“One Half the World Fools and the Other Half Hypocrites”

A Disgression on ‘ How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions‘, by Francis Wheen.

I’m reading a genuinely scary book: How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions, by Francis Wheen.  It’s a catalog of the absurdities and errors which, according to the author, characterize the thinking of modern Western man: post-structuralism, catastrophism, Reaganonimcs, alternative medicine, &c.

Two years ago, this book would have made me feel smug.  I suffer from none of the pernicious un-reasons which afflict the men and women in this book, despite the fact that many of them are actually smarter than I am.  I try to be empirical, and I think I largely succeed (but, then, again, obviously, everyone thinks they’re empirical).

Two years ago, I would have read How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World and shaken my head in self-satisfied dismay about how stupid and gullible other people are.  But that was before I took a spin class.

I’ve taken one spin class, a little over a year ago.  I really enjoyed that one spin class I took, although I would never describe it as pleasant.  It was in a small dark room filled with bikes armed with excruciating sharp little seats.  The music was thumpy and very loud and there was an extremely fit woman in the front shouting at us.

But it was encouraging shouting.  This woman with insanely muscular arms kept yelling at me that I was beautiful, that I was killing those hills, that I could definitely do another, that I was looking really great today.

These were all lies, or at least, none of these things were objectively true.  I didn’t look beautiful or even great – I looked horrible, like a sweating person in bad pain who wasn’t going to be able to sit comfortably for a week.  And I was not “killing” the “hills”  – I was lurching up them in near-despair.

Nevertheless, I believed everything the woman screamed at me that day.  Somehow the dark and the music and the numbing pain and the arms and the yelling combined to make me love that shrieking woman, and I would have followed her into battle if she had asked me.  Yet I remember that somehow, in the dank thrumming spin room, it managed to occur to me how cultish my feelings were.

I didn’t care at all – I was having a blast.  But it was humbling: I was susceptible to spin class-level manipulation, which is not, let’s face it, super-sophisticated.  And I knew I was being manipulated, and it still didn’t matter to me: feeling pumped in that moment was worth more than occupying my precious intellectual high-ground.

I don’t think I betrayed the Enlightenment by enjoying my spin class.  But we all abandon the strict precepts of reason every once in a while to make our world a little more comfortable.  That doesn’t make it right, and it doesn’t make it admirable: ideally, we would all be empirical all the time.  We would be data-driven: we would not believe what is not true, and when we do not possess sufficient data, we would remain agnostic.

But someone who actually did that would be insufferable.  We must act on what we believe we know and we must, in a world of contradictions, at some point choose to believe something: I chose to believe in that moment that I was a hill-crushing goddess.  I think that the best that we can reasonably do is change our minds when new information requires it: when I saw myself in the mirrors in the hallway after class, I quickly revised my estimation.  We’re all going to turn out to have been wrong about much of what we believe, whether we like it or not – in the meantime, we might as well spin.

Title quotation by Thomas Jefferson. Featured image, from Thomas Paine’s Age Of Reason, taken from rationalrevolution.net.

“The Perfect Love Affair Is One Which Is Conducted Entirely By Post”

A Review of ‘The Affair‘ on Showtime

This post contains spoilers and refers only to Season 1.

I’ve been binge-watching the first season of ‘The Affair’, which is a T.V. show about a likeable but resentful married man, Noah (played by Dominic West), who has an affair with a unlikeable but fuckable married woman, Alison (played by Ruth Wilson).  The show, which seems to have gotten mixed but largely positive reviews, has some problems: there’s a whole lotta plot for not a ton of pay-off, and everyone spends a lot of time in Montauk looking agitated and unresolved.

But there are some things I really like about ‘The Affair’, and one of those things is the relationship between Noah and his wife Helen (played by Maura Tierney).  It seems, despite his affair, like a happy relationship, a long and companiable marriage between two people who essentially like each other.

Normally, when a relationship with a cheating member is depicted on T.V., the blame for the infidelity is put, in part, on the spouse cheated-on.  They are cold; they are mean.  I appreciate that ‘The Affair’ is willing to have a spouse step out on a good relationship.

Or I did like that, until, in the middle of the first season, Helen learns about Noah’s affair, and, in couple’s therapy, comes out with this little speech:

“”Do you know why I married you?”

“Because you love me?”

“I thought you were safe…Do you remember how quiet you used to be?  You got paralyzed if there were more than three people in the conversation.  I mean, you only spoke to me; everyone else thought you were mute.  And I could have had anyone, when I was young – I’m sorry if that sounds crass, but it’s true, and I chose you.  And I knew you were never going to be President or famous or rich, but I didn’t care about that because I had a rich, famous father and he’s such a fucking asshole and you adored me.  I knew you would never cheat; you wouldn’t leave and you would be a good father and we would have a nice life and we would grow old and die together and everyone would talk about how lucky we are and what a smart choice I made.””

This is some bullshit right here.

She’s horrible!  For the entire first half of the first season, she’s been doing a very good impression of a devoted wife and mother, but she fooled you!  She’s a narcissist – she only chose him because she thought his mediocrity would trap him with her and make her look good by comparison.  Their life, their marriage, their children, all were props in her one-woman show: Smart Choices of Helen Solloway.  She is revealed as moral monster.

There was no good reason to pathologize this character or this relationship this way.  It shows an intolerance for the fact that most humans are complicated.  If a husband (or wife) is unfaithful, it does not mean that their spouse must be secretly awful.  There are plenty of people who like, or even love, their spouses, and still cheat on them.  Not every unfaithful spouse is escaping a rotten marriage: people get bored, or lazy, or have some other existential crisis, or they meet someone else they really, really want to have sex with.

In order to make sure that we stayed with Noah, that we continued to care about his story, they threw his wife under the plot bus: they made her the villain so that his fidelity would make sense.

But infidelity already makes sense – it doesn’t need explaining.  Anyone who has ever wanted to have sex understands the idea of wanting to have sex with someone else.  And it’s an old and cheap trick, making the wife emotionally responsible for the husband’s failing.  It’s retrograde and stupid.

And I can’t help but notice that while Helen, Noah’s wife, must bear the weight of his error, Alison’s husband Cole (played by Joshua Jackson) is allowed to remain sympathetic.  In each relationship, it is the woman who is ultimately responsible for the infidelity

The Affair’ got a lot less interesting when it decided to make Helen horrible.  Before, things were murky and hard and muddled.  There were four complicated people in a mess, and the fact that the mess was of their own construction did not mean that I did not feel for them; now, there are only irritating people acting badly.  The show is flat now, and I can’t seem to care anymore who sleeps with whom, or leaves whom, or knows what.  They can all go to hell in a handbasket for all I care, and good riddance.

Features image from imdb.com.  Title quotation by George Bernard Shaw.

Death By a Thousand Screens

Digression on ’15 Million Merits’, in Season 1 of ‘Black Mirror

In the first season of the show ‘Black Mirror’, in the second episode, titled ‘15 Million Merits’, the episode’s main character, Bing, faced with a panel of judges on a ‘Britain’s Got Talent’-esque reality show, comes out with a speech, of which this is an excerpt:

“Show us something real and free and beautiful – you couldn’t.  It’d break us.  We’re too numb for it.  Our minds would choke.  There’s only so much wonder we can bear – that’s why when you find any wonder whatsoever, you dole it out in meagre portions, and only then ‘til it’s augmented and packaged and pumped through ten thousand pre-assigned filters, ‘til it’s nothing more than a meaningless series of lights, while we ride day-in, day-out – going where?  Powering what?  All tiny cells in tiny screens and bigger cells in bigger screens and fuck you.  Fuck you – that’s what it boils down to is: fuck you.”

Well, actually, pardon me, but fuck you.

I really like ‘Black Mirror’; I think it’s clever, well-made, and well-acted.  And while I don’t mind being preached to about my T.V. consumption, I don’t like the author of that sermon being the T.V. itself.

If you believe that we are all becoming slaves to our T.V. habits, then perhaps you shouldn’t go into television production.  And while I am consuming your product, please don’t lecture me on what a pathological sucker I am for enjoying it.  This is like Pablo Escobar handing you an eightball and saying, “You know, this is really bad for you.”

One possibility is that the maker of ‘Black Mirror’, Charlie Brooker, believes that his show is qualitatively finer stuff than the rest of the dreck that occupies our tiny and big screens, and we, his audience, are meant to be pleased that we are, likewise, cleverer than the bovine masses.  We should be flattered by our own good taste and impressed with our shared acuity.  However, I doubt that the great demarcation between the enlightened and hoi polloi is who is binge-watching ‘Black Mirror’ on Netflix and who isn’t, and I dislike media which attempts to assuage my critical judgement by trying to convince me that I am more sophisticated than I am.

The other possibility is that Charlie Brooker wants to be able to shame us for our screen time while at the same time benefitting from it.  That he has observed, along with everyone else on the planet, that television makes zombies of us, and he wants to preach about that while not losing viewers, and that he is in some measure, a hypocrite.

Presumably, whatever caution he intended to inspire against technology is meant to exempt his own show.  I doubt very much that I was meant to listen to that righteous little speech, smack my forehead in epiphany, turn off my computer, and stop watching ‘Black Mirror’.

And I didn’t; as I said, I like ‘Black Mirror’.  More than that, despite the fact that, in the mouth of a T.V. character, Bing’s speech is smug and pedantic and offensive, it has the insuperable defense of being also right.  And entertaining.  And maybe the message is more important than the medium.  And perhaps the screens are only as evil as the content on them is vapid.

And ‘Black Mirror’ may be self-satisfied, but it isn’t stupid.

Black Mirror is also available on Netflix.

War Must Be, While We Defend Our Books Against a Destroyer Who Would Devour All

I have seen the hill on which I die; I have seen the banner which flies above it.  I have read the words on that banner, the same words which will, I expect, adorn my tombstone, words which have never made anyone better loved but which have become a mantra, words which I have spoken a thousand times in vain: “That’s not in the book”.

The third Hobbit movie, ‘The Battle of The Five Armies’, is also the worst, a particularly ignominious end to an already-bad trilogy.  The special effects are cheesy, the writing is abysmal, the acting is insufficient, and it is years too long.  However, the most urgent problem, one which is the most pronounced in this third installment, is that it isn’t ‘The Hobbit’!

‘The Battle of the Five Armies’ has characters, scenes, battles, sub-plots, creatures, and romances which are not in ‘The Hobbit’, by J.R.R. Tolkien, and for which lack that book suffers not at all.

I suppose it is the old story: absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Peter Jackson probably had something very like absolute creative power over the Hobbit movies, and the movies themselves have paid the price for that.

It must have required a monstrous, overweening arrogance to roll up to ‘The Hobbit’, a small, cinematic jewel of a book, penned by no less an eminence than Tolkien, and to say, “I know what this needs: Legolas, some elf-on-dwarf action, and yet more roles for Benedict Cumberbatch’.  All of these impulses were badly wrong, and it is startling that they should have been the impulses of the man who adhered so slavishly to the master’s text in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies.  Between those movies and these, someone convinced Peter Jackson that he had better creative vision than Tolkien.  He had not.

The Hobbit’ was a tight, sweet little book, which could have made a lovely movie if Jackson had not determined that it be a swollen prelude to the ‘Lord of the Rings’, continuous in tone and character and preposterously identical in length.

But, despite its miserable badness and its total lack of integrity, ‘The Battle of The Five Armies’ made nearly $55 million its opening weekend in the United States alone, reaching a worldwide gross of $100 million in only four days.  I am alone on my hill, obviously, one confused and indignant voice talking to absolutely no one: “But none of that was in the book!”

Image taken from tolkienbooks.net.

The Hobbit‘, by J.R.R. Tolkien.

George Orwell Isn’t Angry, He’s Just Disappointed

Review of ‘The Maze Runner

I’m about to do something despicable: I am about to judge a story by its movie.  Obviously, this is not the done thing – it’s like judging a wine by the picture on the label, or a symphony by how comfy the seats in the opera house are.  I can offer only this: I am more disgusted with myself than you could ever be.

I haven’t read The Maze Runner, nor its sequels, The Scorch Trials and The Death Cure, by James Dashner.  Let me be the first to admit the possibility that it is a literary masterpiece, plagued by none of the plot difficulties which I am discussing here.

Let me also say that ‘The Maze Runner’ movie is a ton of fun, at least until the climax.

Let me also also say I am going to spoil the ending.  Fair warning.

‘The Maze Runner’ is the story of a group of boys who wake up inside a gigantic mechanical maze with no memory of how they got there.  The maze is patrolled by large, shrieking mechanical bugs, who occasionally sting them with the Rage Virus from 28 Days Later.  To make a long and entertaining story short, they escape, and learn that they have been placed there by a sneaky cabal of Bilderberg-esque scientists (the same exact crew, I believe, who keep chasing poor Alice around in the Resident Evil sequels).

The scientists have the placed the children inside the maze to stop the zombie apocalypse which has swept the population in the aftermath of catastophic global warming (or so we are told in the last five minutes of the movie).  The young men, who might be immune from the zombie-ism (called ‘the flare’), were being studied by the scientists, who apparently needed fMRIs of their brains under…maze conditions.

This is all, obviously, deeply stupid and without any scientific rationale of even tissue-paper thinness.  Putting the potentially immune in a maze is not effective in combatting either zombie-ism or global warming.

[Side note: I can hear some internet asshat now, saying, ‘Scientists put animals in mazes all the time’.  Yes, but not to study disease immunity.]

I understand that peri-adolescent dystopias are all the rage these days, but the global catastrophism added nothing whatever to ‘The Maze Runner’.  In fact, the things which were entertaining about the story, the arbitrary creepiness of the maze, the dynamic among the boys in the face of the unknown, are starker and more interesting without the half-baked reveal of the puppet masters.  Sometimes, creepy stories stand better alone, without context or elaboration.

Dystopias ought to have a point.  The malignancies they depict are meant to have their roots in our own times and places.  They are meant to show us our danger.  ‘Global warming might burn the surface of the earth’ – OK.  Is it scarier, more revealing, more enlightening to add, ‘Global warming might burn the surface of the earth and then someone might put kids in a maze’?  It teaches us nothing, and detracts from an otherwise pleasingly weird story.

By all means, write a terrifying post-global warming dystopia.  Even put a maze in it, if you like.  But connect the two things!  Perhaps an angry group of Republicans has hidden the secret to passing a carbon tax, and a group of young men must find their way through their labyrinthine conservative thinking to find it!  Perhaps a scientist has found a way to scrub atmospheric carbon, but he has lost it deep in the bowels of a University designed to thwart PETA protestors!  But justify the inclusion of global disaster; don’t just throw it in at the end.

‘The Breast’

When I was younger, I would read anything I could get my hands on that promised to be in any way about sex.  The promised connection might be tenuous in the extreme, but I would read it, anyway, and hope.

So, you can imagine my excitement when, in the 4th grade, perusing my parents’ library, I discovered a book called ‘The Breast’, by Philip Roth (I didn’t know it then, but Philip Roth can be absolutely relied upon to write about sex, always, even when you long for him to stop).

I waited until one afternoon when my parents were suitably occupied, and I crouched behind one of the big wing-backed chairs (Lord only knows what I thought that would accomplish – I was perfectly visible, and must have looked quite stupid) and read the entire thing.

The Breast’ is a novella Roth published in 1972.  It’s about a man named David Kepesh who turns into a giant breast.  It’s excruciatingly boring.  Whatever attraction they hold for some, breasts aren’t characterologically interesting.  And Roth, who hasn’t been able, in his decades of authorship, to imagine a single fully realized female character (besides Anne Frank, for whom he cannot take credit), probably wasn’t the best candidate to make a man-sized breast into an interesting, three-dimensional figure.

Of course, the penis is the only organ Roth has ever really been interested in – his own stars in nearly all of his books.  And, though it would seem an impossibility, his penis even stars in ‘The Breast’ – it simply turns into the nipple of the eponymous breast (literally).  Much of ‘The Breast’ is spent in long and loving description of the seemingly endless spongebaths the nipple receives from the nurses at the hospital.

Roth, and ‘The Breast’, taught me an important literary lesson that day, behind the wing chair: in the hands the right (or wrong) monomaniac, even sex, that great and complicated human motivator, can be boring.

Philip Roth, despite my irritations with him, is considered a great American author for a reason, and ‘The Breast‘ is not one of his masterpieces.  To get a better sense of why he is loved by so many, try Portnoy’s Complaint, American Pastoral, or Operation Shylock.

The book which features Anne Frank as a character is The Ghost Writer, and it is also, in my opinion, one of his best.

 

The Alien Problem

Aliens are tough.

If you want scary aliens in your movie, you have only two real options: human-scary aliens, and non-human-scary aliens.

Human-scary almost never works.  Human-scary aliens look basically like humans.  They walk like humans.  They have two legs, two arms, two eyes in their one head.

Human-scary aliens are rarely scary.  Or, rather, if they are scary, they are only scary the way that humans can be scary.  Take the aliens in M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs.

Signs Alien

From ‘Signs’.  Just a big-headed guy: not scary.

They weren’t scary, unless they were creeping through cornfields, or leaping out from a dark corner, or grabbing at you suddenly from under a door.  But a housecat can startle you if it sneaks up on you – that doesn’t make it scary.  These aliens aren’t frightening, or even particularly interesting, to look at.  That’s why they are almost never shown straight on, and, when they are, they are in shadow, or blurry.  Even Predator, with his far-out face, basically looks and walks like a muscular guy.

Predator

Predator.  Gnarly, but not scary.

The only way to make human-scary aliens actually scary is to bend their human forms in some way, like the broken-human, many-legged Thing (from the the 2011 remake), which scrabbles around like a crab.

The Thing

The 2011 Thing.  This would get your attention.

Contrast the ‘Signs’ aliens with the Alien aliens.  The ‘Alien’ aliens are the best non-human-scary aliens in all cinema.  The Alien is bizarre and creepy, fascinating to look at when it stands still, let alone when it moves (although it does move bipedally and have arms, it isn’t humanoid).

Alien

Alien.

The Alien was designed by H.R. Giger, which gives one a sense of how much work and genius it takes to design a really scary alien.

In the opinion of this author, the Alien has never been matched.  However, CGI has created some interesting runners up.  However, most of them are, like Alien, insectoid.  For example, take a look the skittering parasites from Cloverfield (which owe their form in part to the bugs from Starship Troopers, which, though the movie is funny, are a convincing menace).

Cloverfield Parasite

Cloverfield parasite.

Starship Troopers Bug

‘Starship Trooper’ Bug.

Which is why it made for a nice change to encounter the wing-dinging alien Mimics in the ‘Edge of Tomorrow’.  These fast-moving and tentacled aliens owe more to octopi than to insects, although even they owe something to Giger, with their semi-mechanical steampunkish tentacles.  And while their faces were, of course, disappointingly human, they are the best aliens seen in a long while.

Mimic

A Mimic.

A still doesn’t really do the Mimic justice; their most affecting quality is their movement.  They are very fast, and move non-linearly, which makes them difficult for a human eye to follow.

And that is exactly the point of aliens: they aren’t like us.  They shouldn’t look like us, think like us, or move like us, and the more unlike us they are, the better they are able to do the job of scaring us.

Anyone who enjoyed the ‘Alien’ movies even a little should take a look at H.R. Giger’s printed work.  The Necromonicon is a good place to start.

‘The Edge of Tomorrow’ is based on the novel All You Need Is Kill, by Hiroshi Sakurazaka.

‘Starship Troopers’ is also based on a novel, Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein.