Sunday, May 31, 2009

another exciting episode of...grammar sluts

I'm afraid this might be one-a-them...
memes, or somethin'.
Does it matter?

A. . . . For example, I might talk about my mother's brother Ned, as opposed to my father's sister, Susie. Why the comma in Susie's case? Because my father has only one sister, whereas my mother has two brothers, so we need to specify which brother but do not need to specify which sister: we do not use commas to separate the name from the rest of the sentence if the name is essential information—"restrictive," they call it. Susie's son, Jonathan, is my cousin, and we set his name apart because Susie has only one son, so if we left out the name "Jonathan," the sentence would still make sense: the name is additional information, not information necessary in order to know which son we're talking about. Ned's son Ted—and Ted's brother, Pete—are also my cousins. (Ned has two sons. Ted has one brother.)
So, similarly, you'd talk about "Jesus' disciple Mark" but "Batman's sidekick, Robin."*
A. You noticed that, did you? Yes, usually I don't make names possessive by adding only an apostrophe (as opposed to an -'s): I would refer, for example, to "Ritchie Valens's death." We get taught that words ending in S are made possessive by adding only an apostrophe; this in fact is true only for plural words ending in S (e.g., "dragons' livers can cure colds"). The exceptions are biblical and classical names like Achilles and Moses, which is why I did write Jesus'.
I used to teach my students that the apostrophe-without-an-S option was acceptable since it was so common, but—and this is key—only if you aren't pronouncing the S. For example, Denis Johnson's title Jesus' Son† is a three-syllable affair. This works both ways: if you pronounce the possessive in "Edwards's candidacy" as Ed-wurd-zis, then you need to use the full -'s; if you pronounce it Ed-wurdz, leave out the S. There is no silent S, nor is there an invisible one.
You follow?
A. Yeah, no, it's "less than 20 minutes," not fewer. Same with money: "less than $10." What made you think of that?
A. Because you're not really saying "how many minutes" or "how many dollars": you're saying "how much time" and "how much money." I feel like we've been over this before.
A. OK, we have time for one last question.
A. Yeah, with or, the verb agrees with the closest subject. So, like, the dog or the cats have been shedding on the pillow, but the cats or the dog has been peeing on the rug. This results in wackiness when you say something like, "Either 100,000 sand fleas or one octopus is going to be the main course." But don't eat octopus. Monkey Einstein, remember?

And we're done!

* DC comic-book fans: if Batman has in fact had other sidekicks, go ahead and keep that to yourselves, OK?
† Not set apart by commas because Denis Johnson has more than one title.


I like this sentence, taken from a paragraph I wrote in December (the rest of the paragraph being basically an impotent gesture* in the general direction of Hamlet's awesome "weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable" soliloquy), while depressed:

My hands are a kind of feet.

Unrelatedly—or relatedly in a way that cannot easily be traced?—this video is amazing:

[Turn your damned computer speakers on!]

* Relatively impotent: not so much a softoff as the chubs.

300 already

It's been no time at all since 250, but let's do this.




A still from a profoundly idiotic film.

* Or, "All You Need (2 Win These Star Wars) Is Love"

Saturday, May 30, 2009

questionable copy

I like that the name of this business is an adverb.

The storefront was a deserted mess. The fact that that's ironic only occurred to me while typing that last sentence; the point I was going to make was that the place provided me with no clues for what kind of a busines "Jubb's Longevity" might actually be. (My friend suggested health food.)

I'm not centering this because I have too much to say about the poster. I do not approve of a remake of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, particularly one starring John Travolta, because the original is both great and so very specifically of its time. But that's neither here nor there. What I really want to do here is to make a case for...

  1. If we're leaving out commas altogether, such that they must be inserted by the reader, there's no reason why this ad couldn't read, "You don't want to kill, innocent people, do you?" Like, "Come on, innocent people. Put down that detonator."
  2. To the above you may respond, "Oh, please: anyone can tell what that sentence means." OK, but then we've got a "slippery slope" on our hands. The problem with the you-know-what-I-mean defense of sloppy grammar is that fewer of us would make that argument if the sign read, "U DONT WANT 2 KILL INNOCENT PEOPLE DO U," fewer still would be OK with, "U DONE WAN2 KIL INUCENT PEPIL DO U," and even fewer would defend something like, "UDON WAN!2KILINCENT PEPILL!!!!! DO U??!!!!D>." I ask you: isn't it clear what is meant by all three of these versions? The difference is not that they make less and less sense, just that they're less and less literate. When I taught English, students would sometimes ask why it mattered if they said, "Come with Ben and I,"* and one of my three answers† was that they wouldn't be so blasé about a sentence like "Me am want you come Ben–me togetherwith!" The fact that you can technically understand what is being said doesn't mean that it's being said in a reasonable way. Most of us do care whether something is said properly—we just have different levels of awareness of what's "proper."
  3. Why not just put in the fucking comma? Sometimes bad punctuation in an ad is designed to affect the flow, to make it "read" a certain way (for illiterate people). But what is added by leaving out the comma in this ad? Are commas just not "in" in 2009?

[No comment.]

* Instead of "John and me." I'm not going to explain this to you.
† In addition to the cynical/social-pragmatic argument and in response to their objections to the ambiguity-avoidance argument.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

terminate this franchise

Put it out of its misery.

Yes, Virginia, plot holes do matter.

As a kid who liked sci-fi movies, I often had to deal with the following scenario:

YOUNG SHORTY: That thing that just happened didn't make any sense at all!
OTHER VIEWER: Ha ha, listen to this guy, pointing out plot holes in a sci-fi movie!

And I lacked the confidence and rational/rhetorical ammunition to respond at the time, so let me just speak on my own past behalf here: The fact that a movie qualifies as "science fiction" does not absolve it from all responsibility to make sense—quite the contrary, you could even argue. The best science fiction does make sense, and the reaction (which you often see in crappy New Yorker film reviews) that, "Hey, there are robots in this movie, it's ridiculous right off the bat and therefore impossible to judge," is, from where I'm standing, pretty careless at best, and very possibly smug, stupid, and simple-minded, as well.

A movie can start with certain axioms—like, "Jedi have superhuman abilities and can essentially see things before they happen," in which case, O.K., it's totally legitimate to have a Jedi flying at outrageously high speeds and not crashing and dying in the first two seconds. Young Anakin Skywalker, I believe that you could handle this fucking 20-minute insufferably boring but incredibly dangerous high-speed pod race. I can accept that. But then it has to be consistent. If Superman has to strain to catch an ICBM, I'm going to raise my eyebrows when he flies around the earth at about 100 orbits/second and reverses the direction of time—or if he has to work real hard to slow the fall of an airplane, I'm going to be confused when he can fly a whole island into outer space (particularly when it's half made out of Kryptonite*). Why will I react that way? Because the disparity isn't there to be cute, and it certainly doesn't make sense within the established reality of this fictional universe: it's clearly just convenient to the filmmakers and in effect expresses a contempt for the subject matter—which, if you think about it hard enough, ends up just throwing in your face that the movie industry is a business and this movie is a product and you are a consumer, which is hardly what you want on your mind when you're watching something that's supposed to be fun.

Another, related example: Unless we're to assume that James Bond is just incredibly lucky above all else, how is he weaving through busy city traffic at like 100 m.p.h. while shooting at people over his shoulder? Even if his reaction time is far shorter than a normal human being, unless it's established that he is a Jedi Knight, this just fucking doesn't make sense. Or how does Jason Bourne, unless his midichlorian count is much higher than they told us, know which apartments to cut through in a city he doesn't know in order to leap out of a window and catch up with somebody he's pursuing whom he hasn't even caught sight of in about five minutes? I'll accept that he's an incredibly well-trained, nearly supernatural bad-ass, but does he also have ESP? Does he have maps of every city programmed into his brain? Did he throw a little spider-shaped tracking device onto the bad guy like in the old Spider-Man comics (cartoons?) and we just didn't notice?

And even there—I'm willing to suspend disbelief and figure, "O.K., it's just cartoonish action," but the whole point is that there are different levels of realism: I can enjoy something like that if it's consistent, but if we're meant to treat a movie as the slightest bit realistic and not as a big Looney Tunes adventure, then you've got to make some effort to make the damned thing make sense.

Ripley has very strong arms.


The first half of this movie is fine. A little silly, sure, but whatever: I'm watching it, I'm thinking, "Fine. This is reasonably entertaining. Let's do this thing."

The second half of the movie is ludicrous—just nonsense.

I'm tempted to watch the movie again, taking notes, in order to make a really exhaustive list of all the shit that doesn't make any sense, but I am not willing to watch the movie again, even in order to take it down. Near the end of the movie, I was literally looking up at the ceiling of the theater, trying to see through the shadows and thinking, "Wait a minute...does this space have like incredibly high ceilings, or is it just really dark up there?" There are two sins in an action movie that I cannot forgive. The worst is being just plain boring;† a close second is being so meaningless that you can't engage with it anymore, at which point it comes back around to being boring,‡ and that's what Terminator Salvation does.

So without any pretense of its being complete, and in no particular order, here is a more or less off-the-top-of-my-head list of things about Terminator Salvation that didn't make any sense. I'd say SPOILER ALERT, but come on: you don't really want to go see this shit.

  • Why are there only two terminators guarding Skynet?
  • Why does that terminator keep picking John Connor up and throwing him instead of, say, tearing out his heart (as in the beginning of Terminator) or, I don't know, strangling him? Even punching him directly in the face with a metal hand would probably be a good move.
  • Why did Skynet give Wright a heart? I know it's to make him more realistic and convincing to human beings, but the T-800 isn't off the assembly line yet, and it's not like in the other movies you see them testing for heartbeats. Why not just send in a regular terminator and have it act really nice? Was the heartbeat really all that made the difference?
  • More importantly, why did Skynet give Wright free will? Maybe it doesn't trust a programmed personality to be convincing enough to human beings?
  • O.K., then if Wright has total free will and Skynet has no control over him at all, how did Skynet know things would go the way they went? How did Skynet know, in other words, that Wright would lead Connor back to those two terminators?
  • But if Skynet does have some control, why does it just let Wright walk out of its office§ to foil its plan? Couldn't it, say, just shut him down? Oh, I know, he scratches something off the back of his skull, and that somehow means he's gotten rid of the Skynet part of him. Whatever.
  • Why does Skynet's simulated face reveal a red-eyed robot face behind it every time it morphs? IT'S A FUCKING COMPUTER IMAGE. It's not like the robot skull is there somehow and we're catching glimpses of it: that would have to be programmed in just like the rest of it.
  • How does Skynet know that Kyle Reese is John Connor's father? Yeah, we know, and John Connor knows...but how does Skynet know? Did it just see the other movies?
  • If those motorcycle robots were so good at dodging falling wreckage, how come John Connor is able to knock one out by pulling a string across the street? No, wait, I know the answer to that one: because they got more money for product placement by having him ride one, and they couldn't pull that off unless he captured one.
  • How did that little mute girl know what the remote control did?
  • How come the grey-haired woman is on John Connor's helicopter as if she's an important character?
  • Even ignoring the fact that Sony is still alive and kicking, making Skynet-confounding devices for the resistance (product placement, ARRRGH), why is Skynet helpfully equipped with access panels for human beings? Do terminators actually have to punch in codes to open doors in their own headquarters, when they're communicating the-robot-equivalent-of-telepathically all the time? I guess the idea is maybe that Skynet's headquarters were originally built by humans...but then, what, Skynet didn't make any modifications?
  • People are always flying away from nuclear explosions, aren't they? If you're in a rocket ship (as in Aliens), then O.K., I don't know how fast your rocket ship can go. But I'm sorry, can a helicopter really fly faster than a thermonuclear blast?
  • So, O.K., Skynet sends in a terminator to draw John Connor into its lair, but the terminator decides to help him instead, and then it turns out all right. That's the plot?!
I'm sure there's more, but that's all I've got for now. My overall complaint is that the things that happen seem dictated by a need to justify action rather than adhering to any integrity of story. You get the feeling that the people who made this movie don't care whether it makes any sense—and you expect that of the "suits" at the studio, but you don't want it to be true of the screenwriters.

Wait a minute, this thing even real?

A somewhat contrarian assessment of the series.

Terminator is a great movie: simple, original, internally consistent, narratively straightforward, conceptually pure, entertaining, and scary. The terminator is a robot that exists to do only one thing, and when it sees Sarah Connor, it shoots at her immediately and without hesitation, and if it doesn't have a gun, it runs after her, and if you hit it with a truck and mess up its leg, it limps after her, and if you blow it to pieces, it drags itself after her: "it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead." Period. ( '80s. Gotta love it.)

Terminator 2 is packed with exciting action and amazing special effects, but the story is a mess (especially by comparison to the original), and the conceptual purity is all fucked up. Also, there too many long, boring, practically unwatchable stretches; there are too many embarrassingly stupid moments (e.g., "I know now why you cry," "You don't know what it's like to really create something," and all the pretentious highway-at-night narration); and there are too many scenes in which, e.g., the T-1000 could just run up to John Connor at 40 m.p.h. or whatever and kill him but instead walks toward him menacingly. Why? Because in the original Terminator the robot exists only to kill Sarah Connor, whereas in the sequel the robot exists only to show off the movie's special-effects budget. And let's be honest: that liquid-metal concept, cool though it looks, just doesn't make a goddamned lick of sense. [SPECIAL AWESOME BONUS FEATURE: David Foster Wallace on T2! Read it. For real. Much, much better than anything I say here.]

Terminator 3 is not as bad as everybody said it was. I admire that it's got a different feel from the others. I like that the bad-guy terminator is a sexy woman. I like that Skynet isn't a single computer but rather an Internet entity (as in Orson Scott Card's Xenocide, as I recall). But most of all I'm immensely gratified by the ending: the idea that you can't in fact change history by time traveling makes a hell of a lot of sense and is a return to the basic conceptual purity of the first movie. While in the second of course we're relieved that apocalypse has been averted, it leaves you having to ask..."Now, if there's no nuclear war and no Skynet, and if therefore no terminator gets sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor (and probably no time machine gets built, since it's Skynet's superhuman artificial intelligence that makes that shit possible), then Kyle Reese surely isn't going back either, in which case...huh, where did John Connor come from?" T3 says, "No, you can't rewrite history. Skynet always gets built and always destroys most of human civilization; John Connor always beats Skynet; Skynet always sends robots back in time in a last-ditch effort to stop him—this is just the way it goes." For that alone I give the movie a begrudging thumbs-up. (But the "I...AM...A...MACHINE" scene is real bad.)

And Terminator Salvation? Terminator Salvation is some 13-year-old's fan fiction that accidentally got made into a major motion picture. What do the kids say nowadays? FAIL.

Now that's a terminator.


I already said this, but it's not fair to leave it buried in brackets: Read David Foster Wallace's essay about the Terminator movies. Read David Foster Wallace's essay about the Terminator movies. Read David Foster Wallace's essay about the Terminator movies. Read David Foster Wallace's essay about the Terminator movies.

I just think you should read it.

* Is it mind over matter for Superman—just a question of whether he really makes an effort, whether he cares enough? When Kryptonite cripples him, is he just being lazy?
† This isn't a great example, but the pod race in The Phantom Menace comes to mind.
‡ Again, I can't think of a great example (except for the new Terminator movie itself), but the climactic train scene in Back to the Future Part III comes to mind...see upcoming BTTF3 post, part 3 in an approximately 3-part series (q.v.).
§ And why does Skynet have an office?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Why Back to the Future Part II is one of the best sequels ever made.

[Ugh, Doc's shirt—see start of antepenultimate ¶ below.]

1. That the Back to the Future sequel would take place in the future was predictable enough—and made inevitable by the set-up at the end of the original film. Still: hoverboards instead of skateboards? That alone wins this sequel some points (and indeed is the main thing a lot of us remember about it). Bonus: the '80s Café or whatever it's called (Café '80s?) is strange to see since the idea of '80s nostalgia was a funny idea in 1989, but now that particular dystopian nightmare is fully upon us. Similarly, the kids' comment that the '80s arcade game is "like a baby's toy"—although the reason, that it requires the use of your hands, is probably a little off—is actually fairly reasonable: unless it's pure '80s nostalgia, would any of us really think that game was awesome or impressive?* Worst/weirdest moment: the cartoonish Max Headroom–style Ronald Reagan–Ayatollah Khomeini argument in which the Ayatollah is pictured before a sea of flames and saying (according to the IMDb—I didn't get it, myself), "You must have the hostage special!" Wha—?! Best/weirdest element: that 2015 is just 6 years away, and (uncoincidentally) by the time we get there, 1985 will be as long ago as 1955 was when the first movie came out. Holy fuckin' shit. Reboot, anyone?

Still got 6 years to get here...let's get crackin'.

2. But now we start getting to the good shit. Trip 30 years into the future: obvious. Trip back to an alternate version of the present? Priceless. There's something (a) awesome, from a pure sci-fi/time-travel/plot/cool-idea perspective, and (b) really kind of nightmarish about Back to the Future's alternate 1985.† Marty goes home, thinks everything's OK, but then what do you know: it's not home anymore. It's something different. Everything's different; nothing's the way it's supposed to be. Biff rules Hill Valley. George McFly is dead. Lorraine has fake breasts. Doc Brown's in a mental institution. Black people live in Marty's house (whoops: worst/most-awkward part‡). I love it in a movie when it feels like things are really going wrong. It's easiest to pull off in a remake, just by diverging from the expected/already-established course, as in the Peter Jackson King Kong when they're getting attacked by enormous insects and the music stops and the scene just goes on for a little too long and you (or, anyway, I) actually start thinking, "I mean, I know they're gonna make it, they can't possibly not, the movie's not done yet and I know what's supposed to happen, think maybe they're not gonna make it!" Back to the Future Part II pulls this off, some: I remember seeing it in the theaters and thinking, right along with Marty, "Wait! Wait! What? What the fuck?" Because if you're back in 1985 like you're supposed to be, and things aren't the way they're supposed to be—even once you find out why—then what the hell are you supposed to do?

3. What you're supposed to do brings us to the next totally amazing thing about this sequel. Going into the future is one thing. Going into an alternate version of the present is another—and, awesome though it is, it's not as if the screenwriters invented a totally unprecedented time-travelly plot twist that no one had ever thought of before: it's basically just a totally appropriate riff on what I think it was Ray Bradbury did in that story where the time-tourist steps on the bug or whatever and then everybody's speaking a different language (right?). But Back to the Future Part II isn't done with you, yet. 2015? Check. Alternate 1985? Check. But to chop the "Alt" back off that "85," they have to go back to 1955, which this sequel, they use their time machine to go back to the original movie: they don't just go back to 1955...they go back to Back to the Future! The idea that Marty has to creep around the dance, dodging Biff and himself and saving himself from Biff's goons, who think the last movie's Marty is the current Marty (whom they thought was the last movie's Marty)...that's just pretty neat. The fact that George's punching out Biff is an important thing that allows Marty to steal back the almanac, that sort of thing...also neat. Now, this isn't pulled off or fleshed out as perfectly as it could be, but it's just a great, weird, cool little thing for a time-travel sequel to do. I remember in the Space Quest games—I think it was Space Quest IV—you got in a time machine and went not to years but to sequels, like you'd travel to Space Quest X and Space Quest I...and I remember thinking that that was funny and creative, but it doesn't especially add anything to what Back to the Future had already done two years earlier! (Bonus: it's also neat§ that when Marty & Doc go back to Back to the Future Part I, Marty is visiting not just 1955 but also yesterday, and whereas Marty was just "there" yesterday, Doc hasn't been there for more than 30 years.)

Oh Là Là?! Oh Là Là?!

4. The ending! Holy shit: (a) Doc Brown, suddenly gone—and with surprisingly little melodramatic fanfare!—meaning first of all that, uh-oh, Doc Brown is in trouble, and second of all that, um...Marty McFly is totally stuck again in 1955, this time without even a plutoniumless time machine! (b) The letter sent from the 19th century? Are you kidding me? (c) Only one man can help Marty now: Doc Brown...but not the Doc Brown who was the main character of this movie: the Doc Brown who was the main character of the last movie! Immediately after Marty goes back to the future (at the end of the first movie), Marty runs up to tell Doc that he's "back...back from the future," and—well, yes, Doc faints, which is sort of dumb, but... I mean, come on! I'm getting goosebumps just thinking about it!

Jeez, Marty, you want to get in the car or at least under the fuckin' umbrella before you read the 70-year-old letter?

The only thing about this movie that sucks is a lot of bullshit that's really just set-up for Back to the Future Part III—but all that stuff operates exclusively in the service of its crappy sequel, so I'm going to ignore it for now and save it for the next BTTF post: "In Which It Is Establish'd that Back to the Future Part III Is Quite Utterly Meagre & Unwatchable." But since I'm leaving something out about Part II that I'm arguing belongs to Part III, I'll drag in a little something from Part III that really belongs to Part II: there's something kind of great about the fact that Back to the Future Part III begins where both the first one and the second one left off!**

Oh, man. What a couple of movies! I mean, sure, the first one is a legitimately good movie, whereas the second one is a little...flimsier? But it's still just jam-packed with great ideas and twists and moments, making it a worthy, ballsy, hugely entertaining sequel.

What could the third one possibly do to ruin that streak...?

Part III, get ready to get judged.

* Of course, Q*bert and Ms. Pac-Man are still the greatest video games ever made.

† Yes, yes, alternate 1985. Good for you.

‡ They make an effort to make it less troubling by emphasizing the baseball-bat wielding dad's humanity with a line (that feels tacked on, to be frank) about how this family is being hounded by debt-collectors—lest we think the point of the scene is just, "Wuh-oh, angry black guy with a baseball bat, you're in trouble now!"

§ Lotsa neatness in this flick, huh?

** If you left out the second one and just started watching the third one, it would make at least a certain kind of sense...and if you identify only with the 1955 Doc Brown character, then it's totally continuous.

crosswalk monster

Houston & Mott-ish

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

subway douchebaggery

As mentioned earlier, I hate it when people in the subway stand blocking the doors: unless the car is so full that there's nowhere else to stand, this makes you a grade-A douchebag. The other day I snapped a picture of a particularly shameless offender:

grade-A douchebag

Is it clear in the picture that he is taking up at least half the door?—just standing there, blithely, back to the platform, letting people squeeze past him. And I took this picture late: most of the people getting on or off had already done it, so you've got to imagine more of a crowd, people streaming off and onto a train and forced, for no reason at all, to do so single-file...

So what is this guy thinking? I'm tempted to think that it's quite deliberate. A recent New York Review of Books article had this interesting thing about the difference between a pride–guilt culture and an honor–shame culture, the idea being that the one kind of person takes responsibility for what he has done and judges himself accordingly, whereas for the other kind of person it's all basically a power relationship; I wonder whether a guy like the one captured above is thinking, "I'LL STAND WHERE I FUCKING WANT TO," slash, "YOU GOT A FUCKING PROBLEM WITH IT?" Some kind of bogus self-assertion that's really about deep insecurity, getting off on inconveniencing people and practically begging for a fight. A little like pissing all over the place to establish your dominion.

Or maybe he's just a moron.

P.S./A. Folks, when you're in line to swipe your MetroCard, YOU DO NOT NEED TO WAIT FOR THE SCREEN TO "CLEAR" BEFORE YOU SWIPE. Once the person in front of you has successfully swiped through, you can go right ahead—even if it still says "GO" from the last swipe! In fact, the only reason not to swipe immediately after the person in front of you (as if your card were trying to catch* the card in front of it) is that you want to make sure you don't swipe on top of a "PLEASE SWIPE AGAIN," in which case the other person might get in on your swipe.† But once that person has a "GO," you can go. Consider it a green light! Standing there holding your MetroCard and waiting for the person to make his or her way all the way through the turnstile accomplishes one thing and one thing only: it makes me want to pick you up and hurl you against the metal divider.

* And mount?
† Leaving you $2 poorer or stuck in the "JUST USED" nightmare-limbo.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

what is a terrorist?

This isn't one of those "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" arguments, nor is it one of those criticisms of the idea of a "war on terror." I have one simple point to make. In the recent flurry of not-in-my-backyard emotions regarding the Guantanamo closing (emotions that I think are in some cases political and disingenuous, in some cases the result of clever manipulation, but in many cases very real), I wonder what exactly the fear is. Even forgetting the question of whether all these people should even be in jail*—even assuming, for the sake of argument, that every single Gitmo prisoner is a dangerous al Qaeda terrorist—why is it so terrifying to imagine a terrorist's being transferred to a maximum-security prison geographically close to your own community...or even right next door to your house?

I think there's a basic mistake here about what a terrorist is. The most dangerous terrorists are probably organizers, yes? I mean, if Osama bin Laden breaks out of a jail that is just down the block from where you lived, what do you think is going to happen? Do you think he's going to come into your home and steal and eat your children? Will he blow up all the houses in your neighborhood with his mind? The question of how effectively we imprison terrorists is a good one; the question of whether they're imprisoned nearby seems like something between superstition and sheer confusion. Folks, these are not supervillains. It's not like, "Whoa no, no way are you sticking Doctor Octopus and Magneto in a jail in my town, I don't want them picking up cars and throwing them at my school." Terrorists are dangerous and scary, no doubt, but it isn't about proximity; why is Osama bin Laden more dangerous to be near than a liquor-store robber or a rapist?‡

* I don't read the news or keep up with current events, but wasn't there some big question of people's being held indefinitely without charges being pressed? Or did I dream that?

† Why is that more terrifying than just having a prison next door to begin with, I'm saying.

‡ I guess you could argue that it's the suicide-bomber thing—maybe an escaped terrorist would be likelier to try to blow up your local nuclear-power plant than an escaped murderer—but (a) I doubt that people are being that rational about it, and (b) it's still not rational: do you really think that an escaped terrorist would then be able to do anything other than maybe getting out of town and meeting up with other terrorists somewhere else, very far away, if he's very very lucky?

Friday, May 22, 2009

Thomas F. Wilson: the greatest actor of our time

"Back to the future" actually means something, folks;
you can't just throw it around indiscriminately...

[This is the first of at least three Back to the Future posts. A "#0" is buried near the end of this-here.]

What ever happened to Biff? I'm not the first to ask this question,* but that doesn't bother me because emphasizing that Thomas F. Wilson seems to have done no movies of note since Back to the Future Part III is not actually my point. My point is that he does an amazing job in the Back to the Future movies. Not only is he arguably the life of the series,† but he plays what is effectively a surprisingly large number of different characters that actually really are discrete from each other and defined and identifiable. And I don't even just mean Biff, Griff, Buford. I mean he does...

...sleazy middle-aged middle-management loser–alcoholic Biff,

1950s jock–bully teen Biff,

inexplicably smarter nasty elderly Biff,

sleazy middle-aged casino millionaire Biff,

an unwashed 19th-century boozy-loony outlaw [Buford],

a future cyborg drugged-out teen sociopath [Griff],

...and fawning ass-kissing middle-aged car-waxing Biff
(seen here getting a bit smarter and nastier).

Great Scott! Am I missing anything, here? Can somebody please give Thomas F. Wilson some kind of an award?

[Coming soon: Why Back to the Future Part II is one of the best sequels ever made, and why Back to the Future Part III is like a convertible filled with horse manure!]

* A quick Google search turns up dozens of results, like "Whatever Happened to Biff Tanner?" [sic].
† Crispin Glover pretty much makes the first movie (can you imagine it without him?), and Michael J. Fox is great throughout (Christopher Lloyd is more complicated and will be discussed at some later date), but Glover isn't in any of the sequels (except in footage from the first one), and MJ sort of almost doesn't count?—not to mention the fact that Wilson's the only one who really significantly...well, but this is what I'm about to get to (see above).

Monday, May 18, 2009

the tourism and motion-picture industries

I think this is a poor choice of slogan. Juvenile though I may be for making this connection, I just don't see why you'd pick a phrase that would be so at home at a Vegas casino's low-budge* all-you-can-eat Thanksgiving buffet.

Starring Jack Black as Jack Black, and Michael Cera as Michael Cera!

(In unrelated [opposite?] news, let me just note how glad I am to see Zach Galifianakis all over the place as one of three stars of a well-advertised Hollywood comedy. This may be a sign that our country is headed in the right direction.)

* Not a typo.

the fish god

I often very much enjoy Stanley Fish. His book There's No Such Thing as Free Speech, which I believe I never actually finished, nonetheless changed the way I think about a few things—no small matter—and, for example, finally made me see how affirmative action (formerly a position I embraced, I'll admit, more because it fit with a set or a kind of political beliefs that I endorsed, as opposed to a position I truly felt and could argue with confidence and good faith) actually makes a lot of sense...more to the point, made me see how the argument against it based on fairness and "color-blindness" is a deeply flawed one (as opposed to a troubling one I couldn't quite see how to refute, see preceding parenthetical).*


Lately he's been lashing back at the atheist writers Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens,† and I wrote a little response to this piece only to find that comments had been shut down after a surprisingly small number of responses. Not sure what that's about. Anyway, here's what I said, more or less, from memory:

I enjoy and appreciate Dr. Fish's persuasive reasoning, as always, but my own objection to religious belief (and Sam Harris's, I believe...I have not read the Dawkins and the Hitchens books) goes more or less unanswered. On what basis does it make sense to believe in the literal truth of a set of stories or the literal existence of a being that controls or otherwise influences the universe, in the absence of empirical evidence—particularly when there exist so many reasons to believe, psychological and otherwise, some of which Dr. Fish lays out himself in this piece, other than its having any relationship to reality?

It would seem that Dr. Fish's main defense of God lies in a postmodern rejection of the very idea of objective truth, and I cannot help but think that many of the religious readers encouraged by Dr. Fish's arguments would find the underlying assumptions of his argument absolutely untenable. Is he not saying, essentially, that the reason it's silly to attack a belief in God is that the question of God's existence or nonexistence is effectively meaningless and moot?

And I didn't say this part (not that that makes any difference), but it feels to me that Fish is responding to atheism not with faith but with agnosticism—or (even "worse") with relativism.‡ And that's fine, but let's be clear about what's being argued, here. Fish isn't so much defending the validity of religion as he is attacking the notion of validity, not so much arguing in favor of belief in God as dismantling the idea that any belief can or need be justified in any way, not so much endorsing credulity toward a narrative as expressing incredulity toward metanarratives.§

On the other hand, as Donald Barthelme wrote in "Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel," "I have a deep bias against religion which precludes my discussing the question intelligently." What a man, what a man, what a man, what a mighty good man. (He's a mighty mighty!)

* I used to think, basically, "Well, black people got worse-than-screwed and were and have been and are in various ways still oppressed in this society, so it makes sense to help," but then also, "Why should a black guy get a job just because he's black if there's an equally or possibly even more qualified white guy applying—what about meritocracy?" But Fish answered that question for me, first by pointing out that the "playing field" is not "level" but then also by giving the very early-'90s example of conservatives crying foul when a Chinese guy was cast as Hamlet, I think it was—the objection basically being, "How come liberals complain when a white guy gets cast as a Chinese guy but suddenly it's O.K. for a Chinese guy to play a white guy?"—and then replying, essentially, "Because Chinese actors do not dominate and control theater, because there is not a historical problem of white actors not being able to get parts, because there is not a tradition of Asians getting made up to look like caricatures of Caucasians and essentially mocking them." Good answer. (The same thing goes, by the way, for why it's not as big a deal to call a white guy a honky as it is to call a black guy a nigger, not as big a deal to call a straight girl a breeder as it is to call a gay girl a dyke—and, although in fact this is not the way it's broken down in our society, not as big a deal to criticize someone for being religious as it is to criticize someone for being an atheist.)

† Who, I want to point out, are still getting mentioned regularly by writers as if they were these profoundly influential philosophical giants representing a powerful and overwhelming anti-religious force in our society, as opposed to the voices of a tiny, effectively meaningless minority (see preceding footnote). One thing I like less than the powerful stomping out the weak is the powerful wailing about how they're under siege by the weak. What that says about our relationship to vermin I do not know...but what the homeowner–vermin analogy tells us about the dangers a threatened majority poses to a creepy minority need hardly be dwelled upon.

‡ Which it seems to me is often an intellectually defensive form of nihilism.

§ Eh? Eh?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

personality test

It has been said (here, even) that there are Beatles people and there are Stones people. Not that you can't like both or rarely do: just that it seems most people, if asked which of the two is better, will not only have an answer but will sort of think the answer is clear (and even be a little surprised and horrified that anyone would say the opposite).

The same is true for other pairs. Recently it became renewedly clear to me that there are Ween people and Tenacious D people, and here it's even starker because fans of the one often actually have antipathy toward the other. For example, I think Ween makes music that is both excellent and funny, whereas Tenacious D makes joke music that is neither good nor amusing, but people I respect not only disagree but have pretty much exactly the opposite opinion. And while I'm right and they're wrong (clearly), it's still interesting. Last night I was discussing the issue with two friends (a Ween person and a Tenacious D person) and edged toward the conclusion that the key difference has to do with how you take your irony.

Another such divide exists between There Will Be Blood people and No Country for Old Men people. Here people tend to like both, but if you ask which one is better, the answer is almost always "clearly" one or the other...and it's often tough to predict which answer someone will give. Last night we were again two against one, but this time I was the minority vote, representing Paul Thomas Anderson with the other two on the side of the Coen Brothers. From where I'm sitting, There Will Be Blood was a great film, not just one of the two best of its year of release but also with a place on the longer list of Best Movies Ever, whereas No Country for Old Men was entertaining and brilliantly done but not even near the top of the Best Coen Brothers Movies list, let alone any bigger list. One friend suggested that this disagreement might hinge on relative importance of character vs. plot, but I'm not sure that's it. I want to say it's a question of...where meaning lies?

I think there's a game in this. There was a part in The Fortress of Solitude* in which these characters were playing this game in which you name any group of four and try to map it over the Beatles. Look:

Now Dylan's friend Linus Millberg appears out of the crowd with a cup of beer and shouts, "Dorothy is John Lennon, the Scarecrow is Paul McCartney, the Tin Woodman is George Harrison, the Lion's Ringo."
"Star Trek," commands Dylan over the lousy twangy country CB's is playing between sets.
"Easy," Linus shouts back. "Kirk's John, Spock's Paul, Bones is George, Scotty is Ringo. Or Chekov, after the first season. Doesn't matter, it's like a Soctty–Chekov-combination Ringo. Spare parts are always surplus Georges or Ringos."
"But isn't Spock-lacks-a-heart and McCoy-lacks-a-brain like Woodman and Scarecrow? So Dorothy's Kirk?"
"You don't get it. That's just a superficial coincidence. The Beatles thing is an archetype, it's like the basic human formation. Everything naturally forms into a Beatles, people can't help it."
"Say the types again."
"Responsible-parent genius-parent genius-child clown-child."
"Okay, do Star Wars."
"Luke Paul, Han Solo John, Chewbacca George, the robots Ringo."

Pretty amusing. I was about to try my hand at Seinfeld but don't really feel competent...maybe because they're all children and nobody's responsible. Maybe Jerry John, Elaine Paul, George George, Kramer Ringo? Wanted to say Kramer Chewbacca, George the robots...

How about other polarizing pairs? There must be lots but I'm drawing a blank. Kevin Smith and Woody Allen? Terminator and Terminator 2? Picasso and Warhol? Tim Burton and David Lynch?

* One of a tiny handful of contemporary novels that I really enjoyed: didn't think it was brilliant or classic, necessarily, but didn't think it was a load of overrated horseshit, either.

Friday, May 15, 2009

locker-room douchebaggery

I'm not particularly charmed by somebody's leaving his gym clothes inside-out on the bench (that people have to sit on, note) while he goes off to take a shower, but what you can't tell (because I didn't want to photograph anybody else's stuff) is that he's also taking up more than one half of the bench with it. Who does that? Why does he think it's O.K.? A different version of me would just sweep all that shit onto the ground with a single disdainful gesture.

It occurred to me that you could read this as ASSTIEDPE: ass-tied P.E.? Not sure what that would mean, but I like to imagine that it would be critical of gym class.

I don't like sports. No one does.*

with you always

[via New Shelton]

If this web site is a joke, I don't find it all that interesting. But if it's for real and sincere (and, I don't know, the artist and his story seem pretty legit to me), then I am just tickled pink.


Please note that Jesus' beard is carefully sculpted: clearly he shaves every day, probably with an electric beard trimmer. Love it.

Thank you, Larry Van Pelt!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Puff the Magic Dragon debunker

[From an unpublished novel, c.2005]

"What's your point, Tracy? Should we sit around and talk about whether 'Puff the Magic Dragon' was about marijuana, now? It wasn't. So the dragon's named Puff and the kid's named Paper, so what, I mean, the kid grows up and the dragon sadly slips into his cave, so is the point then that all kids eventually have to grow up and leave behind childish things like marijuana, and that this makes marijuana sad? Is that it, Tracy?"

"I have no idea what you're talking about."

"'Without his lifelong friend, Puff could not be brave.' Poor marijuana. Marijuana is so lonely now that the pot-heads have all grown up."

[They say stoned people think everyone's stoned and everything's about marijuana. Skepticism & critical thought, folks: have a little! Q.v.]