Thursday, December 29, 2011

Upstairs Downton Revisited...

Recently I began to rewatch, for the first time since the 1970s, the classic London Weekend Television and ITV television programme Upstairs Downstairs. Upstairs Downstairs, as virtually every television historian knows by now, was the brainchild of actors Jean Marsh, who would go on to play Rose the downstairs parlour maid in the show, and Eileen Atkins, who was supposed to play the downstairs cook but was unable to because of other commitments.

Upstairs Downstairs, which ran on ITV from 1971 to 1975 and was recently revived by the BBC, was originally going to centre on two maids in a Victorian country house--remnants of this remain in the show in the relationship between Rose and her parlour maid comrade in arms Sarah in the early episodes of the show--but by the time it aired the shows focus had broadened out to include not only the lives of two servants but also the lives, travails, and times of all the other servants downstairs and the masters, Sir Richard, later Lord, and Lady Bellamy, 165 Easton Place, Belgravia, London, upstairs.

Surprisingly, at least to those involved in the show (commentary on the first episode by actors Jean Marsh and Evin Crowley (Emily) and writer Fay Weldon on the Network and Acorn DVD's), Upstairs Downstairs became a hit not only in the UK but in the US. Upstairs Downstairs was one of the first shows broadcast on PBS's Masterpiece Theatre, in fact, it was the show that put Masterpiece on the television map. It also became popular in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and some 65 other countries across the globe. As a result the show spawned a number of clones including the short lived Beacon Hill (1975) on the US CBS network and more recently Downton Abbey.

Downton Abbey is the creation of British actor--he played the Scottish aristocrat Kilwillie in the BBC's Monarch of the Glen (2000-2005) and politician Claud Seabrook in the BBC's superb Our Friends from the North (1996)--writer--he wrote Robert Altman's Gosford Park itself heir to Upstairs Downstairs and prequel to Downton Abbey--and director Julian Fellowes. It premiered on ITV on 26 September 2010 and was broadcast in America on PBS's on Masterpiece in January of 2011.

Even before Downton Abbey premiered a number of critics pointed out that in many ways Julian Fellowes new series was the grandchild of Upstairs Downstairs. After rewatching the first episode of Upstairs Downstairs, "On Trial", it is quite easy to see why. Both Upstairs Downstairs begin with a new downstairs arrival, Sarah (Pauline Collins), the new parlour maid, in Upstairs Downstairs and Bates (Brendon Coyle), Lord Grantham's new valet, in Downton Abbey. The arrival of Sarah and Bates at Eaton Place and Downton Abbey allow the writers of the first episodes of each series, Upstairs Fay Weldon and Downtons Julian Fellows, to introduce viewers in a very elegant way to the main characters and dynamics of both houses. Both Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey have downstairs run by prim and proper yet humane butlers, Mr. Hudson (Gordon Jackson) in Upstairs and (Charles Carson) in Downton. Both Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey have mature and crusty if not nasty cooks, Mrs. Bridges (Angela Baddeley) in Upstairs and Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) in Downton, and somewhat dim and clumsy kitchen maids, Emily (Evin Crowley) in Upstairs and Rose (Sophia McShera) in Downton. Both Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey have scheming and rather "sinister" footmen, Alfred (George Innes) in Upstairs and Thomas (Rob James-Collier) in Downton, both of whom have homosexual relationships with aristocratic foreign visitors to Eaton Place and Downton Abbey. Both Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey have ladies of the house who involve themselves in modern radical causes. In Upstairs Downstairs Miss Elizabeth (Nicola Pagett) gets involved in "radical" causes like the suffragist movement while in Downton Abbey Lady Sybill (Jessica Brown-Findlay) involves herself with "radical" labour and women's rights political movements. And in both Upstairs Downtairs and Downton Abbey the sinking of the Titanic has an immense impact on the Bellamy and the Grantham households upstairs. In Upstairs Downstairs Lady Marjorie Bellamy (Rachel Gurney) dies while sailing on the Titanic to New York to visit daughter Elizabeth in America while in Downton Abbey Lord Grantham’s cousin and heir presumptive James Crawley and his son Patrick die when the Titanic sinks in the Atlantic setting in motion the chain of events related to the entail that will dominate the first series.

There are also, of course, differences between the two costume dramas about life upstairs and life downstairs. Upstairs Downstairs was, as was the case with British television in the 1960s, 1970s, and some of the 1980s, a kind of "electronic play" largely shot in the studio and largely recorded on videotape, and is leisurely in pace while Downton, as has been common in British television since the 1990s thanks, in part, to the impact of film, is filmed in the studio and on location at Highclere Castle, has substantially more editing than Upstairs, and is, as a result, much quicker in pace than Upstairs Downstairs. It takes, for example, two series of thirteen episodes each for Upstairs Downstairs to get from the Titanic to World War I while it takes Downton Abbey one series of seven episodes to do it. Additionally, where Upstairs Downstairs was much more critical of the British class system with its masters and servants and the impact of this distanced paternalistic system on the servants, Downton, while engaging in a bit of critical distance, seems to me to romanticise the relationship between upstairs and downstairs, allowing its masters and servants to touch on occasion, wrapping the relationship between master and servant in a kind of nostalgic haze which seems to view the paternalism of the Grantham's (and the aristocracy in general?) in a largely positive light, at least in the first series.

The similarities between the two shows clearly cannot be chalked up purely to genre, purely to the fact that both shows focus on the lives and interrelationships of those upstairs and downstairs and are set in aristocratic homes, one in London, the other in the country, in Edwardian England. Downton Abbey is, as so many critics have pointed out, an Upstairs Downstairs for the new millennium. But while Downton may be an Upstairs clone, at least initially, that doesn't mean that Downton Abbey is any less enjoyable for being an Upstairs Downstairs for the twenty-first century. Personally I love the show and I can't wait for series two of Downton to begin on PBS in January of 2012. It is for me one of the best English language television shows out there along with Sherlock, Doctor Who, Outnumbered, The Thick of It (all British) and Being Erica (a Canadian show).

As to re-watching Upstairs Downstairs, this has been a joy. It is great to see one of the finest television shows ever made again after some forty years in an excellent transfer with tonnes of extras from Acorn.

Monday, December 26, 2011

How Apologetics and Polemics Really Work: Mormon Apologists and Polemicists as a Test Case

In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the LDS, the Utah Mormon Church, there are four basic holy scriptures: The Bible, as far as it is translated correctly, the Book of Mormon, The Book of Abraham, and the Doctrine and Covenants, the revelations that the Church Prophet, Joseph Smith was the first, has received over the years from God and Jesus Christ. The divine origins of all of these have been quite controversial over the years with Mormons willing to believe them divine in origin, and Gentiles, the term Mormons use for non-Mormons, generally unwilling to accept their "divine" status.

In the rest of this short essay I want to concentrate on the Book of Abraham. The Book of Abraham has its origin in an Egyptian manuscript that Mormon prophet and first Church President Joseph Smith purchased from Michael Chandler, the proprietor of a traveling mummy show that passed through Kirtland, Ohio, one of the earliest Mormon communities, in July of 1835. In November Smith began "...translating an alphabet to the Book of Abraham and arranging a grammar of the Egyptian language as practiced by the ancients". You can, by the way, buy Smith's Egyptian alphabet and grammar from the Tanners, those famous ex-Mormons turned evangelical who believe their calling is to convert Mormons from "false" pseudo-Christianity to "true" evangelical Christianity (http://www.utlm.org/booklist/titles/josephsmithegyptianpapers_ub010.htm).

With the help of this alphabet and grammar Smith was able to "translate" what he called the Book of Abraham. The Book of Abraham (http://lds.org/scriptures/pgp/abr?lang=eng) tells the tale of the life of the Hebrew patriarch Abraham and his sojourns throughout the lands of Canaan, the land promised by God to Abraham and his progeny, and Egypt. Chapters 1 and 2 of the Book of Abraham tell the story of Abraham’s early life and his fight against the idolatry in both his family and in society at large. It recounts how pagan priests tried to sacrifice Abraham and how an angel came to his rescue. Chapter 2 contains information about God’s covenant with Abraham and how it would be fulfilled. Chapters 3 through 5, the heart of the Book of Abraham, delineate the vision of the creation of the world and the creation of man that God gave to the Hebrew patriarch.

The Book of Abraham that Smith "translated" is more than simply a text. It also contains three important pictorial facsimiles. According to Smith the first pictorial "translation" depicts the attempt by the idolatrous priest of Elkenah to sacrifice patriarch Abraham while he is tied to an altar (http://lds.org/scriptures/pgp/abr/fac-1?lang=eng). Pictorial translation 2 contains representations of celestial objects including the heavens and earth, 15 other planets or stars, (including Kolob; Kolob would become Kobol in Mormon Glen Larson's Battlestar Galactica), the sun and moon, the number 1000, and God's revelation of the grand Key-words of the Holy Priesthood (http://lds.org/scriptures/pgp/abr/fac-2?lang=eng). Pictorial translation 3 portrays Abraham in the court of Pharaoh "reasoning upon the principles of Astronomy" (http://lds.org/scriptures/pgp/abr/fac-3?lang=eng). All of these facsimiles are central to the rituals and symbols of the Mormon Temple ceremony as one of my Mormon friends and informants told me.

The Book of Abraham was first published in March and May of 1842 in the LDS newspaper Times and Seasons and was accepted as scriptural by the Utah Church in 1880. Believing Mormons, of course, have generally believed that Joseph Smith was given the gift of divine translation by God and that the "Book of Abraham" is literally true. The facsimiles of the Book of Abraham have become central to the Mormon Temple ceremonies, rituals and symbols at the heart of Mormon culture. Non-Mormon and Mormon critics, of course, have not generally accepted that the Book of Abraham has divine origins. Critics of the Book of Abraham have long pointed out the historical problems with the Book of Abraham. Critics have noted, particularly after the rediscovery of the "Book of Abraham" papyri in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 1966 that Smith had made his translation from. These rediscovered manuscripts show that the documents Smith had translated the Book of Abraham from were actually common Egyptian funerary texts and that Smith's translation bore no relationship to the literal words of these funerary texts.

Defenders of the Mormon faith have responded to the rediscovery of the Book of Abraham manuscripts in a number of different ways over the years. Some have argued that Smith did not translate the documents. Instead, he interpreted the manuscripts through the medium of divine revelation in the same manner as he had "translated" the Bible earlier. Others have claimed that the Museum of Art papyri represent a corrupted version of a document originally written by Abraham and translated by Smith. Still others have argued that the are other messages and meanings embedded within the text of the funerary manuscripts. Still others have argued that the fragments found at the New York Museum of Art are only part of the complete original papyri and that it was the missing manuscripts that Smith translated (the proving something from nothing argument). And still others have argued that underlying the Egyptian funerary texts is a Hebrew document about the patriarch Abraham and this is the one Smith "translated".

As an outsider, a Gentile, who has listened to and explored, or once listened to and explored, the apologetic side of the Book of Abraham as an authentic document argument, there are, at least for me, several problems with the arguments of Mormon defenders of the Book of Abraham faith. The fundamental problem with them all is that all of them are, in the final analysis, apologetic and polemical. In the end almost all arguments of the believing defenders of the faith enunciated above show, have to take refuge in the god did it through divine revelation argument, "the limits of human understanding" argument (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2S17n93-s5E). Such an argument, of course, will not satisfy empirical critics like myself though it may satisfy the minds of some intellectually oriented believers. And this, of course, is the real purpose and function of the apologetic and polemical arguments.

It is, of course, typical of apologists and polemicists, including Mormon apologists and polemicists at FAIR, the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, and FARMS, the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, to avoid the give and take of real empirical debate (one example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y5Q55SPUfvw) and to sometimes resort to ad hominem rather than empirical arguments. If you don't believe me just listen to right wing political debates in contemporary America. It is common in much of this apologetics and polemics for statements to be made with little if any empirical evidence to back them up, with little if any debate over, response to, or dissection of contrary arguments, and for ad hominem arguments to be the far too common final resort of the apologetic and polemical mind. Of course, this is demagoguery, apologetic and polemical demagoguery, in its fundamental form and it is the dominant form of "argument" taking place in cyberspace, in the blogosphere, and on the Fox News Channel.

I do realise that not all apologists and polemicists are alike or equal. Once upon a time when I was a biblical studies major. In biblical studies classes we talked about the need for beginning analysis with exegesis, textual analysis, the study of texts and textual variants in their historical and archaeological contexts, then moving on to hermeneutics, the study of texts and their meanings, their sometimes changing textual meanings as some texts, like the Bible or Shakespeare float through new textual contexts, and finally moving on to homiletics, "preaching" about texts on the basis of a sound understanding of a text's exegesis and hermeneutics.

Polemicists and apologists do sometimes engage in this form of more careful and historically sensitive textual analysis but even at their best, in my opinion, these apologists and polemicists tend to engage in a weird sort of exegesis which mixes ancient contexts with modern ideology (in this instance religious belief) and engage in a hermeneutics that mixes time and space in a kind of Doctor Whoy sort of way. Don't get me wrong I love Doctor Who but I don't mistake it for sound academic and intellectual analysis. Even the "best" religious oriented apologetics and polemics, in other words, seem to me to engage in a rather a weird sort of ahistorical apologetics and polemics which, in its practise, creates a ahistorical hybrid monster that conflates exegesis, hermeneutics and homiletics and tells us more about ourselves today and the beliefs and hopes some have about the Book of Abraham, than about the historical texts of the past, in this case Egyptian funerary papyri.

Some questions and some responses to certain interpretations of the Book of Abraham...
Hmmm, this [the notion that Smith "translated" a Hebrew tale hovering within and beneath the Egyptian funerary texts from which the Book of Abraham was translated] sound like an episode of Dr. Who. So Smith was not "translating" an Egyptian funerary text, he was looking at an Egyptian document but was really seeing a "Semitic" document that inhabited the same time/space as the funerary text? was this "Semitic" document brought into Smith's consciousness by the Egyptian text? stimulated by it? Was this "Semitic" document written by a Bedouin despite the fact that historically speaking, writing and Bedouins generally aren't spoken of in the same breath?

Archaeological question: what Bedouin group has bequeathed to the world a body of astrological speculation? So is the argument here that Abraham the Bedouin learned to write in Egypt? the Ancient Near East? Ur of the Chaldees? Any evidence of Bedouin picking up writing skills in the Ancient world and using this to engage, in writing, in cosmological speculation?

Several questions remain beyond the issue of Bedouins and writing? Texts, of course, as we know can be orally transmitted. Examples; the Iliad, Odyssey, likely parts of the Torah (Jacob Saga, the Joseph Saga). What evidence exists, beyond the Biblical text, that Hebrews were ever in Egypt? Is there evidence for Hebregyptian in the Davidic and Solomonic kingdoms? Is there any evidence for an Egyptian and Hebraic text existing in the same time/space beyond this controversial one?

It seems clear that so much of the Torah and Ketuvim were indeed influenced, deeply influenced, by the larger and much stronger (imperialistic, colonial) Egyptian and Middle Eastern cultures around them. Examples: Wisdom literature, the second creation story. But is there anywhere in the Middle East evidence for a text in one language (Egyptian) underlain by another entirely different one (Hebregyptian)?

Yes, the Tanakh has been much influenced by its broader Mediterranean contexts. The Mediterranean was clearly a region marked by economic, political, and cultural interactions. The question becomes when did those influences impact Israel, a state in which writing, as opposed to oral recitation, did not begin until the time of David and after. I agree interaction and, to use that academic fad term, hybridity, does not prove the "ancientness" of the Book of Abraham. It proves that Israel, a small and relatively powerless state, was influenced by cultures, more powerful cultures, in its Mediterranean environment.

All this [arguments that the Ancient Hebrews were impacted by more powerful cultures (Egypt, Sumeria, Babylonia, Persia) in its broader cultural environment] is not unlike the cultural, economic, and political power of the West in the World today. Dallas was the number one TV programme in the world in the 1980s while Upstairs Downstairs was shown on, if memory serves, over 100 TV channels around the world. In an article by Katz and Liebes, by the way, those two scholars show how different ethnic groups in Israel, to use another trendy academic term, imbibed and used Dallas in different ways.

Speaking of the TV show Dallas, I once met a Algerian who matriculated at SMU because he liked the show Dallas. His image of Dallas, however, and the reality of Dallas he found when he got there caused him a bit of cognitive dissonance.

A general question...
Why do so many Mormon apologists and polemicists come from the legal profession?

The Dixiefornication and Texasification of America...

A spectre is haunting America, the spectre of Dixiefornication and Texasification.

In a cultural war that has been going on since before the Civil War the anti-federalist and states rights mantras dominant in the South, the same anti-federalist and states rights mantras that underlay Southern justifications for going to Civil War with the North over slavery, the religion of the lost cause, Southern opposition to Reconstruction, Southern institutionalisation of Jim Crow segregation, and Southern opposition to the dismantling of Jim Crow, are slowly but surely creeping across the American cultural and political landscape if in a kindler and gentler and more politically correct form and taking it over. This Dixiefornication and Texasification has resulted in the increase of anti-federal governmental rhetoric in the American West and the American Midwest as doublspeak right to work legislation that makes it almost impossible for workers to organise thanks to right to work laws, attacks on abortion, contraception and Planned Parenthood, the triumph of the neo-liberal corporate state with its wet dreams of dismantling the social insurance state built by American progressives and new dealers from the 1920s throught 1970s, and the increase of an even more parochial, xenophobic, and strident muscular nationalism than has been seen on this scale since the 19th century and early 20th century. Dixiefornication and Texasification is returning us to the laissez faire nineteenth century world of Ebenezer Scrooge and Montgomery Burns. It is returning us to the Bah Humbug state, a state where the rich get richer and the poor get blamed for being poor, where deregulations to protect Americans against the unbridled and dangerous greed of neo-liberal capitalists (if you don't believe this unbridled greed is dangerous study the Great Depression and the Depression of 2008, both of which were caused largely by capitalist hyperspeculation, big capitalist manipulations of the market, and a lack of regulation of the markets by the federal government, the only thing big enough to check and balance such insidious and often catastrophic and certainly not nationalist elite big business capitalist behaviour) increasingly go the way of the dinosaurs, and where neo-liberal capitalist driven inequalities that help create such poverty are blissfully ignored. Welcome to the Modern World. Texas Never.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Musings on the Death of Liberalism and the Triumph of the Corporate State

I recently had my Comparative History class read Chris Hedges's book The Death of the Liberal Class. I had not read it before, which is one of the reasons I had my class read it. I have wanted to read Death for sometime and assigning it to a class for reading and discussion seemed a good way to make myself read a book and to get class discussion going about what has happened in the US since the "Reagan Revolution".

Hedges nicely lays out the thesis of The Death of the Liberal Class in the first chapter of the book, “Resistance”. In that chapter Hedges argues that the liberal class, which, he claims, arose as a response to the decline of feudalism and church totalitarianism, has, over the last thirty years of neo-liberal dominance, betrayed its very reason for being. Once the defenders of the rule of law, the supremacy of supreme reason, universal moral values, individualism, and moral egalitarianism, the liberal class has, argues Hedges, become, since the Thatcher and Reagan "revolutions", complicit with the corporate state. The liberal class in good corporate state fashion, claims Hedges, has helped purge leftists, leftists who once kept it honest, from its midst and from American mainstream political and economic culture in general. In the process it has given up its once cherished belief in human progress, and it has allowed the virulent right to capture populist rage, legitimate populist rage, against the government and against Wall Street. This failure of the liberal class has, argues Hedges, left the poor that the liberal class once sought to protect and whose vulnerable position it once sought to meliorate through social insurance and regulatory schemes, particularly vulnerable to the vagaries of capitalist oligarchic boom and bust society.

With the triumph of the corporate state a contradiction has reared its ugly head in Corporate State America, claims Hedges. Liberals, claims Hedges, are necessary to maintain several cherished liberal myths including the belief that everyone in America has an equal opportunity to become a millionaire or at least have a comfortable middle class life, and the myth that constitutional reforms that benefit the disenfranchised are possible through legal channels. After its successful purge of the American left by the corporate state, a purge founded on fears generated by the corporate state about communism, anarchism, and socialism, however, the corporate state, which always requires an enemy, has now turned its ire on its once liberal ally in the war against the left, and made it, the new internal enemy, an internal enemy, they claim, that is undermining the American way of life.

By turning liberals into the enemy at home, however, the corporate state has lost the buffer that liberals once provided, thanks to its promises of the possibility of reform and progress, between it and those who haven't by and large benefited from the joys of corporate America. And now that those liberal myths, liberal myths that were once partially true, that myth that every American can live the American dream and that the legal system can protect us from the worst aspects of corporate oligarchy, have been shattered, many populists, many disenfranchised populists, perhaps even without realizing it consciously, are angry at liberalism for failing them.

All of this has left liberals in a precarious position. Today all emasculated liberals can do is to go along with the main political arm of the corporate state, the Republican Party, and support things like deregulation, including deregulation of the banks, the elimination of firewalls between investment banks and commercial banks, acts that let loose casino capitalist speculators, welfare "reform", anti-union and anti-working class free trade agreements which have destroyed American manufacturing, the American working class, and American unions. And all the while, claims Hedges, they still haven’t fully recognised the obvious, that in the wake of the Reagan Revolution corporate elites fully control America ever more firmly, corporate elites who aren’t interested in the common good but only in their own financial gain, and that reforming this American corporate state is almost impossible. What we are left with, claims Hedges, using a term first used by political observer Sheldon Wolin, is “inverted totalitarianism”.

Hedges argues that liberal complicity with the constantly at war corporate state has corrupted once liberal churches, colleges and universities, artists, the media, and labour leaders all of whom have been allowed, by corporate oligarchs and their political minions, to play roles in the corporate state if they don’t play the class war card (think here about the criticism of Obama by Republicans for fanning the flames of class war recently). All of these once liberal institutions now speak the language of corporate accountability, of individualism and self-realisation, of getting ahead, and of the need for war, rather than the language of justice for the disenfranchised. Universities and colleges have become a breeding ground for systems managers for the political and economic bureaucracies of the corporate state. Professors gaze into texts as though they were crystal balls, praise multiculturalism, which is not a threat to the corporate elites, and write essays and tomes in languages that only they can understand rather than damn the inequality and injustice around them. Artists ever more detached from the wider world in which they live, have traded in social realism and a call for justice for abstraction and detachment from social issues.

After reading Hedges's The Death of the Liberal Class I have been thinking a lot about the liberal class and, in particular, about the academic liberal class. Some of the most incisive analyses of bourgeois academics and intellectuals, at least for me, are contained in two films made by Luis Bunuel, The Exterminating Angel (1962) and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). I have always found the characterisation of bourgeois dinner parties, bourgeois dinner parties as the opiates of the wanna be aristocratic less than masses (academic dinner parties have a bit more trendy intellectual and academic discussion), in both films to be a fairly accurate representation of this ritual.

I have to admit, nihilist that I am quickly becoming, that I am somewhat amused and bemused by academia, or at least parts of academia--I consider myself more of an intellectual who has been fortunate to be able to teach part time in the ivy halls (though perhaps, after writing this, not for much longer). I am amused and bemused by the apparent fact that some academics seem to think that by writing about (an imagined) ageism in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, essays read by perhaps 200 people, they can change the world into an (equally imagined) utopia.

While "left leaning" academics have been navel gazing the right has, as Hedges notes, out manoeuvered them capturing, like pied pipers, the public discourse and the rhetorical contours of governmental policy (the government as evil rhetoric) and has used these as springboards to political power. As I write the corporate right is now living out its wet dream of cutting government, cutting education (ah, good old American anti-intellectualism or anti-higher education), and savaging the few unions that remain somewhat visible and viable in America today. Amidst the neo-liberal carnage academics, leftists, and social insurance liberals stand like deers before headlights. Occupy Wall Street is (was?) perhaps the only realistic attempt by those on the left to assault and escape this prison house of neo-liberal public rhetoric. It will be interesting to see whether OWS has provided the key by which liberalism can escape the gilded neo-liberal cage they have been imprisoned within and by which the American left can be reborn on a broader and less sectarian scale. At the moment it looks such a prospect doesn't have a proverbial snow balls chance in hell since, at least according to several polls more people fear big government than big corporate business and more people think the US is more a country of haves than of have nots. Apparently many Americans tune out any talk about inequality in America because they believe it to be inherently liberal or inherently socialist in nature. What can I say, ideological illusions generally trump reality.



Thursday, December 22, 2011

Hollywood Works Its Mythic Magic on Lisbeth?

In a recent review of David Fincher's Hollywood version of Stig Larrson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in the popular culture online magazine PopMatters (http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/152527-alien-the-girl-with-the-dragon-tattoo/) critic Bill Gibron claims that Fincher's version is more bracing and brutal and more "ick[y]" (the last two not surprising given the director and his filmographic past) than the 2009 Swedish original directed by Niels Arden Oplev. Gibron goes on to claim that Fincher turns Lisbeth Salander, the heroine of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, into someone "literally not of this earth", into an "extraterrestrial "Alien".

I have to say, though I say this with some trepidation since commenting on something one has not seen--and I haven't seen Fincher's take on The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo--is problematic and potentially dangerous, that I am really not particularly interested in seeing Fincher's version of Stig Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Fincher's version of Lisbeth Salander. I saw the original Swedish version with its superb performances by Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist as Lisbeth and Mikael and have no interest in seeing yet another Hollywood remake of a great "foreign" film.

Turning fact into "myth", reality into Hollywood unreality, if that is what is going on in Fincher's treatment of Larsson's work as Gibron claims, is exactly what one shouldn't do to Lisbeth since one of Larsson's motives in writing his trilogy was to foreground the real Sweden and its fascist past, which included eugenics, and its fascist present--the xenophobia Larsson the journalist explored and exposes in his book Extremhögern (Extreme Right)--with the Social Democratic Sweden and the broader world's mythic and utopian image of happy and neutral contemporary Sweden. In exploring Sweden's fascist past and somewhat fascist present, by the way, Larsson shares much with Swedish novelist Henning Mankell and Larsson's Mikael Blomkvist shares a bit with Mankell's Kurt Wallander. I guess we should be thankful for the small miracle that Fincher didn't transplant Lisbeth and Mikael from Sweden to say Venice, California thereby eliding any reference to Larsson's broader contexts in the process.

One thing that has really struck me as I have thought about the Hollywood version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is Hollywood's promotion of the film. In the PopMatters review of Fincher's film and at the top of this blog one can see one of the promos for the film. The promotion poster shows a naked above the waist Lisbeth (Rooney Mara) standing in front of what appears to be a fully clothed Mikael (Daniel Craig). Mikael has his arm around Lisbeth just above her naked and pierced breasts. So in Hollywood does there always have to be a man behind the woman shielding and protecting her?. It should not be surprising that Hollywood, in addition to turning fact into mythic fiction, appears also to be playing up the female sexual angle, Rooney Mara's naked body (Lisbeth the bisexual for the male gaze?). Given that Fincher usually works in the slasher/serial killer subgenre, making films that appeal more to male demographic than the female just like heavy metal music the use of female sexuality to promote Fincher's latest film should not, I suppose, be surprising. This is somewhat ironic since the book and the 2009 Swedish adaptation rightly, in my mind, plays down sex, sexy, and romance and portrays rape in all its ugly power and brutal reality. But hey this is Hollywood and Fincher is supposedly one of Hollywood's "literate" success stories.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Is Small Really Always Better When It Comes to Workers???

I have long thought that there is a fundamental problem with those who romantise local businesses in the US. There is, of course, a widespread belief amongst some smaller is better apologists and polemicists that local and small businesses, in and of themselves, are inherently good and treat their workers fairly and justly while big businesses are, in and of themselves, inherently bad and treat their workers badly. But is that really the case?

What I'd love to see from these small is better apologists and polemicists is some real statistics about how real small and big businesses actually treat their employees. What percentage of local small businesses pay their employees a living wage? What percentage provide reasonably priced benefits to their workers? What percentage limit their owners or CEO's salary a reasonable percentage of entry workers wages?

Once upon a time I worked for a "local" business. The wages I received were not even close to a living wage. The benefits available to me, specifically the health benefits offered at this local small business, were unaffordable on my salary. The CEO's wages compared to mine? Not sure but I have my suspicions.

Compare this to national chains. In the early 2000s Half Price Books, a national used and remaindered book chain store, started their employees above the minimum wage and above the wages of the local bookstore I worked for, gave their employees benefits at no and later at low cost, and offered their employees profit sharing. The Portland used bookstore Powell's, which has gone national thanks to its website, is unionised. The national supermarket Whole Foods limits their CEO's wages to 18 times the wages of their average worker. Ben and Jerry's, the national ice cream firm, used to limit CEO to employee pay to a five to one ratio but dropped this in 2000 when they became part of the international conglomerate Unilever.

There are of course anomalies to what I am arguing here. But they are anomalies that seem to me to prove the rule. Albany, New York's independent bookstore provides employees with reasonably priced benefits, profit sharing, bonuses, and time and a half on Sunday.

In the end the issue for me is not some abstract idea about the inherent beauty of the local and the small versus the inherent ugliness of the international or national. It is how do businesses small or big, local or national, treat their workers? And the fact is that by and large local small businesses don't treat their workers any better than national businesses do and in many cases they treat them worse. This fact inevitably raises the question of why should I keep Austin weird and why should I buy locally if the local and small treat their workers as bad if not worse than big national and international corporations?

Musings on Saint Christopher...

Christopher Hitchens, the noted polemicist and apologist died of pneumonia after a long struggle with cancer on the 15th of December 2011. The rush to turn him into a kind of secular saint by the media, old and new, is moving at typical contemporary advertising, MTV, and post Jaws and Star Wars action adventure Hollywood speed.

There were things I admired about Hitchens, his intelligence and public speaking and debating skills amongst them. I admired Hitchens criticism of Israel and his criticism of anti-Semities. As an apologist and polemicist Hitchens stands kilometres above demagogues like Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, Ann Coulter, and others of that ilk. But there are things about Saint Christopher that trouble me. Hitchens defence of the war in Iraq was pathetic. Afghanistan, I can understand, but Iraq? Hitchens tendency to make far too great a use of English public school boy ad hominems (shades of a BYU political scientist) is disturbing. Hitchens love of the aristocratic lifestyle even while masquerading as a socialist makes one wonder whether Hitchens was more of an intellectual chameleon or a zelig or even a hedonist than someone committed to social justice. Hitchens sometimes seemed to have been more interested in hobnobbing with Britain's and America's aristocratic and intellectual elite and with his favourite brand of whiskey than almost anything else. Hitchens self confidence seemed sometimes to border on narcissism, another characteristic of English public schoolboy and aristocratic culture perhaps.

Hitchens was, in may ways, the embodiment of the myth and even the reality of English public school culture. He even seems to have modeled and patterned himself, zelig like, after another product of English public school culture, that old Etonian, public intellectual, and iconoclast George Orwell. But Hitchens never, as far as I know, took on all of Orwell's traits. Unlike Orwell, Hitchens never named names to the intelligence apparatus of the British and American state. He just, like Orwell, called his opponents names (including "homosexual" in Orwell's case). But unlike Orwell, again as far as I know, Hitchens never fully committed to a more just and less exploitative society.

So before we turn Hitchens into a secular intellectual saint lets look at Hitchens the man in all his glory, inglory, and vain glory. Celebrate the real man not the manufactured saintly illusion being purveyed by friends and media, who tend to, in the first flush after death, turn a flesh and bone human being into an inhuman non flesh and bone saint. I think even Hitchens himself would have, or should have, wanted this given his take on religion and saints like Mother Teresa. But perhaps I am wrong.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Newt Toots...

So Newt Gingrich thinks Palestinians are an invented group? Hmm, well yes but all peoples, including Americans and !Kung Bushmen, are invented peoples. Why? Because there is only one human race on the planet. Conclusion: All tribes, ethnicities, nations...are "invented".

I think the problem with Newt is that he fancies himself a historian while he is really, like most politicians, a demagogue, a demagogue, in Gingrich's case, of the worst sort. Clearly, as I mentioned, all peoples and cultures are invented unless, presumably, like Newt, you believe in American exceptionalism, unless you believe, in other words, that the US is in some way, shape, or form, god's chosen people who he (Newt's god is always masculine) has picked to be a light to a dark world (more Newt demagoguery or does he really believe this?). So the question is why Gingrich is singling out the Palestinians and why is he hypergeneralising about them by calling them all terrorists? Pandering for Jewish votes? Gingrich is after all running for president and the myth of a vacant Palestine has become an article of faith for many in Israel and in the West. Does Newt really believe his very selective take on identity?

What is ironic in all of this, and being a Niebuhrian I love ironies, is the fact that Gingrich has a PhD in history from Tulane and claims to be a historian. He is actually, however, a victim of amnesia when it comes to the history he claims to know. The blood and soil nationalism of which Gingrich hints does not derive from some god figure, the god gave us this land for time and eternity ideology. It is actually the product of Europe, the manufactured product of Europe. Blood and soil nationalism is a creation of a particular time and place, specifically Europe after the French Revolution. And ironically, given what happened just before and during World War II, this European nationalism created not only French, German, and Italian nationalisms but also Zionism, Jewish nationalism, in its secular and eventually religious forms, the nationalism that would build Israel in part by cleansing the land of Palestinians.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Musings on Watching the New Who

I have been watching the new Who (BBC) recently thanks to my recent purchase of the British Doctor Who series one through four box set. As someone who grew up watching and loving the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh doctors (Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy) in the 1970s and 1980s--I wasn't old enough to watch the series when it debuted in November of 1963 with William Hartnell as the Doctor--I had some trepidation about watching the new series when it was revived in 2005. As a result I started watching it only recently.

My reaction? Since I have only watched series one and series two and just finished the two part Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks (3:4 and 3:5) episode at this point I need to point out that my comments must remain tentative but here I go anyway. There are, as some critics have noted, differences between the new Who and the old. Yes the new Who is more "American" than the old. Its pace is much faster with lots of jump cuts and makes extensive use of CGI. Yes the new Who clearly has higher ups at the Beeb on its side. Classic Who, as many critics have noted, wasn't much loved by the powers that be at the "staid", at the time, old BBC. It thus has a higher budget and superior sets and much better special effects than the old. And yes, the new Who is a bit coy about its relation to the old. The drawings and photographs of the Doctor in the past in the first episode of the series, Rose (1:1), are images solely of the ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston), something that bothered an old Who viewer like me who wanted the new Who to do a shout out to the old.

On the other hand there are some continuities between new Who and old. The new Who like the old has a bit of the pedagogic in it. The new Who like the old is aimed at the young demographic but can also be enjoyed by the older crowd like me. The sonic screwdriver, the TARDIS (if with a somewhat different look), the Doctor's human companions, the most "beloved" of the Doctor's enemies, the Daleks, and even K-9 and the most beloved Doctor companion Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) are back. The Doctor (Eccleston and David Tenant) remains a bit arrogant, a bit eccentric, a bit wide-eyed, and a bit self-involved at times even if he is much more emotionally scarred (and somewhat scary as a result) in the new series thanks, in large part, to the Time War between the Time Lords and the Daleks. The new Doctors also seem much more emotionally attached (almost romantically) to his companions, particularly Rose (Billie Piper) than the old Doctors.

So what is my reaction to the new Who's that I have watched so far? I liked series one and two of the new Who quite a bit. Series three, however, has seemed to me to quickly descend into repetition. Perhaps it is because the show really misses Rose, who was separated from the Doctor in the outstanding series two finale Army of Ghosts/Doomsday (2:12 and 2:13) ending up in an alternative dimension with her alternative father, her mother, and her sometime boyfriend Mickey. The relationship between the Doctor (David Tenant) and Rose's companion successor, Martha (Freema Agyeman), just doesn't seem to me to click at least at this point in my viewing in the same way that the Doctor's and Rose's relationship did on so many levels including the emotional one (Dr. Who channeling Buffy?; Buffy was, as Who revival creator Russell T. Davies has said, one of the templates for the new Who). Oh well, I will keep watching to see if it rises again to the levels it reached in series one and two but it is hard for me not to be somewhat disappointed in the revival of Doctor Who at this point. C'est la vie.

Postscript
So I finally finished series three of Doctor Who and I have to say that my claims about the demise of Doctor Who were a bit premature. The last six episodes of series three were very good to excellent and "Blink" (3:10), written by Stephen Moffat, was, like Moffat's series two episode "The Girl in the Fireplace" (2:4), and Moffat's series one episode "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances" (1:9 and 1:10), brilliant, some of the best television I have ever seen.

What was so interesting about series three is that Doctor Who is really starting to look a lot like Buffy. Something that Buffy and its creator and writers did so well, particularly in seasons two through seven, was to lay down clues in earlier episodes that would culminate in later episodes and in particular in season finales. Series three of Doctor Who uses the same strategies and it is in the three part series three finale that we finally get to see what all those clues that were being laid down through out the course of series three were leading to, the resurrection of the Doctor's moriarty, The Master.