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Franzenfreude [Sep. 10th, 2010|03:26 pm]

In Rabbit, Run, John Updike tells the story of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, a 26-year-old salesman living in suburban Pennsylvania in the 1950s, mainly focusing on his unhappy marriage. Updike's protagonist seeks out his high school basketball coach for marital advice, cheats on his wife, and contemplates leaving her and his two-year old son during a long nocturnal drive through rural Pennsylvania. There are also a couple of other twists that make the book an incredibly depressing read, which I won't reveal here. But as I read it, I was struck by one particular detail: early in the novel, Updike writes that Rabbit married “relatively late in his life” – at about twenty-three. If you keep this detail in mind, most of Rabbit’s problems become pretty easy to diagnose: he got married too young.  As a society, we’ve learned our lessons from the divorces, indiscretions and unhappy marriages of older generations: marriage is a serious commitment with serious consequences and feelings can change as people get older. People have learned to resist social pressure to commit to things before they’re ready.  Rabbit may have felt a great social pressure to get married in the 1950s, but in 2010, it just isn’t there.  

                As a result, Updike’s evaluation of social pressures to marry and start a family are pretty much worthless today. That’s not to say that Rabbit, Run isn’t worth reading (the language, pacing and tone are spectacular, in fact) but if you read Updike looking for insight into the human condition in 2010, the default purpose of most realist literature, you’re looking in the wrong place.  Rabbit, Run is inextricably linked to forces that no longer hold the sway that they once did. The moral quandaries it sought to investigate have become irrelevant. Updike may have thought he was writing a timeless novel. He wasn’t. He’s not the first writer, and he won’t be the last.

                I’ve also been confused by the rave reviews that Jonathan Franzen gets. I’m sure a lot of readers based their opinion of The Corrections on his refusal to accept Oprah’s endorsement. Ultimately I decided to read it because I love good fiction, it got great reviews, and I refuse to let public opinion keep me from something I might really enjoy. But I have to say, I wasn’t overly impressed. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very good novel, and Franzen is a very good writer … but at the end of the day, I thought The Corrections was a very well-written middle-brow domestic novel. I thought it would make a solid addition to Oprah’s Book Club, back when Oprah was recommending books by Wally Lamb and Barbara Kingsolver. I don’t think he achieved anything timeless, and in twenty years, I think The Corrections will find its place on the bookshelf next to Rabbit, Run.

                These reviewers frustrate me when they compare Franzen to Tolstoy. I wonder if they read the same Tolstoy that I did. I can remember the characters from The Corrections, but they don’t resonate the way Tolstoy’s do. Pierre, Prince Andrei, Natasha, Anna Karenina, Lyovin – those are characters I’ll never forget. I remember scenes from those novels perfectly. I remember thinking about those scenes in relation to my own life. I remember the moment I realized that I enjoyed Anna Karenina more than War and Peace, and how strange that was for me at the time (after all, how could a novel about infidelity compete with one about Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia?).  More than a century later, modern readers can still relate to Tolstoy's characters and the dilemmas that they face. His novels regularly make the lists of the best books ever written. On a personal level  I have embarrassingly insisted friends read Tolstoy and been frustrated when they didn't.

 I can't say the same about Jonathan Franzen. I’ve never recommended The Corrections to anyone. Some of it struck me as particularly vivid: in particular, the scene where the failing academic sees a child doodle on the back of his screenplay seemed as though it was taken directly from a narcissistic novelist’s nightmare. Sometimes his language is very good, sometimes it seems like he resorts to easy categorization and commonplace description. But I found his tone awfully self-important - at all times insisting that his novel - the story of one white, middle-class family enduring personal and professional difficulties - was the single most important story to tell today. He seemed to have so much contempt for his characters that it was impossible to honestly sympathize with them. Reading The Corrections is a little like listening to a depressed friend tell you about terrible things that happened to terrible people. It’s hard to take anything away from that.

I’m convinced that critics love Franzen because he writes about the Big Issues that people think should be discussed in Great Works of Literature. It seems like the best book of the decade should be about a middle-class family dynamics because earlier Great Books, Tolstoy's included, are all about middle-class family dynamics. But the goals of literature shouldn't be static, changing only to update itself to historical or cultural changes; in order to stay relevant, writers should be pushing its boundaries, looking for new insights, no matter their shape or form. Literature in 2010 can’t be concerned with the same topics that it was in the 19th Century – not only because society and culture have developed, but because we have great books on those topics. We don’t need a Tolstoy for the digital age, the old one still does the job just fine..

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Not Fade Away [Jul. 13th, 2010|11:16 am]
In the 1993 action movie Demolition Man, Sylvester Stallone plays a police officer who is cyrogenically frozen until the year 2032.  Emerging in 2032 Los Angeles (well, technically it's San Angeles, a megacity also absorbing San Franciso) he finds that American society and culture have changed dramatically. Alcohol and tobacco have been made illegal. So have contact sports, caffeine, and unhealthy and spicy food, although in a sponsor-friendly twist, Taco Bell is the only restaurant left standing. Machines automatically ticket anyone who swears. In this overly inoculated world, crime is virtually extinct. The meek police of the future can't handle violent super-criminal Wesley Snipes, so naturally they turn to to Stallone for some good old American action-comedy know-how. Quips are made. Things explode. I think Benjamin Bratt was in it. Let's just say that as a dystopic vision of the future, Demotion Man leaves something to be desired.

But there's one scene in the movie that illustrates an important point about fears of a digitally-dependent culture. Early in the movie, Stallone heads to the bathroom, only to find that in 2032, there's no toilet paper. It's all been replaced by some kind of futuristic bidet called "the three seashells." None of Stallone's fellow officers will tell him how they work. But Rocky Balboa's never been a quitter. He approaches the nearest electronic ticket printer, lets a torrent of profanity fly, and with a handfull of newly printed citations, he heads back to the bathroom. In short, even in the future, you will still probably have to wipe your own ass.

So while people celebrate the tenth anniversary of the death of print, let me suggest there are overlooked markets here. First, there''s a lowest common denominator. The Library of Alexandria could be digitally available, but it does nothing for me if I've forgotten my reader on the way to the subway. In 2032, the man reading Proust on his $400 text reader will probably be sitting next to someone reading a 25 cent copy of the New York Post. There's also a market gap: a text reader might be a worthwhile investment for someone who reads twenty books a year, but a person who buys a couple of books a year? Not so much. People like to compare digital books to digital music, but people consume music at a much greater rate. A digital music player is just a better investment than a digital book reader for just about anyone. Anyone who suggests that every man, woman and child will own a text reader is making an assumption that depends largely on class and private wealth as well. It's one thing to be excited over the potential of digital culture, it's another to predict that all newspapers and books will completely disappear overnight.

There's also an issue of entrenchment: the physical book form has been around for hundreds of years - thousands, if you want to count the earliest writing on papyrus. That predates all recorded music by a long shot. That's not just a sentimental attachment - besides people will throw out any sentimental attachment for a cheaper and easier alternative every day of the week - but to a degree, our society has adjusted itself to rely on the book form. Copyright law, for example, is famously technology-dependent: if you didn't have a way to make copies easily and cheaply, you would not need an entire body of common law to govern it. Every level of our education system involves reading, researching or writing books, for better or worse. Our public library system depends on borrowing physical books. University presses acquire and print scholarly works with the understanding that the library market will buy most of the copies.Scholarly research, education, free accessibility to knowledge ...those aren't trivial concerns. If we eventually move to a paperless society, all of these will have to be reconfigured.

And this reconfiguration worries me. Digitization will allow greater ease and everyday use, but it also exposes copyrighted works to the greatest copyright threat in human history. The companies that are spearheading these efforts operate for profit. That matters more than you think; every university press in the county is a non-profit organization - a legal designation that requires and allows them to print scholarly material that wouldn't even be worth the time for a for-profit company to even consider. These companies are also entering the field from the technology angle, not the content angle. As a result, I think they drastically underestimate the time and money necessary to produce a book - not each physical copy, but the writing, editing, marketing and production. In many ways, there's a race to see who can develop the best platform for the digital book and then charge content developers licensing fees - which at one point were about 70% of every ebook sold. On the other side of the equation, publishers are severely under-equipped and out-manned in the digital age. Publishing companies simply can't compete with Google, Amazon, Apple or even Barnes & Noble when it comes to developing technology.

In the end, I believe there will be some sort of technological compromise: the interests at stake are just too far-reaching and too universal. But the compromise may not be the perfectly configured, instant and free digital access that you always pictured. After all, we still use the QWERTY keyboard, which was designed to prevent typewriter jams. What's a typewriter? Oh, that's right, those were machines that physically printed words on  ... paper. Don't call it a brave new world just yet.
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Hand-Puppets, Eyeliner, James Cameron and You [May. 5th, 2010|03:00 pm]

In his memoir, Experience, Martin Amis remembers watching James Cameron’s Terminator films with his father, the British novelist Kingsley Amis:

—Get your hair cut … Get your hair cut.

                This suggestion was being offered to the television set, more particularly to the actress Linda Hamilton every time she appeared on screen. We were watching a tape of The Terminator (again). An old science-fiction hand, Kingsley was a great fan of The Terminator, and seven years later he would make no secret of his admiration for Terminator 2 (‘a flawless masterpiece’), which I took him to at the Odeon, Marble Arch.

                I’ve always enjoyed this image - two literary lions unabashedly enjoying a blockbuster series of movies. After all, Kingsley Amis made his name as a poet and wrote novels satirizing the British upper-class.  (A friend of mine once argued that you could deduce everything you needed to know about Kingsley Amis from his name and the titles of his books – Lucky Jim, The Old Devils and Stanley and the Women. Kingsley Amis was destined to become an English satirical novelist with multiple failed marriages.)  Similarly, Martin Amis parlayed his privileged upbringing and scathing writing style into gigs at the New Statesman and multiple Booker prize nominations. Other anecdotes in Experience include introducing Christopher Hitchens to Saul Bellow, crashing at British poet laureate Robert Graves’ house, and drunkenly criticizing Thomas Beckett at a dinner party hosted by Salman Rushdie. I'll go out on a limb and say that the Amises are not the first people you would expect to enjoy a movie series that prominently features time-traveling robots.  

                James Cameron has always made fun and high-selling movies, but recently he’s somehow acquired a reputation as a visionary moviemaker.  Avatar is a pale imitation of his earlier movies, dressed up with expensive computer graphics and three-dimensional technology, and it was nominated for Best Picture.  Academy Awards have often been given out to later works to recognize earlier achievements, but Cameron’s earlier movies never purported to be more than consumable and fun. At the end of the day, Cameron is just a B-movie filmmaker who understood which story-telling elements appeal to the most people. There’s really no difference between his movies, superhero comic books or mass-market paperbacks. Anyone who argues that he’s ever been a great filmmaker or unique storyteller is seriously deluded; it’s as simple as that.  

                You might argue that Cameron’s movies tell memorable science fiction stories. If you define science fiction in the manner of Kurt Vonnegut or Philip K. Dick, as the attempt to analyze the repercussions of future technology on what it means to be human, this plainly doesn’t hold up.  Robots that look completely human are a perfect device for exploring questions on the nature of humanity – topics that both Blade Runner and the Battlestar Galactica reboot did very well. In the Terminator series, it’s a great way to hide the limits of Arnold Schwarzengger’s acting skills and create an unemotional villain who seems more ruthless on-screen as a result. Time travel can offer a way to address questions of free will and the consequences of decisions.  In Terminator, it’s an excuse for multiple sequels.  Extraterrestrial life offers the opportunity to address questions of communication and culture clashes. In Aliens, it’s an excuse to present a really scary group of monsters. For all the talk of science fiction, Cameron has just made a fantasy and horror movies dressed up with science fiction elements to offer a change of pace.

                “Okay,” You might respond. “So Cameron doesn’t analyze any higher themes. But he’s always been about telling unique and memorable stories. Doesn’t he deserve credit for presenting female heroes in a testosterone-filled genre, or portraying the interaction between corporate and individual interests?” This also doesn’t hold water.  Sure, Sigourney Weaver's Ripley is the lead character in Aliens. But Aliens isn’t really an action movie – it’s a horror movie. Let’s review: Ripley joins a crew of people destined for a strange planet. An impractically nimble, anthropomorphic forklift gets a disproportionate amount of screen time. When they get there, the crew starts getting picked off by a group of strangely remorseless predatory creatures. A strange series of accidents makes calling for help impossible. Ripley finds an abandoned orphan and tries to protect her.  One of the crew members, played by Paul Reiser, betrays them in the second act to advance corporate interests. The surviving members launch a last ditch attempt to escape.  Ripley uses the forklift to fight the mother alien, saving the orphan and the most redeemable members of the crew.  The question of whether the aliens survived is left open. That’s just a standard slasher movie. Those space marines might as well be horny teenagers looking to escape for the weekend, with Ripley as the well-behaving babysitter. In that regard, she’s no more “feminist” than Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween. The forklift may as well be a cross/silver bullet given to her by her wise grandmother/teacher/mysterious old man, put to use in the final scene.  Cameron uses corporate interests in the same spirit that horror movies use promiscuity or drug-use:  as a way to rationalize their deaths later on. There’s no equivocation in Paul Reiser’s character – he just wants to trade human lives for cold hard cash. No movie audience in the world would even partially sympathize with him. Resier’s character is a microcosm of the movie; it’s just the same product in a new package.

                Finally, let’s talk about special effects. Winning an Oscar in a special effects field is like getting good grades in Woodshop, Home Ec, or Gym class. No one’s going to say that you didn’t perform well in those areas, but at the same time, you can’t really go around claiming high academic achievement. I’ve never understood why these technical fields are recognized at the Academy Awards. The Pulitzer Prize committee doesn’t give out awards based on typeface development or newspaper layouts.  It seems to me that these professionals would be better served by their own set of awards given out by people who really understand what they do. Further, while I’m sure that it takes a lot of skill to make the terminator look like a robot instead of a bodybuilder wearing eyeliner, or make the mother alien look less like a corn-syrup-coated hand puppet, I can’t really give James Cameron credit for figuring out that people are scared of slimy creatures with sharp teeth or robots with glowing red eyes. As for Avatar, I’m not sure why Cameron would spend years using computers to generate human faces when he could have used … regular old human faces for pretty much the same result. At the end of the day, those blue people didn’t look a whole lot different from Toronto Raptors forward Chris Bosh, and the wildlife was remarkably similar to the animated rain forest from Ferngully.

                There’s nothing wrong with horror movies or James Cameron per se. Watching Aliens doesn’t mean that you have poor taste. You can watch Terminator 2 and still appreciate Saul Bellow and argue Thomas Beckett with Salman Rushdie, after all. But deluding yourself into thinking that Aliens has an important message or James Cameron’s work as a whole offers a unique cinematic vision, on the other hand, does. I mean, the guy made action movies. He relied on charismatic stars, large budgets, car chases, shoot-outs, one-liners and explosions. He once wrote a screenplay called “Rambo: First Blood, Part II” (It contradicts itself in the same breath. And for Chrissakes, it’s the title!”). It’s one think to go out for hamburgers, another to mistakenly believe that you’re eating steak when you do.
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Dinosaurs! [Oct. 26th, 2009|08:15 pm]

When I was in second-grade, everyone loved dinosaurs. Across the board.  Boys and girls. Our six-year old brains could barely process the concept of a world – this world, and not a fictional one – in which giant reptilian monsters fought each other. We had favorite dinosaurs. We had solid color T-shirts and lunchboxes with the dinosaurs solid color silhouettes with their names stenciled below. We had toys. Where I grew up, the natural history museum’s centerpiece was a huge diorama of a tyrannosaurus feasting on the remains of a triceratops. The museum staff kept the diorama semi-dark and piped in storm sounds and animal growls. It was terrifying.

 By the time I was in third grade, no one cared about dinosaurs. Third grade seemed so much more adult – a feeling which, in retrospect was completely absurd. Our arithmetic workbooks were replaced by hardcover textbooks that required covers made from grocery bags. No longer could we write in our books. The tracking system made its first appearance as we were separated from our classmates at various times and given different color-coded grammatical readers. I’m convinced this shift is fairly widespread – across the country, somewhere between second and third grade, dinosaurs lose their charm. Toy and clothing companies continue to market the same products – the same T-shirts, the same injection-molded models—to new batches of second graders every year, but the third graders remain stately, oblivious and adult by comparison, completing timed math tests and reading specially-written short stories. With one or two notable exceptions to the contrary, dinosaurs remain, as William Marshall (the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) might say, solely the province of the second grade.

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On sympathy [Oct. 1st, 2009|06:10 pm]

In Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, fifteen year-old Christopher Boone Pickens investigates the mysterious death of a local dog. Inspired by Sherlock Holmes stories, he records his observations in a notebook which presents itself as the entire text of the novel.  But the book's title and initial premise are something of a red herring. In fact, the book isn’t a mystery at all. Early on, Christopher solves dog's murder and starts a long and chaotic trip to London to visit his mother. While The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time takes its title and cues from Sherlock Holmes mysteries, this form is employed mainly to show how the book’s narrator interprets the events around him. For the entire novel, Christopher believes that his trip to London is the direct result of events set in motion by the dog’s death, but the reader can see that it’s actually the product of a more intricate family situation. This difference in perspectives lets Haddon show his readers that Christopher has some type of high-functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome without mentioning a specific diagnosis.  If you were writing a high school English paper, you would call this the classic “unreliable narrator” technique, throw out a couple of examples, and be done with it.  Other authors have used unreliable narrators to illustrate mental instability (Flowers for Algernon and The Sound and the Fury come to mind) and many have probably produced more valuable literary works. But I think Haddon’s novel differs from most of these in one simple manner – Haddon never loses his empathy for Christopher. This makes Christoper a very sympathetic character in the purest way possible: putting the reader in Christopher’s shoes.

In the book, Christopher doesn’t believe that he has any “disorder” whatsoever – in Christopher’s eyes, his thoughts and actions are sensible, measured and natural.  Some of these take the form of run-of-the-mill opinions: Christopher is resolute atheist, who thinks a belief in God is for stupid people.  Some are slightly odd, but not completely out of the ordinary: he loves math. Some seem strangely arbitrary: Christopher hates the color yellow, and avoids yellow foods and yellow cars. Some seem more troubling: Christopher doesn’t understand basic humor and screams when people touch him.  Christopher demonstrates expertise in very difficult subjects but can't survive some everyday situations: he passes the advanced level mathematics exam, but cannot handle a chaotic London train station. Taken individually, these can be dismissed as strange quirks, but when they occur consistently and in rapid succession, they demonstrate that Christopher simply sees the world very differently than a normal person would. As Christopher’s quirks affect his perception of every event in his life, any reader will agree that even if Christopher lacks an official diagnosis, there is something undeniably abnormal about him. In writing The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Mark Haddon took special care to make sure that any diagnosis did not overwhelm Christopher’s personality, and succeeded admirably in that regard. Any value-driven reader will develop an everyday and genuine sympathy for Christopher, one that goes much further than an official diagnosis could provide. This sympathy is best the element of The Curious Dog in the Night-time. Having sympathy is really the only effective way to deal with people like Christopher Boone Pickens – the non-fictional people in this world who have similar disorders.  You could offer the same advice for dealing with almost anyone. I wish I could offer something more concrete or specific, but sometimes the simplest advice is the best.  

But sympathy alone is not a solution. Encouraging people to be sympathetic for things that they don’t understand is time-consuming and unreliable.  Mark Haddon cannot write a different copy of The Curious Incident of the Night-time for every real-world individual like Christopher Boone Pickens. Family members cannot be expected to describe the specific ways that the Christophers of this world differ from ordinary people to every teacher, administrator or person on the street –especially since this usually requires divulging embarrassing or painful experiences.  Even if this could be done quickly and painlessly, this world is frequently a very unsympathetic place.  For people with autism spectrum disorders, official diagnoses are more than worthwhile – they provide easy short-hand solutions to a variety of complex problems that can arise everyday.  A diagnosis can get a child into a special education class. It can make medication an option.  And most importantly, a diagnosis can sometimes provide a simple, immediate explanation when unexpected issues arise.  Outside of fiction, diagnoses are often the best option.

And yet it seems that the public opinion continues to move against autism spectrum diagnoses. Last fall, the comedian Denis Leary briefly made headlines when he wrote in his book that: “There is a huge boom in autism right now because inattentive mothers and competitive dads want an explanation for why their dumb-ass kids can't compete academically, so they throw money into the happy laps of shrinks... to get back diagnoses that help explain away the deficiencies of their junior morons. I don't (care) what these crackerjack whack jobs tell you — your kid is not autistic. He's just stupid. Or lazy. Or both.”  Of course, Denis Leary has never presented himself as anything other than an asshole (he wrote a song about that on of his albums, after all).  But I do think that Leary articulates the current backlash against autism spectrum disorders – which argues that they aren't "real" disorders at all, but just by-products of overly indulgent parenting. This worldview -- essentialy arguing that a recognized mental disorder in a developing medical field does not exist-- is  counter-productive, dangerous and insulting.

I hope that no one takes talking points on medical disorders from a supporting actor in the Stallone-vs.-Snipes movie Demolition Man. But in the interests of being thorough, (and because this has upset me for a while now) let’s review Leary’s comment line-by-line. First, the current “huge boom” in autism diagnoses does not prove they are fraudulent. I hate to state the obvious, but as medicine has gotten better, doctors have discovered many “new” diseases and conditions. As doctors have discovered certain things are dangerous and treatable, they developed ways of identifying and treating them. There was probably a “huge boom” in cancer diagnoses after it was discovered. This isn’t an autism-specific argument – it could be applied to any diagnosis in the history of medicine. Additionally, anyone with a vague understanding of history knows that strange and unexplained mental disorders have always been present – early classifications and treatment just weren’t what they are today.  Past “treatment” of mental disorders started at “exposure on hillsides,” briefly considered “genetic cleansing,” settled on “institutionalization” for a while, and is only now getting to where it should have been from the very start – education and research. Simply put, we now know a lot more about the brain than we ever have. The science is better.  We are diagnosing more autistic individuals today because we now have the tools to do so. The problem isn’t new, the solution is.

Second, let’s think about the parents of autistic children. I don’t think taking a child to multiple doctors shows “inattentiveness.” It seems to me that this is a symptom of overly attentive parenting, if anything. Further, I’m not sure why competitive parents would be interested in getting their children diagnosed with autism.  I’m sure parents take pride in and sometimes boast of their children’s accomplishments, academic, athletic or what have you. But I don’t think mental disorders are quite as boast-worthy as Leary claims —especially ones that can require enrollment in special schools, tutors, medication and involve a variety of embarrassing social situations. If parents compete through their children (and I’m sure some do), being diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder is like being disqualified right out of the gate.  There are lots of bad parents out there. But assuming the worst when parents seek out doctors for their children isn’t warranted under normal circumstances, and it isn’t warranted here either. I can’t tell you how much it upsets me that people assumed these things about my parents when I was growing up.

In general, parents of autistic children struggle heroically with the disorder while trying to make sure that the child has as close to a normal life as possible. To criticize their parenting on top of these problems is just obscene. Really, it’s no wonder that parents of autistic children are so defensive. When a coalition of parents with autistic children criticized Leary’s remarks, he appeared on The Daily Show to clarify his thoughts. Mainly, he argued that he was referring to middle-aged people who diagnosed themselves with autism. I think this is an interesting clarification, considering it doesn’t address anything that he said in his book at all. Like Leary, I don’t like how the word “autistic” gets bandied about these days. Every absent-minded but academically gifted person is not autistic. It’s a more complicated set than that. But when a parent continues to investigate their child’s mental condition, I think some deference is warranted. And I would rather live in a world that errs on the side of sympathy.

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The Character Assassination of Henry James [Sep. 18th, 2009|02:37 pm]

The other day, as I was reading Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove, I had a revelation. If Henry James Sr., the father of the novelist Henry James and the philosopher and psychologist William James, had started calling his sons Billy and Hank, there's no way they would have grown up to become hyper-intelligent, effete scholars - the authors of Portrait of a Lady and The Varieties of Religious Experience respectively. In fact, the hypothetical Hank and Billy James more likely would have been legendary, hyper-intelligent bank robbers, mainly because these names are startlingly similar to that other set of famous James brothers – the outlaws Frank and Jesse. 

Curiousity (and idleness) got the better of me, and I looked all four of these guys up on Wikipedia.  Both sets of brothers lived at approximately the same time; they were all born in the 1840s, entered adulthood during the American civil war, and lived through the wildest days of the outlaw west.  Frank and Jesse James fought for the Confederacy in the Civil war, and became outlaws afterwards. In 1876, a failed bank robbery in Northfield, Minnesota left most of the gang dead or captured, except for Frank and Jesse.  Aside from one final heist, the James brothers essentially retired from crime. In 1882, Jesse James was murdered in his home by a friend – an event which was later reimagined in Ron Hansen’s novel The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. After his brother’s murder, Frank James turned himself in, but coasted on his reputation for many years after.

By contrast, William and Henry James were born to a wealthy Boston family and did not fight in the Civil War. Two of their other brothers, however, fought for the Union. Some scholars suggest that William was not healthy enough to join the war effort, but in The Metaphysical Club, Louis Menand intimates that Henry James Sr. tried to prevent his smartest two sons from serving in the military, protecting his substantial financial investments in their future. Unlike those other James brothers, the lives of William and Henry James only begin to get interesting in 1880s. William James’ education was repeatedly interrupted by a strange, undefined illness; he only earned his M.D. in 1869 after nearly a decade as a graduate student. He traveled a lot and wrote sporadically until 1870 or so.  He married in 1878, became a full professor at Harvard University in 1885, and wrote his best works around the turn of the century. Henry James dropped out of law school, traveled a lot, and moved to Europe permanently around 1880. He wrote his best novels there- Portrait of a Lady, Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl, among others— and only returned to the United States twenty-five years later. Henry James never married or even seemed to have a romantic life of any sort, people continue to speculate about his sexuality to this very day.

All this leads me to one very obvious, yet startling conclusion: William and Henry James and Frank and Jesse James are one and the same.  That’s right, in the 1860s, young William and Henry James, upset with their father for refusing to let them fight in the civil war, fell back on their tremendous wealth, positions of privilege and substantial intelligence to craft false identities for themselves, and then used these identities to perpetrate some of the most daring bank and train robberies in American history.  If the James brothers were smart enough to write some of the canonical texts in American literature, they easily could have falsified a few documents here and there, especially by civil war era standards. As a career academic and a professional writer, William and Henry James had the independence to travel whenever and wherever they liked – providing the perfect cover story for a string of heists and a matched set of double lives.

After the botched bank robbery in Minnesota, they probably realized that notorious bank robbers rarely have the option to retire quietly, and decided to devote themselves to their academic pursuits full-time.  Henry/Jesse James was married with small children by this time, and had developed a reputation as a notorious, Robin Hood-stylized desperado and a ruthless killer to boot.  There was simply no way Henry/Jesse James could simply return to Massachusetts without being recognized, put on trial, and convicted, so he convinced Robert Ford to help stage his murder and abandoned his family. He moved to London, where he could evade criminal punishment and focus on writing his novels. After spending years writing while on horseback, hiding from the law, in between protracted gunfights, or worse yet, while raising two small children, Henry/Jesse James’ writing blossomed in much calmer surroundings.  Faking his death offered Henry/Jesse James the opportunity to come to terms with his latent homosexuality as well.  After spending years with every variety of old west prostitute trying to figure himself out, Henry/Jesse James also probably contracted some terrible strain of syphilis that rendered him impotent, but still had to keep it a secret from all but his closest friends for the rest of his life.

William/Frank James, had not developed quite the same reputation as his younger brother. He was certain that he could convince a jury to acquit him.  Five months after Henry/Jesse’s “murder,” Frank/William surrendered his guns to the Missouri governor, with the understanding that he would be tried only in the post-civil war south – where he could rely on influential friends, tremendous economic resources, and local sympathy for his fabricated background as a Confederate soldier to get acquitted. Then, shedding his identity like a snake, William/Frank James returned to Harvard University, and after spending years as an instructor and low-level assistant professor at Harvard, and developed into one of the most pre-eminent minds of the century.  William/Frank’s attempts to come to terms with his participation in numerous murders largely informed his later writings on spirituality and religion in The Varieties of Religious Experience.  His attitude towards religion in general shows his sociopathic side as well. As religious conservatives have argued for years, any man who attempts to examine the psychological underpinnings of religious belief must have no moral values of his own. This was clearly the case of William/Frank James.  But with his brother in hiding, and most of his gang long dead, William/Frank couldn’t help but feel nostalgic for his days as a bank robber, often adopting the guise of the legendary outlaw Frank James in isolated appearances as a railway ticket-taker or horse race promoter.

But the James brothers couldn’t have pulled this off without the help of two of the most powerful institutions in America. After all, they didn’t even bother to change their last names for their alternate lives. When Harvard higher-ups discovered that two of their proudest graduates had led double lives as sociopathic killers, they covered it up.  It would have damaged Harvard's reputation considerably to admit that two of their best and brightest products, led double lives as homicidal criminals. But what institution could provide them better cover than the wealthiest, and most lauded American institution of higher education? Further, it would have damaged the U.S.’s international reputation to admit the same, especially in the aftermath of the civil war. William James, after all, was friendly with Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. Admitting that William James was a fugitive from justice would hang a shroud of doubt on the highest institutions of American democracy as well. Rumor has it that the American government protected the James brothers for the rest of their lives, even censoring a train robbery plotline from early drafts of The Ambassadors.

At its best, this theory sounds like the plot of a Thomas Pynchon novel. At it’s worst, it seems like the plot of National Treasure 3 (any film series that begins with the proposition that there’s a treasure map on the back of the Constitution would have no problem with William and Henry James burying treasure in the Old West).  But one thing’s for certain: there’s more truth to my theory than anything in Holy Blood, Holy Grail or The Da Vinci Code.

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Working through the Netflix queue... [Jul. 26th, 2009|01:36 pm]

I’ve had a Netflix account for about two years now.  As a whole, I think it saves me time and money, but it’s a little like buying cigarettes by the carton instead by the pack. DVD-watching still rips my life away, but at least it costs me a set amount every month. Of course, a new delivery mechanism comes with its trade-offs. Instead of worrying about late fees and limited selection, Netflix users have to constantly manage an online queue in order to get the most out of their monthly investment. Poor or sporadic queue management has its consequences; this Netflix subscriber once found himself with a copy of The Other Boleyn Girl, wondering how the hell he got it. And even the most obsessive queue management can’t prevent the movies that you’ve selected from sucking.  Usually this just means that a movie’s forgettable, stupid, boring, or difficult to follow. You can always stop watching them and return them. But sometimes you come across a movie that you can't stop watching until it's too late, and despise it so much that you still want to blog about it three months later.

About three months ago, I rented the Ryan Gosling vehicle, Lars and the Real Girl. After Little Miss Sunshine, a number of similar cutesy indie-seeming films began to pop up all over the place, and this was one of them. Lars and the Real Girl follows Ryan Gosling as a mentally disabled man in a small town who convinces himself that a blow-up doll is a real person. First, Gosling is quite possibly the worst choice for role. Portraying a mentally disabled individual is much riskier than it seems – it easy to do poorly, and very difficult to do even decently. At it’s worst, it’s embarrassing and offensive –like in Tropic Thunder, which played the situation for laughs, or I Am Sam, which … didn’t.  DiCaprio turned in a memorable performance in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? partly by making sure that both his character’s personality and disability seemed authentic.  But Gilbert Grape also lucked into having a young DiCaprio for the role. They couldn’t have known he’d turn out to be one of the best leading men of his generation with a gift for seeming vulnerable onscreen.  Gosling might get his character’s tics right, but he never seems vulnerable or real. On the contrary, he usually carries himself as a pretentious, indie jerk. That’s what made Half-Nelson successful (well, the soundtrack helped too) – Gosling thinks he’s saving his students, when in fact, he’s the one who needs saving.  When you give Gosling to a character quirk that seems tailor-made for a pretentious actor to stretch his acting chops, well, you’re not off to a good start.

One of my favorite scenes in Lars occurs when Lars older brother and sister-in-law visit the doctor to discuss Lars’ diagnosis. When the doctor (played by Patricia Clarkson) suggests they play along with Lars’ delusions, the brother interjects “But they’ll all laugh at him.” The doctor responds “You’re worried that they’ll all laugh at you.” And Patricia Clarkson gives Lars’ brother a look as if to say, “You’re more concerned with how you appear to people than your brother’s mental well-being. How selfish of you.” In my opinion, this is the single most offensive part of the whole film. The movie doesn’t assign any legitimacy to the brother’s concerns at all, or even hint at any mixed emotions. The movie doesn’t consider that standing by and watching people laugh at someone you love is not just embarrassing, but also incredibly painful and difficult to take. The movie doesn’t consider that the relationship between Lars and his brother might go beyond this chance encounter in her office.  The movie doesn’t worry that this interaction between doctor and the patient’s family might not be appropriate or even advisable. (It doesn’t help that Patricia Clarkson, as an actress, usually seems aloof and somewhat judgmental.) And this could have easily been fixed by changing the line to something like “I know it might be difficult to take, but this is really what’s best for Lars.” It’s fine to suggest that the brother’s motivations might not be completely altruistic, but dismiss them so unilaterally is reductive, irresponsible and inexcusable. If a doctor said something like that to me, I would never see her again. In fact, I might consider smacking her across the face.  I’m willing to bet that most people would agree with me.

In the third act of Lars and the Real Girl, the entire town plays along with Lars’ delusions, and Lars eventually forgets about them.  Endings to Hollywood films have always been overly optimistic, and always will be, but this is a little much. Not one human being in the entire town treats Lars poorly. No one laughs or points fingers. No one has defend Lars, or manage an awkward introduction to the situation.  I half-expected to see cartoon birds land on his outstretched hands. The film ends with Lars a happy well-adjusted guy. How fucking cute. Lars’ delusions don’t seem less realistic than any other part of the film. come to think of it, the sex doll is the only well-developed character in the film.

By contrast, the series Breaking Bad handles a similar situation much more believably. While his disabled son tries on pants in a department store, Bryan Cranston’s character (the name I forget) overhears three teenagers mimicking his speech patterns. Cranston, showing his range, turns purple with rage, walks out of the store and back in, pushes the lead teenager to the floor and screams at him.  (Cranston is really good in Breaking Bad.) The situation here is also overly optimistic and unrealistic – here, a heroic, violent confrontation solves the problem with absolutely no repercussions, when those situations are few, far between, and rarely as successful or cathartic as one would like –but at least it doesn’t play fast and loose with the character’s motivations.

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What's Eating Augie March? [Jul. 24th, 2009|12:20 pm]

I read Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March in the year after I graduated from college. Looking back, I think I think it was the perfect book at the perfect time: the young protagonist of the title spends most of the book struggling to find an identity and establish a meaningful life. As a semi-employed college graduate slowly going broke in New York, I found this reassuring.  I assumed that Augie March was the literary stand-in for a future Nobel prize-winning author, which allowed me to imagine that an immensely successful man once stole and re-sold books for a living at one point.  If that’s true, I thought, surely I’ll be all right on some level eventually. I have friends who fondly remember that year, and I agree with their sentiment, but only up to a point; while some of my best memories are from that year, I also lost all confidence in myself and have never felt more miserable in my life.  Somehow Saul Bellow and his chewy, masterfully constructed sentences made me feel better. I was so struck by the book that years later, I bought it for a friend, hoping it would have a similar effect on them. In retrospect, there really is nothing more pretentious than giving a gift in this manner – I wish I hadn’t done it. You can never really pass a sentiment like that along anyways. It’s similar to telling people about your dreams – as deep and moving as they were to you, no one else will ever really care, they’re having deep and moving dreams of their own. But there’s one part of Augie March that never sat quite right with me. 

In the book, Augie has two brothers. The youngest of the three March brothers, Georgie, is mentally disabled, though the full extent of his disability is never elaborated on in great detail. In the book’s preliminary discussion on the March family, Augie interjects that simply that Georgie “was born an idiot” – another off-hand reminder that life in the first half of the twentieth century was more casually cruel and oppressive than most things possible in our culture today. 

Less than a hundred pages later, at the direction of the family’s controlling grandmother, the March family decides to have Georgie institutionalized.  It’s a well-done and thoughtful scene – the family remains composed until the last moment, when their mother breaks down. Augie tries to distract Georgie from the process by directing his attention to the clasp on his satchel, showing his sympathy for his brother, but also how ill-equipped he is for the situation. Bellow hints at the emotions boiling beneath the surface as well. When Augie reviews the incident as the book’s narrator, he’s dissatisfied with the way his grandmother handled it – and here Bellow is so good that I’ll just quote directly – their grandmother “made of it something it didn’t necessarily have to be, a test of strength, tactless, a piece of sultanism; it originated in things we little understood: disappointment, angry giddiness from self-imposed, prideful struggle, weak nearness to death that impaired her judgment, maybe a sharp utterance of stubborn  animal spirit, or bubble from human enterprise, sinking and discharging blindly from a depth.  Do I know? But sending Georgie away could have been done differently.”

George March doesn’t really appear in the book after that. Other characters refer to him occasionally – he’s called into being when their mother’s health begins to deteriorate, and very late in the book Augie has a half-hearted realization that Georgie “shouldn’t have to live the rest of his life like that.”  But the decision was made, and the plotline is immediately dropped from the book. George has become a shoemaker, supposedly from an apprenticeship through the institution. He does not appear in the book again. For all intents and purposes, Bellow sends him away as much as the Marches do. And in my opinion, this is the book’s weakest moment and only false note.  And here I’ll borrow Bellow’s language again: sending Georgie away could have been done differently.

I’ll cut Bellow a break here since the situation is difficult for Augie handle, let alone express in narrative. Augie struggles with the language here – suddenly those Bellovian phrases become vague and general – “could have been done differently,” “shouldn’t have to live the rest of his life like that.” An attentive and sympathetic reader can project any emotions into them. It’s less about what Bellow wants the reader to feel than what the reader wants to feel at this point. The Georgie sections remind me of pop songs with simply written lyrics – the lyrics are a cipher for any way that you want to feel.  When a sentence craftsman like Bellow starts channeling Scout Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, you know something’s up.

And further, I think the situation has been presented better.  For example, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? As he goes through the daily routine with his mentally disabled brother, Gilbert Grape responds in many different ways, protecting his brother at point, while hitting him the next, and so on. If you’re exposed to any complex situation for an extended period of time, you’ll respond in a variety of ways.  

More importantly, the movie provides a suitable metaphor for the situation. It eats at Gilbert.  It’s constant, pervasive and difficult for Gilbert to express what he considers an acceptable resolution.  In that respect, Johnny Depp is really the perfect actor for the role, since he can match moody stares with the best of them.  Although I’ll be the first to declare that relying on the natural charisma of a highly attractive leading actor is something of a cheap way to draw the audience’s sympathy. It’s a little like Bellow’s switch to vague phrasing.  Or maybe anyone’s problems just seem deeper and more meaningful when they happen to Johnny Depp.

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It's alive! [Jul. 9th, 2009|02:29 pm]
In the very first scene of HBO's Southern vampire series, True Blood, a camouflage-wearing Southern good ol' boy confronts a clerk dressed in the standard "modern vampire" uniform from the 1990s and after - lots of black leather. But the scene is a bait-and switch - the hunter, even with his chewing tobacco and caked-on Southern accent, is the real vampire. From the get-go, the scene asserts that this series will shatter B-movie stereotypes and offer a fresh take on the vampire story. But despite promising so much, the series fails to deliver.

Of course, True Blood is hardly the first attempt to revise the modern vampire genre. I've always found it particularly funny that the same story has inspired so many strange variations. There are Russian vampires. There are British vampires.There are vampires who live in Mexican strip clubs. There are vampires that live in Alaska. Vampires in high schools across the country. True Blood isn't even the first series to have vampires from Louisiana - Anne Rice staked out the American South for vampires years ago. And that's just movies - if I was more up-to-date on vampire novels and video games, this list would go on a lot longer. It's odd that this story, with all its particularly unexplainable quirks, is such an enduring staple of popular culture. The conventions don't even make sense - I can understand how deals with the devil might make one cautious around crosses and holy water, but no one has ever explained to me why vampires hate garlic. (Maybe it has something to do with the the first vampire Vlad Dracul and all that. Maybe it was his least favorite food or something. I don't really know how these deals with the devil work.)

In a relatively recent New Yorker article, Joan Acocella tried to explain the vampire  pop culture phenomenon, reviewing everything from Bram Stoker to Twilight. Her conclusions were interesting, and particularly entertaining. On a narrative level, the classic vampire story combines elements that conflict with one another in interesting ways. Vampires live forever and have supernatural powers on one hand, but have weaknesses that can be exploited by a particulary inventive (and camera-friendly!) group of heroes. As a horror movie villain, they are functionally flawless. Vampires survive only by drinking human blood on one hand, but must obtain permission before entering a person's home. They remain dangerous and strangely romantic at the same time. With this dissonance in mind, it's really no surprise that Stephanie Meyer's vampire romances are so popular. On another level, vampire stories are political metaphors. Bram Stoker's Dracula (the novel, not the movie with Keanu Reeves) incorporates a number of sociopolitical fears from the time period, largely fears of foreigners, different racial and religious groups, or homosexuality in general. In this reading, vampires are a paranoid characterization of anything different, offering a stand-in for a variety of minority groups - racial, religious or sexual. To make these outsiders more fear-worthy, they are demonized and given supernatural powers. And that's how you get vampires.

Using modern vampires as a political metaphor is a tricky business, though. A story that depicts vampires as supernatural and evil beings in the classic mold is completely at odds with a story that casts vampires as a misunderstood minority group deserving of tolerance. In the traditional story, vampires are by definition monsters with supernatural powers who prey on the innocent. If a story relies on this as an essential part of the narrative, analogies to modern minority groups fall flat.

That's my principal problem with True Blood. While it incorporates a "vampire rights" plotline, vampires in this series are still have all their supernatural aspects and evil disposition. Most of the vampires in True Blood (with the exception of Stephen Root's suburban, TV-loving bloosucker), still act like classic villains straight from enjoybale but predictable B-movie fare like Blade or Underworld. They exact terrible revenge. They murder innocent people to survive. There's no "great misunderstanding" that redeems vampires or a history of conflict that legitimzes their actions in the story - they are just evil and they can't help it. When Sesame Street argued for monster tolerance the series went to great lengths to show that the "monsters" were in fact harmless furry creatures with some strange quirks. By contrast, True Blood asks for tolerance for a group that is pre-disposed to murder and feed on humanity in general. At one point in True Blood, an anti-vampire zealot worries that vampires will "molest their children," in an oh-so subtle reference to the gay rights movement. It seems to me that I would be more worried about vampires murdering and eating the children (which they do all the time in the show), but maybe that's just me.

Invoking marriage rights for vampires also sounds like a hypothetical used to argue against same-sex or interracial marriage. At its core, it equates the existing civil rights movement with tolerance for mythological spawn of the devil. The two are slightly different. Tolerance depends on a fundamental acknowledgment of humanity or an acknowledgement that any differences are superficial. That's not in True Blood.
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Copyright Law I [Sep. 7th, 2008|12:28 pm]
Earlier this month, the Republican Party introduced their 2008 Vice-Presidential candidate, Alaska governor Sarah Palin, at their National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. Palin, who earned the nickname "Sarah Barracuda" as a high school basketball player, thanks to her tenacious defense, took the stage to a song that seemed to be tailor-made for the female candidate: "Barracuda" by the female 70's rock group Heart. Brilliant marketing decision, right? A no-brainer, really.

Except the Republican party did not get permission to the song as part of its campaign.  Universal Music Publishing and Sony BMG, who probably hold the copyright to the song, filed a cease-and-desist order against the McCain-Palin campaign. As is often the case in these situations, political differences between the artist and the Republican party were key. One can safely assume that if the Republican party had asked for permission, they would have been turned down. The members of Heart have already admitted as much to the media.

So let's review th options, from the Republican party's perspective. If the McCain/Palin campaign had asked Heart for permission before using it at the RNC, they would have been turned down, and wouldn't have been able to use the song at all. If they use it without asking for permission first, they get one "free use" of the song before Heart, Universal Music and Sony BMG can even do anything about it. If they do notice and disagree with its use, their main remedy is a cease-and-desist order - which just means the Republicans can't use the song again. Therefore when liberal artists are concerned, it makes much more strategic sense for the Republicans to use their songs and ask questions later - they will never get the rights to use Heart's "Barracuda" in a repeated series of ads featuring Sarah Palin, but they can get away with using it once - for an electrifying public introduction on a national stage.

This isn't the first time that this exact pattern has occured with other musical artists: the Republican party will use a song by an artist with known liberal ties, without asking for permission first. Similar situations have centered on songs by John Mellencamp, Van Halen, Sting and Jackson Browne. After so many encounters, the Republican Party can't claim that these problems are unforeseeable. Similarly, they can't claim to be ignorant of the copyright system, after recieving numerous cease-and-desist orders. In fact, it's happened with such regularity that it can't be accident or oversight, it's an intentional pattern of strategic conduct designed by the Republican party to squeeze as much out of the copyright system as they can. The problem with allowing this first "free use" is that it allows the Republican party to capitalize on the artist's material to support a message that they disagree with. And while subsequent cease-and-desist orders offer a nominal opportunity to "set the record straight," in public perception, they function in a manner similar to newspaper retractions: many people read an errroneous front-page story, few will read the buried, one-line correction two days later.

But since the Republican party hasn't infringed one artist's copyright in a persistent fashion, any lawsuit brought by an individual artist won't succeed - but nevertheless, the infringements here are intentional, without permission, and widespread. Musical artists, as a result, have a class action problem here - no individual artist can prevent an infringer from getting this one "free use" of their material. But when the infringer has shown a pattern of intentional conduct towards other similar copyrighted materal, a court should be able to use the threat of greater penalties to force a would-be infringer to ask permission first .. which is exactly what they are required to do under the existing legal framework anyways.

The Sarah Barracuda situation also has me pondering another important issue: who would win, McCain-Palin or. Obama-Biden, in 2-on-2, NBA -Jam style basketball? I think I favor the Democrats. While Palin is known as a fierce defender, McCain is 71 years old, and as a result of time as a POW, he cannot lift his arms above his head. On the basketball court, I think that's a serious disadvantage. Plus, Obama is great at the three-point line.
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