Tuesday, August 18, 2009

WTF- Anti-corporatism, District 9, the Economic Meltdown, Basic Math, and Matt Taibbi. Kitchen Sink Optional.

Another brief moment on District 9, but not really. Actually this is something I rarely do, that popular blog format- the point by point snipe. But it isn’t actually that either. It’s just that something reviewer Daniel Engber wrote in his review of District 9 for Slate.com well and truly pissed me off:

And so the film abandons any pretense of exploring the dynamics of social upheaval. Instead we're treated to yet another take on the evils of corporatism. Could there be a more egregious sci-fi cliché? In Moon we had Lunar Industries Ltd.; in Wall-E it was Buy N Large; Blade Runner featured the Tyrell Corp. And let's not forget the executives from the bio-weapons division of Weyland-Yutani, who cause all the carnage in Aliens.

It's a little odd, if you think about it, that District 9—and the whole sci-fi genre—should be so hung up on this one issue. Especially since creatures that arrive from another planet so clearly stand in for humans who arrive from another country: space aliens, illegal aliens. On the io9 blog, Charlie Jane Anders has argued that the archetypes of science-fiction are refugees; indeed, a long list of sci-fi novels explore the theme of immigration in great detail.

Duh! Most Golden Age SF was written by Jews and the genre emerged just before and after the second world war. How oblivious can Mr. Engber be?

Film directors, too, have in the past used stories of marooned aliens to examine race relations (e.g. Brother From Another Planet, Alien Nation) and assimilation (e.g. The Man Who Fell to Earth, Superman). Yet recent sci-fi cinema continues to dwell on the corporate menace.”

Obviously the answer to my previous questions is: completely. Personally, I don’t find anything odd at all that SF is interested in corporatism. Corporations as they exist in the modern world are a virtually unparalleled organization in human history. Huge completely amoral social structures, without geographic boundaries, immensely influential and wealthy, often more powerful than governments, with no motive other than avarice, and a organizational structure which is basically a meritocracy where merit consists of being Machiavellian in the pursuit of personal ambition and power.

In fact, it seems that if corporations didn’t exist, SF would have had to invent them.

Corporate intrigue really hit mainstream SF with the advent of Cyberpunk. There had been cautionary tales of large business interests in SF before that- Cyril Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl’s classic The Space Merchants pretty much laid the groundwork for the idea that business interests would surpass both government and religion as the dominant organizational structure in human society. But with Cyberpunk, corporations became a SF staple right along with space travel, aliens, and technological advancement. It makes perfect sense. Corporatism has that wonderful Frankenstein monster duality that drama depends on. As technology becomes more complex it requires more resources to improve that technology. Yet as society progresses we expect government (naively) to become more responsive to the citizenry. Thus we become caught in a catch-22 of high-tech capitalism requiring decisive innovative organization while high-tech democracy requires more slow moving bureaucracy. In a Darwinian sense it’s easy to see why the natural selection of the marketplace, which reassesses feedback four times a year, would result in more powerful social organizations than government which are naturally and contrivedly resistant to change even in a democracy.

The result seems to be the system we currently find ourselves in. I haven’t commented for awhile on what Matt Taibbi has been writing in Rolling Stone over the last two months but it is the most cogent and clear explanation of the economic situation over the last 12 months that I’ve found. If I were to consider myself a diminutive Diogenes, Taibbi is perhaps the last honest man I’ve found in the media. He is non-partisan, hellishly smart, unrelenting in his pursuit of a story, and perhaps the funniest writer anywhere in the mainstream media. He often gets compared to Hunter S. Thompson and rails against the comparison. And for good reason. He may be as funny and irreverent as Thompson, but what he is practicing isn’t gonzo journalism- it’s real journalism. It’s just that in our Pepsi drinking, McDonalds eating, GAP wearing, plastic culture, where real debate is ignored and faux debate is ubiquitous, where “news” reporting has the same relationship to real news that the WWF has to real sport, he’s an oddity. Someone who looks deep into the world and reports on what he sees and is flabbergasted that his society is so completely stupid and gullible.

A couple of months ago he wrote an article for Rolling Stone that pretty much laid out one (just ONE) aspect of how the government came to give so much of the American population’s money to a few obscenely rich private organizations for no reason other than that they were a big part of the status quo that is turning this country into a slave state. Since then he’s been shouted down by any number of corporate shills (slate rears it's ugly head again- who says there aren't callbacks in my writing?) defending Goldman Sachs for both infiltrating our government and taking TRILLIONS of dollars out of taxpayer’s pockets. Now it looks like Taibbi may resemble that character in DISTRICT 9 awaiting trial for revealing his company's illegal business.

A democracy cannot stand without an informed electorate. And the lack of basic math skills in America is apalling. Here is a short primer of what you are being told without realizing it:

There are about 330 million people in the US.

An average family consists of 4 people.

So there are 82.5 million American families.

A trillion dollars is a thousand billion dollars. And a billion is a thousand million dollars. So a trillion is a million million. (Yeah, I know this is stupid, but what are you going to do?)

So every time you hear the word trillion, if you are a member of the average America family needs to think, “They just used TWELVE THOUSAND ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY ONE of my dollars.

That’s right but even that may be a little abstract. So instead, every time you hear trillion on the news remember that your family just bought somebody a 2008 Honda Accord!

(Look it up on kbb.com, the Kelly Blue Book site. I put in parameters for several cars and was non-plussed that last year’s Accord, at the base level, with 60,000 miles (as my top number- basically unlimited mileage on a one year old car), in good shape, resulted in about 13 thousand dollars. It seems a wildly low number. But OTOH I have a confession to make. I’m a middle-aged single man who makes what I consider a decent living and I can’t understand how an average American family lives on 50K a year with kids in school and cell phones for everybody. So I sure can’t realize how our government indebts every family for a year old Honda Accord for every trillion dollars they spend when the average family can’t afford to DRIVE year old Honda Accords.)

Anyway, a trillion dollars is every American family buying a car for somebody who already has more money than they could ever dream of. Last I heard, 50% of the wealth in this country is now controlled by the top 1% of the population. It is nothing short of obscene feudalism. And of all the corporate media, I’ve found only Matt Taibbi and a couple of others with the wavos to call our “representatives” out on it. Read his articles. Read his blog on True/Slant. He’s trying to clue you in.

Anyway, we’ve traveled far and wide in this post. And that’s why this blog has degenerated to movie reviews and random insaneness. The world is a complex place. And to really examine the problems in it takes complexity. A blog may not be the format for that and there may not be any place for it in an America that not only thinks there are simple answers to complex questions but can’t understand complex answers in the first place. Who knows. Matt is trying and SF continues to present cautionary tales of our own excess.

Next: facts about health care and the best superhero movie ever made.

Stay tuned…

Monday, August 17, 2009

MOVIES- District 9 Review

ALIVE IN JOBURG- Neill Blomkamp’s original short film

Bookending the Summer Sci-Fi Sweepstakes, DISTRICT 9 presents a counterpoint to STAR TREK’s optimism and shiny, polished Starfleet Academy 90210 story with a gritty, documentary style action film. Also, ironically, DISTRICT 9 tries to give lip service to the kind of allegorical SF that the Star Trek television show was famous for but the movie didn’t bother with. Unfortunately the lip service is brief. Contrary to a lot of the early buzz, the movie isn’t really about apartheid, first contact with aliens, soulless corporate avarice, the similarities between black market commerce and the legal kind, or any of the other issues touched on. Because the only thing the movie does is touch them while it’s on it’s way to a conventional man-on-the-run-from-the-law plotline. The first twenty minutes are excellent, evoking the feeling of a sympathy for the prejudice against the aliens while still making them seem unreasonably downtrodden. But as soon as the plot gets rolling the mood is buried under a hail of shell casings. It’s not an uncommon flaw in low budget SF. Children of Men also established an interesting SF premise only to abandon it for the sake of making a chase movie. So I guess I can’t gripe too much about it. You have to take a movie on its own terms.

And as an action film DISTRICT 9 is pretty damn good. Neill Blomkamp does a fine job in his feature film directorial debut. The movie is exciting and you don’t really know what to expect next. Yeah, there are a number of silly plot holes (when you are framing an employee, making him the most wanted man in the city, remember to revoke his access to your top-secret lab) and some tired SF cliches (the magic of CGI still hasn’t liberated imaginations from humanoid aliens and if I see one more giant robot in a movie this summer I’m going to scream), but it also has some nice touches (I especially liked the blurb about one interviewee awaiting trial for revealing his company’s illegal experiments) and the pace never slows down. The token attempts to give the movie a little heart to go with all the carnage come off more as jokes than pathos, but Sharlto Copley does an excellent job of transitioning his character from an inept bureaucrat to a desperate man on the run who is literally losing everything, even his humanity. And what the hell, you really came to see people explode like water balloons dropped from the Trump Tower when hit by a lightning bolt from an alien weapon anyway, didn’t you?

So if you’re looking for serious SF that makes thoughtful statements about apartheid with aliens in the role of the oppressed minority, you’re going to be disappointed. But if you want a popcorn movie that has some great special effects and cool Ratchet and Clank weapons then line up and buy a ticket.

TELEVISION- The Most Common Things in the Universe are Hydrogen and Irony

Apparently there is actually a television program where teen-aged girls seduce older men online and get them to come to their house where the men are then publicly embarrassed on television and then arrested.

And it’s called Dateline.

Which I think is also the name of a local singles hotline I occasionally see advertised on late night television.

Can anybody confirm this?

Friday, August 14, 2009

MUSIC- Big Noise, New York

I found Steely Dan at about the same time I found David Cronenberg and William S. Burroughs. I became a believer in synchronicity immediately. Sure, I had been aware of their hit songs while in high school, but while I admired the artistry of songs like Hey, Nineteen, Gaucho, Do It Again, Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number, and Josie, it was at a dance at a friends house that I really turned on to them for the first time. Peg had everything a pop song should have and that includes the depth to make a music geek take notice. I owned a few records but the release of their catalogue on CD was a tipping point. Rarely has popular music demanded the clarity of digital reproduction, but digital masters of Steely Dan’s music revealed myriad nuances. Since then I’ve owned everything they’ve done, introduced every musically inclined friend to their music, and seen them live at Fiddler’s Green in Denver (annoying the poor people in front of me by singing along to every song). Becker and Fagen are sublime, together or apart, like Lennon and McCartney or Elton John and Bernie Tauplin. A musical duo with catchy tunes and real chops.

So I found this on YouTube and nowhere else. I would love to buy the track but can’t find it anywhere for sale. Such is the power of the internet to enhance old business models. There are several chord progressions that are reminiscent of other Fagen tunes here, but the song is still great.


Since you left me darling
The city doesn't feel right
On the street the music stopped
And the light seem half as bright
Without your love
This old town's no fun at all
Without your love
I only hear the loudest voices
The one's with something new to sell
And now it's all
Big talk, big name, big noise, new york

I walk from the river to west broadway
Every stranger spoke your name
Every sign read 'yesterday'
Without your love

This old town's no fun at all
Without your love
I only see the drifting shadows
Of the losers and the lost
And now it's all
Big talk, big name, big noise, new york

There was a time
When the night was just for dancing
Till the sun rose over the skyline
But now you're gone
And the fear of winter grows
Just a place where the money flows
And there never was a springtime

Another season begins fast and loud
It's supposed to be a party
But to me, it's just a crowd

Without your love
This old town's no fun at all
Without your love
I'm left with all the memories darling
Of words I thought were true
But it was all
Big talk, big name, big noise, new york
Well, it was all
Big talk, big name, big noise, new york

Addendum on 08152010- the original video was taken down so here's another that preserves the song without the wonderful video made by a fan. Unfortunately, the internet can only route around so much censorship as damage. Every immune system eventually succumbs.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

MOVIES- A Serious (Man) Trailer

Ah, the Coen Brothers. Undoubtedly the most innovative and versatile directors working in film today. Is there a genre they haven’t turned upside-down and inside-out? They’ve made cult films (Blood Simple, The Big Lebowski), comedies (Raising Arizona, Burn Before Reading, The Ladykillers), Musicals (O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?), modern westerns (No Country For Old Men), crime dramas (Fargo, Miller’s Crossing), modern satire (Intolerable Cruelty), and period pieces (The Hudsucker Proxy). About the only thing they haven’t done is a Science Fiction story (unless you count The Man Who Wasn’t There) or had a movie that falls neatly into any of those genres (Hudsucker is comedy, No Country and Blood Simple are crime drama, Lebowski is modern satire, O’ Brother is period, etc.) There are only a few filmmakers who are able to stamp their films with a signature that is easily identifiable without resorting to certain stylistic mannerisms. To be unique, identifiable, and somehow completely different in each film seems impossible. Yet the Coen brothers manage it again and again. You might be able to connect Arizona with O’ Brother, or even Hudsucker. You might think that Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, and No Country were all made by the same creators. The connection between Barton Fink and The Man Who Wasn’t There might be obvious. But to think all these movies were made by the same two people simply boggles the imagination.

There has simply never been a filmmaker like the Coen brothers. (And if you think I messed up the tense of the verb then simply watch the interviews with cast and crew on their disks. The most common statement is that they seem to be two people with the same mind.)

So now we come to the trailer for their next film- A Serious Man. Like most of the trailers for their films you come away with a feeling for the film but no idea what it’s going to be like or about. Just enjoy a preview that doesn’t telegraph every important plot point (as so many trailers made by merchandising departments do nowadays) and stands on its own as a little piece of cinema verite.

Personally, I can’t wait.

POLITICS- You Might Be a Republican If…

...you don’t immediately see what’s wrong with this.

I mean, really. You have to wonder if Bill is this stupid or he thinks his viewers are this stupid. But I’m sure that I’ll think about it the next time I hear some Fox News/Rush Limbaugh supporter rail against long-haired, pin-headed, college-edjumacated know nothings. The worship of stupidity in this country and the arrogance of people, both stupid and smart, who don’t think that actually knowing what you are talking about and being able to use reason and logic to come to a decision is worthwhile. As Thomas Jefferson said, education performs the same purpose for intelligence that sharpening does for a knife. A dull knife is a worthless tool. And no matter how smart you are if you haven’t honed your mind by learning it does you no good.

Bill could stand to have his mind whetted by some basic math.