Sunday, February 1, 2009

On hiatus

I'm taking a break from my blog until I finish my comprehensive exams. Meanwhile, enjoy these videos.

Thursday, January 22, 2009


This year, more than any other, the nominations prove that the Oscars have no more legitimacy than the Grammys. Of the Best Picture nominees, I've only seen Frost/Nixon and Slumdog Millionaire. Frost/Nixon was excruciatingly bad, just like every other Ron Howard pile of crap. Ron Howard performs a Mayberry-weltanshauung-induced Disneyfication of every script he's ever touched; take a look at the IMDB list of what he's directed and try to tell me otherwise. Slumdog Millionaire, as I've already written on this blog, wasn't a bad film, but it suffered from what I think are some irresolvable conceptual problems. I will likely never watch Benjamin Button, because the cuteness of the title alone is enough to make me want to light saber Brad Pitt's face. I probably will watch Milk, although I can't imagine it will be better than the great documentary about Harvey Milk that came out in 1984. The Reader sounds kind of interesting, but I think it's time for a moratorium on Oscar nominations for films about Nazis. I couldn't be less interested in who wins what.

Brad Pitt and Frank Langella get nominated over Clint Eastwood for best actor? I would say "that's unbelievable," but, unfortunately, it's utterly believable. Langella and Pitt got nominated because of their makeup artists, not for their acting ability.

At least Werner Herzog got nominated for Encounters at the End of the World. I hope he wins and says something incomprehensible and crazy on stage.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

I've always liked picaresque narratives. From Don Quixote to Candide to Huckleberry Finn (and even to Baron Munchausen, a favorite I maintain regardless of the fact that I've been criticized for it more than once), the style of humor specific to the picaresque tends to both make me laugh hardest and also to be the most memorable.

While Slumdog Millionaire isn't a textbook picaresque, it certainly has many of the elements. The main character, Jamal (Dev Patel) is written as a kind of modern day Indian Huck Finn, who survives by outsmarting corrupt adults. Part of the reason the picaresque form doesn't work so well for this movie is, however, that it takes place in India. The great charm of the picaresque is that it satirically exposes the subtle hypocrisies of the culture in which it takes place, often through the eyes of an "innocent" (mentally disturbed: Don Quixote; a simpleton: Candide; a child: Huck Finn) who, by virtue of his marginal social position, is able to turn the tables so that conventional opinions begin to appear strange and eccentric opinions appear to make more sense. Given that Slumdog Millioinaire takes place in a culture that is mostly foreign to American and European audiences, the subtle reversals of cultural logic required for a successful picaresque are absent. the problem is that the narrative space left over by the impossibility of making a Euro-American film about the subtle hypocrisies of Indian culture is filled in with a typical saccharine love story.

The melodramatic love story elements of the film have more to do with its self-conscious relationship to the Bollywood film industry. The result is a weird kind of friction between the two narrative forms. The first two-thirds of the film are a survey of Indian culture, demonstrating the great disparity between rich and poor and the influence of the mass media on the formation of Indian identity. This is done in a fairly heavy-handed way, but as I said, subtlety would likely not translate well for Euro-American audiences. The last third of the film is about the main character's quest to find true love. The relationship between social critique and melodrama is never resolved: true love finds its place for the characters and the social problems are all but forgotten by the end of the film. As the credits roll, the entire cast engages in a giant Bollywood dance number, which signals that the film found a generic solution to an organic problem. In other words, the strange, almost schizophrenic cut to the dance number signals that the conventional ending of the film was just that: convention. The characters do not resolve their problems; problems are resolved, but the narrative form itself is the agent of resolution. The result is that the ending feels artificial, hollow, an undercutting of all of the social critique that happened prior. Tacking on the dance number was a way for the director, Danny Boyle, to state his awareness of the disjunctive ending without making excuses for it.

The genre mash-up going on in Slumdog Millionaire is interesting, and might be its saving grace. Although I am a Danny Boyle fan, I don't believe this film will go down as one of his greatest successes. He made some pretty irritating directorial choices in this film, the greatest of which was underestimating the intelligence of his audience and our capacity for dealing with subtlety and contradiction.

Friday, January 2, 2009


Know why is was called Valkyrie and not Project Valkyrie? Because there’s already a movie called Project Valkyrie (2002), starring my friend Anne. Know what Project Valkyrie has that Valkyrie doesn’t? A shot-for-shot remake of Indiana Jones fighting the dude who gets chopped up by an airplane propeller. If you only have time to watch one of these movies, Project Valkyrie is the obvious choice. Soundtrack includes a bunch of Grand Buffet songs--Pittsburgh represent!

Valkyrie is about a group of Germans who decide to kill Hitler circa 1943. They are mostly high ranking officials and military officers. The neat thing about the film is that it puts the audience in a very strange relationship with these characters. We are clearly supposed to feel sympathy for them when they (spoiler alert!) fail to kill Hitler and are rounded up and shot. However, they don't really turn on Hitler until very late in the game when the Allies were closing in and it seemed clear that the Germans would lose the war badly. Added to that is the fact that the holocaust is barely mentioned: only once, in fact, to tell us that everyone is fully aware of what had been happening in the camps. Rather than protest the killing of innocents, the Valkyrie group only argues that Hitler is destroying Germany and that they can save what's left of Berlin if they can strike a deal with the Allies. In other words, their concern for the German people and the German state indicates that they are nationalists too. What we have then, is a group of people trying to kill Hitler who are only slightly less evil than Hitler himself (and in fact only seem slightly less evil because they are more pragmatic about the post-war situation).

The film goes to great pains to foster a sympathetic relationship with the main character Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) by introducing his wife and children. Yet the film's refusal to make the resistance about the holocaust and other excesses of the Nazis undercuts this sympathetic relationship. The space for identificaiton that the film carves out is complicated and contradictory, which makes it better than a lot of WWII films. The problem with many WWII films is that they draw very clear lines between good and evil, narrating WWII as if it was an ethical beacon in the foggy 20th century. Despite everything else that modernity told us about the inherent instability of metanarratives, at least we can still recognize evil when we see it: it has a little mustache likes to shout. The best films refuse such easy ethical demarcations; as your Lit Crit 101 instructor will tell you, moral ambiguity is more literary than moral certitude. This isn't a ringing endorsement by any means. If it's moral ambiguity you want, there's plenty else to choose from. I'm only saying that Valkyrie was slightly less evil than I thought it would be.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Viewer Mail #2

Ask your questions in the comments. I will answer them here.
Ever wonder how your toaster works? I will explain.
Want to know the best way to dig a tunnel? Just ask.
She dumped you for a guy who looks like Chris Angel: Mindfreak? I can help.


First, a comment on my last post: I don't like reading long blog posts, so I'm going to try not to write any either. In general, the longer a blog post gets, the more incoherent it becomes. I don't know who came up with the word "blog," but it's pretty perfect. A lot of Germanic words that begin with the "bl" consonant cluster relate to an outward flow of something: bleat, blast, bleed, blow, blare, etc. One bleats, blows, and blasts words in a blog: temperance and restraint are not usually the guiding principles of blogging. The blog is not amenable to long, sustained arguments: these belong elsewhere. Blogs are for bleating, which is what I will try to do from now on.

Religulous: This movie is exactly what you expect. Bill Maher says he wants to figure out why religious people are religious. Instead of any sustained conversation with interesting people about why they believe, he mostly seeks out the nuttiest folks and makes fun of their beliefs. He ends the film with a call-to-action argument directed at atheists. He says atheists should make their voices heard in public debate. What is ironic is that the voice we hear from Maher in the film is condescending and immature, and undoubtedly works against any possibility of dialogue between believers and non-believers.

I am opposed to supporting, tolerating or "respecting" crazy beliefs when those beliefs have proven themselves destructive. Religion falls into this category, but, of course, so do many non-religious belief systems. The biggest trick that religion plays is that it convinces non-believers, because it includes an explicit system of morality, that it is necessary to respect religion even if one doesn't believe in it. This is the conclusion that Maher (and Dawkins, et al) have reached (and I agree with it), but they completely misinterpret what should follow from it. Telling people that you don't respect their beliefs and ridiculing them is counterproductive to the political cause for which they claim to be fighting. I am constantly amazed at the rhetorical failures of the atheist vanguard, but I do understand that they are faced with a difficult question: how does one communicate disrespect without being an asshole?

It is necessary to communicate disrespect, because as long as religion is respected as a source of truth and guidance (even when one does not believe in it), it will continue to exert influence in the public sphere. The atheist vanguard's political focus is to secularize the public sphere, so it is rhetorically necessary to erode the perception that religion is the fundamental source of morality in Western cultures. The only way to do this is to divest people of the illusion that religion should be respected even when one doesn't believe in it, and to argue that morality is not actually grounded in religion (which is why I think that all of these genetic explanations for why we love, care, nurture, etc., while completely false, are politically advantageous for the non-religious).

I don't have a good answer for how to respectfully argue that a belief system should not be respected. It's a difficult problem. I do know, however, that being overtly disrespectful toward a system that you don't believe deserves respect is not a successful argumentative strategy. It's just a good way to get people to hate you more. Maher's film does for secularism what the Spice Girls' "Girl Power" did for feminism: it dresses itself up in politically progressive clothing but its specific content undercuts the goals of the politics with which it claims to associate itself.