Sunday, May 20, 2007

Catch-22 (excerpt)

Right now, I'm Reading Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. It's a marvelous and insane book. More than once I've looked like an idiot on the bus when I burst out laughing while reading this wonderful novel. Enjoy.

Yossarian looked at him soberly and tried another approach. "Is Orr crazy?"
"He sure is," Doc Daneeka said.
"Can you ground him?"
"I sure can. But he has to ask me to. That's part of the rule."
"They why doesn't he ask you to?"
"Because he's crazy," Doc Daneeka said. "He has to be crazy to keep flying combat missions after all the close calls he's had. Sure, I can ground Orr. But first he has to ask me to."
"That's all he has to do to be grounded?"
"That's all. Let him ask me."
"And then you can ground him?" Yossarian asked.
"No. Then I can't ground him."
"You mean there's a catch?"
"Sure there's a catch," Doc Daneeka replied. "Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy."
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

[Heller, Joseph. Catch-22. Scribner Paperback, 1996. 54-5.]

Satire III (excerpt)

"... but unmoved thou of force must one, and forced but one allow; and the right; ask thy father which is she, let him ask his, though truth and falsehood be near twins, yet truth a little elder is; be busy to seek her, believe me this, he's not of none, nor worst, that seeks the best to adore, or scorn an image, or protest, may all be bad; doubt wisely; in strange way to stand inquiring right is not to stray; to sleep or run wrong is."

-John Donne

The Problem with the Problem of Censorship

Censorship, like it has been for a while, is a hot topic. Too often, though, censorship is discussed in an immature manner. The issue is most often discussed in terms of the binary myth and so the question becomes: to censor or not to censor, or, is it right or wrong to censor. In North America, our political structure has conditioned us to think of issues in this binary and dichotomous manner and we like to think that sticky or complex issue like censorship can be understood along party lines. So, whenever the issue of censorship is raised (which usually happens in the wake of tragedy, such as the Columbine of Virginia Tech massacres, and when scapegoats are needed) the question is rarely "Should this game/movie be censored" and is more often "Should anybody censor anything."

This, I think, is not the most useful way to approach the question. Censorship itself is not the issue. What is being censored and who is doing the censoring is the issue. Censorship is the outside application of a certain type of morality; it is an authority saying what can be allowed and what cannot. As a society, though, North America has deluded itself into thinking that the only morality is the morality of freedom, which seems to always mean the ability to do whatever one wants to do without he threat of punishment. Unfortunately, humans -- and especially humans in North America -- have proven themselves unable to properly control their appetites and urges and pleasures and have proven themselves to be in great need of guidance and authority, regardless and perhaps because of their continued efforts to live free.

In the same way that we wouldn't want to abolish Law just because one law may inconvenience us (speed limits, for example), we should not want to oppose censorship just because it may target something we enjoy. Often, when the things that we enjoy are made the subject of moral scrutiny, we respond immediately and passionately and make what really amount to stupid claims or radical suggestions. The knee-jerk reaction to blame or criticize governments or churches for "meddling" or interfering with personal freedom is really a veiled attempt to justify a specific sin by attacking or discrediting the very notion of sin itself. For instance, when a particular game or movie becomes the heated subject of debate and the question of censorship is inevitably raised, we almost automatically dismiss the general idea of censorship itself instead of the particular idea that this particular thing should be censored. However, there are very few people who would actually claim that nothing is sacred. The question of morality is always a paradox in an amoral society for, on the one hand, that society must champion the "anything goes" mentality or be condemned by its own actions and yet, on the other hand, it recognizes that certain actions must always be abhorred and punished if for no better reason that self-preservation. Murder, after all, must be punished by those who do not wish to themselves be murdered. In a similar way, those who attempt to discredit censorship and the application of external authority do not actually believe what they are saying -- they only wish to justify a continuance of sin and immorality.

If a convincing argument against a specific application of censorship and external authority and morality is to be made, then, it must be made in such a way that recognizes that law must exist and that certain things cannot be permitted. Attacking the very notion of law or censorship gets us nowhere. In other words, if one is defend a particular thing against censorship, the argument must be made on that thing's own merits and not on a belligerent rebellion against law and authority.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Cancellation of Jericho

It's official. Jericho has been canceled. The serialized drama now joins the ranks of Twin Peaks, Deadwood, and Firefly - great television shows that were canceled by studios more interested in placating and patronizing audiences than in producing compelling art and stories. As long as the production of art or entertainment is controlled by studios and publishers - by people whose bottom line is money and profits - than art's only value is its mass market appeal. Producers and publishers are only interested in backing something that they think will make them rich; they have no interest in actually creating something worthwhile. This depressing state of affairs is partly the fault of audiences, who have proven that they prefer CSI: Miami to Deadwood, which is horrible and unfair. If audiences would embrace compelling, intellectual and challenging television, like they sometimes (but not often) have, than shows like Jericho may stand a chance. In other words, the only way to be treated like an adult is by acting like one.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Review :: Fido

Sometimes, things just work out. This weekend, 28 Weeks Later, the more-than-likely ill-conceived sequel to Danny Boyle's brilliant 28 Days Later, opens and is sure to deliver a screen-load of zombie cliches and studio-produced drivel. Looking at the trailer, I couldn't help but feel that 28 Weeks Later could potentially kill the new zombie-movie renaissance which was ignited by Boyle's film, Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead, Zack Snyder's remake of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, and Romero's own Land of the Dead. So, amidst these depressions, it was a pleasure to quite unexpectedly run across a little Canadian zombie film called Fido.

Fido is the story of a relatively quiet, idyllic mid-west 1950's American suburb. This is classic white picket-fence America. The twist? WWII never happened; instead, there were the zombie wars. Apparently, a zombie holocaust swept across the world, tearing families apart and pushing humanity to the brink of extinction until ZomCon, a company led by one Dr. Geiger, developed a collar that could be put on zombies that would repress their more nasty, flesh-eating impulses. Now, in an act of deliriously capitalistic optimism, these "tamed" zombies have become prestigious commodities. If you can afford one, you can purchase zombies and have them cut your lawn, walk your dog or even, if you swing that way, even use them as kinky sex toys.

Like David Lynch's Blue Velvet, Fido deliberately sets up the juxtaposition of idyllic suburbia with the creeping, ever-present possibility of violence and death. While Blue Velvet violently and without warning plunges its characters into dark and deep waters, the characters of Fido live quite comfortably in the middle of a sea of death. The undead have been domesticated... sort of. Zombie violence routinely erupts in this little town and, tragically, friends and neighbors are routinely eaten. Part of the film's brilliance is the playful nihilism that runs throughout it. People are killed and eaten matter-of-factly, drawing little more than looks and comments of annoyance from other characters. School boys are nonchalantly massacred; the elderly are casually ripped apart. It's all a part of everyday post-zombie war life. In the midst of the just-barely controlled violence, though, classic '50's sensibilities still reign. Sex isn't talked about; couples sleep in separate beds; women diligently obey their husbands. It's this delirious combination of polite sensibility and gratuitous violence that makes Fido such a fun movie.

If Fido is trying to make a point or to comment upon society (a la Romero's Dawn of the Dead), it isn't very obvious about it. Beyond the very rudimentary"zombies are a metaphor for repressed human urges / for the ills of society made manifest" subtext that runs through almost every decent zombie movie, Fido refrains from saying much. This may be a flaw and may ultimately mean that the movie isn't as endearing as other zombie films. It's charm, however, is its simplicity. Several familiar zombie tropes and conventions are at work here but none of them feel forced or awkward; many of them feel fresh and innovative. What Fido really feels like is a short story, like a interesting idea developed as far as it can be developed, which isn't really a criticism so much as it is merely an observation. Fido isn't a grand comment upon humanity like Boyle's 28 Days Later or Romero's Dawn of the Dead, but it is as fun and as silly and as hilarious as Wright's Shaun of the Dead.

Fido is a refreshing take on the zombie sub-genre and anyone even remotely amused by zombies should find a way to see this film. While it may not have the gore or the violence that most people expect from a zombie film (it's quite tame by zombie-movie standards), its wit and its humour make it remarkably entertaining. While 28 Weeks Later will destroy Fido at the box office, Fido holds its own as a clever little flick that is sure to become a cult favourite in its own right.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Summer Session Begins

Good morning, Sports Racers. It's 6AM and knowledge has to go to school. 6AM!! This morning, and every morning for the next two months, I get to spend the happy hours during which I would normally be sleeping learning the wonderful world of calculus. Ahh... I'm gonna die. Later, during the late morning hours when people should be starting their day I will be learning Latin, which, let me tell you, sports racers, will be a lot more fun than calculus.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

The Paradox of a Freethinking Revolution

Wrapping up another school year, the first one at a new university, I am a little dismayed about the current and future state of higher education. My optimism is being sorely trumped. It has not yet been defeated, though.

For all our Western progress (and I use the word cautiously), for all our advancements in technology and medicine, all our so-called enlightenment and moral virtue (ahem... I'm looking at you, democracy), we are still - and now perhaps even more so - an amazingly dull and unthinking society. We have certain modes of thinking, like cultural synapses, that fire involuntarily and with gleeful abandon and, when we find ourselves inside these cozy little, familiar cultural currents, we think we are being radical, subversive or intelligent. Certain ideological trends appear, but only appear, to radical and intelligent; certain party lines like "Hey, Church, stop oppressing women!" or "Yo, fundamentalism, what's with all the homophobia" have only the faint taste of authenticity and free thought. For some reason, we think that brainwashing people into thinking that religion and morality is bad is a better goal than letting religion "brainwash" people into becoming moral or righteous people. Within our schools these cultural synapses fire wildly and, I'm beginning to think, irresponsibly. The subversion of traditional mores and belief is happening under the guise of liberation and freethinking.

Subversion and radical revolution is often required. After years and years of unchallenged stability, an organized religion - or any institutionalized ideology for that matter - probably requires a revolution, an aggressive enema to purify the system. My concern, however, is that it is exactly when Freethinking appears to be operating, such as when it attacks organized thought, that Freethinking itself is often annihilated. The popular criticism of organized religion is itself an organized attempt to control peoples' thought by mindlessly turning them away from what only has their best interests at heart. When subversion and revolution no longer intends to restore and when it resorts to lying and manipulation to bring about its own ends then it no longer desires to create freethinking individuals but only desires to turn those individuals into its own mindless foot soldiers.

So, yeah, my optimism is waning. But its last flames have not yet been doused. I still maintain that through classical humanist education - education that focuses on the great thinkers and poets of the past - people can attain a degree of self-awareness and critical thought. Read it for yourself, people, and don't mindlessly quote the party line.

TV Year in Review :: Serialized Dramas

As the current television regular season hits the home stretch it’s good to reflect on what’s happened. This past year in television was a good one. We have definitely entered the golden age of the serialized drama. Shows like 24, Battlestar Galactica, and The Sopranos dominate the airwaves, the satellites and the broadband. However, these shows seem to be showing subtle signs of exhaustion. Certain conceits can only be taken so far before they begin to buckle under their own weight. While 24 and Battlestar Galactica remain strong, they did not remain the most compelling shows on television. Instead, this years television greatness comes from the rookies.

Perhaps the most glamorous of the new shows, Heroes capitalizes on the recent super-hero trend to great effect. Best described as a more mature take on The X-Men, Heroes follows a diverse group of next-generation human beings, all of whom posses amazing abilities. As a super-hero origin story, Heroes is basically a morality tale that explores the implications and responsibilities of power and the ways different individuals use it. Some, such as the shows primary villain, Sylar, simply want to use their power to gain more power, no matter the cost. Others, such as the good-hearted Hiro Nakamura, want only to be heroes and to help other. Heroes is normally stellar but it sometimes descends to the absurd, which is perhaps inevitable when the super-hero genre is given the high-brow treatment. Heroes’ only real problem, though, is its teasing nature. The show routinely sets up what promises to be an amazing sequence of violent release and pure action only to cut away from it or deflate rapidly. Perhaps this is due to a low budget or perhaps it is a stylistic choice. Either way, Heroes remains one of the more compelling new dramas of the year. With the finale only a few weeks away, here’s hoping that they go all out and give us some truly great super-hero battles.

Jericho, for me at least, was the surprise hit of the year. The show is a new take on the post-apocalypse genre. The sleepy mid-western town of Jericho must rally to survive and protect each other after a series of nuclear bombs devastate the United States. Focused less on action and violence (though both are usually quite present) and more of the social and communal effects of isolation and political independence, Jericho is Lord of the Flies on a larger scale and the central question is always how to remain civilized human beings when laws and consequences are no longer externally enforced. Films such as The Road Warrior or Water World have conditioned audiences to expect certain things from the post-apocalypse genre; Jericho reinvents the genre by focusing on the slow-burn effects of isolation - this is a world slowing falling apart as witnessed by the interpersonal and political dynamics of the survivors. Jericho is consistently compelling; even its low budget and sparing use of special-effects add to the muted tension and menacing normality of the situation. Like Heroes, Jericho hints at a lot without actually showing much of anything. In Jericho, though, this works better and actually complements one of the shows conceits, which is that the town of Jericho is trying desperately to preserve what it was in the face of tremendous and disastrous change. Outside the town, which is rarely depicted, all manner of evils and lawlessness can be found; inside the town, though, there is hope in the communal experience and in shared goals.

The season’s absolute high-point, though, was Dexter. Pitch-black humour, incredibly unnerving violence and even a healthy dose of romance are at the heart of this serialized crime drama. Dexter Morgan is a forensic investigator specializing in blood-spatter patterns. He is very good at what he does. He should be… after all, he himself is a serial killer fascinated with human blood. Relax, though, in his own way Dexter is a good guy and he only releases his dark predilections upon those deserving of them. Dexter is a wildly ironic series. Even though it focuses on a sociopath who is unable to feel human emotion, the series is really about becoming human. Like all television characters who are unable to be human (such as Star Trek: TNG’s Data) or even desire to not be human (such as Battlestar Galactica’s Gaius Baltar), Dexter is a metaphor for humanity itself. Faced with solving the case of an even more vicious serial killer who, like an anti-Dexter, is somehow able to remove all the blood from his victims, Dexter slowly learns the importance of love and family. Dexter is most definitely not for the faint of heart. Some of its sequences are truly horrific. However, in the midst of other shows which routinely play it safe and fail to deliver meaningful stories or characters (or which, even though they create horrific events, dumb down their depictions or emotional responses to them like the many iterations of CSI), Dexter is, to use a horribly clichéd metaphor, a breath of fresh air. That the show has been renewed for a second season proves that someone out there in Televisionland is finally awake to artistic importance.

It's not clear how much longer the serialized drama can last. The quick cancellation this year of such shows as Smith, The Nine, and Drive - and the even more bewildering decision to reformat Veronica Mars to exclude long mystery story-arcs - may be evidence that the studios prefer short-term rewards instead of long-term payouts. Unless you're 24, which packs enough action into one hour to satisfy any Bruckheimer/Bay fan, the serialized drama requires patience and daring, which are things that most television studio executives do not have. The serialized drama remains my personal favourite style of television, though, and if Heroes, Jericho, and Dexter can continue to deliver quality television in their second seasons, than I will be very pleased indeed.

Aphorisms :: The Heroic

Examples and heroes show us how to live. No matter how much higher above us they are, no matter how impractical, implausible, idealistic a world they show us, that world must always be the goal.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Polemical and Irenical

I often appear more concerned with understanding what is going on than I am with judging it. Why do I seem to avoid labeling something right and something wrong? Despite the relativists, I do not believe right and wrong are fictions and I do believe there is always a right way of living life. When it comes to certain things, things like justice and mercy and the way they are both played out in politics, education and religion, I am very concerned with right and wrong. When it comes to the abstractly philosophical and religious, though, I often reserve judgment, especially when no immediate judgment needs to be made. If I can put of describing something as right or as wrong I will. This, however, suffers from the appearance of relativism. Anyone who is not off categorizing everything he encounters at the very moment he encounters it as right or wrong, good or evil, is often accused of being wishy-washy, of lacking moral backbone, of being modern – or worse, postmodern! – and of chucking the Bible out the window. However, this simply is not true.

There are two types of people in the world and two guiding spirits in them: the polemical and the irenical. The polemical is interested in taking sides, in polarizing people into two camps of opinion, and with being fiercely loyal to certain people, towns, countries and ideas. The polemical divides and conquers, and has an “us versus them” mentality. The irenical is interested in combining ideas, in looking at all sides, in bringing people together, and in being open to new ideas. The irenical adds and plays, and has an “all of us together” mentality.

To the polemicist, the question of right and wrong is always first. In fact, the question is asked and usually answered before whatever is being discussed is fully – or even partially! – understood. This is why the polemicist always considers himself morally superior to the irenicist and why the irenicist cannot talk to him intelligibly.

Fundamentalists are fully convinced. Before they can learn they must be broken of their absolute conceptions and confronted with powerful new ideas that challenge and disturb them. This is why fundamentalists are always wary or hostile of education.

Can an irenicist be religious and still remain irenical? As I see it, the irenicist, and not the polemicist, is more concerned with truth because he is concerned with learning what is right while the polemicist is fiercely concerned with being right. Tragically, he who is absolutely convinced he is right is often furthest from the truth: his devotion to his belief blinds him to all other possibilities. He who admits he does not know is actually prepared to know. This is why those who call themselves religious are often so polemical. Organized Religion demands that its members be absolutely convinced that they are right. Even a shadow of a doubt can disrupt the status quo and upset the hierarchy and control of the system.

Review :: Hot Fuzz

In 2004, Shaun of the Dead introduced us to Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, three of the most appealing chaps working in film at the moment. A near-perfect blend of parody and fanboy adoration, Shaun mixed together elements of the romantic comedy and zombie sub-genres. Now, with Hot Fuzz, the trio returns with an equally joyous send-up to the buddy-cop action film. Directed by Wright and written by Wright and Pegg, Hot Fuzz, while falling just short of the greatness of Shaun, firmly establishes these young Brits as comedic masters.

Simon Pegg plays Nicholas Angel, a London supercop who is sent to a sleepy English village for making the rest of the force (uh, “service”… sorry) look bad. There, he is warmly welcomed by the townspeople, who include Jim Broadbent as the Chief Inspector, Timothy Dalton as a shady local businessman and, of course, Nick Frost as Pegg’s bumbling new partner. However, all is not as idyllic as it seems (is it ever?) and, by the time the third act wonders around, complete action-movie mayhem ensues.

One of the things that sets Hot Fuzz apart from most efforts at parody is the pure exuberance Wright and Pegg obviously have for the genre. Like the relationship of Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof to the grindhouse genre of “carsploitation,” Hot Fuzz celebrates and breathes new life into the tired and often clichéd conventions that govern the genre. The film never becomes a spoof and never descends into scorn. For instance, the often-ridiculed style of Michael Bay - rapid cuts, exaggerated crane shots, and ADD-style, seizure-inducing edits - is used to great effect. In fact, direct references to such films as Bad Boys II and Point Break become important narrative devices. Hyper-aware of its conventional foundation, Hot Fuzz never undermines its predecessors but elevates them to canonical status; instead of subverting the genre, Hot Fuzz is a love song to it. Like Wes Craven’s Scream (and I’m begging you, forget about the sequels, please), Hot Fuzz works as both a parody of the genre and a legitimate entry into it as well.

Part of the genius of Shaun of the Dead was the pitch-perfect chemistry between Pegg and Frost. While not quite as instantly charming in this film, the two remain at the top of their form. They pull off the buddy cop routine, complete with some hilarious scenes of just-hinted at homoeroticism, without missing a beat. While you don’t get the same sense of past history in Hot Fuzz as you did in Shaun, you do get to see the two brilliant comedians playing off each other as only good friends and great actors can. Some cinematic pairings just bring out the best of people - such as Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune or Kevin Smith and Ben Affleck (see what I did there... I just blew your mind). The Pegg and Frost pairing, if we get to see more of it in the future, could prove to be a great thing.

Like Tarantino, Wright and Pegg are filmmakers inspired by the films they watched as kids. The obvious love they have for the genres in which they operate keeps their films fresh and inspired. It’s odd, but two of this year’s most inspired films, first Grindhouse and now Hot Fuzz, are films that do not attempt to be original but which remain firmly rooted in established convention. There’s something exhilarating about this, especially when it’s done correctly and with this much love.

Democracy and the Binary Myth

Sitting in class a while ago, not paying too much attention to what was being said that day, I began jotting down a few thoughts, some of which resolved themselves into this grouping of aphorisms:

Identity cannot be positively formed in opposition to another group. Negative identity ceases to exist when the opposition no longer exists. A negative identity seeks its own destruction.

Although I wasn't consciously thinking about politics when I wrote this, this is I think (perhaps... maybe... my opinion could change) one of the basic problems of modern, partisan politics, which we so ardently maintain should be called democracy. No matter what we bother to tell ourselves, partisan politics does not seek the greater good. Partisan politics only seeks to achieve or maintain power. In our current and murky democratic paradigm, we seek to create a binary myth, a dichotomy of opinions that is easily filed and understood in black and white terms. It creates an Us vs. Them mentality that, instead of uniting a nation within a common identity, forces individuals to define themselves in opposition to each other.

Take the controversial question of abortion. On one side of the dividing line, the so-called Conservative or Fundamentalist side, the binary question question looks like this: you either support a pro-life agenda or you sanction the murder of unborn babies. Alternately, on the so-called Democratic or Liberal side, it looks like this: you either support womens' rights or you are a Patriarchal mysogynist. Both sides demonize their opponants' position and force each individual to take a side, the outcome of which will vilify you in the eyes of half the people.

As long as we continue to operate in such a limited and myopic political paradigm, a paradigm that eschews substantive and polite political discourse, and as long as the opposition party continues to only live and breath murder for the ruling party, democracy will continue to slide downhill. If we only negatively define oursleves against a competing ideology we do not positively become anything.