Thursday, May 17, 2007

It's not so much that we agree, but why we agree

Over the last several months (or maybe it's a bit more like years), a friend and I have been in a prolonged debate. It started when I saw What the Bleep do We Know? with him and his wife; anyone who knows me more than casually know that this movie drives me absolutely up the wall, and it started that night. It was a parade of nonsense that was built on a foundation of massive equivocations mixed in with some mild misinterpretations of quantum physics and history and a major dose of new-new-age pseudopsychological mumbo-jumbo. Ever since, these two friends have regularly baited me (although in no way that inspires animosity or an urge to dislike or ridicule them) into discussing these "laws of attraction."

Some of you might have twigged to the fact that this is all related to The Secret, and my specific views on that book and its popularity are summed up by someone else here. Anyhow, in the course of this exchange, I did, in the interest of intellectual honesty, concede that there is a vague and roundabout sense in which it is true--thinking about owning a Porsche has a discernible effect on the likelihood of one's actually owning one (look no further than the Walrus for validation there); however, that's simply a truism, and obvious conclusion that emerges from a mature understanding of cause and effect and the role of planning in achieving goals, not a magical formula for getting the universe to serve up your heart's desire on a silver platter. I can envision jumping off my roof to the moon every day, and there will be no measurable increase in the likelihood of that happening (that is, admittedly a bit of a strawman, but try out acting as though you have already won the Megamillions jackpot and see how much money that gets you). Positive thinking and visualizing goals are certainly important facets of realizing those goals, and I am certainly focused more on that kind of thing lately than usual (my existential crisis of the moment isn't worth getting specific about, but it has certainly been a major concern of late), but only to the extent that they influence me to try to do the things that I want to do.

What really concerns me here, though, is the why. Why someone holds a certain belief or takes a certain course of action is often the overriding concern for me. Are American Evangelicals really allies to the state of Israel if they only support its existence because it must exist to fulfill the end-time prophecies of Revelations? I would certainly be uneasy about accepting their support knowing that they were just keeping me around because there have to be some Zionists in the lakes of fire.

My friend asks me why I get so worked up about The Secret and What the Bleep... when I agree with the basic principle at the root, but not with the metaphor used to make the point. I guess that's why he studied engineering (then became an organic kiwi farmer) and I studied literature. I see metaphors as dangerous things to be handled with extreme caution. People who don't think much about words in and of themselves are often in danger of conflating the metaphor with the thing it represents--see John 6:51-56. The Eucharist seems like a bizarre misinterpretation of an interesting philosophical idea (albeit one that holds nothing for me), and Karma isn't really what Earl Hickey thinks it is, or the active, seemingly conscious force for good that the writers of the show make it out to be (I do think that My Name is Earl is a fascinating exploration of the concept told with great humor and intelligent writing; it's even more so in light of the season finale). I don't think that there are a lot of people out there who take the show literally, but I don't think that Jesus (if he existed as an actual historical personage) was betting on people "literally" eating his flesh and drinking his blood on a regular basis, either.

The road taken seems at least as important as the destination.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

"Hank, As I Like to Call Him"

Sous Rature and I grew up with the piano player on this album. He's easily one of the most interesting cats either one of us have ever known. I had a chance encounter with him after 9/11 where he was his typical low key self. He hadn't mentioned this album, just that he had strained his hands while playing in New York because the session musicians where giving him a hard time for playing 'too white.' While his injuries healed he did some freelance work in what I believe was international banking (his degree from UC Berkeley, making him one of the only musicians I've known whose 'back up' was really just a back up.) His work at the time had him working at the World Trade Center, just not that day. When I saw him he told me in his usual deadpan manner, "New York is trying to kill me, I'm coming back to California."

I remember forming various jazz groups with him in high school when we both had the dream of being cool, kick ass jazz musicians. During a rehersal for a graduation concert he showed me a biography about Henry Mancini he was reading, or "Hank, as I like to call him." Again, in his total deadpan with only the slightest hint of wry smile.

His playing has the same kind of subtlty. I haven't heard this album yet, literally seconds ago Sous Rature told me about it, but I'm guessing that that's what you'll find here. My only regret is that I was living in the East Bay when this was recorded, I would have loved to see this live.

Of the group of us in high school, there are only two of us left to not live up to our expectations.

I better get to work.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Lonesome Rhodes, Howard Beale, (The Life of) Brian, and Stephen Colbert

I have been watching Stephen Colbert and The Colbert Report, like many people, from when it was simply a prank promo on The Daily Show. It has been one of those phenomenons that lit off on from the first episode with the headline coining of (the popular use of) the word "truthiness." It has been a tour de force, he has been passed around YouTube, discussed on the pundit shows he mocks, and thousands of people sit ready to mobilize at his very whim. His influence is such that people go on just to be mocked to show they have a sense of humor, in the hopes that they will be considered 'in' on the joke.

But the joke is what has gotten me thinking. The Colbert Report and the character he plays on that show is a send up of the cult of personality that builds up around the self important pundits that make up the bulk of the programing of the 'news' networks. When he did a bit on Wikipedia, inviting viewers to change the entry on elephants, the response was so overwhelming that Wikipedia had to change how entries where done and he mobilized viewers to have a bridge named after him (he was later disqualified because he didn't meet a primary condition, he was still alive).

And this, I imagine, is a bit of problem for him. He has stated in interviews that he is troubled that people might not be able to separate the character of Stephen Colbert from the performer Stephen Colbert. It is arguable that a larger cult has built around Colbert than around the personalities that he is parodying.

There are a trilogy of films about the rise of media sensations, probably the most notable of these being the 1976 Sidney Lumet movie Network. In it a frustrated and suicidal anchor, Howard Beale, tells people he will kill himself on his next broadcast. In his tyraid he asks the people watching to go to their windows and scream at the top of their lungs, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore" (a moment referenced by Jon Stewart where he asks his viewers jokingly to go to their windows and scream, "Be reasonable!").

A cult builds around the ravings of Beale and the network begins a cynical exploitation of his popularity. It is a theme repeated from the 1957 Elia Kazan movie, A Face in the Crowd where a down-home folky drifter Lonesome Rhodes(a very un-Mayberry Andy Griffith) has a cult built up around his 'straight talk' and simple wisdom. Like in Network his popularity is cynically exploited, with Rhodes buying in and slowly corrupting himself. (it is the source of the cliche of someone switching on the feed during a public figures candid moment, a moment that has become prophetic in todays world of inexpensive camcorders and YouTube, such as the "macaca" incident.)

In both these films, and in Spike Lee's tribute/update Bamboozled, the cult of personality that surrounds the men overwhelms and ultimately destroys them. There is a scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian where the mob has mistaken Brian for the messiah and wait outside his bedroom. He addresses them, telling them that they are individuals, to which they chant back, "We are individuals!"

I begin to wonder if this is the trap that Stephen Colbert is heading for. I wonder if we might become so enraptured in the joke that we forget the joke itself. If the character of Stephen Colbert might eclipse the man, Stephen Colbert. He's not in danger of believing his ability as a king maker, like Lonesome Rhodes, I don't think. Nor having his anger and exploitation eat him from the inside like Beale (that fate, it seemed, was saved for Dave Chappele). But he seems already shin deep in the quicksand of Brian. In an attempt to ridicule the rhetorical messiahs he is in danger of becoming one. He has a keen sense of irony, an awareness and ability to build character. From interviews there is a sense that he understands the needle he threads with his egotistical, perhaps maniacal alter ego.

But do we? I don't want to be in that position of underestimating the public at large, that sort of self satisfied "Why's everyone stupid but me?" kind of notion. But I can't help but think that we have a tendency to martyr the prophets, and while I think he might be able to appreciate the irony of it all, I'd hate to see his end accompanied by the cheerful whistle of Eric Idle while he dies for our foibles.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Thoughts on Capitalism

A few months back, I came to the conscious conclusion that I had been skirting the edges of for years: I am not a capitalist. The really odd thing was that this was actually hard to come to terms with than my much earlier declaration of atheism; this was troubling. It even turns out that it's harder to talk about than atheism--reactions are weird and unpredictable. For the sake of my own clarity, I'm going to hash out the basic reasoning for my position in this public forum.

Smith's invisible hand is, I think, born out of a form of the naturalistic fallacy. I think that he was basically mistaking the movement of a dynamic system (the relationship between supply and demand, for instance) toward an attractor with what must have looked to a person of his time (the Enlightenment) a lot like intention. We now know that rapid convergence of complex systems on points of equilibrium is basically a consequence of mathematics.

To put it more simply, the fact that the math works in a free market doesn't mean that that math necessarily produces the best result for all individuals. This assumption is so embedded in our culture that it is difficult for people to conceive that it might be otherwise.

Another basic issue here is that I agree with the premise that people operate out of a place of self-interest (Matt Ridley's The Origins of Virtue captures my basic POV here), but this is, to some extent, an argument against systems that encourage capitalistic behavior. It's akin to legislating breathing or sexual attraction. People simply cannot be stopped from seeking their best advantage, and need no further incentives to do so. In fact, I would go even so far as to say that one of the most important functions of government is to mitigate the excesses and abuses that self-interest engenders. Capitalism becomes a problem when people start treating it like something that has to be defended or encouraged.

I was debating with an Alex-Keaton-like student of mine who loves to talk economics with me after my composition class. He's young, well read, and completely wrong in the way that a middle class straight white male is uniquely attracted to. I enjoy the discussions, even when they keep me from grading papers that are long overdue, and I hope that the perspective that I bring will eventually sink in. Anyway, I compared capitalism to fire in a kind of extended analogy today (and do let me know if I take this one further than is warranted). A fire is a good thing--it warms your house, cooks your food, and destroys your incriminating documents; however, there is a clear limit to its utility, and its growth must be checked and its fuel limited. If fire threatens to consume a house, we don't simply say "let's make an adjustment and only add half a log and see if that saves that house." We douse that fucker with all the water we've got until it's back where it belongs.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Critical Validation

Some years ago (1999, in fact), I had a theory about the film American Beauty. It was basically that there was a film hidden inside the film, that something else was clearly going on aside from light pedophilia, suburban potsmoking, self-actualization, and mystical plastic bags. The video segment that was the first shot of the film suggested that the tapes were significant in that they constitute the only hard evidence that investigators of Lester Burnham's murder would turn up, and that they would construct a seemingly airtight case against Ricky Fitts and Lester's daughter Janie. What kind of shocked me was that, at the time, nobody else seemed to be talking about that dimension of the Oscar-winning film (I must admit that film critic bars are spread rather thin in Sacramento, and I didn't make any special effort to comb the internet for others who shared my view, so this might be old hat for IMDB message board types--scratch that--just checked the aforementioned, and no mention).

Anyhow, that's just kind of the first part of what I'm getting at here. As someone who spends a lot of time picking media to pieces (just ask my friends about the subtlety of the Slowsky Comcast ads or the Geico cavemen (probably another blog about that whole thing in the near future)), I can sometimes second guess myself into thinking that I'm seeing something that isn't there. The other side, though, is that, if my opinions and interpretations of media/texts is just smoke and mirrors, then why did I spend twelve years in college learning how to do it? If I had studied engineering, I wouldn't be forced to admit that maybe my bridge is no better than anyone else's, but the general perception is that there's a very short journey from literacy to literary criticism, and it just ain't so. It's this kind of intellectual timidity on my part that got me into a weeks-long debate with a friend who denied that there was Christ symbolism of any kind in Cool Hand Luke; I value intellectual honesty, but there's got to be a point at which it's not necessary to painstakingly consider each and every opinion regardless of its source.

On to the validation part.

I recently bought American Beauty on DVD (a long-overdue purchase, considering how much I like the film), and sat through the commentary track narrated by Alan Ball, the screenwriter (of Six Feet Under fame); and Sam Mendes, the director. Right out of the gate there was a mention that the original first scene of the film was a courtroom scene in which Ricky and Janie are convicted of Lester's murder, but that it was removed because it didn't match the direction that the studio wanted from the film (I guess it would have been a bit more like Sunset Boulevard than it already is). What I think is great is that the first scene gives a hint toward decoding the original story from what was actually released without compromising the film that it ultimately became. I don't know which of the two creative influences on the movie pulled that off, but I feel a lot of gratitude to whoever it was.

It's nothing new, really. There's even a name for stuff like this in art studies, much like the roman a clef, or "story with a key," in which historical or controversial events Primary Colors is a great recent example, but Kerouac's On the Road is another good one. I thought I might even be on to something (I get a cool kind of buzz when there might be some neat new idea out at the edge of my awareness).

After sitting on it for a while, I thought "literary pentimento" was the right term (I wrote a paper about Hellman's autobiographical novel (not quite a roman a clef) back in English 1B). It seemed like this might be something that could tie a good critical essay together. Then I came across (pretty basic google search), of course, literary pentimento. I was only a little disappointed, but that little bit of disappointment got me thinking about whether it's really possible to have an original idea anymore. I'm not sure how I'd answer that one, but I think it's a good one to start discussing. Any thoughts on any of the above?