24.2.17

losing it in La La Land


La La Land is one of those movies that can’t possibly mean what it says, no matter how much marketing and overheated critical acclaim might wish otherwise. The last such movie I can think of that similarly blinkered audiences was Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo Del Toro’s exquisitely crafted cinematic work that posed as an anti-fascist parable but ultimately affirmed a nihilistic preference of fantasy over reality. It could have been a film about imagination’s power to inspire action against oppression. Instead, its final shot casts an escape into a fairy tale world as the reward for a child’s suffering and sacrifice. What Nietzsche wrote about Christianity applies well to Del Toro’s fairy tale: “Christianity was from the beginning, essentially and fundamentally, life's nausea and disgust with life, merely concealed behind, masked by, dressed up as, faith in "another" or "better" life.”

But Pan’s Labyrinth, at least, is diminished by a philosophical error that can be overlooked given how otherwise magnificent it is as a film. La La Land, for all the effervescence of its sensational score or the chemical reaction of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, is illusory in almost every aspect –  and has nowhere near the craft of a Pan’s Labyrinth. Although presented and structured as a romantic comedy, the film proves itself the opposite of romantic. Romance presupposes a commitment to love, whether it’s the love that conquers all, as comedies would have it, or love worth suffering and dying for, as the tragedies declare. “Love is the drug,” as Roxy Music puts it. La La Land initially plays the melody of a romantic comedy – unlikely couple meet and fall in love – but ends on a melancholy note of regret over the path not taken. (Woody Allen purposefully explored the same theme in Café Society with greater focus and emotional heft, despite a similar tendency to trade in clichés and hackneyed insights.) The turn towards the bittersweet feels like a wrong note in La La Land. Partly because it’s tacked on with a 5-years-later epilogue, but mostly because writer-director Damien Chazelle splits his leads – a jazz pianist who dreams of owning his own nightclub and an aspiring actress struggling for her big break – for the flimsiest reason: an inability, or unwillingness, to reconcile their relationship with their career dreams in a situation where no sacrifice is necessary. We can interpret it in two ways: either they choose their careers at the expense of their relationship, or the film manipulated the scenario so that pursuing one’s dream requires sacrificing love. Neither option is romantic; romance is understanding that one’s dreams are best achieved when the journey is shared with the people we love.

The other deception La La Land foists on audiences is that it is an homage to Los Angeles in general and Hollywood in particular. But Chazelle, who hails from the East Coast, falls into a common trap when trying to make a character out of a city like LA: equivocating the distinct character of specific places with the persona of the whole. Sure, La La Land opens with the familiar cliché of LA’s notorious traffic, then graces us with scenes at the iconic Griffith Observatory. But LA is not defined so much by places then the connection between places. Films like Swingers and LA Story understood this, and remain even today insightful portraits of a sprawling metropolis and what it’s like to live in it. La La Land, however, retreats into advertising a tired Hollywood promise: work as a barista and fruitlessly audition for parts long enough, and maybe, by chance, you’ll meet the right person at a party or casting call who’ll give you that almighty break. The Hollywood Dream, brought you to by the Golden State lottery.

Here’s the thing: if it’s a film about the magic of movies you want, Michel Hazanavicius delivered it a few years ago with The Artist, an imaginative and quintessentially cinematic revival of the silent film that also succeeded in actually being romantic. So did Martin Scorsese with Hugo. And if it’s Los Angeles you want, the aforementioned Swingers and LA Story are worth revisiting. As for romance, there’s no shortage of films to inspire all the lovers in the world.

Yet for all that La La Land really amounts to Hollywood loving itself, it’s an enjoyable revival of the movie musical –when we stay on the surface. The song-and-dance numbers are energetic and captivating, beginning with an opening scene on a gridlocked Los Angeles highway with happy motorists demonstrating that we’re about to watch a fantasy. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone succeed in creating genuine characters we become vested in, even if Chazelle ultimately undermines them. La La Land isn’t Best Picture material but, with the understanding that this isn’t a romantic comedy, it isn’t a total write-off either.

27.1.17

Book Review - The Explorer’s Guild Volume 1: A Passage to Shambala


Book Review - The Explorer’s Guild Volume 1: A Passage to Shambala

As with many books thick enough to serve as masonry units, The Explorer’s Guild is slow to start and all too easy to set aside for more appealing distractions – and this despite the fact that the book is part graphic novel. Where there’s a case to stick with for the first few hundred pages or so, it lies in Rick Ross’ clean artwork and, most of all, Jon Baird’s beautifully crafted writing mannered after the style of Victorian/early 20th Century. Unlike Susanna Clarke’s clever but twee pastiche of English literature in her Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Baird’s prose succeeds as a charming recreation because it emphasizes the earnest rather than the ironic. It succeeds perhaps a little too well, however. The narration, set as a personal relationship between the narrator and the gentle reader, casts us along the lines of a guest of the Explorer’s Guild. All that’s missing is the brandy and cigar as the narrator regales us with the tale of adventurers in pursuit of a mysterious city alternately known throughout history as Shambala, El Dorado, Atlantis, and so on. But this approach creates a distance between us and the characters, precisely because the narrative is explicitly narrated, which means it is also interpreted. And when characters are filtered through the narrator before reaching us, there is less room for one of reading’s best delights: interacting with the characters through our own perspective and imagination. The result is that even by the time we reach the book’s end, it’s hard to feel all that vested in the characters’ welfare and purposes except in the most general, abstracted sense.

Still, when the going finally gets adventurous, the adventure gets going with increasing gusto. Alas, where it leads is straight to an anticlimax. As we follow John Ogden, a British major and force of nature during World War I, along with his rough band of dragoons on a global hunt for the fabled Shambhala at the behest of his brother Arthur, we are treated to an artful catalog of perilous classics: airships, underground cities, strange machines, hidden castles, and nostalgic parties inhabited by the closest approximation to zombies Old Europe could muster, namely, displaced and obsolete Aristocrats. Along the way, Baird treats us to innumerable details of this and that, many of which only serve to create a mood rather than develop characters or kick the plot forward. Yet none of that changes the fact that the narrative is resolved, not by the protagonists whose journey we followed, but by a quasi-antagonist who essentially shares the same goal yet operates on information the narrator purposefully withholds from the reader. In other words, our protagonists are sent on a wild goose chase only for their rival to swoop in and complete their task – for obscure reasons. It’s a sleight-of-hand, which isn’t at all like the charming deception of a stage magician but rather that of the con artist playing a shell game in a dingy back alley.

Baird’s, and fellow co-creator Kevin Costner’s, muddled conception of Shambhala does little to salvage an enduring sense of satisfaction from the ending. Never defined or described concretely, we are given oblique references that present the mystical city as surprisingly unappealing despite its supposed heavenly character. The city, which only appears at specific times in various places around the world, comes across as an elitist by-invitation-only paradise that offers amnesia, or death, to interlopers. Baird attempts to relate the city to the course of history, with Arthur’s early foray to the city serving as a violation of metaphysical etiquette that has to be redressed at the risk of some kind of cataclysm. Yet the final panel, which implies the restoration of world order brought about by our protagonists’ rival, rings false given what we know of the 20th Century after World War I: a century of horrors that Alan Moore grasped more keenly in From Hell than Baird and Costner do in this book.

Also unfortunate is how Shambhala is presented as a rebuke to science’s ability to know the world. For a book that celebrates adventure, it misses the point: science isn’t a dogmatic collection of facts, but an active pursuit of the unknown infused with a sense of awe.

Even if we were to be charitable and apply Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of non-overlapping magisteria, assigning science and spirituality their own territories, the book succeeds even less as a spiritual journey. Where the exploratory scientific aspect is given some weight thanks to the Explorer’s Guild concept – despite Shambhala looming over the narrative as the universe’s way of spanking materialists – none of the characters approach their quest as a spiritual one. And by the end, they certainly don’t achieve any sort of enlightenment. The mystical might as well be called by its real, if not entirely accurate, name: MacGuffin.

Finally, and this is a minor grievance, the book isn’t even really about the secretive yet globe-spanning Explorer’s Guild, that august club of adventurers (or perhaps genteel drunkards with a talent for fanciful storytelling). Other than launching the narrative when one of its members, Arthur Ogden, sets out to deliver a comeuppance to a hated social rival by setting out for adventure in the North Pole, the Guild puts in but cameo appearances. For the most part, the book’s major characters really have little to do with the Guild except for sporadic encounters.

Altogether, The Explorer’s Guild Volume 1: A Passage to Shambhala is a handsomely printed book with more potential than is realized and little incentive to look forward to further volumes.

What are you reading? Join me at GoodReads!

13.1.17

a soundtrack for 2016


My pal Becky Haltermon Robinson, punner extraordinaire and inventor of the Amazing Pump-o-matic Defrumpanator, posted her annual musical encapsulation over at her blog, Pump Up the Frump. Good stuff.

Now I'm inspired to offer a musical encapsulation of my own. I leave it to you to interpret the mix vis a vis the dreadful year that was 2016 in any way you like. Or you could just enjoy the music for its own sake.

Without further rambling, here's the list:

  1. Little Swing - AronChupa 
  2. Dancers - Faderhead 
  3. Dead Stars - Covenant 
  4. Sex Beat - Sex Beat 
  5. Shelter - Icon of Coil 
  6. Arena - VNV Nation 
  7. The Window of Appearances (from Akhnaten) - Philip Glass
  8. Lazarus - David Bowie 
  9. You Want It Darker - Leonard Cohen
  10. Sound of Silence - Disturbed 
  11. B()NES - M△S▴C△RA 

Go ahead, have a listen over at YouTube.

And if you have a musical commentary on 2016 to share, please do so in the comments below. I'd love to hear it.

2.11.16

dear Americans: your country is doomed. (part 3)


Continued from part 1 and part 2.

The symptoms of an ailing body politic, treated at the expense of the solving the fundamental processes of political organization: elections, the media, and education. How they inter-relate is straightforward:

  1. The educational system fails, on average, to impart necessary critical thinking skills.
  2. Without these critical thinking skills, we are poorly equipped to deal with the media’s propagation of massive amounts of information, misinformation, advertising, and propaganda.
  3. Without a clear understanding of reality that comes from processing the world around us, we can’t act effectively within (and/or against) a political system that is intentionally designed to work against us. We are also easily divided, distracted. and exhausted by the endless supply of crises that mask the core problem – control over the political apparatus.
  4. Whomsoever controls the political apparatus exerts control over education. Go back to 1.

Straightforward, of course, but also a vicious circle that makes it challenging to identify the most vital pressure point for a political revolution to hit. And if I talk about pressure points, it’s because a slow-burn political revolution risks getting snuffed out all to easily. What we need is a spark.

Education

There’s no question that education reform is critical, since education is the foundation of any society. Education is also about more than schools. As Henry Giroux puts it at CounterPunch:

At issue here is the need for progressives to recognize the power of education in creating the formative cultures necessary to both challenge the various threats being mobilized against the ideas of justice and democracy while also fighting for those public spheres, ideals, values, and policies that offer alternative modes of identity, thinking, social relations, and politics. But embracing the dictates of a making education meaningful in order to make it critical and transformative also means recognizing that cultural apparatuses such as the mainstream media and Hollywood films are teaching machines and not simply sources of information and entertainment. Such sites should be spheres of struggle removed from the control of the financial elite and corporations who use them as propaganda and disimagination machines.

But the problem with reforming education, other than the sheer scale of the challenge given the patchwork of educational systems throughout the country, is that it is a generational effort. We can’t spontaneously re-educate an entire population, and it takes time to put the framework in place to educate the next generation in a way that will yield the political results that we want. Simply put, education is not a pressure point.


The Media

Reforming the media is also a formidable challenge considering that the majority of the media is owned by a few large corporations. Yet as polls have consistently shown over the years, most people don’t trust the media. According to Gallup’s 2016 survey, “Americans' trust and confidence in the mass media "to report the news fully, accurately and fairly" has dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history, with 32% saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. This is down eight percentage points from last year.”

The poll, interestingly, points to Republicans (pushed by Trump’s campaign) as a driving force in this mistrust. It also shows that the sentiments spans age groups.

Tangling out the causes of why people don’t trust the media is an essay in-and-of-itself, but the gist is that the media has increasingly blurred the line between ideology and partisanship over the years at the expense of actual journalism. It’s one thing for the media to report from a particular ideological position, particularly when that position is clearly articulated. Jacobin Magazine, for instance, is a socialist magazine, just as Forbes is capitalist.  No one reading either of those publications would be confused by the filter through which the news is discussed. But not all news sources need to start from any ideological position except for the Gold Journalistic standard of reasonably impartial reporting. Nevertheless, whether specifically ideological or ostensibly impartial, both are comprised when the media crosses over into partisan combat that applies a double set of standards. Just as Fox News tends to be reluctant to criticize Republicans, the more liberal-leaning establishment media struggles with mustering criticism of Democrats. The Gallup poll points to how upset conservatives/Republicans are with the media for their heavy criticism of Trump and light criticism of Clinton. But the complaint doesn’t come solely from the Right; leftists have argued against the media’s treatment of Bernie Sanders and third-party candidates in favor of Clinton, just as they criticized the media for providing Trump with a yuuuge (and free) platform on which to campaign, before finally deciding to do something approximating truth-to-power journalism.

Profit and the political interests of the corporate/wealthy classes go some way into explaining the partisanship posturing. So, what to do about it? Support independent journalism? Absolutely. Create new media that exemplifies the old-school values of journalism? Sure, but building a new source of journalism that can provide reasonable, impartial, and expansive reporting in a way that cuts through partisan bickering is a big medium-term undertaking. While it’s definitely a pressure point, in that whoever controls information shapes perception of reality, it’s not a fast-acting one.

The Elections

The proposals for reforming elections aren’t new; instant run-off, public campaign financing, and impartial districting that minimizes gerrymandering. They also aren’t especially complicated; in that they can be enacted through legislation and implemented fairly quickly. Unlike reforming the media and the educational system, which involve dealing with a number of intangible factors, electoral reform is eminently practical. It’s definitely a pressure-point, and one that can be hit on for the most immediate results.

The Pressure Point

If you’re tired of the same old politicians, and frustrated with a system that produces the same old politicians putting forth the same old failed policies, then breaking the duopolistic system is essential. Indeed, by giving voters greater influence over politicians – through votes and by mitigating the influence of lobbyist money – it should, in principle, yield policy results closer to what voters want. Whatever your cause – the environment, black lives, the war on drugs, guns, abortion right – progress boils down most immediately to the extent voters can influence elections instead of being manipulated by them. Given how widespread discontent with the political situation is, electoral reform can, with some marketing, be a cause embraced by people across the political spectrum.

But let’s be clear that electoral reform is only the first step, a movement that is part of a larger strategy and also concurrent with efforts at creating better media and a more effective educational system. It also isn’t a cure for bad politics; it is “merely” progress. Democracy is itself a problem, as Crimethinc argues, but not the only fundamental structural problem with our society. Bearing that in mind, activists would do well to unite and fight this single fight together, in numbers that make a difference, and use their success as the foundation for the next steps – progress on their specific causes.

The next question is: what are the chances of a political revolution?

26.10.16

dear Americans: your country is doomed. (part 2)


Read part 1 here.

In searching for a fulcrum, there are 3 general areas in which I believe we need to focus our attention:

Elections. Setting aside the questionable validity of democracy as a form of social politics (see Crimethinc) as well as the nonsense of the Electoral College, the mathematical fact remains that the majority-wins method of counting votes is antithetical to the representative and popular functions elections are supposed to provide. The proof: in an election with more than two candidates, a candidate can win with a minority of votes. For a duopolistic system, this is ideal because it makes it structurally easy to politicize third parties out of the process. Throw in money, gerrymandering, corporate lobbying, prejudicial Voter ID laws, and biased electoral institutions (such as the Commission on Presidential Debates) and it’s clear that the electoral system isn’t about empowering people to choose their representatives on their own terms. It simply isn’t designed for it. Instead, the system – as it was when voting rights were confined to white male property owners – the US electoral system is a means of keeping the people on a leash, and the leash in the masters’ hands. The fix would be easy enough for those who want to reform US democracy: instant run-off voting, public campaign financing, and debates open to all candidates. Until people agitate for it, however, the system will remain a game of five card stud poker with voters only being dealt two cards to play.

If that’s too sunny for you, let’s return to the questionable validity of democracy as a form of social politics with a question: what political power does a citizen actually have? Answer: the vote. That’s it. Once elected, politicians can work the government apparatus to pass and enforce laws as well a direct agencies to function in a particular way. Citizen input is not required. Of course, lobbying is an activity that’s open to us…but who has time to forego a paying job to continually exert pressure on the government towards this or that policy goal? And protesting is an intensive activity that requires strategy and resolve, two qualities hard to get in a productivity-obsessed economy. Unless you’re a paid lobbyist, chances are that you’re too busy running your own life to be able to engage the political process via lobbying, let alone orchestrate direct actions. This isn’t a bug; it’s a specific feature of democracy, and politicians know how to exploit it.

But the problem is even deeper than that, as Mike Lofgren explains in his essay Anatomy of the Deep State:

…there is another government concealed behind the one that is visible at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, a hybrid entity of public and private institutions ruling the country according to consistent patterns in season and out, connected to, but only intermittently controlled by, the visible state whose leaders we choose. My analysis of this phenomenon is not an exposé of a secret, conspiratorial cabal; the state within a state is hiding mostly in plain sight, and its operators mainly act in the light of day. Nor can this other government be accurately termed an “establishment.” All complex societies have an establishment, a social network committed to its own enrichment and perpetuation. In terms of its scope, financial resources and sheer global reach, the American hybrid state, the Deep State, is in a class by itself.

If the presidential and congressional power that is shaped by popular elections, however loosely, is only the surface of the vast apparatus of power that is unaccountable and bureaucratic, then it what sense is voting a meaningful expression of popular power over the government? Answer: it’s not all that meaningful.

The Media. Corrupt and purposefully dysfunctional elections are bad enough, but a corrupt and corrosive media that misinforms citizens is worse. Noam Chomsky famously described the workings of the US media as propaganda in his essential Manufacture of Consent, but the recent election cycle offers many other examples. For instance,the condescending, nearly non-existent coverage of third-party candidates. Even NPR, notable for its sanity in the carnival of contemporary journalism, routinely fails to cover perspectives outside of the Democrat/Republican duopoly. Like most of the mainstream media, it perpetuates a set of government- and corporate-friendly assumptions irrespective of partisan politics.

The media’s propagandist role, along with discussions around the value and consequences of the Fairness Doctrine and its rescinding, is only part of the problem, as is the fact that our distance from newsworthy events makes it difficult to serve as our own fact-checkers. The consolidation of media into a handful of a few powerful corporate conglomerates is another as it comes with a consolidation of editorial direction. News stories selected and edited to fit a political agenda are subject to an even baser criterion: profitability, which affects not only advertising but the way news is produced to give audiences what they want rather than what they need. The news is a commodity, in other words, and not a public service. With the commodification of news has come an explosion of opinion, commentators whose job is to fill the airtime of a 24-hour news cycle with “analysis” that is rarely expert but nevertheless reliably forceful and tailor-made to fluff the audience.

But wait, as the infomercials say, there’s more: the Internet. Yes, it’s a marvel of communications that makes the Tower of Babel look like a high school science fair project. Yet it also amplifies the very worse cognitive biases we are prone to simply as a matter of psychology. If you don’t agree with reality, it’s easy to find a website that will adjust it to your liking.

Of course, there are some excellent sources of information and expert analyses out there. There are, however, countless more sources of bad opinions and distorted, if not outright fabricated, facts. The challenge is to sort out the signal from the noise. Combined with the forces of consolidated media ownership and commoditization with the sheer volume of “information” (or hyperdata, which is a non-informative simulation of information) and we see the crux of the crisis: an inability to agree on what constitutes reality, let alone agree on how best to resolve problems. (And I acknowledge the philosophical problem of arguing for an “objective reality,” but leaving aside the metaphysics let’s consider reality as our shared, verifiable experience of the world.)

Education. Education is a complex topic, of course, and a generational challenge. The struggle between public and private is a crucial battleground, but the question is timeless. What is the purpose of education, and what results do we expect from it? Partly, education has the role of indoctrination, which is only bad when it’s the wrong ideas being indoctrinated. (There’s a whole debate in that, naturally.) Education is also about, or should be, about teaching critical thinking skills and scientific literacy – in a word, Reason. Sometimes, it isn’t a particular perspective that is important but how one reaches that perspective and the extent we have the humility to change our perspective when presented with new evidence. Given the structural problems underlying the patchwork of educational systems, from funding to teacher training and retention, it’s not surprising that outcomes are wildly uneven even before we consider how politicized education is. It seems pretentious to suggest that “the people” are uneducated, and it’s clearly a risky proposition because it depends entirely on what we rate as “educated.” There’s also the risk of overestimating the effects of education, since many societies have been ruined by educated but morally or emotionally deficient political classes.

But the problem can be stated that while people may not necessarily be uneducated, they might be mis-educated, a phenomena that is obscured by the relentless focus on metrics and other so-called innovations resulting from applying the industrial revolution to the classroom model. In short, the problem is a lack of critical thinking capable of mitigating our cognitive biases along with a lack of humility in terms of our knowledge and capacity for reason. The problem isn’t confined to opinions based on faulty reasoning and bad facts, but extends to the cultural attitude that we must preserve our sense of rightness - our prestige and our power - over reality.

There’s more to be said, of course, about any of these three elements; these are just a sketch. The next question is: what does it all mean when put together?

To be continued…