"A Lovecraft Dream"

>> Sunday, October 31, 2010

Leonardo Manna and Michele Botticelli's tribute to H.P. Lovecraft:

Happy Halloween, all you fellow mortals facing an infinite and indifferent universe full of unfathomable entities to whom you are little more than tiny, tiny ants crawling on a little anthill! Cthulhu fhtagn, kids!


Some thoughts on re-reading The Hobbit

>> Saturday, October 30, 2010

I realized maybe a week, two weeks ago that it had been too damn long since I'd last read The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings. (If you need links to those, you're reading the wrong damn blog.) Used to be, I read the whole cycle every couple of years; I mean, literally, like I made it a point to re-read the whole set every two years up through law school, I think.

I first discovered The Hobbit when I was still in elementary school. I can't remember if I saw the half-hour Rankin-Bass adaptation first; probably. It first aired in 1977 when I was five, so it was a touchstone of my childhood, and I imagine I didn't actually read The Hobbit until maybe 1979 or 1980, maybe. When I pulled out my copy, the Ballatine silver-anniversary paperback first published in 1981, I checked the publication page and noted that my copy is the sixth edition of that version, published in 1983 as part of a boxed set that I remember purchasing and hoarding like a dragon's treasure; if I first read The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings a year or two before obtaining my own copy with Christmas or birthday or saved-allowance money, I might have first read the series in 1981, maybe.

I seem to remember that I read them in elementary school, for sure, because I remember this oddity: that my school library, from which I first borrowed the books, had copies of The Hobbit and The Fellowship Of The Ring and The Return Of The King--but somehow didn't have The Two Towers, which I don't believe I read until I obtained the boxed-set collection for myself in the early 1980s. I read Fellowship and I read King, but there was this oddity that the introduction of King featured a summary of things I hadn't read, and I only realized I was missing a book after I'd already started the third volume in the series.

Also, this: that I was playing Dungeons And Dragons by fifth grade, which I know because my first copy of the Basic rules was a photocopied bootleg given to me by a junior high school kid who rode the same bus I did. I think I might have already read those two volumes of Lord Of The Rings by then, at any rate I know I'd read The Hobbit because part of the lure of D&D was of course the fact it was a chance to live Tolkien, to make your own Hobbit burglar or Dwarven fighter or (best of all) Human wizard (though we all know now that Gandalf was not a man, but one of the Istari sent to Middle-Earth as a sort of guardian angel or reduced demigod to save the mortal races from the fallen Maia, Sauron).

I'm sorry, was my geek showing?

Anyway, you can track back my reading of Tolkien every two years give-or-take to junior high or even elementary school, all the way through college. Is it any wonder I hated Peter Jackson's movies? I mean, I thought they were pretty shoddy as pieces of film in general, great special effects but dwarf-tossing jokes? Really? But JRRT might as well be a part of my skeleton; at this point I wouldn't doubt that there are brain cells locking in Tolkienana that are older than most other parts of my body.

But there was a long space of time I let Tolkien slip away mostly unrefreshed--not wholly absent, I read more-recently published stuff like The Children Of Hurin in the interim. I guess I was busy or had other things to read, and I'd re-read Tolkien so many times since childhood. But it was time. And last night I figured, hey, time to go back: filled a tub and poured a generous dollop of sixteen-year-old Glenlivet and spent a pair of hours with The Hobbit.

I'd forgotten how good, how really good The Hobbit is. There's a bit of "conventional wisdom" bouncing around, I think, that Tolkien was full of good ideas but wasn't much of a writer; it ain't true. I mean, I found myself sort of amazed at how cleverly JRRT spends almost two full pages talking about Hobbits as if the reader knows what he's talking about before he "catches himself" and, almost conspiratorially, finally offers up a description of Hobbits in general and The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, in particular. It's a wonderful bit of storytelling, and the whole book goes along with that. There's a tendency in modern fantasy, I think, to offer up infodumps, something Tolkien manages to do without doing, offering up various nuggets almost as an afterthought or aside. And for a man who spent decades of his life worldbuilding, Tolkien shows a remarkable and lovable indifference to it in The Hobbit; I mean this as a really good thing: there are all sorts of little bits and pieces that hypothetically break continuity or ought to--clocks and tobacco and handkerchiefs and want ads in an ostensibly mediæval/pastoral society--and Tolkien just breezes through them without a glance backwards. There's a golf joke in there that still amuses me after almost thirty years, even though I suspect most young fantasy writers and editors would pull their hair out over its inclusion.

I wish I could write with that sort of studied indifference. The son-of-a-bitch makes it look so casual, I know it isn't.

I also found myself wishing vaguely for children. I started reading much of the business with the trolls aloud to myself, just to hear how it sounded, and if you have young children you might consider doing that when they're old enough to enjoy it but before they're too old to appreciate it. You might try to do a better job than I did of keeping Bert and Tom's voices distinctive. Anyway, it's a chapter meant for reading aloud, regardless, as I believe Tolkien did with his own children as he was writing it.

Which brings up one more point I hesitate to mention, though it won't surprise you after my confession to loathing the two Peter Jackson movies I managed to survive (I could never bring myself to watch his third adaptation): there's been a bit of fuss over whether Jackson would be able to make his film version(s) of The Hobbit (he means to make two movies of one book, it seems) and whether it would be done in New Zealand or not. I don't care. I won't see them. You can't make me. I have little doubt that Jackson will hit most of the notes--his version of The Lord Of The Rings was very much like a mediocre cover version of a song that hits all the notes but carries none of the heart and soul of a tune--but I doubt he'll get the spirit right. And I can be more specific after starting The Hobbit again: it's a literary tale, a story, meant to be read and told but not really meant to be seen. I have a soft, nostalgic spot for that Rankin-Bass TV version from 1977, but it's a failure, too. Not because it's badly done in any particular way, but because The Hobbit is a collection of words, not images, words that are put together in a way that's really meant to be taken in through the ear, though the eye is an acceptable second-best if you're shy. The Hobbit is something that's really meant for a bedside or fireside, and I expect Jackson's movie will have lots of spectacle and a truly impressive dragon, but it won't be a story read aloud, will it? Of course not, it couldn't be. And if that's apples and oranges, well, I'm afraid to say it's an inferior variety of orange, at that.


Quote of the day

>> Friday, October 29, 2010

Al Franken expands on President Obama's ditch metaphor for the economy to explain basic physics to a crowd of Minnesotans on October 23rd of this year:

What I'd add, of course, is that there are some people so upset about how long it's taking to get the car back on the road, they're talking about throwing whatever's in the glove box or under the seats at the people pushing to see if they can push any harder or faster. And I'm not saying the folks pushing couldn't be pushing harder, or that they might do better if they tried to use their intelligence to set up some kind of lever or pulley system to maneuver the car up the slope. But I'm pretty sure that throwing things at them and maybe knocking a few of them down or out isn't going to get the car moving any faster, why, it might even cause the car to start backsliding towards the two-thousand-foot cliff. And those alligators down there?

They look pretty hungry.

Just sayin'.

Something to think about on Tuesday, y'know?

(H/t Salon!)


An open letter to Ilario Pantano

>> Thursday, October 28, 2010

Fellow Patriot,

In a democracy, censorship is never a good thing. Especially when it's publicly funded.

Last week, NPR fired popular journalist Juan Williams for simply speaking his mind. If opinion makers can't express their own opinions, what has become of free speech in America? Even worse, NPR is funded by your tax dollars and should be an example to all for free speech in the media.

I fought in two wars to protect our Constitutional rights, and now NPR is using our tax dollars to trample upon our most important right, the First Amendment. I won't stand for it!

That's why I'm denying NPR access to my campaign for the remainder of this race.

If you agree that NPR's firing of Juan Williams violates the First Amendment, I urgently need you to join my fight to protect all of our Constitutional rights. Will stand strong for America's founding principles and follow this link and make a contribution of $25, $50, $100, $250 or even $2,400 to my campaign and stand up for our Constitutional rights with me?

What good are any of our rights if we're not willing to defend them? I have fought for our rights in war before and I will fight for Juan's right to express his opinion whether I agree with it or not... And without the fear of reprisal for the free expression of ideas. Rather than firing him, we could simple choose to watch something else. TV has no shortage of channels.

If we allow the government to restrain our First Amendment rights, what will be next? Will they take away our right to bear arms or trial by jury? These are rights that people have fought and died for - I risked my life for them twice - and we cannot allow the government to infringe upon them.

I may no longer wear the Marine Corp uniform, but that doesn't mean the fight is over for me. I'm ready to go to Washington and continue to defend my country from its latest enemies... the special interest lobbies and liberal leadership that is attacking our way of life and slowly making us less free. If you send me to Washington, I'll fight for you every day, but you have a choice to make.

There is only one way we can halt the gross government-overreach that is occurring in every aspect of American life: Send a true Constitutional conservative and former Marine Corps veteran to Washington.

If you choose to stand with me, I need your immediate help. I'm battling in a very close race with an entrenched incumbent who votes with Nancy Pelosi more than 90% of the time. Your immediate contribution of $25, $50, $100, $250 or whatever you can afford will push me over the top to victory.

I can't find to the words to tell you just how close we are to winning this race, which has risen to national importance. So will you please follow this link right away and give generously to my campaign?

Thank you in advance for your support.

Semper Fi,

Ilario Pantano
Republican for Congress - NC-7

PS: I risked my life twice so that Americans can enjoy freedom of speech, and I won't stand for a taxpayer-funded organization trampling the First Amendment. America needs to send a Marine in to Washington to fight for our Constitutional rights. Please follow this link right away to make a contribution of $25, $50, $100, $250 or even $2,400 to my campaign right away. Thank you.

Dear Lt. Pantano,


Okay, first of all, NPR totally mishandled the Juan Williams thing, right? But let's be clear: you and I--although perhaps not the constituents you're trying to appeal to with your "born again Southerner" shtick (nice way to dodge the carpetbagger card, by the way--did you think of that back in Nu Yawk or when you moved down here a few years back?)--anyway, you and I know that Williams was fired for being kind of douchey and not bringing a whole lot of insightful commentary to the game while using his NPR connection in a pretty transparent attempt to give himself liberal cred when appearing on conservative talk shows as a token "lefty". They could have, as the old song goes, had him any day, they only let him get away (out of kindness, I suppose).

Anyway, when Williams went and made a pretty tactless and, let's face it, there's no way around it because of the way he phrased it, bigoted comment, they should have at least waited until the weekend to fire him (that famous Friday news-burial tactic) or pulled a Rupert Murdoch-esque play and figured out a way to sideline him until he ran out his contract or resigned in embarrassment. However, NPR is run by kind of clueless idiots, so they pretty much (if you'll pardon the expression) screwed the pooch on it.

Oh well.

I guess if you want to be technical, it's a free speech issue or a two-percent free speech issue insofar as NPR receives two percent of its funding from the government (or maybe more, depending on how you count it). So it's not like that Dr. Laura thing, where she stuck her foot in her mouth and then claimed her Constitutional rights were being oppressed because she was being yelled at by private citizens. Sort of. I mean, again, Williams wasn't fired for "expressing his opinion" so much as he was fired for "kind of being an asshole." But I don't think that's what's motivating your boycott and it's not why I'm laughing at your solicitation for funds.

See, what's funny about your decision to boycott NPR is that I suspect I know what NPR reporters would like to ask you about, and if I were you, I'd find it pretty awkward, too. Searching for you on NPR, all the stories that come up seem to concern themselves with that whole, er, "misunderstanding" over that whole April 15th, 2004 business where you were accused of shooting a couple of prisoners and desecrating their corpses, and faced the possibility of court-martial, although all charges were ultimately dropped by your division commander, Major General Richard Huck. The most recent NPR article on you I can find--most of the stories go back to when you were facing the possibility of a trial--deals with a member of the "Tea Party" movement who endorsed your opponent, a Democrat, at the beginning of the month:

A leading tea party activist broke ranks Monday [October 4th] to endorse Democratic Rep. Mike McIntyre of North Carolina, expressing concern about a Republican challenger who was once charged with murder in connection with his military service in Iraq.

Deborah Johns said it appears that voters are ignoring Republican candidate Ilario Pantano's past.

Pantano, a Marine Corps officer during the Iraq war, was charged with premeditated murder in 2005, and prosecutors accused him of shooting two Iraqis in the back. An investigating officer later said Pantano made "serious errors" in judgment but should not be brought to trial for murder.

"That is not a war hero," said Johns, adding that she read all the details of Pantano's case in a 700-page transcript of his investigative hearing. "It is people like that that give all our military a bad name."

Johns is the former vice chair of the California-based Tea Party Express, and she still speaks at tea party events. She's also the mother of a Marine. Johns said it was difficult for her, as an advocate for both the tea party and military families, to oppose Pantano and said McIntyre is the first Democrat she's endorsed. Pantano has drawn support from many activists in the tea party movement.

Ouch. That's gotta hurt.

Now, I don't know what happened in Iraq. I wasn't there, and as a bleeding-heart liberal defense lawyer, I fully believe in the principle that you're innocent unless proven guilty, and you haven't been, Lieutenant, you haven't been. But I can see why it might be sort of, I don't know, tense to be going around campaigning during the last week before the election and there's some reporter from NPR, probably one of those communist liberal types (they might even be a Kenyan, or know a Kenyan!), and you're trying to talk about how we ought to take on China and illegal immigrants are parasites and radical Muslims are all terrorists or how legal access to abortion is going to cause a population implosion and how soldiers are taught the Quran not the Constitution, and this left-wing-peacenik-Muslim-loving-elitist who just doesn't get it, they don't know, they weren't there, man wants to ask you about this ancient history, this totally forgettable business of how you allegedly emptied two full clips into the backs of two captives and not only faced dishonorable discharge but a possible death sentence if you'd actually gone to trial--wow, I mean you want to talk about a conversation killer! Crickets and tumbleweeds, man, and you didn't even get to explain to the reporters your Republican-boilerplate economic agenda and idea to reduce government involvement in the free market while offering "direct incentives" to "regional" banks. (Those quotes around "regional" because, you know, it's a nice play in a banking state to throw a pitch to the banking industry, but surely a Wall Street guy who cut his teeth at Goldman Sachs like yourself knows that our "regional" banks down here include Bank Of America and Wachovia, now a subsidiary of San Fransisco's Wells Fargo. You know, regular mom'n'pop operations. Just sayin'.)

So, I guess I find it kind-of-sort-of convenient that you've decided to deny NPR access to your campaign. I don't mean this to sound terribly critical of your decision: I'd hide from them too, if I was you, and be thanking my lucky stars they gave me such a great and timely excuse. Instead of having to dodge questions about dodging questions, you get to stand up as a great crusader for the Freedom Of The Press by... um... not letting the press have direct access to somebody running for office.... Gosh, it sounds pretty crappy when I put it that way, doesn't it! So, uhhh... yay America!

Of course, it kind of occurs to me in an off-hand way that if NPR wants to do stories about you, the fact you won't talk to them means they'll just get their information from people who don't like you very much, which they'll relate along with a familiar, "NPR contacted the Pantano campaign, but the candidate declined to respond" or however they'll phrase it. Hey, a well-placed "no comment" speaks a thousand words, especially when the question was about your dismissed criminal charges, right! But I guess the fact that any NPR stories about you over the next few days will be completely one-sided shows bias, right? Because if they were truly unbiased, they'd take the fact you don't want to talk to them as a reason for them not to talk about you, and, hey, if they're not going to tell both sides of a story because only one side has made itself available, they shouldn't report any sides at all, because they shouldn't publish a lopsided report. That's how it works, as you know from your career running a media consulting business when you were back home in New York City... your other home, I mean, not the one you were reborn in down in Wilmington... Wilmington, NC, of course, not Wilmington, DE where most of your former clients were probably incorporated... hey, but I didn't need to explain that, did I, I mean, you've lived in the South for close to five years now!

Well, anyway, it's been fun. Good luck with this whole "incommunicado" bit. I'm sure I'll find out how it works for you... probably from NPR Morning Edition.

R. Eric VanNewkirk
Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets


No, I will not be donating to your campaign.


Oh, and speaking of sequels...

>> Wednesday, October 27, 2010

There is, I confess, one sequel coming out this year I'm kinda stoked about. And it's a fucking Disney film, for cryin' out loud. And it's in 3D, which I think is an obnoxious fad that should die out. I'm pumped about a 3D Disney sequel?! How the fuck does that happen?

The heart wants what it wants, I guess.

Anyway, if you haven't already seen it, here's Daft Punk's "Derezzed," from their soundtrack for this December's TRON: Legacy:


A good horror story is one thing, but is it ever two?

A friend of mine recently penned a spoilery review of Paraormal Activity 2. I went ahead and read it because, (a) he's a friend and (b) I don't really think I'll be seeing PA2: it strikes me as a pretty gratuitous sequel to start with, and, honestly, I felt kind of guilty for actually seeing Book Of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 even though I watched it on cable and none of my money actually went into anyone's pockets; I dunno, maybe I'll watch PA2 on cable or Hulu if the opportunity ever arises, but probably not.

But I mention it because it did get me thinking about sequels and horror. See, the first, gut, reaction when you see that they're making something like PA2 is to think of it in terms of the gimmick: the first Paranormal Activity, in case you somehow missed this (whether you saw it or not), is set up as the found footage, purportedly, of a couple's last days in a haunted house as recorded by the husband on home video equipment and then assembled after some time after the fact. The same premise, in that regard, as the original Blair Witch Project; the temptation, I think, is to dismiss the sequel out of hand with the question, "Will the same gimmick work twice, if that's what they go for, or is there enough to support a story without the gimmick if they abandon it like the creators of Blair Witch 2 did (unsuccessfully)?"

The thing that's wrong with going that route, however, is that I think the so-called "gimmick" of the found footage or fake documentary is a pretty ideal way to tell a horror story on film. It may be the perfect way to do it, actually, because one of the key ways to create a horrific atmosphere is to focus on the banal, to create a sense of the ordinary into which the horrific intrudes. This is something that Stephen King, for instance, is just brilliant at doing; all those bits where he namedrops breakfast cereals and pop music are part of lulling the reader into thinking that he or she is reading something about a very ordinary, normal, quiet little world--until the serial-killing-clown-demons or zombie cats or man-eating automobiles show up (Plymouth or Buick) and all Hell invades Quiet Little Anytown. The found footage or documentary gimmick runs the same kind of game on the viewer.

The "reality" horror film also does something else, and this becomes important when we get around to the main point of this post: we watch documentaries (and home videos) differently from the way we watch "movies." That is, we've all been brought up and educated with this vocabulary of cinematic convention, which may have been novel and surprising (perhaps) when audiences were first exposed to King Kong in 1933 or Dracula in 1931, but these days we're used to lighting and camera angles and actors' tricks and the plot conventions of various genres. And there's a relationship between that last one and the former items on the list: we see a movie shot as a movie, and we semi-consciously start trying to game it, doing things like identifying the hero and villain, guessing (in a horror movie) who the next victim might be, etc., whereas in a documentary or a home video, that part of the viewing brain tends to shut down a bit because in "real life" there aren't necessarily heroes and villains and we've been taught to think that documentaries are objective and home videos artless--and therefore, anything might be captured by the innocent and wide-open-eye of the camera.1 Even if a "fauxcumentary" horror film in fact follows the conventions of a "cinematic" horror film (e.g. as in the mostly-good-not-great The Last Exorcism), it doesn't come off the same way because you're not watching it the same way.

And here we come to what I think is likely to be a major problem not just with Paranormal Activity 2, which, again, I haven't seen, and also with the vast majority of horror sequels on film and quite possibly any horror story in any format (prose, comic book, whatever). See, just as we watch a "cinematic" movie differently from a "documentary" movie or a "home" movie,2 we also watch sequels differently from any of these things. With a sequel, we're coming into the theatre with certain expectations--that the sequel will share characters, or setting, or events, or theme, or whatever it shares with its predecessor. It's not just that we compare the sequel with its predecessor--we do, of course--but that we have a sense of what a sequel is or ought to be when we sit down with our medium oiled "butter flavoring" popcorn and bladder-busting sixty-ounce soda.

Problem number one in the fake-footage/fake-documentary context is that these notions of "sequelness" rupture whatever illusion was created by the first movie. The mere existence of Blair Witch 2, for instance--even though BW2 isn't actually a fake documentary or fake found footage movie at all (it has a plot, albeit lousy, and characters, albeit awful ones, etc.)--is a reminder that the first Blair Witch movie was a hoax, a notion that was very easy to suspend sitting in a cold, dark theatre illuminated only by the vibrating silver light reflected from the dimly-lit screen. Even an obviously ridiculous science fiction giant monster fake-footage movie like Cloverfield has some capacity to gull us with its CGI monstrosities--"This looks real, though it can't be, New York was still there last time I checked Google Earth...." A Cloverfield 2, if they make one (as I sometimes hear they are) automatically starts without that--"Oh yeah, this is a follow-up to Cloverfield..."--while dispatching whatever residual suspension of disbelief you had left for the first one: "So Cloverfield wasn't real, either."

The thing is (problem number two), I suspect this extends out into any sort of horror sequel, even ones that aren't passed off as "true stories" of whatever sort. Horror without some kind of plausibility is, I think, merely the grotesque. I'm not saying there aren't good horror sequels out there (Romero's Dawn Of The Dead is exceptional, obviously). Nor do I mean to suggest that you shouldn't have a completely ridiculous thing as the object of horror, or that there's something inherently preferable, say for instance, in favor of a rabid dog as opposed to a feral undead cat.3 What I mean is that the horror artist (because I might be talking about a writer or a filmmaker or a graphic artist) has to make whatever the whatsit is a part of this world, or at least part of a world the audience believes in a hundred percent. And a sequel inherently lacks plausibility because it calls attention to itself as an artifact, because it only or primarily exists in relation to something else that was independent and on its own terms before this secondary creation was grafted onto it. An original exists only on its own terms; a sequel, done however well, tends to exist on the original's terms.

One notes, in that light, that not only are good horror sequels rare, but good horror actual sequels are practically unique, since most of the few good horror sequels out there only exist on some kind of attempt to reinvent themselves on their own self-referential terms. That is, Aliens is a good sequel to a horror movie that is actually a war movie, Bride Of Frankenstein is a good sequel to a horror movie that is actually a fantasy film, Evil Dead 2 is a good sequel to a horror movie that is actually a remake/parody, etc. Good horror sequels that are actually horror movies might be capable of being counted on one hand, several of them on one finger if you lump George Romero's first three sequels to Night Of The Living Dead together.4

I'm not going to take the next step and say a horror artist should never attempt a sequel. But I think it's a dangerous challenge and likely to fail. And I wonder if some media are more forgiving--e.g. does the fact that we've been wired over time to accept television as a serial form result in televised sequels being more palatable than cinematic ones (e.g. it took a long time for The X-Files to become more grating than chilling; ditto for Buffy, though we might wonder if Buffy was really that much "horror"--as opposed to fantasy--to start with). Any thoughts, anyone?

1This point is also why propaganda films in the guise of documentaries are so damned dangerous and effective (by the way).

2Quotes in place because we're trying to invent terms-of-art and because in a movie like Blair Witch or Paranormal Activity the movie isn't what it's pretending to be.

3If there is, it's only because King had better discipline over his story in the former, not because sick puppies are real and zombie kittens are unreal.

4As much as I like Day Of The Dead and Land Of The Dead, I can't argue that they at least deserve to share a finger when counting good sequels. And of course the only finger the execrable and unwatchable Diary Of The Dead deserves is the middle one, extended.


Too late?

>> Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Ramones doing Tom Waits with art by Daniel Clowes.

"I Don't Wanna Grow Up." Is it too late for that? Damn, I hope not, but sometimes I worry, which is probably a sign it is too late.


Ask me bonus post: Seth asks if it's worth it being a liberal in a Federal system

>> Monday, October 25, 2010

The other day, Seth posted:

Dear Eric,

Since you say you don't have anything blogworthy at the moment, I thought maybe you'd be willing to extend last week's "Ask Me" feature and help me answer a question that's been bugging me this week.

My question, roughly, is: Is it worth it being liberal in a federal system?

Here's the thing: I live in California. Here in CA we pay very high state and local taxes, yet have rather mediocre state and local services. (Apart from the universities, which are excellent.) Meanwhile, we are usually the number one net donor to other states in terms of federal taxes, according this and this and this (pdf).

Now I know that not all of that goes to social services in other states -- some of it goes to military bases, for example. But given that the military-security-intelligence complex is essentially today's jobs program, I feel it comes close to amounting to the same thing -- we Californians pay for jobs in Alabama.

I am also aware that there have to be net donor and net recipient states, and that California is richer than Alabama.

But... sometimes it REALLY feels like a scam. People in "red states" scream and holler about their taxes, while -- with the notable exception of Texas -- paying far less state taxes and drawing far MORE from the federal coffers. In other words, the anti-tax red-staters are actually being heavily subsidized by other people's taxes, and then complaining about it!

This makes me very glum. I'm happy to help people in Alabama, Alaska, Louisiana, Montana, and all the other places that get my money. I recognize that there's inequality and that rich states have to help poor states and so on. But I also think that once a state has established its identity as an anti-tax red state, that state frequently benefits enormously from that identity. And the peculiar construction of our federal system, which even today gives state governments so much leeway and state representatives and senators so much power to draw disproportionate amounts of money to their relatively underpopulated states....


Any words of comfort for a California limousine liberal? This thought has been depressing me since I got into a fight with someone from a state with no income tax who was crying about how his taxes might go up.

I think it's a difficult thing to be a liberal living anywhere in America these days, Seth, and so I don't know how much I can offer by way of comfort aside from commiseration.

The Republicans were extraordinarily successful in the '80s and '90s in transforming "liberal" into a pejorative. It's a kind of stupefying accomplishment, really: for almost a century American progressives and liberals were responsible for so many key accomplishments in making the United States a livable country: liberals led the way in providing financial assistance for the old, the sick, and the very young; created standards for medical products and edible food; established national parks and standards for clean air and water; enabled progress in civil rights for minorities and women; etc., this is surely only a partial list. The 20th Century had been the liberal century, and yet by the end of it the centrists were being derided as "socialists" and the far left had become essentially impotent.

Part of what's funny about this is that it's resulted in a major distortion of reality. You write:

Now I know that not all of that goes to social services in other states -- some of it goes to military bases, for example. But given that the military-security-intelligence complex is essentially today's jobs program, I feel it comes close to amounting to the same thing....

Let's strip that of the qualifiers, because your gut is right: the MSI complex is today's jobs program and does provide the equivalent of social welfare for millions of Americans, who are unappreciative of the irony. There are millions of Americans who would deride New Deal programs that provided direct Federal employment for photographers, writers and theatre companies as socialism, but they'll go into violent throes over what the closing of a military base will do to the local economy and ecstasies over the prospect of a Boeing contract to build weapons coming to town. And then we have to listen to them bitching that their taxes might go up to pay for it all.

And when there's such an enormous disparity between net donors and net recipients, it's undeniably unfair. The problem, unfortunately, is that it's systematically unfair: I have no idea what could be done to fix the situation beyond either idiots in red states electing rational people or rational people in blue states electing selfish morons. That's the first thing. The second thing would be that the structural problems actually run deeper than that and are much older: some of the states receiving the most Federal assistance while paying the least to carry their own weight are states that would essentially be Third World countries if they were suddenly left to their own devices--I don't know if a state like Alabama, which in many respects has barely progressed socially or industrially since the American Civil War, could survive independently, and I suspect a state like Alaska would only be able to maintain itself as a kind of Arctic equivalent of a Middle Eastern quasi-fiefdom, with no regard for its environment or the actual well-being of its citizenry.

If you eliminated state borders, or eliminated Federalism by retaining state borders only for the purposes of defining administrative districts, would that disparity change? You'd still have some districts which were more prosperous than others, some districts administered more corruptly than others. It might be easier, perhaps, if instead of regions electing their own governors, they elected a Federal government which appointed regional governors, but even if that implausible solution were somehow agreed to (it would require a Constitutional Convention, obviously), I fear some governors would still be facing almost impossible tasks.

Which is interesting to muse upon, but it doesn't really answer your question.

Maybe I should start again.

Seth, you're absolutely right that it's not fair, and that the way the system is set up encourages some people in some parts of the country to exploit others--and to not even realize they're doing it, leading them to bitch unfairly.

But we liberals are, hopefully, on the right side of history. This sounds boastful and arrogant, I'm sure, and I'm afraid it can't be helped. This isn't to say liberals have a monopoly on truth, whatever it might be, or that conservatives never have any good ideas, because they often do. But as an ethos, liberalism is on the side of the future, on the side of the optimistic notion that society can be made better through an application of reason and on the premise that individuals, while fallible, ultimately have a better nature that can be prevailed upon. As an ethos, conservatives, by definition, presume the past was better and people will always be the same--especially, though they rarely admit this out loud--when it comes to individuals' worse natures. This also isn't to say that liberals reject the past: but liberalism inherently sees humanity as a work in progress, while conservatism is predisposed to see humanity as a finished piece.

I realize this is painting with a broad brush. And I don't offer it with the intent to disparage, though I also realize it's probably the inevitable consequence of such statements. It also probably chafes those inclined to adopt the popular "liberals = big government / conservatives = small government" definition of those systems, but that definition has always been prone to failure, anyway, since (a) it fails to acknowledge that liberals are willing to let government be as large as it needs to be but few, if any, advocate big government for its own sake (the converse doesn't seem to be true for conservatives for some reason) and (b) the conventional definition may not be applicable to the majority of American "conservatives," since the only actual small government conservatives in American politics are the Objectivists and libertarians, who hew to a philosophy that is self-evidently absurd to adults (in the former case) and non-autistics (in the latter); in any case, for the apparent majority of American "conservatives," what they mean by "small government" is that they don't want their taxes spent on anything they don't personally approve of--typically billion dollar military contracts and the expansion of Federal surveillance powers to catch alleged terrorists are okay, but several thousand dollars spent to give inner-city kids something to do other than join a gang is a waste and a joke and spending anything on an owl is right out of the question.

So here are my words of comfort, Seth: you have embraced a value system that has been on a long walk against a strong wind since the Enlightenment, and sometimes it seems like we get blown back three steps for every half-step we muster, but in the end what we have is what is needed to get through--not the certain answers, but the belief those answers are out there. American conservatives have lately taken to mocking Hope, which may show just how bankrupt their ideology has become, if you think about it: I mean, these people aren't out there saying, "I hope for something different from what the President hopes for," or anything along those lines, no, they appear to be scoffing at the idea a grown man would bring it up in politics at all, as if anybody who gloms onto the idea that anybody might be offering it is a fool and a twit. (If the prerequisite for being a conservative is to abandon all hope, ye who enter into the ideology, well, perhaps it's a form of personal Hell, then.) One of America's loudest (and highest pitched) conservative voices likes to ask how the "hopey-changey thing" is working out: well, isn't the alternative to hope and change despair and stagnation? In which case, no thanks, I'll stick to the "hopey" and the "changey" even if it sometimes feels like I'm pounding my forehead against a stone wall as high as ignorance is deep and thick as fear.

This is what we have to offer, this is the liberal tradition: that we can change, and in changing, perhaps tomorrow will be better than yesterday, and if it isn't, well, we can try again. It's tough now, but it always is, y'know?


"California Stars"

>> Sunday, October 24, 2010

Not sure if I have anything blogworthy, and it's Sunday so let's go for something a little more upbeat anyway. For instance, Wilco's "California Stars"; words by Woody Guthrie, music by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and (late) Jay Bennett:

Hope folks are having a most excellent Sunday out there.


"Don't Do It"

>> Saturday, October 23, 2010

Dammit, dammit, dammit!

What I intended to do was hold off on picking up any more music this month after grabbing the latest Interpol album online along with their other two albums I still didn't have.

And then some horrible DJ on The Loft played this cut from the new Sharon Van Etten album.


Seems sort of ironic the song is called "Don't Do It." Yeah, well I did. You should to. She's good. She's very good.

NPR is apparently streaming the whole album here (as of the writing of this post, the stream is still up, though the accompanying article says it should be down by now; anyway, while it's up, you have nothing to lose getting a free taste). And here's Ms. Van Etten's website.


"I do believe it's true..."

>> Friday, October 22, 2010

All that talk about animals the other day, reminded me of this song....

Simon and Garfunkel, "At The Zoo":


Part man, part monkey, looks like to me....

>> Thursday, October 21, 2010

Glenn Beck's never seen a half-man, half-monkey and wants to know if you have.

Bruce Springsteen, of course, answered that one quite a while back:

The Boss is being funny, but he's also right: everybody you look at is part man, part monkey, most definitely, just like everybody you look like is part every-other-thing-we-share-common-lineage-with and nearly everybody you look at is part whatever-the-human-species-will-look-like-ages-from-now. (Those of us who don't have offspring only look like the future to the extent we look like those of our family members whose offspring will pass traits along to posterity.) Which is why we share physical and behavioral traits with our many-times-removed cousins.

Some of us find this ennobling and astonishing. To realize we share so many parts with a frog or a bird or that we share behaviors and possibly even feelings or thoughts with other creatures possessing nervous systems similar to our own because they developed from the same templates and out of the same prototypes--if I was inclined to believe in a deity, this would be a reason to be inspired by Its elegant solution to populating the globe, and even in the absence of the supernatural it is humbling yet empowering to contemplate being part of one vast family residing in some form in every single nook and cranny this vast planet has to offer.

(And let's consider for a second the oft-overlooked part of the paradox our world presents: frequently we're reminded that this world is, as Carl Sagan once put it, "a small blue dot," but the immensity of this blue dot is such that the bulk of the seafloor remains unmapped and the majority of its lifeforms uncatalogued, and consider that this mass has what you might call a fractal property: e.g. in the nooks and crannies of the rocks are trees and in the nooks and crannies of the trees are arboreal vertebrates and in the nooks and crannies of the arboreal vertebrates are invertebrates and in the nooks and crannies of the invertebrates smaller invertebrates and in their nooks and crannies--the fleas have fleas ad infinitum, as Jonathan Swift famously observed. And, beautifully, so beautifully, we have the wonder that in every single place Life could get to, Life has gotten: that there are living things living in enormously hot rocks inside the Earth's crust and bouncing along the winds of the high atmosphere, life living in places you'd never expect to find it and we can only marvel at the persistence of chemistry that got it there.)

Others, sadly, don't see the beauty. One has to suspect that the principle objection some religious types have to Darwin is the same objection their forebears had to Copernicus: not to the evidence or alleged lack thereof, but to the displacement, to the idea that human beings aren't the center of the universe and aren't at all special. (The nonsense irony being: of course we're special--we might well be the only animal on Earth--maybe even in the entire universe, though this seems less likely--that can reflect on what it means to be an animal.) They find it humiliating to contemplate that we might be a part of a process--and not even the end-stage of a process that has no ending, that is simply an ongoing thing that Life does while it's busy being alive. That's so small and sad, really; I'm less inclined to laugh at Glenn Beck for not having the least small bit of understanding about what he's talking about than I am to think it's terribly sad that he doesn't get how magnificent it is to be a part of this wonderful existence, how excellent it is to be a thinking animal, the power and responsibility of being a creature that is very much like monkeys and horses and dogs and cats and even like birds and alligators and even just a tiny little bit like spiders and starfish and even an infinitesimal-but-undeniable bit like amoebas and paramecia--and completely, entirely, uniquely, fundamentally unlike all of the above and everything that ever was or will be.

Poor Glenn Beck. In a cage, and he doesn't even know there's a whole zoo outside....


Ask me: what should Michelle read next?

>> Wednesday, October 20, 2010

And now, here we are for the final question in last week's "Ask Shoulders Of Giant Midgets mailbag. The magnificent Michelle asks the Oracle:

What should I read next? It can't involve zombies.

Sadly, that would seem to preclude reading the recent Amazon horror bestseller Rigor Amortis, a collection of zombie erotica featuring the debut short story "Syd's Turn" from a young man who is certain to become one of America's leading literary lights if he can just finish another fucking story, what the hell is wrong with me, I had a bunch of stuff coming together for a spec story and then the whole goddamn thing turned to goo in my hands and now what the fuck am I supposed to do with this bleeding awful trainwreck I--


But seriously. What should Michelle read? That doesn't have zombies in it.

The best fiction I've finished recently, and the only non-comic thing I think I can recommend over the course of the past year,* is Margaret Atwood's The Year Of The Flood, a sequel to Oryx And Crake, which I haven't read yet. As far as I can tell and have been able to figure out, you don't actually have to read Oryx first: Flood is kind of a sequel, kind of not--Flood mostly covers events that happened parallel to the events in Oryx to mostly-minor characters introduced in Oryx, and then the plots converge near the end of Flood. Flood is just fucking brilliant, anyway, and I can't imagine that Oryx And Crake isn't worth a read, so if you haven't read them, go for it.

Oh--I suppose you might want to know what they're about (so as to demonstrate an absence of stray zombies); I sort of hate to give plot summaries, but I guess I can at least offer up the premise. In The Year Of The Flood presents the final years of North American civilization prior to the release of a bioengineered plague apparently intended to restore nature by removing the human race from the picture, from the points of view of several former members of a religious cult of radical environmentalists. Oryx And Crake (as I understand it, not having read it) actually deals with the people responsible for unleashing the plague in the first place. There are no living dead of any kind, though there are some horrifically sick people during the apocalyptic parts of the book and some pretty awful, mindlessly-violent people during the dystopian future parts of it. But really, best of all, Margaret Atwood's prose is just sharp, sharp, sharp. Seriously, you need to read these.

Also on the finished list is Don DeLillo's Point Omega, but it's a pretty minor work. It's good, mind you, great if you want to compare it to ninety percent of what's out there, but merely adequate if you want to compare it to most of DeLillo's other stuff. The places to start with DeLillo, in my view, are his earlier masterpieces White Noise or Libra (which may be the more accessible of the pair).

White Noise is a darkly funny, angsty account of a middle-aged academic facing the inevitability of his (and his family's) mortality. The title can be taken, I think, as a play on words: "white noise" (static) is a metaphor for death in DeLillo's novel, but you can also take the narrator's white, middle-class existential angst as amounting to little more than "noise" as well.

Libra is a fictional biography of Lee Harvey Oswald, folding verifiable events in Oswald's life into an account of an assassination gone wrong--the conspiracy in Libra is a plan for an attempted assassination intended to provoke Kennedy into a more right-wing stance, but, ah, certain nuances of the plan aren't adequately communicated to those who'll be pulling the triggers. That's not important, though: what Libra is really about is subjective versus objective realities, how communication shapes reality or how information is reality, about capital-m Meaning, about how secrets and lies distort what is real by altering what we think is real. Oswald may be a central shadow in all of this, a character around whom all these things orbit, but the book isn't really about him or, for that matter, the Kennedy assassination.

On the current list, and always to be recommended: I'm currently reading an old collection of T.C. Boyle stories, Without A Hero, and T.C. Boyle is hopefully somebody you already read and love. Any of Boyle's books, really, could be the next thing you read.

Other recommendations aren't coming to mind, or too many are--there are other writers I've pushed here and elsewhere, such as David Foster Wallace and Philip K. Dick. The best way to close, really, is to open the floor (which seems unnecessary, it's already open, but, whatever): gang, what should Michelle read next? (No zombies.)

*I am disappointed to say, as I look over my reading from the past year, that there are several books I've read or am reading that I really can't actually recommend. E.g. Mark Z. Danielewski's House Of Leaves is more interesting than good (to borrow a classic quip from Samuel Johnson, the book is both original and good, but the original parts are not good and the good parts aren't that original) and Alan Weisman's The World Without Us starts out with an interesting idea but becomes sort of tediously and dubiously preachy overall.

And then one of the best things I've read this year was a collection of short stories by Akutagawa Ryunosuke--but I don't know if a collection of English translations of an early-20th Century Japanese writer whose twin obsessions were his country's medieval literature and his own contemporary struggles with bipolar disorder have that broad an appeal. If so, please check Akutagawa out!


Ask me: if I had to be burdened with a mental illness...

>> Tuesday, October 19, 2010

"Ask Shoulders Of Giant Midgets continues! We're nearing the end of the mailbag, and we have another question fromMichelle's:

If you had to be burdened with a mental illness, which would it be?

And we finally have the first question I can't really answer. I realize that's probably not in the spirit of the game, and I have to apologize. But I also have to say that this just isn't a question I can answer because the idea of being burdened with a mental illness (assuming I'm not already, I mean, is this blog not an exercise in neurosis and narcissism?) just terrifies me.

I am, after all, a brain. I don't mean I'm smart, although I guess I am. I mean that I'm not a particularly physical guy, never have been, and even if I lost weight and became all studly and strong, I'd still be somebody whose primary activity all takes place above the neck. I write, or I try to, I'm a lawyer by profession, my hobbies are things like reading and photography and playing a little guitar (though I've all but stopped doing that) or listening to music. I'm not a professional athlete or bricklayer, I don't garden or free-climb mountainsides or jump out of airplanes. I can't honestly say I ever found H.P. Lovecraft's "The Whisperer In Darkness" all that scary only because I can't see the big deal in fungi from Pluto shucking my body and sticking my best bits in a Mi-Go brain cannister.

So the idea of mental illness is one that's personally distressing to some degree. I don't mean in terms of dealing with it in others, which is frankly a huge part of my day job. I mean the idea that this thing that I depend upon for my paychecks and my livelihood and my fun might start malfunctioning is just awful to me, especially when you start talking about major malfunctions like hallucinations and severe memory loss. I'd rather lose a limb. Or two. Maybe more.

I suspect, Michelle, that your question may have been inspired at least in part by an item you recently linked to your at your blog about Alzheimer's patients compensating for mental losses with creativity in other areas. I find--not your blogging about it or your curiosity, but the thought that maybe a profound loss of self might be "compensated" for--a little horrific. I'm not me but I'm a better painter? Or sculptor? The thing is, if I'm losing my self what have I got even if I'm now an awesome painter? This avenue isn't that different from the whole issue of whether paranoid schizophrenics make better musicians or poets--maybe, but I'd still prefer not to be a paranoid schizophrenic.

You know what Syd Barrett's paranoid schizophrenia (if that's even what was wrong with him--that's debated) got him? He wrote about two dozen really brilliant and innovative songs, and along the way he was fired from the band he named, had almost all of his friends basically disown him, was used and abused by a bunch of hangers-on before he retreated to his mother's house and became mostly a shell of a human being and odd target for photographers. Would have died poor if his former bandmates didn't feel so guilty about mishandling his situation when they were basically kids themselves that they went to some extra effort to make sure he was getting royalties for various things (including things like making sure there were some arguably gratuitous reissues and remakes to generate some extra now and then).

I'd rather be sane-ish and unimpressive.

When we were talking about horror the other day, I didn't actually mention one of the scariest stories I ever read as a kid. Maybe the scariest, because it haunts me still almost thirty years later in a way I don't think any other story I read as a kid did, and I can't bring myself to read it again because it is so, so, so depressing and frightening. And it's standard-issue, too, an American classic and shows up in anthologies all the time, used to appear in English textbooks and probably still does: I'm talking about Daniel Keyes' 1959 Hugo winner "Flowers For Algernon". The original novella; Keyes lengthened it a few years later into a novel that isn't nearly effective, the novel feels stilted and padded.

It is, you probably remember, the story of a young, mentally retarded man who gets turned into a supergenius during a medical experiment--and then starts to lose it all. Told in the form of journal entries, from the guy, Charlie's, point of view. With a final line that sticks a knife in your throat and twists it around until you vomit blood. What's unbearable is that second half, or maybe the last third: the idea of being smart, even if you're not Charlie Gordon at his acme smart, and having it slip away from you in chunks like the bank of a creek in flood, sometimes in thin clay streamers mixing with the muddy water and sometimes whole chunks breaking off, falling in, gone, gone, gone.


So, no. This is a game I can't play. Of course, there's the irony that maybe I'm already pathological, neurotic, non-neurotypical. I have my odd phobias and anxieties, hang-ups or fetishes, my irrationalities. Maybe. In which case the answer is if I had to burdened, I'd want to be no worse off than I am now, thanks. But beyond that?

No deal.


Ask me: quite a lot about Star Wars, a little bit about jazz, cheese and annoying siblings...

>> Monday, October 18, 2010

We're still going through the "Ask Giant Midgets mailbag, and I think today we're going to do a little bit of a grab-bag response, so to speak. Normally, I'd like to take each questioner's questions individually, but looking at the next ones in the thread I see that I probably answered Michelle's next question yesterday by accident and Matt's questions span the universe from our moon all the way through time and space to a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Michelle's first question is:

Miles Davis or John Coltrane?

I didn't really mean to answer this in yesterday's post about blues versus jazz, but the answer is so closely tied to my discovery of jazz that I think I covered it anyway. Coltrane was among the first jazz artists I dabbled with, but his work didn't quite blow me away, or at least not the way I expected it to. I mean, it was obviously brilliant, but I didn't have some, I don't know, altered mood or mental state listening to it, the way I would have a decade later when I finally discovered Miles Davis. And it's possible that that was a function of being older and wiser, to be sure, and more open to different kinds of musical things.

But I also think Miles thought about music on a different plane than 'Trane did. I don't want to take anyway from 'Trane with that, but the difference between Coltrane and Davis may be the difference between a great player and a great coach, if that makes sense (or it may be an inadequate metaphor, because Davis was certainly a brilliant player). Maybe the difference between a very good chess player and a Grandmaster might be apt. Anyway, I don't think I've ever had the sense with Coltrane that he saw the whole game from up above somewhere and knew what the next dozen moves would be, versus the sense you sometimes get listening to Davis that the whole structure of a composition--even stuff that his bandmates haven't improvised yet--it in his mental eye and what those fellow musicians will create is something that he knew they would create (and that they had to create, because he willed their jams into existence in some mystical fashion).

Michelle also asks:

Why do guys always treat me like a pesky little sister?

Stop touching me.

Moving along....

Matt has two questions for Giant Midgets. The first is pretty easy:

Who would you rather have for a roommate, Jar Jar or Wicket?

One of those creatures is a plush, cute, intelligent, curious animated teddy bear who makes inoffensive warbling noises and will keep out intruders with effective use of his spear and various jury-rigged traps. The other is an irritating, clumsy, loudmouthed frog who was pretty much directly responsible for Senator Palpatine becoming Emperor. Do you really need to ask?

I never found the Ewoks to be offensive the way some Star Wars fans do, and I disagree with the common reflexive assessment that the Ewoks were invented solely to sell toys. Not that I think the truth says much for Lucas, to be equally, brutally frank: I think the Ewoks were clumsily handled and reflect a stunning imaginative failure on Lucas' part. (And, I hate to add, may reflect a certain, well... I don't think "racism" is quite fair, but I think you might say "racial shallowness" of the same sort that would result in some of the same offensiveness you see in the prequels.)

To understand how the Ewoks (a) weren't invented to sell toys and (b) reflect a complete imaginative failure on Lucas' part, I think you have to go way back in time to the 1970s, when Lucas was fumbling around with the few pages of notes that would eventually become the "Star Wars Saga." The best place for background is almost certainly Michael Kaminski's The Secret History Of Star Wars, which used to be available online as a free PDF, though that seems to have been pulled now that he actually has a hardcopy available for sale (you can still read essays and articles at Kaminski's site, and you might be able to find the PDF if you dig around the Internet). I'll sort of summarize, if I could; some of this is Kaminski and some of this is me, and for a few points I've added Wikipedia and IMDB links, but here we go....

Back in the early 1970s, George Lucas was a protégé of Francis Ford Coppola, right? Which didn't work out too well for Coppola, because, unfortunately, the first big project Coppola produced for his independent American Zoetrope studios was Lucas' THX 1138, which was a huge flop and pretty much drove Zoetrope out of business and resulted in Coppola having to do a bunch of studio stuff he didn't want to do, like adapting a schlocky Mario Puzo novel into a feature film. (Okay, so maybe that story sort of had a happy ending after all--at least for the rest of us.)

So, anyway, while Coppola is trying to make good on the fact that his favorite son, Lucas, drove Coppola's fledgling indie studio right into the ditch, Lucas is working on developing various script proposals for Coppola, including developing a John Milius screenplay for a Vietnam War comedy Coppola wanted to produce. Yes, kids, in an alternate universe somewhere, Apocalypse Now is a M*A*S*H-style war comedy directed by George Lucas.

In our universe, however, things didn't work out that way. Lucas, perhaps partly egged-on by his wife, Marcia, goes to work on a feel-good Americana movie, American Graffiti, while Coppola makes the Godfather films and then takes over Apocalypse himself (which then goes off the rails, as I think everybody knows). But in the meantime, Graffiti and Apocalypse Now aren't the only things on Lucas' plate: as everybody also knows, Lucas was bouncing around ideas for a Big Space Epic. Evidently, Lucas first tried to get the rights for Flash Gordon, but when that fell apart he started working on treatments and eventually scripts for his own amalgamated-through-his-Id SF serial+samurai film+western+muscle cars+Vietnam+WWII fighter movie+kitchen sink extravaganza.

Now, notice the word Vietnam in there? This is why all that Apocalypse Now stuff turns out to be so significant. Lucas has been working on this Vietnam War movie, and beyond that, like a lot of Americans and a lot of creative and intellectual types (and regardless of how smart or dumb you personally think Lucas is, he's in that "creative and intellectual types" caste), Lucas is wondering how a Third World nation beats a Global Superpower. This is, I'm afraid, where we get into that sort of, agh, hate-to-say-it racial ditchwater, because of course what a lot of people see (or saw) when they look (or looked) at Vietnam was a bunch of, well, "primitives" beating American might, as opposed to seeing a bunch of French-educated intellectuals with home soil advantage and decades of military experience as insurrectionists (having successively and successfully fought challenged Japanese invaders during WWII and then the French colonial forces in the '50s) and massive infusions of Soviet foreign aid beating an overextended, morale-challenged, nation in the throes of domestic strife and economic confusion. But it is what it is.

The point re: Star Wars is that it seems Lucas folds his Vietnam thinking into the project by introducing this whole storyline involving these primitive forest creatures fighting off the Empire, who are eventually joined by the heroes and are eventually victorious. And these primitive forest creatures, present in early Star Wars drafts, eventually evolve over the course of the drafts into Wookies. (With, perhaps, some eventual help from a John Shoenherr illustration for a George R.R. Martin story in Analog.)

Now, when Star Wars finally gets greenlit by, it seems kind of apt, Alan Ladd, Jr., at Fox, Lucas is sitting there with tons of material and approval to do one two-hour film. Apparently he's been bouncing around various ideas for a franchise with friends, and American Graffiti has been a humongous success and vindication for him, but the truth is he doesn't know if Star Wars is going to be another Graffiti or another THX 1138. So he culls his notes for all his best ideas and sticks them all into one movie. The Wookie War gets pulled, but he keeps one Wookie... and since there's no reason to make the Wookie a primitive, suddenly the Wookie is the ship's co-pilot for no terribly good reason. When you look at the early drafts to the extent they're available, at the preliminary concept art, and at the research Kaminski's done, this is all really typical of Lucas at this stage: I mean, lots of stuff comes down to "I really like this but there's no space for it so I'll just have one" in what will eventually be A New Hope--no room for legions of Jedi, so we'll just have Ben Kenobi; no budget for everybody to have a lightsaber, so it's just Ben, Luke and Darth; no room for lots of Starkiller brothers and sisters, so we'll just have the one (and rename him Skywalker); no room for a Wookie civilization, but this one can be a sidekick, etc.

Of course, Star Wars is a huge success. Nothing like it ever before and probably nothing will ever be like it again. Lucas starts talking about dozens of sequels, then a half dozen, and then the first filmed sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, is kind of a disaster behind the scenes. (Before the release of Star Wars, and not sure if it will succeed or flop, Lucas drafts a different low-budget sequel that ends up appearing as an Alan Dean Foster spin-off novel of dubious canonicity when The Empire Strikes Back becomes the proposed follow-up.) So Lucas says he's making a trilogy. And how is he going to wrap things up?

Well, what he does, is: he goes back to that old Star Wars script from the '70s and adapts the last act he compressed and streamlined into the last act of the 1977 film--space Vietnam with primitive warriors fighting the Empire, attack on the evil battlestation--and adds a first act wrapping up the cliffhanger at the end of Empire. Except he still has a problem, and this is where his failure of imagination truly becomes complete: he already has Wookies, and they fly spaceships so they can't be primitives, can they? So what does he do?

He makes them five feet shorter and bumps the "e" off the end of their name and sticks it on the front. "Wookie" becomes "ee-Wook." That's it. The Ewoks are midget Wookies. And their ridiculous taking-down of the Empire with rocks and pointy sticks is Lucas' version of Apocalypse Now. I shit you not.

Now, obviously the marketing opportunities presented by Ewoks are self-evident. No doubt, Lucas was thinking "and the toys'll sell" when he knocked five feet off a Wookie and, jeez, can you even really say "renamed" it? He'd been selling Wookie toys for years at that point. But the reason Ewoks weren't invented as a marketing opportunity, in my view (and I think Kaminski would agree), is that he'd invented them a decade earlier as a Vietnam parable way before he'd signed a deal with Kenner or even signed a deal with 20th Century Fox.

Which in some ways is worse. The conventional wisdom seems to be that Lucas was a whore in 1983, when he made Return Of The Jedi. I disagree, but the root of my disagreement would be that Lucas was, for all intents and purposes, creatively completely tapped-out by 1981, after working on drafts for The Empire Strikes Back with Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan and Raiders Of The Lost Ark with Kasdan, Philip Kaufman and Stephen Spielberg. Everything since, he's been running on fumes. It's like being dead, only you can hear it when they stop saying nice things about you.

And after all that, we still have one more question.

Exactly how much cheese is too much?

We may have indirectly answered the question, supra: the cheese is too much when in your third film you're just rehashing your old and abandoned ideas from the first film. But in terms of the foodstuff: the cheese is too much when you vomit. Then, and only then, do you know you've had too much cheese; the problem, of course, being that until you reach that point you haven't had enough cheese. Consequently, we find that there is a cheese paradox equivalent to the bacon paradox: there is no such thing as "enough" cheese (or bacon).

Thanks for the questions, gang!


Quote Of The Day

>> Sunday, October 17, 2010

"I figured most people would say, 'Wow, I didn't know Insane Clown Posse could be deep like that.' But instead it's, 'ICP said a giraffe is a miracle. Ha ha ha! What a bunch of idiots.'" [Violent J] pauses, then adds defiantly, "A giraffe is a fucking miracle. It has a dinosaur-like neck. It's yellow. Yeah, technically an elephant is not a miracle. Technically. They've been here for hundreds of years…"

"Thousands," murmurs Shaggy.

-The members of Insane Clown Posse demonstrate
their grasp of natural history to Jon Ronson,
"Insane Clown Posse: And God created controversy,"
The Guardian, October 9th, 2010


Ask me: jazz or blues?

So we're still going through the mailbag for "Ask Shoulders Of Giant Midgets week. And what do we have for today's post? Hang on while I rummage around--hang on--ouch--paper cut--wait--got something!

Michelle asks:

Jazz or Blues

If Jazz, what kind of jazz?

Great question!

When I was growing up, I was easily a blues guy. But this was a direct outgrowth of the kind of rock and roll I like: big Pink Floyd fan, as regular readers already know, and David Gilmour's pretty much a blues guitarist. So were the guitar players I listened to especially through junior high school. As the '80s progressed, I increasingly got into some of what I'd call "antiguitarists," guitar players like Peter Buck and The Edge and Johnny Marr who eschewed a lot of the blues-based and power chord based styles that were dominant through the '60s and '70s in favor of extended techniques and other departures from "traditional" rock guitar playing.

Rock being my gateway into blues, there was frankly a focus on bluesmen referenced by rock musicians or easily accessible to a rock sensibility. So, for instance, I was big on Robert Johnson (a major and explicit influence on Clapton, Zeppelin, and the Stones) and B.B. King (essentially a rock guitarist by any other name...).

In the late '80s I tried to get into jazz, but had trouble with it. There were a few musicians I dabbled in, especially if they were referenced by rockers I liked. U2, for instance, referenced Coltrane a lot in the late '80s, but I don't know that they even really got 'Trane, either, or if it was just part of their late-'80s-era infatuation with Americana and a name they could drop. The very accessible, pop-oriented My Favorite Things was easy to grok, but I remember feeling kind of bad that A Love Supreme was an album I liked but that was it--it didn't blow me away as some kind of soul-shattering, earth-rocking, heart-attacking experience, and--worse still--in some ways it even left me a little cold.

It wasn't until the '90s, and pretty late in the '90s, that I really had a jazz epiphany. What happened was I took a gamble and bought the four-disc boxed set version of Miles Davis' Bitches' Brew, and of course I did it because it was referenced as a rock record: I remembered that about ten years earlier Rolling Stone had called it one of the hundred best rock records of all time (I can't remember where it placed); I took a chance on the box because I figured if I liked it, I'd regret not spending the couple of extra bucks for the full set and if I didn't like it, well, it's just another ten bucks or whatever it was.

So I'm sitting in my living room, listening to the first disc and the first track, "Pharaoh's Dance," and... wow. It was one of those shingles-falling-away kind of things, especially in light of the fact I'd dabbled in jazz appreciation with such lack of success before. It was, "So this is jazz, holy shit," you know?

Since then: jazz. Totally jazz. Miles or Hancock style fusion (which I hate to type just because so much so-called "fusion" is easy-listening shit, it's like typing a really ugly slur just to type those letters in a musical context) and bebop in particular, though there's still an appreciation for those old pop standards from the middle of the 20th Century that have gotten folded into jazz, e.g. a lot of what Ella was doing.

Coming in so late in the game, though it's been a good ten-to-fifteen years now, I still don't necessarily feel comfortable talking jazz. Are my jazz tastes gauche? Jazz remains such a small part of my music collection, relatively speaking--am I shallow? But it's definitely become a love, and there are some discs I'd really want to have if I had a chance to pack a suitcase before being exiled to a desert island (if I could only take one album with me, I'd probably have to stick with Floyd's Wish You Were Here, y'know?). Birth Of The Cool and Bitches' Brew have go-with-me-anywhere status on various media devices, along with Nina Simone's Four Women box and a lot of Medeski Martin & Wood (Tonic is a great place to start with MMW, if you ask me).

So, yeah: jazz or blues? Jazz! (But I still love the blues.)

Thanks for the question!


Ask me: who gives a shit!

>> Saturday, October 16, 2010

The irascible Nathan insists:

Who gives a shit!

I do, Princess, I do.

Seriously, though: as I was walking up to the Smelly Cat this fine Saturday afternoon to drink coffee and try to do the whole "writing" thing, I wasn't thinking about Nathan's question but I was thinking about an item Roger Ebert had tweeted about earlier in the day that raises a related issue. Ebert was proffering a link to a Washington Post op-ed piece by Michael Gerson, "Christopher Hitchens: A humanist at heart"; Hitchens, as you know, is fighting off cancer, and one very public result has been that Hitchens' status as one of the vocal, so-called "New Atheists" is seemingly shadowed by the Angel Of Death: will Hitch suddenly see the light? Undergo a deathbed conversion? Regret all the mean things he's ever said about Mother Teresa now that he's about to join her (or, more likely, go to the deepest, fieriest of Hells where the air is pungent with the aroma of roasted behinds)? It's all a bit ghoulish, if you ask me, but whatever.

Anyway, the question Gerson wants to focus on is the same idiotic one that religionists seem to fixate on, the one that goes back to what Nathan asks. Gerson, discussing a recent public forum event featuring Christopher Hitchens and his religious brother, Peter, writes:

But Christopher Hitchens is weaker on the personal and ethical challenge presented by atheism: Of course we can be good without God, but why the hell bother? If there are no moral lines except the ones we draw ourselves, why not draw and redraw them in places most favorable to our interests? Hitchens parries these concerns instead of answering them: Since all moral rules have exceptions and complications, he said, all moral choices are relative. Peter Hitchens responded, effectively, that any journey becomes difficult when a compass points differently at different times.

Who cares? Why bother? If there isn't a divine being to punish the lot of us, why shouldn't we live in a miserable anarchy where it's every one for himself? Why that question isn't self-evidently stupid is beyond me: who wants to live in a miserable anarchy where it's every man for himself, invisible great Kahuna in the sky or no?

There are a couple of ways you can rationally arrive at a system of ethics through reason with no recourse to a deity at all. One is to start with John Rawls' original position: in Rawls' thought experiment, one tries to imagine what an ideal society might be like if one could start the whole thing over from square one and design civilization from scratch, but only from a position of ignorance as to what one's own position in the imagined society might be; i.e. if you designed a state in which one man would be king and everyone else gets to be a slave, is that a place you'd want to live even if you didn't know which one you'd be? Clearly, a sane, rational, self-interested person would design a society with a minimum of social inequality and the maximum degree of social justice that could be imposed--you'd want to make sure that if there was a chance you'd be the very worst-off person in the entire culture, you'd still be as well-off as you could be under the circumstances.

The point of the original position, of course, is not that anyone's likely to be able to reform society from scratch (not unless you're planning on being a revolutionary somewhere, and that hardly ever works out very well for anyone involved); the point, rather, is that the original position gives us ideas for what a just society ought to look like and it therefore makes sense to try to bring that state into actual existence working from the present position. Rawls work at that point tends to focus on things like economics and laws, but one can certainly consider one's personal life in terms of the original position. That is, it's hard to imagine a society in which the strong take from the weak and it's okay for someone to be cheated as being the society you'd come up with starting at the original position, so then why would one in turn take from the weak or cheat others, thereby increasing (and not decreasing) the amount of injustice, strife and pain in the world and therefore making the world that much less than what one would like to live in?

A second, related point is this: that unless one wants to spend all of one's time defending oneself and eking out a subsistence living providing entirely for oneself, one must coexist in society with other human beings, and coexistence requires at least a minimum level of trust and transparency. This is, perhaps, less directly Rawlsian and more in terms of classical game theory (specifically, life might be regarded as a kind of iterated Prisoner's Dilemma in which life's prisoners are allowed some degree of communication). If I am willing to lie, cheat, rob and hurt my neighbor, why on Earth should I expect him to treat me any differently, with or without the threat of divine sanction? And if my neighbor does treat me better than I treat him, why should I expect him to continue to do so over time: as my reputation for being a menace to society increases and spreads, the best I might hope for from a civilized people is shunning and the worst might be their decision to remove me as a problem through exile, incarceration or death. And in an anarchy--they cannot trust me to be good, but neither can I trust them: accordingly, I'll be spending my whole miserable experience protecting myself from others or trying to preemptively get them before they get me. Such an existence has nothing to offer but fear.

What Gerson doesn't seem to understand, then, is that the moral lines are the ones most favorable to my interests. I will do unto others as I hope they will do unto me, not because I'm afraid God will punish me for not doing so, but because I'm afraid they'll punish me for not doing so, and because I hope they will extend me the same courtesy. I will strive to be honest and peaceful because I think behaving in such a way makes life better for myself and everyone else, while behaving in a fashion contrary to that makes life worse for everyone else and ultimately for myself (there may be short-term benefits from taking advantage of others, but what of my--and their--long-term interests?).

While it seems small and mean-spirited to point this out, I cannot help mentioning that fear of divine reprisal certainly doesn't keep the prisons from being filled with the faithful. Plenty of believers appear to be willing to foul their nests even if they stay out of jail or manage to conform to the letter of man's laws: fear of God hasn't kept mill owners from poisoning their neighbors' drinking water between church Sundays, hasn't inspired every religious captain of industry to pay his employees a living wage, any number of avowedly religious politicians have lied to their constituents and too many religious leaders have molested members of their flocks. I don't bring this up to smack around the faithful with the failures in their midst; rather, the reason I mention it is that I'm not convinced that, for many of them at least, their religion doesn't undermine their reason to be good, contrary to what Gerson may presume about believers versus infidels.

Let me put it to you this way: many Christians (certainly not all--sects vary in their doctrines, of course) believe that the bulk of their existence will be spent in the afterlife; furthermore, many of them also believe that the way to have a good afterlife--an eternity in Heaven with their God and their loved ones--is to accept Jesus as their saviour or express or engage in other doctrinally-appropriate behaviors (regardless of what other transgressions they may have indulged in as well), and Jesus (being a loving and merciful and, most of all, forgiving) entity, will absolve them of their sins.

I believe, on the other hand, that my entire existence in the universe will be whatever span of years I have on this Earth, and that there will be nobody and nothing to forgive my trespasses, whatever they might be; that even if other people forgive and/or forget the ways I've hurt them, I still have to live with and remember my failings and offenses. Furthermore, I believe that all that will be left of me when I'm gone is the memories held by those whose lives I've touched, and while I will be beyond caring about such things when I'm dead, until I'm dead I have to live with the burden of hoping that I will have given them more good things to remember me by kindly than awful ones to hold against me--which is something that probably bothers anyone with a conscience.

So there are religious people who believe that this is a moment and they can be forgiven, and I believe this is everything and I can only hope to be remembered well, and Gerson thinks the former have more of an incentive to be moral than I do? Really?

I care. Because I should, not because I have to.


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