Tuesday, April 30, 2013

You Have Got to Stand for Civil Rights for All or You Stand for Civil Rights for None...

I like listening to sports radio sometimes. It is one of the few places in the United States where you can hear, at least on occasion, debates over those things that are at the heart of human life, human culture, human society, and human history--economics, politics, culture, demographics, and geography--in a sometimes intelligent and generally rational and reasonable way.

All of this is prologue to the fact that I listened to the Dan Patrick show on the way home. And the topic of discussion not surprisingly was Jason Collins coming out as gay just a week or so after Brittney Griner did. What was dispiriting about the discussion of Collins coming out on the Dan Patrick Show today was the ideologically driven rhetoric of some of DP's callers. One caller thanked Dan for taking his Christian view call as if the question of gay and lesbian rights was anything other than a civil rights and human rights issue. Another caller bemoaned the fact that gays and lesbians would be sharing locker rooms with men and women who they were attracted to as if gays and lesbians, like the Blacks of Jim Crow America, are uniquely unable to control themselves, something Jason Collins, who has played for over ten years in the NBA already, has shown is utter nonsense. Welcome back my friends to the "racist" mental stone age of yore. I hope someday we really do get out of this imbecilic mental muck.

One more thing before I go: wasn't it interesting that Griner's coming out of the closet did not lead to the media circus Collins admission that he was gay did? Significant? Sad? Tragic? Disturbing? Hypocritical? Double Standards? Suggestive?

Monday, April 29, 2013

Capsule Film Reviews: The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard

I have liked most of the films of Robert Aldrich that I have had the opportunity to see since I started avidly watching films back in the 1960s. Since at least the 1970s I have made an effort to seek out Aldrich films because a number of auteurist oriented critics I read at that time wrote that they were worth seeking out. And they were right. Over the years I sought out, watched and enjoyed Aldrich’s Vera Cruz (1954), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1962), Four for Texas (1963), Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), The Dirty Dozen (1967), Ulzana’s Raid (1972), Hustle (1975), and Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977).

The most recent Aldrich films I watched, or more accurately re-watched, are his 1967 film The Dirty Dozen and his 1974 film The Longest Yard. The first time I saw both films was when they were on television probably sometime in the early 1970s, in the case of The Dirty Dozen and in the late 1970s or early 1980s in the case of The Longest Yard. This was the era when television still showed Hollywood films, past and present, by slicing and dicing widescreen films like The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard from their original aspect rations to the television ratio of 1:33:1 (the aspect ratio listed for The Dirty Dozen at Amazon.com is an inconsistent 1:85:1 for the single disc version and 1:77:1 for the two disc version, while the aspect ratio listed at Amazon.com for The Longest Yard DVD is an incorrect 1:33:1), and cutting minutes out of the film, particularly those deemed unsuitable for American audiences by the guardians of family television morality, so it could fit into a usually 120 commercial laden time slot. No wonder Pauline Kael hated American television and what it did to the movies.

Even in their sliced and diced forms I liked The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard when I first say them, a lot. This time I was fortunate enough to watch good transfers of both films on DVD in their original theatrical versions with the correct original aspect ratios if not in all of their big screen glory. Watching films on DVD is a radically different experience from watching them on the big screen regardless of the quality of the transfer.

I am glad I watched both films one after because when you do this you can see how similar they are in so many ways. Both The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard are male action-adventure prison films. Both, for substantial part of their running times, take place in prison settings, The Dirty Dozen in a prison built especially to house the "dirty dozen" (Telly Savales, John Cassavetes, Donald Sutherland, Jim Brown, Charles Bronson, Clint Walker, Trini Lopez, Tom Busby, Ben Carruthers, Colin Maitland, Stuart Coooper, and Al Mancini), a prison built by the prisoners themselves, The Longest Yard in a literal prison, the Citrus State Prison in Florida.

Both The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard are combat films, that manliest of film genres along with the Western and the action-adventure film. Both films centre on a group of anti-authority and anti-establishment individualist types with less than sterling backgrounds who, over time, are molded into semi-professional but still anti-authority fighting collectives. In The Dirty Dozen a group of society's dregs, an idiot, a psycho, a malignant dwarf, a Southern religious fanatic, racist, misogynist, and rapist, and a gentle giant when pushed to anger, all of whom are imprisoned are molded into combat soldiers and sent on a suicide mission deep behind enemy lines in 1944, a mission from which they are not expected to return, by some "raving lunatic" at headquarters in order to take out a large portion of the German high command. In The Longest Yard a group of inmates, murderers, thieves, and con men, are molded into a "combat" football team, the self-proclaimed "Mean Machine", that is sent on what also seems like a suicide mission by another raving lunatic, the prison's warden who makes them play a semi-professional football team made up of the guards, the very people who, often with the support of the warden, undermine the dignity and pride of the inmates everyday. Both teams are led by semi-authority figures with a streak, a very large streak, of the anti-establishment in them, Major Reisman (Lee Marvin, brilliant as usual) in The Dirty Dozen and Paul "the Wrecking Crewe" Crewe (Burt Reynolds) in The Longest Yard.

The genres The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard play in are, as I noted, male dominated genres. It should be no surprise, therefore, that the worlds of The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard are men's world. The only women, beyond the French maids in the French chateau in the last act of The Dirty Dozen are the companions and ladies of the night of the "dirty dozen" and the German officers at the chateau. There are only two women in The Longest Yard. The first, Melissa (Anitra Ford), who appears at the beginning of the film, is the woman who is keeping our anti-hero ex-professional football player kept man protagonist who shaved points off of an NFL game, the ultimate in un-American behaviour (so one of the prisoners tells us) to most of the convicts Crewe will soon be incarcerated with, and who has been drummed out of the league as a result. Melissa and Crewe are fighting when the film begins. When Crewe takes Melissa’s Maserati as compensation for his services rendered she calls the cops and once caught he is sentenced to hard time in the Citrus State Prison. The other is the warden's secretary (Bernadette Peters) who, while she doesn’t fall for Crew’s crude if subtly crude flirting early in the film, knows what she wants, Crewe for casual sex, and knows how to get it. She exchanges film of the prison guard football team in action for a little one on one Crewe "personal service" action.

Both The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard end with bad guys who are really kind of good guys ultimately winning their battles against the authority figures who rigged the "game" for their, not the inmates, benefit. In The Dirty Dozen the "dirty dozen" successfully complete their mission behind enemy lines but only one of them, along with Reisman and Sergeant Bowren (Richard Jaeckel), survives to receive, irony of ironies, the accolades of the military brass who once thought them too undisciplined for the mission. In The Longest Yard the inmates, with the odds stacked against them including a deal the warden has made with Crewe to throw the game in order to avoid more prison time just like he threw the NFL game that got him thrown out of the league and branded for life, manage to defeat the guards giving everyone in the prison dignity and pride for a probably far too brief moment.

The anti-establishment and anti-authority streaks in both The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard are almost certainly, at least in part, a reflection of director Robert Aldrich's rather cynical iconoclasm, a cynical iconoclasm already present in films like Attack, Vera Cruz, and Kiss Me Deadly, and a reflection of the counterculture and the culture war the counterculture stimulated that were in full bloom by the mid-1960s. The Dirty Dozen was shot at a time when the counterculture was making itself felt in the American cinema, an impact that would particularly be felt in the wake of Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), which was released in the same year as The Dirty Dozen, and Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969) a film released a couple of years later. Nothing, after all, speaks louder than money in Hollywood. The Longest Yard was filmed at the height of the Nixon era, when the Nixon administration was coming apart at the seams thanks to Vietnam, Watergate, and the president's abuse of executive power. The Longest Yard's power hungry warden, Warden Hazen (Eddie Albert in a great performance) is a very Nixonesque figure. Aldrich, who apparently was never a big fan of "Tricky Dicky", and Albert, apparently modeled Hazen on Nixon. Hazen’s attempt to use his power to undermine the "pride and dignity" of the inmates, even more than he already has, comes back to haunt him by film's end just as Nixon's decision to use his power to coverup the break in of individuals associated with CREEP, the Committee to Re-Elect the President, did during the sunset of the Nixon presidency. By film's end Hazen has a full scale rebellion on his hands even from among his toadies and guards just as Nixon faced rebellion within his own ranks thanks to the Watergate coverup.

Despite their countercultural qualities both The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard have a lot of yet another male macho genre in them, the Western, a connection made concrete in The Longest Yard thanks to the visual quote from John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) that ends the film. Action-adventure films like The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard with their outlaws, their bad guys turned kind of good guys (compare John Ford's Stagecoach, 1939), their fist fights, and their gun fights, were successors to the Western when the Western went out of style thanks, in large part, to the iconoclastic 1960s counterculture which saw the Western as the ultimate representation of the American individualistic and good guy myth, two myths that, many thought helped lead the country into the muddy imperialist muck of Vietnam. This connection between the action-adventure film and the Western is sometimes transparent as in Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988) when Hans (Alan Rickman), the bad guy terrorist turned bad guy bond robber, references John Wayne and Grace Kelly to John McClane (Bruce Willis), the anti-bureaucratic anti-hero of the film, at a crucial moment only to be corrected by by our latter day cowboy who knows his Westerns and notes that it was Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly not John Wayne and Grace Kelly who rode off into the sunset of a happy ending in High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952) and when McClane, gleefully intones his "yippee-ki-yay” mantra just before the big final shoot out at the Nakitomi Corral.

But The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard, not to mention Bonnie and Clyde and the The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969), are latter day Westerns with a difference. All four of these films, like the superb Westerns of Anthony Mann before them--they have precedents--were impacted by the film noirs of the 1940s with their damaged men (damaged men, interestingly, come roaring out of the fiction of Jane Austen and the Brontës) and their hearts of urban and even rural darkness. Aldrich, like Mann, worked in both genres in the 1950s and directed films like Baby Jane and Hush...Hush which played with the horror thriller genre to great effect in the 1960s. Aldrich, of course, did for the war film what he did for the horror thriller in The Dirty Dozen when he played with the conventions of the combat film to great effect, turning genre expectations, upside down, as he once said he intended to do, and killing almost all of the anti-heroes we, the audience, came to identity with in the first two acts of the film. Noir damaged men, Aldrich anti-establishment iconoclasm--a send up of West Point pomp and circumstance and the US prison system--and Aldrich genre blending--action adventure meets comedy meets satire--are all present and accounted for in both The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard.

It is interesting aside that all four of these "Westerns" with a twist were quite controversial upon their release. The Dirty Dozen was criticized for its sadistic violence and brutality by influential New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther. Many found the ending of the film when the "dirty dozen" dropped grenades down an air vent and then poured petrol/gas down it before setting it all off with even more grenades killing not only the German officers but women in the bunker below brutal and disturbing. Crowther was also critical of the supposed sadistic and brutal violence in Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967). The Wild Bunch was criticised by some for its violence particularly its also brutal and violent ending. The Longest Yard’s R rated brutality, violence, and foul language was the subject of much criticism from critics and the guardians of public morality for its violence and its foul tongue when it came out as I well recall. Needless to say all these films reflect an America at home and an America in Vietnam and the world that was seeing what seemed like ever greater levels of violence, particularly violence perpetrated by the American state itself on protestors and critics at home and men, women, and children in Vietnam. It was apparently Aldrich's intent in The Dirty Dozen to make explicit the connection between the "dirty dozen's" grenade and petrol bombing of German soldiers and civilians" with the napalm bombing of women and children in Vietnam by American air forces. Welcome to the real world of warfare.

Today I suppose some critics, particularly critics within the academy, might and probably would criticise, if they paid attention to Aldrich and his films, the macho culture at the heart of The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard (and The Wild Bunch for that matter) with their female stereotypes and caricatures of the whore, the ball breaker, and the nymphomaniac, as misogynistic. Post World War II male high anxiety? But aren't the male stereotypes and caricatures in both The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard pushed to satirical breaking point? Doesn't Melissa start the verbal and physical abuse with Crewe at the beginning of The Longest Yard? Can't the warden’s secretary in The Longest Yard be read as an early version of Samantha from Sex and the City, a liberated woman who knows what she wants and gets it, a woman liberated by the sexual revolution of the 1960s who has sex with Crewe on her terms? And what are we to make of what I saw as the rather positive portrayal of drag queens in The Longest Yard?

I Ron Eek’s take on The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard? Great films. Check them out. One film, by the way, I won't be checking out, is the 2005 remake of The Longest Yard starring the almost always dreadful Adam Sandler, a film that is yet another example which conclusively shows yet again that Hollywood has been taken over by a bunch of suits who mistake artistic creativity with nostalgic remakes of old movies and old television shows and comic books whose sole reason to be is little more than we want your mammon. No wonder Susan Sontag proclaimed the death of Hollywood cinema.

The Dirty Dozen, MGM (Warner Brothers DVD), 1967, directed by Robert Aldrich, written by Nunnally Johnson and Lukas Heller, 149 minutes, 1:78:1

The Longest Yard, Paramount, 1974, directed by Robert Aldrich, written by Tracy Keenan Wynn, 121 minutes, 1:85:1

Postscript: I recently watched the 1955 British film Cockleshell Heroes on Antenna TV, unfortunately in 1:33:1 pan and scan rather than the original 2:35:1, during its wall-to-wall Memorial Day war film marathon. One of the things that struck me as I watched Jose Ferrar's film about how a group of ill-behaved rag tag individualist Royal Marines are turned, thanks to training, into a disciplined collective fighting machine that goes behind enemy lines on a successful suicide mission to destroy German ships carrying secret radar equipment in Bordeaux, bears a likeness to The Dirty Dozen. In both an ill disciplined group of men are trained and sent behind enemy lines on what is a suicide mission. I don't know whether this is due to the influence of Cockleshell Heroes on The Dirty Dozen or the fact that both of these films can be classified as part of that sub-genre of the war film, the men sent on secret missions behind enemy lines film, a sub-genre that includes not only Cockleshell Heroes and The Dirty Dozen but also The Heroes of Telemark (Anthony Mann, 1965), which, like Cockleshell Heroes, is based on an actual WW II raid.

Despite these similarities there are also several interesting differences between Cockleshell Heroes and The Dirty Dozen. Cockleshell Heroes is, as I noted above, based on an actual World War II raid. The Dirty Dozen is very loosely based on the antics and accomplishments of America's WWII filthy thirteen. Proper Royal Marine discipline proves essential to the cockleshell heroes success as the iconoclastic Major Stringer (José Ferrer) comes to realise, thanks to the more by the book Captain Thompson (Trevor Howard) in a way that it never does in The Dirty Dozen. American individualism triumphs in The Dirty Dozen. British discipline triumphs in Cockleshell Heroes, just as it did in WWII, or just as it does in the popular British image of British victory against all odds in World War II. Cockleshell Heroes has more of that British stiff upper lip than the brash individualism of The Dirty Dozen. Cockleshell Heroes seems, though I can't substantiate this because I haven't explored primary source material relating to the making of Cockleshell Heroes, the product of a post-World War II nostalgia in a Britain experiencing the twin losses of empire and economic position. The Dirty Dozen, though again I haven't done the primary research necessary to confirm this, seems very much the product of American can do individualism and the revival of up yours American individualism in the 1960s. Finally, one very minor difference, only two of the "cockleshell heroes" survive compared to three of the "dirty (more than) dozen". The other "cockleshell heroes" either die before the raid or are executed after it just as the ships they mined blow up in dramatic film fashion.

By the way, there are very few women in Cockleshell Heroes just as there were in The Dirty Dozen. Of the two women who have talking roles in Cockleshell Heroes one seemed to be very masculinised to me, the other was the wife of one of the cockleshell heroes and she was committing adultery with another man. Major Thompson let down his by the book mentality down long enough to allow the cockleshell hero of this wife to give the man she was having an affair with a good thrashing. Food for thought.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

So Tell Us, What Is Your Teaching Philosophy?

I really don't like to tell prospective employers what my real teaching philosophy is. It just seems so trite, rather like one of those incredibly formulaic American sitcoms, particularly since it is not really something you can be forthright about. You can't really be honest in them because we academics live in a fairy tale world where we really want to believe the fictions about higher education we spin out about, for instance, the validity of the teacher evaluations on which promotion is based, about the holiness of the positivist grounded statistics we use to "analyse" so much in higher education, and about the sanctity of the liberal arts education. The fact of the matter, however, is that the teacher evaluations we use aren't fully valid, the statistics on which so much of the modern university is grounded are problematic, and the American liberal arts college is dying a slow and painful death, a slow and painful death most Americans could care less about, a slow and painful death most alumnae could care less about just as long as they have their college football and/or basketball teams to cheer for. If I was honest, forthright, and ballsy, and didn't want to play say the formulaic "right" things so you may be able to get a job, here is what I would tell prospective employers about my teaching philosophy. Here is how I would and now have cut my throat (the George Costanza way to influence people?).

When I teach whatever it is I teach—history, sociology, communications, media studies, cultural anthropology, the humanities, the social sciences—my “educational and teaching philosophy” in approaching whatever classes I teach, can, I think, be summed up briefly and succinctly: I think critical thinking, that critical ability to apply logic, theory, and evidence to distinguish what is rot from not rot should be at the heart of liberal arts education and I am a strong proponent of a classical liberal arts education.

How do I try to do this? In the classes I teach I emphasise the substance of the course I am teaching whether that course is a history of the US since 1877, a history of television course, an environmental history course, a course on the basics of communication studies, a course on how the modern world came to be, whatever the course happens to be. At the same time I also emphasise how social scientists and practitioners of the humanities approach the substance of whatever class I teach. I introduce students to the economic perspectives that the social sciences and humanities look at empirical evidence through, the political perspectives they look at empirical evidence through, the cultural perspectives they look at empirical evidence through, the geographical perspectives they look at empirical evidence through, and the demographic perspectives they look at empirical evidence through. All these perspectives have been at the heart of the social sciences and humanities since the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They will be at the heart of the social sciences and humanities until the world comes to an end. As such they are a short hand way into the stuff of the social sciences and humanities.

Unfortunately, the ideal of a liberal education (an ideal I am not sure was ever fully instantiated anywhere for obvious reasons) has been replaced by the education must be practical so I can get a job and If I can’t figure out what good a liberal arts education is in helping me to do that I don’t like it, the, in other words, retail model of education. I don’t think this retail model of education is a good thing for the liberal arts and I think it is corrupting how students understand the purposes and functions of a liberal arts education.

I think it is also increasingly corrupting colleges themselves. I am not, as you probably have already guessed, a big fan of the Michelle Rhee School of teacher evaluations by the numbers, aka, the retail model of teacher evaluation. Statistics are a summary of what is at a particular moment in time. They are all surface and no depth, contextual or theoretical (one of the reasons some number crunchers I know prefer mathematical modeling). They tell us “what” perceptions are at a particular moment in time. They tell us nothing about how those “what” came to be, nothing about the economic, political, and cultural (ideological) factors that “what” is impacted by, nor whether or not that “what” reflects the competencies or lack of competencies of retail consumers for whatever reasons. Personally, I think there are real questions that can be raised about the analytical skills of many consumers and thus about their evaluative competencies. And then there is the additional problem that far too many students no longer really read or refer to the syllabus anymore, the same syllabus where the educational powers that be have mandated that we put the objectives for our class. If students are not reading or referring to the syllabus how can they judge on evaluations whether these objectives have been met during the course of the class?

In closing let me confess to several things, first, if I could wave a magic wand and create an education system from scratch (which I can’t of course), I would prefer to have an education system based on the Oxbridge model or an adapted version of the Oxbridge model of education rather than the German model we have now. In order for me to help you understand why I would like to wave this magic want I need to tell you a story. Once upon a time I taught three sections of History 120, the Making of the Modern World at SUNY Oneonta. What I discovered after these classes had finished was that the class with the least number of students in it, nine to be specific, the others had 38 and 24 respectively, all had grades of C and above. When I looked closer at the data I discovered that all students in the 3 pm class had 13’s and above on their discussion grades, well above the average in the 1 pm and 2 pm classes (there was a total of 20 possible discussion points during the course of the term). Students in the smaller class completed extra credit assignments at greater levels than those in other classes (I allow students to earn 10 extra points by watching approved documentaries). Five of the nine students did extra credit assignments in the small 3:00 pm class. Explanations? Students were better able to engage in class discussion as a result of small class size? Students in the smallest class were better able to interact with me, the professor? Students were more energized due to this small class size and engaged in discussions at greater levels? Or were these students more motivated before they entered class? I suspect, as many educators have before me, that smaller class size, better faculty-student ratios, and, as a result, more hands on teaching, do matter. This is all very suggestive, at least to me, about how we can improve education and student grades. It is costly, however. And that makes it a non-starter in a neoliberal America with its hefty dose of good old time anti-intellectualism and anti-academicism.

Second, here I am moving into historian mode, I have increasingly come to recognise that national histories are inherently parochial. They are, in the final analysis, inherently nationalist and inherently ideological in their proclamations of exceptionalism. While national histories may introduce us to the specific facts, often without broader contexts, of specific nation-states, it fails fatally, in my humble opinion, to show us the broad patterns of human society, human culture, and human life, and that is what all the social sciences and humanities should strive for. By the way, this would seem an appropriate place to note that I don’t teach civics masquerading as history or theology masquerading as history.

Finally, education, to me, is not and has never been a commodity. It is, when it is critical, a “good” in and of itself and as such it has no inherent monetary value The value of education, particularly a humanities and social science education, is something, to me, that is absolutely essential in today’s world if we want a world in which citizens can look critically at our world, human and non-human, and gain a critical understanding of it and of ourselves, things that themselves seem to me to be inherently “good”. Call me a dinosaur.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Big Brother Amazon is Gobshiteing You...

I have been selling goods on Amazon Marketplace for about a year now. I have been surprised how many CD's and DVD's I have sold over the course of my time peddling goods on Amazon.com. Amazon, of course, takes its cut. And their cut is about to get even larger at the end of this month despite the fact that nothing on the Amazon.com Marketplace site has changed whatsoever or the customer service, much of which is canned consisting of formulaic form letters which, in good computer age fashion, respond to any issue Amazon thinks exits out there in Marketplace space. Can you say Amazon looking up to the money god?

Recently I have run into a problem with Amazon Marketplace, one that might lead me to avoid Amazon like the plague in the future. For almost a year I have had two region 2, the DVD region code for Europe and the UK that our friendly corporate capitalists who want to make sure that they can go global but consumers can't, Dr. Who DVD's for sale on my Marketplace page, "Earthshock" and the "Aztecs". Additionally I have sold several region 2 DVD's over the near year I have been on Amazon Marketplace, something for which Amazon took its pound of flesh (they are taking even more pounds of flesh beginning this month) and for which Amazon, as you will see, is the very essence of hypocrisy.

Last month, March, and this month, April, I received a stinging rebuke from Amazon for selling the region 2 DVDs "Earthshock" and "Aztecs" on their holy site. The missive stated that it is unlawful, Amazon.com makes it own laws of course, to sell region 2 DVD's on their site because region 2 discs cannot play on DVD players available in the US, something that is indeed accurate unless you buy an all region DVD player from Amazon. Amazon is where I purchased my two all region DVD players. Need I say that Amazon are scribes and hypocrites of the first order here?

Amazon is not only a champion of hypocrisy when it comes to taking its cut of region 2 DVD's sold and for selling all region DVD players which can play region 2 discs, they are hypocritical because at this moment there are hundreds if not thousands of new and used region 2 and region 4 DVD's for sale on Amazon.com some of which are even delivered to those who buy them by good old Amazon.com. Almost all of them, all of mine anyway, state quite clearly that they are region 2 DVD's and contain a warning from Amazon itself that region 2 DVD's may not play on American sold DVD players. And I quote: "Region 2 encoding (This DVD will not play on most DVD players sold in the US or Canada [Region 1]. This item requires a region specific or multi-region DVD player and compatible TV. More about DVD formats.)". Fair warning. Caveat emptor. Two more examples of Amazon.com hypocrisy.

I have asked Amazon on several occasions about this policy of amazon cleansing. What I have generally received, apart from a couple of instances where some Amazonians said they had no idea why my DVDs were being amazonically cleansed, the Amazon version of ethnic cleansing, is this canned response:
"Greetings from Amazon Seller Support,
Thank you for writing to us,
I understand your concern and frustration this has caused to you regarding listing region 2 DVDs and that the items has been removed from the website.
We have contacted our concerned team and they have informed that selling region 2 DVDs is not allowed as the format is not supported in United States and is for Europe, Japan, Middle East etc.
You can check the below link which will give you more information regarding the different regions and the supported countries where it can be used, http://www.barrel-of-monkeys.com/graphics/prod/dvdplayers/world-regions.shtml
However if you find any other sellers selling region 2 dvds then you can report this as a violation to our investigation team.
To report this possible violation to our investigations team, select "Report a violation of our rules" on the Contact Us form and enter the details".

Love the why not narc on "violators", coda particularly since Amazon.com allows us to note different region codes when we are entering code for our products for sale--yet another instance of Amazon hypocrisy--and for what its says about Amazon itself. Our online Pharaoh apparently wants us to do their job--should their job be to take down all region 2 DVD's--for them. Does anything say wanker more than this? I suspect, by the way, that the two Who's that were amazonically cleansed were probably the result of this narcing policy that turns all of us into the Stasi and I suspect BBC Warner, some sour grape consumer, or even a competitor. None of these, however, excuse Amazon's selective "enforcement" of a "crime" that, shades of Franz Kafka, may not be a crime at all even within the bizarre and surrealistic world of Amazon.com.

There have, of course, been rumblings about Amazon from a variety of sources and for a variety of reasons over the years. Personally, I have just about had it with this authoritarian corporation (I know, oxymoronic) with tendencies toward fascism. And that is why I say, with the logo above, that Amazon sucks and it sucks the big one. Gobshites, scribes, hypocrites, and wankers Amazon clearly is me mateys.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Same Old Clichés: Musings on the Boston Marathon Bombings...

According to news reports the cops and the FBI have finally got their man in Boston, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who along with his brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was killed in a shootout in Cambridge, Mass, are accused of the bombings that killed three and maimed one hundred during the Boston Marathon this April. Dzokhar Tsarnaev was finally captured after the lock down that had shut down Boston and suburbs like Watertown, where the authorities thought Dzokhar was hiding and they were almost right, was lifted. According to NPR with the lock down lifted a man living on the edge of Watertown went outside to his back yard and found blood on a boat he apparently had stored there. He immediately called the authorities and long story short, Dzokhar was found and eventually captured. The moral of this tale: despite turning much of Boston into a kind of a war zone to find and capture this nineteen year old American who had never, according to news reports, had training in guerrilla tactics it was a bloke going into his backyard, something he was asked not to do by police for almost twenty hours, that led to the capture of America's most famous fugitive. Lo-fi, in other words, is often the best fi.

Also according to reports the younger Tsarnaev wasn't read his Miranda rights. The authorities are going to use the public safety exception clause in the law, if reports are accurate, so they can interrogate the "suspect". The "suspect" is an American citizen so one wonders whether those who, for instance, worry about the slippery slope a national gun registry might bring--too much government power and too much 1984--are going to raise concerned voices about the authorities not reading this now much hated "perp" his Miranda rights or Republican calls for Dzokhar to be treated as an "enemy combatant", that wonderfully bizarre term that gives new meaning to the surrealism of government speak. Personally, I doubt that they will. The anti-government ditto heads love to whinge about govenment tyranny accept when it comes to law enforcement and the military. I don't hear them, for instance, arguing that there is a slippery slope from the police practise of taking DNA samples from those taken into police custody even if they are not guilty to what potentially amounts to a national registry of potentially every American's biology.

On another matter related to the Boston Marathon bombings, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and Dzokhar Tsarnaev, as everyone knows rumours, often unsubstantiated rumours, often inaccurate rumours, unsubstantiated and inaccurate rumours sometimes spread by "news" organisitions--see the cover of Rupert Murdoch's wretched New York Post above which is practising its usual brand of semi-factual shock and awe tabloid journalism--who want to be the first to get the story or who want to milk the story for all it is worth, and online social media sites, the lynch mobs of the digital age, rumours which play into emotional nationalisms or ethnocentrisms and which have spread like wildfire across the United States and even the world thanks, in particular, to the brave new worlds of the 24-7 cable news channels and the World Wide Web. One of the most fascinating of these crazy rumours spreading through the populace I have run across is the apparent confusion of the Czech Republic with Chechnya by many geographically and historically illiterate Americans.

This unfortunate confusion of the Czech Republic with Chechnya has gone so far that the Czech Republic's Ambassador to the United States, Petr Gandalovič, has been forced to issue an official statement relating to this inaccurate conflation:

"As many I was deeply shocked by the tragedy that occurred in Boston earlier this month. It was a stark reminder of the fact that any of us could be a victim of senseless violence anywhere at any moment.

As more information on the origin of the alleged perpetrators is coming to light, I am concerned to note in the social media a most unfortunate misunderstanding in this respect. The Czech Republic and Chechnya are two very different entities - the Czech Republic is a Central European country; Chechnya is a part of the Russian Federation.

As the President of the Czech Republic Miloš Zeman noted in his message to President Obama, the Czech Republic is an active and reliable partner of the United States in the fight against terrorism. We are determined to stand side by side with our allies in this respect, there is no doubt about that."

In order to clear up this confusion and misunderstanding I am going to do something I have never done on my blog before. I am going to ask those of you out there in cyberspace for your help in clearing up this unfortunate confusion of the Czech Republic and Chechnya. It will be brought to you by the letter C. I urge all of you in the geographical and historical know out there in cyberspace to explain to the poor poor pitiful thees who don't know the difference between the Czech Republic and Chechnya that they can google these two nouns and find an article which explains that these two nations are distinct and different and have different histories. Most articles on the Czech Republic and Chechnya, a Muslim dominated region of Russia which the Russian Empire took control of in the nineteenth century (the great Russian novelist Lev Tolstoy wrote about this at the time), the second great age of European and the first great age of Western colonialism, will even have maps which show the geographical and spatial differences between the two nations. Don't forget after you have helped these poor braindead souls (Gogol pun intended) to welcome them to the brave new digital and online revolution. And don't forget to explain to these intellectually challenged numbskulls that the Czech Republic is the one that builds walls around Gypsy communities to keep pure-blood (hopefully that doesn't mean German blood) Czechs safe, that Chechnya is the region that Russia has been fighting a war, a brutal, viscous, and repressive war, in since the 1990s, and that a Sikh is not a Muslim.

I want to end this blog with a question: Is American life even more clichéd and formulaic than your standard genre operating kiddie korn Hollywood film? I am beginning to think it is.

Postscript:
So the charges filed in federal court against the Boston Bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, after he was finally Mirandised while he lay in his hospital bed, include, according to the Guardian, "one count of using and conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction – an improvised explosive device or IED – against persons and property within the United States resulting in death, and one count of malicious destruction of property by means of an explosive device, resulting in death". So, in the increasingly bizarre and surreal world of Americangovernmentese, the same Yankgovspeak that gave us the seemingly innocuous "collateral damage" as a synonym for mass murder, is now saying that an IED constitutes a "weapon of mass destruction". Does this mean that fertiliser plants , like the one that blew up in West, Texas, killed 14, injured some 200, and destroyed significant amounts of sacred property can now be classified as a "weapon of mass destruction"? Does it mean that the US can now invade any country with IED's, those weapon of mass destruction" that constitute a "threat" to the US, that other Orwelian terms so beloved by the US government, one that turns a country like Iraq with non-nuclear missiles that could at the time barely hit Israel, into a "threat" to the United States and, to top the surreal absurdity of it all off, millions of Americans believed such tripe? Does this mean that anyone who uses an IED against that most holy of holies, American property, and American citizens, of course we can't forget them, even if they are American, might potentially end up being categorised and treated as an "enemy combatant" under a governmental regime that is even less sympathetic to the rule of law than the Obama administration? Whatever it means it is clear that all of us now live in the world of big bureaucracyspeak and most Americans don't seem to care.

Speaking of surreal speak, aren't corporations in the US "people"? Aren't many fertiliser plants owned by corporations? Can't we try these corporations as people when their fertiliser plants explode, when their fertiliser plant "weapons of mass destruction" kill, maim, and destroy property causing "terror" in the process? Oops, I forgot that corporations have "limited liability" thanks, at least in part, to the influence of business and business ideology on the US government and legal system. Can I as a real biological human get me some of that limited liability? I doubt it.

Update:
It turns out that I was a bit hasty in comparing and contrasting the Bush administration the and Obama administration in terms of their commitment to the rule of law. According to recent news reports it was a federal magistrate who apparently interrupted the FBI's interrogation of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and read Dzokhar his rights. And the FBI apparently was not happy he did, a manipulation of the "public safety exception" since the FBI did not Mirandise Dzohkar even after it became clear that public safety was no longer an issue according to authorities. Additionally at least one newspaper is reporting that Dzhokhar, who is an American citizen remember, was not given provided a lawyer despite repeatedly asking for one. So much for the rule of law. Welcome back my friends to the Big Brother state war always brings in its wake.

Friday, April 19, 2013

I Believe in One God, Nationalism, and the Emotionalism for Which it Stands...

Patriotism is, rather obviously, a form of nationalism. Nationalism is a belief system. It is a meaning system in Geertzian terms. As such it works very much like religious belief works. It is grounded in emotion. It is often bullyish, thugish, vigilanteish. It constructs heretics, those who don't adequately love the nation, at least in the eyes of those who see themselves as "true patriots", and are often advised by those "real patriots" to leave it. As a belief system grounded in emotions it is not interested in empirical data and often regards empirical analysis of patriotism an act of heresy itself.

I wouldn't say American nationalism is exceptional, though I am sure many Americans would like to believe it is. I spent time in Russia and I found Russian nationalism to be quite intense. I spent time in Australia and I found Australian nationalism to be quite intense as this video of Kylie Minogue leading throngs in the singing of Australia's unofficial national anthem shows. I spent time in Canada and I found that Canadian nationalism can be quite intense as this video of Edmonton Oilers fans singing "O Canada" in English shows. What this video shows, beyond the intensity of love of Canada among hockey fans in Edmonton, should not be lost on those who have been waxing romantically and patriotically about how Boston Bruins fans sang the US national anthem after the tragic bombings at the Boston Marathon in April of 2013. I shouldn't even have to mention how nationalistic--arise citizens of France and save the fatherland from aristocratic counterrevolutionaries--and bloody the words to the French national anthem are. I shouldn't need to remind you dear thinking readers how national anthems can be used for emotional and propagandistic purposes such as how "La Marseillaise" was used in the 1942 Warner Brothers film Casablanca in the depths of World War II. When I first saw Casablanca I was ready to jump out of my theatre seat and go off and kill me some Nazis. It is worth remembering, by the way, that many of those singing "La Marseillaise" in the film were refugees from Hitler's Europe and you can see it in their very emotional faces and that by allowing his night club band to play "La Marseillaise" the heretofore neutral Rick, a symbol of neutral America, finally chooses to side with those opposed to the Nazis (as we all knew he would given his background and the fact that he is the good guy in the film).

There may be varying degrees in the emotional intensity of nationalism in places across the globe and even in specific nations at particular times. Macho US nationalism, for example, clearly declined in the wake of Vietnam and rose again in the wake of 9/11. This does not mean, however, that these variations don't lie on a continuum and as such are comparable and similar, not distinct.

Speaking of English settler societies, one of the things I find quite fascinating about the representations of official and unofficial national anthems in settler societies like the United States, Canada, and New Zealand, is how they are often used to sacralise the national landscape. Just look and listen to this ident as nationalist promo that was made by the Canadian national public broadcaster the CBC. Just look and listen to this ident as nationalist promo made for New Zealand national broadcaster TV NZ. And just listen to the unofficial American anthem America the Beautiful sung appropriately by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Joseph Smith and Mormons after him, after all, have regarded the US as a unique promised land and landscape. I suppose one could argue that these "new" nations without Roman ruins or Christian cathedrals had to sacralise the only monuments they had, the natural beauty or perceived natural beauty of their nations. Interestingly, the citizens and leaders of these settler societies may have sacralised their manufactured national landscapes and as such developed emotional attachments to their respective national landscapes, imagined national landscapes, but that didn't and hasn't stoped them from despoiling Canada, New Zealand, or the United States. Capitalism, and making money, it seems, are also emotions that have been linked to settler society nationalisms (the Canadian, New Zealand, and American dreams of making it).

Some Christians, Schleitheim Anabaptists in particular, argue that all forms of nationalism are a form of idolatry, as having another God before Yahweh. I think, however, that nationalism, like religion, is something through which humans create identities and emotional attachments to blood and soil, socially and culturally constructed blood and soil. That is why nationalisms are all potentially, particularly when allied to economic power, political power, cultural power, demographic power, geographical power, technological might, and military might be quite hazardous to the health of some humans particularly when they are on the wrong side of nationalist shouting matches, and that is why replacing nationalism, which has been around at least since the French revolution in liberal and ethnic forms, so difficult to counter or replace, just like religion. Need I add that a universalistic religion like Christianity became itself nationalised? And needless to say American Christians of an Ebenezer Scrooge capitalist and American ethnocentric and nationalist bent aren't calling for its privatisation.

In Praise of John Berger

As David Lavery recently reminded me in one of his blog posts John Berger's Ways of Seeing is one of the great if not the greatest documentary on art, the photographic image, and the social and cultural contexts of art and photography. It is also, in my opinion at least, one of the greatest television documentaries ever made.

I first heard about Berger in a Religion and Phenomenology class I took at Indiana University in the early 1980s. Dr. James Hart, our professor guide for the seminar, assigned Berger's book Ways of Seeing for us to read. I soon learned that Ways of Seeing actually began life as a documentary Ways of Seeing. Ways first appeared as a four part documentary on the BBC in 1972. I don't remember when I first saw the documentary. Sometime in the early 1980s. What I do remember is that I saw it, like I saw so much else that has had an immense impact on my intellectual and aesthetic life, on PBS.

Ways of Seeing was intended to be a critique of Sir Kenneth Clark's thirteen part 1969 BBC documentary Civilisation, a documentary that, as the title suggests, counterpointed the supposedly rational civilisation of the West and its art against the superstitious world and art of the non-Western world, and the book Clark wrote as a companion to the show, a book that Berger mentions in Ways of Seeing. Part one of Ways of Seeing draws on the work of the Frankfurt School theorist and cultural historian Walter Benjamin, particularly his influential essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", to explore how the mechanical reproduction of "great art" has changed our perceptions of painting. Part two explores the the depiction of the female nude in art. Part three explores how art has acquired a kind of sacred and sublime quality and how this sublime quality has been translated into economic value in a West dominated by capitalism, and how landscapes themselves have come to reflect capitalist ownership. Part four explores the language of advertising and how advertisements have taken on the ownership quality of oil paintings and the male objectification and desire aspects of paintings of female nudes.

I have long wanted to get a copy of Ways of Seeing on DVD. Sadly neither the BBC nor any other DVD company specialising in documentary has released it. The BBC interestingly has released Clark's incredibly dated and outmoded Civilisation. Despite Ways of Seeing's lack of availability all is not lost, however, thanks to the brave new world of the World Wide Web. You can watch all four episodes of Ways of Seeing complete on YouTube, something I joyously noticed over three years ago.

Berger is sadly almost virtually forgotten and virtually neglected today while Mulvay is de rigueur in film classes. Far too many have forgotten the important role he and his Ways of Seeing played in the development of theory of the male gaze. I have always found his historically sensitive tracing of the male gaze from the art of aristocrats through to contemporary adverts more compelling than Mulvay's more psychoanalytic psychobabble approach to male objectification. Far too many have forgotten the important role he played in bringing Benjamin to a broader audience thanks to Ways of Seeing in both its documentary and book form. And far too many have forgotten how important a writer of non-fiction and fiction he was. The film he co-wrote with Swiss director Alain Tanner, Jonas qui aura 25 ans en l'an 2000/Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 (1976), is one of the great forgotten films (it is not even available on DVD in the US or UK) of the golden age of foreign cinema (ah the eyes of a Yank), a film, Dave Kehr rightly notes, brought together Brectian and Godardian alienation effect and Renoirian humanism giving viewers a humane exploration of a group of leftists who try to keep sixties hopes alive as the sixties morph into the seventies and asked us viewers to do the same. In an era in which casino capitalism and its images have run amok I think it is time for us to rediscover the work and the tempered hope of John Berger.

Viewing
Ways of Seeing, Episode One

Ways of Seeing, Episode Two

Ways of Seeing, Episode Three

Ways of Seeing, Episode Four

Reading
"Ways of Seeing Opened Our Eyes to Visual Culture"

"Ways of Seeing "How We Made It: John Berger and Michael Dibb on Ways of Seeing"

"Ways of Seeing "Through the Looking-Glass: John Berger's Groundbreaking Book Ways of Seeing Started Life as a Seventies Television Series, Repeated for the First Time Tonight."

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

My Life as a Film Lover

Long time film critic Dave Kehr has some interesting things to say about post-studio Hollywood in the introduction to the collection of some of his Chicago Reader reviews from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s in his wonderful When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade (University of Chicago Press, 2011). What particularly caught my eye, and which I think Kehr is spot on about are Kehr's observations on the transformation of Hollywood. Hollywood, Kehr says, after the renaissance of the late 1960s and early 1970s became a film culture in which the Saturday morning television genres of horror, science fiction, action/adventure were made to give visceral thrills to the juveniles with purchasing power Hollywood had recently discovered and who it now begin to target through saturation radio and television ads and a film culture in which popular cultural references placed in these new Hollywood blockbusters by the movie brats who made them were used to give thrills to pop cult knowing parents who brought their kids to suburban cineplexes to see brave new Hollywood films like Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) and Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977).

What was just as interesting to me was Kehr's observations on his métier itself, on film criticism. Kehr, again rightly in my opinion, notes that the era of film criticism beyond the film criticism version of the sound bite is on its last legs. He blames this decline on the demise of the independent free weeklies that were the descendents of the underground counter cultural newspapers of the late 1960s and which, along with mainstream politically and culturally oriented magazines like The Nation, The New Republic, and The New Yorker, gave space for longish reviews of American and foreign films from the 1960s until the advent of the internet and the World Wide Web, an arena, which Kehr notes, is sadly and ironically more attuned to soundbite rather than long form film reviews.

Kehr, like other film critics of the era who have written about how they became cinephiles including Jonathan Rosenbaum, Phillip Lopate, and Robin Wood, talks nostalgically about this era of film criticism and gives readers a glimpse into how he became a cinephile and eventually a film critic. As I was reading Kehr's memories about his journey to cinephilism and film critic in an age in which films and filmgoing were, for many, life, I couldn't help but think of my own journey to cinema love and my own thoughts about film criticism and its influence on me.

Like Kehr the movies themselves were my pathway into cinephilism. It was my father who introduced me to the joys of film. He took me and my sister to see A Hard Day's Night (Richard Lester, 1964), I was a huge Beatles fan, at the grand Embassy Theatre in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where we lived at the time. I remember the experience of entering this cinema palace, an experience which seemed to me at the time akin to entering a cavernous grand castle, as much as if not more than I remember the film. Later, when we were living in Dallas he introduced me to the joys of Hitchcock's Birds when it first appeared on television in 1968.

From there it was an easy hop, skip, and jump into film love. As Kehr notes in the 1960s it was relatively easy to watch classic American cinema on local television. In my case I was able to spend my Saturday's and Sunday's watching classic Hollywood films non-stop from late morning to early evening on Channel 4, WTTV, an independent, at the time, TV station that began life in Bloomington, Indiana. Eventually, I was able to get hold of a copy of film historian and film critics Leonard Maltin's Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide, probably at a bookstore in the Muncie Mall (Walden's?) which for those of us living in rural Blackford County just north of Muncie was the place which we made periodic consumer pilgrimages to. Maltin's film guide, which first appeared in 1969, listed movies, Hollywood and foreign, and their directors and rated them. It allowed me to begin to classify and categorise films by director and to learn about films that, thanks to Maltin's ratings and capsule reviews, I really wanted to see. Eventually, I was able to occasionally get down to one of those dreadful shopping centre cinemas in Muncie, where I first saw A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971), illegally I might add since I was too young to get into a X rated film at the time, The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973), and Star Wars, a film that didn't impress a long time film watcher like me.

When I went away to college in the late 1970s my cinephilism expanded. Indiana University and Bloomington, like any typical large college town of the time, gave a film lover like me ample opportunity to see Hollywood films and foreign films. I and the other cinephiles I hung with, went to see classic Hollywood films at the Monroe County Library where the Bloomington Film Society strutted classic Hollywood stuff, at the Ryder Film Society, which showed mostly foreign films at various sites around Bloomington, at an upstairs cinema cafe, whose name I don't remember, which showed classic Hollywood films like Howard Hawks's Bringing Up Baby (1938), a film I had long wanted to see, and the Princess, Towne, Von Lee, Village, and Indiana Theatres (I avoided the College Mall Cinema like the plague), many of which have long since disappeared or been transformed. I also discovered film criticism, particularly that of Robin Wood and his brilliant Hitchcock's Films, the 1969 edition, and the host of publications on film directors and film history published by Peter Cowie's Zwemmer/Tantivy/Barnes Press, the film journal Movie's Movie Paperbacks, and the BFI's Cinema One series.

Unlike Kehr I was not as influenced by the giants of 1960s film criticism (generational? geographical?): Andrew Sarris, Peter Bogdanovich, John Simon, Stanley Kauffmann, and Pauline Kael. I came to these film critics only after I came to Leonard Maltin, after I came to Peter Cowie's International Film Guide Series, after I came to Movie and Movie's Movie Paperbacks, after I came to the BFI's Cinema One series, all of which were stimulated by the first wave of American auteurism which, in turn, had been stimulated by the auteurism of Cahiers du Cinéma and, though to a much lesser extent, Positif, and after I came to academic film studies classes with James Naremore, Peter Bondanella, and Harry Geduld at Indiana.

At first I was enamoured of the structuralist and semiological approaches to film that were becoming popular in the academy and which was stimulating a healthy academic film criticism in journals like Screen and film studies books coming out of university presses like the Indiana University Press and the University of California Press and academic presses like Routledge. These approaches seemed to me at the time to be the keys by which we might unlock the secrets of culture and its relationship to economic and political realities. As structuralism and semiology morphed into Lacanian film criticism and beyond, however, I began to question not only the lack of historical sensitivity of post-structuralist and post-semiological criticism--I think primary source analysis and interviews, where possible, are essential to the understanding of film production and film consumption--but also the sometimes impassable jargon of post-structuralist and post-semiological criticism, which I now regard as the product of academia's division of labour knowledge and the attempt to control a particular niche of labour knowledge.

It was at this point that I began to move back in time in order to discover the film criticism of Sarris, Bogdanovich, Simon, Kauffmann, Kael, Rosenbaum, and Kehr. I came to admire the often artful writing and the often insightful analysis of these critics, both things often missing from post-structuralist academic film criticism. I particularly admired the historical approach to auteurism of Sarris, Rosenbaum, and Kehr and their attempt to comprehend the differences in artistic quality in Hollywood films. I was not and am not as big of an admirer of Kael as Kehr and Lopate and others. I found and find her criticism far too reliant on ad hominems and far too often grounded in what I think is a major fallacy in so much film criticism, the I can make it better than whoever made it approach to film criticism.

For me good film criticism must begin with what is--the film on the screen and what went in to its production--before it moves on to the second issue, interpretation--what the film is trying to do or say. I have never been particularly fond of film homiletics--this is how I would make the film. I have never really respected those critics who spend their time telling me how they would make a film because I guess I have never really respected armchair filmmakers any more than I have much respect for the armchair ethnologists of yore. I have long believed that historical analysis must be at the heart of film criticism and analysis and have long felt that homiletic film criticism is about as far from the historical analysis of film that you can get. As a result I try to bring a historical and interpretive sensitivity and I try to avoid engaging in homiletic film criticism here on my blog at all costs. I just don't like theology.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Bush is Better Than Obama, or the Idiotification of America

So a bunch of dead heads are engaging in their most recent ponzi scheme. They are passing a picture around on facebook which asks facebookers to like a photo if they think that Bush the younger, Bush the second, was a better president than Obama. Well, Obama may not be perfect. And historically speaking he will probably not be a particularly significant president, the only true measure of presidential significance. His health care plan is probably his only truly significant accomplishment as I type.

Obama's lack of significant achievements, by the way, is not entirely of his own doing. There is no doubt that the Republicans in Congress have done virtually everything in the power to block anything Obama might want to do and thanks to the filibuster in the Senate and their control of the House of Representatives since 2010, a control of the House made possible, in part, thanks to Republican ability to gerimander House districts in the states, they have been largely able to do just this. Obama, of course, aided and abetted the Republicans in their just stragegy of just say no by trying to be the nonpartisan president.

But compare Obama's accomplishments to Bush's. Bush, he who gave us two dismal wars that will not end well and which were not paid for. Bush, he who gave us a government prescription plan for seniors not paid for and which did nothing to lower prescription costs and which was passed simply for cynical political reasons to try to get more of Florida's seniors to vote for him in 2004. Bush, he who presided over and helped give us the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. Bush, he who gave us tax cuts which made all of the above worse.

The moral of this tale: anyone who thinks that Bush is a "better" president than Obama are ideologues and demagogues, have been taking too many drugs (opiates of the masses) and that has had a negative impact on their ability to think rationally and coherently, or they are a bunch of bah bahing dittohead driven by emotion made idiots in the first place. Better to judge both Bush and Obama rationally, on the basis of their accomplishments or lack thereof, in other words. And by that standard Bush will likely be regarded as more significant or important than Obama by posterity, not for his positive accomplishments, but for the negative things he did or the negative things that happened on his watch and over which he did have some control.

I talked about the idoitification of America in the title of this brief blog post but I don't really mean it. I think that stupidity has pretty much been at the same levels it is today since demagoguery and demagogues triumphed and became the dominant force in American society with the rise of mass propaganda and its various bread and circuses arms, advertising, television, and the Web amongst them. And I don't think this idiocy is going to delcine in the near future despite the utopian dreams of intellectuals and academics that education will provide a means of intellectual liberation for the masses. Welcome to a world where utopian pipe dreams are dead. Welcome to the dismal brave not so new world of emotionally driven mass idiocy.

Monday, April 15, 2013

We Have Met the Enemy and it Is the Emotional Us...

I'm just a "deviant" I am afraid. I know most people are driven by their emotions. Emotion, the place where most child abuse comes from. Emotion, the place where most spousal abuse comes from. Emotion, the place where most jealousy comes from. Emotion, the place where most wars come from. Emotion, the place where most hatred comes from, irrational hatred of nations, irrational hatred of ethnic groups, irrational hatred of women, irrational hatred of gays and lesbians. Emotion, that which makes some walk into a church on Sunday to kill "liberals". Emotion, that which makes some assassinate abortion providers. Emotion, that which makes some people plant a bomb indended to kill others. I am a "deviant" because I prefer reason to emotion. And while I have probably lost something in choosing reason over emotion I will take the loss because I know what emotion has done over the course of human life and over the course of my human life thus far.

I prefer the reason of reasoned analysis to emotion. I know that violence in its many forms has been around almost as long as humankind. I know that violence and war is the real world's oldest profession. I know that war has beget more war, not less. I know that violence has beget more violence, not less. I know that Israel's policy for forty years or more has been to hit the Palestinians harder than Palestinian "terrorists" hit them. I know that Israel's policy has not led to a diminution of violence in Israel and Palestine over the forty years of Israel's twenty eyes for an eye policy. I know that when demagogues and ideologues counterpoint the peaceful and civilised West with the barbarian and "terrorist" Middle East that the US and Europe they are speaking emotionally and living in a fairy tale world. They are not speaking rationally, factually, historically. I know that so-called peaceful Christians and their secular Western descendents have given us the Crusades (with admittedly a little help from the Muslims; mirror mirror on the wall, who are really alike after all?), the Inquisition, the war of Corporate Bosses on labour and the left, World War I, World War II, the Holocaust, the firebombings of civilians in Hamburg, Dresden, and Tokyo, and the atomic bombing of civilians in Hiroshima and Nakasaki. I know that Christians and Westerners have raped the so-called Third World of much of its natural resources since the 1800s. I know that the US like the city state empires of Mesopotamia, the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the British Empire before it is an empire. And I know that as an empire we are, understandably, going to alienate a hell of a lot of people out there around the globe because we are an economic, political, and military power with an economic, political, cultural, and military presence around the globe. I know that this comes with the territory people so put away the childish emotional drug like fairy tales you were brought up on, fairy tales that are akin to hallucinations because they imagine, contrary to the empirical evidence, that we Westerners are a peaceful and people who love people people (as long as they look, act, and think like us, of course) who have brought peace, love, and understanding (not to mention LSD) to the world.

Violence, of course, is the same everywhere in every time and in every place. But the violence of blood vengeance never works, whether it is the blood vengeance of violence in Iraq, the blood vengeance violence in Gaza, the blood vengeance violence in Tel Aviv, or the blood vengeance violence in Boston. All the wars and violence of the last thousand years have done nothing to bring about peace on earth, hell peace in the United States. But hey, don't let me stop you from your twenty eyes for an eye blood vengeance fest. The violent blood vengeance that grips the United States in times of national crisis is a lot like what I sometimes see in the Muslim Middle East. "So it goes..."

Speaking of lynch mobs, I think I can just hear the love it or leave it red faced angry emotional bah bahing at the top of the lungs crowd coming after me as I type. What can I say I am a "deviant" who prefers empirical facts over emotion, dispassionate analysis over anger, and hard evidence before I convict anyone of a crime over the loud mouthed vigilante world of a manipulated public screaming for arse kicking and castration. So crucify me. Force me to drink hemlock. Send me to DisneyLand. No, no, please not DisneyLand. In the meantime, excuse me while I get out of Denver. "So it goes..."

Capsule Film Reviews: Around the Bend

Around the Bend was writer and director Jordan Robert's first independentish feature film and was, as Robert's tells us in his DVD commentary on the Warner Brothers Around the Bend DVD, loosely based on his relationship, or perhaps more accurately his lack of relationship, with his drug using independent film maker hippie father.

Around the Bend is a film about four generations of the men of the Lair tribe. There's Henry (Michael Caine) the homesy archaeologist, Kentucky Fried Chicken loving, and ex alcoholic patriarch of the clan. There's Henry's son Turner (Christopher Walken) the ex drug using and criminal prodigal son who has been "resurrected" from the dead, that is what the family has said happened to him to the youngest of the Lair men, and returned home. There's Jason (Josh Lucas) Turner's lame straight laced son who has a job at a local bank. And there's Zack (Jonah Bobo) Jason's ever questioning young son.

When Henry dies he sends the remaining males of the Lair tribe on a ceremonial pilgrimage and ritual journey to Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants across the American Southwest, whose desert browns the Around the Bend's cinematography seems to mimic, from California, to Arizona, and finally to New Mexico. During this ritual road trip the remaining Lair men "dig up shit", get to know each other, bond with each other, and eat ritual Eucharistic meals at the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants Henry has sent them to so they can then scatter his ashes and those of his faithful dog, who dies the day after he does and whose death he predicts, in sacred locations that were meaningful in his life on holy Lair tribe sites across the American Southwest.

Around the Bend's final ritual takes Turner and Jason to the profane site where Turner reveals to Jason that Jason's limp was not the result of a car crash he was in with his mother, what the family told Jason when he asked how he got his limp, but the result of Turner, in a drugged haze after losing his wife, throwing him down the stairs of their home outside Albuquerque. Henry has brought the two here so that Turner, who we now know is dying from kidney disease, can find reconciliation with Jason, and Jason can forgive his father.

Around the Bend is a film about life, about family, about tribal rituals, about reconciliation, about forgiveness, and about loss, the loss of fathers, the loss of sons, and the loss of unseen wives and mothers who hover over Henry and Turner and Jason like ghosts throughout the film. I found the film a little comme ci, a little comme ça, a little very good, particularly the very moving final two scenes, a little good, and a little lot more OK. That said, it is always nice to see a serious adult film coming out of kiddie korn obsessed Hollywood. Check it out.

Around the Bend, 2004, Warner Independent (wonderful oxymoron that), directed and written by Jordan Roberts, 1:85:1

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Capsule Film Reviews: Hancock

Hancock, directed by Peter Berg, is not your standard superhero movie. Hancock (Will Smith), the eponymous superhero of the film, is lazy, a heavy drinker, a sexist, a womaniser, politically incorrect, and someone who throws teenage bullies high into the air. He lives alone in a couple of trailers he has stuck together on a cliff overlooking the ocean outside of Los Angeles. He is unappreciated by those he saves with his super powers and those who watch him save others because he has a tendency to destroy that holy of holies, private property, costing taxpayers money in the process and he is wanted by the law for his destruction of said private property. He is lonely, the only one of his kind, or so he thinks.

There is someone who thinks he can help Hancock. His name is Ray (Jason Bateman). Ray is a public relations specialist who wants to save the world. We first meet him giving his help me save the world pitch to a executives of pharmaceutical company who he hopes to convince to put his heart logo on their product in exchange for giving away their new TB drug to the poor at no cost. After being rescued by Hancock while being stuck on a railroad in traffic Ray decides to work pro bono for Hancock to try to improve his public image, ours is a public relations dominated world after all.

Eventually Ray's PR work begins to pay off. Hancock goes to gaol/jail voluntarilly and begins to clean up his act. He goes to therapy and finally begins to open, if only a bit. He stops drinking. He wears the snazzy superhero outfit Ray gives him despite its gay vibe. He helps the police capture a group of bank robbers armed to the teeth gaining his release from the hoosegow. Once out of gaol he becomes a celebrity, ours is the age of celebrity and celebrity whoredom after all.

With his life back on track Hancock learns that he is not alone. Ray's second wife Mary (Charlize Theron) we learn is, as she tells Hancock, a god, an angel, a superhero, as humans over time have called her and Hancock's kind. He and she, she tells him, come from a tribe of aliens who once upon a time paired off, as their species had to do, but who are all dead now, save for Hancock and Mary, because they do pair off. Hancock and Mary are still alive, still immortal, because Mary left Hancock in Miami when he was injured in an attack and lost his memory.

Now that Hancock and Mary have found one another they become vulnerable to the former psychologist Hancock captured during the bank robbery he was let out of gaol to deal with and his newly formed gang. During a shootout at the OK hospital to which Hancock has been admitted after he is wounded during a robbery he stopped, Hancock and Mary, who is there with him, are shot and shot again. For a while it as though Hancock the film will not have the happy ending we viewers typically expect from a Hollywood film. After Hancock manages to put distance between himself and Mary, however, a happy ending ensues, though it is bittersweet happy ending. Mary and Ray and Ray's teenage son live happily ever after in Los Angeles while Hancock ends up in Manhattan becoming Gotham's superhero.

I first saw Hancock at a drive-in theatre outside of Albany, New York with a science fiction fantasy obsessed acquaintance on a double bill with Adam Sander's You Don't Mess With the Zohan (2008) when both were released. I didn't remember much about either film afterwards. As Oz says in Buffy contemporary Hollywood films are like the popcorn you weren't sure you had when you went to the cinema. I recently watched the unrated version of Hancock with ten additional minutes on a Columbia DVD and I have to say the unrated version is much more memorable than the theatrical version. As I watched it this time I couldn't help but notice the Friday Night Lights, a television show I very much liked, shaky documentary style camera work, the presence of at least one actor from FNL, and Hancock's pretty successful mix of the comic, the parodic, the dramatic, and the tragic. On the down side there is the inevitable post 1980s pop, in this instance the pop is rap and hip hop, soundtrack that shreds its way through Hancock and threads its way through Hancock's orchestral score, something that makes me, at least, yearn for the good old days when a Hollywood film score was totally orchestral and orchestral music was used to underline and expand the film's narrative. Despite this I am still recommending the unrated version of Hancock on DVD. Check it out.

Hancock, 2008, directed by Peter Berg, written by Vy Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan (of Breaking Bad fame), 2:40:1

Capsule Film Reviews: Looker

Looker, written and directed by author and filmmaker Michael Crichton (Andromeda Strain, Westworld), is a film, as Crichton says in his commentary to the film on the Warner Brothers DVD, that was science fiction when it was released in 1981 but was science fact when he did the commentary for the DVD in 2007.

Looker, which I first saw on cable television, probably HBO, probably in 1982, is a film that works on several different levels. On one level Looker is the tale of a plastic surgeon, Dr. Roberts (Albert Finney), and the four beautiful models who work in television commercials who come to his office complete with measurements down to the milimetre that will fix their "defects" and make them more beautiful and more desirable (played by real life models Terri Welles, Kathryn Witt, Ashley Cox, and Susan Dey) than they were before and they are all already beautiful and desirable. On another level Looker is a tale about a corporation, Digital Matrix, run by James Reston (James Coburn) and his lieutenant Jennifer Long (Leigh Taylor-Young), which is doing cutting edge research on how viewers watch commercials and, in the process, helping corporations sell more product on television thanks to improved product placement. On the final level Looker is a mystery: Why are the beautiful models Dr. Roberts has helped make nearly perfect committing suicide?

It is the this mystery which draws all the threads of Looker together. It is the research Digital Matrix has been doing on how viewers actually watch commercials--research Roberts is given the opportunity to partake of--that leads Digital Matrix to ask the four models to have plastic surgery done on them to make them more perfectly beautiful in order to guide the eyes of television commercial viewers toward the product the commercial wants to sell. Unfortunately, as we learn in the course of the film, the models don't have the physical skills to land where the computer says they should in the frame in order to have maximum product placement impact. Additionally, Digital Matrix, by making the models more perfect, are guiding viewers eyes not toward the product they want to sell but to the models. So Digital Matrix decides to create computer generated versions of the models so they can place these avatars for maximum sales effect in the commercials. No longer needing the real models Digital Matrix, as the television version of Looker particularly makes clear, a version not, sadly, available on the Warner Brothers DVD, decides to eliminate the nearly perfect models they created to keep competitors from getting their corporate secrets. I didn't, by the way, need the pedanticness of the television version to tell me this.

Digital Matrix, we learn in the course of the film, is using another of its corporate secrets, L.O.O.K.E.R., Light Ocular-Oriented Kinetic Emotive Responses, a weapon that can stop time for he or she who it is "shot" at, to eliminate Lisa, Tina, and Candy. Dr. Roberts and the fourth model who has been made nearly perfect Cindy (Susan Dey) uncover this mystery by film's end.

Looker is a fascinating critique of Western conceptions of female beauty--Digital Matrix is attempting to remake women's bodies to make them more beautiful and more alluring in order to sell more corporate product--the military-industrial complex--L.O.O.K.E.R. is being developed with possible military uses in mind--and corporate power--Digital Matrix is using its research and L.O.O.K.E.R. technology to manipulate viewers to buy not only corporate products but Digital Matrix approved political candidates.

Looker, as Crichton speculates in his commentary, probably mystified audiences when it was released in 1981 in part because it was so different from what film goers at the time typically expected. Audiences, notes Crichton, weren't familiar with the term digital. They weren't used to seeing digital technologies, the computer generated technologies Looker was among the first films to use. Since much of what was science fiction in Looker is now science fact the film may be an easier viewing experience for film goers even if it seems technologically primitive next to films that use G.G.I. these days. Even if the film may seem "primitive" by today's standards, its critique of corporate power, its critique of commercials and corporate manipulations through commercials, its critique of the triumph of the 18 to 25 demographic in Hollywood, the similarities between selling economic product and political product, and the social and cultural construction of beauty are not. These critiques are as timely today as they were in 1981, perhaps even more.

Another plus is that Looker has a great theme song performed by new wavers Sue Saad and the Next, some great faux commercials actually shot by commercial directors, and a hilarious satire of commercials at film's end where violence erupts into stereotyped clean cut middle class American settings. Wonderful intellectually stimulating film. Check it out.

Looker, 1981, written and directed by Michael Crichton, 2:35:1

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Capsule Film Reviews: Imaginary Heroes

At one point in her commentary--an intelligent bit of commentary, by the way--on the DVD of 24 year old first time director Dan Harris's 2004 Imaginary Heroes, actor Sigourney Weaver, who plays mother Sandy in this independentish film, says that some people have compared Imaginary Heroes with another film in which Weaver played a restless suburban mother, Ang Lee's The Ice Storm (1997).

The comparison between Imaginary Heroes and The Ice Storm, as Weaver notes, is an apt one but there is a difference between the two films, again as Weaver notes, a difference that says so much about even small close to everyday life films coming out of Hollywood today, Imaginary Heroes, as Weaver says, was aimed at Harris's generation, the just out of high school or still in high school generation. Ice Storm, on the other had, was focused more on the adults in the film and was aimed more at an adult audience.

Imaginary Heroes centres on the Travis family of Mom Sandy (Weaver), Dad Ben (Jeff Daniels), sister Penny (Michelle Williams), and, the protagonist and narrator of the film, the about to graduate from high school son and brother Tim (Emile Hirsch). And then there is older brother Matt (Kip Pardue), Ben's favourite and who Ben is grooming for the Olympics but who, as Tim tells us at the beginning of the film, hates swimming. Imaginary Heroes begins with older brother Matt's suicide, a suicide that will, in the course of the film, let loose a host of family and personal secrets which the family, in typical Hollywood manner, finally manages to find the strength to fight their way through.

While Imaginary Heroes may be somewhat like The Ice Storm, a film which superbly captures its time and place along with the dysfunction of two families, it suffers, in my opinion, by the comparison. The Ice Storm is brilliant, Imaginary Heroes, a film about the heroes and villains we create but who inevitably come crashing down because they can never match the heroes and villains of our imagination, is no The Ice Storm. That said, this small serious film certainly didn't deserve the treatment it got from Sony Pictures Classics, who distributed the picture: release in only twenty-four cinemas in the US. It was nice to see a film about something approximating everyday life rather than the kiddie corn that normally comes rolling out of Hollywood these days. Imaginary Heroes deserves a wider audience for this reason alone. And it does have some genuinely funny and wicked humour in it not to mention some superb acting by Weaver and Daniels. Check it out. Sadly Harris has never done anything this serious and this interesting since. And that tells us much about making it in contemporary Hollywood.

Imaginary Heroes, 2004, written and directed by Dan Harris, 2:35:1

A Spectre is Haunting the New Atheism, the Spectre of "Islamophobia"

Recently there has been a renewal of that good old time intellectual culture war between the militant “New Atheists”, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins—the other member of the “unholy trinity”, Christopher Hitchens died in 2011—and their critics. In 2008 leftist socially gospeller Chris Hedges, who took a degree from the Harvard Divinity School, took the New Atheists to task for being similar in their anti-religious militancy to the pro-religious and often inquisitorial religious militants they criticized, a fair charge, a charge picked up by primatologist Frans de Waal who argues that the New Atheists are basically engaging in macho chest banging, and that Harris and Hitchens had become shills for 2000s style Bush Wilsonian neoliberalism. Now, following in the footsteps of Hedges, Nathan Lean, Murtaza Hussein, and Glen Greenwald, the most nuanced of the new critics of the New Atheism who focuses most of his ire on Harris, have likewish come not to praise the New Atheists but to bury them for their irrational and un-scientific neoliberal Islamophobia. Jerome Taylor reported on this latest skirmish in the culture war proving, in the process, that reflexivity usually follows quickly upon a body of similar criticism.

As someone who grew up under the shadow of the Holocaust I have long been familiar with the realities of ethnocentrisms of hatred, clan hatred, clique hatred, tribe hatred, religious hatred, national hatred, ethnic hatred among humans historically and contemporarilly for years. I have also, if more recently, it probably happened first during my sojourn in Utah, become familiar with the uses and abuses of the Holocaust by those with nationalistic and political agendas, who equate any criticism of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians with anti-Semitism. When I lived in Utah I came to understand how Mormons, particularly Mormons of a defend the faith polemical and apologetic stripe, equated intellectual and theological criticism of Mormonism with a different, but very real I might add, virulent anti-Mormonism that was largely the product of evangelical polemics and apologetics. Such rhetorical strategies can be very useful in the public demonisation of those who disagree with you. Such discursive strategies, in other words, are classic examples of the Foucauldian use of language to marginalize opponents and thereby gain control over the discourse.

I think a lot of what is going on the criticism of the New Atheism is discursive Foucauldianism. Lean, for instance, uses several rhetorical and discursive strategies to metaphorically tar and feather his opponents. There's the character assassination. Dawkins, writes Lean, is a prickly preppy septuagenarian atheist with an attitude while Sam Harris is an ankle biter version of the rottweiler Dawkins. There's the character assassination of the audience. Hippies and yuppies alike, claims Lean, lap up the atheism of the New Atheists. There’s the silence in the cyberlibrary (had to get a Doctor Who reference in here) where Lean takes the lack of a New Atheist condemnations of Jewish fundamentalism as evidence of their pro-Israel selectivity. There’s Lean’s use of analogy to see what he can get to stick to the New Atheists so he can tar and feather them in the arena of public opinion. New Atheist support for Israel means that they are also supporting Israel’s verbally and sometimes physically violent Jewish fundamentalists. There’s Lean’s strategy of ignoring history when you can. Let’s not link New Atheist criticisms of Islam to the fact that unlike Western Judaism and Christianity it and its theocratic, misogynistic, and homophobic cultures—if unevenly—have been only limitedly impacted by post-Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment modernity. One can, as Harris does, argue from this and other factors that there may be a unique quality of the threat from Islam. One can, in other words, make a Nieburhrian argument. There’s Lean’s strategy of condemning others for lack of definitional precision (see the comments under his article) while failing to provide clear definitions of his own, such as a definition of Islamophobia and how one can distinguish between valid criticisms and ethnocentrism, because ambiguity works in his discursive favour. There’s Lean’s failure to recognise that the impact of Western colonialism and imperialism on the Islamic world does not necessitate the celebration of Islam and its theocratic, misogynistic, and homophobic culture (a product, by the way, of the same Mediterranean culture that gave us the theocratic, misogynistic, and homophobic cultures of pre-modern Judaism and Christianity) as a form of resistance to Western political, economic, cultural, geographic imperialism. There is no need, in other words, to sanctify the victim and thereby ignore the negative aspects of some forms of Islam. There’s Lean's tried and true if clichéd strategy of painting your opponents into a fascist corner by equating Dawkins with the Bush doctrine, Fox News, Mr. Torture Alan Dershowitz, and the ideology of the New Atheism with that of the right wing and ultra nationalist or fascist British National Party and Hussein's tried and true if clichéd strategy of equating the New Atheists with the scientific racists of Nazi Germany.

Greenwald makes some of the same accusations against Harris if in a more intellectually responsible way. For Greenwald Harris's pro-Israeli stance, his overlooking of Israeli and American brutalities against Muslims and beyond, his calls for a kind of "holy war" against the unique threat of Islam, his refusal to see Islam as the diverse religion it is, means that Harris is a bigoted Islamophobe.

I don’t know whether Lean, Hussein, and Greenwald have agendas beyond their concern over ethnocentrisms and the real hazards ethnocentrisms bring the modern world. I don't know why Salon has become the venue for so many polemics against the New Atheism. What I do know, however, is that it is hard to turn those who take an equal opportunity approach to criticising religion, particularly to the irrational, theocratic, misogynistic, and homophobic aspects of traditional Western religious culture, into Islamophobes or anti-Semites or anti-Christian save by a kind of rhetorical sleight of hand. And that is what I think, by and large, the criticisms of the New Atheists as anti-Islamic is, rhetorical and ideological sleight of hand.

I want to end this brief essay by circling back to Chris Hedges point that atheism, like religion, is a meaning system. Is atheism a meaning system? Well of course. But it is a meaning system anchored in empirical evidence at its best, something that religious meaning systems are ultimately not. It is this difference that makes atheism and its scientific grounding so much more compelling that religious meaning systems at least for those who care about accurate empirical evidence. Sadly, not all of us really do care about empirical evidence. Just look at all of those Americans who believe Obama is not an American or all those Americans who deny climate change. And this is, of course, the problem and it is a problem that religion often contributes to over and over again along with empirically challenged political ideologies like those of all those right wing wing nuts.