Monday, May 30, 2005

Indy 500 Blogging

The big news in motorsports all this month was that for the first time ever a woman had a chance to win the Indy 500, and, on Sunday, she almost did. Danica Patrick's strong finish of 4th, ended up justifying the publicity blitz centered around her. She managed to live up to the hype, which is pretty amazing, since there hasn't been this much hype in the context of an Indy race in a long time.

It's kind of ironic, though, that the Indy Racing League and ABC Sports are trying to halt the declining viewership of the 500 by playing the diversity card. After all, its partly the "diversity" of the recent Indy 500 starting fields that has led to the declining ratings. But I guess the diversity brought in by an attractive, 23-year-old, American woman interests American TV-audiences more than the diversity brought in by Brit Dan Wheldon (who won yesterday) or Brazilian Helio Castroneves (who won in 2001 and 2002).

Although I was happy to see Danica do well, and while I understand that, in the context of the constructed media-spectacle-world of professional sports, her success at the big race is "historic", I was a little put off not so much by the amount of the hype but the kind of it. In the New York Times, Dave Caldwell writes:

Patrick, who has long black hair and weighs 100 pounds, has been marketed by the I.R.L. as an ingénue, posing her for more glamour media-guide photos than in her driving suit. But she can also drive fast.


And that's how she's come across in all her media appearances: she's attractive, young, stylish, etc.--the hot co-ed next door--which is fine, until you stop to think that Indy racing is dangerous. Bruno Junqueira is in surgery today because of a crash during yesterday's race--he "injured two vertebrae". And, in another crash, Larry Foyt fractured his spine. Ouch.

I got a little queasy at the thought of Danica--playing the lovely, spunky young heroine-of -a-feel-good-sports-movie role--getting a concussion, chipping her spine, or worse. It's one thing for the Indy Racing League and ABC to use Danica's sex appeal to sell a product, but it's another when the product that they're trying to sell could maim her (considerably hurting said sex appeal).

The IRL and ABC's pushing of the Danica-story wasn't the only thing about their broadcast that smelled of desperation. They opened the show with a 5 minutes video done in the style of the recent Sin City movie--black and white race footage with those trademarked red splotches thrown in, pseudo-hardboiled voice-overs introducing the drivers, Danica's sexy silhouette standing over a rain-drenched city skyline--that had me scratching my head. It was bizarre and kind of sad. Someone seems to have sold ABC on the idea that a Sin City homage would help the Indy 500 appeal to a young, hip audience. But it seems awfully wrongheaded to use a movie known mostly for sex and violence to introduce an event whose popularity has to do more with courage, excitement, family, and--the big one--tradition. It's as if they're trying to position the IRL as the hipper, sexier alternative to NASCAR. The whole thing was a striking example of the identity crisis that has really crippled Indy Racing's appeal to American audiences.

American open-wheel racing used to be considered much more prestigious than stock car racing, which was seen as being for southern rednecks only. But the big American open-wheel racing series--CART--did nothing to stop the best young American open-wheel drivers--like Jeff Gordon--from going to NASCAR, and filled their cars with Europeans and Latin Americans. Not surprisingly, while NASCAR's popularity grew, American open-wheel racing's fell. And the Indy 500, open-wheel's crown-jewel event, lost its former prestige. It was, after all, supposed to showcase the best race car drivers in America, but as soon as Jeff Gordon, America's best race car driver, decided not to participate in it, it lost a little of its luster. The Indy 500 now feels like an also ran to the Daytona 500, NASCAR's big event race.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

An Issues Issue

This is how David Edelstein starts off his review of Mad Hot Ballroom and A League of Ordinary Gentleman:

The documentary Spellbound was a masterpiece of pop sociology that broke through to a wide audience. Now, in its wake, distributors have been scouring the festivals for docs that build to similarly nail-biting climaxes. As copycat trends go, this is pretty exciting. Unlike their vacuous TV reality-show cousins, these indie documentaries not only catch you up in complicated human dramas, they weave in themes of class and cultural diversity.


I'm not that big of a fan of vacuous TV reality shows, but I know enough about them to see that Edelstein's criticism of them is unfair and untrue. At least half of it is: the staged events that drive the reality TV shows might not qualify as "complicated human drama", but many of them, including The Amazing Race, Wife Swap, and the last Apprentice season, are chock full of "themes of class and cultural diversity". And of course my favorite example of reality TV, which, because I am a big snob, is the British show Faking It, has a premise that is downright driven by "class issues".

I know Edelstein is using a standard critic's gambit--knock down something popular in order to prop up something more obscure (I know I do that on occasion and I'm not even a proper critic)--but it seems to me that he's making a rather silly assumption: because he doesn't like reality TV shows, there's no way they can deal with issues he cares about, like class and cultural diversity.

Now, I don't mean to say that Edelstein should become a big fan of reality TV shows: most of them do stink to high heaven and I'm sure that the two documentaries he's reviewing are a much more worthwhile way to spend your time. The real problem is that Edestein makes the kind of boneheaded mistake he's usually sharp enough to avoid: in this case equating "Dealing with Class/Cultural Issues"=GOOD and "Not Dealing with Class/Cultural Issues"=BAD.

The fact that many reality TV shows actually do deal with class and cultural issues doesn't, by itself, make them any good. And the fact that a well-meaning Spellbound-style documentary deals with class and cultural issues doesn't, by itself, make it any good either. And (for completeness's sake), the fact that a reality TV show and/or a well-meaning Spellbound-style documentary might not deal with class and cultural issues does not, by itself, make it bad.

Perhaps a better way for Edelstein to put it would be something like: "These documentaries explore class and cultural issues with more insight than you'd get in the average reality show." And a more honest way to put it might be: "These documentaries reach the same conclusions about class and cultural issues that I hold."

---

Later on in his review, Edelstein writes that

One reason I hate the fact that my just-7-year-old daughter watches American Idol (long story) is that I don't want her to think about competition yet. I don't want her to see people being judged—and in some cases, ripped apart. Yes, that sounds odd coming from a critic—but these are people who aren't rich and famous and in some cases are getting torn apart with a camera in their face.


Maybe he should check out the positive stuff Steve Sailer has to say about Idol:

One of the great things about "American Idol" is that you don't have to possess Madonna-like drive, assertiveness, and ruthlessness to do well, as you normally do in the music business. Natural talent will get you a lot farther on "American Idol" than in the real world of music, where whom you'll sleep with plays a big role. (Nobody much cared that judge Paula Abdul was exposed as sleeping with a male contestant a couple of years ago, but it would presumably destroy the show if one of the two male judges was caught in a scandal. A lot of judge Simon Cowell's appeal is that he'll tell pretty but talentless girls to get out of the business for their own good, which is not what powerful men in the music industry are known for always doing when confronted with hot babes desperate for a break.) For example, the first year's winner Kelly Clarkson had gone out to LA for a year, but had totally failed to get anywhere, so she went home discouraged to Texas. But she still had near-Whitney Houston / Mariah Carey quality pipes, so she triumphed on the show.


Although I guess that's still something a 7-year-old doesn't need to know about...

Friday, May 27, 2005

Food Blog Faves

This is my latest "favorite blog" and it should interest anyone who (a) likes to eat hamburgers, (b) lives in New York City, and/or (c) is a fan of Wimpy from Thimble Theater. My only concern/complaint is that they seem to like Blue 9 Burger way too much--that place isn't even close to being in the same league as In-N-Out. However, most of their reviews--like this one of the Shake Shack in Madison Square Park, which, for my money, serves the best burger in Manhattan--are right on.

The folks who put this blog together are the same ones who run the pizza blog Slice, which is also pretty good,but they haven't updated it very much since they started A Hamburger Today (not that I should really complain about people who don't update their blogs regularly).

My First (and Probably My Only) Attempt at "Link Blogging"

I'm having some fun playing around with the Firefox extension StumbleUpon, a "a collaborative surfing tool for browsing, reviewing and sharing great sites with like-minded people" that "helps you find interesting webpages you wouldn't think to search for." This is mildly amusing for me, since I don't really have the right kind of attention span for "websurfing".

So far I've stumbled upon:

-This page of trompe l'oeil street paintings, which reminded me of Timna Woollard's pieces in the John Boorman movie Where the Heart Is.

-A cheerful quote from Jerome K. Jerome: "The shy man does have some slight revenge upon society for the torture it inflicts upon him. He is able, to a certain extent, to communicate his misery. He frightens other people as much as they frighten him. He acts like a damper upon the whole room, and the most jovial spirits become, in his presence, depressed and nervous." (From this page.)

-A philosophy crib page that I would have loved to have had access to when I was in college.

-Some weird, cool web-art for fans of 70s rock album covers.

-Puppies.

-Sandcastles.

-Some fun with romance novel covers.

-A page of old-timey mapmakers and their maps.

In case anyone was wondering, this is why I really don't do "link" posts.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Unhappy Endings

Was anyone else as unsatisfied with the last episode of Lost as I was?

Don't get me wrong: it was a great 2-hours of television--compelling, exciting, and moving--and it did a really good job of weaving all the different subplots together. But I really felt cheated that the finale refused to answer any of the show's central mysteries. I know the season needs to end on a cliffhanger, because that's now a convention of this kind of show, but the finale was more about setting up next season's stories rather than resolving the ones from this season.

The finale of Veronica Mars was more my style: Veronica solved the major mystery she had been investigating all season, but the show's creators still were able to set up possible plotlines for the next season and they managed to end it all with a kind of a cliffhanger.

Maybe I'm just old-fashioned, but, as much as I liked Lost, I'm not sure I want to sit through another season without getting an answer to the series's big questions. The problem, of course, is that once Lost provides those answers, it might very well lose its whole raison d'etre. Back in December, I wrote that for TV serials

going on too long can be just as big a problem as stopping too soon. For example, I already have my doubts whether or not the people who make Lost can really drag their plane-crash-survivors-on-a-haunted-island story on to the end of this season, let alone the next one they’re presumably hoping for. (And even though I enjoyed the first two seasons of 24, it really seems like a premise that shouldn’t have been repeated).


Well, Lost make it to the end of the season, but I still have my doubts about next season. It seems the show's creators are either going to tread water for another season or, more likely, hit the reset button and start things all over again, with only minor variations.

I'm reminded of Chekhov's rule about guns: "If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there." If you start a TV season with a mystery, by the finale the mystery should be solved. Otherwise don't put it there. It would have been one thing if the Lost finale had solved one mystery, only to be left with a new, perhaps bigger one. But to end the season by building the suspense and then making the audience wait until season two for any resolution strikes me as a pretty cheap trick. I guess Lost is popular enough, though, that its creators feel like they can get away with it, and they're probably right.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I worked my way through all of Neil Gaiman's American Gods even though, almost from page one, it felt a little bit off. Now, I'm pretty sure I'm not Gaiman's ideal reader. I liked most of the Sandman comic book series and I remember enjoying Good Omens when I read it years ago, but Stardust really turned me off Gaiman for a while--I thought that book suffered from forced whimsy and a half-baked concept. However, American Gods looked more promising:

-It won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel. Yes, I know that these kinds of awards don't usually go to the actual best novel in any given year, but they do usually indicate a wide critical consensus that the novel is pretty good. And I've more or less liked every joint Hugo/Nebula award-winning novel that I've read—even though only one ranks among my favorite sci-fi/fantasy books (Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War).

-Critics have compared it to books by writers I do like a lot—namely Stephen King, John Crowley, and Roger Zelazny. (Actually, Gaiman himself compares it to Zelazny's stuff, but other people have picked up on it).

-While I’m not a huge fan of Tolkien-inspired fantasy, there are two fantasy sub-genres that I tend to enjoy: Conan-style Sword & Sorcery and Modern Dress Fantasy. American Gods is an example of the latter. One of the reasons I like Modern Dress Fantasy is that its authors spend more time on telling a story and less time on "world building". Also, the characters in Tolkien-derived fantasy tend to have more ridiculous names.

Now, I certainly didn't mind reading American Gods, but I kept at it not because I was inspired by the story but because I was mildly interested in figuring out why the book wasn't quite working for me (and because my plane was delayed—twice). To be fair, I enjoyed some of the book--the interludes that are there to provide some color and background are like some of the good stand-alone issues of Gaiman's Sandman comic--but the main part of the story has some major flaws.

One of my big problems with Gaiman's fiction is that his protagonists tend to be pretty boring. I assume this is because he sees them as archetypal Quest Figures, but the thing about those old stories and folktales featuring archetypal Quest Figures is that they were all pretty short. You could probably cram about 30 archetypal quest stories into a 600-page book (like American Gods). Shadow, the hero of American Gods, is no exception. Shadow, is one of those creations that only exist in genre fiction. He is a sensitive, vulnerable, ex-con bodybuilder—a tough guy with a heart of gold. Honestly, the only thing I dislike more than seeing skinny geeks like Gaiman making their heroes hulking men-of-action, is when they make their heroes cute and cuddly hulking men-of-action. He's extremely dull, although I suppose he might be appealing to sensitive teenage misfits.

Now, because Shadow is a Quest Figure, Gaiman doesn't really feel the need to make Shadow's actions and motivations either consistent or penetrable. Shadow is always doing and/or saying things that come out of left field and make no sense, and Gaiman tries to explain these anomalies by suggesting that Shadow just "felt" he had to do/say those things. This "feeling" is never given an actual explanation--i.e., Shadow doesn’t have ESP or a guardian angel or brain lesion--but, rather, we're just supposed to accept these incongruous actions because, hey, Shadow is a Quest Figure on a Quest and those things have their own logic. It's true that the characters in folktales and fables often behave contrary to real world logic, but, again, there's a big difference between a folktale set in a kind of never-never land and a 600-page novel set in some kind of variation on "the real world".

American Gods falls into the trap that so many other mediocre fantasy stories fall into: things happen for completely arbitrary reasons and Gaiman tries to excuse the arbitrariness by pleading: "Hey, this is fantasy! This is myth! This is a Quest!" The villain's evil scheme--which sets all the action in motion--is the most arbitrary thing in the book. It all seems needlessly complicated, or, rather, the complications Gaiman introduces all seem forced: they may make sense on a symbolic-mythical-hero-with-a-hundred-faces level, but as stuff happening in the story they just don’t fit. Worst of all, one of the book's final revelations is that most of the hero’s "quest" has been nothing more than a big red herring. In retrospect, the entire story comes to look like one huge needless and arbitrary complication.

As often happens when I'm reading something that doesn't quite work, I started thinking about similar kinds of books that do work. In a successful piece of Modern Dress Fantasy, say, for example, Jonathan Carroll's novel Bones of the Moon or James P. Blaylock's The Paper Grail, the story works, first, because it manages to distinguish its real world aspect from its fantasy aspect, and, second, because it is able to gradually reveal the connections between the two. The process of revelation is as suspenseful as the unraveling of a good mystery. But the revelation is only really successful if there's a genuine difference between the fantastic and the mundane and there is some kind of consistency or logic underlying their interaction. Because of this consistency, there’s nothing arbitrary about the events that happen in these novels or the choices their protagonists make. No one does anything just because they happen to be Quest Figures: their actions all make sense based on what we know of their motivations and what we know of the often fantastical situations in which they find themselves.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Next Week in Hoboken

This post at Peiratikos--the first part of an essay dealing with Spielberg's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's "Minority Report"--reminded me that I had never really gotten around to blogging my PKD Adaptation Theory.

As Steven Berg suggests, PKD's stories are all pretty sketchy. In most of his stories, PKD takes one, really compelling sci-fi idea (i.e., precognitive crimestopper or implanted memory "vacations"), draws out some of the obvious and not-so-obvious implactions of it, and ends with a little O. Henry/EC Comics twist. The plot, setting, and characters all take a backseat to PKD's conceptual noodling. (PKD's novels are only slightly less sketchy.)

PKD's stories are examples of low-rent sci-fi, and, while reading them, it's easier to visualize them being produced in a cheapo Twilight Zone or Outer Limits-style than it is to imagine them getting the huge big-budget Hollywood treatment. PKD's stories don't seem to be set in some weird, shiny far off World of the Future, but rather next week in Hoboken.

And this is where the Hollywood mentality comes into play. It is part of Hollywood Conventional Wisdom that a screenplay needs a "hook" in order for it to be sold. The cool sci-fi concepts at the center of PKD's stories provide great hooks on which Hollywood screenwriters can hang a big budget, special-effects-driven action movie. And in Hollywood, sci-fi=huge, big-budget FX-driven action movie.

But using PKD's ideas to prop up big budget action spectacles is just a little bit pretentious. The central idea of "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale" doesn't really have anything to do with the ultraviolence and flashy special effects of Total Recall. Spielberg's efforts with Minority Report aren't so distasteful, but his movie still feels like a bloated mess--but that's what you get when you try to turn a short story into a 2 1/2 hour movie. (John Huston's version of James Joyce's "The Dead", a much weightier story than PKD's, clocks in at under 90 minutes).

Now, it's usually a bad idea to make any kind of judgment on a movie based only on the preview, but the trailer for Richard Linklater's version of A Scanner Darkly looks like it might have gotten it right. It doesn't seem like Linklater has made an action movie, but rather a philosophical thriller closer in spirit to his earlier animated feature Waking Life than to the other movies made from PKD's stories. Linklater's movie might turn out to be no good, but he at least seems to be trying to do justice to PKD's work rather than rummaging around in his stories for a saleable pitch.

A Star Wars Placeholder Until I Finish My Unified Geek Theory Essay

For now, all I have to say about the new Star Wars movie is that while Samuel Jackson managed to give really good performances in two Renny Harlin-directed movies, he's completely awful in Revenge of the Sith. As my friend said, if he lives to be 100 this will still be his worst performance.

Sunday, May 8, 2005

From the Archives: The 25 Comics I Like Best

#20: The Dark Knight Returns

by Frank Miller

Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns is one of my favorite comics, but it's almost easier for me to make a case against it than it is to explain why I like it so much. I mean, as far as 1980s revisionist super-hero comics go, Watchmen is more sophisticated and Marshal Law is funnier. As far as Batman comics go, The Killing Joke is more nuanced and psychologically satisfying and those old Bill Finger-Dick Sprang stories are more enjoyable. And as far as Frank Miller's own work goes, Sin City and 300 are broader in their subject matter and more interesting from a form/technique standpoint. Oh yeah: it's also a complete mess.

The philosophy of the comic is borderline incoherent, held together--loosely--by Miller's homebrewed proto-libertarianism. And Miller's political commentary takes place on a pretty low level: straw-man attacks on lefty-liberals are balanced by straw-man attacks on right-wingers. Miller's Gotham City is an overblown, paranoid version of American inner-cities. It's not too far away from the stylized New York City of Walter Hill's gloriously fake hip-hop movie The Warriors, but Miller seems to take his vision of urban decay seriously (this is not the tongue-in-cheek New Detroit of RoboCop). Miller’s Gotham has none of the Art Deco/Gothic beauty of Tim Burton's Batman movies. For Burton, Gotham is darkly beautiful--an appealing but dangerous playground for freaks and misfits. But Miller seems to fear and distrust the city: it's a chaotic cesspool that would surely degenerate into a dog-eat-dog Hobbesian state-of-nature without Batman to keep the peace.

Another possible point against the book is that Miller's characterization of the Dark Knight is not so much complex or ambiguous but jumbled. Is Batman a bad-ass vigilante, a dangerous psychopath, an exemplar of individual liberty, or a quasi-mystical father figure to all Gotham's orphans? Well, all of the above! But Miller hardly seems to acknowledge any of the contradictions he brings up, let alone resolve them.

"Punk" cartoonist James Kochalka* wrote something to the effect that Miller's sequel to TDKR--The Dark Knight Strikes Again--is a fourteen year-old boy's idea of a comic book masterpiece. This comment, like most of the criticism of DK2, could easily apply to TDKR: it's filled with the kind of pseudo-deep machismo that passes for insight into the human condition among attention-challenged adolescents.

BUT despite all this, TDKR remains one of my favorite comics, and not just because of nostalgia for the time I spent in the teenage wasteland. AND I'd add that out of all the attempts at super-hero revisionism--from The Squadron Supreme and Watchmen to Astro City and The Authority--TDKR towers above them all--the reigning champion of the genre.

Why?

TDKR is the least embarrassed and most honest of them all. In an earlier post I wrote that DK2 "represents everything Miller loves about super-hero comics--the garish circus-like atmosphere, the exaggerated moral struggles, the love of both meaningless and purposeful action--trying to beat the shit out of everything he hates about them--mainly, the corporate straight-jacketing that passes for editorial vision at major comic companies." And in the same post I wrote that, compared to Watchmen, TDKR "takes nothing apart, does not engage in self-reflexive analysis, and does not exit through the door marked Irony. TDKR builds on the super-hero comics that came before it, and Miller puts his often contradictory feelings towards them right on the page."

Perhaps my response comes out of my own ambivalence towards the whole project of super-hero revisionism. Deep down, it just feels like most of the revisionist books are written by and/or for people who feel they have risen above the pleasures of super-hero comics but still want their fix: they want to write/read stories about dudes in tights beating each other up, but they want the stories to be worthy subjects for literary analysis. TDKR, on the other hand, wallows in those pleasures. TDKR doesn't "get at" any of the issues of super-hero comics, it doesn't "explore" any of the genre's problems, and it certainly doesn't "deconstruct" the symbolism of the Batman comics. Rather, it serves up a feast of a Batman story, putting everything that was enjoyable or troubling about those comics right on the table.

*Kochalka meant what he wrote as a compliment, but his comment gets to the heart of a lot of the negative reaction to DK2.

Thursday, May 5, 2005

The Boundaries of Geekdom

David Fiore commented that he doesn’t think his favorite super-hero comics to “belong in a group with stuff like Star Wars, Kill Bill, Wu Tang, Lord of the Rings and Sin City...” And responding to Steven Berg, Sean Collins wonders how useful the term “fanboy” can be when it is used pejoratively to refer to everything from Kill Bill to Identity Crisis. I don’t necessarily disagree with them: there are differences between Gerry Conway’s Spider-Man comics and the Star Wars movies, and Kill Bill isn’t exactly the same kind of thing as Identity Crisis.

However, this seems to be a case of missing the forest for the trees. Your ability to differentiate between all these pieces of Geek Culture is directly related to how deeply you’re already into Geek Culture. And from a complete outsider’s point of view, say someone from The New Criterion, all of this Geek Culture stuff looks depressingly similar. Now, I’d never make the argument that Kill Bill is exactly like Identity Crisis, but I have enough sympathy with the outsider’s perspective that I can see their major similarity: they’re targeted at the same audience. It isn’t a coincidence that you can buy action figures of the characters in both Kill Bill and Identity Crisis. This would seem to separate Kill Bill in some way from all those movies that don’t have their own tie-in toys, i.e. the ones not made for fanboys—the ones made for actual grown-ups.

And this is why I don’t really buy David and Sean’s points. David wants to differentiate between certain super-hero comics and stuff like Star Wars because he sees an essential difference between their underlying philosophy and concerns. And Sean doesn’t think lumping this stuff together is very useful because some of it is good and some of it is crap. But I’m more inclined to argue that as an actually existing social and cultural phenomenon Geekdom can be a fairly meaningful, and therefore useful, concept. For example, I think Rosenbaum is right to point out that women’s roles in a lot of these geek movies—aimed at fanboys (i.e., arrested male adolescents)—is different from their roles in more “mainstream” pictures—aimed at men and women who are presumed to have adult sensibilities.

Here’s some relevant and insightful commentary from Steve Sailer, a nerd, in the sense that he seems to get a real kick out of crunching numbers, but not a geek, in the sense that he doesn’t seem to like comics, from his review of the Spider-Man movie (which, incidentally, I like a lot more than he did):

Lots of fellows these days complain about the "feminization of American culture." Perhaps that's actually happening, but movies have become increasingly masculinized, as shown by the enormous anticipation for "Spider-Man."

Compare two recent Angelina Jolie movies: last week's chick flick "Life or Something Like It" and last year's boy toy "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider." Being a guy, I certainly wouldn't go see "Life or Something" again, but, as I predicted, the women who saw it rated it warmly. Yet, not many saw it. It grossed less than $7 million in its first week. Because it's a film for females, it lacked buzz.

In contrast, Jolie's video game-based "Tomb Raider" earned almost $48 million during its first weekend, even though it's now widely derided as a dud.

So, which segment of the audience is obsessive enough to get on the Internet and beat the drums for unreleased movies? You guessed it -- the generally shy but extraordinarily opinionated fanboys who love comic book movies. The best known is Harry Knowles, founder of Ain't It Cool News, the movie preview website that has so much influence over what's thought hot, and, increasingly, what gets made.

Tuesday, May 3, 2005

Anti-Nerdism

A more charitable take on Sean Collins’s response to Ron Rosenbaum’s anti-Kill Bill piece might have focused less on Sean’s somewhat bizarre claim that Rosenbaum’s essay exhibited anti-white bias and more on Sean’s claim that Rosenbaum’s essay exhibited anti-nerd bias. Sean seems to have made up Rosenbaum’s prejudice against white people, but Rosenbaum’s uneasiness with geek culture—especially its entwined depiction of violence and women—seems to be the driving force of the essay.

I’m fairly ambivalent about the whole anti-nerd thing. Even though I really like a lot of geek culture stuff—sci-fi movies, super-hero comics, video games, etc.—I do find the amount of time and money the pop culture industry spends in catering to people with a 14-year-old fanboy’s sensibility a little depressing. (I also wonder about the way this sensibility is even colonizing parts of the “high art” world). And while I generally don’t care too much for the kind of internecine nerd battles that try to pass as commentary on geek culture (Rosenbaum’s essay is an only slightly more mainstream versions of this phenomenon, as is A.O. Scott’s pan of Sideways, for that matter), I find it hard to get too worked up over it anymore. After all, to paraphrase a character from Evan Dorkin’s “Eltingville” comics: “This is a great time to be a geek.” As a geek (or at least a geek fellow-traveler) myself, I really can’t complain if non-geeks (or people pretending to be non-geeks) feel a little overwhelmed huge importance the pop culture industry places on stuff like Star Wars, super-heroes, and The Lord of the Rings. I understand the backlash against and I can sympathize with anti-nerdists like Rosenbaum because, after all, for now at least the geeks have won. And not just in a money-industry-product sense: hip lit-fic writers like Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon are writing super-hero comics. It isn't surprising that Rosenbaum (not to mention genuine high culture warriors) have sour grapes.

But sometimes I get the sense that Sean (and others who share his anti-anti-nerd stance) won’t be satisfied until the kind of stuff he loves—the Wu Tang and Kill Bill and Brian Michael Bendis’s Daredevil—is warmly embraced and praised to high heaven by every cultural commentator/critic from The New York Observer to The Comics Journal to The New York Times to The New Criterion. But this just isn’t going to happen. And, as far as I’m concerned, that’s a pretty good thing, too. Because most of geek culture is made up of junk whose primary feature is that it references a lot of other junk, creating a kind of huge interconnected junk labyrinth. In the big scheme of things, it may not be a bad place to spend a few hours a week, but too many of its fans get lost in it.

I think Pauline Kael got it right when she defended trash culture back in the 60s: sometimes trashy stuff is more vibrant and connects more honestly with an audience than stuffy, self-conscious works of “serious art”. But trash culture’s positives are also its negatives: its vibrancy and up-to-the-second relevancy leave it disposable and unable to provide substantial cultural nourishment.

The Anti-White Bias of Kill Bill's Critics?

I was mildly puzzled by Sean Collins’s response to Ron Rosenbaum’s anti-Kill Bill and Sin City essay from the New York Observer (via Tom Spurgeon). Rosenbaum’s main point is that having loads of pop culture references does not necessarily make for a good movie:

I’ve heard so many defenses of Kill Bill that depend on the apparently marvelous and unheard-of-before wonder of its referentiality. Dude, just because you make a reference—or many references—doesn’t make it meaningful or worth four hours of our time.

Repeat after me, Kill Bill fans: Referentiality itself is not an intrinsic aesthetic value. Empty referentiality, going through the motions, doesn’t make a motion picture, give cinema the gift of sight—or insight.


Although, I’m not sure that “empty displays of filmmaking technique” or “empty indie movie posturing” or “empty anything else” are really any better than “empty referentiality”, in the context of disarming Kill Bill’s defenders it makes sense.

But Sean makes the truly bizarre claim that Rosenbaum isn’t making this argument because he thinks Kill Bill is a bad movie, but rather because he’s prejudiced against white guys:

The ultimate crime of Kill Bill and Sin City, Rosenbaum half-states/half-implies, is that they were made by middle-class heterosexual white American men who were immersed in nerd culture as teenagers.


Sean’s evidence for this? Well, he doesn’t really have any but he just can’t “imagine [Rosenbaum] deploying this same line of criticism against, say, the just as referential--and in regards to the same sources!--work of the Wu-Tang Clan?” And why can’t Sean imagine this? Because the Wu Tang Clan’s work “is so self-evidently brilliant, and its referentiality is part and parcel of that brilliance.” Now, I really don’t mean to sound patronizing, but in a world where the merits of Jackson Pollock’s paintings are still argued over the Wu Tang Clan does not get a free pass. Personally, I have no trouble imagining Rosenbaum dismissing both Kill Bill and the Wu Tang’s music, because I don’t like Kill Bill or the Wu Tang’s music.

The weirdest thing is that while Sean has no real basis for accusing Rosenbaum of anti-white bias—Sean is at best reading between the lines and at worst just making shit up—he claims that Rosenbaum’s (invented) anti-white bias isn’t even deployed accurately against Sin City and Kill Bill because Robert Rodriguez, Sin City’s, director is Hispanic and a lot of Chinese people worked on Kill Bill. So first Sean attacks Rosenbaum for having a fictional prejudice and then he attacks him for not being consistent with his fictional prejudice. Huh? It's not at all surprising that Rosenbaum does not consistently show the signs of a prejudice he does not actually seem to have.

Overall, though, I wasn’t wild about Rosenbaum’s essay either. I liked parts of it. For example, I was glad to see that not everyone buys into the movie’s “strong women characters” line of B.S.:

And I really like Uma Thurman and Daryl Hannah, but all the talk about "Isn’t it great that they get to play strong women in Kill Bill?" is a little meretricious. They get to play strong cartoon characters who are made to say stupid things by men (the screenwriters) who don’t have respect enough for them not to make them silly caricatures. They’re made to sound not like women, but like male Tarantino thugs.


This reminded me of Steve Sailer’s comments on The Powerpuff Girl movie’s place in the recent babes-kicking-butt genre:

"The Powerpuff Girls" is another example of a broad trend in current culture: pseudo-feminist male fantasies about violent females, as in "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider," "Charlie's Angels," and Jennifer Lopez's recent "Enough." The nerdier the fellow, the bigger the charge he seems to get from watching girls whomp guys.

Deep down, male chauvinism stems from a fear not that females will act like males, but that they won't. Orthodox feminists and schoolboy sexists share two convictions: both want all females (with the exception of their own personal Moms) socialized to be aggressive, while fearing that most girls would really prefer to be gentle and loving. In fact, an appreciation for "stereotypical" femininity would appear to be a sign of relative maturity in the male sex.

But Rosenbaum’s piece has two big problems:

First, Sin City is similar to Kill Bill in many ways—its violence, its stylization, its over-the-top pulpiness—but its really not at all “referential” in the same way. Each scene of Kill Bill is chock full of specific references to other pieces of junk culture, but Sin City is a pretty standard noir pastiche, with fewer references than a lot of other examples of neo-noir—Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole novels or the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski, for example.

Second, the way these kinds of essays usually work, the writer will heap scorn on a handful of popular movies and then switch gears and praise some lesser known movies that do the same thing that the popular ones but do it better. For example, if I were to write an essay like this I’d probably blast Kung Fu Hustle for being not nearly as much as advertised and then point my readers to the absurd Andy Lau comedy Running on Karma. But Rosenbaum tries to bury Kill Bill and Sin City in order to praise a group of films he describes as being part of the “L.A. Collage School”. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with him doing this except that (a) it seems pretty arbitrary, as these films have nothing whatsoever to do with anything else in the essay, and (b) he seems to have just invented the idea of the “L.A. Collage School”. (I have always referred to the movies that Rosenbaum places in the category as “Movies Set in L.A.” but I suppose that doesn’t sound French enough). I guess Rosenbaum just likes these movies, and wanted to write about them, but they really don't fit in with the rest of what he’s writing about. It would have made more sense if he had offered up some examples of movies that make use of meaningful referentiality—like Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement, which contains many references to the classics of French cinema in every scene, or the aforementioned The Big Lebowski and its predecessor The Long Goodbye.

Monday, May 2, 2005

Random Thoughts on Starship Troopers

I have quite a few friends who are fans of Paul Verhoeven’s film Starship Troopers. All of them saw the movie before they read the original Robert Heinlein novel—or any of Heinlein’s other books, for that matter. After they had seen the movie, they tried to read the book, but none of them could get into it. They all made the same complaint: the book wasn’t funny like the movie was. Unfortunately, the experience seems to have turned them off Heinlein for good. Whenever I’ve recommended that they give one of his other books a try, they’ve demurred, citing their disappointment with Starship Troopers.

Now, though I’ve liked everything I’ve ever read by Heinlein and would consider him one of my favorite science fiction writers—even one of my favorite “genre” writers—I really don’t rate hardcore Heinlein fan status because I haven’t read his two most famous (and most controversial) books: Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I’ve avoided reading them partly because I love Heinlein’s straightforward no-nonsense storytelling, and both the fans and the detractors of these books seem to agree that this is where Heinlein starts to get serious and/or pretentious. I suppose I will get around to reading them soon enough, but I am not looking forward to them as much as I am to Citizen of the Galaxy (one of the few of Heinlein’s “juvenile” novels that I haven’t read yet).

But to get back to my friends: I’m mildly peeved that Verhoeven’s movie has spoiled Heinlein for them. I’m also kind of curious because they all had exactly the same reaction to Heinlein’s novel. Of course, if this were only about me and my friends that really wouldn’t be that interesting or informative for anyone else. But looking at the customer reviews from the movie’s Amazon page, it seems my friends aren’t alone. Though there seem to be a few people who appreciate both the book and the movie, most of the movie’s fans either did not read the book or were as disappointed with it as my friends were.

Like my friends, I saw the movie before I read the book, and, again like my friends, I enjoyed the movie. However, I read a bunch of other Heinlein stuff before getting around to the Starship Troopers novel, so when I did read it I was already on Heinlein’s wavelength and didn't have to struggle against preconceptions the movie might've spawned. After reading Starship Troopers, my appreciation for Verhoeven’s film version waned, although I still think it’s a fairly enjoyable tongue-in-cheek action movie along the lines of Verhoeven’s RoboCop. But it really doesn’t hold a candle to the novel, which has its humorous moments, but is essentially a pretty serious story. I can understand why a lot of Heinlein’s fans really dislike the movie and consider it a genuine travesty. Verhoeven claimed that he and the screenwriter were trying to satirize Heinlein’s novel, but the movie is more of a campy send-up of the book then a satire, partly because it ignores the major point of the book and overlooks its subtleties. If anything, Verhoeven’s movie satirizes gung-ho action flicks like Rambo and Top Gun.

Now, the negative reaction many fans of certain novels have towards film adaptations of those novels is common enough to have become a kind of clich√©. (I was tempted to write “fans of certain sci-fi, fantasy, or cult novels”, but while these kinds of fans now have the loudest internet presence, this phenomenon originated when educated people started complaining that Hollywood was dumbing down the classics.) I wouldn’t have to spend too much time Googling in order to find Douglas Adams fans who are appalled by the recent film version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. However, I think it’s fairly rare to encounter the opposite phenomenon—as in the case of my friends and Starship Troopers: partisans of the movie who actively dislike the original novel to such an extent that they won’t touch the author’s other books. (Incidentally, this is a different group from that of “fans of the movie who have never read the original novel and have no intention to do so.”) Though I can imagine that someone who was a fan of Robert Altman and Leigh Brackett’s updated version of The Long Goodbye not digging Raymond Chandler’s original novel and its brethren, I don’t actual know anyone for whom this is the case.

The closest counterpart I can come up with is Blade Runner, another movie based on a novel by a cult sci-fi writer. But Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is an even looser adaptation of its source novel than Verhoeven’s movie. The people who made Blade Runner do what just about everyone does when they make a movie based on a Philip K. Dick story does—they pick out one of Dick’s ideas from the story and build a big sci-fi movie around it that really doesn’t have all that much to do with the original story. The cyberpunk noir aspects of Blade Runner’s mood and design, i.e. the movie’s most distinctive feature, are nowhere to be found in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which is much more of a metaphysical meditation than a detective story. However, while I know people who prefer Blade Runner to the original novel, I don’t know of anyone who ended up completely writing off Philip K. Dick because of that preference. (This might be because Dick is currently a much bigger deal in hipster/geek circles than Heinlein is. Heinlein’s books are still popular, but his star has dimmed when it comes to his status as a cult sci-fi author: among folks from my generation he’s nowhere near as well received as Dick or Kurt Vonnegut.)

But the thing is—and this is the closest this post is going to get to having a point—I think my friends, and probably a lot of other people who enjoyed the movie of Starship Troopers, would really dig Heinlein’s other books. Starship Troopers, the novel, just isn’t very good place to start. (Incidentally, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? isn’t a very good starting place to develop an appreciation for Philip K. Dick, and this I know from personal experience.) I’ve come across quite a few lists on the web recommending the best Heinlein books to start with, but especially for people who liked the Starship Troopers movie but were turned off by the novel I’d recommend the ur-body snatchers novel The Puppet Masters for its wicked sense of humor. A good follow up is Double Star, which is slightly dated—not because of its science or its ideas, but because of its depiction of the acting profession. And if those books don’t do anything for you, then Heinlein is probably just not for you, no matter what your feelings towards Verhoeven’s movie.