Jim Hines has a discussion about the "outsider problem" when it comes to those who rape or batter others. This was provoked by a news article about a fifteen-year-old who was sexually assaulted in front of strangers who did nothing (pace Kitty Genovese).
Jim's assessment goes like this: It is a mistake to think the people who commit such things are clearly not like us — that "we" are all the way over here and they are all the way over there, and that we're normal and they're not. Rather, it makes sense to look at a spectrum of possibility — that there is a slope of behaviors, a valley of committing rape and abuse into which some people tumble.
I am not sure I believe this, and I'll try to explain why. I think the issue is far more complex than even a question of behavior spectra.
Readers of this blog know that from time to time I mention Richard Rhodes's Why They Kill, a survey of the life and work of criminologist Lonnie Athens (reviewed here). What Athens found over the course of decades of work was that most people who commit violent acts — like murder, or rape — do not simply "snap" one day and do it; they are sociologized into it. There is a process of conditioning for such people, and that while circumstances can make it easier to do so, a person has to go through each step of the process for the whole thing to be complete.
When the process is finished, they have been installed with an image of themselves as a violent person — as someone who acts violently, who responds to things with violence, and who feels no contradiction in doing so. Who does not think twice about smashing a beer bottle over someone's head when they look at him funny. Or in assaulting a woman when she says no. Or any number of other things that those of us who have not been through that process would find incomprehensible as a response.
So what is it that separates a rapist — and an unrepentant, gloating one at that — from a non-rapist? The process — the fact that they have been "educated" in a certain way, that they have been schooled ruthlessly in the process of "violentization" (as Athens calls it). Most of us have not had this done to us; ergo, we see rape as abhorrent.
Now I want to take this a step further and look outside of Athens's formula, but still use it for the sake of perspective. One of the things Jim and the commentors on his post talk about is the fact that there are plenty of people who can point to someone who has committed a sexual assault without having a history of violence per se, but who work themselves up to committing something like that. They may not be puppy-killers, so to speak, but they're still able to work their way up the ladder to stalk, harass, intimidate, and eventually attack a woman.
Here is one possible explanation for that: such a person has managed to complete a couple of the steps of the violentization cycle on their own, often without a "coach" (Athens's term for a senior figure who initiates the neophyte into violent behavior). They haven't become "full-blown", but they've managed to restructure enough of their definition of themselves to see themselves as someone who can attack a woman — this woman, maybe, if not any woman. I'd be willing to bet such people are not fated to become monsters; they'd need help to undo the damage, of course, but my point is that such people might well still be prone to feelings of remorse and guilt and could be kept from repeating the same violations.
The other question as to why perfect strangers could look on helplessly why someone is violated in front of them is more difficult. I have been on the fringes of such situations in the past, and I can at least put my own feelings on the table. And again, they relate to Athens and his concept of the violentized man.
The violentized man knows how to intimidate. It's not a convenience for him; it's a survival strategy. Being able to intimidate those who are not violentized is a survival trait. You learn it or you die. Small wonder that one man who has that look of total bloodthirst in his eye can make a whole roomful of people back off. (Remember Denzel Washington's character from Training Day?)
I've been just close enough to this to never want to see it again. You sit there, a few scant feet away from someone who has just demonstrated he could probably end your life if he cared to, and you feel your soul drain out the bottoms of your feet. In moments like that, logic and reason do not exist. It doesn't matter how many there are of "you"; all that matters is that there's one of him. And so you back up. You look away, you turn sidelong, you leave the powerless to their fate because the only thing left inside you is the certainty that you do not want to end up like them.
So what's the difference between depression and a philosophical despondency?
If there's a distinction, it's between something that is a neurological/chemical disorder and a philosophical outlook. The first is a mechanism and the second is a symptom, with the second having more than the first as a possible cause. The former can create the latter, and the latter can engineer a remarkable simulation of the former and recreate its effects, but they're easily conflated for those reasons.
The first one amounts to someone with a vitamin deficiency of the brain. The second is Zetsubo-sensei.
The best description of depression I've heard was from an acquaintance who'd received both therapy and drugs. The way he put it was, "I felt like I was being held hostage by my own mind." It didn't matter what he thought about; it was all subsumed into the service of the depression. His despondencies occasionally could be made concrete in the form of a complaint about something (e.g., what's this country coming to!), but for the most part what he experienced was just a blanketing, smothering pillow of negative emotion pressed down over the face of his brain.
So he got help, and that help came in the form of both drugs and cognitive therapy. The drugs cleared the fog; the therapy that allowed him to avoid recreating the same states of mind that he had become overly familiar with as a response to certain situations. He's doing damn good now. (I'm not going to attempt to defend all psychiatric drugs, only to say that they have their place and that the choice is not an all-or-nothing split between pills and Plato.)
What bugged my friend a great deal were the well-meaning people who tried to help but had no idea how to offer useful advice. The ones who disdained the use of psychiatric medicines, who told him what amounted to a nicer version of "it's all in your head" and "toughen up and deal". The people who deliver such nostrums, I think, do so because they sincerely believe everyone else has the same easy access to forging such strategies of life from the inside — that it's mainly a matter of willpower.
It's not. Willpower's the fuel for the engine, but if the engine's missing spark plugs you're wasting your time. You can't think your way out of something you didn't think your way into to begin with. Or, as Robert Cray once said, you can't fake what you don't have. Telling someone they can get out of this box by just stiffening their spine and smiling in the mirror every morning is cruel and misleading.
Note that I'm not talking about the kinds of behavioral modifications that are taught in therapy, which are a lot more focused and don't consist of existential affirmations of purpose but rather on-the-spot problem solving techniques. I wonder sometimes if the "suck it up" crowd have internalized those same techniques and just don't know that they're employing them, or don't know how to describe to others that's what they're using.
Evidently "Know Thyself" is not a demand you can fulfill once and be done with it.
It's a shame the author of the piece had to go and invoke Kierkegaard, one of the most pompous and obtuse philosophers on record who badly muddies what little case he has to make with his language-juggling. Reading him is like plugging through deep mud while wearing wooden sabots. I guess he was invoked for the sake of his heft as an Authority, a sort of life-of-the-mind Great Books antidote to those nasty pills. Doesn't make him any less obscurantist.
As Bertrand Russell proved, most people will pay through the nose for obscurity when the plain truth can be had dirt cheap. It's just that the dirt-cheap plain truth is usually butt-ugly to boot.
I will start with a not-so-hypothetical question: Is there anyone who seriously believes that another movie version of Frank Herbert's Dune is required, let alone a good idea?
It's funny how a project like this will just sort of stick in the collective creative subconscious and never quite go away. David Lynch's version had money to burn, great costumes, great sets — but wobbly-looking effects (Gene Siskel described them as "filming a paper airplane thrown over Mom's bedspread") and a Cliff's Notes version of the story. Bad for fans of the book, but great for fans of David Lynch, or cinematic excess in general, the latter of which I consider myself a closet appreciator. (Lynch is hit-or-miss, but when he hits he knocks it out of the park and puts the inning indicator out of commission to boot.)
The TV version had the depth and the length, but not the look and feel (those sets look like something out of the later episodes of the pre-reboot Doctor Who), and so both of them leave you hungry in different ways. So a third go-round seems to always be in the air, and never quite coming in for a landing.
As reported in various places, Paramount's currently looking to get a new staging of the book off the ground for about US$175M. Their original director was Peter Berg (he of Hancock, which was a lot better than I was originally going to give it credit for), but he's since walked from the project and left the Mountain scrambling for a replacement.
Here's one loony idea: Alejandro Jodorowsky should be allowed to come in and pick up where he left off with his aborted mid-1970s version — set design by H.R. Giger, score by either Magma or Pink Floyd. (See The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made for the full skinny on this dream project, which for the longest time seemed entirely too much like the kind of self-mythologizing that's entirely too easy for me to attribute to Jodorowsky generally.) Crazy, sure, but let's face it — they've trusted projects bigger than this to lesser people.
The name currently being bandied around (according to the above article) is Neil Marshall, he of The Descent and Doomsday and the forthcoming Centurion. I'm in something of a minority in that I actually liked Doomsday quite a bit, and admired how Marshall made a pretty upscale-looking movie on a small budget. He'd be a good secondary choice, but not my first, even if I have a soft spot for his work.
So who else? Peter Jackson is another obvious shoo-in; he's shown not just once but several times over than he can take a project of this scale and tame it. But does he want to? Right now he's got his hands full with The Hobbit, even if only in a supervisory role; if he said yes it would be years before he could even roll up his sleeves.
The best realistic choice, in my eyes: Guillermo del Toro. Here's someone who has entries in both the the "art" and "action" columns on the page, who can make crowd-pleasers and eye-openers in equal measure (and has). He also sports a slightly more accessible version of Lynch's sense of the grotesque, so he'd be qualified to deliver something otherworldly without it also being a nasty turn-off.
What worries me, no matter who gets slotted into the role, is the fact that there is no effective way to condense the book into a conveniently-sized movie. The only other option is to make an inconveniently-sized movie, a multi-part mega-feature along the lines of Jackson's Rings, but that comes sporting such a thicket of logistical thorns that I wouldn't blame Paramount for not even wanting that option on the table.
Do I even want another version of Dune? You know, I've asked myself this question dozens of times, and I never get a good answer. I have mixed feelings about the book to begin with — it's a landmark, and it's next to impossible to have a good grasp of SF as a genre without reading it. But it's more interesting for its world-building and its conceits about a distant future of neo-feudalism than it is for any of its characters, or the conclusions it draws about them. It's better as tourism than it is as fiction — although there's a lot of SF in general of the same ilk. Few people read Ringworld to gripe about the aimless story; they're there to marvel at Larry Niven's imagination.
Part of me is frustrated because I have several pet SF novels that have never been filmed, that would be fantastic to see on the big screen, and could be done on a whole gamut of budgets. You could film Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human (easily one of my favorites of all time) on less money than it would cost to cater most other productions. If you have the money to blow, how about Alfred Bester's Monte Cristo mutation The Stars My Destination, or his future-telepath crime-and-punishment epic The Demolished Man (which was almost brought to the screen by Oliver Stone, of all people)? Or Evgeny Zamyatin's funny and horrible and brilliant We, the spiritual godfather of all the 20th-century literary dystopias? Or Gertrude Freidberg's The Revolving Boy, a deeply unsung SF novel from an author with almost nothing else to her name save for this masterpiece?
The more I think about this, the more that comes to mind simply because nobody seems to be really digging all that deeply. You want to get really maverick and left-field? How about Daniel M. Pinkwater's books, e.g., Alan Mendelson, The Boy From Mars, where the best revenge on your high-school tormentors is to learn how to cross the various planes of existence? (Those of you who have read the book: my first casting choice for Clarence Yojimbo is Rob Zombie.) Another Pinkwater possibility: The Last Guru, which would either sit very well or not well at all with today's transcendence-obsessed populace since it pokes fun at the very things they have been told to seek so hungrily for. Or an animated version of A.K. Dewdney's The Planiverse, which takes the concept of Flatland and expands on it endlessly and magically.
You get the idea.
Some brief new releases. Hideo Gosha (of Goyokin, The Geisha and Sword of the Beast) has a new domestic DVD release: Onimasa aka The Japanese Godfather. (I have a review of The Geisha that needs to go up at some point; it fell by the wayside while I was writing Tokyo Inferno.)
Ghost in the Shell 2.0 is also apparently getting a domestic DVD release as well as Blu-ray, so those of you who are Bluless for the time being need not worry.
And one of Robert Altman's most underrated films, Streamers, finally gets a DVD release too.
Those of you with a Yusaku Matsuda fetish (he's the dad of that other Matsuda, Ryuhei) will probably need a new pair of shorts: Kadokawa has a Blu-ray box set of several of his films coming out in Japan. Included are Resurrection of the Golden Wolf, The Beast to Die, Proof of the Man and Story of the Detective. I should note that a couple of these are out domestically (here's two, I think), so there's a fair chance these may come out Stateside with the further benefit of English subs.
Here's a curious revelation that came in the wake of me looking at the stats logs for my site from earlier in the week. The number of people who stopped by my site in one week and looked at the pages for my books (and downloaded the samples for same) easily exceeded the number of people who stopped at my sales table during AnimeFest. And despite the fact that samples for the books are freely available, I made zero sales during that period.
However, at AnimeFest, I sold a good half of the stock of everything I brought, and completely sold out of all of Tokyo Inferno. Why?
A couple of things come to mind. The first is something I guess you could call the Economy of Tangible Effort. It takes very little effort, in most people's minds, to put up a website, upload stuff to it and offer stuff for sale through it. It doesn't have the same impact as someone renting a sales table that takes up a certain number of cubic feet of meatspace and selling a piece of bound and printed matter from it. Any idiot can make a website. In fact, most idiots do.
The evidence of physical effort is more immediately impressive to people. You have a sales table, a professional-looking product, and you pitch your work pretty competently to boot (at least, I think I do). You must mean business; ergo, my money is probably well spent with you. And so a sale is made, a book is signed, and next year — one hopes — a fan comes back to find you've got another book out. The wheel's turning.
The other thing is an extension of something I chewed over with my friend Michael Morris when we talked about the same issue a couple of years back: face-to-face presence and word-of-mouth are the two biggest and most powerful marketing tools you will ever have. Mike had tried everything else he could think of — leafleting, postcards, direct-mail campaigns, ad banners on websites, everything short of painting himself blue and streaking down Main Street. The only things that worked — and worked consistently — were talking to people face to face to sell your product to them, and having friends recommend you to other friends.
I'd wager that conventioneering works as well as it does is because of the atmosphere. Not just that you're in among like-minded folks, but you've set up camp in the middle of a whole bunch of people who by dint of physically being there are tacitly allowing you to market your work to them. They have, as they say in marketing parlance, opted in.
I don't know of any online arrangement that can take the place of this sort of thing, and I'm not sure one could exist for a long time to come. Nothing beats having a lot of warm bodies in the same room, and not just for the way it drives sales.
In my post about Hakkenden I lamented the lack of a good English translation of the book (apart from the extracts found here and there). There's also vanishingly little English scholarship about the author (Bakin Takizawa) — apart from one book which I have found, Leon M. Zolbrod's Takizawa Bakin, volume 20 in the Twayne's World Authors Series, and now quite out of print. The book goes into great detail about Takizawa's life and the history of Hakkenden itself, and despite being a 1967 edition relies on a number of Japanese-language primary sources, so I suspect there hasn't been a seismic amount of change in the landscape of understanding for the subject since.
It's times like this where I say to myself, "Surely the Google Books deal isn't such a bad idea?" Then again Amazon just this week released their Kindle Reader for the PC, and if I have to choose between Google's dubious approach and paying Amazon a flat fee (at least some of which is designed to go back to the author's estate) for a PC-readable digital copy, I incline that much more towards Amazon's approach. At least there the chain of responsibility and ownership is a little clearer.
So what did I do? I bought a used copy, for something like $8. Through Amazon, no less. I can't say their motives are pure — they're a business — but again, at least I have that much better an idea of where everything comes from and where it goes.
The MoMA has movies! And not just any old movies, either, but awesome old movies.
New preservation efforts in Asian films are represented by the restoration, at the University of California, Los Angeles, of Lester James Peries’s 1964 feature from Sri Lanka, “The Changing Village” (Nov. 11 and Nov. 12), as well as the Korean Film Archive’s rehabilitation of Kim Ki-young’s astounding thriller of 1960, “The Housemaid” (Nov. 5 and 16).
Be nice if I could make it out there to see 'em, although the Japanese samurai-art exhibition at the Met is taking precedence. I'm thinking about heading out there next weekend.
Stupid stats system. Somehow — don't ask how — the reporting and log analysis software for the site went teacups-up and stopped gathering data back in April. I aargh'ed a bit, downloaded the raw stats logs and crunched some numbers to find out what articles have been popular.
Color me surprised:
Nice that Unicorn and Cauldron get attention, since they both need it. Re: Cauldron, Disney scarcely did anything as interesting since, although the ante's been re-upped now that they're getting back into the 2D animation game. (Why they ever left is proof that nobody working in Hollywood can remember anything that happened before What They Did Last Summer.) And while it's great that the Guin Saga manga are getting attention, the novels seriously need more love.
On top of everything else the category bindings also seem to have barfed. I rebuilt those, so you no longer get redirected to broken pages when you try to click a top-level category. Then again, if this stuff worked all the time, I wouldn't have much to write about, would I?
Tags: site stats
Anime fans ought to be at least passingly familiar with Hakkenden, the 13-episode adaptation of Bakin Takizawa's feudal-era epic about eight reincarnated warriors embodying different samurai ideals. Readers of this site probably remember the Sonny Chiba live-action version, directed by Kinji Fukasaku, which doesn't hew quite as closely to the original story but is rollicking as all get-out. I've been planning to do a rundown of the series since its LaserDisc days — yes, that long ago — but with the current Geneon edition out of print I might want to sit on that project a bit longer.
What's been even more missing is the original story itself in an English translation. There's been faithful editions of the classic Chinese legend The Water Margin — a/k/a Suikoden in Japan, or Outlaws of the Marsh in its recent English translation — but Hakkenden remains untranslated. Pieces of it have shown up here and there, as Wikipedia indicates, but never the whole thing.
Takizawa's original has been retold any number of times — even by Guin Saga creator Kaoru Kurimoto, if Amazon is to be believed. On my last trip to Book-Off in the city, I bumped into Takaya Hama's retelling (with some amazing illustrations by Takato Yamamoto), so it's not as if we have a dearth of possible versions to work from. I suspect it's just one of those tasks that no translator has yet opted for given the esoteric nature of the material. Some of the original has been posted for free on the web — it is out of copyright, after all — but a complete e-text has yet to be compiled.
Any takers? You'd have a fan in me for life.
A couple of new movie features are back from the archives. At kende sandheden (Facing The Truth) [2004/08/08], Blood: the Last Vampire [2006/09/09] (this is the original animated feature, which deserves to be back online before I look at the live-action version), and Le samouraï [2003/10/20].
If you've been wondering why this material has been coming back online in such a haphazard fashion, it's only because a) I do a lot of going back and forth about which ones are really worth reposting and b) I tend to go by priority rather than chronology. There was a lot of junk, a lot of stuff not worth reprinting, and — probably most embarrassing of all — a lot of good movies that I wrote very poor reviews of, and which I don't feel compelled to rewrite because my mind is now elsewhere. I'm trying to look forward, not back.
Like genius and creativity before it, the word genocide has become so horribly misused and over-used that bringing it into a discussion now runs the risk of driving out more people than it might draw in. This is not to say that such things do not happen, only that we have badly damaged our capacity for understanding them, for talking about them, and maybe also for doing something about them in a lasting way.
The word genocide was coined by a man whom history has almost forgotten, and this article about that man — Raphael Lemkin — contains a graf which says more about the problem of genocide than most any other platitudinous hand-wringing I've read:
... [W]e need to force ourselves to think beyond the platitude that genocide is an abomination, and to understand the more difficult thought that it represents an unending moral temptation for mankind. [Emph. mine.] The danger of genocide lies in its promise to create a world without enemies. Think of genocide as a crime in service of a utopia, a world without discord, enmity, suspicion, free of the enemy without or the enemy within. Once we understand that this utopia is the core of the genocidal intention, we have to realize that this utopia menaces us forever. Once we understand genocide as utopian, we understand also the vulnerability of universalism. The idea that there can be a "crime against humanity" is a counterintuitive one that has to make its way against the more alarming thought that what humans actually desire is not a world of brotherhood, but a world without enemies.
There are two ways to live in such a world. The long, complex, difficult but ultimately more fruitful way (albeit fruitful in ways that are often invisible to the immediate observer) is through diplomacy and mutual rapprochement. If two neighboring countries are at war, it is not required that they love each other unconditionally for the conflict to end. They need never love each other. They only need to quit trying to blow each other to pieces. In doing so they may suddenly find they have the energy to do a great many other things that previously seemed out of reach, or just not very interesting.
The other, easy way is just to kill everyone who doesn't agree with you. Superficially easy, as everyone who has practiced it has found out. You have to ignore the possibility of reprisal, of sanctions, of outside intervention, of the sheer logistical problems of dead bodies everywhere, of isolation even from your alleged allies (as such allegiances often turn into contests of ideological purity), of your name becoming anathema across generations. Barrows Dunham once again: the gains hardly seem worth all that degeneracy.
The problem, of course, is that people are by and large not trained — not even in the most advanced civilizations in the world — to see such effects. That, they leave to their grandchildren. Or their neighbors. If any of either remain, that is.
The other night a friend nudged me with what I think she believed was a shameful admission. She'd rented Eraserhead on the recommendation of a friend, and after half an hour was getting cold feet. "Is it bad that I find this boring?" she asked me.
My response was: No. It is perfectly okay for a movie to be boring. If you a bored by a movie, then for god's sake turn it off. Do not sit through anything because you feel you'll be doing someone else an injustice if you don't. A friend's perspective is not meant to become your new dogma, no matter how smart or cultured you think they are. Sometimes you're going to be disappointed by them; that's the cost of also having them bring you joy you would otherwise never find on your own.
Talking about what we like or don't like is not prescriptive. It's an invitation, not a commandment. It's easy to fool ourselves into thinking it needs to be, though; such is the beginning of snobbism. I thought Street of Crocodiles and most of the rest of the Brothers Quay's work was phenomenal. I couldn't get my friends to watch five minutes of any of it. It took me years to quit thinking I'd somehow gone about introducing them to it the wrong way. They were all adults. (I never got around to showing them Begotten because I was 99% sure they'd hate it with a passion.)
I thought Transformers was boring. What I will never say (or at least endeavor not to say) is, "People who like Transformers must be boring and stupid people." Many of them are not. Some are, but many aren't. I know other people who also love Eraserhead. Some of them, I won't give the time of day. I'll take a good friend with bad taste over bad friends with good taste any day. I should know: I've had both.
My friends love my dearly. Many of them do not, however, share my enthusiasm for Merzbow. (Yes, Bara, you're the exception.) They read my review of Amlux and wonder if we were listening to the same record. To which I can only answer: no, we didn't, because we don't have the same ears. But I will never say that their ears are boring.
La difference, c'est entre nous.
Cue the howls of rancor. Now press mute and consider.
If academic film theory is cut from the same cloth of impenetrable word games as most of literary theory or art criticism theory, then it deserves to be roundly ignored. Most of it is not written to be read by anyone except other critics, which is precisely the problem. It makes it impossible to have a discussion about the material except with another of the initiated.
I suffered through enough of that theory nonsense in college, because I'd already had exposure to plenty of intelligent, thoughtful criticism — Ebert's and others. "Be obscure clearly!" E.B. White insisted, Most people who want to look learned leave off the second half of the formula. They're not fooling anyone who's had a taste of the real thing.
Good criticism requires, I feel, three things: the willingness to approach the material on its own terms; the honesty to separate your own reactions from an objective assessment of the material; and the ability to examine the work through the lens of the creator's intent or approach. You don't review a grisly horror movie expecting Cries and Whispers, but if you get something of that caliber, all the better. You don't slam a film for not being what you wanted — but if you wanted something else, at least own up to it. You and your audience might both learn something.
And finally, you have to make some room in what you do for the creator himself — what he wanted, what he tried to do, what he ended up with. Sometimes he goes in with art on his mind, and walks out with T&A on the brain. Sometimes he sets out to make a fast buck, and ends up making a legend. You never know. That's half the fun.
None of this requires jargon, a "theoretical framework", or anything that looks like you need to arm yourself with two years' reading to understand. All you need is a little history of your own, a bit of empathy, an an open mind. There's more real criticism and insight in a ten-year-old going to a so-called comedy and saying "Why wasn't that funny?" then there is in a whole volume of post-whateverist foofaraw. This isn't to say that all film criticism has to be on that ten-year-old's level, but that's where some of the best criticism starts.
I mention Ebert time and again, so much so I fear people plugging their ears when I do. I have good reason to speak of him. I think most now of an essay, written on his 25th anniversary of being a professional critic, that is among the best appreciations of any art form I have yet read. He makes an analogy about black-and-white vs. color that I have used myself, time and again, to defend the value of black-and-white filmmaking. There's nothing fancy about it; it's just good, honest, and true writing. (The essay is not available online (yet); I'm hoping this changes.)
I have mentioned Danny Peary, of Cult Movies I-II-III fame and Alternate Oscars. He took movies I had never heard of and generated fascination for them out of thin air — even films I didn't think I would ever want to see (The Harder They Come, or Glen or Glenda?, to name two extreme examples). He also cast new light on films I knew I loved (Blade Runner), and made me look at others in a new light. All of it without jargon, or needless obscurantism.
Ever since I changed to a formal publishing system for this site, I've been re-reading and re-uploading most everything I wrote for it. Not everything I wrote was worth keeping, I think. But I am proud of the way I talked a few things, especially the films I loved the most: Blade Runner, Haibane Renmei, or Ran, and every time I come across something that belongs in their company I try all the harder to talk about them in a way that will bring others to them, too.
The best criticism starts an argument, or a conversation. The best criticism makes you want to go to the work being discussed so you can come away with your own reaction. The best criticism is a beginning, not an ending.
Some of you have probably heard about the recent brouhaha about the FTC possibly cracking down on bloggers who receive freebies unless they provide full disclosure of their connections with advertisers. The whole thing is still very muddy, and an earlier interview with an FTC fellow and some recent news have clarified little or nothing. The rules take effect December 1, so a lot of people are still running around wondering what this all means.
In my case, starting immediately, I've decided to tag all reviews done for this site if I received a copy of the item in question for review. (Random example. Disclosure label is at bottom.) I decided it was easy enough to do this for the sake of fairness; I don't feel obliged to automatically say good things about everything sent to me for a review. Note that reviews filed before Oct. 1 may not have disclosure labels, but if you're curious about whether or not I got a review copy of a given item, ask; I won't hesitate to reply.
Note that all the reviews I did for AMN (or at least the vast, vast majority of them) automatically fall into this category. My listings of those reviewed here are simply for the sake of convenience.
UPDATE: It looks like the FTC has clarified the rules a great deal, according to this post. The short version is that unless you're part of an actual marketing program you're not required to disclose anything. Given that I have affiliate links back to Amazon for the products I look at, which falls into that category, it makes sense for me to provide full disclosure.
Frank Rich's op-ed reminds me of two conversations I've had recently.
Conversation The First was with a former boss of mine. We were eating lunch together, and when he lamented the above-mention rise of the MBA I agreed completely. It was not that the MBA was a Bad Thing, but that it had become a one-for-one substitute for an education that was, in theory anyway, intended to introduce people to the idea that there might well be other things in life than just making money. (The problem may well be that there is no way to formalize a person's introduction to such concepts.)
Conversation The Second was earlier today, with another friend, about how our education involves all the wrong concepts delivered at the wrong time. I've long felt that it's best to teach logic and skeptical thinking right from the beginning alongside the ABCs and the 123s — not later on as some elective that's maybe a prerequisite to a philosophy or computer science course. Some of the most valuable and important skills we could be teaching people are languishing as third-order exotica.
We don't teach this stuff, and as a result all the things that we could be better aware of because of it — like temporal separations between cause and effect — constantly smack us in the face. What, you didn't think that gambling with derivatives wouldn't eventually blow up in everyone's face and cause financial chaos? Evidently someone was never told about the What If Everyone Did That rule. Or they did hear about it, but were too busy to care since they were working out their newest end-run around the SEC.Read more
Some of you might know Levitt & Dunbar's Freakonomics, a book in something of the Tipping Poing / Black Swan vein. The book's premise, since expanded into a regular New York Times feature, is that the economics of things are often counterintuitive and unintended consequences are a way of life.
Now they have a follow-up, entitled SuperFreakonomics, one chapter of which deals with global climate change, and it's ticking people off. Not because it's zinging those stuffed-shirt know-it-all scientists, but because it's grievously wrong in basic factual ways.
For one, it's ticking off Ken Caldeira, one of the very climate scientists L&D consulted for the book. He's livid because they took a great deal of what he said out of context, and turned his urging for rapid action on climate change into a wait-and-see approach. ("It is essentially immoral for us to be making devices (automobiles, coal power plants, etc) that use the atmosphere as a sewer for our waste products." Emphasis mine.)
Paul Krugman was also dismayed by what he read. He took the additional step of going back to the papers referenced by L&D and seeing what they actually said, and also found a good deal of misquotation or outright distortion. He was disgusted by the book's contrarian, everything-you-know-is-wrong approach — which is okay when you're dealing with relatively trivial issues like media punditry, but not when you're talking about an issue this, well, global. Other people have also weighed in and found the book seriously wanting.
Someone else (I can't find the reference right now) mentioned that this sort of thing happens when you have people who are not scientists per se, or who haven't bothered to learn much about how science works, weighing in on scientific issues. Then again, it's not as if they're appealing to an audience that is all that scientifically literate anyway. They seem to think science is a matter of scoring easy points and clever debating tactics, not assessing what the evidence indicates. And the vast weight of the evidence we have to date shows us that raising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere is a Really Bad Idea.
I was similarly annoyed with the vaccination-paranoia crowd (yes, Bill Maher, I'm talking about you), or the people who were convinced the Large Hadron Collider was going to create an earth-swallowing black hole for the same reasons. They clearly didn't understand what the LHC was doing, or why, or to what end, or how black holes are formed in the first place.
And they didn't care. They were speaking from their fears, much as other people are compelled to speak from their smugness or their ignorance. They believe that speaking from fear and ignorance gives their words the legitimacy of fact — especially when their audience is listening for the same reasons. That's like a guy dealing with the low gas gauge in his car by taping it to the "F" position and driving even faster.
Criteron's newest wave of Blu-ray releases: Federico Fellini's 8½, Steven Soderbergh's Che, and Wim Wenders's Paris, Texas. I actually had a review planned for Paris, Texas but I think I'll hold off until the new edition is out.
Paris, Texas has colossal personal significance. I haven't seen the movie since it was released on VHS all those years ago, and the monologue near the end ("I knew these people...", on the soundtrack album, with Ry Cooder's elegiac music) is easily my favorite scene of its kind from any film.
Looks like The Book Formerly Known As Vajra is now also going to be The Book Formerly Known As The Young Gods. Apparently the term is a trademarked title for a comic book, and there has already been legal action taken to defend it. I'd rather just pick a new title now than subject myself to such nonsense later on.
The worst part is that it takes forever for me to come up with a title, so I'm probably going to spend at least another year mucking around for something suitable.
1982. I was eleven years old. Most Sundays I would pick up the Times and read the sections that caught my attention: Arts & Leisure, the Sunday magazine. One weekend I opened the magazine and read the article that would make me want to be a writer, a graphic description of the ravages of toxic shock syndrome.
The author is now gone.
As far as I can tell no copy of the article exists online, which is just as well: it's the sort of thing that's worth paying for to read.
One book that I wish could be updated for the present day is Martin Gardner's Fads and Fallacies: In The Name of Science. It was originally published in 1952 with some updates in 1957, and while it's remained in print it hasn't been given a formal new edition since — even if the vast majority of the kookery and crankery talked about within hasn't changed one whit. That puts it in fine company with Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, another book which remains more or less as-is since its original publication decades ago but only because some things never change.
Part of the reason I'd love to see Fads updated is because of this sentence in the foreword: "Today, science reporting in the American press is freer of humbug and misinformation than ever before in history." That may have been true in 1952. Today, it is most definitely not true. Science reporting has to fight damned hard against humbug and misinformation, simply because it's that much easier to be flooded by it.
Case in point: a piece in today's Science Times that gives entirely too much space to a very, very silly theory about why the Large Hadron Collider will not detect the Higgs Boson. It involves time travel and the grandfather paradox. I Am Not Making This Up. (© Dave Barry)
As per Carl Sagan: They laughed at Copernicus; they also laughed at Bozo the Clown. The wackiness of a theory has zero correlation with its potential correctness. And this isn't even Harry Potter physics; this is Cloudy With A Chance Of Meat Balls.
Other physicists who have chimed in are all pretty much holding their nose at how wretched the theory in question is; many are frankly embarrassed that it wasn't intended as parody (or at the very least indistinguishable from same). Something that the Times piece does not mention is how arXiv is often littered with rubbish like this, that it may well be to scientific papers what Fanfiction.net is to good writing, and that you need a good deal of patience and often a stiff drink or three to separate the signal from the noise.
Part of why I'm annoyed as I am with the Times article is because it plays a game I see in entirely too much science journalism. Crazy Thing X seems crazy, but only because all the Great Discoveries of the past also looked crazy! This ignores the fact that most real scientific work isn't of the eureka! variety; it's actually quite boring from the outside. It's the slow accumulation of observation and insight based on the work done by previous scientists. Breakthroughs, when they do happen, are treated with immense skepticism and have to be reproduced by other people to be credible.
What I resented most was the tone of the Times piece, the disingenuous "I dunno, I'm just sayin'" attitude. It smacks of the same anti-intellectual weaseling that characterized Charles Fort's books, which were amusing as fantasy but worthless as any kind of critique of scientific discipline. Martin Gardner wept.
A little disinformation goes a long way. Remember the brouhaha about Hitler's bones not really being his? Turns out it's pretty much guff:
I spent a few years reading alt.revisionism and getting to know the mindset of the Paranoid Style a good deal better than I ever anticipated. It was depressing to see a remarkable number of people who were otherwise not stupid, but would do the most backbreaking contortions of logic to avoid admitting to simple facts. Yes, hydrogen cyanide is very toxic to humans. Yes, the word vergasungskeller means "gassing cellar". Yes, the Nazis committed mass murder on a scale that is almost impossible to comprehend from the outside. Small wonder some people would instinctively reject it.
I later found out some of those same people simply didn't care what the truth was. What mattered more was what they could make other people believe. In short, what they were claiming was simply a way for them to obtain power over others in the guise of being a messenger of the truth.
Don't ask me how I do these things. Somehow I ended up pushing the wrong button(s) in my Movable Type install and completely overwriting my custom template set — which took me something like two years to build — with the default templates.
MT, fortunately, had the good sense to store backup copies of everything. It does not, however, have a pushbutton way to restore those templates to the land of the living. You have to copypasta, as the kids say today. I did so much cutting and pasting I thought the C and V keys on my keyboard were gonna lose their silkscreening.
On the plus side, it gave me the chance to throw out a few template modules that were sitting around doing a great deal of nothing (and potentially inspiring a bit of confusion).
Great news from Discotek! They've just announced they've picked up Sea Prince and Fire Child, aka Shirisu no Densetsu, for a U.S. release. This is one of those lost titles that I've been hoping would be rescued from Licensing Limbo, and it looks like our prayers have not gone unheard. I'd even picked up an import copy (it wasn't that expensive, actually), but without English subs it languished on my shelf and will now probably find a new home.
Also coming out from Discotek: Burning Paradise, a truly insane adventure flick that's like a Hong Kong swipe of Temple of Doom. I had peeked at a German PAL import copy of this flick years before, but I'll wait for Discotek's remaster; it'll probably be more than worth the wait.
Moving my system to a new set of hard drives gave me a good excuse to reorganize everything. My hard drives are a total digital Fibber's Closet: open the door and the bits spew out around your ankles and flood down the stairs. I keep entirely too much of everything.
That includes writing I tossed off and should have torn up a long time ago. I kept all of it, with the rationale that you never know when some particular piece of something will come in handy later — and if nothing else, it's a handy way to gauge your development over time.
That assumes, in both cases, that you bother to go back and read any of it. Some of what I wrote and saved, I did so at a time when I wasn't in the best of moods — and when you go back and read such material, it's a little like hearing a tape recording of you when you were drunk in a bar and saying vile things about the parentage of everyone sitting adjacent to you. None of that material was worth saving except for the sake of completeness, and none of it was the sort of thing I'd want to turn to for ideas or insight.
I know now that I always did my best, my most sustained, most readable and most worthwhile work when I was in a good mood and not a bad one. I've long since dumped the idea that the true artist needs conflict in his soul. The right outlook doesn't need constant battery from within to be kept alive. The world as we have it, taken with eyes open, is conflict enough.
Regular visitors may have noticed I've been trying a couple of new format experiments with the site. One is the social-networking links for each article (DIGG ME DIGG ME — just kidding), something I've avoided for a while but which is probably inevitable at this point. Such things are here to stay, although they may change form as they go, and the least I can do is integrate them as elegantly as possible.
The other is a new format for certain kinds of reviews, like the Blade of the Immortal piece I just put up. For stuff that takes a long time to work through, like a TV series, I can post a stub with some basic discussion of the thing. Later, when I'm done, it'll be revised and expanded into a full review (perhaps with the original text available as a flyout or popup).
Tags: Movable Type
If you haven't seen FlashForward yet, do it. The first two episodes alone have me hooked.
As much as I hate Quicktime (slow, crummy implementation, takes forever to launch, Apple can't write Windows apps to save their lives), I nevertheless end up going to the Quicktime movie trailers site to get my fix of what's coming out in the future.
And as of right now, the crop of future releases is pretty eye-popping.
Former Disney and Fox exec Bill Mechanic goes on record about the state of the film industry.
... the independent world, which should be aiming to do things better and different from the Studios, doesn’t have that as a mandate at all. If anything, the only thing that independent distributors and financiers look for is the SAME. Maybe costing a little less than the Majors, but they want what the Studios want, or in “Fight Club” speak, they want copies of a copy.
... It’s disrespectful if not downright dumb to think audiences can’t tell the difference between the original, which occasionally might even have some fresh faces, and the copy, which almost always is populated with retreads. It’s like thinking you can sell yesterday’s news under a different banner.
... Hollywood in the broadest sense of the word is much like Detroit. It’s a manufacturer’s mentality that reigns, seemingly indifferent to the consumers it serves. Ignore whether the consumer likes our product as long as they buy it.
Mechanic was shown the door for Fight Club, which went from being a box-office bust to one of the steadiest sellers in Fox's entire caatalog and a cultural touchstone (whether or not you like the film, which is something I have to talk about in detail later).
The problem with movies like Club and Titanic — another roaring success story that happened on his watch — is that they do not reduce themselves to formulas. Very few, if any, of these success stories come because someone followed a formula. That doesn't mean, however, that success follows inevitably in the wake of doing away with a formula — it means the fact that great movies happen is something that only comes at huge risk. It requires courage all along the way.
Who wants to take those kinds of risks anymore? Who today would give Werner Herzog the money to make something like Aguirre, the Wrath of God, or Akira Kurosawa's Ran? ($12m in 1985 dollars)? Or Fight Club, or Titanic? Forrest Gump, even? They gave Peter Jackson money to make District 9, the results of which apparently surprised everyone involved — including, most critically, the audiences, who hunger for new things without ever quite knowing how to ask for them.
The formula right now is to make fast little movies that gobble up as much money as they can and get out of theaters for the next wave of things exactly like it, and it's twice as much a formula for mediocrity as the big-tentpole-blockbuster system. Which is still in effect — look at Transformers 2: Robot Boogaloo — but the pickings have become even slimmer. Harry Potter only has a couple of movies left in it (at which point I guess we wait a decade and get the inevitable "reboot"), and GI JOE was a major fizzle.
What I would love to see is a production company that only puts out 1-2 releases a year, all in about the $30-50M range, but all of them with the same maverick flavor as District 9. They could be comic book adaptations, or comedies, or horror, or anything, really — as long as the whole notion of "how do we market this?" is the last thing they think about, and in a good way.
I've been going back and forth over which of two projects to work on in the coming year — either The Young Gods (formerly Vajra, never did like that title) or The Number of Magic.
The way I pitch the latter: It's like The Four-Day Weekend but about pagan/Wiccan life rather than fandom, and that much more serious a story. Same basic approach, though: show the life these people live, don't condescend, and make it about what these people do with what they believe rather than focus on the beliefs themselves. A lot of research to be done for that one, too, but I think I have enough to at least get the fuse lit.
Which I might end up doing this November, even though I promised myself I wouldn't do anything of the kind.