Deconstructing Shaggy

I am working on a number of articles:

  1. Michael Erard’s wonderful Um…
  2. Lope de Vega’s Fuent Ovejuna
  3. Synoptic Gospels and The Case Against Q

But until I get to them, here is That Mitchell and Web Look deconstructing Scooby-Doo:

Who is that nephew? Lucky you have me to keep you informed about the important things in life: Scrappy-Doo.

Creepy Cruise

Left Leaning ShipRecently, I have noticed that The Nation really is a better magazine than The Progressive. For one thing, it comes out weekly and so is able to better keep up on what is happening. However, I don’t think The Nation is that great.

This morning, I got an email message from Victor Navasky and Katrina vanden Heuvel at The Nation. This was not unusual, as I get something from them every week. But this message was different.

They were inviting me on a cruise.

Really:

Dear Friend of The Nation,

“A floating palace of populism.”

That’s how Jim Hightower—a guest on numerous Nation cruises—once characterized it. And now is the time to book your trip with us on our 15th annual seminar cruise. The best cabins are going fast.

A liberal cruise?! How I wish this were a joke. I like John Nichols; in fact, I am about to read The S Word. But I don’t want to go on a cruise with him. What kind of freaks would go on this cruise?

Blah Blah Blah…

Atrios (Duncan Bowen Black) normally writes far too little. He is kind of like Daily KOS, providing an outlet for others to rant. But this morning, he wrote something that made me feel marginally better during a month that has been pretty much all bad. Can We End That Era:

For the past couple of decades we’ve all (by “we” I man all the Very Serious People in the chattering classes) bought into the fantasy that all we need to do is pursue Conservative Means to achieve Liberal Ends and everything will be awesome. First of all, those conservative means usually don’t work (I won’t say never, but that discussion is too great for the margin of this blog post). But more importantly, the point of such “compromises” was to actually pass some legislation that might achieve stuff, and was premised on the idea that there were people in both political parties who want to make life better for poor people by improving educational opportunities a bit and maybe help a few more people get decent health insurance. Whether those people in the Republican party ever really existed or if they just mugged for the cameras and the Villagers I don’t know, but they don’t exist any more. Right now we have one political party that is very up front about and proud of their desire to mug everyone in the non-millionaire club, steal all their money, and give it to rich people. It’s time for the other political party to recognize that the era of dumb compromises is over, and if they’d actually come up with a way to help people, instead of a plan to set up a program to provide the incentives to blahblahblahblahblahblah….

Of course, I would note that Democrats no longer believe in doing anything. They only believe in incentives. The new Democratic Party is the old Republican Party. The new Republican Party is, well, the old Nazi Party. Heil Romney!

Postmodern Comedy

Tony CliftonPeople often ask me what postmodernism is, give that I refer to it a lot. This is an uncomfortable question because I use the term because I think it is largely meaningless, except as it is that thing that came after modernism. In general, I think those in the field mean to imply a lack of any absolute truth. Postmodernists would say that all the facts of the universe are just culturally agreed upon beliefs: the heliocentric model of the solar system is as much a construct as Jesus dying for our sins. I don’t accept this view of the universe.

It seems to me that facts can be judged based upon their utility. With all due respect to that great religion, Christianity is useless. It doesn’t predict anything. It is not internally consistent. And it is used by its practitioners to justify anything and everything. It could be replaced with the Cult of Aqua Buddha, and nothing would change. There would still be those who think homosexuality is a moral outrage and those who think it is part of the wonderful diversity of the universe.

On the other hand, the heliocentric model of the solar system is useful. It works better than the earth-center model (as long as we assume elliptical planetary orbits). I still can’t get over the fact that fundamentalist Christians don’t except Natural Selection but they do accept electricity. It is part of the same paradigm and one is no more proven than the other.

I’m more interested in postmodern art. To me, this is much more clear and interesting. It is illustrative to compare Waiting for Godot and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Godot is a serious play about the search for meaning and our blindness to the prosaic (but profound) meaning that surrounds us. RGAD is a facetious play about the arbitrary meaning of life: you can construct your own meaning but don’t fool yourself that it’s real. Postmodern art does not have a single perspective.

This is most often manifested in meta content: self-conscious awareness that the work of art is a work of art. For example, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead gets lost in its references to itself. The first time I was aware of this approach to art was watching Albert Brooks with his ventriloquist act. It is not funny if you don’t know ventriloquist acts. Brooks makes this point as more postmodern comedy in the movie Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World where he does the routine for a group without this context. Here is the original routine from The Flip Wilson Show:

No effort is made to maintain the illusion that is so important to any ventriloquist act. The poster of this video even described it in postmodern terms, “Albert Brooks deconstructing a dummy.”

I just discovered an even more postmodern ventriloquist act by Kristen Schaal and Kurt Braunohler. Here the audience is expecting comedy that never really comes. There are some actual jokes, like Braunohler being the college ventriloquist of the year for 15 straight years. But even this seems to fly over the audience. The main gag is that Schaal is even more awkward than an actual ventriloquist dummy. But the presentation is really two comedians playing the part of two comedians.

There is a clear trend going from Brooks through Andy Kaufman to Schaal and Braunohler, and probably many other young comedians. It is all incredibly self-serving, of course. The performances seem designed more to amuse the performers than the audience. If you get it, it’s hysterical. If you don’t, you probably want your money back. Regardless, it is what it is. And as such, it is perfectly that.

Shameful Fun

Edgar Allan PoeHave we seen this before? The Raven is coming out next month. It stars John Cusack as Edgar Allan Poe. Sometime on or about 1835, there is a serial killer who is getting inspiration from the stories of Poe. The police turn to him for help. But when the murderer kidnaps Poe’s fiance, well, it’s personal. Edgar Allan Poe: kicking ass and taking no prisoners. He’s no girly man, just watch:

Several problems occur to me. First, all the Poe stories that we know and love (and the once referenced in the trailer) were written the last few years of his life—long after he was married in 1835. And he married his 13 year old cousin—facts I’m sure the movie will gloss over. For a long time, I’ve thought that Cusack looks older than his 45 years, so I also have a problem with him playing a 26 year old Poe. I will admit that he looks sort of like Poe, so that’s a good thing. And where does the raven come into all this?

What is most troubling is seeing an author I identify with in too many uncomfortable ways turned into an action hero.

Of course, I’ll be first in line on opening day. It’s fucking Edgar Allan Poe!

The Stone Golem

The Brothers BloomThe Brothers Bloom is a mess of film. And yet, I own it and watch it a bit. It is the kind of film that is better on DVD because of all the stuff that comes with the film. In particular, it comes with almost 40 minutes of deleted scenes. As is often the case, the best stuff was left on the cutting room floor. What’s more, the deleted scenes show an original that is far richer and more complex. I can see why they cut it as they did. Even in its original version, the film was a mess. Why writer/director Rian Johnson didn’t see that his screenplay desperately needed at least one more draft, I can’t say.

And yet, the film is filled with some much that is wonderful, I’m glad it was made. There are two scenes that really stand out. The first is the opening of the film that tells the story of how the bothers started on their life of crime. It is narrated in verse and can be seen on YouTube. The second stand out scene is not in the film. It is very simple. The Curator, played brilliantly by Robbie Coltrane, tells the story of the death of his daughter and the stone golem.

I’ve been checking for the last year to see if anyone had put this scene on YouTube, but I guess no one could be bothered. It may be that the scene speaks more to me than to others. Certainly no one I have shown it to has thought as much of it as I do. I love story telling and this is just one man telling a story. But what a story and what a telling! So I went ahead and put it on YouTube. Enjoy!

Here is the text:

My daughter used to travel with me, when she was very young. And I showed her the places and the pictures, all the most joyous and terrifying things in the world. But you know: but of all the paintings in the objects d’art, she loved to hear… She would ask to hear the story of the stone golem. From the painting in a small private collection on the island of Icaria. Yes?

Well, like most monsters, the golem was once human. A boy about your age. And one day the boy was walking home and he quarreled, he fought with a very good friend of his. And they were very, very angry, and his friend pushed him a certain way. And the boy fell and struck his head and he died. Well, the boy’s friend was very frightened. So he pulled the body into a quarry, and hid the boy beneath a pile of large stones. Well, years went by and the boy’s friend became a young man. And one day, while he was drinking in the village, which, in his guilt, he did rather a lot of, he heard that a well was to be built near the forest from the stones in the quarry. Well, he ran to the quarry. He ran, and when he got there, he found there was almost nothing there. No rocks and no body. So, he ran to the well where the masons were completing their work. Had they seen anything unusual in the quarry? No, they had seen nothing. “Only stones,” they said. And they left him standing there alone, looking into the well as the sun went behind the mountains and the twilight set the whole world in a still, deep silence…

It’s 19 years to the day since my daughter died. She was six years old and she went out to play and she disappeared. [Sighing] And we found her the next morning. Down a stone well. You know, I climbed down to help her, but I slipped and I broke this leg. And while we were waiting for the rescue services to come and pull us out, she died in my arms. Shaking and crying. Her last seconds on this Earth were filled with terror for a stone golem.

This is the first painting I acquired, you know. And I keep it, maybe hoping that one night, the golem will come for me.

Story Spoilers

Story SpoilersI prefer to know the plot of a story before I read it. There are a couple of reasons for this. On a visceral level, I don’t like uncertainty; I like to know where I’m going. More important, however, is that on a professional level, I’m pretty good at anticipating plots. So when I’m reading a novel for the first time, it is like a puzzle; I’m trying to figure it out—match wits with the author, so to speak. This has certain benefits. It makes me hyper aware of each thing the author does and why he does it. But it isn’t exactly fun and it stops me from losing myself in the story.

If I know the plot, I am better able to get inside the characters. I enjoy my time with them. And I’m able to evaluate the story on a broader scale. All of this may explain why I have never lost the child’s interest in watching the same film again and again. I do the same thing with short stories. I do it with parts of novels—I’ve read certain chapters of Don Quixote many, many times. But I don’t think I’ve ever read a whole novel more than twice; I don’t have the time or reading speed for that.

It turns out that I am not alone in this preference. Two scientists at the University of California, San Diego have published a paper in Psychological Science titled, Story Spoilers Don’t Spoil Stories.[1] Jonathan D. Leavitt and Nicholas J. S. Christenfeld write in their abstract:

[P]eople’s ability to reread stories with undiminished pleasure, and to read stories in which the genre strongly implies the ending, suggests that suspense regarding the outcome may not be critical to enjoyment and may even impair pleasure by distracting attention from a story’s relevant details and aesthetic qualities.

I would go further. Consider the following story:

A man wakes up late. He’s in a panic. He quickly dresses and goes to the kitchen where he finds his wife, in her dressing gown, leaning against the sink in the dark. He asks her why she didn’t wake him. She tells him they really need to talk. It unnerves him, but he has to get to work. He grabs some coffee and runs out the door. As he is unlocking his car, a truck comes around the corner, hitting and killing him.

I think that story has a surprising ending. The story implies some ominous confrontation between husband and wife that will hang over the day. But instead the guy is killed by a random occurrence. Surprising, boring, and completely lacking drama.

One of the hardest things about writing fiction is creating an ending that makes sense without being boring or obvious. But more and more, stories end satisfyingly rather than surprisingly. Consider the film The Sixth Sense. Most people find the ending of that film quite surprising. I know I did. And yet, if that were all it was, it wouldn’t have been good. I’ve seen it a half dozen times. What brought me back was the sadness of the film. The first time I watched it, I was focused on the boy. Every other time, I was focused on the husband and wife.[2]

Tim Parks wrote an excellent article in The New York Review of Books called Why Finish Books? In it, he makes the case that reading a book is a certain experience and when we’ve had enough of that experience we ought to stop. He further suggests that we get over our childish obsession with equating finishing a book with accomplishment.

I think this is excellent advice, even if I find it hard to follow. Friends of mine have told me how they skipped certain parts of novels—the technical chapters in Moby Dick, for example. And I’ve always been horrified. It seemed to me that I wasn’t reading the book if I skipped even a word. In hindsight, I was deifying the writers. As a writer now myself, I know how silly that is. Part of a story may seem boring to me because, well, it’s boring. Writers are not perfect, especially the great ones.

My current novel is fundamentally about a guy trying to figure out who killed his girlfriend. The plot is very much like the kinds of things Scott Turow writes. But I’ve been wondering why the book goes on a ways after we find out who the killer is. And I think I now know. I could write a plot summary in a couple of paragraphs, and you might find it clever—or not. But the ending would have no emotional impact, even though the ending is poignant; it would definitely make me cry. However, the only way it works is if you sit with the main character the whole way through and get to know him. The only way I know to trick you into doing that is to create a clever plot. But if you stopped reading the book halfway through, you would have gotten the experience that is most important: meeting my character.

Often novels annoy me. I want to know how they end, but the book doesn’t seem worth it. If the book is a blockbuster, I can turn to Wikipedia for a summary. Of course, this is useless for me, because I don’t read blockbusters. Wikipedia does not have summaries for the vast majority of novels, because, you know, most Wikipedia users don’t read novels other than the Harry Potter books. (But just look at all the summaries of movies!) So I slog through the book to find out how it all turns out, even when (Especially when!) I figure I already know.

Is that any way to appreciate a novel?


[1] I heard a couple of news stories about this late last year. It sounds like something I would hear on NPR or read in Ezra Klein’s WonkBlog. But I don’t know. There is a very easy video introduction from ABC News, but I didn’t get it from them.

[2] I am disinclined to reveal the ending, because it is fun to have that experience. However, knowing that there is a surprise ending is enough of a spoiler. And some people don’t even need that. My mother, a master of plot deconstruction, had it nailed within 5 minutes.

Conservative Rock?!

Conservative RockBack in 2006, National Review published Rockin’ the Right, a list of the 50 greatest conservative rock songs ever, by John J. Miller (hereafter National Review or “they”). Like Christian Rock, Conservative Rock strikes me as an oxymoron. And even National Review agrees with me, starting the article, “On first glance, rock ‘n’ roll music isn’t very conservative. It doesn’t fare much better on second or third glance (or listen), either.” But they try. And fail.

I think their biggest problem is that modern conservatism doesn’t really believe in anything other than tax breaks for the wealthy. But most conservatives think they are secretly libertarians; they think they just have to get rid of all the taxes first and then they’ll get around to protecting civil liberties with their nonexistent government. They also think they have “family values,” which in practice means that everyone but them should be stopped from having fun. I always remember Bill O’Reilly defending Bristol Palin’s out of wedlock pregnancy after blasting Jamie Lynn Spears’. So finding good conservative rock songs is a hard task unless there are a lot of songs I don’t know about that say, “Give me freedom and cut my taxes / Kill the poor with Christian axes.”

All you need to know about the list is that number 50 is that great rock anthem Stand By Your Man. In general, the songs are not so much conservative as non-political and non-offensive. As you would expect. And frankly, it doesn’t include a single great song in the top 10. Here they are:

1. Won’t Get Fooled Again
They write, “The conservative movement is full of disillusioned revolutionaries; this could be their theme song, an oath that swears off naïve idealism once and for all.” But that’s not what the song is about. And this is a funny statement given how reactionary the conservative movement is. It is, in fact, the liberal movement that wants to make incremental improvements in society. The conservative movement wants a revolution; they say so all the time. Pete Townshend said of the song, “It is not precisely a song that decries revolution—it suggests that we will indeed fight in the streets—but that revolution, like all action, can have results we cannot predict. Don’t expect to see what you expect to see. Expect nothing and you might gain everything. The song was meant to let politicians and revolutionaries alike know that what lay in the centre of my life was not for sale, and could not be co-opted into any obvious cause… From 1971—when I wrote Won’t Get Fooled Again—to 1985, there was a transition in me from refusal to be co-opted by activists, to a refusal to be judged by people I found jaded and compliant in Thatcher’s Britain.” You know: Thatcher’s Britain, the government that the modern Republican Party would call socialist!
2. Taxman
I have to give this one to the conservatives. And I’ll be glad to see it go. The problem is that I just don’t have a lot of sympathy for millionaire musicians complaining that their taxes are too high. Is it unkind to point out that when George Harrison wrote this awkward little ditty that the top tax rate was 95% and that it is now 40%? I think most liberals would say that 95% is too high a top tax rate. The Republican Party thinks 39% is too high; they want to lower it to 25%. (Of course, once it is down to 25%, they will want to lower it to 15%. And so on.)
3. Sympathy for the Devil
This is just a bizarre choice. They write, “The devil is a tempter who leans hard on moral relativism—he will try to make you think that ‘every cop is a criminal / And all the sinners saints.'” What? They totally misunderstand the song. The song is about moral ambiguity: good people are also bad; bad people are also good. This is most definitely not a conservative song. (It also happens to be the best of the top ten.)
4. Sweet Home Alabama
This song is pure apologetics and the conservatives can have it. Basically, it is an answer to Neil Young’s Alabama. Lynyrd Skynyrd is saying, “We’re not all racist pigs in Alabama. Look at the blue skies and Muscle Shoals.” Pathetic.
5. Wouldn’t It Be Nice
Remember what I said about non-offensive songs? This is what I was thinking of. They claim the song is “Pro-abstinence and pro-marriage.” Although I am not sure that it’s pro-abstinence, that is certainly a valid reading of the song. What is more important is that the song is unrealistic. The picture it paints of married life is that of a five year old. And that is about as deep as conservatives go when thinking about social issues.
6. Gloria
They write, “Just because a rock song is about faith doesn’t mean that it’s conservative. But what about a rock song that’s about faith and whose chorus is in Latin? That’s beautifully reactionary.” They are not talking about the actually great Them song Gloria but rather the so-so song by U2. This is a ridiculous argument. What’s more, as Jules from Pulp Fiction might have said, “What’s the Fenian to do? He Irish.”
7. Revolution
There are two versions of this song. In the second version of the song, Lennon sings, “But when you talk about destruction / Don’t you know that you can count me out. In.” The song is as confused as Lennon always was about this stuff. Regardless, it is not a conservative song in any way. More than anything it is a liberal anthem against communism or anarchism. It’s shocking, I know: National Review again shows it knows nothing about rock.

8. Bodies
Ah! Finally a song that is as radical and disgusting as the conservative movement. They write, “Violent and vulgar, but also a searing anti-abortion anthem by the quintessential punk band.” Before I start, only someone who doesn’t know anything about punk would say that the Sex Pistols are the quintessential punk band; it is the same thing as saying, “I only know of one punk band.” Pathetic. Bodies is not really anti-abortion; it is more anti-woman and anti-sex. If conservatives want to embrace misogyny along with their anti-abortion beliefs… Wait! Of course they want to do that!
9. Don’t Tread on Me
Any song by Metallica can’t be all good. This song was written to make up for …And Justice for All which was kind of down on America. It is telling that in writing a pro-American song, all the boys could do was spout a lot of catch phrases. The song has never been performed live. Co-writer James Hetfield doesn’t like it. I must admit: it is a rock song and it does have a (vile) conservative message. And they are welcome to it.
10. 20th Century Man
Luddite does not mean conservative. I prefer old literature to new; I hate the modern world; and I am not conservative. As National Review pointed out in discussing Gloria, conservatives are reactionary, not truly conservative. No 20th Century Man for you!

So I’m only inclined to give the conservatives four of these songs. They get the utterly forgettable poor-rich-boy-cries-about-his-hardships Taxman. They get the Confederate flag waving Sweet Home Alabama. They get Don’t Tread on Me because the song was created to pander to them. And they get Bodies because John Lydon had a major hate-on for women when he was young and conservatives have a major hate-on for women all the time. Otherwise: no rock for you!

Oh: they can keep Stand By Your Man too.

Good Lord!

With all this discussion of the Trayvon Martin murder, various news outlets are dredging up old cases that are similar, like the Bernhard Goetz case. I was very surprised to hear about the Joe Horn in Texas. In this case, Horn, a 61 year old retiree, used the Texas “Castle Doctrine” law to murder two men who were robbing his next door neighbor. Here is a bit of discussion about the case with the original 911 recording:

Like the end of it where you hear one of the panelists say, “Good Lord”?

As horrible and damning as this 911 recording is, it isn’t even the worst part of the story. Police who arrived on the scene determined that both men had been shot in the back.

Is this what we’ve become?

Just Saw Hot Coffee

Hot Coffee MovieHot Coffee, the documentary about the infamous McDonald’s coffee spill lawsuit, is out on DVD. For more, check out my brief article on it from last June. I just watched the film. It is much better than I expected. You should see it. Be prepared, however: it will make you angry; it will make you sad. You really should see it.