Saturday, November 17, 2007

No country for good movies

Do you ever go to a movie you have good reason to believe you are going to hate? Not me, at least not normally. But I was pretty sure I would not like No Country for Old Men and I went anyway.

Why? It’s still hard for me to understand. I knew going in that it was a pointless, violent movie and I don't like pointless, violent movies. On top of that, I had read the book and hated it. I’m not exaggerating. I didn’t feel wishy-washy about it. I didn’t just “not like” the book. I genuinely hated it. If Cormac McCarthy is a serious novelist, then No Country for Old Men is one of the worst books ever by a serious novelist. Not that it is poorly written. McCarthy is an excellent wordsmith and the narrative is innovative and well structured. But it’s a monumentally stupid story in a Hollywood action movie kinda way.

It is one of those “super bad guy” stories. You know the kind I mean? Like The Terminator only less believable. In No Country for Old Men a very odd looking guy is on a killing spree in a remote part of west Texas. He walks around in public carrying a shotgun with a big honkin silencer, he kills cops, he kills random motorists, he kills Mexicans by the dozens, he walks into a Dallas skyscraper and guns down a big businessman, he blows up a car and robs a drug store in broad daylight, he gets in extended gun fights in small Texas towns--he couldn't be more fucking obvious--yet the police never come close to finding him, no one seems to call the cops during the gun fights, the cops don’t notice on their own that gunfights are happening on Main Street, they never put out an APB, no road blocks, the feds are not called in, strangers are not questioned, they don’t even take fingerprints. Only Tommy Lee Jones makes an effort. And all Jones does is whine. He doesn’t do anything that might actually help catch the killer.

Is there a point to any of this? In the book, it’s hard to find one. The movie, as bad movies tend to do, tries to tack some meaning on at the end, but it’s not particularly deep or insightful.

As I said, I knew all this going in yet I went to see it anyway. Why? I still haven’t figured it out. Normally if I know I’m going to see a film, I make it a point not to read the reviews. But in this case I’d read the book (and hated it) so I made an exception. Although the reviews were generally glowing, nothing in them made me think the movie would be significantly different than the book. Essentially they said it was a smart, very well-made and acted film that was true to the novel.

And yes, I agree with that. Just as the book is very well-written, the movie is very well-made. The screenplay, the direction, the cinematography, the acting--all first rate. Unlike the typical “super bad guy” movie, the filmmakers clearly respect the intelligence of the audience. There are numerous examples where we are left to figure things out for ourselves solely based on subtle visual clues.

But ultimately, all the great acting, direction, writing and cinematography in the world cannot rescue a plot that is essentially hollow. Maybe there's some kind of lofty joke that the story is as empty as the landscape, but that would be even more pathetic.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Middle ages in a handbasket

Coincidentally, after going off on Gregg Easterbrook last night, I watched a PBS show about the recent Intelligent Design trial in Dover, Pennsylvania. I was struck by how closely those Creationist wackos mirrored Easterbrook’s insecurity about his ancestry. They all get so het up over the indisputable fact that we are closely related to apes and chimpanzees.

That’s sadly understandable I guess. They are raised with a high-falutin sense of their own importance in the universe. They may not be Gods, but they are at least God-like, created in the His image no less. Now it turns out they’re just a bunch of monkey boys created from the image of Bonzo. The very idea makes them so angry that they bare their teeth and howl.

Beyond the monkey stuff, it’s interesting how they see science only as a means of justifying their superiority to everything else in the universe, not as a means of understanding their place in it. Not only were they created in God’s image, the earth is God’s creation, the center of the universe, obviously the only inhabited planet. In Easterbrook’s football column, he regularly reports any evidence he can find that suggests earth is the only planet among the 200 billion galaxies each with 200 billion stars and who knows how many gazillions of other planets. Nope, life can only happen here, just like the Bible implies.

But what’s really funny is the way link scientific progress to moral degeneracy. The literature is full of whining about the horrible social consequences of science.

The proposition that human beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built. Its influence can be detected in most, if not all, of the West's greatest achievements, including representative democracy, human rights, free enterprise, and progress in the arts and sciences.

Yet a little over a century ago, this cardinal idea came under wholesale attack by intellectuals drawing on the discoveries of modern science. Debunking the traditional conceptions of both God and man, thinkers such as Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud portrayed humans not as moral and spiritual beings, but as animals or machines who inhabited a universe ruled by purely impersonal forces and whose behavior and very thoughts were dictated by the unbending forces of biology, chemistry, and environment. This materialistic conception of reality eventually infected virtually every area of our culture, from politics and economics to literature and art

The cultural consequences of this triumph of materialism were devastating. Materialists denied the existence of objective moral standards, claiming that environment dictates our behavior and beliefs. Such moral relativism was uncritically adopted by much of the social sciences, and it still undergirds much of modern economics, political science, psychology and sociology.

Materialists also undermined personal responsibility by asserting that human thoughts and behaviors are dictated by our biology and environment. The results can be seen in modern approaches to criminal justice, product liability, and welfare. In the materialist scheme of things, everyone is a victim and no one can be held accountable for his or her actions.

Finally, materialism spawned a virulent strain of utopianism. Thinking they could engineer the perfect society through the application of scientific knowledge, materialist reformers advocated coercive government programs that falsely promised to create heaven on earth.

Funny, isn't it? From a moral, even a prudish perspective, today has to look pretty good compared to the history of western civilization before science. Considering our history from the ancient Greeks’ man boy love to the Roman Bacchanal and the Christian sex cults all the way through the violence and oppression of the middle ages, what self-respecting right wing religious nut case would want to live in those times? Our modern world is as relatively chaste as it is just.

But there was a time before all that, when man not only looked like God but was as innocent as the newborn Jesus. Then that bitch ate the apple and people have been fucking ever since. Fucking like monkeys. To hell with science, with education, with the constitution, we gotta do something... anything to stop the fucking. Then all will be well.

It's hard to believe we've regressed to the point where these fucked up nutbags are taken seriously.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Monkey boy talk sports

Gregg Easterbrook interrupts his somewhat entertaining sports column (tmq at to comment on science. This is not at all unusual, it's actually part of his shtick along with ogling cheerleaders in their skimpy costumes. It's hard to tell which is creepier. The old nerdy guy obsessing about young pussy or the way he takes superficial science news and harnesses it to borderline right wing nutcase talking points. Witness today's nonsense about the percentage of genes we share with chimps. One percent? Six percent? 25 Percent? Who fucking cares? The Liberal media, obviously.

I point this out because the new study got zero play from the mainstream media because it tends to support the idea that genus Homo really is superior to the rest of the animal kingdom. Mustn't have that in the news! Any scientific finding suggesting there is little genetic difference between people and yeast would, by contrast, be heavily promoted by big news organizations.

First, what kind of wacko nut job looks obsesses about the "superiority" of the human genus? That's just your insecurity talking, monkey boy. Second, seƱor Easterbrook fails to understand one of the important cornerstones of journalism. Dog bites man is not a story. Chimps, not to mention yeast, sharing a good part of their DNA with humans is man bites dog. If our DNA were entirely different and much more complex, that would be dog bites man. Who the fuck would care? Hey, I know the answer to that. Right wing nut cases care. They care about superiority and are always looking (in vain) for evidence of their own. The thirties taught them nothing. Pathetic, they are.

Monday, November 12, 2007

More fall colors

Here's my little goof of a photo project I've been "working" on for the past couple weeks. Strange how grey is not generally considered a fall color.

Sunday, November 11, 2007


There was an interesting article about “race” and education by Will Okun in yesterday’s Times. Okun is an apparently nice young man who teaches in an inner city school in Chicago. His article discusses the question of whether it’s better for “black” students to have “black” teachers. Early on, he quotes Barak Obama:

In Charles Barkley’s book “Who’s Afraid of a Large Black Man”, Barack Obama recalls a few college professors asking
him, “Man, why are you pretending that you’re not smart?” Obama continues, “And coming from black professors, especially, that was important, because I couldn’t throw back at them, ‘Oh, you don’t understand.’”

Looking back at his own educational experience, Obama concludes, “That’s a big part of the reason it is so important to have black teachers, especially black male teachers. I’m not saying exclusively, but in many situations you need someone who can call you on your stuff and say… that it’s not ‘acting white’ to read a book.”

Half his class thought that yes, “black” kids benefit from “black” teachers and half thought, cue string music, that the color of a person’s skin didn’t matter a whit when it came to teaching effectiveness. Personally, that’s not an argument that I wish to engage in, but I did find it interesting that Obama was making it.

I am a member of a poor “African-American: family living in Brooklyn. Although that statement is factual, it is misleading. We are not ”African-American“ in the common sense of the phrase. None of our ancestors were ever slaves on southern plantations. We do not speak Ebonics. We have never been to a Baptist church. We are only poor in the middle class New Yorker sense of the word.

The point is that we have a lot of superficial things in common with Obama, so I take a little more interest in his career than I do the other politicians. And I was surprised to read that he would ever pretend that he was not smart. I know that mindset is a problem in what’s commonly referred to as the ”African-American“ community, but Obama was not raised in that crowd. His mother was a white woman from Kansas. His stepfather was Indonesian. He grew up attending an American school abroad and then a tony independent school in Hawaii. From there he soon went to Harvard where he was an academic superstar. He is ”African-American“ only in the sense that his father is from Africa and his mother from America. That’s not to say anything against ”African-Americans.“ It is a fact.

Same thing with my family superficially. The kids have spent time abroad and go to a very good college preparatory school, but as far as I know they have never experienced even a hint of racism and they certainly do not show any of the endemic effects suffered by many of those who do. They actively participate in class, ask probing questions, do well on tests and are fully, and effortlessly, integrated in the social life surrounding the school, as are the other ”black“ kids who go there. Did Obama really have it that bad? Was there really strong pressure to act "black" in Indonesia? In Hawaii's premier prep school? That would certainly suck.

Of course I am aware that my little family unite lives in a utopia-like bubble and cannot compare our experiences with those of people in most of the rest of the country. So I worry some about what will happen when the kids move on. I’ve read horror stories about racist segregation at elite liberal colleges. I remember one article (can’t find the link) that detailed how kids on college visits were segregated by ”race.“ ”Blacks“ were given one tour, Asians another, Hispanics still another. ”Whites,“ it seems, were not recognized as a group and no special activities were planned for them.

That is the kind of thing I fear and I suspect it is the kind of thing that warped Obama. Although I know the education establishment categorizes kids based on ”race,“ it is possible for them to get through high school without having to classify themselves. Apparently many universities force people to make that declaration. That is a travesty.

Imagine if you’d spent your whole life in a healthy, integrated environment in which nobody gave a shit about your melanin levels and then you go on a visit to Harvard and they put you in a particular group, fenced off from your regular social group because you are "black." Do you refuse to participate in the apartheid? Do you go off with the ”whites?“ Might there be social repercussions?

In the comments section of the Times article, a commenter gives some insight into what it’s like to be categorized solely based on your outward appearance:
Race is a complex subject. So is class. They are often, but not always, inextricably intertwined. However, as a Black and Latina teacher who grew up middle-class and went to Yale, it is frustrating when people assume that I have something in common with my students because I look like them. Mr. Okum asks what he knows of the challenges of his students’ lives. This is a legitimate question. But it’s also one that I have to ask myself. What do I know about abusive parents, or a limited future, or hunger? I’m the fourth generation in my family to receive a Master’s. Going to college was not an option; it was what you did.