Finding Terrors of Pleasure Again

Spalding Gray: Terrors of PleasureIn 1990, I started graduate school up in Oregon. My wife and I were frightfully poor. I was getting $833 per month as a Research Assistant. And half of that went to rent. So we bought a little black and white television at a garage sell for two dollars. That was our entertainment. We were, however, scraping by. Just. I remember my wife was donating blood from time to time. We were talking about doing plasma (You could do that three times per week!) and maybe sperm. But at the end of that school year, I was awarded an National Science Foundation fellowship, which I had until I graduated. In addition to everything else, it included a $1,200 monthly stipend.

It was like we had hit the jackpot! We actually went out to movies occasionally. But mostly, we bought a color television and a VCR. And we were renting video tapes. The only thing I really remember renting was Spalding Gray: Terrors of Pleasure. I had seen Swimming to Cambodia in the theater as an undergraduate and really liked it. So this sounded good. This is right before Monster in a Box came out, so there was nothing else around by him. Unlike Swimming to Cambodia, Terrors of Pleasure was pretty much just a comedy. And we both loved it.

I’ve looked for it since then, but have been unable to find it. Well, it is available on VHS. And it is available on an audio cassette. But that’s it. Typical. The same thing is true of another film that I loved with another wife, Medicine River.

The thing about this is that I haven’t been sure. Was it really all that great? In the case of Medicine River, I owned the movie on VHS and so saw it a number of times. I know it is one of those great little gems that somehow fell through the cracks that is loved by pretty much everyone who sees it. But I had only seen Terrors of Pleasure once. Maybe I only liked it due to my exuberance following my fellowship announcement. Who knows?

Well, today I found it on YouTube. And it is quite good. It is very funny. There are two aspects that I don’t especially like. First, they shot footage that goes on top of parts of the monologue. It’s fine, but absolutely not necessary. Who knows? It may have been necessary to cut it together. The other issue is that it doesn’t finish so much as stop. It is hard to believe that the monologue really ended there. I suppose I can kind of see it. But I can’t help but think that much was cut from this monologue. For one thing, it is only an hour long. In general, theatrical productions have to be at least an hour and a half. Maybe Gray did some other monologue with it. I really don’t know.

Regardless, it is quite a lot of fun to watch—well worth an hour of your time.

Thematic Uses of Minions in Despicable Me

Despicable MeI saw both Despicable Me and the sequel at the theater. And I just watched both again recently on DVD. And it amazes me that I’ve never written about them. That’s because they are more or less perfect entertainments. They are funny and sweet. Agnes is adorable and of course she melts the evil genius’ heart. The second film has a weaker plot, but it is hard to notice. The characters are all so engaging that it is just fun to hang out with them. What actually happens doesn’t matter except that it all works out and Agnes is happy in the end. So you can add both these films to the list of films like His Girl Friday that I put on when I need cheering up.

But I want to discuss a more serious element of the film: the minions. They could have been handled so poorly. And, in fact, I think the Oompa-Loompas in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory are handled poorly. (That’s isn’t so true of the novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or the 2005 film.) The Oompa-Loompas all seem so grim that they come off more as slaves than employees. The minions, on the other hand, are very explicitly employees. And this actually creates a context for Gru’s evil schemes that allows for the final resolution in the first film and the entire second film to work.

A fair amount of time is spent in the first film establishing that Gru is no more evil than your average small businessman, and that being evil is just his profession and not something that reflects on who he really is. For example, he goes to the Bank of Evil and is turned down for a loan. But most of all, there is his relationship with his minions. Gru is what I would call, the Good Boss. He still considers himself above the minions, pays them poorly, and is demanding. But the minions seem happy. Gru is clearly lenient enough that he allows them to goof around while on the job.

There is every indication that Gru created the minions.[1] Thus, the fact that he treats them as independent is important. They are most clearly not slaves. What’s more, that implies that they are the way Gru wants them to be. They represent his id. And are the minions ever id! We see both the good side of this (their constant delight at life) and the bad side (constant fighting with each other). And the bad side is sweet in its own way—no one gets hurt and it never lasts long.

The minions remind me of the start of the film Swimming to Cambodia. Spalding Gray is talking about the Thai waiters and he says:

They have a philosophy: Sanuk. Sanuk, loosely translated, means fun, pleasure. And they don’t do anything that isn’t Sanuk. And they ask you first, and if it isn’t Sanuk, they won’t touch it with a ten foot pole. Also, another idea that may have to do with a rather radical Thai Buddhism: after they have the Sanuk they don’t have to suffer for it.

That’s the minions right there. They are always having a good time. And I think that’s why I don’t mind all the fart jokes the snickering at things like the last name of Silas Ramsbottom. It’s impossible not to be swept away with their enthusiasm.

So you might be wondering why I’m so focused on the minions—why I’ve over-thought them. It is a form of apologetics. I don’t want to have to worry that there is some kind of festering thematic problem hidden in the film. Of course, there are some problems: the division of people into good and bad; gender and racial stereotypes; fat shaming and so on. What’s more, the minions themselves are an explicit class. But it would be impossible for a work of art to not reflect many of the same problems that exist in society and still be coherent. The problem with most big budget films is that they celebrate problems in our society.

I feel safe with the Despicable Me franchise.

[1] I just learned that there will be prequel, Minions about the minions before they met Gru. So he did not create them. This doesn’t actually make any sense and I doubt it was the original idea. But it doesn’t much matter. Clearly Gru and the minions are kindred kinds.

For the record, the plot from Wikipedia:

Minions are yellow henchmen who have existed since the beginning of time, evolving from yellow single-celled organisms into beings who have only one purpose: to serve history’s most ambitious villains. After their ineptitude destroys all their masters, including a T Rex, Genghis Khan and Dracula, they decide to isolate themselves from the world and start a new life in Antarctica. Sometime in the 1960s, the lack of a master drives them into depression, so Kevin, Stuart and Bob set out to find a new one. They arrive at a villain convention, where they compete for the right to be henchmen for Scarlet Overkill, a stylish and ambitious villain determined to dominate the world and become the first female super-villain.

News Bias Is a Choice to Lack Diversity

Jodi RudorenOver at The Electronic Intifada yesterday, Max Blumenthal wrote, Candid Video Reveals NYT Bureau Chief Jodi Rudoren’s Zionist Bubble. Rudoren’s husband made an hour long video for his parents 60th wedding anniversary (Wow!) called, A Life in a Day: the Rudorens of Jerusalem. Blumenthal’s article is fairly long and quite interesting. His argument is that the video does show the lifestyle of the Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times and that the only Palestinians that her family seems to interact with are those who clean their clothes.

Rudoren got a lot of attention about a month ago for her reporting on the Israeli police beating of a 15-year-old American who was the cousin of a recently killed Palestinian teen. Rudoren was accused of just parroting talking points from the Israeli police instead of practicing journalism. To make matters worse, Rudoren lashed out at critics as, “Anti-Israel activists.” I have to admit that this kind of thing is beginning to wear thin with me. Just because someone attacks your reporting or more generally the treatment of Palestinians does not mean they are anti-Israel. Although I am sure some are, that certainly can’t be said for them as a group.

Max BlumenthalI’m actually not that interested in this whole case in the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Blumenthal is right that Rudoren is so cut off from Palestinians that it is not a practical possibility that she can cover the conflict with anything like objectivity. And he is right that The Times keeps itself geographically isolated so that everything is seen through the prism of Israel. In 2005, Public Editor of The Times Daniel Okrent saw the problem and recommended that the paper add correspondents in Ramallah and Gaza. As Blumenthal noted, “That never happened. Instead, The Times hired Rudoren to retrench its presence in the ethnically-cleansed and exclusively Jewish world of West Jerusalem…” But the truth is that the problem is much bigger than this.

What the video shows (Note: I have only watched parts of it.) is what we see in all aspects of the major media outlets: privileged reporters seeing the world through their upper class prism. This is why business reporters seem to only find news about the management side of business interesting. They don’t have any friends who are in labor unions. So it isn’t so much they have an animus toward middle and lower class workers, as it is that they are simply invisible. And this has the extremely pernicious effect of making the reporters think they are being objective when they are far from it. They probably do perceive their worlds in a fairly objective way. But their worlds are not at all the world.

Rudoren’s comment that those attacking her were “anti-Israel activists” is no different from Bill O’Reilly claiming that anyone attacking him (or even disagreeing with him) is on the “far left” or is a “far left loon.” And in this similarity, I’m mostly interested in the process. In O’Reilly’s case, in his personal life he simply isn’t around anyone who ever disagrees with him, much less attacks him for it. Similarly, in Rudoren’s personal life, she is never around anyone who is on the other side of the conflict she is covering. Of course, it is worse in her case; she’s supposed to be doing actual journalism whereas everyone knows that O’Reilly is just a ranter.

The the solution, however, is not to force Rudoren to make some Palestinian friends or simply to get out of West Jerusalem now and then. The solution is to make systemic changes. In domestic journalism, the problem is not our business reporters. The problem is that we have almost exclusively business reporters with no labor reporters. It is very much as if during the 2012 presidential campaign, all the news outlets had sent reporters to follow Obama, but none of them sent reporters to cover Romney.

So of course Jodi Rudoren is insulated and privileged and has a highly biased way of looking at the world which results in her doing bad journalism. But as Blumenthal noted in the article, that was the choice that The New York Times made. It clearly wants to see the Israel-Palestine conflict through the prism of the upper class West Jerusalem residents. This is just the same as The Times‘ decision to have a cadre of business reporters and (as far as I know), just one labor reporter.

Update (4 August 2014 8:58 am)

I was very pleased to see this morning that Max Blumenthal tweeted out this article:

Normally, reporters only tweet out my articles when they are mad at me. So it’s nice when someone publicizes an article without an implicit eye roll.

Update (4 August 2014 10:35 am)

I had a little Twitter exchange with Matt Yglesias over this article. He noted that journalists do know people in unions because newspapers are unionized. It’s a good point, but I did not actually say that they didn’t know people in unions; I said they don’t have friends who are in unions. Now the journalists may have their own union, but I’m sure it is more like the American Association of University Professors, which I was once a member of. It wasn’t much like a union. Yglesias said the distinction was probably more education than unionization. That’s a good point. But I think the discussion gets off the point, which is that the concerns of reporters are greatly affected by their class interests. And, of course, the larger point of the article is that the coverage of media outlets is determined by choices made at the top about who is going to be hired to do what.

Elisha Otis Was a Careful Man

Elisha OtisOn this day in 1811, the inventor Elisha Otis was born. But before we get to him: yes, I know. This is the second day in the row that the birthday post has been about a 19th century American inventor named Elisha. But there weren’t a great many options today. Last year, I featured the beautiful and talented Dolores del Rio. And there were other people from the film business like John Landis and Martin Sheen. I suppose I could have done Tony Bennett, but for whatever reason I just don’t like his work, even though in a technical sense he’s very good. And maybe I should have featured crime writer P D James who is 94 today. But having never read any of her work, I didn’t feel I should. So we get Otis. And it turns out that Otis is a really interesting guy.

Otis was born in Vermont and spent his entire life in the northeast. He moved around a lot because he was unsuccessful for most of his life. Like a lot of people at that time, he was just trying to make ends meet. And so he moved from place to place and job to job. But the thing about Otis is that he was an inventor by nature—always looking for ways to improve the way things were done. At one point, he designed and built his own gristmill, a device used to turn grain into flour. When he found he couldn’t make enough money with it, he retooled it into a sawmill. When that didn’t pay the bills, he started building wagons.

At this point, tragedy struck: his wife died, leaving him with two boys: an eight-year-old and a baby. He struggled on for another two years, before moving and starting over. He found work in a toy factory. Probably bored with the work and not keen on his pay, he started thinking. He invented a “robot turner,” which allowed bedsteads to be made four times as fast. How exactly the bedsteads were part of the toys, I cannot say. For doing this, his boss gave him a $500 bonus. (Very roughly, I think that’s about $50,000 today—maybe more.) That I find remarkable, because that isn’t so much the way it works today. But it really does help when boss and employee aren’t separated by distance and unbridgeable class gulfs.

With the money he got, Otis moved on again. He started a business where he was working on a new system for stopping trains almost immediately. This is kind of interesting, because it would seem that Otis was a careful man. And this would lead him to greatness. But not yet. He was using a stream to power his operation. But the city of Albany diverted the stream for its own purposes and so he was put out of business. So off Otis move again. And then again, moving to Yonkers where he managed a sawmill—actually he was there to retool it into a factor for making bedsteads. This is where the dramatic music comes in. Imagine it now.

While working at the sawmill, he found use for an elevator. But, being a careful man, he was concerned about the biggest problem with these things: cables broke, elevators fell, and people were hurt. So he invented a system at the top of the elevator car. As long as there was tension on the cable, the brakes were pulled away from the elevator shaft. But if the cable broke, the tension was gone, and the brakes slammed onto the side of the elevator shaft, stopping the car. You can see this in the following illustration from his eventual patent:

Otis Elevator Brake

At first, Otis didn’t think that much of the invention. And you can kind of see why: it is quite simple. But it is also brilliant. And perhaps his greatest insight was his concern for safety. Regardless, he eventually started what would become Otis Brothers & Co. At first, this business too wasn’t doing well. It was only after a very flashy demonstration of the break at the 1854 Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations (World’s Fair) in New York that the orders started coming in. Otis died only seven years later of diphtheria, but his two sons took over what he had left to them. The rest, as they say, is history.

Happy birthday Elisha Otis!


Here is Pete Jive doing a very energetic and fun version of Jim Croce’s “Careful Man”: