better movie than I thought.

Third, neither the emotions nor Murphy's will can be controlled. Murphy wants to be himself and obtain justice.

Amidst these perennial philosophical questions, corporatism-induced crises, news hype, the uninformed public, and scientific hubris, there's the simple crime drama which got Murphy mixed up with the criminals and hucksters in the first place. This plot is very light fare but just enough to support the rest of the movie: Murphy ruffled the feathers of a local crime kingpin buying heavy duty weapons from someone inside Murphy's department. When Murphy's first released as a free-willed Robocop he begins to solve the crime of his own death, a slick touch, but he's shut down before he can create mayhem by outing the corruption within the department. Now we see Murphy as the pawn of both OmniCorp and the politicians.

When he's freed from his programming strictures by a guilty-conscienced Dr. Norton, who is later pilloried by Novak for being a whistleblower, Murphy decides to clean house. Yet Sellars doesn't need Robocop or Murphy anymore. The Dreyfuss Act has been repealed because of Robocop's example, and OmniCorp is poised to make a fortune. With his company's success on the line, Sellars realizes that what's even more profitable than a hero is a martyr and plans to cash in on Robocop being killed in the line of duty.

The resolution is obvious enough, but this remake gets a lot else right besides the plot. The action is kept light and effective. The opening cop shoot out is filmed with some novel camera angles and its brevity doesn't give Robocop that generic shoot-em-up vibe. The finale's brief twin action scenes keep the visuals fresh too, the first by a switch to Robocop's infrared vision, blacking out the cliche but unavoidable sets of garages and warehouses, and the second by Robocop's novel use of his superior robotic foes as cover, vaulting from one to the other as they destroy one another trying to blast him.

Robocop is also neatly paced, rising briskly and clearly, moving from Murphy's regular cop life through his transformation into Robocop and then bouncing swiftly among Novak's news show, Sellars' boardroom maneuvering, and Murphy's development. Everyone gets a little breathing room, though. Murphy's wife is allowed scenes where she's briefed on the reconstructive plans for Alex after the attack and where she tries to reconnect with him after it's clear her husband has been programmed. It's not a world-class arc, but she doesn't drop out of the picture either. Dr. Norton is allowed to have a little arc of his own too, at first seeming well-intentioned and desirous of helping Murphy, then falling to vanity for his project and to intimidation from Sellars, and finally coming clean.

Director José Padilha even squeezes in just enough of Basil Poledouris' classic walloping score to hit the "now he's Robocop" beats, and even a reference to the infamous cult catch phrase from the original, "I'd buy that for a dollar!"

Even the acting I can't complain about. Michael Keaton's Sellars isn't as brutish and sadistic as Kurtwood Smith's odious Clarence J. Boddicker, but he's as merciless and manipulative, twisting everyone for his benefit to their detriment and even death. Gary Oldman brings the everyman persona from his turn as Gotham City's Jim Gordon, selling Dr. Norton's despairing fall from respected scientist to corporate stooge. Finally, Joel Kinnaman, heretofore unknown to me, pulls of Alex Murphy and Robocop, for much of the movie only with his face and voice. We see the frustration in his eyes and hear the hopelessness in his voice as he realizes the limbo he now inhabits between life and death, man and machine, freedom and servility.

This remake seems like one every fan of the original was waiting to hate, but they shouldn't. It's more sober and mature than the original, developing significant themes and arcs up to its conclusion, which leaves us wondering whether Murphy can ever be free as Robocop. The original has a lot to like, but so does its 2014 counterpart. A worthwhile remake.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

When A Plot Is Not the Problem

As you dear readers know, I like analyzing structures. I like to discover how the bits and bobs fit together, find symmetries and rhymes, and watch parts overlap, disappear, and reemerge. In the world of film this task is mostly the work of the writer, and today in film this is the goal most often left unfulfilled. Occasionally, though, a movie will sport a splendid script and be let down by other elements. It's easy to think that a solid plot can anchor any movie, and to a good degree it can, but it's also instructive to see just how much other work is needed to bring structure to life. Two films illustrate the point.

Iron Man 3
Written & Directed by Shane Black. 2013.

If you summarize the plot, Iron Man 3 sounds phenomenal. First, we have the Tony-Pepper plot. After battling the interstellar guests during the events of The Avengers, Tony Stark's mechanical mind is rejecting the variables he can't compute. He's stressed and endures panic attacks up to the point of needing to distract himself by constructing endless variations of his Iron Man suits. He alienates Pepper, whose obvious love he'll need to accept while he rejects his obsession with the alien attack in New York.

Second, we have the plot of political intrigue in which The Mandarin, an America-hating terrorist, begins claiming credit for bombings against American targets. The attacks escalate until eventually both Iron Man and Iron Patriot, one of Stark's suits the government ripped off and re-branded, are on the job. On the one hand Tony wants to swear off Iron Man for Pepper, and on the other hand he wants revenge against The Mandarin for putting his trusted manservant, Happy Hogan, in a coma.

Third, Tony has a new entrepreneurial rival in the form of Aldrich Killian, a scientist whom Tony once casually scorned and who now has developed a technology, Extremis, to augment and repair the human body.

The script interweaves these three elements with one clever twist: Extremis is unstable, with patients exploding, yes exploding, around the world. What to do? Killian uses the character of The Mandarin as a front to claim the explosions as terrorist attacks and then kidnaps Pepper to extort Tony into using his genius to perfect Extremis.

Now that's pretty slick, but Killian and The Mandarin are actually interesting foils for Tony Stark. Like Tony, Killian is a man of extraordinary intelligence. He's idealistic and passionate, yet as his project fails and he fails legitimately to acquire help, he turns to vanity and crime to support his goals. Killian's character was formed when Tony abandoned him early in his career and the spurned doctor retreated to the shadows to pull strings in anonymity. The crucible of Tony's character, in contrast, was that cave in Pakistan where a stranger saved his life and Iron Man was born. After that, Tony didn't retreat tot he shadows but publicly took control of his company and publicly became Iron Man.

Furthermore, The Mandarin is a caricature of Tony. As Iron man Stark is the brash, rich, ingenious American and The Mandarin, like Whiplash before him, is Tony's reflection, not opposite, and intended reckoning.

So what's wrong with Iron Man 3? Another critical element too often overlooked by critics, filmgoers, and anyone not in the middle of directing a movie: the setting. The effect is that all the characters are all over the place, destroying any possibility for interaction and development. Happy is in a coma, Tony's in the midwest, Pepper is kidnapped who know's where, The Mandarin is in Florida, Killian is out and about, Jarvis is out of commission for half the movie, and Rhodie is flying around the world looking for The Mandarin.

The ending could have rehabilitated the movie if the characters had smoothly converged, but they do so with confusion instead of clarity. Rhodie and Tony converge on The Mandarin, but then he's a fake and Pepper is somewhere else and then the president is kidnapped from Air Force One by Iron Patriot in which isn't Rhodie but Killian's man and then Tony tries to stop him but he's not actually in the suit, and one suit is back in the midwest and then some suits come from back in California and then everyone's together at some random shipping dock in Florida. Got that?

Writer-Director Shane Black surely realized things got frayed and such explains the coda of narration he gave Tony for the end of the movie. Tony doesn't say anything that's not implicit, but those ideas doesn't feel implicit because we've forgotten who and where everyone is and what they're doing. The lack of attention to setting turned a perfectly good script into what looks and feels like a mess.

Oz The Great and Powerful. 
Directed by Sam Raimi. 2013.

Boy everyone hated this movie, didn't they? The plot seems awfully good though, at least as far as Oz is concerned. Oz is a semi-talented fraud in our world, but when he is transported to the Land of Oz he must learn to put those same skills toward a noble purpose. In our world he acts for himself, but he must learn to save the Emerald city for its people.  In our world he had contempt for average people, in Oz he had to learn about them and respect them if he is to learn and use their virtues to defeat the witches. He must be the same man doing the same things, but with a different purpose, and in doing so become a new man. Works for me.

Now a lot of people had a lot of problems with the rest of the movie. They blame James Franco, the acting, the special effects, James Franco, the silliness, the lack of wonder, and James Franco. Yes, all of those elements were a little flat. The problem, though, is that Oz doesn't hit its beats. You know, beats: those notes which typify a scene. Arrivals have to feel like arrivals, meetings like meetings, departures departures, battles battles and so forth. Each scene has to feel like a type of scene and clearly move you along. No beats means no flow and a drippy flow equals a soupy movie. How can a ridiculous and cheap movie like Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters work? It hits its beats. Beats make your movie feel like something going somewhere.

The lack of beats in Oz means that the whole movie up until the final battle, which is expertly handled, feels like a slog. So what beats are missing? The arrival at the Emerald City, the departure from the Emerald City, and the adding of characters to the motley crew. These things happen, but they don't feel right, they don't feel important, and they don't feel like they move us forward because we're not quite persuaded that they do. Sometimes the beat is missed because of acting, sometimes because of direction, but it happens too often here.

Add to that sluggishness the fact that all of Oz's character development occurs at the end, and the movie feels empty even though it has a lot going for it.

Of course Sam Raimi knows movies and knows how to hit his beats. What happened? I think he modeled his Oz after the 1939 classic, but realized, correctly, that campy acting and whimsical musical numbers would not appeal to a modern audience. So out went the whimsy, but nothing filled its place, and it's the music that kept the original together. What keeps today's Oz together? Only the plot, which is not quite enough.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

That Fair Wage

Fair. Oh what they've done to you, poor little word, treated so lovingly by The Bard,

Fair encounter / Of two most rare affections! (Prospero)

and by Keats,

Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave (Ode on a Grecian Urn)


Or if you'd rather, have me young and fair, (The Wife of Bath)

and Wodehouse,

Ever since their first meeting she had wanted a fair chance at those ankles (Piccadilly Jim)

For what crime are you so scurrilously appended to that stern word wage. Now the fair adjective sports a happy plethora of meanings: just, legal, ample, moderate, unobstructed, even, free from imperfection, clear, light, pleasing, and civil. Surely among these none fit the bill but just. When people clamor for a just wage they want a wage which is existing in justice. What could this mean in the absence of a philosophical system weighing virtue and distinguishing among proportion, rectification, reciprocity, and equity. (See V.5 of the Nichomachean Ethics.)

We can further chastise the sloppy use of fair, and their weaseling out the work of philosophy, but let us charitably presume well-intending simply mean that no one should unduly suffer by lack of essentials. What does this have to do with a wage? How can a wage be unjust? It's neither just nor unjust freely to exchange your services for any particular good. If you make the exchange, then it was valuable to you. Your wage is part of an exchange of services, not a measure of what you are worth or deserve as a person.

Similarly we may ask why a wage must be the sole means to security. Outside of a feudal economy of lords and serfs such socio-economic thinking is incredible. In a free economy and society in which no one is granted a legal monopoly, it's incumbent on the employer only to pay the agreed wage. In contrast, it may be incumbent upon everyone equally, if anyone, or perhaps especially family or friends or neighbors, to protect the weak from deathly lack. Yet why should the employer suffer the burden?

Of course the employer might not shoulder the burden but raise the cost of his goods if he hires the employee at the "fair wage" at all. In this case, the customers shoulder the burden of the employee. Why should they, purchasers of this particular good, support the employee? It's not self-evident, to say the least. In times past, friends, family, fraternal societies, and the like cared for the downtrodden. Professionals, such as doctors, treated the poor gratis as custom, not by bureaucratically managed legislative fiat.

It's curious, though, how often and many people are persuaded by the allure of the "fair wage." It just sounds so rosy. They don't seem to translate fair wage into more plain terms:

a demand from an employee to be paid a particular wage, regardless of how much he serves others, how well he does so, regardless of the demand in his locale and that demand over time, regardless of what other skills he might use more profitably, and regardless of, in fact, all variables save his own entitlement. Not quite so fair, by any of its meanings.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Review: Jonny Quest [TV]

Throughout my weeklong miasma I watched a good deal of TV, so remarkable is it for demanding absolutely no cognitive activity from the viewer whatsoever. Anyway, as I watched and watched I began to notice a lack of cartoons in my viewing. So as I looked and looked I found only a lot of junk on Cartoon Network, vulgar and dappy nonsense. Saturday morning cartoons have shrunk to a small quarter of badly animated singsongy nonsense for children.

Now I watched a lot of nonsense growing up, but I had Garfield and Friends, which was splendid satire of TV itself, poking barbs at writers, producers, networks, and the viewers themselves. I also watched reruns of Rocky and Bullwinkle, with their cleverly retold fairy tales and fables from Aesop, and of course the adventures of the titular moose and squirrel, which always turn satirical, skewering everything from college sports to the stock market to government assistance.

One of my favorites, though, I looked up this passed week and found not on TV but streaming from Amazon Prime: The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest. The show only lasted two seasons with a total of 52 episodes, but what a blast it is.

Like all good adventure serials, the premise is simple. Dr. Benton Quest and his son Jonny scour the world investigating unusual phenomena. Along for the ride are Benton's friend, Race Banner, and his daughter, Jessie. Countering the kids' unrestrained zeal is their friend Hadji, who brings a dose of prudence and moderation to their plans. Inevitably, adventure calls and inevitably the kids, separated from Benton and Race, must fend for themselves and help save the day.

It won't do to summarize serials, but we should look at what makes Jonny Quest so satisfying.

First, JQ walks a reasonable line between visual excitement and graphic violence. While cartoon action programming has mostly vanished and there's no standard or median today, it's easy for a show to be too bloody or squeaky clean. JQ has a surprising amount of violence, but there isn't a lot of visual detail. People sure do die, though. They're shot, blown up, trampled, impaled, and eaten. Many episodes open with a spectacular death as a maguffin, just like movies. This is just the right level of realism to remind a young boy that the world's a dangerous place, but not enough to shock him with the blood spattering and limb-flying gore of 300 and Call of Duty. It's just enough to remind us that Jonny is in some real danger.

Second, there's no backup. The cavalry is rarely, if ever, on the way. Jonny and friends have to start thinking and acting for themselves. Help is not around the corner.

Third, there is a palpable masculine vibe to the show. Tools, technology, myths, legends, globetrotting, danger, mystery. . . all without Jonny being nannied to tie his shoe laces, go to bed, and look both ways before crossing the street. It would have been more dramatic if Jonny's mother were living and she could contrast the boys' zeal, but her complete absence gives the show a freewheeling boys-and-toys energy.

Fourth, there are plenty of toys, both electronic and traditional. On the one hand the team has the digital wizardry of "Quest World" and its array of 3D imaging, computational, and data-sharing abilities. On the other hand the team invariably finds itself in the middle of nowhere, technology lost or destroyed, and resorting to devising traps, making fires, makeshift weapons, and guile. It's a welcome blend of the geeky and brawny, either of which grows tiresome on their own.

Fifth, and some people will balk about this one, the Quest team explores plenty of myths, legends, and tall tales, with them on occasion turning out to be true. Hardline materialists will balk, and the tales are silly, but if all the mysteries turned out to be false then the show would lose the sense of mystery which drives it. The writers probably could have finessed both ways with some fancier writing, but this is a dramatically acceptable turn even if we have to look the other way on occasion. These stories, from the philosopher's stone to the Mary Celeste, are springs of mystery which get us excited about investigating the world, and keeping them mysterious leaves the world, to paraphrase John Buchan, an oyster for the opening.

Sixth, the villains hold their weight. Among clashes with looters, poachers, predators, nature, and the supernatural, Team Quest has two fierce adversaries. The first is their formal nemesis, Dr. Jeremiah Surd, who dogs the team hoping to acquire their technology and take revenge on Race Bannon for the injury which consigned the doctor to a wheelchair. On the other hand we have Ezekiel Rage, who is equal parts brimstone-spewing preacher, Bond villain, and Jason Bourne. Both villains were spurned government agents, adding a political dimension to their personal vendettas with the Quest Team.

Finally, there's a slight but noticeable and welcome cultural thread running throughout. Whether it's Hadji's Confucian aphorisms, historical quotes or references, or Race's homespun wisdom, the team is wrestling with questions by means of ideas as well as guts. Whether it's fighting off poachers, outwitting their longstanding enemies, or rescuing artifacts, the team is always balancing whom or what to save and what to sacrifice. It's not always brilliant or novel, but satisfactory and satisfying for serialized adventures. In an especially nice touch after one adventure, Benton begins reciting the end of Tennyson's Ulysses, which Jonny completes, and without naming the title.

Jonny Quest isn't highbrow or perfect, but it's a young man's Indiana Jones or Hardy Boys. Sure, it'll introduce to him some interesting ideas, but more importantly it might stiffen his sinews and kindle in him perhaps a little of the old strenuous zeal. Most of all, it shows that Jonny's courage is the key to practicing the other virtues. A young man could do worse.

The show also has an irresistably energetic, swashbuckling opening:

Monday, February 3, 2014

Unity of the Muses

Mozart encompasses the entire domain of musical creation, but I've got only the keyboard in my poor head. –F. Chopin

Most minds relish the familiar. We like familiarity, consistency, and sameness, whether it's in our television programming, house furnishings, or daily routines. Yes, some people seem to worship all things new, but that's just an attempt to relive the thrill of novelty. Smart people are not exempt either, most only holding a few stock ideas about which they ramble before attaining senility. Even the mind of a genius is usually confined to relatively tight quarters. Yet we have all-encompassing geniuses like Aristotle and DaVinci, and lesser polymaths from Cicero to Jefferson, but far-seeking minds are the most rare, and the most rare of them was Mozart. Mozart absorbed, innovated, and perfected with a speed which amazes and terrifies. The Greeks would have called him δεινός, marvelous, wondrous, and terrible.

21 piano sonatas, 27 piano concertos, 41 symphonies, 18 masses, 13 operas, 9 oratorios and cantata, 2 ballets, 40 plus concertos for various instruments, string quartets, trios and quintets, violin and piano duets piano quartets, and the songs. This astounding output includes hardly one work less than a masterpiece. –George Szell

Absorbed, innovated, perfected. Each of those words needs a little qualifying. Mozart absorbed the work of his models with astonishing rapidity, from his father's early assignments at the harpsichord, in which little Woferl delighted, to string quartets, concerti, and fugues. One story from April 1770, when Mozart was fourteen and impressing the Italian contrapuntists in Rome, paints the picture. Herr Mozart and his son attended a performance of Gregorio Allegri's Fiftieth Psalm, a passion piece for two choirs, four- and five-part, which concludes with a finale that interweaves both choruses in nine-part counterpoint. Shortly after the performance the teenage composer proceeded to write out the piece from memory. (W. A. Mozart by H. Abert. p. 135)

From this immense facility for absorption grew Mozart's own interpretations in his early maturity. Hoary polyphony and contrapuntal exercises became the ebullient Salzburg masses. Mozart devours set after set of Haydn's string quartets and again and again throws the spear from sight. The prettified keyboard tinkering of the galant becomes an endless parade of Mozartian characters. The snoozy nocturnes and pompous end-of-semester finalmusik become the serene lightness of the Gran Partita. Endlessly rhyming, sing-songy, and audience pleasing singspiels become the the giddy love of Die Entführung and a frightening, untamed spirit is breathed into old an workhorse text in Idomeneo.

Finally, perfection unto death. The body of Mozart concerti is one of most stupendous achievements ever, without qualification. The endless variety of melody, the relentless ability to tease excitement and novelty from sonataform and even rondo, shifting keys, moods, and characters, is nothing short of astounding. Not only do we find with glee intellectual rigor and structural novelty, but even in its most tumultuous depths, the cosmos-rending D minor, the Mozart concerto is life-affirming, pleasing the heart and the mind. And what love Mozart has for his instruments: the jovial horn, the oboe here sprightly there melodious, and the chimerical clarinet.

All the while, through the counterpoint and delayed tonal areas of the quintets and the vast sonataforms of the operas, and the ever more-delicate symphonies, always we find a unity of style and affect. We're never distracted by learned or simple elements for all is reconciled by the most perfect taste and order. We don't hear a contrapuntal marvel when we see finale to Act I of Don Giovanni, we see a carnival. We don't hear a north German choral in Die Zauberflöte but see the initiate poised before his sacred trial. We don't listen for fugato in Piano Sonata No. 18, but delight in the interplay between these wildly diverse themes. There is only the music, unifying as it goes: time, place, us, everything.

Mozart tapped the source from which all music flows, expressing himself with a spontaneity and refinement and breathtaking rightness. - Aaron Copland

Mozart's earthy side confuses many, whether it's by his priapic joke in the Champagne Aria, his song Kiss My Ass, or his bawdy letters to his cousin. It's not a side that would have confused, say, Catullus or Rimbaud, but it befuddles those who seek a clean idol. We need a pure font because we see time as expendable. We need to get and use as much of time and Mozart as we can. Yet it is time which is sacred, not the man Mozart. Yet he doesn't have to be because he has preserved the best of us in time, and we don't nee to horde it, nor do we even need to share it. We nee to be it. We need to feel his melodies in our step and his shapes in our thoughts. We need to feel his terror and chipper love, his lonely afternoons and sumptuous galas. Mozart is not the font, but the unity of the Muses, and beyond performance and beyond listening there is living, where the perfected goes on forever, though only for a time through us.

Mozart's music is the mysterious language of a distant spiritual kingdom, whose marvelous accents echo in our inner being and arouse a higher, intensive life. –E. T. A. Hoffmann

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Bring Back the Funny Aesthetes

Complaints about a lack of diversity usually come from politically motivated quarters, but it's not a useless or inappropriate question. Is it not, at least potentially, significant when some person, group, or idea is completely excised from a medium of expression? Being sick this week I took refuge to the television and skimming around I began to wonder: where did all the funny aesthetes go?

Yes, there are plenty of intelligent people on television, in fact there is a superabundance of them, but there isn't any character I've seen in the classical, liberal, or traditionally educated mold. We have nerds, doctors, lawyers, detectives, teachers, and so on and so fort, but none of them live in the world of refined culture. In fact, they don't even visit that world. They're all brilliant philistines. While the aesthetes have never dominated either sitcoms or dramas, their complete absence seems remarkable.

The 1950s and '60 saw an aesthete in the surprising, furry form of Bugs Bunny. From the 40s to the 70s, in fact, the Merry Melodies star had hilarious run-ins with the classics, most notably musical. He fled Porky Pig to Strauss' Tales from the Vienna Woods (A Corny Concerto), became Mrs. Fudd on two separate occasions, to both Rossini's Barber of Seville in 1950 and then Wagner in 1957's What's Opera, Doc? Bugs even takes up the baton himself, the first time in homage to the great Leopold Stokowski conducting one poor tenor to a house-felling finale in The Long Haired Hare. His second turn at the podium is a satire of the conductor's histrionic gestures as Bugs conducts Franz von Suppe's Morning, Noon and Night in Vienna. Finally Bugs turns to performance himself and after a hilarious attempt to get Daffy Duck to pronounce Camille Saint-Saens, tickles the ivories of Carnival of the Animals conducted by none other than Michael Tilson Thomas in 1976.

Although it lacked persistent characters, the '70s also enjoyed the liberal erudition of Monty Python's Flying Circus, who veered philosophical in their philosopher's soccer match, and historical in their infamous sketches The Spanish Inquisition and The Funniest Joke in the World.

The '70s also saw the Odd Couple's neurotic Felix Unger, whose love of the arts ran afoul of his roommate's congenital sloppiness and barbarism. This was a revealing play of contrasts, with Felix ever hoping to show Oscar that the arts are for everyone. The show saw the duo manhandle Carmen and Swan Lake, opera club meetings gone awry, and the occasional poignant turn, like when the two quarreled about whether a multitalented protege should follow his talent for football or the cello.

Perhaps M.A.S.H had the most famous aesthete of the era, though, in the irascible Charles Emerson Winchester. Played by David Ogden Stiers, Winchester found himself the recipient of relentless scorn and pranks from Hawkeye and friends who enjoyed tormenting the major for his priggish pomposity, yes, but also for his overblown longing for the arts and civilization. This premise took turns comic, when Winchester's French horn drives his tent-mates bananas, and painful, as when Winchester treats a soldier who had lost a hand, and in doing so finds out the man had been a pianist.

On Frasier Crane, who spanned the '80s and '90s, it'll suffice to make two comments about it. First, nearly every episode featured some cultural context, whether he and his equally picky brother were arguing over a recording, they walked in singing Wagner, or they were making quips about random cultural trivia from Middlemarch to O. Henry. These touches were slight but voluminous, selling the fact that these guys lived and breathed the rarefied air. Second, there's a consistent thread of Frasier's elitism distancing himself from other people. In one episode, offended by a scurrilous graffito, Frasier tries to open up to the common man, only to find himself swarmed by the masses. One of the show's best bits, typically, is a combination of the highest and lowest brow.

Part I of Three Valentines. S06.E14

It'd be easy to let the science fiction and special effects distract from the high culture of Star Trek: The Next Generation if it weren't so frequent. Whether it's Captain Picard speaking French or even Latin–gasp!–the crew concerts of Chopin and Schubert, or performing Henry V and Cyrano de Bergerac, the Enterprise was not a ship of war but of exploration, a sort of traveling cultural capsule of Earth. Alongside, or inside, also dwelled the android, Data, with his attempts to study and mimic humanity by playing the violin, writing poetry, painting, and acting.

Alongside Frasier, the two other most influential shows of the '90s made few but significant nods to high culture. It was hilarious to see the vulgar quartet of Seinfeld, with their petty concerns, interact with the world of concerts and culture, which they always proceeded to bring down to their level, as when one Pez dispenser destroys a performance of Beethoven. Meanwhile on the Simpsons, in a brilliant but brief bit of satire, the town of Springfield votes to build a new concert hall. Success! The people fill on opening night, and four notes into the first concert, of Beethoven's 5th, everyone leaves. The people, philistines that they were, knew they had to at least make a little pilgrimage to the realm of high culture.

I'm not just talking about hoity-toityness either. There are no classical intellectuals or aesthetes on Downtown Abby, for example, despite the formality of the time and place. Aesthetes often bewail the lack of funding for the arts and the prominence of the arts in our society, and they often do so with just cause. I wonder though that the seemingly complete disappearance of the arts from representations of life, from art, in this case popular television programming, might indicate that the cause is further gone than we thought.