Sunday, July 28, 2013

Movie Review: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery

Directed by Jay Roach. 1997.

If you can recall America circa 1997 you can probably recall Austin Powers. Mike Myers' breakout role as the randy International Man of Mystery was more than a movie, it was a craze. So charming was the titular spy, in fact, and so long could movies stay in theaters and the public consciousness, that everyone seemed to adopt Austin's playful, naughty vocabulary. You can lament that Oh Behave! and Yeah Baby! carried popular cachet, but who wouldn't trade in Bootylicious for Shagadelic and Honey Boo Boo for Austin Powers? Nostalgia aside, I did worry a bit when I popped in the DVD. Would Austin 'Danger' Powers charm again, and coax laughs after sixteen years of aging into fuddiduddiness, or would he seem a juvenile relic?

Well, my verdict is in and it wasn't close: Austin Powers is actually a good movie. A very good movie, and for a lot of reasons.

Foremost, there is a basic simple structure and the movie sticks to it. Frozen in 1967 and defrosted thirty years later to defeat his nemesis, Austin Powers is a fish out of water. The script wisely keeps Austin front and center the whole time and doesn't take detours. It also successfully uses this premise, Austin's acclimation to the modern world, as a prop for jokes, creating a sense of unity. The film's other prop is Austin's untamed libido, the spark for love and conflict with his sexy-but-stodgy partner, Vanessa Kensington. That's it, but it works. Modern comedies looking for a model could do worse.

It would be trite and cruel to say that the gags and jokes in Austin Powers simply "work." First, every joke in the movie, I believe, works. No, they're not all equal, but there's an ebb and flow to the laughs which climaxes in each scene. Take a simple one in which Austin Powers squares off in a poker game with the No. 2 henchman of his nemesis, Dr. Evil. In this brief scene, you get: 1) Austin introducing himself as Richie Cunningham (a play on his fish-out-of-water status), 2) the anatomically-sounding name of No. 2's secretary (a play on the Bond tradition of suggestive names for the femme fatales), 3) Austin's grammatical jumble of "allow myself to introduce. . . myself (a play on words), 4) and the climax of Austin staying on five in blackjack, a joke set up at the beginning of the scene. Again, there's a flow and peak to the humor that make a pleasing pace.

Also, notice that each of those jokes is a different kind as well as degree. Another scene illustrates this variety even better.

Austin and Vanessa have been captured by Dr. Evil and, in spy-vs-spy tradition, enjoy a last meal with the villain before being put to death. On the one hand the scene plays like the staple from Bond movies where the villain lays out his grandiose plan, but the kick is that Dr. Evil's son is at the table and the kid is hassling his father about how he should kill his enemies. The result is that the dynamic of the spy plot is constantly jilted by the familiar sight of a domestic dinner-table squabble. Another scene is equally effective using this contrast. There, Dr. Evil attempts to discuss evil business with the henchmen at headquarters, but the failed henchman he just sentenced to death is screaming in agony downstairs. The scene upstairs is played like a board room meeting in which Dr. Evil is trying to pitch a proposal, but the tone is constantly upended by the screams coming from downstairs. Both of these scenes are peppered with smaller jokes, but the attention to tone and the subtle subversion is effective.

Another secret to the success of Austin Powers is how it sets up its jokes for the payoff. Sometimes this is simple, such as when the literally-named No. 2. causes a walk-on Tom Arnold some confusion as he overhears Austin fight an assassin in, of course, a bathroom stall. Other times the set-up is elaborate, such as the finale. Here we have half a dozen jokes climaxing at once in an orgy of humor. First, we have the Femme Bots: mechanical robots which can seduce and kill any man. In a lesser movie they'd simply be introduced and exploited for a quick joke, but their earlier introduction gives their appearance kick. Second, we have Austin's own infamous irresistibility. Third, after Austin's sexual slip up, Vanessa is on the watch for his infidelity. Fourth, the scene is treated as a dance number. Fifth, the context is the preposterous one of Austin doing this to save the world. Sixth and lastly, we have the running gag of Austin's chest hair, which takes on a life of its own here. These individual lines all blast off in the hilarious climax of Austin out-mojoing the Femme Bots by a striptease in which he vamps about in his Union Jack knickers to I Touch Myself.

There are plenty of other jokes in Austin Powers, too, from the escalating proof of Austin's ownership of the Swedish Made Enlarger Pump, to the two "accidentally" censored nude romps whose choreography to the Blue Danube waltzes suggests an elegance belied only by the visual innuendo and ever incipient nudity. Don't forget about the plain jokes, from Mama Cass' death via ham sandwich to Mr. Bigglesworth, from Dr. Evil's rolling chair too, of course, Austin's groovy vocabulary.

All of these jokes are stitched along the central threads of the spy satire and Austin finding his place and love in the modern world. Unlike its sequels, the latter is handled pretty gently and the movie finds a genial tone between laughing at and with Austin. We don't laugh so much at him as at the incongruity of his expectations and reality. By the end, we're surprisingly happy for Austin as he decides to be a one woman guy for Vanessa.

In short, Austin Powers is a blast that fulfills the promise of the swinging opening where all London is swept up in the magnetic spy's irresistible mojo, all the way through to the Man of Mystery's little apology for liberty: "now we have freedom and responsibility, and that's groovy baby!"

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Case of Anthony Weiner

New Yorkers are __________ that Anthony Weiner is running for mayor. Your choices are: outraged, insulted, stupefied, or shocked. They're all correct, of course, and they're all irrelevant as far as I can tell. Why? Because disgrace is a fickle condition.

The word implies the status: a fall from honor. So to fall from grace you need to have some to begin with. The worse your crime, the more honor you'll need. Only by this calculus can many of history's Great Men come out smelling so good. Julius Caesar may have exterminated Gauls, but that little paragraph of "reforms" that comes at the end of the text book chapter makes it all better. Napoleon might have plunged Europe into war, but the Napoleonic Code was so progressive. In American history, Lincoln suspends habeas corpus and fights a war against Americans, but he supports the 14th Amendment. Wilson lets the Versailles Treaty get well out of hand, but he dreamed big: a League of Nations.

John Adams is an interesting case. He passed the abominable Alien and Sedition Acts, but all he did for the better was avoid war with France. Priorities.

Bill Clinton is another interesting example. Here we have an unremarkable administration led by a man who is charged by the House of Representatives with perjury and obstruction of justice. Clinton would seem to have had no capital to expend, right? Well, not in terms of objective accomplishments or virtues. He did however benefit from his own charisma and the appearance that the charges against him were motivated by political maneuvering and not the law. His case suggests that by honor and dishonor we don't mean anything necessarily involving virtue so much as favor. For many, Clinton never fell from grace and to this day people casually throw around how he was impeached simply for sexual impropriety.

Which brings us to Anthony Weiner, everybody's favorite politician-cum-photographer, portraits a specialty. Why has Anthony Weiner sunk to Caligula's popularity level while Slick Willie's a hit everywhere?

First, he didn't do anything exceptional which might have let this miasmatic funk waft by. The emperor is deflowering virgins? Well, it's better than civil war, and oh look at the pretty buildings!

Second, like Eliot Spitzer, Weiner looks like a loser. People will tolerate, it seems, dishonest and even abusive behavior, but one whiff of the pathetic and you're out.

Third, Weiner is an easy target. He's not in office, so no one has to call for a resignation. There's no need for special laws or elections or procedures. We don't need to question the system. Everyone just gets to poke fun. Right now, amidst so many problems we refuse to deal with, castigating this man feels like an easy way to exercise power and regain confidence. We'll tolerate incompetence, corruption, deceit, and mayhem at every level of government, but his line we will not cross.

No, Anthony Weiner is not a great or virtuous man, but his failure should be at the ballot box. Meanwhile, the finger-waggers would do well themselves to take responsibility for the city and nation's runaway problems, risk their own fortunes and reputations, and suspend their incredulity at the audacity of a failed fool's hope.

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Snowball of Progress

That aspect of conservatism which is simply a disposition toward preservation gives rise to much consternation for both progressives and conservatives. On the one hand, conservatives in simply preserving the status quo must preserve what they do not actually approve. On the other hand, progressives must concede they too need a conservative disposition if they are to preserve progress. Ideology naturally determines just what each person wishes in particular to preserve, but testifying that disposition often trumps ideology is the fact that both sides wish to preserve nearly every political policy.

It is thus the position in 21st century America that we find ourselves in a state of legislative torpor, not due to a natural democratic deadlock, but the fact that we can't both infinitely preserve and progress everything. Everything which has been added to policy at the national level is sacrosanct. What was once added as an experiment or a measure for the moment is now eternal policy. Moreover, it no longer satisfies conservatives or progressives enough to conserve, for even reductions in the rate of increase are viewed as regress.

Of military matters, we went from debating the prudence of a standing army to mainstream politicians regarding as "dangerous" any upset to the surveillance state. Regarding economics we have failed WWII era planning still gumming up commerce and a near-century of the Federal Reserve presiding over the dollar's decline. If you want to End the Fed, though, then you're some crazy old cook. In education, academic perfection was attained for mankind back in the hoary antiquity of 1979. If you admit to skepticism of The Department of Education you might as well confess you want to grind up the Parthenon friezes.

The irrational origins of the social services are as forgotten as the debates which surrounded their passage. They passed so they're permanent. Conserve progress. There's a telling line in the BBC television program Yes, Prime Minister in which the naive private secretary to the PM, Bernard, asks Civil Service chieftain Humphrey Applebee about the progressive schools:

Bernard: Surely progressive education was an experiment which ought to be validated?
Sir Humphrey: Yes, Bernard, but not in-validated!
Never mind whether they were needed at the time or now, never mind whether they worked at the time or now: we have the programs. They're permanent. Resistance is futile. The states as bastions of experimentation? Pfft! Every program's a winner! Between the people who believe they are necessary and those who actually use them, the programs are popular enough to prove invulnerable to protest. One can no more propose change to Social Security than one can propose to chip away at the Washington Monument. History has been written.

Without the creative destruction of a free market constantly reallocating scarce resources to where they are needed most at the moment, leviathan stomps along, following its antiquated map. The conservatives and progressives have succeeded, contra both conservatism and progressivism, in enslaving the present to the greatest fools of yesteryear, a mind-boggling fact which prompted the following summation from Chesterton:

The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.
The result of programs accruing at such a rate and being administered on such a scale has had a twofold effect. The first is that the government has ceased to become a guarantor against aggression but a dispensary of rights with the Commander in Chief doubling as apothecary. The second result is clamor for the uses and services of the government even as its inefficiencies reduce the quality and availability of the product. The government has effectively crowded out both a marketplace of trade and the virtues of civil society. A fragment of Ennius describes the pernicious effect:

Cum debere carnufex cuiquam quicquam quemquam, quemque quisque conveniat, neget.
Since the rascal denies that anyone owes anything to anyone, let each one sue the other. 
To arrest the downward trajectory of commerce, politics, and civility, conservatives and progressives need to realize that neither disposition implies linear activity. Instead, both require prudent cultivation, a process always slow, often oblique, and varied with respect to person, place, technique, time, and tool. Not every good must find expression in government policy, and not every policy, even the good, need be permanent. The alternative is a Sisyphean punishment for both the foolishness of thinking politics permits the solution to all problems, and the hubris of believing you've found it.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Just Plain Bad

The latest speech from the 21st century Cicero has arrived and it's a doozy. How long and boring and tedious it is!

It's all over the place, from attempts at epithets, "proud Maytag workers," stranded analogies, "the bargain began to fray," and inexplicable shifts in tense:
Technology made some jobs obsolete. Global competition sends a lot of jobs overseas. It became harder for unions to fight for the middle class.

We get some awkward ordering of phrases:
But by the time I took office in 2009 as your president, we all know the bubble had burst.
 Then there are plain old bizarre turns of phrase:
doled out bigger tax cuts to the very wealthy and smaller minimum wage increases for the working poor.
You can dole cuts? "Smaller minimum increases?"

Strained connections:
And so what happened was that -- (applause) -- the -- the link between higher productivity and people's wages and salaries was broken.
A link between three things?

Don't forget pointless asides:
Or they'll bring up "Obamacare" -- this is tried and true -- despite the fact that our businesses
So what's tried and true? That they bring it up? Doesn't that imply that you were just lying?

Then there are the vast gaps in explanation:
we've got to continue to end the war in Afghanistan
So we've been ending it? When? How? When was the middle? When did the end begin? What constitutes an end? Can you in fact be ending before you've ended, or is there simply an end?

We get perhaps the worst antistrophe ever:
That's what we have to spend our time on and our energy on and our focus on.
"Let's see, which word should get the emphasis? Hmmm. I know, on, because words!"

Don't forget the plain old ugly: It does not require havingeverybody who's fighting to get intothe cornerstones of what it means. Oh the humanity!

Finally, there's the incomprehensible:
This growing inequality not just of result, inequality of opportunity, this growing inequality -- it's not just morally wrong; it's bad economics because when middle-class families have less to spend, guess what?
Nope, I'm not guessing anymore. I'm out of here.

Sum and Part

Daphnis ego in silvis hinc usque ad sidera notus
formonsi pecoris formonsior ipse.
–Vergil. Eclogue VI. 43-44

The connection between man and deed is a curious one, not nearly so obvious and finite as it seems. Philosophy asks if what we do is ethical, most often approach the question from the perspective of agency, focusing on ethics and effect. The natural sciences are concerned with cause and process. Similarly, psychology asks us why we do something and history asks who did what, when. There is between these pursuits, though, the strange phenomena of how deeds and ideas adhere to man, who exists as he fashions himself, as his deeds form him, and how he is perceived by others. None of these factors is predictable or permanent. What do we make of men, then, when each one is Proteus?

History hands down as it transforms. On the one hand, we inherit Heraclitus as the weeping philosophy and Haydn as the laughing composer. Cicero is the model republican, Pericles the model statesman. Like Cleobis and Biton, these figures are frozen in time and honor as epitomes of virtue. On the other hand, Julius Caesar varies from age to age. Is he the tyrant, the betrayed, or the commander? Why do some deeds seem to shake right off their perpetrators? Caesar doesn't take much flak for the Gallic War, Pericles for the Peloponnesian, Cicero for being pompous, Augustus or Napoleon for police states, and so on.

The famous, however, stand exceptions to the rule that it is man's fate to be forgotten by this world. Even we mortals style ourselves, though. Sometimes we identify with our profession, sometimes by our faith or ideas, sometimes by one virtue or other. We act one way with one person, and another with others. We wonder about or avoid our motivations. It is often noted that only the individual ever knows himself, but less so that there's an element of perpetual uncertainty even for that endeavor.

When I act, then, is it the intellectual, the Catholic, the teacher, the man, the friend? Do I act from principle or as some grand whole greater than the sum of its parts?

Strangely, that which escapes man attains a unique grandeur. I speak not of natural phenomena such as caverns, sunsets, and great trees, but works of man which seem not to have been authored but rather in anonymity gifted into nature's domain. Consider the nameless medieval cathedrals and the chants which echo through the ages. How different is it reading Aristotle than Plato, the latter's thoughts being bound up in the curious character of Socrates whom we come to know while Aristotle's colorless, humorless treatises seem sprung from logic itself. (All for that quirk of fate that his other writings were lost.) How different is it to read Vergil in the context of 1) Vergil's art, 2) the politics of the early Roman Empire, 3) Augustus, and 4) the influence of other authors, than it is to read Homer, who reaches out raw but pure from the darkness. There seems such a freedom in the figures on those Greek jars, created not in some academic paradigm for a museum, but for living.

Like the ambiguities about ourselves, those of nature often do not obscure but refract and reflect us in our attempts not at analysis, not at use, but at contemplation. They invite not study, but a, if not pure then primarily, aesthetic experience.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Where Are My Eagles!

Skeptical eagle is skeptical.
I don't want to talk about the coma-inducing sentimentality of this ridiculous piece of music, and I don't want to talk about its musical development, or lack thereof. I don't even want to kvetch about how boring and repetitive the song is, or its jejune imagery and pedestrian vocabulary. I just want to know what's going on with the birds in this song. Is that so much to ask?

The lyrics:

And He will raise you up on eagle's wings,
Bear you on the breath of dawn,
Make you to shine like the sun,
And hold you in the palm of His Hand.

The snare of the fowler will never capture you,
And famine will bring you no fear;
Under His Wings your refuge,
His faithfulness your shield.

First, how will we be raised up on the wings? Does the author mean on top of wings? Clearly not, because you can't be on top of the wings which must be flapping if the eagle is flying. So what he must mean is "by means of" wings, but how does that work? In this thinking we must be transitively moved by the wings, since the wings move the bird which move whatever is attached to the bird. That's an awkward conception given how we don't say that we flew by means of wings if we take a plane, or drive by means of wheels if we take a car.

The whole vehicle is important, though, be it plane, car, or bird, because you can't raise someone up by wings alone: what about the rest of the eagle? You clearly need the body because the wings couldn't fly without the body. He must mean the whole eagle, then, which means that wings is synecdoche for the eagle, which is already a metaphor. Yowza!

Yet more problems arise since birds lift by grasping with their talons. This can't be how we are to be lifted, though, since the talons grip by piercing. Ouch! Maybe then, we're tied to the eagles. If so, who's tying everyone to the eagles? Do we tie ourselves? Who unties us?

Hold on, now I'm in the palm of his hand? We just established that eagles don't have hands, they have talons! So what is His Hand then? It can't be a metaphor for the bird because it is capitalized and it refers to something which the bird doesn't have. It must simply refer to God, but then why are we talking about birds?

Anyway, things don't improve in stanza two. Where did the fowler come from and why is he coming after me? Wouldn't he be going after, I don't know, the eagle? Also, why would I get caught by the fowler? Am I likely to get caught in a trap for birds? If the fowler is Satan, then why isn't he going after the bird? Or if he's going after me, not being a bird, why is he a fowler? Also, considering how many people are picky about using archaic language at mass: fowler, really? Maybe the fowler could help tie you to the eagle, ever think about that Mr. Author? Then the fletcher and the archer could be the bad guys and the tailor can cut you loose when you land. Just a thought.

So now I'm definitely under the wings, but am I just present anywhere beneath them or am I sort of nestled under them? I can't be nestled if he's flying, but then how am I protected if I'm not nestled? If I'm just hanging what happens if  the archer shoots at me? Also, if I'm tied to the eagle, how is his faithfulness my shield? Can he untie me? How? Would he try to maybe bash me against a rock to knock me off? If I'm tied, though, wouldn't that make him crash too? Finally, where's the eagle going. Is it a migratory eagle?

Wait, is there one eagle or more? Am I tied to two eagles? Are they the same species going to the same place?

I'm so worried now, what am I supposed to do? Should we try different birds? Falcons, owls, swallows? Help!

Saturday, July 20, 2013

John Williams: The Asteroid Field

John Williams is likely the most known and loved composer of movie scores in the last forty years. He's probably the most popular composer outside the world of movies, too. When folks think about Williams' work, though, they likely think of his great themes, from the galloping Raiders march and unfolding grandeur of Jurassic Park to the languishing violin solo of Schindler's List. Rightly regarded for their concision and expression, these themes tend to overshadow other aspects of the scores, namely the sustained mood and motion, and the instrumentation. We can find these virtues in full swing in one of Williams' best pieces, The Asteroid Field, from The Empire Strikes Back.

N.B. Since we don't have a digital score here to which we can jointly refer, I'll be less discussing syntax than style, color, and effect. In lieu of bar numbers I'll refer to time codes in the above video.

The open strokes in the cellos set both pace and scene, with the star destroyers in hot pursuit of the Millennium Falcon. These strokes then proceed at first just underneath plucked strings, then underneath triplets in the flutes, then with splashes of brass. This slow, soft opening, the drift into the asteroid field, is then smashed by a forte unison whose exclamatory effect is amplified by the cymbals which seem to splatter the energy throughout space, an effect which is picked up and maintained by the reverberation of the percussion's angular theme. Next the brass enters, all halting and herky-jerky like the rickety Falcon hurtling through space.

Now we're flying every which way. (:20) First the brass throbs along, hurrying and fleeing past the cymbal's starbursts and around the percussion's twisty theme, given torsion and tension in the strings. (:40) Then way up in the orchestra debris starts to whistle by. At (:55) the brass seems as if it's about to break away but it settles into an equally hasty, nervous version of its figure. (1:05) Next the strings get carried away in a torrent of rising frenzy but at (1:12) the brass reasserts itself with a slowly crescendoing figure whose last note bursts with a clash of cymbals. Asteroid field indeed.

(1:20) Here the brass is back but the tension remains as the percussion frenzies away until the winds puff along a stubborn version of the percussion's first theme. At last the strings snatch up the theme and spin it into a sprawling brass forte theme (1:36) which soars gloriously through the stars.

(2:00) We are all rhythmic variation here, building and prolonging the tension until the next swooning release of the main theme, which comes not at the false climax of (2:25) but at (3:16) with more fanfare than ever. Here, the concert ending vanishes into miniature scampering and a final crash whereas the film version flows into Williams' gliding, celestial theme, warm and atop on the winds, which plateaus the tension of the movement.

In conclusion, The Asteroid Field is one of Williams' most exciting and effective pieces, with rhythm and instrumentation so effectively complementary that the effect is downright visceral. A triumph of suspense, and vitality, the work is suited to its visual counterpart that the cinematic combination strikes the primeval spot between terror and wonder from where we look, ever childlike, upon a grand, wide horizon.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Yeah but. . . you know

The well of imbecility runs deep, dear reader, and in the latest demonstration of its inexhaustible depths the president has shared the following wad of wisdom:

"...if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened? And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws." -President Barack Obama, 7/19/13 [Link]
Foolishness is never more dangerous and dastardly than when disguised as wisdom and moderation. Here we have an incongruous analogy set up as a hypothetical test of a tangential issue presented as the vindication of unspecified criticism about the Zimmerman verdict. It's a good thing the president decided to, "let all the legal analysts and talking heads address those [legal] issues."

The appeal of such a statement is more peculiar and particular, though, than the logic therein, for one must ask: why would such a sentiment appeal to anyone? From whence comes the need to find a systemic problem? Can't anything happen without being part of a trend, which the newscasters love to term a "disturbing pattern of events," that necessitates rethinking, reforming, and too often, infringements on liberty? Wouldn't you be glad if something bad weren't true?

Moreover, why do some people seek to prove that America is fundamentally flawed? It is one manner to admit that your home has flaws, even grave ones, for the purpose of admonishing it, but quite another to exercise with such alarming regularity a reflexive instinct toward disparagement. On the other hand, the contrast of heedless patriotism's motto "my country right or wrong" is of course an equally deleterious condition, but I find it harder to understand the repudiating tendency which Roger Scruton has called oikophobia. First, home is the natural seat of affection. Second, the facts prove otherwise, at least in the present matter.

Now I would be less inclined to allege that "some people seek to prove America is flawed" if they didn't demonstrate their inclination so ably in the deft disregard for facts we see exemplified by the president.

I would be more cautious to allege such if the president hadn't prefaced the above statement with anecdotes which we're not only supposed to take on faith, but from which we are urged to extrapolate general truths.
There are very few African-American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store...
There are probably very few African-American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars...
There are very few African-Americans who haven't had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off...
These assertions are apparently meant to stand in lieu of factual, empirical demonstrations of racism's causes and effects. So we're supposed to concede that racism has created certain problems, but also, "not to make excuses for that fact." This is illogic masquerading as pragmatism.

Finally, I would be more likely to believe such people suffered from a mere lack of facts than an aversion to them if the president hadn't proposed pretty blandishments like collecting data on traffic stops, "resourced us training police departments" (N.B. "resource" is not a verb), and spending "some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African-American boys?"

As if those points are not incredible enough indictments of the president's lack of seriousness, he peppers them with a sudden doubt about overweening federal legislation ("I'm not naive about the prospects of some grand new federal program") and deference for federalism, ("Traditionally, these are issues of state and local government," remarks which could scarcely have less credibility.

Overall, the president's speech is sophomoric in thought and insidious in effect. Couched in a faux-casual flurry of "you knows," the speech pretends to walk a line of moderation and pragmatism even as it exemplifies and justifies the thinking which precipitated the problem. It will only compel those who already harbor foregone conclusions, just like the case it pretends to transcend.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Double Feature Review: Pitch Perfect & Sharktopus

To paraphrase musicologist Hans Keller, great art diversifies a unity. One of the principal challenges of art, then, is crafting episodes which both stand alone and reflect the whole. The essential challenge of this craft is threefold: he must depart, do something, and return. These miniature journeys are easily observed in the musical form called the rondo, which features variation episodes punctuated by a return to the main theme, announced at the outset. In the form called the fugue, the main idea is the fugue subject and the "plot," so to speak, is the many forms which this unity can assume. In drama, the episodes, called scenes, relate back to a plot which constitutes a main idea. This is an ideal toward which all great artists struggle.

Lesser works, as Keller observed, merely unify disparate elements, elements which may or may not add up to something significant. For example, Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction persuasively unifies various stories by means of plot and style, but they don't add up to anything in the way the dramatic and philosophical symmetries of Altman's Short Cuts or Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey constitute themes from which seemingly disparate rivers spring. Pulp Fiction, though, strives towards unity.

All forms are subject to degradation, though, and there are still lesser degrees of unity, the lowest of which allows each form wholly to dissipate into its constituent parts without any attempt at unity. Works at this level exist to fulfill the stock requirements of the genre, not to express ideas. Such insincere attempts at expression which merely model the forms of art are not unique to our age. Vivaldi's Venice knew too many thinly-plotted operas which were little more than vehicles for screeching sopranos and Mozart's Austria drowned in thousands of dry, drowsy string quartets. Our own age knows the phenomenon in the form of cheap genre movies.

Directed by Jason Moore. 2012.

Pitch Perfect doesn't care about anyone either in or watching it. No one involved bothered about doing anything new or with even a teensy bit of flair or variation. It has a weekend script which strings a series of stock elements along a plot for which it has so little concern that occasionally it skips the bother of scenes altogether, preferring to summarize the plot in narration or outright dropping action which nonetheless takes place and whose results we are forced to infer. This reduction liquefies the plot into something as complex and significant as the summary of a Chinese cookie fortune.

The movie of course does have the obligatory genre elements, namely, 1) adolescent angst, 2) spontaneous singing, 3) gross lowbrow comedy, 4) paternal finger-wagging, 5) rivalries, 6) a kinda-sorta romance, and 7) safe, oblique references to non-SWPL life, all played for cheap laughs.

There is no touchstone of direction or purpose, and certainly no attempt toward style or even tone. We only generously call it a movie.

Budget: $17,000,000 (estimated) 
Opening Weekend: $5,149,433 (USA)

Directed by Declan O'Brien. 2010.

At least Asylum Studios is frank about their motivations: they're gaming the system. The only fact I doubt from their remarks is that it takes so long as ten days to write one of their scripts. Just like Pitch Perfect, there's no plot to speak of, and while I wasn't looking for much, you need something. Jaws might have set in motion thirty years of inferior knock offs, but only because it perfected the formula. You had Chief Brody's awkwardness in suburbia, the interplay of the three men on the boat, and of course the looming presence of a giant killer shark, culminating in a man versus beast struggle. Sharktopus has many of the same parts, people running, people on the beach, people being eaten, and so forth. Throw in some tech gizmos, a couple of jerks to give the hero some grief, and a pretty girl, and I guess you have a movie. Unlike the terrifying Jaws, though, there is no effect because the parts are so incongruous. 

On the one hand these movies are a clear cash grab, but on the on the other we get a whiff of Duchamp's urinal. There's a challenge to art somewhere in the audacity, not of defining these pieces as art, but of throwing them in the ring with art. Lowbrow adventures like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars demonstrate that with enough skill you can turn even junk and old stiff models into veritable entertainment, at least. These works, though, aspire neither to craft nor effect of any kind. They are vestiges of Western art: evolved, but impotent. Most people look at such movies with a light heart, but I wonder if we ought not be at least a little offended. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Art of Not Having An Opinion

While swimming in the jury pool with my fellow citizens earlier this year, I found myself waiting long whiles with them in an auditorium festooned with televisions. At the time, everyone was following the trial of Oscar Pistorius, who was accused of murdering his girlfriend. Whether out of interest or deathly boredom, people freely gossiped about the courtroom drama. The ad hoc popular verdicts were unanimous in affirming his guilt, a fact which troubled your humble blogger who found these extra-legal pronouncements quite disturbing, coming as they did from people who might imminently serve on a jury.

Hours later, though, many of these same mystics and prognosticators sat with me in the courtroom for some pre-selection procedures. They asked me a good many ways whether I would be able to remain impartial: do I know anybody at the court, do I know anybody who's been involved in the case, and so forth. Then the defense reminded us about holding to the facts of the case, and the prosecution about the burden of proof. None of these reminders shattered my conceptions, but they were presented with a degree of seriousness, in an environment of such seriousness, which, combined with the gravity and procedures of an actual trial, might have snapped a few folks from their penchants for armchair adjudication. I'm not generally sanguine about the popular penchant for remaining focused, logical, and objective, but with enough prodding, it's not inconceivable.

On the other hand, I sat down at my desk yesterday morning beneath such a Vesuvius of thesaurus-emptying, fact-averse vomitus that I found sole consolation in the fact I had yet to take my shower. I wonder if people realize how insulting it is to speak about matters on which not only are they inexpert, not only which have they not studied, but with which they have not even bothered to acquaint themselves, and then, furthermore, to voice that uninformed, unexamined opinion with all the trumpets-and-drums pomp can muster, and then, crowning their abdication from reason and decency, to dare and criticize anyone who refuses to lap up their piddling blather.

I know it's shooting fish in a barrel, but look at this nonsense in response to the verdict in the Zimmerman trial. It is simply staggering how much ignorance, and inelegance, you can squeeze into 150 characters. Do these people want someone to set them straight? Does Ice Cube want someone to ask him what he could possibly mean by alleging that a whole city wanted Zimmerman acquitted? Do Chris Rock and Nicki Minaj know that 911 operators can't order you what to do, and they are not police? Does Michael Moore know his inverse hypothetical proves nothing? Does Mia Farrow equate patrolling an area which the police were apparently unable to, with "hunting?" Does Evan Rachel Wood think that every single instance resulting in death is equivalent? Do Omar Epps, Chris Brown, and Rico Love think all crimes involving guns are equivalent? Does Russell Simmons think that every instance of discrimination ought to be illegal, qua discrimination? Does John Cusack not know what a tragedy is, or does he think a fatal flaw was involved? Does Olivia Wilde think we can just "demand" a better justice system into existence ex nihilo?

As preposterous as these claims are, though, I've heard the same from people I'd heretofore thought predominantly reasonable, but who this time clamor in accord with their more famous counterparts in stupidity and hate mongering. These folks simply can't compute the fact that this case doesn't support what they think it does, which is that murder is legal, any particular people are racist, or the justice system is broken. The case, in fact, demonstrated very little: that a jury, given specific evidence and specific burden of proof, was unable to convict Zimmerman of specific charges. With no ulterior motive, one must find specific fault with the evidence, burden of proof, or criteria for self defense in order to find fault with the verdict. Stefan Molyneux did a fine job of assembling the facts of the case, but even his scrupulous video was greeted with familiar, unreasoned responses, in many cases because people see the verdict as the outcome of variables other than the evidence, namely unstated, unknown, and nefarious motives of Zimmerman, the jury, and the police. These are pitiable people tyrannized by their opinions.

There's an instructive lesson about prudence in Tom Hooper's 2008 miniseries John Adams in which Thomas Jefferson, already acclimated to the Parisian world, asks the recently arrived Mrs. Adams what she thinks of the Gallic character. Mrs. A. declines to answer on the grounds that she couldn't possibly form a just opinion in so little time, a denial which prompts Jefferson to tease that she has already done just that. Finally and to the chagrin of her silent, onlooking husband, Mrs. Adams coyly notes that even if she had, she'd not announce her opinions until experience had confirmed their wisdom or folly. Prudent advice from a lady worth the title, and how better off would we all be to follow the example.

It's not easy, though, because we all harbor preconceptions. Sometimes those thoughts are arrived at by reason and principle and sometimes they're heuristic haphazards that we've patched together. In either case, every time we encounter a new situation we're tempted to shoehorn it into our existing view and see it as yet another example of something we already know. To some extent this is necessary because we can't reevaluate every situation as if we've never seen it before, but on the other hand we need to exercise humility and prudence when the facts don't fit. It is better to educate oneself in silence than to speak out in principled error, or worse, shameless grandstanding.