Thursday, November 17, 2016

"The Sum of His Many Squalid Parts"

The recent political situation got me thinking about Thompson's masterpiece, Fear and Loathing: on the Campaign Trail '72, which led to remember my favorite bit of Thompson marginalia, the obituary he wrote for Rolling Stone on the occasion of Nixon's death.  For those who aren't fans of Thompson's work, it should be pointed out that Thompson hated Nixon.  I mean really hated the man, on an intensely personal and sincere level.  The last line of the obituary reads:

"By disgracing and degrading the Presidency of the United States, by fleeing the White House like a diseased cur, Richard Nixon broke the heart of the American Dream."

And "diseased cur" may be one of the nicest things Thompson calls him.  But besides the catharsis I find in this obituary, there's one moment that struck me as particularly relevant today.

"Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism -- which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place...You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful."

Of course, one of the main problems today isn't objective journalism, rather the surge of pseudo-journalists and pundits.  But the fact remains that the actual journalists, the ones that still put in the work and respect the responsibility that a free society demands of the press, dropped the ball, 

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Vonnegut's Last (Published) Story

Since Vonnegut's death in 2007, four volumes of unpublished work have been released, three of which are primarily or exclusively comprised of short stories.  Fans of Vonnegut know that his last published short story appeared in 1972 in the second installment of Harlan Ellison's genre-defining Dangerous Visions anthology series.  In his introduction to "The Big Space Fuck," Ellison claimed that it might be the last piece of fiction anyone would ever get from Vonnegut.  At the time, Vonnegut was working on Breakfast of Champions, but claimed he was abandoning the project. Many reviewers and fans took Breakfast of Champions, published in 1973, as Vonnegut's declaration of retirement.  While fans of Vonnegut know that he published seven more novels, and plenty of non-fiction, they also know that he never published another short story during his lifetime.

Except for "Merlin."

It was published in 1996, and appeared exclusively on the label of a specialty beer in Denver.  (Making Chipotle's cups a couple decades late to the party.)  This wouldn't be worth remarking on if it weren't for the fact that this was the only short story Vonnegut published for the last thirty-five years of his life.  The best background on the beer (called Kurt's Mile High Malt) comes from sports columnist Woody Paige's obituary of Vonnegut for the Denver Post.  The recipe is Vonnegut's grandfather's from before prohibition.  And while it seems the beer is being brewed again, there's no indication that new bottles/cans include the story.

As with the few other blog posts I've found about "Merlin," I'll end by requesting that anyone out there with the text of the story please send me a copy (or tell me where to find it).

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Devil and Daniel Webster (From Page to Screen to Screen)

The Story:

Stephen Vincent Benét, best known for John Brown's Body, had "The Devil and Daniel Webster" published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1936.  The story is presented as an old New England folktale, about the time a down on his luck farmer, Jabez Stone, sold his soul to the devil for seven years good luck, only to regret his decision and ask Daniel Webster (the real life congressman and orator, often held to be one of, if not the, most eloquent and honest men to ever serve in the US government) to represent him and get him out of the contract.  The devil agrees to a trial, stocks the jury with cutthroats and traitors from American history, and sets an unrepentant judge from the Salem witch trials to justice.  Old Dan'l speaks all night and convinces the jury that a man's freedom is too valuable, and the sinners relent, giving Jabez Stone his life back.

The story's themes of perseverance through tough times, and the resilience of the American people (especially farmers), would strike a special chord with audiences in the middle of the great depression.  It's a wonderful story and you can read it here on Gutenburg Australia.


The Films:

Director: William Dieterle
Runtime: 107 minutes


The first film adaptation was released in 1941, with a screenplay co-written by Benét.  The plot is much the same as the story, with some additions, most notably a seductive demon (at least that's what we're led to assume) that supplants Jabez's wife.  There's more time devoted to the plight of poor farmers, and the corrupting influence of wealth is hammered down a bit more, in a way that may seem trite today.  There's a lot of folksy New England humor, like when Jabez's Ma points out that "hard luck - well, we made New England out of it.  That and codfish."

Jabez and Ma Stone

While the entire cast ranges from adequate to great, the standout star of the film is Walter Huston (father of John Huston, Academy Award winner for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), who plays the Devil, or Scratch, as he's often called in New England.


Unfortunately, the scene I wanted to embed wasn't on Youtube, but if you have six minutes, watch Webster's speech to the damned.



All That Money Can Buy (which was titled as such to avoid confusion with The Devil and Miss Jones) was a flop at the box office, despite receiving an Academy Award for its score (which is great) and a best leading actor nomination for Huston.  A restored version of the film was released in the 1990s, with the intended title, The Devil and Daniel Webster.  While certain aspects have aged poorly, it's nonetheless a great film.




Director: Alec Baldwin
Runtime: 106 minutes


The fact that Alec Baldwin used a pseudonym for his directorial credit should be a sign of how this 2003 film turned out.  Baldwin (who also produced the film) stars as Jabez Stone, a down-on-his-luck writer in Manhattan with a bit of talent but no success.  After a fantastically bad day in which he loses his job, is humiliated by a publisher (whose name is Daniel Webster, played by Anthony Hopkins), finds out a friend of his has sudden remarkable success (making him jealous), is mugged, and later kills an elderly woman by throwing a typewriter out a window, Stone is approached by the Devil, who is played by Jennifer Love Hewitt.  She offers to give him ten years of success (and unkills the old lady) in exchange for his soul.  Jabez agrees.  As opposed to the original story and the 1941 film, in which the deal is made official by a contract signed in blood, Stone and the devil seal the deal by, well, sealing the deal.

fig. 1.1 Contract Law

The first half hour or so of the movie works pretty well, but things quickly devolve from their.  This may be the most over-edited movie I've ever seen.  Nearly every other scene ends with either an iris in/out or with tonally inappropriate wipes, as well as an inexplicable frequent use of slow motion shots, which don't make things more dramatic, as the editor intended, but merely more baffling.

This film has a great supporting cast, including Anthony Hopkins, Dan Ackroyd, and Amy Poehler, although the latter two never get much chance to prove how funny they can be.  Like in the original story, Jabez ends up regretting his deal, and enlists the help of Daniel Webster.  The Webster in this case has no connection to the historical figure.  He's just a publisher named Daniel Webster who happens to have considerable experience in suing the devil.  The courtroom scene is a real mess, with Webster using at least a few different defenses, and no real emotional power like the 1941 version.  Hewitt's devil isn't sure whether to be menacing, erotic, or inscrutable, making the performance none of the above (although this isn't Hewitt's fault.  There's only so much she could have done with the script). One point that bugs me deals with the jury in this case.  Stone has become a massively successful author, though one that's critically panned.  The jury, rather than traitors and scoundrels, is composed of authors.  Only four are named, though many are identifiable by appearance (e.g. Woolf and Joyce).  The four named authors are Truman Capote, Jacqueline Susanne, Ernest Hemingway, and Mario Puzo.  Susann and Puzo are best known for writing books that were massively successful but critically panned, so putting them on the jury doesn't really make a whole lot of sense.  Anyway, Webster and Stone win the case, and time is reversed to before the deal is made.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Men in Black II (2002) - David Cross #17


Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Runtime: 88 Minutes           


Everyone remembers the 1997 modern classic, Men in Black.  It ends with agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) asking agent J (Will Smith) to erase K's memory, so he can retire and lead a normal life.  The first act of MIB 2 is mostly about undoing the ending of the first film.  The movie opens with exposition via a public access quality conspiracy tv show, explaining that an evil Kylothian named Serleena (Lara Flynn Boyle) wants to steal the light of Zartha.  It turns out the light is still on earth, and only K knows its location.  

There are a lot of problems with this movie, especially the over reliance on comedic relief characters.  Remember Frank the pug from the first movie, and how funny that one scene with him was?  One scene is really all that you can stand.  Likewise the worms, and the two-headed Johnny Knoxville.

Insert your own "pair of boobs" joke here
Also, the product placement is far from subtle.

All that said, Men in Black 2 isn't really that bad.  I mean, it's pretty bad, but it's not as much of a trainwreck as I remember it being.  I was worried that it would be unwatchable, but much of it is entertaining.  It's a big decline in quality from the first film, but not a completely irredeemable one.


Rating: 


The Cross Section:


David Cross plays Newton, the conspiracy minded nerd who runs a video rental store and lives with his mom.  

This is actually one of the funniest scenes in the movie, which unfortunately does not appear by itself on youtube.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

There are plenty of reasons why such a large portion of all discussion on the internet is nothing more than vacuous bullshit, rote recitation of talking points, and "witty" insults.  There's the fact that the people who feel the need to make every conversation about their pet interest tend to have the least nuanced understanding of that interest, and the least tact.  There's the fact that, because anyone can (and feels compelled to) chime in, any specific issue turns into an us vs. them referendum on a major socio-political issue, even if that issue was only tangential to the original point.  But those of us who are annoyed by this can't stop other people from spending more time complaining about something than actually learning about it.  (I've watched people spend hours arguing about intellectual property law, with arguments that entirely depend upon not having even a surface understanding of the difference between copyright and trademark.)  But there is a mindset we all too easily slip into, one that exacerbates the situation.  Basically, we treat any internet discussion not as a discussion, but as debate club.

Why is this a problem?  Well, how do you win a debate club debate?  The entire purpose of the debate is to convince a third party that your side is right, even if you don't believe your own arguments.  At best, it's organized sophistry. The goal is not to engage with the person you're debating, but to demonstrate to the spectators how wrong he is.   I see too many people I know repost or share things whose message I agree with, but which contain utter bull, who mistake clever one-liners for serious rebuttals of complex opinions, who, in short, focus more on convincing people they are right than arguing in good faith.  Not only is this exasperating, it's also counter-effective.

First we need to honestly appraise what our purpose is in any online argument.  Is the goal to put forth clearly our point of view? To convince the person we're arguing with?  To convince the spectators of the argument that we're right?  And then we must ask "Is this the best way to do this?"  The answer to the latter is usually "no."

One thing that we need to acknowledge is that every group sees itself as not only correct, but as being attacked by social and political forces.  Whether or not this is true is beside the point, but whether we're talking about atheists or fundamentalists, pro-choice or pro-life, conspiracy theorists, laissez-faire capitalists or socialists, civil rights activists or hate groups, all see themselves as fighting against a larger tide.  What I'm about to recommend should be understood to apply only to online interaction, and to have an exception for public figures.

  There's a quote I like from Browne's Religio Medici that is relevant here: "[W]here wee desire to be informed, 'tis good to contest with men above ourselves; but to confirme and establish our opinions, 'tis best to argue with judgments below our own, that the frequent spoyles and victories over their reasons may settle in our selves an esteeme, and confirmed opinion of our own."  It feels good to argue against people who are clearly half-wits.  But does it do any good?  Generally speaking, responses  that are hostile or condescending or contemptuous are going to have the opposite of the effect that you want.  If the point is to persuade people to your way of thinking, does tearing down people who have no interest in the truth accomplish anything?

I should clarify that last statement.  When I say "no interest in the truth," I don't mean anyone who disagrees with you.  Different positions on a lot of major issues boil down to a difference of priorities, or an honest disagreement over an ethical point.  It's entirely possible, and common, for people to look at the same set of data, consider it honestly and with an open-mind, and come to different conclusions.  People who have "no interest in the truth" are disingenuous and they make no attempt to  even understand the position of those they disagree with.  I'll give two common examples:

If humans evolved from apes, why are there still apes?  Checkmate, Atheists.

If god knows everything that's going to happen, then there can't be free will.  Checkmate, Christians.


Both of these are disingenuous, because spending five minutes looking for an answer would show that the other side has actually thought about this. (Says the atheist who quoted Thomas Browne a couple paragraphs ago.)  All this is to get to the point that arguing with people who are disingenuous does more harm than good.  It's not going to convince the person you're arguing with.  If they actually cared about understanding opposing opinions, they wouldn't be disingenuous.  But who watching this is going to be convinced?  There's an adage I like, "Never argue with an idiot.  He will drag you down to his level and beat you with experience."  People who agree with the idiot won't change their minds, because they've either heard what you have to say or don't care to find out.  At best, you'll bat .500 with people who are on the fence.  These, after all, are the people we're trying to convince, right?  If you're hostile, or condescending, etc., you'll lose a lot of them right away, especially if you're on a site that primarily caters to the position you're against.  This goes back to the sense of victimization that every group has, deserved or not.  People on the fence, especially in fringe communities like conspiracy theorists or MRAs, tend to join these groups in large part for the sense of community.  They feel like outcasts, and they may not agree with everything these communities claim, but anything that they regard as an attack will lead them to close ranks.  Attacking makes people defensive, including people on the fence.

Those who are disingenuous, or delusional, will have a response for any claim you make, regardless of how well-phrased and well-researched it is.  Research and clarity hold no sway, so you either have to disengage (e.g., they think they won because they got the last word) or allow yourself to be dragged down to their level, where they will beat you with experience.  So what, then, is the proper response?  Silence.  The approach of making other groups look foolish, to bring them down with ridicule, only serves to push people away from the center, to increase an us vs. them mentality.  Responding to a disingenuous and intentionally provocative comment, post, tweet, etc. doesn't help.  Spending hundreds or thousands of words explaining why the second law of thermodynamics doesn't disprove evolution won't do anything, because the only people who believe that are the ones who don't have a desire to actually understand it, and further, it gives credence to the disingenuous person because it seems like there's actually an argument to be had.

If a person makes a facebook status and no one comments, if no one retweets or shares, if a reddit comment is downvoted with no responses, this is more damning than any amount of criticism and argument.  What we must do, to improve the state of public discourse, is condemn dishonest argument, condemn disingenuousness, and refuse to be dragged down to the level of idiots. This includes people on our own side.  While none of us want to be "that guy," there are people on Facebook that I can go to and say, "I agree with the sentiment of that infographic you shared, but the facts are wrong."  Posting stuff like this, as funny and satisfying as it may be, only serves to misinform the people we agree with, and diminish our credibility with people who aren't on our side. The only people that this will convince are people who don't bother with fact checking or critical thought, and who will be drawn back to the other side by something equally dishonest.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Review: Tree of Smoke (2007) by Denis Johnson

cover design: Susan Mitchell


Tree of Smoke is Johnson's seventh novel, focused mainly on the CIA in Vietnam from 1963-1970.  One of the protagonists, Bill Houston, was the main character of Johnon's first novel, Angels.  The focus shifts between a cast of characters, Bill Houston, a disgraced sailor, his brother, James, a recon soldier and later tunnel rat, Nguyen Hao, a south Vietnamese citizen trying to make his way to the US, and others ranging from a missionary's widow to a West German assassin.  But mostly we get the story of William "Skip" Sands, nephew of the larger than life Colonel Francis Xavier Sands, who's more affected by Agency infighting than the viet cong.

The only other books of Johnson's I've read are Train Dreams (2012) and Jesus' Son (1992), the longer of which is about a quarter of the length of Tree of Smoke, which honestly didn't work very well to the book's advantage, as there were points where it dragged.  The language is often wonderful, although the dialogue varies from Hemingway-an to bad Tarantino impression.  If I had to say what the point of the book is, or rather what holds the whole thing together, the answer would be myth.  As Colonel Sands explains how Psy Ops is going to win the war: "This land is their myth.  We penetrate the land, we penetrate their heart, their myth, their soul.  That's real infiltration.  And that's our mission: penetrating the myth of the land." But of course one cannot infiltrate another land and remain unchanged, and the characters' own mythologies, noble wars and christian evangelism and American exceptionalism, are all eroded as the characters become part of the land they've infiltrated.

While I prefer Jesus' Son and Train Dreams, Tree of Smoke is worth a read.

Rating:

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Martin & Orloff (2002) - David Cross #16

Director: Lawrence Blume
Runtime: 87 minutes          


Martin Flam (Ian Roberts), a man who designs food costumes for corporate promotional events, tried to kill himself.  He's required to start seeing Dr. Eric Orloff (Matt Walsh, Veep), who drags Martin into his own dysfunctional world.  Their first session begins with Orloff dragging Martin to his amateur softball league, where everyone gets arrested after a fight breaks out.  Now Martin not only has to deal with the crushing guilt of designing costumes that are dangerous to wear (it turns out eyeholes are important in a costume), but Martin's best friend (a volatile Gulf War vet played by H. Jon Benjamin), Martin's stripper/psych grad student girlfriend (Kim Raver, 24), a new love interest (Amy Poehler) and her jealous and violent ex-NFL ex-boyfriend.

As the poster indicates, the cast is predominately members of the Upright Citizens Brigade, with a brief cameo by Tina Fey and Janeane Garofalo.  Beside Martin's straight-man, I don't know if there's any character that couldn't be described as wacky.  Fortunately, the cast is talented enough to pull it off.

On a side note, the movie's promotional website is still up, and it absolutely looks like a website made in 2002.  The weird thing, though, is that the cast and filmmaker bios have been updated, some as recently as 2012, which makes me wonder who, ten years after the movie was released, went back into the website to make sure the info was up to date.

Rating:

The Cross Section:



Character/Performance:

David Cross plays Dan Wasserman, a flamboyant, terrible playwright, who wants Orloff's praise for his play that premiered at a dinner-and-a-show restaurant.  While pretty funny, the character's only trait is his flamboyance, which is only good for so many jokes.



Screentime:

There's a brief scene in the middle of the movie, and Cross joins the ensemble of supporting characters who team up at the end to save the day.