Friday, November 2, 2012

Obama Champion of Gay Rights? Look Again

Bethany Mandel, at Commentary offers some badly-needed thoughts on the meme that a Romney Presidency will constitute a massive step back for LGBT rights in our society. And yet, prior to the POTUS' "historic" endorsement of same-sex marriage equality, he could hardly be counted among the most staunch advocates of that equality...not till his hand was forced by his running-mate, and an election loomed:

As Obama’s actions both before and after his gay marriage flip-flop have shown, his commitment to gay rights appears to be merely one of convenience. Four years ago, it was politically expedient to be against gay marriage, thus President Obama made statements to that effect. In May, after Vice President Biden blurted out his previously unmentioned support of gay marriage, President Obama found it politically necessary to either repudiate his own vice president or change his stance, and chose to do the latter.
I have no doubt that Mr. Obama personally supports marriage rights for same-sex couples. That is not the point, really. The point is what he can be realistically counted on to do about those beliefs. Obama is a Statist (albeit not quite as radical a one as many of his Conservative critics like to shriek); he believes that the proper role of the Federal Government is to wade in and fix and do things. Given that belief, and the very strong advantage he enjoyed in both houses of Congress, prior to 2010, does his all-but absent posture on the issue really inspire that much more confidence than might accrue to a Federalist, who believes in the distribution of power away from the USGOV, even if he does not share the beliefs of gay advocates?

It is a question worth pondering, and a much-needed moderating salve on the perpetually-reopened wounds of this debate, among those who are invested in promulgating decidedly immoderate assertions on the matter.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Al Smith Dinner: 2012

As lively and bracing as this election has surely been, I've been looking forward to the traditional Al Smith dinner like even the most avid Football fan looks forward to the Superbowl commercials. I just love this thing, for reasons which I'm sure the tapioca between my ears at the moment will likely fail epically to articulate as satisfactorily as I managed during the last go-round.

Obama's comic chops continued to earn honest props. It's a thing to behold, the way he plays against his signature oratorical cadences, executing a really masterful Aikido twirl between what he knows to be perceived as vanity, and the humility of joining in with the mocking of it.

But what really, honestly surprised me was how readily Mittens was able to morph into a very decent comedic groove. His self-referential ribbing of the "Richy Rich: The Android Years" vibe was right in the pocket (and a deep one, at that....badum-CHING). His bit toward the end, about competing without disliking, and his praise of the President and his family were both gracious and conspicuously sincere.

Both candidates, in fact, ended on notes of elevated and edifying good-fellowship, even as the roasty bits before made clear that It was still On. That's what these things do: they sit between the crusty bread slices of the debates, like a nice schmear of Nutella.

Worth taking a bite; leaves a badly-needed good aftertaste.

Monday, October 1, 2012

My Path From Port To Starboard: It's Complicated

So, what business does an agnostic, non-affluent, socially-liberal, post-graduate-educated, Northeast city-born, suburban-dwelling bloke (technically a Minority, to boot) like myself have in calling himself any kind of "Conservative?"

This is a question to which regular readers of these pages (all three of them!) know I have bent my thoughts for a number of years now. After all, in the Summer of 2004, I still defined myself as someone who believed that it was the government's responsibility to engineer society such that the needs of its citizens could never go unmet. Further, I believed that the national nature of that project was a mere stepping-stone toward the time when Westphalian nation-state borders would all-but vanish, and a new World Government would create a seamless, just, and intelligently-designed global community. Even now, the ideas still have appeal.

It is understandable that some might perceive a deep irony in the fact that, having undergone such profound change, I should now subscribe to a domain of thought which is often dismissed as being merely the resistance to change. Further, it is just as understandable that a similar irony could be found in a non-theist aligning himself with a political philosophy which has become so enmeshed with hard theism. Finally, some may see a contradiction in the fact that, as someone who works in a helping profession (Clinical Psychology), I should have thrown in with those who are perceived as being all-too ready to throw the weak to the wolves.

As ever, the reconciliation of apparent paradoxes lies beyond the edges of the screens onto which they're projected.

Uncharacteristically cutting to the chase: I am a conservative because I am a Complex Systems thinker (link, by the way, is to a SPECTACULARLY useful site for the layman to get up to speed on these theories).

As a student of complex, non-linear, edge-of-chaos phenomena, I have learned to look with deep humility on our capacity to characterize --let alone control-- complex, open, evolving systems. From ecosystems to economies (but I repeat myself), nature finds a way to flow like water into spaces that are un-dreamed-of in our philosophies. Flocks of birds self-organize into fantastically elaborate patterns as they swirl through the sky. There is profound meaning to be found in the the fact that they do so without the aid of any rules more complicated than "keep a certain distance from adjoining birds, steer around obstacles, and travel along basically the same path as your fellow-flockers." The pattern is an emergent property of these simple, strictly local rule-sets.

This quality of emergence is apparent throughout nature. Traffic patterns arise from local interactions on the level of individual cars...yet they can achieve complex forms which span miles of roads, reacting to (and anticipating) assorted perturbations as though they were subject to some superordinate intelligence. But they're not. Molecules of oil in a shallow dish can align themselves into a regular lattice of hexagonal columns of fluid  (Bénard cells) when heated. It almost looks like these molecules are executing a pregiven program. But they're not.  Populations of cells act in concert to form and maintain the function of an organism, and those organisms arrange themselves into cooperating and competing biomes and ecosystems, all as though they were cogs in a fantastically-designed clockwork. But they're not.

These collective behaviors arise from the interactions of local agents, whose activities are regulated at a dynamic cascade of system levels...but with nary a Central Planning Authority to be found. Indeed, I have come to see that the most brittle, least adaptive systems are those which are organized around a strictly "top-down," hierarchical architecture of energy and information. A brain (a self-organizing system) can suffer grievous damage, and yet still  regain substantial portions of its previous function by routing around the damage...whereas a computer can grind to a catastrophic crash, owing to a misplaced comma in thousands of lines of code (usually the night before an important presentation is due!).

You see where this is going.

As I said (and meant), the ideas from my Transnational Progressive days still have much appeal. I like the idea that society can be designed in such a way that it can remain viable, yet responsive to the needs of all its citizens. I like the idea that smart people can apply those smarts to engineering a setting in which all people can be positioned --well-fed and educated and healthy-- to thrive and create and live well. What kind of person wouldn't?

The trouble is that those smart people would have to have access to the kind of comprehensive information which the universe simply does not provide, when it comes to the structure and function of complex systems. There is a hard complexity barrier between the unfolding of such systems, and the algorithms we might devise to describe and predict (again, let alone control) that unfolding. As such, all attempts at planning and administering a system as complex as a society and an economy will result in a GARGANTUAN bureaucracy, cobbling together policy after policy, growing and accruing more and more system energy (or, if you prefer, power) to manage the cascade of unintended consequences which it will spawn like metastases as it frantically strives to put even the very noblest of intentions into practice. It happened in the Soviet Union. It's happening in the Euro Zone. I have come (reluctantly!) to the position that it will happen wherever Central Planning is tried.

F. A.  Hayek --pre-dating Complexity Theory by decades-- wrote that it is the Smithian, "Invisible Hand" of myriad individual choice-making agents which enables an economy flexibly to assign value to goods and services, and to enable the most efficient flow of energy/capital through that economy. He wrote (during the days leading up to and closely following WW2, when many of these ideas stood in VERY high relief) that efforts to plan and manage the operation of an economy were subject to insuperable obstacles, owing to the invariably imperfect knowledge to which the Planners would have access. (and, since it seems I can't go a full month without linking to this bit of brilliance, here's another way to discuss this). It was his thesis that a mechanism which would assume such a level of control over what is essentially an evolving system will lead it to steal more and more energy from that system, till it becomes self-perpetuating and parasitical. He posited (again, not in a vacuum) that both economic dynamism and liberty would erode under such conditions.

Now, of course a "purely" non-interventionist government (if such a beast could ever be said to have existed on this planet) would not be a tolerable scenario. There are aspects of human welfare which simply must be placed behind a judiciously-applied set of firewalls, if a society is to be a just one. However, the Social-Darwinist view of free-market capitalism which is so often set up as a straw man by advocates of Planning is by no means a necessary correlate of the thing. The difference, if you will, is in viewing government as the control rod or the reactor core.

Thus, I choose to align myself, to as great a degree as is practicable within the Real World, with those who work to create an open, fair marketplace, within whose raucous, generative, evolving, and frequently messy parameters prosperity will arise. Since no pure form of such an approach can be found in our political landscape, in anything like a configuration which is tolerable to me (and which stands a snowball's chance on Venus of achieving the White House), I'm stuck with the GOP (and only then, because I live in a State with closed primaries, in which Independents cannot vote).

I recognize that this puts me in the company of folks who hardly see eye-to-eye with me on the position that, say, homosexuality is merely a normal (if relatively rare) variation in natural human pair-bonding (and that, thus, it is absurd to deny people access to a central human pair-bonding ritual and status, just because they so vary). I know that there is a (deeply paradoxical!) thread within the party of insinuating uncomfortably high levels of Christian theology into the laws of the land...which flies in the face of the ostensibly liberty-oriented approach to government's footprint in people's lives which is proper to the party's orientation. What can I tell you? We live in a universe where the Perfect is inevitably and irreducibly the enemy of the good, if we choose to hold out for it.

But the Democratic party has seemingly irretrievably aligned itself with the tradition of Progressives and other Planners. And, for whatever tactical gains it (admirably!) strives to bring about for its constituents, it does so at the price of strategic losses to our society's ability to sustain the benefits it promises. It simply does not fit within my frame of reference that this is a good idea (nor, in the end, particularly humane). So, I ride herd as much as possible on the more pernicious aspects of the GOP's posture (if, the gods forbid, Michele Bachmann, or Rick Santorum had gotten the nomination, I would have had a Very Difficult choice to make...see why I want to be able to vote in the primaries?), while advocating for those parts which move our society in what I judge to be the direction in which it remains most vibrant and viable (which, to paraphrase JFK [who all-but-certainly would have been Liebermanned into obscurity within today's Democratic party] would create the rising tide which lifts all boats).

Yes, conservatives would find a great many of my positions positively heretical (and, of course, the feeling would be mutual). But no complex system is without internal contradictions, even as its overall organization is coherent. Nature is not kind to Purists. So we choose among imperfect options, in as-educated-as-possible hope that the highest-viable good will emerge.

It's the worst possible system you could imagine....except for all the others.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

"Cabin In The Woods"

Just finished watching the Joss Whedon-written, Drew Goddard-directed Cabin In The Woods. Had the misfortune of never having had the chance to see it in theaters, despite most of my therapy clients assuring me that if I missed it, there'd be a strong argument for switching places with them. Now I see what they meant.

Writing a review for this movie is a difficult thing, since what makes it great (along with the crackling, Jossian dialog, the insanely brilliant production design, the surprisingly effective acting, and...stuff) is the way it reveals its secrets, like unlocking levels in a cracking-good video game. Not about to step on that process here.

On the surface, this is as familiar a story as you could imagine. That's the point, really: the "Teens in an Isolated Forest Cabin" simulation has been run so persistently in our culture that even the self-referential, oh, so Po-Mo deconstruction of it (care of the "Scream" series) has become an idiom of its own.

What Whedon's been able to do in "Cabin" would be nothing short of astounding...if it were anyone but Joss. Somehow, he's been able to take not only our familiarity with the assorted horror movie tropes, and fold it in on itself yet again, but he escapes being merely clever in doing so by creating a framework for understanding how  (and why) these meme clouds have become so archetypal in the first place.

Now, that's what Meta's for!

I don't even want to go through the characters and describe their stories and how they fit together here. First of all, I don't have to; you'll know them right away. More importantly, though, going into this with too much foreknowledge would be a disservice to the experience of it, the way it turns your expectations and certainties on their heads (which may or may not be attached to anything at the time...), and forces you to reflect on yourself reflecting on the story as it reflects on itself...then takes you where you least expected to end up.

Now, don't worry: I'm not talking about "Inception"-level complexity here (GODS, did I love that film, but man, was it dense!). You could write dissertations on this movie...but it doesn't try to be one, itself. At a mere 1 hour and 38 minutes (less credits, which [a little surprisingly] do not contain an Easter egg at the end), this thing moves along with no lags or hangs in its masterful, relentlessly entertaining pace. You can't get away with not thinking...but you'll never be bored as you do it!

If you have a penchant for inky-dark humor, a strong stomach (!), and even a casual acquaintance with the vernacular of horror movies (which will be rewarded with a swarm of very excellent visual and thematic homages), you'll see how the seasoned team of Whedon and Goddard have served up a bubbling beaker of Instant Classic.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Pretty Rock-i-stan

A recent walk-on in the Military Industrial Complex Conspiracy Cavalcade is just in time to supplant the Michael Moore absurdity about natural gas pipelines as the Real Reason (tm) for going into Afghanistan. Namely, the discovery of  A TRILLION DOLLARS OF PRECIOUS MINERALS!!!1!!1!

Yes, I've been aware of the apparently prodigious mineral finds in Afghanistan since 2010. To the best of my knowledge, there is still insufficient data to confidently support the claims which are made about these discoveries. VERY promising-looking outcrops of mineralized rock have been spotted, but they have not yet been fully characterized as to their extent or purity (and thus their value, regardless of amount). It is not at all uncommon for substantial surface outcroppings to represent the last remains of past deposits which have eroded away, leaving only the *bottom* and not the *top* of a once-rich mineral concentration.

Getting this information is a laborious and hardware-intensive process of drilling and sampling and drilling some more. So, it is not surprising that it took until last year to get any "ground truth" on the deposits. It does look very good so far...but there are non-trivial issues in proceeding to extraction (lining up bidders to undertake these vast projects in the arid, infrastructure-lean, frequently-embattled --especially in the South, where most of the rare earth metals are-- land-locked primordial  moonscape of a "country." And that's not even getting into the near-certainty of enormous corruption and very messy jostling by regional warlords to control the most promising territories).

In short, this thing is a long way from a paycheck.

As for why there were geologists with the Army ("Proof! PROOF!! I say, that all is going as They have Foreseen!"): it is SOP for a battlespace to be characterized in minute topographical detail, via aerial and orbital reconnaissance, in preparation for insertion of forces. This becomes even more critical when supply lines are VERY limited in their access to personnel who must combat a foe who is, himself, widely distributed around a *most* unforgiving AO. Given the extent of the deposits --as evident in the USGS map in the article I linked above-- it is not the least bit surprising (nor does it make it at all necessary to posit some shadily mercenary intent), that these surveys would also have revealed these VERY attention-grabbing mineralogical aspects of the landscape.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


When I was a kid in NYC, the local TV station, WPIX Channel 11, was commemorating an anniversary or somesuch, and arrived at a creative ad campaign. Actors would play assorted people throughout the city, who were asked to help out Channel 11 with finding a proper symbol for the station. Invariably, over their shoulders, the towering endeca-digits of the WTC mocked their perplexity.

One of the dwindled but enduring artifacts of my college-era obsession with the ancient Greeks was a deep admiration for the geometric simplicity, the sleek, unadorned, cyclopean sincerity of those Towers. They were edifices of frank, unapologetic Commerce (which, in those days, I conceptualized more as a linear juggernaut, than as the nimble network I envision today). Of course, at the time, I also thought the Chrysler Building was, by comparison, a grotesquely baroque bastardization of Deco and Gothic and Neo-Fascist architectural indecision and pomposity. What can I say: I was, in so many ways, a thoroughgoing ninny back then.

Like those New Yawkahs from the WPIX ads, the Towers were an axis mundi for me, ubiquitous as the Moon. I remember going over the Queensboro Bridge in my parents' car, gawking at that impossibly high constellation of construction lights. Those brilliantly-silvered or celestially-coruscant or mist-wreathed binary reminders of the power of intelligence and will were ever part of the semiotic scaffolding which defined my world.

That billowing dust cloud contained a little something besides the (immeasurably more precious) molecules of my fellow humans. It marked the atomization of one literal and countless more abstract nuclei of my scheme of organizing my experience of self-in-world. It was like that character from "The X-Men," the one who teleports, and the air which had just been displaced by him would slam into the sudden vacuum with a "BAMPF!" They were gone. And, in ways both subtle and gross, nothing would ever be the same. If nothing else, the Phantom Skyline Syndrome is likely to be a life-long affliction.

I've striven to keep these Things as trans-political as could be, and I'd rather like to keep that up. Suffice to say, then, that the forced conceptual and emotional reconfiguration of things did not stop at the local space surrounding me. Rather, it spun vortices outward into my most far-flung theories of how nations and cultures and ideologies and power-flows were arrayed on the whole of the skin of this Globe. And the BAMPF is still echoing, as those views evolve at a pace which would make Stephen J Gould --rest his bones-- really proud.

This past July, I was on the Circle Line, with Ma'am 'Cyte, and the Li'l Cyte, and had my first close look at the construction of what I hope someday to stop referring to as the "Capitulation Tower."  Of course, any project of such scale and scope will evoke wonder, but the new WTC simply leaves a sour finish on my palate. Am I like a disgruntled denizen of Radio Row here? Or is it the absurd delay, political wrangling, failure to be configured as a reproduction of the Towers (11 floors taller, their footprints transposed with their fallen forebears'), its misleading altitude tally (a number of stories of non-habitable space --complete with token wind turbines)? Or maybe the residue of the wrenching realignments of the geopolitical context which are woven into its DNA simply by virtue of when it arose. I don't know.

I just know that I feel myself to be in a holding pattern as to the larger implications of That Other Tuesday (as the unusually self-referential nature of this year's post will attest). Maybe this is the Equilibrium before the next Punctuation (again, with the Gould). Maybe that's just an artifact of the election season. The many gods forfend that the next surge of change should be predicated on so calamitous a happening. May it be so that, whoever is wielding the ordnance, the feeder streams of the torrent which obliterated so many worlds that morning are being drained with implacable and irreversible efficacy ("Truthers" need not comment. It will not go well).

In the meantime, I suppose the news station "New York One" might have something to think about.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Only Thing We Have to Fear....

...Is toxic crap sandwiches like this, from people who bloody ought to have known better:

You would think that getting to witness the metastasis of Collectivism in its Communist and Fascist forms would bring a modicum of pause to the centralizing aspirations of this Depression-stretchingly pig-headed Prog.  

But you'd be wrong.

Hey Franklin, "Private power" is SUPPOSED to be stronger than the bloody State. Ownership of the government is the CHARTER AND RIGHT of individuals and groups (i.e., CITIZENS).

And all the blather which will no doubt follow this Self-Evident (sound familiar?) observation (since I just posted a version of these comments on Facebook, where I found this stomach-acid-squirting pic), you know, the familiar effluvium about "Corporate Influence subverting the electoral process for the benefit of special interests and Fat-Cats," will only serve to illustrate more clearly the gravity of FDR's error. For that kind of Crony Capitalism is, at its core, profoundly ANTI-Capitalist...and thrives most exuberantly and perniciously under conditions in which the excessively bloated power of the State emboldens it to engage in the hubristic exercise of picking winners and losers.

When the MARKET --to as great a degree as practicable-- is allowed to operate as the selective agent by which value is assigned, and the (humble, lean, CITIZEN-OWNED) State is NEVER promoted from the status of control rod to that of reactor, then liberty may truly thrive and evolve as the ecosystem it is supposed to be, rather than the managed paddock envisioned by Collectivists like FDR and his Statist stepchildren.

Harrumph, I say!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Hubris and Fallen Columns

From the opinion pages of the WSJ  comes this withering synopsis of POTUS Obama's relentless (and ultimately self-defeating) pursuit of a Progressive Tranformation Of America (tm).  In short, it's turned out pretty much as you'd expect.

It really is extraordinary how opaque he was (and remains) to the practical and the political  implications of his actions, and thus how  utterly he has squandered what could have been a  most auspicious moment for him.

Oddly, my tear ducts register no activity at all.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Will on the Context of a Character

Via Powerline,  comes this highly-recommended George Will  interview with "political philosopher," Charles Kesler.

Will, via Kesler, dispenses with lurid conspiracy theories about foreign births and anti-colonialism, and executes a nice, close Occam's shave on the stubble of POTUS Obama's motivational set. Clear continuities are traced, not through some exotic/esoteric wetland of subterranean motives, but through the amply-documented trajectory of American Progressivism over the last 100 years (to the year, per the authors, since it was in 1912 that Woodrow Wilson, with chilling candor, proclaimed the objectives and perceived scope of action of the Progressive Project):
In 1912, Wilson said, “The history of liberty is the history of the limitation of governmental power.” But as Kesler notes, Wilson never said the future of liberty consisted of such limitation.Instead, he said, “every means . . . by which society may be perfected through the instrumentality of government” should be used so that “individual rights can be fitly adjusted and harmonized with public duties.”
I seem to recall some other noteworthy incident which occurred during that year...

It is important to realize that, for those whose priorities and values are thoroughly aligned with Progressivism's aims (fair equalization of outcomes), this sort of gargantuan, Government-powered, industrial-strength social engineering is simply the only way to achieve those aims within what they feel/define is a just and humane time-scale. Within that headspace, this is both fitting and laudable, and worth the (typically understated) risks to liberty. I Get it. Used to feel the same way, m'self.

But I have arrived at a position which looks back on these (my!) past models as more than a bit naive. There is, after all, an historical context to be considered here. Namely, with a very few exceptions (whose circumstances --e.g., small Scandinavian Social Democracies -- are sufficiently non-representative as to kinda prove the rule), centralized, hierarchical, Statist societies have become schlerotic with bureaucracy and with anemic (trending toward absent) economic dynamism. The ash heap of failed Communist/Socialist experiments is so high it affects regional weather patterns. Those which have found a way to encyst some selected pseudopods of market-driven, capitalist activity have been able to prolong their seemingly inexorable slide into that familiar senescence of evaporating Utopias. But make no mistake, this only buys time, even as behemoths like China lumber on, like a charging sauropod whose nervous system is so slow, its body doesn't even know it's dead yet.

I find it reassuring to not have to impute dastardly motives to the POTUS (if for no other reason than the fact that so many of my friends who support him would have to be knaves or dupes to do so...and I pick my friends with considerably more care than that!). It helps me a great deal to develop plausible, non-histrionic models to explain the data of Obama's actions and utterances, since I can test those against my own (try that in the hall of mirrors of competing conspiracy theories!). Thus do I arrive at the conclusion that the perils to the American project along that path FAR outweigh the (undeniable, though unsustainable) benefits enjoyed by individuals in the kind of Constitutionally-unmoored society which lies at its bitter end.

And thus will my sympathy be no less sincere than my relief, should Obama's own "one-term proposition" prediction prove to have been correct.

No spiking of the football here (that's the correct term, yes?).

Friday, June 15, 2012

Attack the Block

Still a mite zingy from seeing birds and clouds between my feet today at Six Flags (grass-sky-grass-sky...), took in "Attack the Block" on demand. There's been MUCH buzz about this one since last Summer when it opened 18 theaters.

Believe the buzz. This is as tight and raw and honest a B-movie as you'll ever see. An alien infestation in the heart of a South London slum --I mean Community Housing Project--, with no one to beat it back but a group of very young street kids, hardly paragons of virtue themselves? The only thing resembling a Learned Scientific Infodump device is Dude-like pot dealer Nick Frost and his profoundly stoned buddy, with whom he zones out on National Geographic? Do I really need to say more?

Nordling here from AICN lays it out (and yes, of course there's a language warning, It *iS* AICN, after all). This is the kind of flick across which we film geeks sit through hillocks of explosives-grade fertilizer in hopes of stumbling.


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

[by Mr.Hengist]

Several years ago my good friend Noocyte started this blog and asked if I would like to contribute to it as his co-king - I mean, co-blogger. I accepted, with gratitude, but not without some reservations. It's not like the idea of blogging had never occurred to me, it's just that I wasn't sure what I'd have to say - or, worse yet, I'd have so much to say that it would become one giant time sink. It turned out to be more satisfying yet more work than I'd imagined, what with every post a struggle of revisions and rewrites.

Despite my lack of enthusiasm for blogging I've decided it was time to have a place of my own - not that I'll have altogether that much to say, but "Echoes of Thunder" will be my place, which will be nice. It'll be on WordPress, which I'm hoping will be a better platform than Blogger. I've copied my posts from here to there because there are so many of which I am so fond that I just had to bring them with me. I've also decided to change my pseudonym from "Mr.Hengist" - a tongue-in-cheek self-depreciating tribute to the dual-natured character in TOS - to "Slab Hardrock", a tongue-in-cheek self-depreciating tribute to the MST3K riffs of "Space Mutiny".

My sincere thanks goes to Noocyte for his gracious hospitality and encouragement.

Saturday, June 9, 2012


(Some spoilers, but nothing which strays too far from what one could glean from the trailers)

Taking in the midnight showing of Ridley Scott's "Prometheus" on Thursday night into Friday (for which I was rewarded with a nice little promotional poster) I can now understand why Filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro has expressed reservations about ever getting H.P. Lovecraft's justly-beloved novella, "At the Mountains Of Madness" produced.  There is something decidedly Lovecraftian about the film, something wonderfully unnerving, in all the right ways.

After coming home from the film, I took the dog ('the Woofocyte?') for a wee hours' consitutional, under a brilliant starlit sky, frosted by a crisp, gibbous moon. On any other night, this would have been a serene, elevating sight. That night, however, the heavens seemed sinister, redolent with menace, haunted by leering eldrich specters which lurked in the inky abyss, the blood-freezing whispers of ancient, calculating intelligences, beyond the reckoning of any human mind which would not go mad at the misfortune of understanding them too well.

That's kinda the vibe of this thing.

The discovery that a host of ancient civilizations --with no possibility of contact with each other-- had adorned their walls with symbols depicting the same set of stellar coordinates prompts the mounting of a scientific expedition to plumb the depths of a great many mysteries. Some appalling things ensue. And some Very Big Questions are raised...and not especially tidily answered. It's not unlike if Sir Arthur C. Clarke had written 2001: A Space Odyssey, while under the influence of some really vicious hallucinogens...perhaps something derived from belladonna-like alkyloids (/gratuitous "Altered States" reference). It has a similar scope, partakes of a similar sense of awe and wonder. But its ultimate lessons (such as they are) sound a far more disturbing note on our prospects, should we choose to  pursue some questions too far.

The tone of the film is spot-on, crafted to induce a steadily-mounting sense of dread. Like in "Alien," the technology is presented in a way to make a geek bounce in his seat, but is just recognizable enough that we can see ourselves operating the controls...which only heightens the dread. The score is effective for the most part, with a main theme which evokes both wonder and warning. I would have preferred a more minimalist musical footprint, though, as it can be just a bit intrusive during some set-pieces. Seldom have I so mourned the passing of the great Jerry Goldsmith (all the moreso at the brief homage to his seminal "Alien" theme).

The visuals in "Prometheus" are simply spellbinding. It really does appear that we have reached the place where no story is untellable, where no image in the imagination cannot be convincingly committed to film. The ship is marvelously designed, rendered to perfection, and moves through space with a sense of mass and power and flawless physics. 3-D is often an afterthought, a way to amp up ticket prices, while intermittently jumping off the screen at you to go "BOOGIE-BOOGIE-BOOGIE" in your face. This is not the case in "Prometheus." The 3D is immersive and essential, by turns conveying a daunting, dwarfing scale to things, and a terrifyingly claustrophobic closeness to other things from which you would much prefer to keep your distance. I saw this in IMAX 3D, and I heartily recommend that you do likewise if you can. As a sensory experience, there is simply nothing about which I can complain in this film.

Michael Fassbender's performance as the "artificial person," David, is one of the highest of the high points of this film. The scenes of him roaming the halls of the ship while the crew rests in hypersleep are unforgettable, as he learns ancient languages, sinks perfect baskets while riding a bicycle, and emulates Peter O'Toole's Lawrence of Arabia. What if Commander Data were not governed by Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics? On the whole, he'd just as soon be helpful and agreeable toward humans. But of what would he be capable, were he "unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality?" David's innocent wonder and infectious curiosity are utterly disarming, at the same time that his altogether dispassionate view of the universe (and all who live in it) is chilling in the extreme.

Noomi Rapace's performance as Dr Elizabeth Shaw has gotten a bum rap in assorted circles. This is not, IMHO, just. The simplicity of her character is also its complexity: she is a Believer. She's the sort who never would have seen the "cookbook" thing coming. She speaks to our Better Angels. She is heartbreakingly slow to wake from her dreams, and that awakening is very viscerally shattering to her. The form she ultimately takes is both consistent and changed.  She is angry, but wounded and still not altogether without hope. She is not especially sophisticated, which is both her appeal and, I expect, the source of much frustration.

Charlize Theron's Vickers is a perfect embodiment of The Company, an icy pragmatist whose main priority is her own survival ("all other priorities rescinded"). Her character is, in many ways, more cybernetic even than David's, which makes one scene with the irresistible Idris Elba's Cajun Captain Janek (from whom I truly wish we'd seen more) all the more hilariously effective.

Noomi Rapace's partner and love interest, Charlie Holloway (played by Logan Marshall-Green) is also a truth-seeker, but his motivations are rather less pure than Shaw's. He has an occasionally over-the-top air of striving to dominate nature by wresting her secrets from her. He is, in short, something of a jerk, especially to David. His lack of empathy and insight leads to all manner of unpleasantness.

This last is one problem which many viewers have had with this story: people behave in irrational, stupid ways. At times, distractingly so. I do share the irritation with some of the choices which people make in this film, but --without giving too much away-- there is some sense to staffing this expedition with people who may not be the most disciplined and professional sorts. When things start to go Very, Very Wrong, these people do not exactly bring their A-Game...which acts to move things along with an increasing inevitability. Most of the characters are pretty superficially treated, but we do get just enough to fit them into the puzzle. I am more than willing to grant that such a large ensemble, if given a more full treatment, would have weighed down an already deliberately (if at times erratically) paced film to an excessive degree.

Some have complained that this film raises a number of questions which it does not then go on to answer. Duly noted and agreed. But, at its heart, this is not the sort of story which needs to wrap everything up in a neat little bow. There are some profound meditations at the core of this film, questions about our origins, purpose, and fate, questions which hinge on the motivations and priorities of forces so removed from us in space and time and sophistication that it would be the height of hubris to fancy that we could just Get To The Bottom of them (this is, in fact, the tragic flaw in Shaw's and Holloway's characters, and it bears reflecting-on that we should become too huffy at the thought that some mysteries remain mysterious!). Again, there is a strikingly Lovecraftian message that we puny humans meddle in the affairs of the Dark Gods at our extreme peril, regardless of the purity of our motivations.

In short, I do love this film...but not unconditionally. I do recommend it...but not unreservedly. As I've said, the pacing at times lurches and drags. The score is a bit too in my face at moments (nothing like the outlandishly obtrusive "Predator" score, mind you. But also nothing like the atmospheric "Alien" suite). Some characters never venture far from one-note stereotypes. On balance, though, there is much more here to love than to dislike, and nothing to hate.

Final note: this is NOT (merely) an "Alien" prequel. That would be rather like saying that the Old Testament was a prequel to the book of Mark. The conditions are set for "Alien," but pretty much as a side-note to a profound and ambitious science fiction story..which is what this is: a tale of macabre science fiction (not "horror," as such...though there are some decidedly horrific things which happen --parents take careful note!).

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Send In The Clones

Well, the Li'l Cyte has grown to the point that he can watch the Star Wars prequels (except for the last bits of "Sith"; still a mite too intense, those). As a result, I have recently had the chance to re-watch "Episode Two: Attack of the Clones" for the first time in years. Thus am I moved by whimsy to post herein a review I wrote for the movie in August of 2002.

Readers of these pages might be interested by this artifact of a period during which I fancied myself the Leftiest of Lefties, most Transnationalistic of Trasnational Progressives. Curious because, amid the predictable intimations of anti-corporate animus, there are suggestive foreshadowings of my current jaundiced views of bureaucracy, my mistrust of overcentralized political power. It appears that my political transformation may have occurred in soil already fertile for its emergence...

Anyway, it was nice to see this unjustly-maligned film hold up as well as it has.

REVIEW FOLLOWS (Moderate Spoilers)

First, let me speak to that timid, timorous voice of fractured expectations haunting our skulls since TPM. Shush! This is the movie we've coveted in the holiest of holies of dreams since millions of Ewoks (disappointingly) failed to be pulverized by a hail of superheated Death Star debris.

From the first moments after the disappearance of a crisp screen crawl, this film flies directly into its relentless quest to saturate our senses with shockingly delicious imagery. Gods below! What special FX! I can only imagine a wholesale re-staffing (or a group consciousness-raising exercise, perhaps involving some belladonna-like alkaloids) taking place at ILM!

Gone are the super-slick, lovely-but-affected `ILM grays.' This film is textured down to fractal levels of detail. It has grit. It has contrast. It has heat distortion from engine ports, glittering droplets of rain, hypnotically languid waves on a low-gravity ocean, quick, shaky photo-journalistic zooms during apocalyptic battle sequences with chips and scratches on helmets in the far background while hundreds of dust-smeared blaster bolts tear through heavy metallic hides of immense space ships and...


No words...should have sent a poet!

Typical. I had to start with FX. These are what immediately kicked me in the arse and convinced me that ILM had, once again, set the bar to an entirely new place!

What truly gripped me, though, was that there was actually a MOVIE attached to those blazing visuals. A damned good one. Who'd a thunk it?

This is a morally, politically, emotionally, and tactically complex film. Sure, it keeps you bouncing in your seats and yowling like Slim Pickens riding that bomb (short cut to mushrooms? Sorry.). What it also does, though, is tell a rich, layered, sobering, authentically moving tale. It is the story of things passing away.


Christensen's cocky, heedless, impulsive Anakin nails the archetype of the Brash Young Man with surprising subtlety. He's drunk on his power and youth, a True Believer in his myth of personal immortality, Icarus incarnate. He is a Buddhist's (or a Jedi Master's) nightmare! He covets. The pain of his love for Padme is palpable. We feel it in his hungry gaze. This is a boy struggling to find completion, and suffering because he seeks it always from outside himself. Obi Wan won't validate him (one wonders how a certain Middle-Eastern carpenter would have gotten along with his step-dad, Joe...), Padme won't look at him the way he looks at her, while a lost mother haunts his dreams. He yearns, and, when his longings go unmet, he rages. If he is occasionally annoying (and he is!), it is only because we KNOW him. He is an annoying PERSON, not an annoying part, or an annoying performance. We watch as he's maneuvered to the cliff's edge by his own grasping, and feel it, as he is ultimately undone by the strategic fulfillment of his heart's desires. There is characterization here like we haven't seen since TESB.

Mad Props to Ewan McGregor! The subtle, non-verbal homages to Sir Alec, first evident in TPM, are just a bit more prominent in this installment. He manages to convey a transitional stage in the maturation of this character which is never forced, never...impersonation. That young bloke can ACT! Obi Wan is focused, authoritative, and NOT to be trifled with. But, too-soon released from his apprenticeship by a star-struck Qui-Gon Jinn, he lacks the depth and experience to appreciate what is happening to his Republic...and to his apprentice. He is troubled by trends he can sense, but can never seem to divert. His fate is foreshadowed in one bittersweet joke, but also in his naïve declaration of victory at a very dark moment indeed.

As much of a disservice as it is to the many superb individual performances in this film, I need to talk about two doomed characters of a rather more abstract nature: the Republic and the Jedi Order. Their fates are joined, and the feeling of their deterioration pervades the film. They are set in their ways, confident in their power, and entirely blind to the rot growing from within. Only Yoda seems to see it. Imagine the Dalai Lama's rueful resignation as he watched the Chinese advance on his land. That's the sense you get from Yoda's surprisingly unobtrusive CGI face as he contemplates an Order grown so decadent as to declare primly that "if it isn't in the archives, then it doesn't exist." His gradual awakening to the fact of an end-game to whose beginning he'd been completely oblivious is a wrenching sight. He realizes that someone's manipulated the motivations and vulnerabilities of his Order, his society, and even himself, steering them toward choice point after choice point, positioning the players so that the only possible decisions are those which push them closer to their inevitable ruin. And he is sad.

(And he is one bad-ass little green dude with a saber. Nuff said.)

It's been said (Plato? Frank Herbert? Thucydides?) that democracies inevitably deteriorate into oligarchies...and that dictatorship is not far behind. Lest we huff and puff too righteously against such heresy, let us pause and contemplate the French Revolution's fate. Or else, just go see AOTC. Lucas' rumored disenchantment with, and grim prognosis for, the state of modern democracies is in full force here. The viruses which effect this fatal mutation in the Old Republic are the calcification and corruption of bureaucracy, the ruthlessly pragmatic avarice of banking and trade conglomerates, the crushing juggernaut of technocracies...all quietly subverted and maneuvered by the insidious (pardon pun) Will to Power. There is some extraordinarily mature (and eerily familiar) political commentary here, light years from the desiccated, two-dimensionally technophobic sketch of TPM. Machiavelli would be proud of the way in which, bit by bit, even the wise are enticed to give away power, ignorant -until it is too late- of how that power has been channeled into fewer and fewer hands, till the only one left is the one with the leash.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

"John Carter" Review

Just back from taking myself to an 11:35 of "John Carter" (finally!). Thoroughly entertaining! Departs radically from the source material, but in ways that make it a far better film than a more literal treatment would have yielded. Preserves the sweeping spirit of Burroughs' epic, though.

Visually stunning (3D is well-utilized, and worth the extra scratch for the ticket), with action and humor aplenty, and fine work by supporting actors (the cast of HBO's "Rome" was well-represented, and it's always a pleasure to see Bryan Cranston, however briefly). Willem Dafoe's gruff but soulful Tars Tarkas was spot-on, and Lynn Collins' Dejah Thoris was comprehensively appealing. Strong, intelligent, principled, but vulnerable when she judges that she can afford to be. The actress' training and skill are no less thrillingly on display as are her more accidental attributes (though I'm not above saying that these were *devastating!*). Which is to say, you fall in love with her as quickly and hopelessly as does Carter himself. Taylor Kitsch as Carter brought the courtly Southern cavalryman's feisty but courteous steel to the role, but with far more of a broken heart than Burroughs' rather exuberantly blood-lusty protagonist. Not too much of a purist to concede that this makes him a far more sympathetic character.

The fact that it is tanking at the box office, while the appalling "Lorax" continues to rake in the bank is a nauseating spectacle indeed. So, take yourself to the theater while you have a chance, and rest assured of time (and money) well-spent!